Thursday, August 31, 2006

Attack of the memory cheats

Blimey: The official Dr Who website has posted up Nightshade, former Dr Who Mark Gatiss’ highly acclaimed first forage into BBC endorsed Who.

Here's a review of it I wrote earlier:

The readers of Doctor Who Magazine voted it best New Adventure of 1992, despite competition that included Paul Cornell’s dazzling "Love and War" and strong entries from Marc Platt, Andrew Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch - three men who’d contributed some of the McCoy Doctor’s best TV stuff. The reliable reckoning of I, Who thinks it one of the "most emotive Who novels [...] striking a deep melodious chord with most readers," (p. 164).

The story is relatively simple – in marked contrast to the Doctor’s adventures at this time. The setting is a small town in late December 1968. Among the community is Edmund Trevethick, who used to play "Professor Nightshade" in the [fictional] BBC sci-fi series of the 50’s. He, the Doctor, the town and the staff of the nearby radio telescope are besieged by initially welcome, ultimately deadly ghosts from the past.

The book moves at a cracking place, full of drama. It’s built up of dialogue and action sequences, so reads like the novelisation of a TV story. It’s brief compared to many of the later books – only 228 pages – and keeps the reader on tenderhooks right until the end. The fact that it’s set in the days up to Christmas 1968 lends a significant atmosphere of invaded cosiness, as well as establishing a strong sense of time and place. Gatiss also takes us to the Civil War, albeit briefly, another potent time of English order being invaded.

"Nightshade" evokes the best of "Remembrance of the Daleks" – the first TV McCoy story to really impress. The 60’s setting is immediately identifiable, and would have ensured good production values had this been produced for television.

The interplay between the Doctor and Ace is excellent, giving both plenty of interesting character development. The way that McCoy’s Doctor and Aldred’s Ace speak on screen is nicely observed and mimicked: unlike a lot of books before and after this, we can really hear them speaking the lines. On page 198, Ace even gets to repeat the emphatic "Boom!" from "Battlefield", episode one.

There’s also a high demand for thrilling special effects sequences that screams for TV presentation. Thus, "Nightshade" transcends cursory similarities to classic Who of earlier eras – most notably "The Daemons" – and the ilk of English horror where evil whispers behind the walls in sleepy villages – without ever losing sight of its television heritage. Perhaps that accounts for the broad appeal.

This is the anti- Heart Beat, thank ****. There are terrors lurking behind the cosy façade and nostalgia kills. There is continual effort made to undercut a rose-tinted view of the period. Veterans of ghastly world war still suffer the effects of gas poisoning and the loss of friends and family, while an age of free love and drugs for the young and the rioting in Paris leaves people anything but safe and secure. This all adds to the threat that the demons from the past present: Ace herself offers a telling critique on the contrast between the era and her mum’s own lovestruck recollection.

What is also gratifying about a re-reading eight years after publication is noting the foreshadowing of 1996 TV Movie Dr Who. The book opens with the Doctor listening to scratchy gramophone records, and wearing a russet waistcoat. Ace has the same sense on entering the tertiary console room as on her first visit to church: post TV Movie books have tried to render the TARDIS interior as sepulchral, a cathedral like Notre Dame.

Gatiss signposts several of his own later efforts: the failure of religion to comprehend or answer the attacking monsters foreshadows his more pointed dismissal of the church in "St Anthony’s Fire." The character of the Civil War suggests much of the activity of "The Roundheads", while he even uses the word "Phantasmagoria" on page 72.

Billy Coote, the vagrant, could easily be a comedy yokel taken straight from a cosy Pertwee script. His running off in terror at the arrival of the TARDIS is, however, laced with his "malicious" desire for the deaths of famous people. Celebrity death means fatter newspapers and therefore comfier bedding.

This scintillating morbidity comes straight from League of Gentlemen. Crook Marsham is a "hotchpotch of small houses," (p. 32) akin to Royston Vasey. As the Doctor and Ace walk through the drizzle into town, we almost expect them to stop off at a Local Shop for a can of Coke. League of Gentlemen and this kind of Doctor Who (and, to some extent, Withnail and I, which is cited on page 5) are funny and scary – in a disturbing rather than wholly gory way – with well-observed, over the top English archetypes.

The crowning achievement is the depiction of social interaction between a range of characters, and the ways that this inter-linking group buckles and strains under pressure. The characters of batty pensioners and a carer who’d far rather be a political activist, the tensions amongst those working with the radio telescope – all are glorious.

The way the town hangs together is perhaps best shown right at the beginning of the book. Jack Prudhoe is aware that "there had been a lot of gossip recently about how ill Betty [Yeadon] was looking," (p. 4). This ginger suggestion of possible domestic violence and its evident interest to the townsfolk serves to ensure the close-knit feel of the town. The suggestion itself is soon forgotten in the wake of a cause far more horrifying. And yet, at the end of the novel, the town again closes ranks. Even "those who’d had the worst scares were the first to deny anything out of the ordinary," we’re told (p. 230). The novel rewards as a convincing case study in human behaviour.

Some of the cast are exceptionally engaging. Trevethick’s character is slyly observed. Like some other veteran actor whose telefantasy work is much adored, Trevethick is staunchly opinionated, loves to lose himself in Dickensian London and is a regular in the pub.

His relationship to the fictional Professor Nightshade recalls (in my mind, at least) a 1978 Nationwide interview, where Frank Bough accused Tom Baker of actually being the Doctor in ‘real life’. Tom muttered darkly that he only had to ‘be’ the Doctor as much as his accuser had to live up to being ‘Frank Bough’. The TV persona is a projection of a fallible, flawed man. If only Bough had listened and not laughed: it was exactly this dilemma between public and private personas that lead to his own plummet from grace in the 80’s.

Trevethick, as a retired actor whose private life is quietly evaporating, clings more and more to the strengths of a man he used to ‘be’. Rude and cantankerous, he’s still quietly delighted by the renewed success and longevity of his work, harbouring grand thoughts of a new series. But it’s not just this wonderful figure who suffers the crisis between public and private lives. The Doctor, too, experiences crisis as the misery and memories he has subdued for so long threaten to engulf him, overwhelming the space hero with all the answers that Ace enthuses him to be. Both Trevethick and the Doctor eventually have to face and live up to the responsibilities of their projected selves – it’s the only way to defeat the monsters.

Overall though – and despite the novel’s title – It’s not about Doctor Who and it’s not about Nightshade. This is Ace’s story. It is Ace who solves things, not only besting the Doctor but also provoking him into action when he has surrendered. Facing the angst of her past in the way she does resolves the ongoing issues explored in Season 26 - the final year of the TV series. As she acknowledges in the book, the Doctor has helped her grow up, straightened her out. She’s competent, brave and wise – knowing not only enough about Pulsars to explain them to Robin, but shrewd enough to manipulate the sly Time Lord.

Robin is a likeable, earnest, worthy and just bloody nice guy, and surely Ace earns her right to stay with him. In the books that follow this one, she’s never as happy with anyone else. In many ways, ‘Nightshade’ would have been a richly rewarding exit for Ace, and far more deserving of the character than what eventually got done to her.

If we can muddy the lines between TV and novels (as Doctor Who Magazine did in issue 287), ‘Season 27’ ought really to have ended with Ace’s victorious departure, the Doctor heading off to new adventures and a strong, new companion without her. Just think of all the crap she and we would have been spared...

"The ending breaks your heart," says I, Who. It’s certainly a stunning, powerful finale, and one that promises a new realm of forward-looking adventures. It’s a bit of a shame then that the loss of Robin is only fleetingly mentioned in "Love and War", and that such a genuine emotional match is eclipsed in favour of the unlikely and unlikeable Jan: something rather nicely made up for by Robin’s cameo return in "Happy Endings".

