Friday, April 28, 2006

Bisy Backson

Off for the weekend - which means missing K9 & company tomorrow. Thanks to Nimbos, I also now have the do-do-do-dee-do theme tune in my head.

Received my copy of Big Finish Magazine #7 today, which has two bits of me on it (talking about the Great Plan for Benny, and also about the Settling). It may seem odd considering how much I write here (and rant in person), but I really don't like the sound of my own voice. And I also wish I could go back and edit the content of what's said.

Writing is much better. You can play with the words till you're happy with them. And then get someone with talent to read them out.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oblong post

I think people should use the word "oblong" more often.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A clod … washed away by the sea

One of the Dr’s acolytes is heading back to America next week, having learnt valuable lessons as a serf. To complete her education, the Dr had her round for tea and exceedingly good cakes, and later I joined them for curry.

Currying with birds is good because you get to finish off all their food – and also, if you’re lucky, their beer. Mmm.

I asked what top facts about England the acolyte would be taking home with her, and then had to explain the whole difference between “Britain” and “England”. Someone I spoke to this morning who works for the British government admitted he wasn’t entirely sure of the difference himself.

(From the other end of London, I can hear Nimbos squawking in horror.)

“Britain” is a bit of a pickle of a term, because it can be used to mean slightly different things. It is often used to mean the same as the United Kingdom – the collective name for the gang of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the various isles and islands (not just those immediately nearby, but ones as far off as Gibraltar and the Falklands).

“Britain” is also sometimes used to mean the single island comprising England, Scotland and Wales – and so not include Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man. Little islands that are very close, like the Isle of Wight, get included in this Britain.

James Bond and the Union Flag. Not Jack.So it can mean the whole, or part of the whole. And since it’s about nationality, people can get a bit hot and bothered about how it’s used (see the comments at the end of this piece about Britain’s flag, with people all steamed up about what the thing’s called).

Some people prefer just to avoid all the hassle and not the name “Britain” at all. They use “Great Britain” to mean the island itself, and “British” to mean “of the United Kingdom”.

England is just one bit of Britain/Great Britain/the UK. The largest, mind, and the richest. And, history tends to show, the most vicious in the fighting.

The general trend to thinking of ourselves as being English rather than British is a reasonably recent thing (not as recent as the Dr would like, though. She thinks 1996 is “a couple of years ago”). It’s probably connected to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland getting their own parliaments in the last decade (even if the latter is on hold). But people (well, pubs) seemed more keen to celebrate St George’s Day on Sunday than I’ve ever seen before.

Here are some top facts for any aliens reading this:
  • St George wasn’t English – and probably never even came to England. He was a soldier in the Roman army, and so (what with the killing) a favourite of the Crusaders. By the 14th century he was seen as an icon of chivalry – not shagging other people’s wives, and not killing anyone from church. That’s the sort of courtesy we English love, which is why we took him as our patron.
  • The “Houses of Parliament” are not the name of the building, but of the two groups of people nattering inside – the Lords and the Commons. “House” means a family of people, like a “suit” in playing cards. The building is really called the Palace of Westminster.
  • Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the Palace of Westminster’s clock tower, not the tower itself. (It’s also sometimes called St Stephen’s Tower, and that’s not right either. So there.)
  • The bridge with the towers on it (next to the Tower of London) is called Tower Bridge. London Bridge is the boring-looking one next along westwards. (Acolyte knew this one, admittedly.)
  • We don’t call them “Bobbies”; they’re “Coppers”
When we finally ambled home, I made the Dr watch the Venetian bit of Moonraker. Venice is also an island, and used to be its own empire with territories all over the place. Some people say that’s why it’s so popular with the British, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. It's just a bit goth and pretty.

Vile poison. VILE. Do you see?Another silly James Bond thing: while having a BIG FIGHT with a villain, Bond remembers he’s got a delicate glass vial of DEADLY POISONOUS WATER in his top pocket. Mid scuff, he checks it hasn’t broken. By quite a miracle considering how much he’s been knocked about and how much other glass has been broken, it hasn’t. Phew.

So what does he do next? Puts it back in his top pocket and carries on fighting. You numbskull, 007!

Oh, and Bond’s English despite his parents being Scottish and Swiss. And his being played in the films by chaps from Scotland, Australia, Ireland and Wales. And Stockwell.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Is it secret, is it safe?

"And his fancy that he was being followed? What of that? What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher's gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing: the face on the underground that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as a coincidence."

John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, p. 323.

I chose that bit not just for the alarming use of colons and semi-colons, but because of an alarming pair of incidents yesterday.

At a little after 9.20 yesterday morning, I poddled to the train station at the end of our road, for the purposes of getting to work. The chap in front of me at the coffee counter was gazing at the Dr Who headlines in the tabloids. It was my learned colleague M., who lives a couple of streets away.

We had a happy chat about Droo's conquest of all media, and either he was rivetted by what I had to say, or too squodged in by other passengers, because he forgot to get off at his stop. I bid him a hearty farewell as he went to look up a King Zog (I think that was his name), and stomped off through the park to my labours.

