Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Mind how you go

I usually avoid mimetic blogging, but this one seems right for today. Neil Gaiman, who has something of the darkest night about him anyway, warns writers to beware of death:Oddly enough, I’ve been writing about intellectual property only this very morning. (Amongst other topics; at half midnight I was still busily scribbling my way through education, thanks to the haste of the old folks.)

The Patent Office explains the different kinds of intellectual property – chiefly content, design, the technical aspects and distinguishing features – and says these can be owned, controlled and protected just like any kind of physical property.

“A-ha!” says my skim-reading teenager self. “But we all know that property is theft!” And I’m aware that various folk have sizeable concerns about IP and the way it’s protected.

The older, more mercenary and interest-declaring me can see a definite difference between abstract whimsies and chunks of land. The arbitrary allocation of territory based on various bits of bullying in the past might well be interpreted as social thievery. But if something I think up starts spilling out cash, it’s only fair I’ve a share in the profits.

It’s the same argument, I guess, about the huge sums a few footballers get paid. There’s a lot of money in football, what with lucrative telly deals. I’d rather it went to the people actually kicking the ball than to the chaps who draw up the contracts.

It’s important, too, that it’s only a few of the footballers who make thousands from every appearance. Very few hacks make a living from the things they dream up, too. And royalties are a way of justifying their – my – investment.

(I’m also acutely aware that most of what I’ve published belongs in some part to other people. This is because what are charitably called “shared universes” (and less charitably, “merchandise franchises”) have so far been the only ones not entirely to reject me. Bastards. I’m going to be a star.)

There’s a flimsy, meritocratic belief that if only we create something with the right vim, then to us will be due all the glory. Write a critical mass of the stuff over long enough, and you’ll start seeing a meaningful return. Even if it’s not in your lifetime, your kids (or friends or cats or cows) can still benefit from your efforts.

Which is probably obvious to everyone anyway, but only just crystallised for me. I am not very bright… but I shall be sorting out a will. If I should meet with an accident in the next couple of weeks, it’s because the Dr (or the cat) wants to own the rude play with girls kissing.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Naughty mooses

We shall refer to him by the codename "Moose" to protect his identity. This morning he asked if I'd yet read a synopsis thing he mailed at me last week.

I had to admit I had not, what with life being a bit manic recently and all the strange, angry talk when I'm sleeping. (But works have been done: my tax return is in and I've done all I can with the Daleks. Scripts are copied and posted, copies of things sent out to people, and I've kept up with floods and a small catastrophe between two of my favourite people, and even thought fondly of two scripts that are started.)

So in between rounds of the Education and Inspections Bill, I've been able to manage a gander. Codename Moose's story is about a disfunctional extended family er, playing naughty bunnies with each other.

Imagine my surprise on discovering that it features the identical twins of jokes to be found within "The Summer of Love" (which is, I hear, reaching subscribers right now). That play is also about a disfunctional extended family er, playing naughty bunnies with each other.

Perhaps, as the Dr has observed before, Codename Moose and I in many ways have the same mind. Or perhaps, when I sent him the script of my tastefully discreet play, he went and copied the answers.

No, Codename Moose! Bad Codename Moose!

Friday, October 27, 2006

The web of fear

Am still running to catch up with last week’s escape, with works clamouring at the door like a monster. Real life has not made this a little bit easier, but we shall not go into that now…

Nimbos leant me Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. (It used to be by “Stephen Bury”, but Stephenson is so big and famous these days they now use his real name.)

It’s the last of Stephenson books I had left to read – not including his non-fiction nor the one even he says doesn’t count:
The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.”

Neal Stephenson.

Written in the late 90s and set during Gulf War One, Cobweb is about shenanigans in an Iowa university that might be linked to Saddam Hussein’s threat to use chemical weapons. A red-neck cop and a Mormon CIA agent both struggle, despite the best cobwebbing efforts of the procedural system, to figure out exactly what it is going on. And not to get killed in the process.

Like “Bury”’s Interface (a much better book, I think) it’s brutal and surprising and intricate, with a lot of political kudos. There’s real passion in how the system snafus the best efforts of good people to somehow get things right – big issues trashed by little politics.

There’s a nice bit late-on where the cynical, weary CIA man wonders if his niece is right, and the war’s about nothing but oil. We’ve seen him out-play the players and get his fingers in all pies, but even he doesn’t know.

Stephenson’s books are festooned with great and unusual characters living strange yet believable lives. He’s keen on exacting detail, so his worlds are built solidly from paper-clips up. And often there’s a great warmth and vitality to geeky underdogs.

