Sunday, May 01, 2022

Amongst Our Weapons, by Ben Aaronovitch

I loved this latest entry in the Rivers of London series, with Detective Constable Peter Grant on the trail of a vengeful angel linked to the Spanish Inquisition (hence the title). The case involves a trip to Manchester and Glossop, and lots of good twists and turns, with Ben - as ever - keeping the magic stuff grounded in the real. Police work is, it seems, based on knowing the nearest location of "refs" (ie coffee and snacks).

What I especially like is how this standalone adventure still moves the series on, with Peter's imminent fatherhood creating ripples for the whole series, and then a quiet word from another character at the end promising more radical shake-ups to come. I also really like the sense of Peter trying to make connections between different magical communities, breaking down the idea so common to fantasy of wizarding as an elite.

The Waterstones edition includes a bonus story, "Miroslav's Fabulous Hand", narrated by Peter's mentor Nightingale and set just before and then during the Second World War. It's thrilling in itself - like an old-school James Bond adventure - but also exciting to see some of Nightingale's early life in more detail. This sort of thing could support a whole novel of its own. (See also what I said about the recent novella, What Abigail Did That Summer.)

By coincidence, I finished this while the Dr is on holiday in Thessaloniki, which is where I was in 2011 when I read the first Rivers of London book. By coincidence, the Dr now works at one of the places featured in this new book. By coincidence, as I was making my way to the Nigel Kneale centenary event last week, I got to the reference on page 218 to "the original Quatermass".

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #577

There's another "Sufficient Data" infographic at the back of the new Doctor Who Magazine, written by me and illustrated by Ben Morris. This one is based on episodes of Doctor Who first broadcast at Easter.

A lot of attention has been given to Doctor Who Christmas specials, but to date 14 episodes have first been broadcast on Christmas Day, while 20 have premiered on Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday):

  1. 28 March 1964 - Mighty Kublai Khan
  2. 17 April 1965 - The Warlords
  3. 9 April 1966 - The Hall of Dolls
  4. 25 March 1967 - The Macra Terror Episode 3
  5. 13 April 1968 - Fury from the Deep Episode 5
  6. 5 April 1969 - "The Space Pirates" Episode 5
  7. 28 March 1970 - Doctor Who and the Silurians Episode 2
  8. 10 April 1971 - Colony in Space Episode One
  9. 1 April 1972 - The Sea Devils Episode Six
  10. 21 April 1973 - Planet of the Daleks Episode Three
  11. 13 April 1974 - The Monster of Peladon Part Four
  12. 29 March 1975 - Genesis of the Daleks Part Four
  13. 26 March 2005 - Rose*
  14. 15 April 2006 - New Earth*
  15. 7 April 2007 - The Shakespeare Code
  16. 11 April 2009 - Planet of the Dead
  17. 3 April 2010 - The Eleventh Hour*
  18. 23 April 2011 - The Impossible Astronaut*
  19. 30 March 2013 - The Bells of Saint John*
  20. 15 April 2017 - The Pilot*

Six of those (marked with an asterisk) were the first of a new series, using Easter as part of the launch. Planet of the Dead (2009) and this year's Legend of the Sea Devils were special, one-off episodes for the Easter weekend. 

Legend of the Sea Devils is the first episode of Doctor Who to debut on Easter Sunday itself. And the 1993 repeat on BBC Two of Revelation of the Daleks Part Four is the only episode of Doctor Who broadcast on terrestrial TV on Good Friday.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley

This was the perfect accompaniment to my journey to London and back for the Nigel Kneale centenary, and not only because it fitted the drive time almost exactly.

A long time ago, Jem escaped her home in Devon and young son to cross through the Kissing Gate and journey into space. There she met and bonded with an alien called Isley, then brought him home to run a pub, the Skyward Inn, and reconnect with her own people. But the "brew" that Isley supplies has unusual properties, forging connections across time and memory, even giving visions of the future. As a disease takes hold of the Earth, the community starts to break down, people together and yet somehow utterly alone...

As strange and haunting as Whiteley's previous books, Skyward Inn is full of threat just under the surface, a pervasive wrongness that we can't always quite touch. The last section plays out as a nightmare, as unsettling as any Kneale. It's horrible yet beautiful, too - the prose full of feeling and pathos. We're made to understand why people make the awful choice to surrender entirely to the thing that's happening. The ending hangs on our belief in the strength of a connection between two individuals on separate planets and in different periods of time; it's brilliant.