The station at the end of the road can be a bit infrequently trained in the evening, so I come back by one of two others, both involving a 15 minute walk. I'd got to the bit in Tinker, Tailor where Jim Prideaux is sure there's a busload of women after him, so was reading it as I strolled back home. This is not too easy to do without treading in what dogs have left or walking into trees, but Priddo was too exciting to leave. He has to be being tailed, you see, because the coincidence is too silly.

And then, walking towards me is M. Looking shifty. Just happened to finish with Zog and be coming back home aroundabout the same time as me... despite the different station involved, and no word on what time I'd get off work...

I am of course now checking out the window before going to the toilet. Just as a precaution.

M. did ask whether the book was any good, remembering the TV version as all a bit slow. It very much is - oddly for a book that is largely about a boring old duffer having drinks with old workmates he never really liked in the first place. I need hardly explain that George Smiley is looking for a mole among four of his top-tier colleagues in the secret service. And it's not easy because he's been booted out with a bunch of other losers, and it may all just be in his head because his wife's left him.

It is odd, though, reading it having seen the TV version because I know exactly who the baddie is. And so, it seems, does George Smiley right from the get-go. There's so much more about the villain than the other three possibles that it hardly seems a surprise.

I'll not reveal it anyway, just in case. And anyway, I'm sure it's a sign of a well-crafted mystery that it all seems inevitable once you know.

Another thing that's odd is how much everyone relies on their memories of tiny, incongruent details, and the ability to match these odd bits up with each other. Smiley's investigation means hours going through mountains of file, checking the tick-boxes against who did what when. It's a question of critiquing minutiae, of people paid for the ability to squirrel-away facts; a strange, alien existence from the time before computers.

Smiley's skill is not just his memory but his awful understanding of people. The book's full of brilliantly observed characters, all of them real and believable. More than that, they're memorable - their names and personalities sticking so firmly in the mind that when they're referred to in other le Carre books, they're instantly with us again.

Connie (played by Beryl Reid on the telly, and with much more finesse than when telling off Cybermen) is in just one scene, wintering with her cats and frustrations. I'd remembered her as a major character - and despite how little we see of her, she is.

It's been said elsewhere that Smiley's the nice guy in a shitty industry, knowing full well the misery involved in his work. It's said - even in the book itself - how ironic it is that he can't control his own wife Ann. She's unseen in the TV version and barely glimpsed here, but her presence - or the lack of it - is felt throughout.

But I think it's because Smiley really does understand what people are, is worn down to stooping by the weight of it, that he knows better than to attempt to stop her.

Now on to the next book in the sequence, The Honourable Schoolboy. Will report back soon. If I'm not compromised.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Grow up, 007

While looking for something else entirely, I discovered that there's going to be a snazzy new run of James Bond DVDs. And Sir Roj has done commentaries for all of his ones. Coo.

My top 10 favourite silly things James Bond does in the movies:
  1. Woos a lady by cooking a quiche
  2. Slags off the Beatles
  3. Dresses up as a crocodile
  4. Does a huge Tarzan yell, while trying to escape men with guns hunting him
  5. Dresses up as a fish
  6. Does a Barbara Woodhouse impression
  7. Dresses up as a clown
  8. Knows the "James Bond theme" when he hears it
  9. Dresses up as a duck
  10. Is best mates with Osama Bin Laden
This is obviously not including all the silly stuff in the one with Woody Allen or the one with Mr Bean (where Bond plays bagpipes in Heaven, and fails to notice he's already done his mission years before). And five of the above are from the same film.

More spies tomorrow, if you're lucky.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


NINJA MONKS watch in awe as the wolf-ghost rises through the roof of the building, one last howl as it evaporates into the night sky.

Then, darkness. Quiet. It's over.

The NINJA MONKS exchange glances, shrugs. Some kick their feet as they sod off home.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth

You know that poor Greek fella doomed to spend eternity pushing some great bouler up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom again just as he's nearly done? He does not even know the meaning of frustration. I could also teach him one or two good swears.

Technically, I'm a writer and animator. It says so on my tax things, so it really ought to be true.

And yes, I have been known to en-soul the inanimate. As well as silly Dr Who cartoons, I used to make banners and buttons for websites and whizzy-looking emails for people on a professional basis. But it has been rather a while...

What I thought would be a quick assignment has taken me most of today. I'd forgotten how simple you have to make things if you want to keep the filesize down. I'd also forgotten that cutting a cartoon down actually makes it bigger - you're better starting from scratch. And I'd forgotten all my Actionscript, even when Flash tries valiantly to write it all for you.

Flash is about planning and preparation, and lots of it. Care and discipline are also involved, and - a bit like in The Invaders - there just aren't the shortcuts you think. Which is largely why the second half of that Droo cartoon is only at the storyboard stage, and why I think of myself as just a writer these days.

Though there's nothing just about being a writer, arf arf. (That's a clue to what I've been up to, by the way.)

Anyway. We got somewhere in the end, and if my masters like the pretty pictures I made, you may even get a look at 'em and all. How extremely exciting for you.