It’s odd to read now – the plot links Iraq to a more general US foreign policy, the real enemy being Iran. It also includes a threat to crash a plan into a US city and talk of Saddam’s many WMDs.

The army are warned about the effects of anthrax and Clostridium botulinum, and it occurs to me now that today’s cosmetic-use Botox may be linked to the research done when it threatened our soldiers. Fashion taking its cues from mass slaughter…

It’s also odd that the book’s two protagonists never meet (though one leaves a note for the other). I suppose that sets them up to be played in any film by De Niro and Pacino – I wonder which of those would play Betsy?

Like other Stephenson books, the plot builds and builds to a disappointing last splurge, in this case an action sequence which felt thieved from something else. Clyde seems suddenly to be written for Steven Segal, unkillable and doing the job of a whole army.

So recommended, but try Interface and Diamond Age first.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tea radicals

There was an advert on the Tube on the way into work today which says how drinking tea can help the conquest of free radicals.

Free radicals sound a bit dangerous, like a hardened gang of revolutionarry poets. There's a joke to this effect in "Never Say Never Again", when Bond is sent to a health farm to eradicate them. It would have been a very different film if only he'd drunk some tea.

This also made me remember a learned and pina-colada-fueled discussion on Saturday, which happened to mention biscuits. I remember suggesting you could serve Garibaldis and Bourbons all on the same plate, and see if they started fighting.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Individuals and their families

Back home and all sorts of thoughts to catch up on. As well as roofing and nice things to eat, O. treated me to three movies – two of which I’d not seen before.

The Incredibles is great fun, though I was a bit spooked by how much its abolition-of-superheroism stuff reminded me of Watchmen. But it left me with all kinds of niggle.

Mr and Mrs Incredible live a tawdry suburban life and have put weight on in all the wrong places since the days when saving the world was still legal. And then a mad villain comes up with a plot which requires not just their combined wits to foil it. They also need to bring along their kids…

Slightly weirded out by the ending. The kids get to be heroes, and then immediately both consign themselves to mediocrity – not trying too hard against other children for fear of standing out and forgoing Goth for an Alice band. And this when the big lesson is hey, it’s okay to be different.

The clash of the amazing with the deadeningly ordinary does not sit entirely on the same seat. For all the family is full of kooky powers, it’s still very nuclear – a dull ideal like in an advert for gravy.

It seems it’s okay to be an individual so long as nobody else notices. In some ways it feels as if the kids’ extraordinariness is just an awkward phase they’re going through.

And though Mr I’s best mate is Samuel L Jackson, the Black-Ice Man appears only briefly and smacks a little of tokenism. This kind of thing has been better and more deeply handled – I thought especially of Tom Strong.

Then on to the Godfather Part 1, which was nothing like the patchwork of clips I’ve previously been exposed to. Long and slow and engrossing, I particularly liked the sequence of Pacino in Sicily, where we see where the five families came from and how their gangsterism came about.

Al Pacino brings a girl to his sister’s wedding and tries not to reveal too much about the family. People come to see Pacino’s dad to show respect and ask for favours. And the family teases Pacino for being above their mucky stuff. But when dad gets the disrespectful treatment and is shot while out buying veg, Al decides he’s gonna get his hands dirty…

Corleone’s insistence that family comes before any thought of morality reminded me of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, declaring that there bain’t be no such wossname as society.

Her comments have been taken to mean an everyone-for-themselves kind of attitude, though she’s actually talking about how we all have social obligations to one another.

A decade before Mrs T became prime minister, Scorcese shows exactly why it’s no good just looking out for your own. The vicious greedy war that follows is a plague on everyone’s houses.

Brosnan in SpaceAnd then Mars Attacks!, which I now realise is a great lodestone to my scribbling.

It’s not just the funny and alien babble which I’ve pilfered as my own. Griffiths in the Time Travellers is clearly meant to be played by Pierce Brosnan.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fiddler on the roof

--- ETA: Pictures of the roof now available at Flickr. ---

Dear Dr,

The roof we madeYesterday and today you would have been much excited to see my manliness, putting a roof together for a six-car garage. This involved lots of climbing up and down from shaky beams in the manner of a comedy monkey, and hammering and cursing and sweat.

But we are almost there - just another 10 slats or so and the whole canopy will be covered. Which is extremely satisfying.

You'd be very impressed by how much things have come on since last time we were here. Have been trying to get O. to take photos.

We have also been for some nice meals. On Sunday night, that place we had birthday tea in last time we were here, was so bustling - even at an un-Continental half seven - that we had to sit in the corner and wait with only a morsel of salty bread to sustain us.