The book owes something to Jamaica Inn, and is about the cross-pollination cultures. At its heart is the colonisation of another, populated world, its native people not resisting human invasion. As with previous Whiteley, that passivity is deeply unsettling. But this is all mirrored with an incursion by humans from across the boundary wall round Devon (now known as the "Western Protectorate"). There's lots on "good" immigrants bringing needed skills and expertise, deemed more worthy of acceptance than other individuals. There's lots on dysfunctional families and how we choose our connections. There's lots about how we interact and are shaped by interaction. We are our connections.


Sunday, April 24, 2022

Nigel Kneale: A Centenary Celebration

What a thrill to be at the Picturehouse Cinema in Crouch End yesterday, in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, for the centenary celebration of writer Thomas Nigel Kneale, born 28 April 1922 - and not 18 April as some parts of the internet insist. This point was made by MC Toby Hadoke in his opening introduction to the day's festivities. And that, I think, was the theme of the day: to get this right. All credit to everyone involved.

The first panel, "Nigel Kneale, Quatermass and the BBC", was chaired by Kneale biographer Andy Murray and featured Dick Fiddy from the BFI, Toby Hadoke and comedian Johnny Mains - the latter daring to admit that he doesn't much like Doctor Who. Kneale famously hated that series, but many of us got into Kneale's work via Doctor Who. I've been trying to puzzle out why, and think a lot of fandom - of anything - is trying to recapture the strong feelings of our past. For those thrilled and terrified by Doctor Who as kids, Kneale offers a grown-up version of those feelings, and - since he was so often borrowed from - an understanding of how they were kindled.

The panel was a good, breezy introduction to Kneale and the impact of his work on television in the 1950s, though a lot of the ground here was familiar to me from Toby's recent Radio 4 Extra programme, Remembering Nigel Kneale, and Cambridge Festival's "Televising the future: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the imagination of Nigel Kneale". I'd also just read Andrew Pixley's 1986 interview with Kneale.

Next up, we watched the extraordinary opening episode of The Quatermass Experiment from 1953 (available on the Quatermass Collection DVD set). It's a while since I'd last seen this, and I'd forgotten how blurry, clunky and techbnobabble-heavy its early scenes are as we watch serious, posh scientists at their desks in a tracking control room. But that soon gives way to the extraordinary sight of a house half-demolished by the world's first crewed space rocket. We see before the characters on screen that there's an old woman trapped in the exposed upstairs; she's played by Katie Johnson who two years later was the similarly dotty Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers, only without her scene-stealing cat. It's just one of a number of well-observed comic characters enlivening the serious horror plot, adding a touch of realism - and fun - to the fantasy.

Having read The Intimate Screen by Jason Jacobs, I can understand why The Quatermass Experiment made such an impact: an original drama for television, rather than an adaptation of a stage play or book, that makes full use of the strengths of the medium to conjure an intimately creepy atmosphere. It's so busy, so populous, so nakedly ambitious - and all broadcast live. All these years later, it is thrilling. No wonder it stuck so powerfully with those who saw it at the time. As several panelists said, Quatermass was a thing that terrified our parents, that we first heard about from them decades afterwards - a folk memory of horror. (My mum says the girls at her school would make a lot of noise at the start of each episode, so the grown-ups in charge would not hear the warning of it not being suitable...)

Next up was Tom Baker in a bookish office to narrate Kneale's short story "The Photograph", in a 1978  episode of Late Night Story - a sort of grown-up Jackanory. It's an unsettling story about a sick child, but I was mostly struck by how little Baker blinked throughout what seemed to be a single take (and presumably involved him reading the story off an autocue). 

Then Douglas Weir discussed the the new restoration of Nineteen Eighty Four (1954). The audience gasped at a particular example showing Peter Cushing's Winston Smith walking through Hampstead. The version screened by BBC Four a few years ago had Cushing moving through what looked like silver fog; the restored version shows him moving between trees, individual leaves crisp and clear. (I'm on the new Blu-ray release, by the way, just about audible asking Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray the question about Kneale's never-made scripts.)