Friday, April 21, 2006


... gets spoken of lots at one of my works. It means "a sense of proportion" - that is, knowing what are the important, big things, and what are less-important, small things. And planning and responding accordingly.

Today, the Queen noses ahead to be 51 years older than me. She enjoys this privilege for two months and three days each year, and we both try to keep it low-key. Happy birthday, dear.

I wonder if it's a coincidence that the Queen's great-grandmother meets Dr Who this week of all weeks. And I hope that the fan-girl got one of these new remote-control K9s from someone. Saw one last night and they move like buttered lightening. At £16.99, they've got to be the best Droo merchandise I've ever seen. Yes, even better than the whoopee cushion and Sarah Jane with a Dalek up her bum.

Now those who really, really, really love the Windsors (like Nimbos) may think I'm being a bit irreverent. For a change.

But it's not just me, honest. Take this morning's press briefing with our Prime Minister's spokes-dude. What did our clever newspeople ask? Well let's see:
  • Woman has birthday
    Did Tony get the Queen a nice present, and did everyone chip in?
  • Woman has haircut
    Does Tony like his wife's new do, and isn't it funny what birds will spend on a blow-dry?
  • Other news
    Not-a-one difficult question about looming fisticuffs over gas and oil, or how all Iraq has gone a bit wrong (not that it has anything to do with the looming fisticuffs over gas and oil, of course). We now return you to pictures of the Queen thumbing through her post and/or meeting disc jockeys.
Yes, I know it's easy to have a pop at the papers, but I thought you put the daft and heartwarming "And finally..." at the end. It's not quite what CJ fends off on the West Wing, is it? (Yes, I know she's not Press Lady any more, but she was the last time I was watching.)

I also appreciate that both the birthday and haircut stories are getting at much the same thing: our beloved Government and its handling of cash. Detectives apparently unpick murder investigations by following the money. The press seems to be doing something similar, but so as to commit the killing themselves.

Still, that makes them sound like they're cunningly hounding the villain, like they're Columbo or Carole Smiley's dad. But actually it comes across like they're just not bothered about the serious stuff, because that involves more work - thinking and researching and explaining. And anyway, most newspapers just want to while away the time while you're on the way to work or a poo-poo.

But maybe our beloved Government would be less tempted to piss about like no one cares were investigative journalists not to do likewise. You won't get intelligent answers without asking intelligent stuff first.

Or does that just come across like a narky teenager?

Millennium Elephant also has some concerns about the "News", delivered with his customary wit and insight. I wish my brains were full of fluff and not of orange goo.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Don't be hasty

Who knew that the police were like photocopiers, then?

Having done a fair load of temping in my youth, I know my way round photocopiers like a surgeon knows his way round a wine shop. Temping is a lot like freelancing, in that you're given the jobs people think too tedious to do themselves and are useful to blame when things snafu - but at least freelancers get asked their names.

My temping CV had two things going for it: that I knew how to work Lotus Amipro as well as Word, and that I could unjam paper in a flash. I owe this great skill from months of photocopying IT training manuals for Hampshire's social workers, and from having long spindly fingers that can reach.

Just as wild animals (and pretty women) can smell fear, photocopiers and their printer brethren know a rush when they sniff one. Want to copy some high-larious fax that some wag in accounts just sent over? No problemo. Got a Dead Important Presentation to put together in no minutes, on pain of immediate loss-of-job? That's something different.

"Ah..." says the little help screen by the button for "Get on with it", as the machine notes the sweat on your brow.

"Ah?" you smile, all ingratiatingly.

"Ah," says the little help screen. "This will be a Problem Number 06."

"Oh right," you say. "And what the blithering jibbert might that be?"

"Problem #06," explains the very-little-help screen: "On the natural philosophy of toner..."

Today and on Tuesday I am working at somewhere of heightened security. I'd left myself ample time to get into the place this morning, but passing through the security gates my pass got a red light, not a green. This sometimes happens, so I tried it a few more times. Nada. Then I noticed the burly policeman with the machine gun coming over.

It eventually turns out that the nice people who gave me my shiny new pass on Tuesday hadn't done the thing to turn it on.

"This won't take a moment," said the policeman all obligingly, as I followed him into a small room.

"Can I just let my boss know where I am?" I said. You try to be courteous when the man's got a big gun.

"This won't take a moment," he said.

"I'm needed for 11, you see." It was now creeping towards quarter to.

"This won't take a moment," he said. But it did.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Obscurum per obscurius

Projects of various flavours proceed gradually onward. (You can't really proceed any other way, can you?) This is then an aide-memoire sort of post (rather than an oubliette), for me to look back on in future days and recall all that I was about.
  • I've had a bit of a rethink about a script after chums got to see the first third.
  • Am pretty much there on the extended synopsis for something else (the only one of five pitches that they wanted to see more of), and now need to throw together sample prose.
  • Got some wind in the sails of an on-spec thing which has stalled since last autumn
  • Also come up with a wheeze for a completely new project which would involve a fair bit of researching, and be something of a departure from whatever else I've ever done.
  • Have two shortish stories to write too, and a whopper of something else to pull together, but they're all rather dependent on other people sending me stuff so I can't really start work on 'em yet.
At the same time, my myriad bitches have been in touch to ask questions and suggest cleverness for the things that they're writing me. Somewhere in the murk damn cool stuff is forming limbs... Had to check whether one thing was all right by it's creator, and have just been told:
"That's absolutely wonderful. You go ahead!"
Which is especially gratifying 'cos it's not my idea at all.