After tea, we had cat-play and an open fire and one or three whiskies, and I went to bed a bit corpsish about eleven p.m. Must have been tired as I slept right through a very heavy delivery first thing. The pipes need connecting up - which is really quite a job - but O. will soon enough have central heating. Blimey.

Woke about eleven a.m. to bright and kind sunshine, and wrote seven pages of script I am happy with (and a few more I am not) before starting my roof duties.

Tried to blog last night but the connection died, and we were due for dinner at a nice couple's in a town a little up the road. Lovely food and natter, and a bath-weight of red wine. Can't have left much before midnight.

Today has mostly been roofing, though we did break off to go have a nice lunch. The small, cavern-like restaurant looked quite smart, so it was especially pleasing to wander in covered in sawdust and scritches.

We carried on with roofing in the afternoon, but the air-gun for shooting nails gave up the ghost and manual nailing was just not the same. O. had a good idea about going looking for figs, so we ventured down the road (merely 60 degrees of slope for about two hundred metres), where we found the figs all long-taken.

Staggered back up to the house and I suspect my knees are going to make a fuss about all this tomorrow. In fact, not sure if I have caught the autumnal sun or am just one huge bruise all over.

Am just waiting for himself to finish in the shower and then we are out for more noshing. You would like little Enzo, who is about the size Shaggy was when we got him, and more like a lemur than a cat. He likes bitey games, but he's not developed his claws enough to hang from your forearm. He is earning his keep though - he's really rather a good mouser. And he is sitting on my lap as I type this.

So, anyway. Things are good and I am being worked hard. And notice you are not here.

Lots of love,


Sunday, October 15, 2006

He married him

I am in Italy and there is sunshine, plus O.'s estate is much different from last time. The Dr is delighted at my gaping absence as she can melt in peace at tonight's Jane Eyre finale.

Would feel a bit brighter if I hadn't been up at five this morning. And if I'd not gone to bed at one last night. But Falldog was getting hitched and we got to see all sorts of chums we've not seen in ages.

That Paul Cornell was looking very dapper - and again apologised profusedly for coming dressed like a farmhand to ours. Glitterforbrains advised me on dancing ("Don't try so hard, love,") and I got to ask Gary Russell, "How in heck did you manage?"

The groom and groom made some mention that theirs was "not really a wedding". But of course it is. It has to be.

Because of who it annoys when it is.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A massive contrivance

The Institute of Education was jam-packed last night for Stewart Lee’s tussle with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie.

We’ve been to a few of these Blackwells events now, and this was certainly the busiest, and with the best quality of audience questioning, too. This one was co-organised with ComICA, and (he googled) Chez Chrissie has some nice photos of it.

And all for a book that’s not published until 1 January 2008. I’ve not read it either...

“Lost Girls” is, if you have been living under some rocks, a three-volume comic book about three women meeting in a hotel on the eve of the first world war. And, er, then they lez up.

To make things more literary, the three women are Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan. The latter is still (depending who you hear it from) in copyright until the end of next year, which is why the book’s not yet been published in the UK and Europe.

Lee began by asking how many of the 1,000-strong (I’m guessing) audience had been able to get hold of a copy: about a fifth (I’m guessing). So we knocked through a sequence of pages, blown up on a whopping great projecto-laptop, with Alan and Melinda giving notes.

It has been a labour of love – both because Alan and Melinda are not just partners creatively and because it’s taken them 17 years to finish the thing. They spoke of wanting to produce a “benign” pornography, something that would appeal to both sexes. Or, Moore pointing out that porn for boys is piss-easy, a pornography of appeal to the ladies.

This was something that came out of the questions. Moore admitted he’d followed feminist arguments – both for and against porn – avidly, and found the debate rational and intelligent (as opposed to religious arguments against porn, based on “God doesn’t like the smutty stuff”). Angela Carter of course got a mention.

Gebbie argued she’d be much less bothered by porn if it wasn’t so industrial and soulless, photographed in tatty-looking rooms on a bed that’s been dragged from an alley. That did not, she said, make her feel like a goddess…

Pornography – the authors made no bones about that being what they’ve made – is a pejorative term. So they have attempted to do for this gutter genre what Moore did for another low form. Just as with superheroes, he’s subverted the derivative and derided, and made it all relevant and clever.

I’d argue that he’s done this with comics more generally. The Dr (who impressed me greatly on our first meeting by speaking knowledgeably of V for Vendetta) and I have read a lot of comics over the years, but we are not actually comics fans. The good stuff comes rare and occasionally, an exception to the tedious rule.