"Nightshade" is a richly satisfying book, superb to revisit. It’s also the sort of thing you can duplicitously hand to those strange and terrible Not-We if they enjoy League. Rah!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Usealla planeetalla on pohjoinen

Panic sorted, thanks to those that asked. Have tomorrow and Friday in the studio and am then off to Berlin for a bit. Am hoping that another country and looking at their Greek bits will distract the Dr from being so much horribly older.

Speaking of foreigners and Drs, the Finns get Dr Who next month and their blogs are jolly excited about it, as Alex recently posted. He’s even had a post translated into Finnish by a bloke called Tero Ykspetäjä:
“Tohtori uskoo vapauteen ja vihaa tietämättömyyttä, yhdenmukaisuutta ja eristäytyneisyyttä. Hän ei ole kenenkään työntekijä eikä käytä univormua tai kanna asetta.”
I am inordinately envious, not having had anything I scribble so much as translated into English.

Sent Alex’s thing to Jonathan Clements, who is knowledgeable about Finns (and also about Vikings which are apparently not the same thing). He comments:
“I know Tero Ykspetäjä, he is indeed a terribly nice chap … I spent much of my first Finnish convention appearance in 2003 trying to impress people with my Doctor Who associations, but nobody gave a flying toss, as only a single person had ever heard of it at that time, and he was Swedish.

However, the Finns are very excited about Doctor Who now, because:
  1. the marketing for it has very smartly targeted blog-crazy Finnish fandom, with a screening at Finncon
  2. it's got London in it (nobody has told them yet that it's mainly Cardiff)
  3. Billie Piper looks like a pixie
My personal Finn, who has demonstrated little to no interest in Doctor Who for the last three years, despite editing an SF fanzine and being offered the chance for all sorts of insider gossip, came back from last week's Finncon in Helsinki full of squeeing fangirl excitement about it.

I have now realised that the way to get her to do anything is to get a stranger on the internet to tell her that something is cool, since she immediately rushes off to get anything recommended to her by anonymous bloggers, but doesn't pay an ounce of attention to anything I suggest.”
This strikes something of a chord, as I shared with a fellow passenger on a much delayed train this morning:

"You'd probably really enjoy Talons of Weng-Chiang," I tell the wife
on a regular basis for six years. Nothing. Doesn’t even look up from her book / cat / book with a cat sitting on it.

"You'd probably really enjoy Talons of Weng-Chiang," Matthew Sweet tells the wife. And she’s watched it all within a fortnight, and voluntarily too. I wonder what else he’d endorse for me.

Jonathan also remarks on the Finnish translation of “Tohtori Kuka”:
“Finnish has at least two words for ‘Doctor’, and they’ve plumped for the academic variant, Tohtori, rather than the medical one, Lääkäri.”
I delude myself with happy thoughts of serious debate in Helsinki over the on-screen evidence in the old-school show. Does his being a valeyard, his special knowledge of Article 17 and his donning a wig for the Megara mean he’s really a doctor of law?

But then what about his studying under Lister?

Of course, the title of this post is the Finnish for “Lots of planets have a north” – as, Jonathan adds,
“A mystified Finn has just confirmed.”
I enjoy mystifying Finns.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rewriting in his own hand

Things can be spoken of: the Big Finish website now thrillingly details much that I’ve been up to.

I have edited another book of exciting Dr Who short stories and it is called Time Signature. Philip Purser-Hallard came up with the title (after we decided “Music of the Spheres” was a bit wussy) and the incredible cover is by the incredible Stuart Manning.

Dr Who - Time Signature, cover by Stuart Manning

(I gather Stuart also had a successful time in New York this weekend flogging his new Dark Shadows series. Dark Shadows is apparently a famous US soap but with the twist of being full of ghouls, the undead and all manner of macabre happening.

No, actually, that’s most soaps I can think of…)

Also in the news is Nick Briggs’s book of exciting Dr Who short stories, Dalek Empire. Nick is of course the voice of the Daleks (and the Cybermen and the Autons and Mr Crofton) as well as chief of new old-school Droo on CD.

Dalek Empire is also the name of an audio series he did (bits of which starred David Tennant), and in that there is a planet called Guria. Nick assures readers on page 300 of his Dalek Empire scriptbook that this is assuredly not named after me because – he says – he didn’t even know me then.

But he did. And so I hold that he did.

Guria makes an appearance in that what I’ve written. And not just in the way I am credited.

Also of great excitement, but only until midnight tonight: my Sapphire and Steel heads the Play Bank Holiday sale. Which may explain why I’m currently numbers 5 and 24 in their audio drama chart.

Hooray and hooroo! It’s been a bit of a slog, but life is pretty damn -

[Mobile is rattled by a text message bearing not entirely fab news. Cue leaping about in a panic and howling full tilt at the sky.]

Gah! Thank you, the Fickle Finger of Fate. I hate it when this happens…

Monday, August 28, 2006


The 12,000 words is more like 13,500 right this minute but the bulk of the heavy work is done. It includes the word "hullabaloo", which is no doubt done in memory of "Hullabaloo for Owl" which I read when I was little.

And I am pleased with it. And Julio Angel Ortiz likes the Time Travellers.

So life is good. Sleep now.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I should say

Go have a look at Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient! - a new blog from my friend Alex which dares to collect together all the snippets of thought about old-school Dr Who that he's sent into DWM's Time Team. Alex is, of course, a frequent contributor to the "And you said" side-bar, and now you can read him in all his glory.

On a related note, I'd recommend his advice on writing press releases the DWM way.

7,200 words have been sent round the houses for comment and another 3,700 is being worked on right this minute. Have also had time for a pub lunch (mmm, moo cow) and yesterday went to see some chaps playing football.

As a result of having been Satan in a former life, I was in the visitors' end of Selhurst Park. The game was okay, though mostly played round Burnley's goalmouth. A small, valiant gang of mad-keen fanatics had travelled down to cheer on the clarets, and myself and the Swedish contigent marvelled at their inventiveness with songs.

It wasn't all just about southern jessies - there were bold denunciations of other north-west teams, and even a couple of ballads about fellow supporters. Though it took a minute to work out why they were so proud of some Lanky Shah.

One season-ticket-holding Burnley-ite was amazed at the lack of police presence. "We get one copper for every two of us back at home," he boasted. This is because we southern jessies are all so beautifully brought up.

Or we're too jessy to misbehave.

There were a few evictions in the second half for naughty behaviour - having drink on the terraces or shouting rude words. One bloke refused to be manhandled by security staff and would only be led off by the police.

After the disappointing finish we ambled back into the city and found a pub for the evening, though it wasn't open as late as I'd promised. Lidster teased me about liking to eat pancakes, because he himself is not posh. I think his myriad inadequacies bleed through the bulk of his work.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

But with a knob of butter

From the archive:

The Iron Man (1968), by poet widower and Laureate Ted Hughes, is a rich, darkly textured story.

An awesome metal man from nowhere wreaks havoc until taught better by a small boy called Hogarth. The metal monster then saves the world from a terrifying, Australia-sized space bat. In five brief, plosive chunks, it’s great bedtime reading for impressionable kids, and was an ideal book-of-the-week for Jackanory in the early 1980s. A shaven-headed, bleak and grey Tom Baker told the sombre tale from a bleak and grey set, and another small boy was utterly mesmerised.

Many favourite books have fallen apart when reread as an... ahem... adult. But, like Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, The Iron Man is more absorbing and satisfying than I remembered it. Stirring, potent imagery, right from the beginning, delights in hulking metaphors – the Iron Man is,
"taller than a house, [his head] shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom."

Ted Hughes, The Iron Man, p. 11.