Also had some beer with someone last night who I spent years desperately trying to work for (and who, technically and a bit weirdly, I've since employed). Much discussion of the strange places writing can get you to. What dark, damaged recess of my mind, for example, could come up with old men having their feet cut off?

Probably best you don't answer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


For heinous crimes committed in former lives, I studied the Reform Acts for A-level, and manage to keep unmuddled the names, arguments and outcomes of the debates in '32, '67 and '84 long enough to sit my exams. Now it's all something of a hodge-podge in my mind.

For about a year, Edward Pearce's "Reform! - the fight for the 1832 Reform Act" has been sat by the computer where it has been of some use to the Dr. (It gets a mention on page 138 of History of Christmas, on the basis of being at hand.) I've started it a couple of times, and yesterday got to page 156 before deciding to read something else.

For one thing, as my History A-level showed, the British nineteenth century is not nearly so exciting as Europe's. There were no revolutions, just lots of serious talking in the Houses of Parliament.

Secondly, the book mostly paraphrases Hansard, so there's a lot on how many columns each MP spoke for, and how the interruptions were transcribed. Pearce does throw in some good anecdotes and insight from other sources, but often he's repeating stuff we've already heard before (that Spencer Perceval's killing was not politically motivated, or how Mrs Arbuthnot fitted in).

While there are some fun characters and nice gags, the book runs the danger of being as longwinded and pompous as its subjects, and the last straw was losing an entire thread of argument by not understanding a cricketing metaphor. For a book about the opening up of the franchise, it's a pretty unaccessible text. Anyway, what's said in the House always requires some judicious pruning, as any Hansard hack will tell you.

It is, though, full of lovely details about the thoroughly rotten system of government developed from Magna Carta:
"In corrupt Cornwall [...], grotesquely overrepresented and blissfully rotten, largely because medieval kings, owning tracts of Cornwall personally by way of the Duchy, took care to enfranchise pelting villages of few fish and fewer people because they would readily comply. In consequence, Cornwall acquired early most of its forty-eight seats in Parliament, eighteen of them within 'a stretch 28 miles long by twelve miles deep around Liskeard'."

Edward Pearce, "Reform! - the fight for the 1832 Reform Act", pp. 32-3.

Centuries of tyrant-bolstering over-representation at the expense of the rest of the nation, I feel, should be remembered when considering the case for rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn. (Hee hee.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

O brother, where art thou?

Croc John and Anna on Broome beachJust heard from my wee brother, a month in to his five-month trek across northern Australia, riding wild horses that his stars trained themselves.

While still solely directing/producing on the road and making a bit over 40km a day, he's been able to edit together the first trailer, and get a couple of pics up on to the Croc John site. He's a bit bloody clever, our kid.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

New new new new new new etc.

The Dr and I are in sunny Winchester, stuffing our faces with my dad's rather marvellous home-made croissants, and gearing up for the traditional Easter Egg hunt round the garden.

Yesterday, for the first time in 16-and-a-bit years, I watched Dr Who with my folks. Also watching was a cousin from South Africa who is 16-and-a-bit, and so had no idea what was going on. "He's not like Jon Pertwee," explained by auntie, helpfully.

Well, that was all a bit wild and exciting, wasn't it? May speak of it more when I've had a chance to watch it again and calm down somewhat.

Afterwards, we joined some chums in the pub where I may have been quite full of beer. Saw my sister for the first time in two years (she is over from Oz), and nattered about houses and writing with chums. One of them is struggling through Time Travellers, looking for the bit where he's killed. At least he bought a copy, I guess.

The Dr had to take me for a walk yesterday afternoon because I was just too exciteable. I showed her the bits of river we used to dare each other to jump across, and the bit of nature reserve round the art college where the bodies were always found in Inspector Wexford. She was, of course, fascinated.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


My father-in-law sent me a copy of last week’s Church Times, with Droo on the cover in his jim-jams and a two-page feature on how the Doctor’s just like Jesus. The feature, “Time Lord or Messiah?”, is written by Steve Couch, one of the authors of Back in time: a thinking fan’s guide to Doctor Who, and I have one or two objections.

As my friend Phil did in his (very interesting) Greenbelt lecture, “The Spirituality of Doctor Who” last year, Couch tries to reconcile Christianity with the avowedly atheist credentials of New Show’s chief writer, and what I’d call the humanist bent to the actual episodes.

Of course, as Phil says, “science fiction, like any text, can be read in ways which the authors didn’t intend the readers to read it.” I certainly don’t object to anyone finding something in New Show just for them.You Jonny-come-latelys are most welcome to join in the fun…

What rather bothers me is the idea that the show sports specifically Christian virtues, as if the argument boils down to something like:
"Because Dr Who is not an arsehole, therefore he must be a sort of Christian."
The church doesn’t have a monopoly on what’s right and wrong, those are just virtues.