Next was the panel "From Taskerlands to Ringstone Round – Nigel Kneale in the 70s", chaired by Howard David Ingham with panelists William Fowler, Una McCormack and Andrew Screen. I've been guilty of overlooking Kneale's 1970s output - The Stone Tape (1972), which I'd at least seen, and the anthology series Beasts (1976), which I haven't yet. That led into a screening of Murrain, Kneale's contribution to a 1975 anthology, Against the Crowd (included on the DVD release of Beasts).

David Simeon - who sadly couldn't be at yesterday's event - plays a vet called to a small village by a farmer played by Bernard Lee from the James Bond films. The farmer has some sick pigs and his water supply has dried up, plus a young boy in the village has had something like flu for a month. The farmer and the villagers think this all the work of a local woman, played by Una Brandon-Jones (who I recognised at once as Mrs Parkin in Withnail & I). The villagers want the vet's help in dealing with her; he's determined to champion science over superstition, insisting that "We can't go back" to the old ways. It's a compelling piece: real, sometimes funny and increasingly sinister. With a start, I recognised some of the scenery: the Curious British Telly site says Murrain was recorded in Wildboarclough, not far from where I now live. A local film for this local person, indeed.

Then Matthew Sweet chaired a panel on "Kneale on Film" with panelists Jon Dear, Kim Newman and Vic Pratt. This covered a lot of stuff I didn't know about: Kneale's work on the movie version of stage plays Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), and the mutiny-at-sea story HMS Defiant (1962) - all a long way from the weird-thriller stuff. Because of that, I'd not been much interested; the panel made me want to look them out and understand the weird stuff in context. I want, too, to see his last work, a 1997 episode of legal drama Kavanagh QC.

A clip from the movie version of The Quatermass Xperiment ((1955) showed infected astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) stalk a Little Girl (Jane Asher), who offers it imaginary cake. Asher then joined us to discuss this early role and her later, more prominent part in The Stone Tape (1972) - which was then shown in full. I'd seen this before, but it was fascinating to see beside Nimbos, who didn't know what was coming, and in the context of the day's other offering. Again what struck me was how funny it was, especially the visual gag of Reginald Marsh's hands being outlandish colours as he experiments with dyes. Toby Hadoke pointed out that Neil Wilson appears as a salt-of-the-earth security guard having been seen as a salt-of-the-earth policeman in The Quatermass Experiment, so I wonder how much Kneale consciously used the same actors over the years.

This was followed by a live reading of Kneale's 1952 radio play, You Must Listen. Mark Gatiss played the lawyer who has a new telephone installed in his office, only to find he can hear a young woman talking sauce to an unheard lover. Again, it's very funny, the lawyer embarrassed and outraged but the telephone staff all keen to listen in on this rude stuff. And then, as before, it becomes ever more sinister as we realise this saucy woman is an echo from the past. In that sense, it dovetails with The Stone Tape from 20 years later, and with elements of the other stuff we'd seen. How well chosen all these examples were; we could see we were engaged in an experiment ourselves, to trace the resonant echoes of Kneale.

By this time Nimbos and I were flagging as the short breaks between screenings had not been long enough for us to eat any food, and I was getting a bit wobbly. So we sadly missed the panel on “'The inventor of modern television': Kneale’s influences and Legacy" chaired by Jennifer Wallis with panelists Stephen Gallagher, Mark Gatiss, Andy Murray and Adam Scovell. The day ended with a screening of the movie Quatermass & The Pit (1967), and then much natter in the bar.

It was all a bit overwhelming. There was the sheer amount of stuff covered and shown, but also the way the selection encouraged us to tease out shared themes, techniques, stylistics. Then there was the visceral thrill of being in company, catching up with so many friends. I had a long drive home today, passing close to Wildboarclough and its Murrain, brain abuzz from things learned and spotted and argued. That's the thing about Kneale, who died in 2006, and the stuff he wrote that was largely screened long before I was born... 

It is potent. It is alive.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Far Country, by Nevil Shute

This is a very odd love letter to Australia, begun soon after the author emigrated there in the summer of 1950 and published in 1952. I borrowed my mum's battered, second-hand first edition, long missing the original dust jacket and relinquishing its spine as I read it.

In Australia, sheep farmer Jack Dorman finally pays off decades of debt and - despite a large tax bill to come - realises he is now wealthy. His wife Jane is worried about her elderly Aunt Ethel back in England, who she's not seen in 32 years (when Ethel was the sole member of Jane's family to back her relationship with Jack). Jane intuits that Ethel is short of money, so the Dormans, who've regularly sent Ethel letters and cake mix, now send her £500.

