Sunday, January 28, 2007

To introduce the guest star

Popped round to see Nimbos last night and many shiny treats. As well as the long-awaited Heroes #12 (Eccles!), he showed off the first two episodes of Studio 60.

A long-running, live Friday day comedy TV show hits a bit of a snag. The well-respected front man turns to camera and declares it's all baloney. The network won't dare to be funny for fear of alienating sponsors or bigots, he says, and people should not bother watching.

The network panics, but the sassy new president has an outrageous idea. They admit maybe the old bloke is right, and confront this thing head on. She's offers running the programme to two writers (Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry) that they sacked years ago.

And these two coked-up, wild-eyed, fast-talking players are unable to resist.

The show is fast and funny, with the same dizzying chase around the sets and one-liners that styled The West Wing. Yet I can also see why Aaron Sorkin's new show has been seen as smug and self-indulgent.

The West Wing was about how the President struggled to see through policy, and issues that affect the whole world. Studio 60 treats with the same gravitas the politics of a comedy sketch show. It really doesn't matter as much.

They ladle on some of the issues, like a lead actress with unshakeable faith. But it's sparky and witty and richly written. It's of great interest to me as a professional writer, but surely it needs broader appeal?

Perhaps they should use their guest stars more interestingly. The woman from Desperate Housewives (and apparently, later Sting) should be seen to play against type. Like the stars in Extras, they'd be the hook for each episode, doing things we've never seen before.

Sting doesn't sing sappy songs about the environment, he insists on having fish and chips flown over from England. That kind of thing.

Though I realise what I've just pitched is a revival of Muppets Tonight. This is not a bad thing.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Scooby swears

Got talking about acceptable swearwords (again) and the origins of words like "bloke".

Scooby Doo's (or rather Shaggy's) "Zounds" is of course a contraction of the blasphemous "God's wounds". In performances of the work of that old potty-mouth Shakespeare, they don't pronounce it to rhyme with "sounds".

So go on then, what's "Zoinks" short for? Bonus points if you are funny.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Grey alerts

After a long day forging sense from the senseless yesterday, I had a chilly wait for the homeward-bound train. Freelancing for such disparate and worthy places, my brain tends to wander off anyway. Was thinking of devious forthcoming Benny things when a bored voice interrupted:
“Customers are reminded not to leave items of unattended baggage anywhere on the station concourse or on trains. Items of unattended baggage may be removed without warning and could be destroyed. If you notice items of unattended baggage at Victoria, please alert the nearest member of staff or British Transport Police.”
I’ve heard this on occasional loop forever, but this time it manages to register. Ooh, says my brain, that’s a bit careless. The same awkward phrase used three times in three sentences.

And what a mouthful it is. You need a punchy, distinct bit of imagery if you want people thinking, “IS THAT RUCKSACK A BOMB?!?”

“Bags” and “packages” are easily imagined. The word “suspect” would add some good jective.

But if you really want us to take notice, how about the one from old 2000AD?
“Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!”
I realise they don’t want to alarm anyone with something phrased too distinctly. The Evening Standard is more than enough to fill our journeys home with MAD PANIC. But still, it’s not really much of an imperative.

Perhaps sounding a bit bored and management-jargony make us heed the warning subconsciously. Like times tables, it goes in because it’s repeated and not because we have to take any notice.

In balancing the “watch out” with the “don’t start a stampede” it’s a lot like “Inspector Sands”. This openly secret code-word alerts staff when things are kicking off. “Fire!” would start everyone screaming at the prospect of being vividly barbecued. But Sands gets a mention we stay meekly where we are, at most thinking, “Oh, just get on with it.”

There was an Inspector Sands incident at Victoria earlier this week, too. I watched an entire busy platform of subterranean passengers wearily roll their eyes.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Court out

Hello from amid a giddy whirlwind of activity. A festive bout of man-flu suggests that perhaps I should have some sleep, while deadlines and commitments wave cheerily from my peripheral vision.