Couch’s argument rests on Dr Who being a “drama of reassurance”, and our being taken on “a journey of horror, fear and successful resolution”.
“The universe of Doctor Who, where evil exists, but where good ultimately triumphs, alludes to a world-view Christians would have no difficulty in embracing. Paradoxically, a scientific rationalist would be unable to offer any such guarantee…”

Steve Couch, “Time Lord or Messiah?”, Church Times #7465 (7 April 2006), p. 18.

Of course, there are many who’d argue that a belief in God is not necessarily incompatible with a belief in rational science. I also don’t agree that the Doctor always wins - and he certainly never wins easily.

People die around him all the time, which you could put rather brutally as the terrible cost of his doing what’s right. Rose is constantly in danger, and the Doctor’s adventures are littered with the corpses of surrogate Roses – Jabe, Gwyneth and Lynda-with-a-Y. That’s not reassuring, that’s actually a bit twisted for a kids’ show.

We see Rose’s relationships suffer – with her mum, with her boyfriend – because she even travels with the Doctor, and that makes ideas about “good” and “evil” complicated. Is how she treats Mickey “good”?

Dr Who, by confronting the strange and the scary, lets us take nothing for granted. It’s precisely the opposite of reassuring. Ethical values – in the case of the “good” Dalek, or the companion, Adam, who was “bad” – are complex and need thinking about.

The Doctor’s at his most angry when people act blindly from fear or from selfishness, not seeing (or caring about) the consequences of their actions. That’s not just true of the villains, it’s true of Rose saving her dad’s life, or Harriet Jones blowing up the aliens who killed people in front of her. We can understand why both women acted as they did, but it’s still not right.

As Couch says, the Doctor sees the good and the bad in humanity – snapping at Harriet that he should have warned the rest of the galaxy about “the monsters”, yet taking delight in a Christmas dinner with crackers.

But I’d argue that it’s not about “sin” – temptation to do witting wrong – but about knowledge and empathy. The Doctor encourages people to face facts, to confront difficult, brutal truths. There’s the teenage mother in 1941 having to face up to her son, and the journalist who comes to realise that her own news organisation needs investigating… In both cases, he's challenging the social norms of the time.

It’s been said that there’s a spiritualist slant when he meets Dickens, whose closed, scientific mind can’t see the ghosts right in front of him. But the Doctor’s beef is that Dickens won’t believe the evidence of his own eyes. By the end of the story, and with the Doctor’s help, Dickens’s rational science – an understanding of the properties of gas – defeats the lying spirits.

The Doctor, then, is an essentially humanist hero. He wants humanity to achieve its best, and celebrates the achievements that survive mortal men. Dickens’s books will live on forever, though the man himself has less than a year. And when the Earth explodes, the Doctor’s there to see it, dancing to (the surviving) Soft Cell and Britney.

I agree that the stories act as an ethical framework, challenging us to think about what we believe and how we act. That’s nothing new – in his very first story back in 63, the Dr has to learn to help a wounded enemy rather than just run away. His new human travelling companions teach him what’s right, and when his own people catch up with him six years later, he argues in the Time Lord courtroom that it’s wrong not to help. And they begrudgingly concede the point.

So was it right that the Doctor destroyed his own people?

It’s important that he’s now the last of the Time Lords. It undoes the determinism of time, the reassuring safeguards that prevent damage being done even to history. The Doctor makes his stand against the monsters, and encourages those he meets to help him, because no one else will. Like the killing of God at the end of Second Coming (written and performed by the same men, of course), it means we mere mortals must now fend for ourselves.

There is no higher authority out there to save us. It’s a bleak and brutal fact, but it needs to be confronted.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Since they were building the place

Feeling a bit roughWent for drinkies at the Dr's work on Monday to celebrate 150 years of the Dr's work. Well, not her's specifically, but as an institution.

Mingled with celebs, chums, colleagues and former colleagues, and drank too much of the free vino. Also seemed to swallow a plate.

Dr goes class traitorThen, yesterday being our wedding anniversary, we dared subsidence and miserable weather to go see Arundel Castle. It's a bit damn top as castles go, with enough of the original fortifications to keep me happy (and, er, it's another genuine Dr Who location*), and lots of emancipated-Catholic Victoriana for the Dr. She went a bit class-traitor over tea, though, and will consider a spaniel should we ever have a garden.

The Pugin-designed bits of the castle lodgings are very reminiscent of bits inside the Palace of Westminster, but lighter and airier, and with more room for kids to run round. The very helpful and knowledgeable staff were able to answer the Dr's various questions about which bits had been nicked from Venice and who the paintings were by, and I had a chat with a nice lady about how difficult the different medieval weapons were to use. She told a nice story about some visiting toxophiles, and a three-year-old boy who could shoot in a longbow while still having a dummy in his mouth.

Got entirely soaked heading home, but curled up in front of some romantic goth movies (Edward Scissorhands and Belle et le Bette) and had booze. Naw.