A colleague was telling me last week about his own experience working on a comic. The only letters they got were from those wanting to draw comics, with a small minority who asked about writing them. His conclusion – and he admits to not seeing the appeal – was that people want to make comics more than they want to read them.

Whatever the truth of that, Moore is a rare exception to my general dissatisfaction with comics.

I think this may even be dissatisfaction with most fantasy (and I’d include sci-fi in that bracket quite often), which tends to be about “escape”, so avoids reality when it can. Moore confronts the problematic in his fancies. He doesn’t just name-check politicians and political movements, he deals with the issues involved. V For Vendetta, for example, doesn’t need to include the word “Thatcher” to deal with (then) contemporary policy and its affects.

That’s the key thing – not the names that are being dropped but the affects that throwing these influences together can have.

Compare that to serious-minded Star Trek when it mentions the IRA, or when they realise that their precious warp drive is killing everyone on some planet. Topical and difficult as these things might be, they’re dealt with so glibly they hardly even register. Moore is all about affect, about wanting to touch the sides.

I think that’s important when considering how Lost Girls (which I’ve admittedly not read) uses its source works. Moore does not just name-check a few Victorian writers and artists whose works he wants to evoke. The various kinds of pastiche challenge the subtext of the originals, playing with their meaning and changing their effect.

Moore feels no need to explain the myriad allusions as he once might have – Google, he’s sure, will be more than adequate. He’s also unrepentant about how Lost Girls looks for the rude bits in children’s stories and brings them to the fore. Better to acknowledge our weird, sexy thoughts than to lock them away as too awful.

He was asked how he thought the original authors would have taken his revisionism – especially given Moore’s own lack of delight with adaptations of his own work. He argued he was not knocking out something derivative that claimed to be in any way the same thing. He’d made something new, something inspired by the original and which could not knock the original from its august and iconic pedestal.

But of course Barrie would probably hate it.

There was something more revealing earlier on, when he described Sigmund Freud – obviously a big influence on his reinterpretations – as a “coked-up kiddie fiddler”, with an apology to any Freudian relatives who might still be alive.

I thought it was interesting that he made a distinction between the sensibilities of the currently living and the long and now-mythic dead, the latter having lost their reality to the soup of history, so fair game to be played with.

(That’s my interpretation, not something Moore himself said…)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Preferring not to

In rain-lush Winchester this afternoon to see my Mum, whose birthday it is. We'd talked about going to see a matinee of the Queen, but got to talking more generally and so couldn't really be bothered. Talked films and things with the wee brother (who could also show some clips), and marriage and inheritance with the elder folk.

By something of coincidence after yesterday's post, my Dad is about to go visit Dresden...

The Dr had asked me to collect some of my 19th century novels for something a bit gothic she's working on. So on the train home I reread Melville's "Bartleby".

It's told by the master of a law office with chambers at some number on Wall Street. We hear of the three amusingly grotesque copyists under his employ: "Turkey", who is quiet by morning by pugnacious after his presumably boozy lunches; "Nipper" who's the opposite and quietens down in the p.m.; and "Ginger nut", the 12 year-old runner nicknamed after the cakes he's sent out for.

They're an odd and unlikely bunch, amusingly Dickensian and bit sloppy in their works. You feel the narrator is a little too accommodating of their whims. And then along comes Bartleby.

He's immaculate in demeanour and his copying is exemplary. But every now and then he'll respond to some minor request with, "I'd prefer not to." And the narrator is completely unable to say, "Like bollocks!" or "You're fired!"

And then it turns out Bartleby doesn't go home and spends his whole life in the office, and as the narrator investigates further it turns out the scrivener doesn't have much of a life anyway...
"So true it is, and so terrible, too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succour, common sense bids the soul be rid of it."

Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street.

For all it now reads as a period piece, it's also suffused with modernity. Sherlock Holmes is "modern" because he embraces the new - bicycles and railway trains and fingerprints and science. But this is modern because it's caught up in the loss of old systems - beginning with the narrator's change in status because of the
"sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution,"


- and ending with the abolition of the "Dead Letter Office at Washington".

It's all built up on atmospherics and the narrator's own sense of strange impotence. I think it could be told more concisely - and suspect Melville might have been paid by the word. But it's a creepy story about eroded identity and how we decline to confront the abnormal.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

jus in bello

Nearing the end of AC Grayling's "Among the Dead Cities", which comes very much recommended. He attempts - as objectively and rationally as possible - to examine the case for the carpet bombing of Germany and Japan by the Allies in World War Two.

Do the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima - to name but two notable cases - qualify as war crimes?