Got a couple of things I really need finished by this time next week. Especially because it looks like I shall be spending the rest of the year marking competition entries. Oh lor.

Had a nice time in the pub last night, hearing Paul Cornell rabbit on about life. Met some people I've not seen in ages and made several splendid new chums. Judging from the Chiswick-addled scrawl I've just found in my notebook, I've also got press-ganged into joining the British Science Fiction Association.

Declined the offer of clubbing and pottered off for the last train home. Where an interesting letter awaited me. A court summons due to unpaid council tax on somewhere I don't live.

Last night my thoughts were, "You could have written to me before it got this far." This morning it's a slightly less cheery, "Why are you even writing to me at all?"

Ho hum. More of life's litter tray to be double-bagged.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Mike and the mechanics

Am re-watching Michael Palin’s adventure Round the World in 80 Days. It’s, ahem, research for a current writing project, which means seeing things I never before thought of about how these things get made.

Like Verne’s Phileas Fogg 116 years before him (though not actually in real life), Michael has to get round the globe in just 11.4 weeks or forfeit £20. He’s not allowed to travel by plane, and he’s got to make something watchable as telly in the process.

It’s a bit strange to realise he’s now been doing these travelogues 20 years. And it’s also odd to see him not yet the established traveller, taking tips from Alan Whicker on how the job is done.

(Whicker’s advice: only ever speak English, and make sure you’re always comfortable.)

The authoritative baton of BBC adventurer is passed on to the uncertain Palin. I’m not sure whether it’s his doing or just a fact of the times that what follows is a completely different style of documentary. Where telly travel used to be classy and exotic, now it’s a celebration of the primitive and “real”.

We see the hardships and misunderstandings and – famously – the diarrhoea. Crucially, it’s at its best as telly when things are most going up tits.

It’s part of the special character of the piece that Michael must also plot his own course, struggling to find transport that will keep him on schedule. Spurning air travel means how he gets there is as much of the story as what he sees along the way.

The world in 1988 seems a very alien place, at once unsophisticated and innocent. Communications are by chunky, squawky phones and its tapes of Bruce Springsteen on a fat old Walkman that show Michael to be the technophile Westerner. There’s a passing reference to war in Iraq, and they don’t even yet mean Gulf War One.

Palin offers an insightful and generous perspective on the world and we’re with him every step of the way. But the makers seem uncertain of him on this first venture. There’s some oddly judged gags worked into the editing. A sound effect added to the scenes in Venice suggest he’s fallen off the quayside just out of shot.

It’s not needed – there’s plenty of laughs from Palin’s onscreen antics, the unfolding story and all the odd things they really see. The Dr was delighted to see her precious Venetian lions being used by a tramp for a bed.

As I said, a current bit of work means I’m all eagle-eyed for detail about the mechanics of how it got filmed.

For example, at Bombay Michael leaves a dhow (though only old colonials call these little boats that). He’s taken off in a little launch, and we watch him from the dhow he’s just left.

What happened to the cameraman who shot that sequence? Presumably he got a later launch and had to catch up. Or did Michael’s launch come back for him, after they’d filmed that bit?

Often the camera is ahead of Michael. We’re watching from across a busy office as Michael first steps inside. Did they all negotiate to set up the camera, then get Michael to duck back outside the door, telling the workers to pretend they’ve not seen him before?

When buying train tickets in Bombay, we see Michael struggling to find the right queue, and then getting to the window to buy his single ticket. This is a conceit because we already know he’s travelling with his own "Passpartout" – a cameraman, a soundman and their director.

What’s more, we watch him buy his ticket from the other side of the ticket kiosk, looking over the shoulder of the seller and at Michael’s face peering in at the plexiglass.

Presumably the filmmakers have negotiated to get inside the ticket office, and so they must have explained what they were up to, where they were going and sorted out tickets for the four of them.

