Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Harold, Saxon

Yesterday I enjoyed an excursion – my first full day off in some weeks. M’colleague M had promised some kind of day trip some 11 months, six days ago, and my next birthday fast threatened to lap him. Then he realised that because of a work thing he needed to do some reconnaissance; so helpfully killing both tasks with one stone, I was escorted down to Sussex.

The battlefield of HastingsOn 14 October 1066 – even longer ago than my birthday – two armies met on a steep bit of hill and fought their way on to the national curriculum. Up top were the Anglo-Saxons, all knackered from a quick-march from the North. They looked down on a right bastard’s army – the descendant of kids’ telly’s King Rollo.

The Battle of Hastings (or, er, the Battle of Battle) was a right bloody affair. Bit shocked to discover that 7,000 people died there – three times the population of a big town from the time.

The English Heritage experience gives lots of gruesome detail, and the longer walk round helps you appreciate the main beats of the fighting. Harold is winning and the Normans run away, and some of Harold’s men chase them back down the hill. And then the Normans turn round and hack apart their pursuers, and William thinks, ‘Ooh, look – that worked.”

(In the pub later I recounted my analogy about the modern equivalent of Harold’s front-line.)

M taking photos in the sunshineThe pretty leisurely route round the field helped give a sense of the scale and practicalities. I remember being made to run up the hill as a kid, to see how the odds weighed against the conqueror. The estate is enclosed in fat greenery too, and you barely hear the busy road beyond the boundary. M’s another country boy living in the big city, and we wallowed in the verdant air. And sometimes the sun would bash through the light cloud and we found ourselves grinning giddily.

The last part of the tour, as you clamber up the gentle-seeming contours, debates the different ways King Harold died. Was he shot in the eye by arrow, or somewhere else in his body? Was he cut down by William’s assassins – who sliced off his head, his innards and a leg? And if there’s all this confusion, how come there’s a stone marking the spot where he fell?

Back at the top, the remains of the abbey and ice-house were teeming with schoolkids from abroad. We couldn’t guess the language in which they rabbited, and left them to climb over the bits of masonry that once held up the ceiling of the crypt.

The remains of Battle Abbey's dormitories and plumbingThe place stood for just a bit less than 500 years before Henry VIII thought monastic land better shared among his cronies. The only bit still standing was just an adjunct to the abbey – a huge single dormitory, the large rooms underneath boasting glorious vaulted ceilings, the ruins outside showing ambitious plumbing.

We were told how inconvenient the position was to build on – and that the monks originally tried to build somewhere else. But William, now the first of England, was insistent it be built where he’d won his kingdom. He cut people’s hands off for mentioning his illegitimacy, so it’s probably wise the monks did as he bade them.

There weren’t a lot of drawings of what the abbey would have looked like, and I’d assumed something reasonably modest and unassuming. I’ve been spoiled on majestic medieval building by growing up in Winchester – the great cathedral there makes these ruins seem small and paltry. Whereas the battlefield gave a practical sense of the fighting, I struggled to get a sense of the abbey – where it stood, where it pointed, how it big once had been.

Big yes, but how big? And thus how whopping was the conqueror’s sense of guilt?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Travers was really a Nazi

The Dr has a thing for travelogues from yesteryear, and somewhen I managed to find her Seven Years in Tibet. It’s a battered, well-thumbed second edition from 1953, with the price 3/ pencilled on the inside back cover, and a “Boots Booklovers’ Library” sticker on the front. The sort of book that looks like it might have had as many adventures as its author.

I read a different copy about a decade ago, having had my interest piqued by Earthling. Bowie’s own Seven Years in Tibet,
“coincided with a wave of high-profile American support for the country’s plight during the mid-1990s. Major motion pictures like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet (a 1997 dramatization of Harrer’s memoir which had no direct connection with the Bowie track) made the subject Hollywood’s cause du jour.”

Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, p. 138.

It begins as an escape story, unusual – at least as far as I’m concerned – because it’s teller is a German POW escaping English camps in India. We’re told that “the English took a sporting view of our bold [first] attempt” to escape (p.19). I like the swagger of the Germans’ next, more successful effort on 29 April 1944. They’re made up as Indians, with shaved heads and turbans, pretending to be a work party repairing the perimeter. (The posts setting out the barbed-wire fences were prone to attack by white ants.) In these brilliant disguises they just walk out of the camp with two colleagues in bored English uniform as escort.
“We attracted no attention and only stopped once, when the sergeant-major rode by the main gate on his bicycle. Our ‘officers’ chose that moment to inspect the wire closely. After that we passed out through the gate without causing the guard to bat an eyelid. It was comforting to see them saluting smartly and obviously suspicious of nobody. Our seventh man, Sattler, who had left his hut rather late, arrived after us. His face was black and he was swinging a tarpot energetically. The sentries let him through.”

Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (trans. Richard Graves), p.21 (my edition, not in the one linked to!).

Once over the border into Tibet, Harrer and his fellows struggle to get food, shelter or any kind of acceptance. Tibetans living near the border, he comes to understand, are not encouraged to help or trade with foreigners. There follows a vivid, Boy’s Own account of hardship. The Germans press on into the interior, with lively adventures outwitting local dignitaries who want them deported, and brigands who’ll take even their scant few possessions. We learn of the temperament of yaks and the customs of the caravans. Though there’s no capital punishment, convicted criminals can die from the brutal state ‘revenge’.

In the last third, the book becomes something else entirely. Harrer and one other, Aufschnaiter, reach the capital, Lhasa, and suddenly find themselves accepted, so long as they’re of use to the government. They stay in Lhasa for five whole years, which Harrer glosses over rather briskly (1947 passes in a flash). Their public works include a dam and a water fountain, and eventually Harrer becomes tutor to the Dalai Lama.

Kundun (as his family call him) is barely into his teens, a rather lonely but keenly intelligent boy. He’s fascinated by telescopes and the cinema, and at one point – with Harrer’s encouragement – even makes his own film:
“He had not, of course, had a huge choice of subjects. He had done a big sweeping landscape of the valley of Lhasa, which he turned much too fast. Then came a few under-lighted long-distance pictures of mounted noblemen and caravans passing through Shö. A close-up of his cook showed that he would have liked to take film portraits. The film he had shown me was absolutely his first attempt and had been made without instructions or help. When it was over he got me to announce through the microphone that the performance was over. He then opened the door leading into the theatre, told the abbots that he did not need them any more and dismissed them with a wave of his hand. It was again clear to me that here was no animated puppet, but a clear-cut individual will capable of imposing itself on others.”