The images are unwieldy, noisy and jarring, a messy ensemble of everyday bric-a-brac.

We’re immediately drawn into the mystery – who / what is this robot and where is he from? We’re never told, and just learn to accept him. There are clues to some sort of imprisoned past –
"Never before had the Iron Man seen the sea,"


- and throughout, his industrial, masculine body contrasts with the natural and feminine (a theme overplayed in the less wowing sequel, The Iron Woman).

The opening moments are shocking – the cold, inhuman machine torn apart, tumbling down the cliff into the sea. Seagulls pick at his severed parts. Eerily reborn – rebuilding himself bit by bit from just one hand and eye - he grows from bird-fodder to saving the world from a terrible pterodactyl.

The Iron Man invades a land of picnics and fox-hunting. Hogarth lives a safe, rural idyll. It’s not just the Britain of the 1960s – Hogarth spends nights out on his own with a gun, while his dad immediately believes him about the monster, even when other adults don’t. This is a child’s world, where adults are just as alien and other as robots and space monsters.

The ever-ready kid carries a handy nail and a knife amongst the clutter in his pockets, and it is he who leads the Iron Man to initial entrapment in the pit, to the scrapyard after that, and then to his duel with the Star Beast.

The adults want to destroy both Iron Man and Space Beast. Big is intrinsically bad; the two strange visitors are feared for their size and scale of appetite. Both, however, ultimately save mankind. World peace, with people,
"blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles,"

Ibid., p. 62.

derives from space, the "bigger picture", if you will. As it happens, it was adult, earthly war that originally corrupted the Star Beast so that he wanted to join in with the destruction – the little people and their little squabbles brought the real threat upon themselves.

Proving himself - sprawling in fires of his own making - we’re told that the Iron Man’s
"hair and elbows and toes became red hot".

Ibid., p. 52.

His hair? Why does a robot need hair? He’s resplendently, sensibly bald in Andrew Davidson’s stark illustrations. On the cover, however, he’s gazes at us with sensitive blue eyes.

The Iron Man is about a monster growing unmonstrous. It’s unprecedented. King Kong and Frankenstein’s (engineered) monster raged against the adult world, and lost. It’s a small boy who humanises the Iron Man, leading him to glory.

For all their guns and cars and industry, the adults are left feeling sheepish and silly, and have to submit to living a peaceful idyll. Hah.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The eighth wonder of the world

No, I don’t mean King Kong.

For reasons that shall become clear another time, I asked a couple of learned fellows about the seven wonders of the world (according to Phil from Istanbul: two blokes, two tombs, a church, a garden and a lighthouse).

If, I wanted to know, you were to list seven modern wonders of engineering and human cleverness, what would they be? The catch being that you can only include things made before 1853, so I might rip off the answers for a story.

So no, you can’t have the Brooklyn Bridge (which was started in 1870), and neither the new Palace of Westminster nor the Clifton Suspension Bridge were completed.

We came up with a bridge, a boat, a greenhouse, some tracks, a lighthouse and two connected houses. You can have a guess if you like, but the answers aren’t due until Christmas.

There’s yet another shortlist for “unsung landmarks” on the BBC News site. I find myself torn between two:

Nimbos beaming his signalsTelly transmitters at Crystal Palace
Which I live sort of under, and what gave Nimbos his logo. It's on the site of one end of the Crystal Palace, and can be seen from all across London. Which makes me wonder whether the palace was, too.

Collinwood kills TomRadio telescope at Jodrell Bank
Which was the formative death of Dr Who, and also had sunflowers growing next door when I visited many years ago.

Still, it loses points for the paltry exhibition, which explained little more than what the nine planets are called. The exhibits were mostly about what we can see of the cosmos, when Jodrell Bank really just listens.

Returned home to my then physicist housemate who explained that the little and newer telescope next to the big one is by far the more powerful and groovy. Technology has meant that size doesn’t matter.

And yet, they can still make use of the big one. They team up with two other big telescopes evenly spaced around the Earth, and then go listen to the same bit of space. By comparing the slightly different hearings, they gain results as if they had a telescope bigger than the whole of the planet.

Which is a bit damn cool. So I’m voting for Jodrell.

(Note to self: 4,073 words and still lots to be done with the other one.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hot salad

Things that happen when you have a chef staying who cooks tea in leiu of rent: last night the outlaws took the Dr and I for a slap-up meal at Carluccio's and it felt a little like slumming it.

Ah, heaven...

Moments ago, m'colleague A. declined a cup of tea on the basis he'd already had several. This is indicative of the wild, rock-n-roll lifestyle what the young people live nowadays.

"And one of 'em had caffeine in it," he added.

Hmm. In my book of arbitrary rulings that makes his total just one cup of tea, plus several mugs of fruit drink.

Another colleague, F. tells of culinary hardship when attempting to buy herself lunch. The cooked chicken had gone mostly cold so she asked the bloke behind the counter if she could have it re-heated.

He took her plate, decorously arranged with meat and veg and sald, and bunged the lot in the microwave for a good minute's ping. F. ended up eating arid, still-not-hot poultry and some unnaturally warm strands of lettuce.

"Didn't you complain?" asked A. "Didn't he think it was odd cooking salad?"

"People ask him for odd things all the time," said F. "Putting ketchup in soup, or just ordering a meal of chips and potatoes... People round here are weird."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Have spoken before about odd things in James Bond films, but working my way through the shiny new attache case of all 20 remastered flicks, all sorts of new ones occur.

Doctor No and From Russia With Love are both very fast-moving, with lots of tightly edited quick scenes and sequences. I love that having set Bond up as this dangerous playboy we then find out that he shoots like a lady.

I also like how vast the world is - it's a long and arduous process to get across a border.

Doctor No thinks Bond just a "stupid policeman" with ideas above his station (about nice wines and so on). But Bond's actually quite a blunderer. His job is to walk into wherever's the dangerest and piss people off until they tell him their plans. Then they fail to kill him.

Goldfinger really is very good indeed. I don't quite understand why Goldfinger gives his demonstration to hoodlums he's going to kill - unless it's just so Bond can eavesdrop.

It's a whopping great coincidence in Thunderball that Bond happens to be in the same health farm as the baddies. That is, unless either a) it's being right next to a NATO base means the Secret Service can get a discount, or b) M has had a tip-off.

Though the latter seems not to play when Bond phones in his suspicions about Count Lippi's tattoo: Moneypenny reminds him how he's on leave.

There's a top cat moment in You Only Live Twice, as Blofeld and his gang flee the control room. Watch the white pussy struggling in his arms, and pulling hilario-comedic gurns at the camera.

Also, when Blofeld kills Osato (just before he doesn't kill Bond, then walks through a door, and then tries to), the cat escapes him. So presumably dies in the volcano.

Why don't Blofeld and Bond recognise each other when they meet in OHMSS? There's a silly scene of Savalas catching Bond out on geneaology when they've already met...

Bond sits reading Playboy in OHMSS, and then steals the centrefold. While trying to look inconspicuous in a lawyer's lobby, he's admiring the double-spread and then pocketing it.

Blofeld tells Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever to go and put more clothes on because her bikini distracts his workers. So she covers up her arms. Also, she's a sassy, dangerous lady right up until she meets Q on the fruit machines. And then she's just a ditzy, dizzy broad. Which is a shame.

All Sean's movies except Goldfinger end with him and his moll on a boat.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ten headaches

As well as making my tea each night and ensuring that each morning I am ready for school, it appears the two wives feel themselves responsible for my general presentation.

Last night, as we ate the chicken-and-noodles-and-chillies-and-yum that Wife 2 had made and while Griff Rhys Jones enthused about Betjeman, Wife 1 tried to explain that if you’re wearing groovy brown trousers, you shouldn’t wear tops that are blue.