I've mentioned to a few people that this is what I've been reading, and none of them have yet come up with an argument or point of view not covered in the book, either for or against.

The arguments are expertly articulated and balanced against one another, and we hear not just from contemporary sources who bombed and were bombed themselves, but from legal documents, commentators on war like Grotius and Sun Tzu, and any number of wise persons.

It is a comprehensive and compelling case, and Grayling argues that whatever the barbarities of the Nazi and Japanese regimes, the indiscriminate and relentless programme of destruction was not necessary, was not proportionate and was not nearly as effective as it's proponents claimed.

A lesser wrong than that committed by the enemy is still a wrong. And what's more - as Grayling also shows - these lesser wrongs only complicate the aftermath of any victory. Which is not surprising, because if the victors cannot abide by the rule of law and human decency, why should anybody else?

Bombing people "back into the Stone Age" does not endear them to kindness and civility. I am reminded of Bruce Robinon speaking of his script for the Killing Fields:
"If I get incredibly uptight and frustrated, I get breathless because I'm asthmatic. The same chain reaction could very well happen inside a body to create a cancer: there's no other way out. The American war machine dumped eight billion - not million, billion - dollars worth of bombs on Cambodia, and that country had no protection against this and I think it turned back: 'If we can't destroy the enemy, we'll destroy ourselves.' That's virtually what happened in Cambodia: it went on a self-destruct."

Alistair Owen (ed.), "Smoking in Bed - Conversations with Bruce Robinson", p. 45.

But the most shocking thing about Grayling's book is not the accounts of what it did to people and their cities, and how it hampered the liberation of France and made things just ever more worse. It is to learn Area bombing was finally outlawed internationally in an additional protocol to the Geneva Convention - adopted only as late as 8 June 1977.

And, as you read through the list of things unequivocably banned for being such untennable savagery, to think, "But I've seen our side doing that on the news..."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Favourite with a u

Many are the things to be said of the legendary Ian J Farrington, evil overlord of the Short Trips of Dr Who. We applaud the same football team and drink the same beer...

But my spelling has never been described as sexy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Things Bernice

Had a nice time in the pub last night catching up with folk I'd not seen in aaaages. Got to pay a favour back too, but we can't yet speak of what it was to do with...

Had a nice chat with D. about Benny things generally and will see what we can do about his thoughts on special offers. He enthused gratifyingly about "Genius Loci" and how much it was a pleasure to read...

My chum Alex has written a typically Wilcockian review of "Genius Loci", as well as a pros and cons of its author. I shall take great pleasure in introducing him to Ben tomorrow...

There's also a review by Richard McGinlay at Sci-fi Online. Since the wheeze is that you don't need to know anything about Benny to enjoy it, I'm working on getting it read by other luminaries of sf. More on that soon, I hope.

McGinlay has also reviewed the first two Benny CDs of my watch - The Tartarus Gate and Timeless Passages. He seems broadly happy - though no, we hadn't even a whiff of Impossible Planet as we went into the studio.

Our next Benny episodes - "The Worst Thing in the World" and the anthology "Collected Works" - hurry into being as I type. Glad to hear people are picking up on the unrunning plots...

And still we press on. More dates to be agreed around people's availability, and the final okay to use [spoiler]. I've a last edit of my own "Summer of Love" to sign off today, and have just seen Mr Salmon's glorious art for "Oracle of Delphi". He asks what sort of street violence I want for the next one.

But these things will have to wait. Off as soon as I have my shoes on to a very exciting meeting. And no, of course I'm not telling...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

“I make it better”

Herculean tasks yesterday meant I didn’t trot out similar thoughts as Alex on the not-very-amazing Mrs Pritchard.

I like the idea of an unlikely political candidate getting past the hurdles by just being a bit nice, and am keen on utopia generally. But, as Alex says, Mrs Pritchard is not actually very nice. She’s dismissive of people around her – her husband in particular – and lacks anything new to say.

There was no attempt to engage with the sorts of concerns we have politicians for – economics, communities, health, education, the environment… She can merely repeat, again and again, that’s she better than her sorry rivals. Which is hardly better than the silly bickering staged between the other candidates.

It’s consumer politics, more about the packaging than any real difference. Note that her qualifications for being Prime Minister are how officiously she ran her supermarket, abusing the public address system to ensure that her staff all look tidy.

I can see that there’s space for the series to develop and that she’s set up for dramatic falls (her husband walking out, her daughter being naughty with someone else’s chap, etc.). One commentator on Alex’s post says Meera Syal is in it next week, and I assume she’ll be more than a token.