Because of that trickery, you start questioning other things. They say they’ve not got reservations on the train they want, but are merely on a waiting list. And Michael later tells us that someone’s claimed his seat.

But there’s no footage to corroborate any of that, and when we do get to see him, he’s rather comfy in first class.

It's all a tissue of lies!

Yes, of course I can see how it makes for a more engaging picture. But I’d kind of assumed that documentaries were about veracity. In fiction, you can’t get away with such cheats in your storytelling.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Like Chinese Girls in YOLT

Full of cold and feeling stupid, so here’s one I started elsewhere.

“Full of challenging ideas you want to argue with,” is how Joan Bakewell described “Straw Dogs”, which J. leant me over the festive period.

John Gray’s book collects together various writings about mankind, our position on the planet and our future, and it’s not exactly comfort reading. Gray pulls down authority after authority, concluding that we’re frankly a bit rubbish.

He talks, for example, about how machines and computers are obviating humans in industry, so that,
“we are approaching a time when ... almost all humans work to amuse other humans.”

He continues:
“Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity. It is to keep boredom at bay. Where affluence is the rule the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic needs.

What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. The spectre that haunts it is glut – not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled. New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities.”
Ibid., p. 163.

(The Granta website also lets you read the chapter, “Science versus humanism”.)

I suspect the book is meant to be contentious and provocative, especially given its habit of generalising that “Everyone thought…” or “Christians are…”. Some of it certainly made me cross (though not as mouth-foamy as it got Terry Eagleton in the Guardian).

I found myself often disagreeing with Gray, but in doing so articulating ideas I’d not been conscious of believing. Humans are different from animals because of the footprint we leave behind us. As Dr Bronowski says in the opening episode of “The Ascent of Man”, other species leave behind fossils of themselves, we leave behind things we have made.

That doesn’t make us better, though. Just different. And with a moral imperative to do better. That we know ourselves to be the most aggressively destructive species on the planet is really not enough.

It also raises the old chestnut that atheism and science are to blame for Nazism and the Holocaust – which I shall address another time, when I’m not feeling so bleurgh.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Late as ever, but...

Alerted by m’colleague Paul Cornell, I have paid my 79p to iTunes and now own Neil Hannon singing Murray Gold’s “Love Don’t Roam”. It’s the song from the disco in the recent Droo Christmas special, and it’s just possible that if more people can say “Yes Paul” it will be in the Top 40 on Sunday.

The wheeze is that Droo fans might influence the UK pop chart what with its new rules about downloads. Must admit I am curious to see it happen, and merely for the same price as a litre of milk and not quite a loaf of nice bread.

Next week will probably be the turn of Hannon and Gold’s “Song for 10” from the Christmas one before, which I think I prefer anyway.

And after that perhaps m’colleagues’ entirely extraordinary “Children of Tomorrow”, as featured in Saturday’s “The Horror of Glam Rock” (hear it on BBC7’s listen again service until Saturday). It’s by Tim Sutton and Barnaby Edwards, belted out by Stephen Gately and Clare Buckfield, and it’s one of the maddest and most amazing noises ever to flood my head.

The same story's glam version of the Droo theme tune (by Ron Grainer and originally arranged by Delia Derbyshire, since I’m doing credits) is pretty spanking too.

Monday, January 15, 2007

For tortoises

It has all been a bit hectic recently, with people's birthdays amid a leviathan of work. The best mate, whose birthday it was on Saturday, tells me I look pretty crappy and so I've planned a morning off. He also bought me my very own spongmonkey, which was swiftly claimed by the cat.

Have a story to finish and a script to edit, two websites to rebuild and a proposal to make sexy, a new encyclopedic gig and some additional need from the regular employment.

In the meantime, I've had a novel rejected after providing extended synopses (though my friend S. has been commissioned, so hooray), and I've agreed some decisions that will radically change my working life in a few months' time. There might be some sort of announcement round then, so I shall keep it now.