* Well, genuine in so far as it is doubling for Windsor, because you can only film factual documentaries there. Posted by Picasa

Monday, April 10, 2006

Dandy-lion holocaust

Speaking of memes, Millennium Elephant's daddy Richard shares his birthday with Henry Tulip. This fact reminded me to look up exactly where the princes in the tower fit into the Wars of the Roses, in good time for listening to my friend Nev's The Kingmaker.

Ooh look, Henry Tulip's granny was the French bird Henry V married after his European Cup win at Agincourt. Top fact about that: Henry had been wounded 12 years before in the longbow-on-longbow action at Shrewsbury. An arrow hit him in the face, leaving him noticeably scarred. This detail is not included in the best-selling biography by W. Shakespeare.

I think I'm right in saying that the name "wars of the roses" was a contrivance of Shakespeare's, too - it certainly wasn't used at the time the wars were actually going on (1455-1485, or 1487 if you're a pedant). Shakey's plays show those decades of war to be miserably brutal and bleak (until, er, his patron's granddad took control after the Battle of Bosworth Field), so the title's meant to be ironic. Like there being a "buttercup massacre" or a "dandy-lion holocaust".

(Yes that's an archaic spelling, before you write in.)

The ironic title is not just a pretty bit of word-play; it's useful in differentiating from the other civil war. Which is often referred to as two civil wars anyway, because silly King Chuck surrendered and then started fighting again. Yes, that does seem like nit-picking, but this was not 'Nam, there were rules...

Anyway, wars can't be civil either. The civility-bit is a "treaty". It’s always the diplomats and peacemakers who have to clear up the mess, as a wise Time Lord might remark someday soon.

(We also tend not to call the squabbling between the boss-eyed King Stephen and his big sister a civil war, because, er, we tend to forget about it anyway. Oh, and if Henry IV hadn't jumped the queue, we might have had a King Roger.)

This kind of semantic stuff appeals to me anyway (I've always loved the Master's self-contradicting line in Dr Who and half of all the Drs Who, as the Cybermen point menacing guns at him: "I am the Master, and your loyal servant.").

I've also spent a morning beefing up metadata, gathering all the synonyms, homonyms and Houyhnhnms I can think of, which may explain why brain has gone wandering...

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Memes don't work

There's a comic strip I remember from years ago, a typical one-off with a twist. A bloke explains how he's been cursed for years (with nightmares about snakes eating him, I think), and it's all because he was told a story.

Telling the story passes the curse on, and whoever hears it takes on the curse. The bloke points out the small native boy he's just told the story to. But aaaaah!, he explains, the native boy is deaf.

This 'ere blog - and my notebooks - serve a similar purpose, letting me get shot of the stupider-arse rubbish clogging my head worse than ear wax. (Updates on ear wax soon; been to A&E who didn't have the right machines but prescribed olive oil...)

Anyway. This has been tinkering through my head for the last few days, as unshakeable as the Muppets' "Mahna Mahna":
"Our kestrel-man hoovering the duck."
Hopefully now I can be free. Don't have nightmares.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

"You'd look daft in bermuda shorts"

It's only a couple of months late for the daffodils to be out, but it seems like spring has now sprung. Well done the weather, there.

Instead of being out playing in the sunshine, I have been stuck indoors writing about people playing in the sunshine. I'm quite pleased with the bit where one character tells another that it's a bit like syrup. More on what I'm talking about when I can...

Also got me act together for the Writer's Inc competition, and have two whole stories to send in. Mr J. Lidster was kind enough to send extensive notes on the one of them I sent him, but seems not to have understood the main gag. Some hasty tweaking should prevent me from now looking like a doofus.

Looking more like a doofus.

The Dr has been down to the shops and I now have an early anniversary present - it will be two years on Tuesday since we stood in a genuine Dr Who location and said, "Go on, then."

My Schott's Original Miscellany tells me (on page 55) that second wedding anniversaries should be celebrated with paper, cotton or china. It depends on whether you're British, American or Modern - I like that those are distinct categories.

No mention is made of walkie-talkies though, whether or not they're Slitheen. The hope is, though, to cut down on yelling at each from the far ends of the flat. Now the old Doctor Who can tell me my dinner's ready.

Now off to buy booze to accompany the roast chicken the Dr is making me. She is a good wife, and her anniversary present will be light.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

New adventures

Spent a happy day yesterday waiting for a delivery, muttering about the great feat of inconvenience involved in said delivery, taking out my frustrations in the gym and then, finally, writing. Evil Overlord Ian rang about tea-time to check a few things, and said how much he'd enjoyed The Settling.

What-ho, I thought. Which was a bit Wodehousian.

Promptly invited myself round to Dr Darlington's house to beg my own copy, then hurried back home for a listen. You'll all have to wait a month till it's back from being pressed, but I'm really, really pleased with it. Hooray!

Also got to see a copy of the first Dr Who Adventures, which is tremendously exciting and fun. Like most kids' comics these days, it ejects body copy in favour of lots of splash and dazzle - so it's not dull and fusty like Dr Who Monthly used to be, with so much brain-bludgeoning text it made your eyes bleed.