But that’s not enough, and the series feels terribly naïve. Alex says its gender politics are 30 years out of date, while its comedy-villain Tories are from at least a decade ago. (See also the movie version of V For Vendetta).

That said, I note Dave Balloon’s speech yesterday was modelled on riffs and slogans T. Blair came up with 10 years ago – how biting his riposte to education³ were it made in ’96.

Like the all-fur-coat Mrs Pritchard, Dave’s not big on how he’ll do anything. We don’t yet have any idea how he will sort out the NHS, but I’m guessing he won’t abolish spoils to the private sector.

It’s also interesting that his support for civil partnerships – which earned some sour looks from his crowd – is based on marriage being “something special”. That’s the argument that in 2004 I heard Tory Lords use for why civil partnerships were an abhorrence.

In all, this speech to party faithful was hailed as something new and funky and exciting (which is not, you know, very “conservative”) and not even they seemed convinced. The same old reactionary bollocks with some late-20th-century spin. In fact, “Plus ça change…” could be the motto of Dave’s “new” party.

To get back to the telly, my real dissatisfaction with Mrs Pritchard is that despite all her promises, she’s just as amorphous as the “real” politicians she finds so dispiriting herself. Defenders of the programme say it’s meant to be an “ideal” and just a bit of fun. But that’s a feeble excuse.

It really could be amazing if it dared brave the issues it raises – a popular tea-time utopia with gags that might make you think. At the moment, it’s got all the sophistication and girl-empowerment of ads which sell household cleaner and gravy on the basis of how Dad’s A Bit Rubbish.

As things are, Mrs P is only “amazing” because a few people who ought to know better tell us so. I found the fawning cameos from the BBC’s news teams really embarrassing. Where were the awkward questions about her actual policies, or her business relationship with her chief sponsor, or how her support seems entirely from white, middle-England women of a little-above middle-age? Would Paxman have been so deferent?

As it happens, we saw Robert McCrum interviewing Paxman last night about his new book, On Royalty. A staunch Republican, Paxman admitted that in researching and testing his assumptions for the book, he came to believe something new. All sorts of things to think about:

How would abolishing the monarchy make things any better? Isn’t it good to have a rank to which the ambitious can never reach? A written constitution might be a Good Thing, but who is it as gets to write it? Why is the Queen a bit scary?

Paxman was teased for being “co-opted”, but I felt there was something more profound going on to do with asking awkward questions (on which more posts to follow). Am keen to read the book as soon as the Dr can stop licking it.

It was funny how different the audience were to the recent Gaiman gig. Gaiman’s audience was geekier, freakier and more devoted to his works, while last night’s groupies seemed more respectably ordinary. Paxman is also a lot more intimidating. And yet those asking questions were much more informal and chatty with Paxman, as if they were all old mates. Guess this is ‘cos he’s on telly – and so frequently a guest in their living rooms.

Incidentally, the bloke I bought the book from recognised my name and asked if I’d written for Telos. Fraid not, they didn’t like what I sent them.

The Dr is of course appalled at my appeal to young, handsome and geeky fellas, but she gets recognised all the time for her history and educative things. Being the subject of enthusiasm can be a bit odd, and in her case it’s not just geeky blokes who approach her.

“It’s weird when they’re fanny,” she said. It took a moment to get what she meant.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Signature time

This coming Saturday I shall be at Doctor Who Day 2, alongside Adric and Alydon and Aaronovitch. It’s the first signing the latter has done in 10 years, so that’s all a bit exciting.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why bother?

Sci-fi’s a cruel addiction, unforgiving on its saps. There are those of us hooked on the good stuff while still ignoring school. But after the delicious thrill of seeing Harrison Ford snogging a Replicant or being plunged into carbon freeze, the good stuff is all soon used up.

I cannot begin to list the sci-fi I’ve hoped would not be shitty. Films, books and television shows that all promised to amaze us and then turned out a bit dim. But you keep looking. You keep hoping. You don’t let the bad shit get you down.

It was this sort of thought lolling through my brain as we dared Children of Men last night. That and the frustration of dealing with First ScotRail and rain.

Every now and then, a whisper ploughs through the bandy-legged sci-fi community with the excitement and real horror of a wolf. It dares portend that some new endeavour might well be the next good thing. And I can’t put in words the joyous relief on finding the whispers are true.

Children of Men is gripping, engaging and relevant, and manages to tick all the myriad nerd boxes while appealing to a far broader audience. The Dr was entirely caught up in it, and had to have a quiet moment afterwards.