And then there's two projects that I'm keen to make happen though they both face impossible odds. They are begun and I merely await the lashing of the Fates.

It would help if I could get this all done by the end of January as then I've got the new writing competition to co-mark. 282 x 2,500 words in already. Will give up sleeping for Lent.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Getting the builders in

Being a Big Boss, you often get to tell at your legions to Jump.

"How high?" they will say. Or more often, "How many words, by when and what is the money?"

One thing I've tried to do with Benny is give clever authors a bit of a framework in which they can invent and build. On the Benny books, this has basically meant coming up with a frame that requires no linking material on my part. I come up with the rough sort of wheeze and the authors go off and do the hard bit.

Which is like being told "Jump" and going off to construct a complex network of interlacing trampolines. And then watching in horror as I tear through the springy mesh with my unflinching, unforgiving red pen.

Two such eager swots are Nick Wallace and Phil Purser-Hallard, who really went overboard in contriving Collected Works. And all to it's benefit, of course.

Phil has just posted the Quire background material he and Nick worked our between them. Surprisingly, it's chock-full of them spoilers.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pass the sprouts

Brussel sproutsHave been comparing the post-Christmas tummy with m’learned colleagues, as well as sharing methods for working it all off.

One chum restricts himself to 10 units of booze this month, another has joined a gym. I have cut down my nights out significantly and will be gyming again once some work deadlines are seen off. No, Dr, honestly.

Golly I didn’t half eat well over the festive season. Some people say we miss the true meaning of Christmas these days, usually so as to remind us about that Jesus fella who was born on 25 December 0000 in a snow-strewn stable in Bethlehem to a blonde and blue-eyed mum while robins and holly looked on. Oh, hang on…

Christmas is, of course, a pagan festival co-opted by the Christians – who have a thing for nicking parties. Even Santa Claus as we know him today owes more to anglo-germanic traditions of the green man than he does to the real St. Nicholas of Myra. We celebrate with trees, the threat of punishment to naughty children and enchantment from mistletoe.

In more primitive times, it was good to have a knees-up around the shortest day of the year, when the world seemed at its bleakest. I wonder if Celtic man would follow the feasting with a vow to lose his new porkage, making a virtue of the lack of thrilling food for the remainder of the winter.

Anyway. This made me think about the Prime Minister’s recent interview with Sky News, where he,
“admitted he would be reluctant to pressure people to stop taking overseas holidays – or indeed to stop flying himself. He explained:

‘I personally think these things are a bit impractical to expect people to do. I think that what we need to do is to look at how you make air travel more energy efficient, how you develop the fuels that will allow us to burn less energy and emit less.’”

Number 10: “Tackling climate change begins at home” – PM, 9 January 2007.

This answer was described as “muddle-headed” by Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (oddly not capitalised in the BBC News account), and came up again at the Prime Minister’s press briefing:

“Put to him that the Prime Minister therefore believed that the threat of global warming [...] could be dealt with without consumers really affecting their lifestyles, the PMOS [said that we had to] find more effective, energy efficient ways of doing what we do. Hence the investments that were already being made in energy efficient measures and hence our overall energy review, and the emphasis placed on both renewable and cleaner forms of energy such as nuclear. What should not be done was to address climate change by harming the world economy.”

Number 10: Morning press briefing from 9 January 2007.

The argument seems to be that we can’t expect people to give up their fun stuff for the sake of not breaking the weather. And anyway, Science has come up with some pretty neat tricks which will sort things out.

This thinking depends on two very wrong assumptions:
  • That Science will continue to come up with innovations as and when they’re needed
  • That the stuff Science comes up with can be implemented almost immediately
But worse, it assumes that we need not do anything to curb our rapacious behaviour because the boffins are on the case. We must not stop consuming.

People are not merely consumers, as some would have us believe. A “consumer” is just a mouth, and to concentrate on just the part of the process implies, wrongly, that there’s no consequence to stuffing our faces.