And that white stripes on the arms are not cool.

And that anyway it looks like a cardie.

This is unfair on two counts: firstly I’d asked for her unforthcoming opinion while compiling the day’s costume, and second, you should see what she’s happy putting on, the Goth freak.

Anyway, I ventured, such silly fripperies as fashion are below a fellow of my breeding. You decide these things on a sensible, evidential basis, asking will they last and do they fit and can you avoid having to iron them.

Wife 2 suggested that no, knowing what colours go well together is a universal. Pah, said I, that’s what fools told the Impressionists with their punky clash of blue-against-orange and purple-on-yellow that made their stuff so vibrant and exciting.

(Anyway, we know all about those men who are good with colours, don’t we? And if we don’t, we ask Lee.)

The wives countered that an arty sort like Monet would have known better than to wear a mismatching cardie. At least he knew what he looked like.

Claude Monet, fashion victim“Have you seen pictures of him?” I blathered. “He looked like an old tramp! His wife wouldn’t be worried about how his white stripes looked council. She’d more likely say, ‘Oh zut alors, Claude! Did you put that on so you could spill paint on it, or have you been out on park benches sucking shit through a sock?’”

I’m quite content looking a bit grubby at the edges. Neglecting to shave is as much a guilty thrill as not getting out of bed. At school there was one teacher who used often to jeer that, “You’re a shambles, Guerrier.” I was always too timid to shout back, “That’s the point!” – though sometimes I would bravely dare think it.

This Betjemanesque admission much amused the cackly wives, who thought “You’re a shambles, Guerrier” would look good on my tombstone. Yes, they are already planning, and said how they’d plant the grave with an appropriate great clash of weeds.

“They’re not really weeds if you plant them on purpose,” I said, and then had to explain: “Weeds are your unplanned-for growths.”

Forget the lure of the reaper, “Unplanned-for growths” can be the name of my memoirs, in which will appear the further unbosoming of my bigamous exploits. And anyway, this dishevelled thing is what gets me two wives in the first place.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The weekenders

Things progress. Have picked the brains of chums and the Dr for stories I am writing, got a whole load of Benny things happening for 2007, and have locked the next pair of scripts. Am also informed that things due for release are very nearly due for release.

Which all means that the great long list of things that Simon Must Do keeps having great swathes of it ticked off. Hooroo!

On Friday, my new chair was delivered and it is quite marvellous. It is tall, supportive and has a pleasing rocking motion. Saw the deliverer out, and returned to find the cat had already claimed it.

On Saturday we spent a very pleasant evening in the very pleasant Dulwich Wood House with J. and D., evil-freelance-overlord-I., Nimbos and Josephlidster – who teased me about initialising them all on this blog.

Some things of excitement were discussed, but their time on this electric journal is still to come.

On Sunday, we poddled down to Winchester for a world of lunch with the almost-family we went to Spain to see married . Lots of food and natter, and met some people who spoke wisely of Birmingham, Finland and Classics. And hydrogen fuel cells.

For some reason people were singing Christmas carols out in the garden. We took that as our cue to run away.

Then went to see my old mate B., whose house is a shell of loose bricks, and only one room has a floor. He has six weeks to make it all proper, and we delighted in hearing how he’ll have finished the roof by… er… this afternoon, and then there’s walls and floors and plastering and stairs and… Anyway, plan is to go help when I have got through some remaining deadlines. The Dr is keen I keep up physical works, probably because being knackered means I leave her alone.

We took B. to the Westgate Hotel for some refreshment. Sadly the Pride of Romsey was off, but the Ringwood Bitter made a good second. I was born in Romsey and harbour happy fantasies about how one day they’ll erect a statue of me, based on being so big and famous. Like to think that I’m already half-way there.

Eventually got back to London, where M. had already arrived and was busy with Dr Who’s lunch. We chatted drunkenly at her until bed-time.

This morning I was awoke by the sound of both my wives struggling to box up the cat. His grace required annual shots and check-up, and I hear tell of how he soon plied the old Guerrier charm to the lady-vet. (No, in a way that worked.) He has spent since his return sulking in the corner.

And so back to the coalface of picaresque space adventure. Am pleased with the metaphorical wax, though it may not survive till the final draft.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

London thing

Here’s one I prepared earlier. Back in May, a friend asked for things to do in London that are less touristy and a lot Dr Who. This is what I came up with for day one:

Start in the morning by getting the tube to Bank station.

Get the Docklands Light Railway from Bank to Greenwich Cutty Sark, and admire the groovy buildings and stuff along the way. Your homework before this trip is to watch The Long Good Friday, which (as well as having a young Pierce Brosnan offer his bottom to the villain from Raiders of the Lost Ark) shows lots of the area you'll be going through, before it all got smartened up.

At Greenwich, wander up to the (free) Royal Observatory - the centre of world time, apparently - and have a look at the nice clocks. It can be crowded outside where people stand on the meridian line, but it's usually quieter once you get inside.

Once you're done there, head back down through the park to the (also free) Queen's House (where they filmed Dr Who and the Dimensions in Time, and also where I got marriaged). The paintings inside aren't very exciting, so don't bother hanging around too long.

Then go see the Cutty Sark (a big boat from Dimensions in Time), and head for the big glass-domed thing at the water's edge. From there, you can see the Millennium Dome (to your right). James Bond fell on it once.

The glass-domed thing is the entrance to the free foot tunnel to Island Gardens (under the Thames). It was my favourite thing in London when I was little.

My Time TravellersFrom Island Gardens, take the Docklands north to Canary Wharf. Get out and change on to the Jubilee line. The Jubilee-line bit of the station is cool and space-age. You might also like to take a ten-minute detour outside and go see the traffic-light tree what I put on the cover of my Dr Who book.

Take the Jubilee line to Westminster. It's also space-age. Exit the station and gaze happily up at the Palace of Westminster (aka the “Houses of Parliament”). The pub right by the station, the St Stephen's, can be crowded but is nice and you'll probably need a drinkie anyway.

Fully loaded DaleksHead to the river, and look at (but don't cross) Westminster Bridge, which is the one with the Daleks on it in that photo, and the one the Dr and Rose hold hands on as they run over.

Having admired the view, turn round and walk back up to the corner with the parliamentary bookshop on it. Parliament square, with Winston's statue, is to you diagonal left. On the other side of the road right in front of you is a building with a squarish tower on top of it. They filmed the opening of the Prisoner there (with Number 2 driving his sportscar past Parliament and into the underground carpark nearby).

Anyway. Turn right onto Whitehall, and wave at Downing Street as you go past. Not much to see by peering through the gates, but they've repaired it very well since Dr Who blew it up last year.

Carry on to Trafalgar Square and see if you can climb on the lions - it seems to be the thing to do if you are foreign.

But it's probably a bit touristy. So:

In front of where Nelson is looking is a roundabout with a statue of some king on it. Cross on to that, and then left to the Waterstones on the far side of the road. Follow Northumberland Avenue down to the river, and cross Waterloo (foot)bridge.

At the south end of the bridge, head right, down the steps and go play on the London Eye / Auton antennae dish. Worth paying for a ride.

Then, back again under Waterloo bridge and along the river front, and maybe pretend to be a Draconian on the walkways round the National Theatre and Hayward. Yes, that's where Frontier in Space took place.

After you've browsed the bookstalls outside the National Film Theatre (and under Waterloo bridge), hang a left away from the river and head to the underpass where the IMAX cinema is. It's fun, but expensive, if you want to stop off.

Follow the signs for Waterloo Road - you want to be on the other side of the road from Waterloo station, on the side of Stamford Street. Follow Waterloo Road past the kebab shops, and turn right just before you get to the pub called the Wellington (very tactfully, this is the first thing French people see when emerging from the Channel Tunnel trains).