Despite a devotion to the series I never got into the magazine until I was in my late teens. Didn't give a stuff about who directed what in 1968, or whether the Doctor was not 'generating but rejuvenating.

The Doctor Who Monster Book - my bible from age 5.I just wanted Top Facts like in the superb Droo Monster Book and to feel part of the gang, not inferior. I wanted thrills and strangeness and jokes-I-was-probably-too-young-for, just like in real Dr Who.

Then Philip MacDonald's piece on Season 18 and entropy really caught my imagination. Insightful, concise and about the bit of Droo I'd first come in on, it made me want to write loftily about spaceships. And I did.

(Have since explained this to Phil - now a good chum - and bought him the corresponding booze.)

The new comic has lots of big pictures and activities, as well as stuff on old Doctors Who and a plug for the grown-up's mag. The strip has got cliffhangers, and issue 2's free gift is - as another kid's mag I knew would have put it - sliced genius.

I want to be 8 again. Can someone arrange it?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Marian conspiracy

Last week one of the Dr's prized acolytes left for pastures new, though not without a knees-up and presents. While a fellow acolyte got a big bottle of booze, the Dr got the first series of Maid Marian on DVD. This says quite a bit about the level of respect and seriousness with which the Dr is served by her underlings.

The Dr was very excited about a rewatch, though I'd only seen a couple of episodes when it first went out last millennia because of not getting home from school until late. (I also missed all of Press Gang and have still not seen a bit of it. This, I feel, is a grevious oversight on the part of those who lend me Things To See.)

We laughed a lot, which is the main thing. As Robinson points out in the commentary, he was trying to put into practice all he'd learnt from Richard Curtis while playing Baldrick (and looking at the date, I realise Maid Marian overlapped with Blackadder, and also when-it-was-still-good Red Dwarf).

He also points out that every episode is based on a hoodie legend. I like how it plays with our ideas about history, with plenty of gags on things Yet To Be Invented (hot water bottles, rubber bands, ball billiards...). More implicitly, there's the central wheeze of Joe Public remembering Robin as the brains of the operation when really it was all down to a girl. In a single one-liner, Kate Lonergan says more about the treatment of women in history than any worthy degree courses in herstory ever could.
"Valentine Harries, whose book The Truth about Robin Hood examines with devotion and determination all possible clues, concludes that the legendary hero existed, first as a robber in Barnsdale, gradually acquiring a reputation for good deeds and remarkable skill with the longbow; that in 1324 he was found as a valet or yeoman of the chamber to Edward II, who was lenient over the question of his poaching and, being attracted to him -"
No sniggering at the back -
"took him into service; and that he died at Kirkless, possibly murdered by the Prioress there and one Roger de Doncaster, to be buried under Robert Hode's Stone in Barnsdale."

Robert Hardy, Longbow - a social and military history, p. 40.

Hardy's excellent book (which I obviously thieved The Immortals from) explains that, in a time when everybody had to practice their archering for the sake of national security, a working-class pretty boy with any talent would swiftly do well for himself. Hood was the David Beckham of his day then, rather than the Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen as Tony Robinson has it.

As well as the historical stuff, Maid Marian also gets in gags about the media versions of Robin, with Clannad-style sighing for the Whiteish Knight and a nice riff on Errol Flynn's horny anthem. I note from a programme guide that later seasons also shows gags about Costner. Was this first batch before even that? Gosh, that is a whole lifetime ago...

Hoodie new Hood, but that's not a longbow!Of course, there's new hoodie stuff coming soon, with Droo's Paul Cornell even writing one and Droo's grandson Sam up to Much. Same timeslot and promise of rollicking family fare as Droo, too. I remember back even before Maid Marian being on mutterings that Droo would be better more like Robin of Sherwood. How things have turned all about.

But look at that picture; that bain't be a longbow! I'm with Cornelius Fudge on this one:
"If Robin Hood did not draw six foot of good English yew, then he ought to have done."

Ibid., p. 38.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Looking for Jake

Read China Mievillie’s “Looking for Jake” over the weekend, having adored the New Crobuzon novels (stop by Perdido Street Station if you haven’t already been).

One of the best stories in the anthology is “The Ball Room” – not at all what I’d expected from the title, and which at one point gave me goosebumps. Am sitting on my hands as I type so as not to give anything away, though I will say that it’s one of only a handful of stories to name the narrator / protagonist – and that only comes some way in.

“An end to hunger” is not alone in letting Mieville (who stood at the 2001 General Election for the Socialist Alliance) rave about something political, challenging some comforting ideas about what the Internet can do. Like “The Ball Room”, it’s implicitly about how companies really work – succeeding by winning us over. I also love the idea of a “hide engine” to disappear Jack Straw.

“Tis the season” is another fun political one, a satire on the commercialism of Christmas, with the kind of wheeze and wild violence of a one-off Judge Dredd. A reversal with a singing Messiah took me nicely by surprise.

“Foundation”, about the structural integrity of buildings, is also about real abuses by “our” military in Iraq – as Mieville’s keen to point out in the acknowledgements. “Go Between” is perhaps the most explicit about our having to take responsibility for things happening in front of us, asking how we are complicit.