Ibid., p. 251.

For something so briefly gone into, their friendship is warm and profound. By this time, there’s also an awareness of the political context, and Harrer reports on attempted coups, infighting and the growing threat from China. It’s not, it turns out, just a threat.

Oddly, we get very little on Harrer’s own background (bar his sporting achievements) and he hardly mentions the outcome of the war – which he discovers while in Tibet – or of the hardships being suffered back home. He and Aufschnaiter concede that they’ve little in the way of ties back home anyway. We get no sense of his own politics, other than the rallying cry for a free Tibet.

Monday, May 28, 2007

But I am not a bank

Today I have written the whole of a story (though I'd about 800 words in my notebook as of Saturday). It contains the words "pollotarian", "shoelace" and "off-switch". I think it more-or-less works.

Have also had the okay to write something else entirely; announcements as ever will follow. (This blog isn't for you to understand now, of course, but for me to look back on from the future. And not remember to what I was obliquely wittering.)

Now back to the entry on Eternity Weeps for the ever burgeoning Inside of Benny. Dreary wet weather has helped lots of work getting done on what for some people is a bank holiday. And tonight I'm being taken for curry.

Good job I can avoid electric distractions such as blogging and my 48 friends on Facebook.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Little Englishness

Watched Human Nature at a chum's house last night, and general consensus was hooray! - even from those who've not been wowed by New Show recently.

I've been busy writing about the book version, which features Benny instead of Martha. Going through my old notes, I found this interview with Paul Cornell from 21 June 2001. It was originally for my old website thing, Concrete Elephant, and CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS for Cornell's book, Something More...

It’s a beautiful Midsummer’s day, and Paul Cornell has spent the afternoon drinking. He politely declines the offer of a pint, and goes for a diet coke instead. We duck downstairs to the Writer’s Bar, to ramble about his new science fiction novel, Something More, about his Doctor Who adventures and about... well, all sorts really. To get him started, Elephant has devised five cunning and incisive warm-up questions...

Me: Brussel sprouts – are they good or bad?

Cornell: Oh they’re horrid! One of the most awful inventions of mankind – you take a cabbage and compress it down to horrible smooth size... and the thing to start with isn’t that good. The only good cabbage is when it’s chopped up into really tiny pieces and served with seaweed in Chinese restaurants. Anything else that’s green and that shape is bad.

Me: Even when they’re cooked with bacon?

Cornell: Even! Even the bacon can’t make up for them.

Me: Okay. Favourite character from the Star Wars universe?

Cornell: Oh.... When I was a kid I was always a big... this is the progression from when I was a boy. Han Solo when I was a kid, Luke Skywalker now I’ve grown up.

Me: Do you dunk biscuits in tea?

Cornell: Yes.

Me: How old were you when you first fell in love?

Cornell: Sixteen.

Me: And what’s the best word in the English language?

Cornell: [Long pause]. That’s a bastard question. [More silence, and then, to the tape recorder...] There’s a long pause. [More silence].

Me: Should we move on and talk about the book?

Cornell: Yes! Please! [He giggles, which sounds a bit like Captain Pugwash]

Me: First thing that struck me about the book is the definite sense of place. Bath, Winchester, Chiswick, Blackheath – in fact, all the places I live, which was a bit spooky. It’s all terribly British. Or rather Home Counties, which puts it beside the traditions of English sci-fi; Wyndham, Wells... And yet it’s not set the-day-after-tomorrow. In fact, the key date is 1998. Were you conscious of creating an alternate history?

Cornell: To be honest, I always thought it was a little awkward having it set ‘next year’. The time presented is the time that I actually wrote it, and I was aware that by the time it came out that would be the past. It seemed odd to be writing a present day scenario that might be different by the time it was out. Y’know? I couldn’t just say it’s the present day, write it as the present day and then be caught up in events. So I decided ‘let’s just root it in history, let’s say this is 1998.’ It wasn’t so much an idea of an ‘alternate’ as just a desire to be honest, to keep the present as the present and to go on from there. Britishness... is very important to the whole thing of it. I’ve always wanted to write science fiction that would seem to be in the same kind of world as Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh.

Me: One of the themes running through the book is history and memory – how people misremember the past, how they remember Britain.

Cornell: It’s about how shit history is basically, and how history is always limited and contained. Well, not always, actually. Since the end of the War, history has limited and contained who the British are. It’s interesting to note that during the Boer War, the stereotype throughout Europe of the English was that we were the passionate people who would laugh or cry at anything. And that’s shifted since then. That’s become, I suppose, the Italians. These supposed traditions of what the British are like, most of them are... like panto. Some of the traditions of pantomime were laid down in the 1970s. We always think things are ancient and they never bloody are. And that’s because we’re tied to the past. That particular war especially has been something that has anchored British history. Only now are we making efforts to let go of that, and Something More is about how terrible it would be if we could never let go of that, if our future was entirely determined by our history, by our past. If we could never get on to the rather wonderful, Dan Dare, one-world superstate that I envisage.

Me: You feel that the Second World War has set in stone the politics of today? An old argument is that with World War One, the reasons people went to war are no longer relevant, but the reasons we went to war in 1939 have become more relevant – race and identity.

Cornell: Yes, yes. But on the otherhand... we now celebrate our sporting victories with the theme tune from The Great Escape. That chant, ‘One world cup and two world wars’... Yeah, two world wars, what, fifty years ago? It’s like we’re stuck in a post-imperial loss. It’s like we’re never going to move away from that, never going to go beyond that, never going to redefine what Britishness is. We’re still waiting for a truly inclusive sense of what Britishness is. There’s been gestures towards it, but even this week, this month [with the race riots in Oldham] there’s still signs that we’re not actually getting it. We’re still lost in history.

Me: So is Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), the architect leader of the heroes, the rag-tag rebels in the book, is he your envisioning of what Britishness should be?

Cornell: Yes. He seems to me to be historically one of those odd Englishmen that pop up from time to time who have just got the whole universe at their command. Englishness does occasionally produce these extraordinarily liberal thinkers who seem to be able to break from the confining code that created them. If I wanted a beneficent deity to be looking over me, I’d want it to be Lutyens, especially since he dealt to admirably in his own life with a wife who was lost in a fog of spirituality which never connected to the real world. And here he was, building buildings in the real world, really good buildings, and expressing himself in a very solid, very concrete way. I think he had a kind of spirituality of his own which is attractive and very interesting. He’s my perfect dad.

Me: So there’s the real history of his opposition to spirituality, and then in your book, Lutyens is fighting a war against a resurrected, alien Jesus Christ from Outer Space.