It is – and this should not be underestimated – a film that might even impress my parents. (That it’s based on a book by PD James obviously helps. The only time I’ve got them to see something they weren’t going to anyway was when I said "Crouching Monkey, Jumping Cheesecake" was a love story by the bloke as did "Sense and Senility"… I am sly.)

It’s 2027 and the last human baby was born 18 years ago. London is miserable and surly, violence barely concealed from the street, and yet the rest of the world fares much worse. With nothing for humanity to hold out for, Theo (Clive Owen) is barely keeping it together. And then his ex-wife and mother of his long-dead child comes to find him. Her revolutionary friends need his help…

As a thriller, it’s plotty and well-paced and keeps the shocks and thrills cummynatcha. It’s a busy and hand-held movie, the violence abrupt and sudden. Characters are killed off in an instant and there’s no time to reel from the shock.

The cast are all excellent, even in brief cameo (hello there, my friend Mr Barnaby). Sir Michael Caine ensures Jasper’s the right side of annoying and Peter Mullan is dead scary as Syd. And, as he did in Serenity, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a clear-sighted and charismatic villain, with motives that make terrifying sense.

That said, I felt the conspiracy thing with him turning out to have killed [spoiler] the only wrong-footed element. It would feel much better were events unconnected, Theo leading Kee through jarring and random brutality to the faint promise of hope on the far side. This felt a bit too conveniently plotted…

But that is a very minor gripe.

To nerdily enthuse on the consummate world-building, it’s also packed to the gills with detail. Billboards for the Evening Standard digitally flick between headlines; the trains and cars are all suitably different while remaining recognisably the same; there’s an awful, brief hint as to why Caine’s wife remains silent.

The cities are restless and dirty, while the countryside seems plush and overgrown – if you’ll forgive the massed heaps of burning cow. The film taps into all sorts of current sensibilities: foot and mouth, immigration, even biologically sustainable fuels.

The Dr was a bit surprised by how much about ‘now’ it is. As if this is something revolutionary in the genre of sci-fi and not an inherent component.

Pig at BatterseaFor all it’s an unrelentingly brutal dystopia, there’s some deftly handled gags: the art collection held in Battersea Power Station looks out on an inflatable pig; and there’s a car chase in cars that won’t start. For all the depravity and despair, it’s a richly drawn and realised world.

With humanity to be extinct in a century, there’s a lot on the struggle to remain meaningfully alive. Without it ever being explicit, there’s a lot on hope versus despair. For all it underplays the messianic thing, it does leave us with several huge questions. Is the [spoiler] at the end all that has been promised, and can the new [spoiler] heal a sick world? Is Kee alone or are there others who can [spoiler]?

I suspect it's a personal thing. The Dr was bothered and teary as the credits rolled, but I was strangely elated. A good and proper sci-fi movie. There's hope for humanity yet...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Royale with cheese

The West Wing's President Bartlett has a rant about James Bond being a wuss for having his booze shaken not stirred, but I suspect this is in large part to do with him not having seen the recipe for what, for a whole evening, Bond calls a "Vesper":
"'Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?'

'Certainly, monsieur.' The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

'Gosh, that's certainly a drink,' saiod Leiter.

Bond laughed. 'When I'm... er... concentrating,' he explained, 'I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name.'"

Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, p. 51

Casino Royale is going to need quite a lot of work to make even a half decent film (I've never been persuaded that the Bond of the books is better than that chap on screen). For one thing, the main bulk of plot is over less than two-thirds in, and the remainder is Bond recovering in hospital, having nice dinners and lapsing into brutal mysoginy.

In the dour, post-war Europe of 1952, glamour and pizzazz are very hard to come by. But then the Secret Service come up with a crazy idea to ruin one of the Soviet's finest, who is playing Baccarat in a small town in France so as to win back the funds he "borrowed" from his masters and then subsequently lost. If only M can find an agent with some skill - and luck - they could really embarrass the commies.

So, 007 - given a licence to kill because he's killed two people since the end of the war - is sent out to play "nines". He's got an envelope full of money, two colleagues and a bloke from the CIA to assist him. But the baddies have gagdets and a carpet beater, and there's a final sting in the tale...

If you're more familiar with the suave and funny secret agent of the movies, the book-Bond is something of a shock. Many of the traits in this first book do appear in the films - using his own hair and some talcum powder to see if anyone's been in his room (pp. 12-13 and also the film Dr No), or introducing himself as, "Bond - James Bond" (p. 50). The women have silly names and can't help but shag him, and the villains are larger than life.