Nestling behind the Wellington are some quiet streets of traditional yellow-brick houses, in which Remembrance of the Daleks got filmed. On Roupell Street, there's also a very good pub, the Kings Arms.

The Thai place on Waterloo Road is good for a well-deserved tea, and you're right by Waterloo station which will get you back to wherever you are staying once you are properly full of beer.

Day 2 another time…

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Garbage cans, rats galore… Scram!

“His claws arced up, up, and slashed a vicious curve through Cludge’s soft, wet nose.

The big dog howled. He twisted away, turning his face left and right, spraying blood into the snow. He stumbled back from Razor’s claws, and hid behind Varjak, trembling, whimpering, bleeding from the nose.

It was over.”

SF Said, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, p. 20.

Mr Shaggy Guerrier Esq., smallest and hairiest member of the family, bought this for the Dr for Christmas. He seemed much taken with the first Varjak Paw novel, and its none-too-brave black cat fighting a world of wicked felines.

I assume the eponymous cat’s name is a play on “Paul Varjak”, the blocked writer of the 1956 novel “Nine Lives” and star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (And played by Hannibal Smith some years before Nam and the crime he didn’t commit.)
“I’m like Cat here. We’re a couple of no-named slobs, we belong to nobody and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.”

Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

(I’m sure there’s an argument for how both the cat-books-for-kids and the hip-flick-for-grown-ups make the same sort of plea, that it’s a tough, mixed-up world and us kooks need to stick up for each other. But it’s probably trying a bit hard…)

Knocked through this new adventure in a couple of evenings – though there’s 260 densely plotted pages, its set in a heavyweight point size and illustrated throughout. Dave McKean’s sketchy illustrations are integral to the story, as violently clawed and sinister as the text they accompany.

In it, Varjak and his chums Tam, Holly and Cludge (shockingly, a dog) are finding the “free” streets hemmed in by an ever more ‘orrible gang. Those that don’t pay due deference to Sally Bones get their ears and tails pulled off, and they’re not even sparing old women and children. It’s got so bad that even some of the other gangs and hoodlums are looking to Varjak for help…

It’s a grisly and violent read with constant blood-spilling, death and disfigurement. Amid the steady low drumbeat of CRACK! and CRASH! and SMACK! and THUD!, cats plummet from tall buildings and wade through sewage. There’s also love, with Varjak’s squirmy feelings about the girl-kitten he sleeps with.

That’s not to say this is only for older kids; it’s no more vicious than the last two Harry Potters. What’s more, aged 11ish I devoured 2000AD and the novel of Doctor No because – with their torture and Nazis and sex and explosions – I thought I was getting away with something adult, that the parents wouldn’t approve if they only knew how sophisticated my trashy reading really was.

Not that this is an original thought:
“If you say you want to stay up until the end of a movie they're never going to let you do that, but if you say "I just want to finish this chapter" it's okay.

Little do they know you're reading about a troll hacking off someone's head.”

CBBC Newsround, Authors on the spot: Lemony Snicket, 2 June 2006.

The violence is vivid and scary, even if a lot of it happens off-camera. It reminded me in some ways of The Iron Man – a succession of stark, brutal images ever threatening the kind, easy-going yet wily hero (in that case, a small boy).

Though Varjak is unnaturally good at fighting, he never enjoys it. We see him struggle to build and maintain alliances so he doesn’t have to fight any more. And we see how his insistence that everyone works together ultimately pays off.

It’s exciting all the way through, though I’m surprised there aren’t more cliffhanger endings to chapters. The loss of a major character (which happens quite a bit) occurs mid-chapter rather than the end. I guess this means the book works better as a bed-time story; you get all the thrilling plot developments in your instalment, rather then being left on sleep-preventing tenterhooks.

The mystical stuff with Varjak’s long-dead ancestor, the kung-fu master Jalal, is all a bit Jedi. I half-expected, as Jalal reveals his own weaknesses, that evil Sally Bones would turn out to be Varjak’s mum. And we still don’t know how or why Varjak has these lurid dreams, or what his special connection to the Way is.

Otherwise, Outlaw seems to tie up everything neatly, there’s no “coming soon” in the endpapers (as there is in the first one) and the official website says nothing about book three. But I can see where Said might go for Varjak’s next perilous adventure – without giving anything away for this one, using a character who at the end has one “ice-blue eye, seeing his secrets, laying him bare” (p. 260). And that would really be putting the poor scraggy cat through the ringer.

Googling to see what might have been mentioned, Said told Newsround that he thinks there’ll be a third book, but that,
“there's another story I want to work on. It's a sort of science-fiction samurai story, so there'll still be martial arts - but there might also be spaceships...”

CBBC Newsround, Q & A with Varjak Paw author SF Said, 14 November 2005.

Cor! Kendo in space... Oh, no wait. Has't that be done?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

For one week only…

…you can hear the Dr’s broadcast debut, via Radio 4’s Listen Again wossname.

She pops up about halfway through (by which time you might have
lost the thread of what Malc McClaren’s going on about, bless him).

We’ve also watched the first three episodes of Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Dr mesmerised by Li H’Sen Chang. Ducked off to bed early to escape the seminar on ethno-racial stereotyping. Though I notice Chang’s not shown on the packaging…

On which point, I’d recommend Alex’s post on profiling. Surely terrorists who almost out-think airport security (with a method devised by the Joker, where different, innocuous chemicals become lethal when blended) are cunning enough to thwart looking “a bit foreign”...

And I have an answer for airlines and passengers complaining about all the delays: airports provide an option for no-frills security. It's quicker, it's cheaper and you can carry anything you like in your hand luggage.

But it's your own fault if you don't survive the journey. Now shut your moaning!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Lazy boy

I’ve not come anywhere in the Writers Inc competition, and wonder what of the two stories sent in can be salvaged for use elsewhere. Humbug. And, indeed, fizzy fish.

The problem with having lots of work on is how it eats up all the thinking time. Or, to use the technical term, “idling”. Or, to use the Dr’s phrase, “I thought you were going to do some work today.”

Today I made much use of an unpatented creative process for getting story outlines to work. The trick is, having researched diligently and got a pretty good idea where it’s all going, to then not get up too early and lie in bed thinking it through.

It’s amazing (to me, at least) what can come out of idling. This morning the trusty left hemisphere (have I got that right?) rustled up a whole new character, a nice thing about how to play the bloke alone in his escape pod, and the right place for a big revelation.

The next stage is to get all this down in the notebook. And then, after a lunch of cheesy crumpets, tea and Dr Who magazine, I settled down at the computer to type up the outlines entirely from memory.

Relying only on the grey matter means you only get the essentials of the story, and it’s a good way to see what really matters. Yes, that bit about the escape pod works nicely, but I entirely neglected it as the thing got typed up.

This uber-outline is saved and then saved-as, and I leech through the notebook putting back all I’d forgot. Have chipped 2,626 words off the 12,000 monolith, and it’s now just a matter of knocking down those pins.

And, having set the stories in stone, of finding ways to keep it interesting for myself as I write it. Which usually means changing it all as I go.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Or 26 in my case

“By this time I was pretty well convinced he was going straight with me. It was the wildest sort of narrative, but I had heard in my time many steep tales which had turned out to be true, and I made a practice of judging the man rather than the story.”

John Buchan, The 39 Steps, p. 21.

Richard Hannay is an ex-pat who’s tired of London, meeting the old bloke from the flat upstairs. The old bloke, Scudder, seems like any other paranoid drunk with dreadful conspiracies to spin about how Jewish anarchist group the ‘Black Stone’ are plotting to drag us all into war. Yet Hannay believes him. Soon it looks like the conspirators are to force Europe into massive war (the book was published in 1915).