The mouth is just the start of the process, which leads through digestion to excretion. I guess in this model digestion could be seen as “value” – measured by the ratio of what it is being eaten to the benefit to the body doing the eating. As a consequence of that equation, the less that’s pooed out the other end the better. It is more elegant that way.

A rich and varied diet means lots of fibre and roughage to help clear out the system, because just eating cakes and sweets and Breakfast 3s from the local greasy spoon ends up clogging up the system until it drops down dead. This ends the consuming process once and for all: a bad thing.

That’s not to say we must never eat cakes, but there needs to be some balance. Ideally, we feast only sparingly, and match the excesses with leaner periods. Say, for example, following Christmas with a diet and the gym.

Likewise, when our lifestyles affect the weather, we do damage to ourselves. If the floods and thunderstorms don’t kill us, they at least damage the economy because of the excessive insurance claims, breaks in supply chains and general ensuring misery. The evidence seems to suggest that we either curb our eating habits voluntarily, or Nature (aka cause and effect) will have to do it for us.

TB’s view of consumption (dyswidt?) seems to be that people can’t be expected to mend their ways. But he’s also campaigning against obesity, and Government policy has targeted drink, drink-driving and smoking with considerable success. So sorry, but that’s bollocks.

There’s an argument that we cannot be forced or coerced into behaving less like walking cancer. But I also know a fair few smokers who are glad of the forthcoming English ban on smoking because it gives them the last resolve to quit. They knew they ought to, they had even given it a go, but the new rules make it easier by removing the temptation.

This is how I feel about air travel – which I haven’t half exploited in the last couple of years. There’s offsetting programmes, and the justification that it’s for work to some degree, but it would a lot easier if the flights weren’t quite so doable, and more of luxury.

Back in the mists of time when this post began, I said I’d stuffed too much recently. This gorging included a sizeable volume of Brussel sprouts, which are rather yummy. (They’re best when they’re cooked to not-too-sulphurous softness, and you can also serve them with bacon. Mmm.)

Though I like them a great deal, they don’t half carry a penalty. The Dr and I have held wars of attrition, attempting to asphyxiate one another. Which is why I’m only allowed sprouts in the festive season. It would be too dangerous any more often.

To finally get to the point, flights are like sprouts. Our actions have consequences, and you ignore the ensuing noxious emissions at your peril.

Monday, January 08, 2007

One man can make a difference

Blimey, this is my 400th post.

The Mission Song is another corker from John le Carre – not exactly a huge departure from his previous work, but a thrilling and intelligent read.

Salvo is a Congolese-born translator of various African languages, living in England and enjoying life – and a wife – at the top. She’s a high-flying journalist, white of the old stock, and gives him everything materially and socially British he could ever hope for.

No sooner does Salvo start cheating on his Mrs than he’s invited to a top secret meeting out in the North Sea. The future of his own country is being decided and they need someone who speaks the right language… But Salvo, who has begun to question the virtues of his English luxury, isn’t sure that what’s on the table is what is best for Goma.
"A good man knows when to sacrifice himself, Brother Michael liked to say. A bad man survives but loses his soul."

John le Carre, The Mission Song, p. 303.

Like a lot of le Carre, the book is at its best pitting one man against the whole system of spies and files and heavies. Salvo’s a richly drawn character with a distinctive narrating voice (and Le Carre’s first black protagonist, or at least the first I’ve got to). He speaks with the precision and good vocabulary of someone to whom English is a second language – and much is made of his never quite being fully assimilated.

The rest of the very varied cast is well observed and often funny, Le Carre’s stuff has always worked well in adaptation because he always gives good character actors something to get hold of. Often they leap off the page like Dickens – though that does tend to make his baddies rather comic-book villainous, with nothing to redeem them but their immaculate table manners.