Cornell: Oh, now you’re giving away the ending.

Me: Jesus is the villain of the piece.

Cornell: One of the things I really like is people who read this before they read the book will wonder ‘How the hell did they get there from the first few chapters?'. I don’t think Lutyens was opposed to spirituality, he was always very supportive of his wife.

Me: There’s a genuine struggle in the book between the means and ends approaches of the great war. The Grey Namer, Jesus, is very much looking towards the ends, drastic solutions whatever the cost. He’s going to destroy the planet Earth – or at least kill everyone on it.

Cornell: But for the best of reasons.

Me: Yes, for the best of reasons. Whereas Lutyens is opposed to that because his idea is that you look to the details. He looks at the pennies and lets the pounds look after themselves. His idea of what a spiritual life involves is having a nice house, with a garden, and going boating with his wife. As opposed to the grand designs. Is that something that you believe yourself?

Cornell: Again it’s that ancient... well it’s not ancient Britishness, it’s a conception of Britishness founded fifty years ago, that the little things are important and big ideologies are rather scary. I quite like that, but I think we’ve carried it just a bit too far. I think Lutyens would say moderation in all things as well, but what does that remind you of? That scones are more important than fascism? I think that this is my Doctor Who heritage showing through.

Me: There are a number of links through to your Doctor Who books. First of all, the emotional backdrop, the incredible sense of mourning, of the First World War is similar to parts of Human Nature. There’s the fact that Mary Poppins, a pop culture figure, comes forward as the Virgin Mary – a far more transcendental cultural icon – in the same way that Vic Reeves cameos in Love and War as the Trickster.

Cornell: Vic Reeves of course, is the Trickster. It’s Mary Poppins because I wanted people to get her straight away. Mary Poppins – that’s a scary movie. She’s all powerful. She’s an omnipotent deity who’s acting as a household familiar. It’s a very odd movie. And deeply English – that sense of the transcendant, coming down into your house and fitting in to the social mores of the time. Fluttering them about a bit, but it’s that wonderful English link between manners and the infinite.

Me: Cultural references play a funny role in the book. In the future, Empire of the Sun is the greatest film ever made.

Cornell: I’m glad you spotted that. Because it’s shifted. It’s Citizen Kane right now. And we kind of think that it must have always been Citizen Kane – but of course it wasn’t. It’s like it’s something that’s only happened to us in the last ten years.

Me: And the people of the future can quote Beatles songs and make reference to Winnie the Pooh, but Booth makes a comment about The Rocky Horror Show and nobody has any idea what he’s talking about. And, most importantly of all, nobody makes any reference to a man who travels round in a police box and saves people from monsters...

Cornell: Absolutely. Because what’s Paul Cornell going to do when he writes a mainstream novel? He’s going to put some kind of stupid Doctor Who reference in there. And I really didn’t want to do that. I don’t think that there’s a single in-joke. Is there?

Me: The only thing I could think of was that you have stately house that’s somewhere near Bath, with wild animals and a maze – and I immediately thought, ‘is that Longleat?’

Cornell: I think that kind of goes beyond an in-joke. I was thinking of a house called Castle Drago, which is a Lutyens house, was the map I used. It’s kind of Castle Drago in Longleat’s grounds. I’ve got really a strong mental imagery of those grounds, and I’ve always wanted to write something set in that area. What it is about Longleat to me is that when I was very little, you would walk through this incredibly well-kept-up stately home, past all these incredible angles. What I remember at Longleat as a kid is really solid angles of stone against a clear blue, empty sky. And you turn a corner, and there’s the TARDIS. As a kid, that’s magic here in the middle of this English manor. And there’s Lord Bath’s private maze which is only open every now and then, with his erotic murals inside. I never went to see those. I still never have. That was forbidden stuff in the maze. It’s not really, then, an in-joke as much as a deliberate setting.
“We have friends in the Universe. Their ambassador’s an Englishman. Everybody’s going to be filled with hope again. What a great Christmas present.”

Tony, the Prime Minister, p. 216.

Me: I was reading the book as the General Election was taking place, and here’s a book set in 1998 and the Prime Minister’s name is Tony. He’s never sign-posted as Tony Blair, MA Oxon, Leader of the Labour Party...

Cornell: I don’t think I name him –

Me: He is actually referred to as Tony.

Cornell: Oh right. Well it’s meant to be him obviously. I think I’m the only New Labour zealot I know. I just think that if people actually do appreciate something, when things fall right, then they should stand up and declare it. And the British are very bad at that. So this a New Labour science fiction novel, and the Prime Minister presented therein is by no means heroic, or saintly, but is nevertheless decent.

Me: He’s the first person to talk to Booth after he’s changed, rather than at him. He addresses him as a human being and asks his opinion -

Cornell: Because I actually think he would.

Me: - and Booth walks into a committee of experts, and gets the feeling that they’ve been carefully selected to be racially representative. Which obviously contrasts with the future where even people from different families are suspect, homosexuality is a capital offence... it’s a tremendous contrast where the world has fallen apart.

Cornell: Absolutely. It’s the two approaches isn’t it? Humans can continue down this road of Horlicks and inclusivity, which I think, thank God, we’re finally shifting to, with this second election victory in a row.

Me: A damning indictment by the British people of the Conservative Party’s efforts over the last five years.

Cornell: Oh yes. The average age – the average – of Tory Party members is 68. The average, for God’s sake. I wanted to say that what people call political correctness now is actually just the first step towards a real, different society, a different Britain. A Britain of the future, the kingdom. What the book is about, the future it presents, is a world where that doesn’t happen. Where we stand-off from Europe, and declare ourselves alone and live for an Empire that no longer exists, and thus keep on degenerating and degenerating into a bunch of warring tribes. I really wanted to portray in a country-British disaster way, Britain like Mozambique or one of those terrible places in Africa where there is no law, through purely economic struggle, through wars that never end. It’s a bit of an overreaction perhaps.

Me: In the book, the history of the families and the nation are addressed by a house with it’s own history. And the house’s haunted past is a moment when Booth turns his back on the backward-looking people and their confused ideas about Britishness.
“We are never going to get back to the Union Jack, to Britain, to one government over this island […]. We can’t start anything new, because we keep trying to build new things in the image of the old. We can’t get out of that mind-set. We are still too British, when there is not Britain to be British about.”

Booth Hawtrey, pp. 329-330.