This pulp thriller (or “shocker” as Buchan himself called the form) is concisely told in blunt, stark prose and is all over in 126 pages. This makes it feel more quick-witted and modern than its contemporaries (at least, I’m thinking of thrillers and intrigues I’ve read by Wells and Joseph Conrad where the whole world still seems answerable to the wrath of the Empress Victoria).

The gratuitous anti-Semitism is probably the most shocking thing about the book, though I did note that for all we’re told it’s a global plot, we only ever see four of the villains.

(Part of me wonders if that’s all there is of the Black Stone, and they’ve just faked a bigger crowd. Like Macaulay Culkin’s party of cardboard cut-outs in Home Alone, or the cheeky practice of sales reps for magazines to say things like, “Well it sells 20,000 each month, but every copy’s read by at least two or three people…”)

Of course, we later discover that Hannay’s not entirely been told the truth, but there is much throughout the book about being able to judge a man – Hannay believes and is believed on the look of a fellow alone.

It's lucky Hannay knows who he can trust, because none of the secret service can. Even when Hannay presents all the evidence, Sir Walter is still incredulous:
“‘I don’t know what to make of it,’ he said at last. ‘He is right about one thing – what is going to happen the day after to-morrow. How the devil can it have got known? That is ugly enough in itself. But all this about war and the Black Stone – it reads like some wild melodrama. If only I had more confidence in Scudder’s judgement. The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance.’”

Ibid., p.94.

By the end of the page, Sir Walter has been convinced that everything about the plot is true. Which all panders to egoist fantasy, in which the hero knows better than everyone else and is the only one can foil the baddies. Having been a surly layabout with no love for the mother country, Hannay has the rulers of the Empire reliant on his every move.

Hannay solves the riddles on his own where even the heads of the Secret Service cannot, based on what he admits himself are some lucky guesses and the courage (or pig-headedness) to stick to them. It seems only he can stop the coming war…

Actually, the idea of foiling some foreign plot on the eve of the inevitable war reminds me a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s Final Bow. Only Hannay’s not sporting the comedy beard.

It also relies on an awful lot of coincidence – meeting an old acquaintance in the middle of the countryside while out on the run, or and then bumping into him again at the worst possible moment.

And yet, its decades ahead of its time, more like the thrillers from after the Second World War than from just prior to the first. It’s paranoia about the sinister plottings of “anarchists” is not unlike current worries about terrorists. Though I’m amused that anarchists can be so organised, and have such a clear, military chain of command.

It’s certainly a great influence on later spy stories. The doppelganger plot appears again in Thunderball. Hannay’s pusuit by a plane over the Scottish hilltops seems to have inspired Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which in turn inspired a sequence toward the end of the (film version of) From Russia With Love where Bond is chased over by a helicopter over the Yugoslav hilltops. Which shows how these things come round – the sequence was in fact filmed in Scotland.

Like Fleming, there’s also the bollocksy “tricks of the trade” – the plot depending on icky generalisations about racial and national types (such as Germans who cannot change their plans). Likewise, Hannay’s various disguises rely not so much on his skill with make-up as just his believing in the “atmosphere” of the part. It’s interesting to see these cheats and clichés so early in the spy genre.

Like Bond, Hannay is a snob:
“What fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs. He doesn’t know how they look at things, he doesn’t understand their conventions, and he is as shy of them as of a black mamba. When a trim parlour-maid opened the door, I could hardly find my voice.”

Ibid., p.119.

And, like Bond spotting a villain because he selects the wrong wine, this snobbery is a way of driving the plot forward and making the hero distinct from the hoi-polloi readers.

What is very different from these descendants is the absence of ladies and sex, which leaves it all rather cold and charmless. The story would be infinitely richer led by a wise-cracking Cary Grant or Sean Connery.

And then suddenly it’s all over – Hannay bluffs some men playing cards and they run off into the night. If this can be considered a victory then it’s a Pyrrhic one; the war comes anyway, and Hannay signs up to the army feeling (again, as if it’s a good thing) that he’s already done his best service.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

More Dick than is good for you

Have (I hope) finished my toil on something that's taken longer than expected. The chap I've been working with has been very accommodating and I'm just tightening up his good work. But it needed thinking about from various angles and I was almost done when I realised how I'd written us into a corner. Now it is done. Phew.

So I can throw myself at the 12,000 words due in by the end of the month, some of which requires my being knowledgeable about a bloke called Phil from Istanbul. To help, I am currently reading Michael Grant's "From Alexander to Cleopatra - the Hellenistic World". This is because I have a clever wife.

I also have clever friends. Having watched Matthew Sweet present highlights from Edinburgh last night (and steal the word "TARDIS" into it, too), this morning I discover Phil has written for the Guardian a piece about Philip K Dick.

It's a good summary of the crazy-arsed dude (and I am terrible envious), though I think it misses something important. Dick was hugely prolific, but only a small percentage of his many publications are actually any sort of cop.

This was something of a bummer to discover, having keenly absorbed his work in my teens. Back then, a wise friend advised which to read - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dr Bloodmoney, We Can Build You, Valis, Ubik, The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Mary and the Giant and A Scanner Darkly (though YMMV and shit). Everything since then has been a bit of a disappointment.

I suspect this is less to do with me just getting older and more discriminating, and may be down to Dick's editors. Writing under the influence and all through the night until he'd met his wordcount, Dick would sometimes forget the names of his protagonists or things he'd already done to them.

It happens in stories (and I've had to compensate before for characters who've returned from the dead, or have swapped genders in a couple of paragraphs). And his free-wheeling brilliance is at its best when approaching some semblance of structure.

But this is just a guess based on my own sorry prejudice. It may also be that Dick's mania was like pretty much everything else in life - occassional greatness from the morass of the okay.

Mary and the Giant is not sci-fi, and is about a girl in a record shop falling for the wrong guy. It really struck a chord with the me aged 17 and I can't really recall why. I think it was just a nice story, about being misunderstood and unsure in love, and generally well meaning but fuck-knuckled. The only other thing I remember is that the giant used cheap, wooden picks on his record player.

(Other) Phil's article has made me: hotly envious; want to see the film, and; look up Mary on Abebooks.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Part-time punks

Lots on just at the mo as I race to get things finished. But regular readers may wish to tune in to BBC Radio 4 on Monday (14 August) at 3.45 pm.
"To celebrate 150 years of the National Portrait Gallery, well-known people select a portrait from the gallery to comment on.

Malcom McLaren on Andy Warhol's silkscreen images of Queen Elizabeth II

McLaren knew Warhol and tells us why he thinks Andy's portraits have lost their power and become fashion."
Discussing the portrait with Malc will be one Dr Debbie Challis. Cor.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Law of the jungle

On the train home on Sunday I read the first three chapters of the Jungle Book, which took me greatly by surprise.

Not least because it’s only those first three chapters which are about the wolf-boy Mowgli. The remainder of the book seems to be made up of other stories based on or pinched from Indian legends and experience.

I can’t help wondering how much is what he got told and how much is his own experience of India. As my dad pointed out, Kipling spent a relatively short period in the country he’s remembered as such as expert on. He was born there, yes, but returned to England aged six. Later he did a seven-year tour of duty as a journalist (where he obviously met Sirs Michael Caine and Sean Connery), and it’s this period – the same length as a doctor’s training – that provided the material for the rest of his career as a writer.

It’s no surprise that the book is darker, nastier and more animalistic than the bowdlerised Disney cartoon. Mowgli’s schooling by Baloo here is a neat twist on the savage law of the jungle. The jungle is full of danger and violence yet its wiser inhabitants abide by an etiquette.