But Ian Fleming's Bond is a lot more of a bastard than even Connery or Dalton made him, and in the books he hardly ever gets the girl at the end. I was also surprised (though I'd read the book in my early teens) that in Casino Royale it's only the villains who have gadgets - an umbrella that shoots dum-dum bullets and a car that drops a blanket of spikes across the road. In the book such things are underhand cheating.

The Bond of the films is also something of a know-all on every subject except for diamonds. Book Bond has a keen eye for detail and admits his pleasure in food and drink is mostly to do with the loneliness of his job. Bless him. His perspective is coldly analytical, and by far the most effective bits of the book are when we see events and people through his eyes and with the "benefit" of his harsh understanding. When we jump to Vesper or Leiter's point of view, it's all a lot less exciting.

He's a nasty, scarred bloke who tested silencer guns for assassinations (p. 88) and admits the two people he killed to gain his Double-0 were "probably quite decent people" (p. 64). Part of the appeal - if not the charm - is this refusal to spare any punches. That's especially true of the infamous torture sequence, in which Bond spends an hour having his bollocks slapped with a carpet beater and then gets an "M' cut into the flesh of his hand. Unlike the films, this Bond bleeds pretty profusely.

The matter-of-fact prose and attention to detail reminded me in large part of The 39 Steps. Book Bond has more in common with that period piece than he does with today. But the violence is something else, vicious and unrelenting. It's this that marks it out as informed by the atrocities of World War 2.

It is odd to see Bond as a war veteran. He says he bought his Bentley "in 1933" (p. 36), at which point Fleming himself was only 25. If we assume Bond and Fleming are near contemporaries (and Bond can't really be very much younger), then 007 is just about 100 years old.

I think the great excitement about the book, though, is the thrill of such a vicious and experienced hardman getting it all a bit wrong. That's what really differentiates the Bond of the books from his big screen counterpart. He can be old and a dick and a clown and an arsehole, so long as he's never a loser.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Our friends in the North

Out first stop off was in Preston, where the Dr went to investigate the Harris Museum and I took Nimbos and K. to the Lamb and Packet, which was once something of a fixture in my life. Last time I was there was 9 years ago and I took my Mum. The town is the same only different in a bothersomely eerie way. Am a little shocked by how young the undergraduates appear, and they've also replaced with a snooker table the cosy snug where I'd wolf down roast beef in its own bowl of Yorkshire pudding.

Then on to Blackpool to spend a night with the outlaws, and we ventured out to enjoy the illuminations. At the Bispham end there was a particularly creepy group of smiley-eyed bears enjoying the swings and slides. The Dr also pointed out the Parthenon frieze on a gaudy Greek temple, but chickened out of asking in the Elgin hotel from whence they'd obtained their casts.

Next day to Lancashire where we met up with E. and C. in the Borough on Dalton Square. I had some nice local beer, but not enough to stop me getting some work done on the train up to Edinburgh.

There we met M. and Will and the Dr's old boss and supped beer in the Doric before going for big Chinese eats. Arrived in Dundee in the very small hours, and got a taxi out to M's new home. This is the most norf in Britain I've ever been, and I've only been in Scotchland the once before.

I have learnt some Doric, which as well as an Ancient Greek style is also the local dialect. "Press" means cupboard and "oxter" means "armpit", while "blaaderskite" is, broadly, bullshit.

Discovery on the Dundee watersideNimbos and I were sent away to explore the Discovery the next afternoon, which Scott captained on his first trip to the South Pole just over a century ago. The exhibition was very interesting, with Scott and Shackleton exploring together, and a good amount of detail on all they found out. Though the Discovery got caught in the ice and Scott wasn't very happy about being rescued, it was still a more successful trip than Scott's later one where he died, or Shackleton's one where his ship, Endurance, was lost. So this exhibition is more celebratory than I'd thought it would be.

Minnie the MinxThe ship itself is fun to explore - and not quite so cramped or inaccessible to the tall as other vessels I've been aboard. I bought a big book on Scott, and then we had time to go see Dundee's statues of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx (who greatly resembles the Dr) before getting the bus back to Invergowrie.

Ladies had arrived by the time we got back, and feasting and fire and much pink fizz ensued. We were still going at half two this morning.

Walking between Longforgan and InvergowrieGot up slowly today, and this afternoon went for several hours walk up to Castle Huntly and back. Basked in the wintry sunshine and the Dr may even have tanned. Were back just in time to see the repeat of the Jane Eyre opener, and I have been allowed to blog in the difficult interegnum before episode two.

Food bubbles on the hearth behind me yummily. Stuffed vine leaves have just been mentioned. And all is rather well with the world.