The book is about the rape of Africa’s resources under the cover of humanitarian work. As such, it’s a highly emotive story with plenty to play for. Like The Constant Gardener (which it reminded me of a lot), the officials aren’t too worried about the deaths of a few thousand natives if help sustain the profits.

It paints a pretty nasty picture of institutional abuse abroad, but is also highly critical of the attitude of not only UK foreign policy but of the people of Britain too. Racism is monotonously widespread – Salvo treats it as a given and is not proved otherwise – and much is made of how unnewsworthy Africa’s troubles are.

But le Carre is also good at showing how what happens over there directly impacts on us, and why the fate of Africa is so close to British interests.
"Why else does coltan have place of honour in my head? Go back to Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 2000. Play Station 2, the must-have electronic toy for every rich British kid, is in desperately short supply. Middle-class parents are wringing their hands, and so is Penelope on the front page of her great newspaper: WE SET OUT TO NAME AND SHAME THE GRINCHES WHO STOLE OUR CHRISTMAS! But her anger is misplaced. The shortage is not due to the incompetence of the manufacturers, but to a tidal wave in killing which has engulfed the Eastern Congo, thereby causing a temporary interruption in the supply of coltan."

Ibid., pp. 136-7.

The real trick of the book, then, is to involve us with a character and politics of apparently so little interest to the common Westerner. It certainly makes me feel ashamed of my paltry knowledge of the region, and connects a lot of dots I’d sort of understood.

I’m curious how much was influenced by Mark Thatcher’s alleged coup, and by those well-meant Live 8 wristbands that seemed to promise a solution to all the planet’s ills.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I made this

Dr Who Money from the BBC Dr Who websiteThings you can do with your Doctor Who Money, as made available at the fun-packed official website of official fun-packed Dr Who:

Happy Phil Collinson :)
Happy Phil Collinson

Sad Phil Collinson :(
Sad Phil Collinson

(Sorry about the rubbish photos. Am getting a new phone soon.)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

"It kind of makes sense but yet is completely wrong"

Today's heading is from my friend and one-time colleague R., in response to a post on the Outpost Gallfrey forum. I've spent a lot more time there recently, answering queries about our writing competition.

And R. perfectly sums up what it can be like.

So, blimey. 2007.

2006 was a bit crappy, all told. And busy and full of calamity. I'm not telling you this year's resolution yet because certain people need to know first. All in good time.

The new year started well with a fun night out in Dundee, and a text to say two chums are getting married. Hooray! Was feeling all chipper and chilled and ready to get back to business.

The train to London was then appallingly packed and we had to stand the whole five hours. Got in, dumped bags and hurried off to a birthday drinks in a rather spiffing new pub down the road. And probably made no sense to anyone for being so stupidly knackered. Went home early 'cos of work the next morning, and arrived in the office as if I'd never been away, only with more acheing limbs. Bah.

And then things started to happen...

M'colleague S. has got his first novel commissioned and is suitably over the moon. The Dr and I have heard back from various things we've applied for, and all of them saying "yes". And there's more of that in the works.

I've had a cheque for something I wrote 2½ years ago and thought would never happen, and I'm due some more cash in the next few weeks because 1,009 people borrowed "The Time Travellers" from libraries.

Things I have madeEddie Robson's "The Empire State" arrived in the post this morning, ending my first year as King of Bernice Summerfield. Here is a picture of the Big Finish things I worked on last year. Eight books and 10 CDs, and I need to rethink my shelving.

I said things had been busy...

Oh, and in a showbiz exclusive, I'm off to LA next month as a guest at the Gallifrey convention. At which I hope to meet lots of the mad gaggle who fill the OG fora.

Friday, January 05, 2007

And what do you do?

Sci-fi futures, even those set only a few days away, are often without a monarchy. The only one I can think of that’s not got some comedy king is the opening panel to 2000AD’s Invasion, in which a hairy-lipped Charles III exhorts his people to resist the not-quite-Nazis as they spill onto our beaches.