The law is an ideal, not an absolute, a way of negotiating the harsh realities. It only exists where it is backed up by (the threat of) violence. So that the real law of the jungle – where power rests with the one who can kill his adversaries – is always glimpsed underneath.

There are those who flout the law – the tiger Shere Khan and his allies because they are building their own empires, the monkeys because they’re too reckless. And this lawlessness makes things unpredictable and dangerous, and threatens to overturn everyone.

These are complex relationships, and any plan of action requires involved negotiation. Any alliance is made warily.

Mowgli spends his time cut and bruised all over, taking tumbles that we’re told would kill any other child. It reminded me a great deal of Tarzan (written 12 years later) – at least, it reminded me of the film Greystoke, because I’ve not read the book.

Chapter 1 starts with Mowgli being found by a family of wolves, who bring him up as their own just to spite the miserly tiger. Having had him accepted by the rest of the pack (and sponsored by a bear and a panther), and just got the story started, we then just skip to the end.
“Now you must be content to skip ten or eleven whole years, and only guess at all the wonderful life that Mowgli led among the wolves, because if it were written out it would fill ever so many books.”

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, p. 22.

Kipling’s not really got the hang of the freelance thing yet if he’s pointing out to his readers that there’s probably more in this. (Says someone who’s only just pitched a rejected novel synopsis to someone else as a short story.)

Anyway, Shere Khan and his allies challenge the wolf leadership and win, but Mowgli stops them from killing Akela by threatening them all with fire. Then, because the use of fire means he has chosen the way of men over the jungle, he goes off to the local village. The end, it seems.

Chapter 2 jumps back a bit, recalling an episode from Mowgli’s schooling. It’s a valuable lesson in obeying his godparents and not playing with the naughty kids from down the street. Ignoring the warnings about what monkeys are like, Mowgli soon finds himself being carried off into the trees. The monkeys are dangerous not because they’re evil but because they are reckless and silly. They cannot hold an idea in their heads for more than five minutes.

In this anthropomorphic society, I wondered who the monkeys were based on – Unruly children? Those who do not attend to their school books? As the monkeys sit about the ruins of once-great buildings, unable to appreciate the grandeur around them let alone being able to reclaim it, I wondered if there wasn’t something more distastefully imperial going on, and these wild, silly creatures were some version of Kipling’s own dealings with native Indians.

More surprising is how Mowgli escapes his predicament – there’s no merry king of the swingers here. Instead, Baloo and Bagheera make an unlikely alliance with the cunning python, Kaa.

Together, these three amigos fight off the monkeys in a battle that’s hard-won and nasty. It nearly all goes pear shaped, with monkey reinforcements on their way and Bagheera hiding in a pond. But then Kaa hypnotises all the monkeys (and nearly Mowgli and Bagheera too), and we’re left with the deeply unsettling suggestion that the entranced monkeys all file up to be eaten. It’s terrifying and surreal and vicious.

Then Mowgli needs beating for his disobedience, because “sorrow never stays punishment”. He’s left bloody and bruised all over, but takes it like a man. The end.

And it’s this weird and brutal chapter that the Disney version is based on, of course.

Chapter 3 picks up after the end of Chapter 1 with Mowgli returning to the village from which he was snatched as a baby, and to his natural mother, a rich woman called Messua. We are told his real name – Nathoo.

Mowgli (because the village take him to be a replacement for Nathoo, not necessarily Nathoo himself) learns to speak the language and to look after their cows, but he finds the men’s sleeping habits and tales of jungle beasts ridiculous and he can’t fathom the caste system or money. He doesn’t really fit in.

What’s more, the belligerent Shere Khan is stalking him. So, with the help of his old wolf chums, Mowgli stages an ambush and kills the tiger in a stampede which seems to have inspired a scene in the Lion King.

Yet the killing of Mufasa is a cowardly act, and Mowgli’s tactics hardly feel noble. He further dismays a man warrior by refusing to surrender his kill, which warrants a big reward. (The people of the village are variously superstitious, stupid and greedy.)

As a result, Mowgli is cast out of the village for being a sorcerer (and able to command the wolves). By the time we leave him, he’s settled his old scores and lived by Baloo’s law, but is an outcast from both man and beast. Perhaps this is again Kipling’s own experience of those neither wholly English not wholly Indian, so cut off from both societies.

And then it ends:
“But he was not always alone, because years afterward he became a man and married.

But that is a story for grown-ups.”

Ibid., p. 121.

And I realised I’d forgotten it was all meant for kids.

(The Second Jungle Book apparently continues the story, with chapters about a much older Mowgli returning to rescue his real mum.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Nature versus nature

“The plot meanders almost incomprehensibly through an all-too-familiar futureworld.”
So says the Guardian’s Guide of Code 46, which held me mesmerised last night on BBC2. Until seeing it in the listings on Saturday, Michael Winterbottom’s oedipal sci-fi had entirely passed me by, which I blame on the shortcomings of my usually impeccable medley of recommenders. (Though I note my boss Joe was similarly wowed by it two years ago.)

Spoilers follow.

Tim Robbins is investigating fraud in a genetics factory and falls for Samantha Morton when she talks back to him. Nothing unexpected there. They meet up on the Tube after work and go clubbing, and then end up back in her bed. Nothing unexpected there, either. But fortune is out to make fools of these star-cross’d lovers, and the future’s pernicious technological brilliance is all out to scupper their affair…

Despite what the sneery preview said, the futureworld is effective because it’s so familiar – a dystopia waiting just a couple of years from us now. We can recognise some of the buildings, the concrete and toughened glass of Canary Wharf architecture pinched right out of decades’ old SF comic books. The cities are packed full of people (the Tube only empty in dreams), and there are no trees or green spaces left anywhere but the desert.

(Yes, I know. I think it's meant to be ironic.)

The global village of pristine urban spaces may be the place to be in this deprived and environmentally scarred future, but the cities consist of small, cramped areas for living and just as imposing and totalitarian wide-open work areas. This is a place of invasion, where a virus can steal the subtext of someone’s life out of their innocent gabble, where memories are deleted as sickness and the state uses mind control to make criminals self-harm.

In all, it’s a deft bit of sci-fi that pays dividends if you only pay attention. Everyone speaks English but peppered with bits of other languages – a mish-mash of French and Spanish and Hebrew and what-have-you that’s in many ways more effective and more credible than the incomprehensible future slang of Bladerunner. The future is also more readily multicultural, though I did mutter, “But the two leads are both white!” before realising why they’d have to be the same race.

The social structures are also nicely delineated – not just between those inside and outside the cities, but between Robbins at the top of the heap with his clinically immaculate apartment and office, and Morton on the bottom rung and commuting through the rubbish and squalor.

I loved that Robbins asking his suspects to tell him anything about themselves is not explained until late in the movie. And the kooky nova of viruses that can make you sing well or speak Mandarin (so that you’re the only one not able to understand what you’re saying) turns out to be a crucial plot point.

The wheeze behind it all is that there’s a lot of IVF going on in the future, and that cloning ups the chances of (inadvertent) incest. Morton turns out to be a 100% clone of Robbins’ own mother – though, as one expert explains, her environment and circumstances have brought her up as someone very different. But to keep the human stock healthy the two must not be lovers…

This plot loses something explained out of context (as I found trying to catch up the Dr, who wandered in some way through). I also think the mystery would have been better if the titles had not defined “Code 46 violations” right from the off. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that this adds to the tragic inevitability of all that follows, but it just felt like fumbling the big twist.

But as it’s played out, the film is strange and unsettling, arousing weird empathies in a sex scene where Morton’s body is both compliant and resisting. A lot of the film's effectiveness is down to the two leads, but it’s also busy with images that live on long in the mind – such as camels racing along beside their escape in the desert, signs of life in an otherwise unnatural world.