“Reports of certain events in London” is told by Mieville himself, caught up in a strange-but-true tale like Paul Auster often is. It’s a collection of documents about an odd kind of streetfighting, though that only becomes clear some way through. The glimpses of a squabbling enclave of enthusiasts works very well – Mieville can play it funny as well as freakish.

“Jack” takes us back to New Crobuzon to explain what happened to the famous bandit referred to in other books. Must admit my brain has muddled Jack Half-A-Prayer with Neal Stephenson’s similar Jack Half-A-Cock, so I probably missed some of the effect. But it’s a good story, again with insight into the politics of the mob.

The other stories are all good, too. The comic strip needs close attention to follow (I think, but then I am dim), and I felt again what I did when I first read the novella “The Tain” as a small-press paperback (which I think I’ve gone and leant someone ‘cos I can’t find it again now) – that I’d get more from it were I better read. It does rely on knowing some Borges, being all a bit unfathomable until that quotation at the end.

Though the stories range in subject and scope, they all have a similar, dark feel. Though often about everyday, recognisable things and people, they’re all full of strange, vivid imagery and a growing sense of disquiet. And then he’ll drop something downright nasty on you, in a flash.

The tone is a bit too samey across the anthology; more a book to dip into than read in one go. That said, it’s a very strong collection, with plenty to change how you see some things.

He’s also not one for spoon-feeding answers, and several of the stories end leaving you on tenterhooks, wondering how events played out. You're never quite sure if the author wants you to suss it out for yourself, or just can't be bothered.

(I got criticised for exactly that in my own "An overture too early", but one day I might explain all. Maybe. Conceivably. If you're lucky...)

Monday, April 03, 2006


After a long day's meeting on Saturday, I hurried down to Selling in Kent to meet the Dr, C. and S. in the pub. The ladies had booked us two nights in a converted hop-picker's cottage with a real fire and plenty of logs. Which was nice.

Yesterday, after getting up not too early, we made our way to Count Grendel's castle in Leeds. It's a very pretty place with plenty to do, though £13.50 each is a bit steep - even if we can all use our tickets for the rest of the year.

The castle itself is more decorative than it is defensive, the insides decked out in pastel colours and 30s stylings very like we've seen in Eltham Palace. We felt it all a bit corporate and for those-as-can-afford it, and the Dr railed against its claim to be a "living museum". The picturesque views across the Great Water were somewhat spoiled by the inevitable golf course.

An owl behind bars,We admired the birds (and a boy-duck waddling nonchalantly around after a girl-duck in the hope he'd wear her down eventually), got lost in the maze and the Dr was upset by the beautiful birds of prey all tied to the ground and looking miserable in the cold weather.

Then it was home to roast lamb from the Dr and Trivial Pursuits that I won. Hurrah!

Today we were out of the place by 10, and dropped the Dr at Rochester station before heading into the cathedral and castle. The castle is much more my period, in a commanding position on the Medway and clearly built with defence in mind. Only £4 to get in, and so much more satisfying. Got a good view of the damage done by King John in 1215 - there's a great big arch that just stops abruptly where one whole corner was rebuilt.

Basically, John lay seige to the place after having been bullied by some not-exactly-democratic landowners into signing a piece of paper letting them do what they liked. This Magna Carta, though, proved not to be worth much; as soon as the rebel lords had gone home, John ran round after them and beat them up.

Rochester castle held out against his army, though, until it was literally undermined. Sir Hubert de Burgh provided a whole bunch of pigs...
"Once the mine was finished, it would have been stuffed with brushwood, straw and kindling to feed a great fire. How the pig fat was introduced is a matter of debate. An older generation of more imaginative historians envisaged the forty-strong herd being driven into the tunnels while still alive, burning torches tied to their tails. Sadly, modern military experts now think this unlikely; the idea of live pigs running around with firebrands attached is just too farcical, even for King John. It is now believed that the pigs were slaughtered and rendered down for their fat, which was subsequently poured into barrels and rolled into the mine.

With or without an accompaniement of squealing pigs, the scene that followed must have been both horrifying and spectacular. Torches were introduced to the tunnels. Deep underground, the kindling caught and the pig fat crackled. Flames started to lick the fatty wooden props and, as the fire grew to a roar, the props started to snap. Suddenly, the ground above the mine fell away. The great keep shuddered and split. With a final deafening roar, a quarter of the building came crashing down."

Marc Morris, Castle, p. 88.

After stopping off in a tea-shop (and, er, what's apparently the biggest second-hand bookshop in the country), we headed to the more modern Upnor, just up the river.

This is a very different sort of castle - and not really a castle at all what with not having had a lord or been a residence. This is a military fort. And not a brilliant one either; we watched an exciting, low-budget diorama explain how the Dutch had rolled up, sunk a few good English ships and stolen some others in 1667, all under the nose of Sam Pepys.

But there was lots of rooms to explore and steps to climb around, and S. and C. enjoyed themselves. They then dropped me back at Rochester station just in time for a train back home. Just time to write this up before the one with the maggotsPosted by Picasa