That’s the starting point, and the resolution is to turn your back on history. The pivotal human action that causes everyone to forget their past, comes from Jane, who’s been this violent priest. It’s astonishing the barbarity her faith takes her to, but it’s actually her faith that takes them where no one else has succeeded. She’s able to turn back time.

Cornell: Paul nods enthusiastically. Yes.

Me: All of the way through the book, faith is problematic. Having made Jesus the villain –

Cornell: He’s the hero in my next one. No he is. I think if you look what happens in the whole span of the book, he is the villain certainly, but it’s like grace does win through. His actions turn out to be exactly right for the greater good, that the actions of the book create. It’s almost like the Trinity warring against itself, like his dad is up to something that he hasn’t quite got yet. It’s interesting comparing the two books – British Summertime [due 2002]. When I finished it, I became suddenly aware that a lot of the same things happen in British Summertime as do in Something More. We have hangings, a touch of paedophilia, a huge presence of Christ at the centre of the narrative, except that things are reversed. It’s like a mirror image of the first one, and none of this was conscious. It’s just that my brain seems to want to sort through these things again. And it’s another version of history going in a particular way. In the second case it’s an ecological disaster, and how the future might work out that way. The way to tie it back up in a knot, to bring it back to where it’s supposed to be, a sensation of grace working through history. I think it’s also a question of where I was at the time. Something More is a violent battle with faith – it’s me really kicking hard. And British Summertime’s a very faith-full book. Something More is, in the end, a Christian novel but you’d be hard-pressed to see it, and British Summertime is much more of a CS Lewis-on-acid thing. I’m told it might actually be blasphemous, but I’m not sure. Being married to a vicar is going to be interesting, if some of her congregation actually read Something More. Hopefully British Summertime will be around by that point to reassure them. It’s strange because both books I think are equally... British Summertime is nastier if anything, it pushes the characters further. It’s nice that from a kind of fanboy point of view... that they couldn’t possibly exist in the same world, in that the central character i.e. Jesus is a villain in one and a hero in the other [laughs].

Me: Maybe he was just having an off day.

Cornell: Maybe he was. An off life.

Me: You’ve now been a novelist, a paid novelist, for ten years. Early on you carved a niche of what your themes are, what the things you’re interested in are. Women priests –

Cornell: It’s odd isn’t it! When you say ‘carved’, it’s more like ‘randomly had’. I take a couple of steps back and see that there are things there that were never meant to be. I had no idea that these things would keep on recurring.

Me: As well as the novels, though, you’ve done a lot of television work. There was your own series, Wavelength, and two years ago your episode of Love in the Twentieth Century - an insight into masturbation. And now you’re writing what seems to be half of the next season of Casualty...

Cornell: [Laughing] I’m writing three out of forty. Nearly a tenth.

Me: Yes, well, my maths is a bit ropey. When you’re writing a Casualty episode, do you find yourself pitching, ‘Well, there’s this woman priest, and she’s having problems with Jesus. And there’s an alien...’

Cornell: Yes.... There’s a priest fighting with his faith in the first one. The characters I created for Casualty, Comfort, one of the paramedics, is a Catholic, and that's an issue that keeps coming back. I’m having the time of my life on Casualty – they’re giving me incredible freedom, incredible support. The ability to be free to write novels, and also the freedom to express oneself in an ongoing Saturday night primetime BBC1 series – ooh I’m so satisfied. So the same themes do come up albeit using their characters. The BBC has turned down many, many vicar shows from me. I’ve had comedy vicar shows, I’ve had drama vicar shows. I’ve got to the point where when I present my latest batch of wannabe drama proposals, people will say, ‘Now there aren’t any vicars in this, are there?’ And The Godfather, the book I’ve just adapted for a BBC pilot script – I don’t know if it’ll get filmed but I’ve just delivered the script. Today, actually – it’s very much about ‘my’ themes. I really loved it because it’s slap-bang in the middle of my territory. It’s about a horror novelist, a very rich horror novelist, a bestseller, who inherits, through bereavement, these two godchildren and has to take care of them. In a big, sprawling gothic house. He has to deal with grief and... there’s no spirituality. I may introduce a vicar somewhere along the line. But it’s right up my street.

Me: And is television and film somewhere you see your future? Is that the dream?

Cornell: Yes. I want to write a film. I want to write my Battle of Britain film. I’ve got a plan for that, and that may happen. I’ve got a spy novel on the ramp, and a magical fantasy trilogy about magic throughout the last century, the twentieth century. Witches in 1939, and they have a little cosy Great Escape style witches' coven.

Me: And haunt women vicars?

Cornell: Yes, there’ll probably be a vicar in there as well. I’m marrying a woman vicar! How much more into this can I get? It’d be wrong of me to just say that writing pays the bills. It doesn’t. I find real expression there as well, and I’m having the happiest time of my writing life. All of those future projects are of course subject to the whims of the future. In the back of the dust jacket on the hardback [of Something More], it says ‘Paul’s currently developing a series for Channel 4.’ Well I was when that came out. Nothing came of it. I must stop saying that on backflaps. But yeah, it’s a nice place to be at the moment, and [he fingers the dog-eared copy of Something More on the table] I’m desperately proud of it. When I was little, my brother who introduced my to science fiction, would lend me his Analogs. I suppose it’s an association of my brother and a deep Englishness, that I actually lived in a little English village and had all this wonderful stuff in cardboard boxes that he’d show me, his old sf models and things, that got me this big association between spaceyness and little Englishness. I’ve written about my brother already. He’s Peter Hutchings in Timewyrm: Revelation and Happy Endings. He’s an absolute duplicate of my brother, apart from the fact that he’s a mathematician and my brother’s an insurance broker. Anyway, now I’m wittering...

Me: A couple of year’s ago, the Doctor Who New Adventures were reviewed by Foundation – the British academic journal of sf – and you didn’t come across brilliantly. In fact, some kind fellow had to step in to refute the accusation of Doctor Who as ‘sf’s imbecile’.

Cornell: Yes, thank you. I didn’t, did I? Foundation was after science fiction in the New Adventures.

Me: It seemed to be after ‘grit’ – it didn’t like the ‘nice’ stories.

Cornell: There’s nothing worse than grit.

Me: Their favourite story was [Ben Aaronovitch’s] Transit – which shows exactly what their sensibilities were. Not that I’m dissing Transit.

Cornell: Well, I was going to say. They have a point. I think The Also People [Aaronovitch’s subsequent New Adventure] is better than Transit, in that it shows that that author can kick arse without grit. Indeed, without any gestures in the direction of darkness or horror. Just by talking about nice people having a nice time. I think grit is teenage. There’s an awful lot of pain in Something More and British Summertime. People looking for grit will find it, but I think that the important thing about grit is getting past it. It’s what gets in the way, it’s the problem, it’s not what the books are about. It’s what the books are about getting over.