Otherwise there are rather feckless kings with little real power who seek petty praise and parties and miss the glory days. Sci-fi that can be so reverent of even the most hokey-religions still tends to think monarchy-of-the-future vapid and redundant.

Jeremy Paxman’s book, “On Royalty”, addresses this thorny problem (well, he doesn’t exactly explore the science fiction angle). It’s about the modern state of monarchy: its appeal, its limits and its future. But Paxman also addresses kingship in history, and the fact that as far back as there’s evidence, there seem to have always been kings.
“There is a story in ancient history, sometimes told of Philip of Macedon, sometimes of the Roman emperor Hadrian. While travelling on a journey he was approached by a woman who demanded he listen to her. The woman was insistent. But the emperor replied that he had no time, he had to be on his way. To which the woman replied, ‘Then do not be king!’ The emperor stopped, turned around, and listened.”

Jeremy Paxman, On Royalty, pp. 219-9.

The book is highly engaging, full of great stories and insights. It’s told very simply, too – a wealth of hard work and research deftly concealed from the reader.

Paxman has been quoted widely (including by me) on his research into the meaning of royalty having swayed his own republican views. And his reasoning is pretty persuasive.

The divinity of kingship may just be a childish story, a reaction to the misery of tribal existence: we deify the biggest bully because it makes us feel less like saps. It’s not very rational to have kings and princes, but the we are not entirely rational beings (for all we’ve made slow increments to make our lives more so).

So what harm is there from our royal family? The problem, Paxman argues, is for a constitutional monarchy to find a role.

The Windsors live reasonably modest lives – their Tupperware being famous – compared to other chieftains of state, while at the same time producing their weight in national loyalty, glee and hope. Paxman talks to the army about exactly why they’re more unswerving in their allegiance to the crown than they would be to a career politician. He also explores the many charitable and worthy works that gain column inches and merit by association.
“It would take a very bleak view of human nature to argue that this promotion of causes which fall between the paving stones of ordinary life was anything but a good thing.”

Ibid., p. 230.

And the problem for republicans is to show how we’d be better off without them.

Look at the tawdry bureaucracy and corruption of secular states – those ordinary folk in charge still have their sumptuous palaces. I’ve spoken before about why Holyrood’s palace has made a mockery of why it was built in the first place.

Homely, unostentatious for all they have castles, the Windsors fare rather better.

Paxman’s argument seems to be that theirs is largely a problem of public image – and one they’re themselves horribly aware of. A candid interview with the Duke of Edinburgh reveals some fascinating stuff about how his changing relations with the press. As the Duke sees it, the press are rude and intrusive in the same way a man hunts a tiger, thinking, ‘If I can shoot a tiger then I’m as powerful as a tiger.’

And because they’re not given any right to reply, the Windsors are very easy targets. At least tigers can bite back.

It’s not helped that the royals’ love lives and opinions on brickwork are constantly, endlessly raked over. They’re treated as easy page-filler, like any other tinsely celeb (in Stephen Fry’s definition: “Celebrity: someone you recognise but don’t quite know why).

Celebrities are not real people like you and I – just being in the paper to be read about puts them above all us riff-raff. That grandeur means there’s a “story” in them doing the most ordinary things: snogging someone, having a meal, maybe drinking too much. We can enjoy accounts of their weight gain and haircuts as we once did a new look for Barbie or Han Solo toys.

Because these people are an escape from our mundane lines, a princess can’t be allowed to have just died in a car crash. That’s too depressingly ordinary. No, it must have been a plot by her in-laws and the Government and a few groups of evil space alien…

And it’s why, throughout the book, people are surprised on meeting the Queen that she seems so very “human”.

I’d no great particular love for the trappings of monarchy, but I’m compelled by Paxman’s own argument: they are people doing their best in the circumstances. And let’s see you do any better.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Canterbury Tales… in space!