Things are far worse than they could imagine, and Ethel is starving to death in her nice house in Ealing, having sold most of her furniture and anything else of value from her days abroad. Ethel's granddaughter, Jennifer Morton, finds her in this state and cares for the old woman in her last days. But the book is pretty blunt about what has done for this poor woman: having once lived a rather grand life in Petersfield and then as a dutiful wife of empire out in Burma, she's been left destitute and unnoticed by, er, the new National Health Service. The independence of India has also meant the end of her pension. It's as if no one was neglected before the NHS; that before the welfare state there was no need of welfare. Or perhaps there's something more sinister: that if only we still had an empire and people knew their place, this sort of thing wouldn't happen to someone of her class.

The war is also to blame, but the privations suffered in England - which are ever increasing, long after the end of the war - seem to be the fault of the post-war government so far as the author is concerned. Jennifer works for a ministry, and we're told,

"It was manifestly impossible for anyone who derided the Socialistic ideal to progress very far in the public service; if a young man aimed at promotion in her office he felt it necessary to declare a firm, almost a religious, belief in the principles of Socialism." (p. 91)

It's quite a claim, but really it's Shute who is being unfairly partisan. The sense is of an old, glorious England now lost to the awful unfairness of egalitarianism. Dying, Ethel tells Jennifer,

"It's not as if we were extravagant, Geoffrey and I. It's been a change that nobody could fight against, this going down and down. I've had such terrible thoughts for you, Jenny, that it would go on going down and down and when you are as old as I am ... you'll think how very rich you were when you were young." (p. 71)

When the old woman dies, Jennifer's father goes through her things and finds a telling document - a recipe for a cake given to Ethel on her wedding day.

"What a world to live in, and how ill they must have been! His eyes ran back to the ingredients. Two pounds of Jersey butter... eight weeks' ration for one person. The egg ration for one person for four months... Currants and sultanas in those quantities; mixed peel, that he had not seen for years. Half a pint of brandy, so plentiful that you could put half a pint into a cake, and think nothing of it. ... He had eaten such cakes when he was a young man before the war of 1914, but now he could hardly remember what a cake like that would taste like." (p. 77)

The irony, of course, is that this woman starved to death, with only the cake mix to sustain her.

Ethel leaves her new money to Jennifer, making the girl promise to use it to visit Jane in Australia, and perhaps look for a better life there - like the one Ethel once knew in England. The doctor who treated Ethel is also leaving the country for a better life but Jennifer has reservations about leaving her elderly parents. Others suggest Australia will "probably be all desert and black people" (p. 95), or make an economic case for the value of migrants as an investment made by a particular country.

"For eighteen years somebody in this country fed you and clothed you and educated you before you made any money, before you started earning. Say you cost an average two quid a week for that eighteen years. You've cost England close on two thousand pounds to produce. ... Suppose you go off to Canada. You're an asset worth two thousand quid that England gives to Canada as a free gift. If a hundred thousand like you were to go each year, it'ld be like England giving Canada a subsidy of two hundred million pounds a year. It's got to be thought about, this emigration." (p. 89)

Despite this, Jennifer sets off to Australia for a temporary visit, certain she will then return home. At 24, she has never eaten grilled steak until boarding the ship - which comes as a great surprise to the Australians (p. 135). She in turn thinks very highly of their modest work in farming and producing food. A lot is made of the virtue of hard graft. The Dorman's have become wealthy after 32 years of toil, and repeatedly say they're glad that wool prices will soon fall so that their children don't end up too indolent. At the end of the book, Jennifer is appalled by a man visiting a doctor in the NHS wants,

"medicine and a certificate exempting him from work because he couldn't wake up in the morning." (p. 314)

Yet on the very same page, Jennifer organises things so that the doctor in question can have more lunches and dinners away from his patients, helping him to bunk off. And then,

"She was staggered to find out how much her mother's illnesses had cost, how much her father had been paying out in life insurance premiums for her security (pp. 314-5)

- presumably under the old, unjust system that the NHS replaced.