Me: Something More is about people living in an utterly different, difficult, violent world. And some of the violent scenes are particularly nasty.

Cornell: Oh, some particularly horrible things happen to Booth.

Me: And you have Rebecca being buried alive and standing on tip-toe just so that she can breath... all sorts of horrible things. But the whole point is about people overcoming this.

Cornell: And the fact that condition that they’re after is peace and happiness and scones. And a society that can make scones. I think all my books are about pushing that and trying to get back to it. I think there are certain authors who indulge in grit who actually like it. Who want to be there and want their characters to be in it. Which always sits very difficult with Doctor Who... ‘difficult’ isn’t the right word. Can you put in a better word than ‘difficult’?

Me: It’s against the ethics of the series?

Cornell: Yeah, so anyway, that’s true of Who books. But free to write my own stuff, it’s about the victory over grit.

Me: So do you find the violence difficult to write?

Cornell: Horribly, no. I was a little upset by what I did to Rebecca, and I was wondering if this was some kind of sadistic thing. But then I realised I’d done far, far worse things to Booth. Booth being my hero, and being immortal of course, I can do him far more damage. But it’s about him being better at the end, it’s not about the damage.
“Things seemed to be different already. All the new growth. All the new systems. Anything that fell apart just got replaced by something better.”

The happy ending, p. 420.

We mug at each other for a bit. ‘I think that’s it,’ I say. 'Cool!’ enthuses Cornell. ‘Wonderful. Good stuff, nice questions.’ We head back upstairs for more drinks. Later, over pizza, he comes back to that question about the best word in the English language. If he has to choose a word, it’ll be something silly and onomatapaeic... like ‘plop’.

Friday, May 25, 2007

How to say "no" nicely

With the gracious permission of its author, here's the rejection letter I received for my first ever Doctor Who novel submission, 13 years ago. (You can read "Mondas" here.)
11 October 1994

Dear Mr Guerrier

Thank you for your letter telling us about your Doctor Who proposal. We do our best to read everything that gets sent to us, and we’ll certainly consider any material you care to submit.

I have to say, though, that there are already clear problems with your proposal as far as we’re concerned. The first point is simply one of presentation: we ask for a full plot synopsis and two or three chapters of sample text before we can give an idea proper consideration. Nice as it would be to work in tandem with every author from day one of their story, there are something like six hundred people out there trying to write for us and something like one of me. (Given the other lines of fiction that we publish and the fact that there are only four people in the department, it works out that there’s about one person dealing with Doctor Who.) Also, your letter is handwritten – we must insist that all proposals are typewritten or word-processed. But all that’s in the guidelines, which are enclosed.

Now, the more serious issues. Continuity references are a moot point, but I’ll argue them as far as I can. While there have been a number of old characters and other references to the show’s past in the New Adventures, we don’t encourage them – particularly from first-time authors. Firstly, we want to keep the New (and to a lesser extent the Missing) Adventures new, introducing exciting new races, settings and characters. You’ll notice that even when old elements are reused, they’re usually mixed with something original. Secondly (and this is usually the cruncher), many writers fall into the trap of relying solely on the old faces for the entertainment and drama value of the story. We might take an excellent submission if it happens to have familiar faces in it, but if the central premise of the book is simply the return of the character the plot is likely to suffer. Finally, many Who fans are rather conservative. They don’t like people messing with their favourite characters. If we ever do use Daleks, Cybermen, Time Lords, etc., we try to make sure we have an experienced and popular author is (sic) handling them.

Similarly, we don’t like stories which come about largely in a bid to clear up continuity; they can do so incidentally, but the way to go about a book in the first instance is to start with plot ideas, characters, situations and images. You’re trying to do far too much with this idea: explain the origin of the moon, the destruction of Venus, the exodus of Martians from Mars and the hibernation of the Silurians (who, incidentally, couldn’t possibly predict such and event!). It adds nothing to the story and smacks of tokenism.

I’m afraid to say that there aren’t many new ideas in the plot. What it boils down to is some people on a planet fighting. I don’t think there’s enough action to stretch to a full-length novel, and what there is doesn’t sound very spellbinding. For me, it was all summed up by ‘running down a few corridors etc. etc.’, which is not the sort of plot detail we look favourably on.

Things that made me go ‘Ouch’: what was the vague ‘force’ that pulled the TARDIS down on Mondas? How could the Cybermen possibly know the TARDIS was going to land there? Where does Benny’s info about the projectile hitting the sun come from (the TARDIS only knows as much as the Doctor)? Moreover, where on earth does she get the notion that a ‘child prodigy’ is involved? Why mention Mondas and the Cybermen so early in the story when you could get lots of drama and suspense out of it? How can you send a group of Cybermen back in time to ensure the race is not wiped out by the Doctor when you don’t know the race is going to be wiped out by the Doctor? (The Cybermen in their arrogance would never consider this contingency, and they’re hardly clairvoyant.) Why is the Doctor allowed to live so long in captivity (the Cybermen must know how dangerous he is by now)? Isn’t the ‘delaying genesis by a few millennia’ too similar to Genesis of the Daleks?

Things that made me go ‘Yeuch’: ‘the Ice Warrior’s exodus’; they replaced limbs for metal and plastic; befreind; Jurrasic; anymore; suprises; eighteen years-old. This sort of thing needs a lot of work before your writing will be of publishable standard.

I hope you’ll understand, then, why this isn’t too upbeat a reply. A lot of the faults, you’ll doubtless be annoyed to hear, can be put down to your age. It seems writing is one of the last abilities to fully mature in human beings. Some people never learn how to write well at all. But even the most talent authors started late; I think it’s because the more experience you have, the better you write.

I can’t really say anything without sounding patronising, so I might as well just go ahead and say it: eighteen is young. The youngest of our authors to be published was 23 when his book came out – and that’s very young by normal standards. I’m not saying you won’t be able to write something good enough for the series; just alerting you that it’s not very likely.

Having said all that, you’ll never get good enough if you don’t practise. By all means carry on writing – even the one you’re working on, if you don’t mind the fact that we won’t be interested in it as it stands. And as I said, we’ll read things that you send (though there won’t be anything this detailed again). Carry on trying, and enjoy it.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Bodle
Editorial Assistant
It's funny how much of this has stuck; I still see red when other people write "any more" as one word.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


The final part of my first ever pitch for a Doctor Who novel, from 13 years ago. (Part one here.)
Episode Four

The Cyberleader gives orders for TOTAL CYBERISATION to begin.