M’learned chums keep on at me r.e. books I have not read. This is not entirely unfair, as I’m on at them back about The Sparrow and Riddley Walker, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s wintry new threesome.

But I have finally read Hyperion, and it was not all I’d been led to believe.

A gang of unlikely priests, mystics and warrior women out of a sci-fi B picture are on their way to the strange planet Hyperion, home of the mysterious and savage Shrike. Each pilgrim has an agenda for being on this pilgrimage / suicide mission, and they take it in turns to tell why.

For example, a priest had been to Hyperion and made contact with a primitive tribe – but it was he who was inducted into their strange religion. Or a non-nonsense soldier kills thousands of baddies, but his dream girl is more of a nightmare, and she’s part of the sinister planet…

Some of it is very good indeed. I especially liked the scholar’s tale, which felt a lot like The Time Traveller’s Wife (I was going to say “which is reminiscent of”, but Hyperion was written a decade earlier). In it, a young girl visits Hyperion with her boyfriend then starts to age backwards, losing another day’s memory every time she wakes up.

She forgets her boyfriend, who sets out to find a cure only to return to an unrecognisable and pre-pubescent child. She stops recording herself messages after playing back too much loss. And the worst part is that the story’s told by her put-upon father, while he cradles a baby.

Another favourite is the consul’s tale, which is so bitter about the cost of expansionism.
"I laughed and locked the wheel in. ‘Nobody gets beyond a petroleum economy. Not while there’s petroleum there. We don’t burn it, if that’s what you mean. But it’s still essential for the production of plastics, synthetics, food base, and keroids. Two hundred billion people use a lot of plastic.’"

Dan Simmons, Hyperion, p. 444.

It’s nicely in contrast to the usual sci-fi stuff in which humanity eats space up like a cancer. Yet the stuff about oil also makes it feel oddly close to home, and not sufficiently distant to convince of the 29th century.

The recommenders have usually mentioned Simmons’s brilliance at world-building. It’s certainly a complex and layered envisioning, but I found it all a bit contrived (the problem with any story about heroes who share the same convoluted destinies).

Simmons builds his world by chucking pretty much everything into the mix – private eyes, AIs and a robot clone of Keats, with rich pickings from Starship Troopers and The Mission. But rather than being convinced by the richness of the culture, I thought it too often too much of a mess.

Throughout, Simmons keeps off-handly mentioning all kinds of futuristic technical kit, the usual way of sneaking in the props that build a complex new world. We don’t need to know exactly what these things are – the very fact that we don’t understand them shows how primitively twenty-first century we are.

But such constant attention to these sci-fi doodads is also oddly fetishistic. Which is hardly helped by how, whenever we meet anyone (though especially when we meet women), we’re treated to a long, descriptive paragraph itemising their physical attributes.

We’re also dutifully informed on every instance of the hardening of women’s nipples, with all the matter-of-factness of pornography.

Chaucer was making a polemic point with his variously cipherous pilgrims, but these here in space are meant to be real, 3D people, and not just convenient avatars.

The ongoing mysteries are intriguing – enough to keep me reading to the end – but the reading experience is not aided by it being slow and clunky and often deadly serious, and told in very long chapters.

The pissed, sweary poet is an unlikely pilgrim and I assume is meant as comic relief. He is neither of those things.

When Simmons gets the characters right – people whose motives and emotional responses we really understand – the book is very effective. In the case of the scholar and the private detective, we really care about what’s going to happen to them.

And then Simmons cheats again with the ending...


(SPOILERS anyone)

(SPOILERS still)

(SPOILERS reading)


The whole thing is a great big set up for something that’s then never delivered. Having explained why they’re all on this ludicrous mission to face down mad and miserable certain deaths, they then walk down a hill… and that’s it.

I’m sure that’s sort of the point, but it still feels rather like cheating.

Cor, that’s all a bit whinging, isn’t it? I’ll speak of one I did enjoy next!