In Australia, there is no desert and there are no aboriginal people, though migrants from eastern Europe are treated as a lower order. Jennifer is welcomed by the Dormans, and cannot persuade their young daughter that a trip to England will only be a disappointment. Then there's a serious accident and no doctor available to help two men desperately in need. Carl Zlinter, a Czech immigrant working the land, was a doctor in his own country before serving with the Nazis, but he is not allowed to practice in Australia without retraining for three years. With the men in desperate peril, Jennifer assists Zlinter in carrying out highly risky operations to save the two men's lives, but one of them doesn't survive.

As an inquest looks into this and threatens to deport Zlinter, he gets closer to Jennifer, and is also haunted by the discovery of a gravestone bearing his own name and place of origin. It's for a man who died some decades previously, on the cusp of living memory. Zlinter is soon on the trail of the surviving, elderly people who might have known his namesake and can shed light on his story...

This particularly struck a chord because I'm researching the life of David Whitaker, who in 1971 adapted this novel for Australian TV (broadcast on ABC in 1972). Just as with Zlinter, I've been tracking down surviving paperwork and trying to speak to now-elderly people who might remember my man. There are many parallels between The Far Country and Whitaker's life. In 1950, he was living with his family in Ealing, streets away from the fictional address of Aunt Ethel. The house may also have had relics from India, where Whitaker's mother was born. The age difference between Zlinter and Jennifer is similar to that between Whitaker and his first wife June Barry. As with Jennifer, June Barry returned to Australia leaving Whitaker to work in Australia, with a shadow over their future together...

In fact, for all Jennifer clearly falls for Australia, there is plenty here to count against moving to this far country. There's the boredom of life on the farms, especially for the lone women keeping homes there. There's palpable danger given the lack of qualified doctors and the frequent risks of fire. There's also the philistine culture. Zlinter isn't the only one whose skills are overlooked in Australia. He buys a painting of Jennifer from Stanislaus Shulkin, a plate layer on the railway line who was once professor of artistic studies at the University of Kaunas. 

Perhaps there's something here of the author: an engineer who also wrote novels, at once dirty-handed grafter and lofty man of arts. But surely it can't be a virtue to overlook the talents of Zlinter and Shulkin; it's squandering the investment, just as Shute argued before.

For all Australia offers a future to those prepared to work, Zlinter and Jennifer's happiness is secured by an inheritance that comes quite by chance and to which they're not entitled, requiring Zlinter to transact business with some slightly dodgy characters. He and Jennifer agree to keep the details secret - implicitly because they know that this is wrong. It's a necessary cheat because (just as with the Dormans), the rewards take a long time to win if they're to come at all. There are plenty of characters for whom things haven't worked out.

One reading of all this might be that Shute sets up an initial prejudice - bad old England against verdant, rich Australia - which he then proceeds to complicate and pick at, resulting in a richer, more complex portrait. But if so, the case is made in bad faith and the result is a very odd book.

Monday, April 18, 2022

What Abigail Did That Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch

Oh what joy, a Rivers of London adventure we could share with the ten year-old as we drove down to my mum's for the Easter weekend. We thought we'd try it and see how he got on - and how suitable the content might be - and very quickly he was hooked.

Abigail Kamara is Peter Grant's 12 year-old cousin, as featured in several of the books about Grant, a London copper who investigates weird bollocks. This novella is what happens while Peter is away in Hereford (during the events of Foxglove Summer), looking into the disappearance of a bunch of kids her own age from Hampstead Heath. There's some suggestion this is going to riff on Pied Piper of Hamelin but it goes more The Stone Tape, but full of the usual smart, funny observation that makes the main series so compelling. There's a posh boy called Simon who prefers climbing trees to school work which particularly struck a chord.

Shvorne Marks is an excellent reader, with dour footnotes provided by Kobna Holbrook-Smith (who usually narrate's Peter's audiobook adventures). What strikes me is how easily Abigail could lead further adventures - as could many of the other rich and well-drawn characters in the series. Ben has created a whole world, one that could survive the death or retirement of its lead character. I'm all too aware off that as I begin Amongst Our Weapons...

On other titles in the series:

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Sci-fi Bulletin interview re Mary Whitehouse

Samira and I were interviewed by Paul Simpson at Sci-fi Bulletin about our recent Radio 4 documentary, Disgusted, Mary Whitehouse

This week, BBC Four has also broadcast a very good two-part TV documentary on the same subject, Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story. Having spent weeks going through the archives looking for good material, it's interesting to see which bits of old footage they've used - and the different choices / potential afforded by telling a story visually.