Cyberman voice changer helmet, available from AmazonIn the factory, the Doctor’s companions are very much alive. Cwej and his friends arrived just in time, killed the executors, and used a Cyberhead for the voice. The rebels, who had expected to find the Doctor here, now plan a seige on the Mondasian palace. They plan then to end the Cybernetics programme and concentrate on other solutions to their planet’s condition.

From the court, the Doctor et all watch squads of (Tenth Planet-type) Cybermen rounding up and shooting the terrifyed natives. However, a human force begins to form, and hit back at the machines. The Doctor comments on the similarity to the Cybermen’s future. He then sees his companions amongst the crowd, and taunts the Cyber Leader. The Cyber lieutenant strangles the Doctor.

While the PM remains scared and indecisive, the King seizes a Cyberman’s own gun and kills the Cyber lieutenant. He kills two of the three other Cybermen, leaving one and the Cyber leader, before being gunned down himself. The PM, inspired, takes the gun and kills the trooper. He wounds the Cyberleader with the last energy pulse of the weapon. However, as the Cyberleader (with a sizeable chunk missing from his head) stalks the PM onto the balcony, the Doctor comes from behind him, shoves and throws the Cyber-Leader over. He explodes.

The Doctor then calls up the Cyber Brain via the Cyber Communication system and announces their victory. The brain threatens to return to Mondas when they have beaten the human invasion on Telos. The Doctor knows the humans win.

Later, the PM calls for a CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT, and opts for a fertilisation programme and propulsion unit. As the Doctor and his friends leave, he tells them that for the Mondasians to become Cybermen is inevitable, but at least they’ve been delayed by a few millenia… THE END.

Next episode: The Rejection Letter.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rise of the Cybermen

Part three of my first ever pitch for a Doctor Who novel, from 13 years ago. (Part one here.)
Episode Three

With the time-travellers at gun-point, the Cyber-Leader explains that Cyber control realised the FULL consequences of their “failed” attempt to wipe out Earth in 2526; that is the creation of themselves, but also detected that the TARDIS would land on Mondas shortly afterward. The Cyberleader, his lieutenant and a squad of Cybermen were sent back in time to ensure that despite thwarting them in the 26th Century, the Doctor did not erase their existence altogether.

The Doctor’s two companions are ‘taken down’ from the wall, and are to be taken as hostages while the Doctor is escorted to the King by the Cyberleader, who will then take over Mondas directly, completely determining the Cyber-destiny. However, on of the companions (Cwej(?)) escapes. A Cyberman shoots at him, and he fakes his own death by leaping from a gantry. While the Cybermen reports his death to the Cyber leader, Cewj heads off to the rebel camp to get help.

At the Court, both the King and Prime Minister are horrified by the Cyber-Leader, but the King comments that if this the ultimate state of his people, the “so be it”. The Prime Minister cannot accept this, and tries to side with the Doctor, suggesting either a programme looking into fertilisation, or emmigration to another planet, or hibernation or even a PROPULSION UNIT being fitted into Mondas to take her back to her old orbit. The Doctor replies that all but the first of these are to become the directives of the Cybermen anyway, with their single motivation for SURVIVAL. It is unclear whether he is for or against Cyber evolution.

On the outskirts of Mondas, Cwej and the Exile group he has assembled agree to rescue the Doctor before doing anything else.

In the courtroom, the Prime Minister is silenced by the Doctor admitting that nothing he can do will stop the rise of the Cybermen. The Cyberleader wishes to instill this powerlessness (and show dominance over all foes) and orders the hostages to be executed. Over the communicator, there is the sound of gun-fire, and a cyber-voice reports that the hostages are dead. The Cyber leader turns to the Doctor, who looks mortified, and almost gloats the word, “Excellent!”


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Corridors etc.

Part two of my first ever pitch for a Doctor Who novel, from 13 years ago. (Part one here.)
Episode Two

At the last minute, the King intervenes, refusing to allow the murder. However, when the Doctor and Bernice cannot help him as to the location of the exile’s camp, he agrees to have “the Pinks” locked up, pending an interrogation.

The Doctor’s other companion’s awaken from the “stun shot” in the Cybernetics factory. They are to be, as with all the other captives, made into Cybermen. They rally support for a jail-break, but after escaping their cell and running down a few corridors etc. etc. they are all recaptured.

The Doctor and Bernice are more successful. With a little bout of Venusian Akido, they escape their escort and head back to the TARDIS. They are not going to interfere anymore, letting destiny run it’s course. The TARDIS’s self-repair systems will soon be finished and they can leave. At least now, the TARDIS will be in a state that the Doctor can co-habit (the reason he was so ‘ill’ before was because of the pain and confusion the TARDIS’s “brain” was sending him).

These plans are messed up by their finding the TARDIS absent of the other two. While the Doctor attempts to trace his missing companions, Bernice plays on the other side of the controls, and finally finds what she is looking for. A computer simulation shows an object collide with the sun and explode. An anti-matter flame is caused, a sweep of very powerful energy. It wipes Mercury (presumably removing any remains of the Jagaroth’s Final Battle), turns the pleasant Venus and her people into a dead, fire world, kills the dinosaurs on Earth (the Silurians having the foresight to hibernate), breaks off a piece of the planet (where the Pacific Ocean is now) that becomes the Earth’s moon, knocks Earth’s sister, Mondas into space and bleaches and makes barren her people, and then fizzles out shortly after making Mars too uncomfortable for the Marsians. The Doctor is hardly listening, but has found his other companions, in the Cybernetic’s factory. He again expresses concern for the rapidity of events. Bernice makes a comment about it being a Child Prodigy being too-clever that has led to this. The Doctor ignores her and looks at her computer console. He seems to falter, and identifies the object that hit the Sun as the 2562 A.D. Space Freighter (from “Earthshock”) and comments that “his friend must have finally steered the ship out of Earth’s orbit. He then does a double-take on Bernice’s “Child-Prodigy” joke, and runs from the TARDIS. Shrugging, Bernice follows.

Arriving at the Cybernetics Factory, the Doctor, who seems jubilant with himself, comments “…he never could choose the right side to be on… I knew he hadn’t died!” He marches past startled staff and up to the “Cybernetics Controller”. “Hello, Adric” he beams, but the Controller is not Adric. He is a tall, life-less man with a large, metal device screwed into his face. The Doctor nearly collapses.