I can see that it’s not for everyone – sci-fi about relationships bothers those who prefer big guns and explosions as well as those who sneer at anything that dares to admit openly being set in the future. (In Dr Who terms, that means alienating those who can’t see what Jacqui and Mickey added to the show as well as those who didn’t like it whenever the TARDIS left the Powell Estate.)

It may well have done better critically if Winterbottom had played to these silly prejudices and denied it was any kind of SF (and so many authors like to do). Which is a back-handed compliment, because when you start being embarrassed that a film’s thought of as sci-fi you know you’ve got something rather good.


A post entitled "Tastes a bit of pine needles" has gone missing from this blog and I think Picasa must be responsible. It mentioned the brother being on the front page of both the BBC News site and the Sunday Times, as well as letting you know that the Dr has a blog. The title was from something I've been writing.

Bah. You'll have to go without.

Friday, August 04, 2006

End of the road

The littlest brother is reaching the last few metres of his mammoth trek across Oz and finds himself on page 3 of today’s Telegraph. The reactionary sell-out.

Have dutifully bought him a copy while out handing matters of import to the Post Office.

Tom’s been out there since February, which means his mega-epic has lasted about as long as Judge Dredd’s, though without the flying surfboards or evil clones of himself camped inside Uluru. I hope.

Word is he’ll be back in the next few weeks. Which is good as we need someone to babysit the cat.

Today, not being wanted for my cut-and-paste genius, I have written a letter for another brother, posted some things, chased some others, rewritten the beginning of something (or rather, begun to rewrite something) and eaten some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

Off now to a leaving do for someone who isn't entirely leaving. The liberty. But curry is included so hooray.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Catch it

A relation of mine - he shall remain nameless here - is spoken of in family legend for his ability to eat rice pudding when small. He would eat it with his hands to begin with, then tip the bowl over his head. In the disrobing and washing that followed, he had managed to get rice pudding even inside his shoes.

Cats, of course, are meant to be less entirely disgusting than this. They are meant to have a certain grace and poise and elegance. They are, afterall, not dogs.

But not my cat. My cat is special.

Last night, while the Dr, M., Nimbos and I finished our decadent puddings, the shaggy cat wolfed down his own meal in a mouthful and then felt the need to make toilet. He clambered into his poo-box, turned himself awkwardly round 180 degrees and stuck his head brazenly back out into the daylight. He likes to oggle you squarely in the eye while he goes about making his bears.

Now he can be a pungent little blighter at the best of times but last night's effort has to be a personal best. The sort of sly fug you first notice when your nostril hairs catch ablaze.

The cat bolted from his box to escape what he had made and it was then the ladies squealed. Quite a lot of product was still attached to the little sod's back legs.

A chase worthy of the Best of Benny Hill ensued, women chasing cat up and down the stairs, him dropping moist morsels in his wake. I, heroically, stood my ground and let him come fleeing right to me.

Ensnaring him we discovered he'd even managed to get a splodge of his own poo-juice right on the top of his back. I held on to the twisty, turny animal thinking, "But cats just don't bend that way..."

My Herculean labour was to hold him pinioned while the ladies administered wet wipes and - because it was already setting in - the scissors. The hairy gent sulked superbly and scritched an artwork into my forearms resembling a later Jackson Pollock.

He then spent the rest of the evening wauing about the surprising lack of food on offer in his bowl.

I am reminded of the wisdom of my Best Man just a few weeks ago. "Your cat," he explained, "is weird."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Unstructured and class

Work ploughs ever onward and today I lunched with the Chief and the new recruit, and got all kinds of things done and agreed. I may still be running about like a headless ostrich but its getting to be in more of one direction.

Went to see Market Boy at the National last night, which ticked lots of the Dr's boxes. It's about shoes and rude naughties and Thatcher and 80s music - plus there were slow-mo fight scenes and people from Dr Who to keep me happy.

The Chief had also seen it, but said he'd left at the end of part one. "Wasn't really a musical, was it?" he said.

The politics were also a bit easy - a parody of Mrs T and her policies but one that never really seemed to say anything but "Witch!". More than 1.5 decades after she left her job, Margaret seems a bit of an easy target for that. How much better to critique the new Labour new broom brushing on at the end, who carelessly bins the market's vocabulary along with all its rich history.

Still, a fun night out.

Some reviews of my own hard-made things: Joe Ford enthuses about the Settling though he calls it "unstructured", by which I think he must mean "very carefully structured". Bah. You do not appreciate my genius.

Richard McGinlay likes The School, which demonstrates "considerable class" and wins 8 out of 10 - which I think qualifies as an A or A-. Today I am the swotty kid and expect to get bullied at play time.

That said, McGinlay looooooves Crystal of Cantus. It'd be nice to say that any good stuff is down to the script editor, but the bits he cites are all Joe. Phooey. Won't be employing him again...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bounder of adventure

“'And what does that make you! The feted artist, the dashing dandy. But by night - philanderer, sodomite and assassin!'

As a thumbnail sketch of me that wasn't half bad.

[Spoiler] aimed the revolver at my face and cocked it. 'And so... farewell...'”

Mark Gatiss, The Vesuvius Club, p. 238.

Knocked through this leisuredly in the last couple of days. Lucifer Box is a caddish, Edwardian portraitist and secret agent with rather beautiful hands. Having deftly seen off an anarchist for his country, he’s set investigating the death of a colleague who may have stumbled on something sinister in the proximity of Naples...

As you'd expect from one of the The League of Gentlemen this is a frothy adventure full of monstrous invention. Characters have names like Tom Bowler (ha ha!), Bella Pok (ho ho!) and Cretaceous Unmann, and there's some horrifying punnery - at the prospect of sharing a bike ride, Lucifer admits he’s never been a “fan de cycle”.

It's witty, yes, but rather than a comic novel it's a ghoulish genre piece with a wry narrator. Box is a callous rogue who'll neatly undercut the tension with a well-placed, savage bon-mot.

As a genre novel, it's very generic - reminding me variously of: Austin Powers; Devlin Waugh; the Avengers; Flashman; Jason King; that Steve Coogan Hammer-horror spoof; Wodehouse's Psmith; and even the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town. Oh, and lashings and lashing of Bond. The villain of course has a secret base inside a volcano.

This is not necessarily a criticism – it’s a comfy read, cosy because its stylings are so familiar. Yet it's still full of surprises.

Like the recent Rupert-Everett-as-Holmes (with Sherlie discussing Freud with Watson's emancipated bit of skirt), being this side of the Empress Victoria means it all feels so zestfully modern.

(Holmes is suffused with modernity, the canon chock full of the latest gadgets and theories – finger printing, psychology, photography, bicycles, telegraphy and high-speed trains. There's also one about genetic experiments (that results in the concoction of monkey serum, admittedly). Sherlock could not have achieved his prowess in any earlier age.)

References to Wilde and Beardsley (as well as King Edward) place Box's sexual dalliances in context. It's all a lot ruder than I’d expected, though the frequent lubricities are never gone into.

It’s never more explicit than any James Bond, but Box’s candid disclosures about the broad sweep of his sex life are what really sets this apart from its generic stablemates. There's something thrillingly seditious about Bond as a bit of a nancy...

The belle epoch stylings extend to the physical book – Ian Bass’s lovely line drawings owe something to Beardsley without being entirely pastiche. The dust jacket also appears worn and frayed, as if a much beloved second-hand copy. Really nice touch that.

Speaking of the high arts, the July 2006 issue of the glossy British Art Journal (£10.50 from your usual supplier of lavishment) includes the first published material on old Greek stuff as written by the elegant Dr. We shall sup fine wine.