Bernice sees the other two companions amongst a group of figures in booths, being prepared for Cyberisation. She tries to rescue them, and the Doctor recovers his wits and assists her. Her brilliant blue pulse from a laser cannon sends them both sprawling.

From the floor, the stunned Doctor looks at the shooter. It is the Cyberleader (Earthshock – Silver Nemesis type Cyberman), who stands with his lieutenant and the humanoid Cybermen, obviously under their control. The Cyber leader speaks: “As we predicted, we meet again, Doctor!!”


Monday, May 21, 2007

Spare parts

Have been busy, sorry. But I've done all my reading for the Doctor Who short story competition, and we should have announcments soon. Am now well into Bernice Summerfield - The Inside Story, and have interviewed a great wealth of people in the last few days.

Got masses still to do, and fact-checking and transcribing and putting it all together. But pretty pleased with current progress. It's got to be delivered by the end of June, so I shall remain rather frantic till then.

Handwritten Mondas, by meAmid the research, I unearthed my own first ever proposal to Virgin for a Doctor Who novel - sent in September 1994, in my first week at university. It's eye-poppingly appalling, and in typing it up I have tried to keep in all the typos. Yes, the version I sent Virgin was handwritten...

It's in four episodes (I think I was keen it should have the feel of the telly show). Since I've been doing so much judging and lest should be judged myself, we begin serialisation today:
A Genesis of the Cybermen by S. Guerrier

Episode One

Bernice has been nagging the Doctor to investigate the Ice Warrior’s exodus from Mars. As it heads back to the end of the Jurrasic Era, the TARDIS is overcome by some extra-dimensional energy wave, and crashes violently on an Earth-sized planetoid situated between Jupiter and Saturn.

Wild and erratic – through his symbiosis with the damaged ship – the Doctor flees the TARDIS. Telling the others to remain, Bernice follows him. She follows him into a strange, alien citadel, where the sparsely seen inhabitants – cloaked and faceless – shirk away from the Time-Lord and his Minder. Soon, masked, armoured police arrive, arresting and dragging off the travellers, and ignoring Bernice’s pleas for the Doctor’s state of health.

Bored with waiting, the other two companions venture out from the ship, into the hands of a small group of rough-looking cloaked figures. They remove their hoods to reveal that they are ALBINOS – as are, apparently, all the inhabitants of Mondas, since the ‘Time of the Burning Skies’. This is a recce group, investigating the TARDIS crash site on behalf of their fellow exiles. They take the two travellers to their leaders encampment.

In a Mondasian cell, Bernice calls for her rights or an explanaition of her crime are ignored by the unmasked, albino guards. A sobered Doctor reveals that Mondas is the home planet of the Cybermen.

The exiles’ leaders welcome the “pinks” (the two companions) and explain how they too were “pinks”, until thirty years ago when they were bleached and made infertile by the “Burning Skies” that have sent their planet moving out to space.

In the cell, the Doctor explains how once, Mondas and Earth were twins, sharing the same orbital path around the sun. Then, for whatever reason, Mondas drifted outwards to become the Solar System’s tenth planet. The atmospheric changes of this shift were too much for the inhabitants, and herbal medecines could not help. Slowly they replaced limbs for metal and plastic… Bernice is concerned, and points out that this period at the end of the Jurassic Era also saw the Martian exodus, the Silurian hibernation and the total extinction of the Venusian civilisation! Such revelations are cut short by the return of the police men, who have orders to take the prisoners to the King!

On the outskirts of the metropolis, the exiles bring the cloaked companions to “convince the people of their aims”.

In the Court room, the Doctor and Bernice are taken to the King and his Prime Minister. The King, seen as strong and proud, is in reality weak and indecisive, following the instructions of the sly, manipulative PM. The newly begun Cybernetics programme is all the Prime Minister’s doing. The Doctor’s natural ability to befreind royalty is rebuked by the PM, who refuses to allow “Pinks” to upset the stable regime.

On the streets, hidden Mondasian police watch the exiles try to rally attention. When the two companions remove their hoods, their is a roar of shock, followed by the appearance of the troops, who mercilessly gun down all those present, including the two companions.

In the court, the Doctor and Prime Minister are arguing. The Prime Minister “cannot allow the travellers (as pinks) to incite further unrest”. He presses a button, and a lumbering “Tenth Planet”-type Cyberman enters. The Doctor’s fear that Mondas should not have Cybermen so soon is interrupted by the PM’s order, “Kill them!”

Next episode: CORRIDORS ETC.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Dead or alive

In between all the copious reading, I have sometimes escaped my pod. The Dr took me on Friday night for ramen and A Matter of Life and Death. It’s an expertly staged version of the Powell and Pressburger movie, full of vim and ingenuity. But I felt these rather detracted from the all-important love story.

The film (which I love but the Dr and Codename Moose both felt too boring) begins with dashingly handsome World War 2 pilot Peter (David Niven) on his way back from a raid over Germany. The rest of his crew have either bailed out or bought it, and Peter’s plane is bothersomely on fire. Knowing he hasn’t a hope of landing, and dashed well without a parachute, he natters to a pretty-sounding wireless operator – June, played by Kim Hunter (yes, hot chimp lady Zira from the Planet of the Apes).

After wooing this fine-sounding filly, Peter leaps from the plane… and miraculously survives. The after-life has made a balls-up in the typically English fog, and while Peter and June get to a-snogging, a celestial court hearing is being arranged…

The afterlife of the movie is full of deliciously over-the-top performances, yet all in cold black and white. The spirit world is a haunting and grey place. This contrasts with the staid, stiff-lipped Brits surviving world war in rich and vivid colour. The play nicely smudges the split between the two worlds – living and dead – so it’s less explicit that the court is all in Peter’s head. I was a bit worried by advance warning that the play featured several songs, but its all fun and rumble-tumble stuff, bringing to life the passion of life that Peter’s fighting for.

That said, this smudging does make things a bit tricky for the central wheeze – whether it’s right that Peter should get a second chance. For all Douglas Hodge does his best as Peter’s dead friend Frank, arguing in defence of the star-cross’d lovers, we’re not exactly convinced of the special flavour of the case when the afterlife seems so rosy. There’s passion and larking and sexy girls on both sides of the mortal divide, and the dead seem more happy and care-free.

The performances on stage were all excellent, though the plot was overshadowed by moving props, Kirby wires and pyrotechnics. I thought of my few lessons in audio drama – that the sound engineers can make widescreen baroque on stereo, but we need to hear the words people are saying to build a picture in minds. The play is a great, funny feast to watch and enjoy, but its real strength and cleverness get a bit lost in the mayhem. The larking about and jokes about drowning in bags of milk rather smothers the emotional core.

It doesn’t help that the play then brings out women killed in Coventry and Dresden on the sorts of mission Peter was flying. This departure from the film may make the story more complex and contemporary, but the random brutality of war also undercuts the right of Peter to get special leniency. In the film he’s fighting a war against grey bureaucracy – and one that’s made the cock-up in the first place. In the play his motivation is a bit more selfish.

The extra context did very effectively up the emotional stakes of the play, and maybe got the audience working more critically. It is very well done, and a lively, sparky night out was exactly what my sandpapered eyes were after. Yet in retrospect it doesn’t sit happily.

Perhaps it’s just the effect of living in a different time. The film originally played to a newly post-war audience, every one of whom would have lost somebody. The underplayed sentiment holds back a tide of evocations.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jason and Jason

The screamNew up on the Big Finish website are the cover and a sample chapter from new Benny novel, The Two Jasons. The book went to press on Tuesday.

Monday, May 07, 2007

"The growls will be added in post"

Much as it might be cheering on the opposition, you can hear the first installments of all-new Blake's 7 at That's the sort of magnanimous fellow I am.

The whole thing's a bit damn brilliant, really. And plenty more of it to come, too. Hooray!

Ben's space-vixen KadiHad a nice chat with author Ben Aaronovitch early today, as it happens. He is happy with what we're going to do his space vixen Kadiatu, so now we just need to get her into a booth.

Great day in the studio yesterday recording "The End of the World", with a simply brilliant performance from Stephen Fewell as Jason, ably assisted by an exemplary guest cast. Couldn't have asked for better, loves.

In fact the only one to let things down was, er, me. Scene 22 worked a lot better without my monstrous growling (despite my best efforts to be Killoran) - and even gave our visiting reporter goosebumps. Woo!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The chimpanzees of death

The official Droo website now has a funky comic maker wotsit. Cobble together your own novel graphics and sequential arts. You can surely do better than my effort.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The write stuff

Ten years ago tomorrow I went to the Manopticon 5 convention in Manchester – which is where I first got to meet famous people who are now my pals. I know this ‘cos I found the souvenir brochure the other day, while researching for the Inside Story.

The autographs page shows my priorities even then; I’ve only got scrawl from the writers (Steve Cole, Paul Cornell, Terrance Dicks, Steve Lyons and Gareth Roberts, fact fans). The floppy-haired, wide-eyed, 20-year-old me had only the previous day handed in his undergraduate dissertation – comparing the TV Movie to Star Trek: First Contact – and little dreamt of all the mad shit and scribbling as yet to come…

Signed off on The Two Jasons yesterday and wrote up a quarter of my notes on the first draft of Nobody’s Children. Pretty damn delighted with this year’s Benny – and people are saying nice things about Judas Gift both on Outpost Golliwog and the Down Among the Dead Men mailing list (you’ll need to sign-up to read what’s been said, though).

Also got a lunchtime demonstration from Dr Davy Darlington of how you check a recording studio offers dead space: clap your hands and listen for the lack of any reverb. Look at me with my hang of the lingo.

Then put on a better shirt and jacket and tripped into town to attend my first ever Clarke Award ceremony. I first heard about the Clarkes while doing my MA, when I got to meet some of the judges on the morning after. They’d had no doubt about The Sparrow’s fabulosity, and so I sought it out myself. The Clarkes are generally a great recommendation. It’s like the older kid at school who can recommend the good stuff – there’s only one winner I wasn’t so swayed by.

Was wary about what it would be like, but the place was full of old chums and the beer didn’t need to be paid for. Got to meet Andrew Cartmel – who I’ve employed and am employing, but by proxy – and various other fine folk.

Was so busy nattering that I was one of the last to file into Screen 4 for the ceremony. Managed not to see a prominent step as I looked for spare seats, so went flying in front of everyone. Gah! The free honeycomb ice-cream helped to settle the embarrassment, and I hid at the back with Jim Swallow.

The speeches were all very brief, and having applauded Mike Harrison and the organisers, we beetled back out to the bar. I had fun asking different people if writing knock-off sci-fi tie-ins did you any favours in writing standalone sci-fi (there’s lots of ways you can articulate “No!”), and traded business cards, salacious gossip and hyperbole. Then followed some people to a pub round the corner, and did the same over pints of Green King.

And the only thing I paid for all night was a grubby pasty on the way home. Whee!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Ooh look, rocks!

Have been away this weekend in Athens – which meant some last-minute frantickery to get Things Done, and sterling effort from some people I work with.

The Dr used to make pilgrimage to Greece every year, but it all got too expensive in the run up to the Olympics, so this was our first trip together since 2003. (She and the second wife did manage a trip to Lesbos in May 2005; they went to a bar guarded by a dog that barked at men, and to a petrified forest like on Skaro.)

It’s all a lot smarter and more organised, as a result of the Olympic developments, while still being a bit shambolic in places and with building works going on just everywhere. The new and improved underground network is exemplary – the Dr’s extensive tour included a stop off at Syntagma Square station, where the mezzanine down to the platforms includes exhibits of old stuff found on the site.

Having dumped bags at the nice and central hotel (just up the street from Monastriki), we ventured out into the sun and the ruins. Was a bit pleased to find I knew my way about, though I missed the intended lunch stop-off by 100 yards.

Took it easy to begin with and explored the Agora – the remains of the Athenian market place. Here Socrates and the other citizenry would discuss politics and philosophy and shagging – as detailed with quite some accuracy in Mr Handcock’s “The Oracle of Delphi”.

House of SimonWished I’d known when I was editing that about the House of Simon of the site. Simon was, the Dr informed me, a cobbler, a citizen and talker, and gets a mention in Xenophon. Was obliged to pose for photos.

We siesta’d then went out for a few early evening beers, and collapsed into an early night.

Saturday was baking, and we did the Byzantine and Cycladic museums in the morning – which were full of impressive artefacts and interpretation. The Dr bought a few heavy books, which I had the foresight to lug back to the hotel before venturing any further.

Re-met the Dr and Mum at the Temple of the Winds (having spent a good while trying to locate the way in), and we began the long trek up to the Acropolis. It’s a steep, hot, winding path up there, and a detour round to the Dionysus theatre proved much further and more up-and-down than expected. But we marvelled at the theatre in which so many classics were first played and told ourselves it was worth it.

The Dalek Invasion of the AcropolisWith grumbling knees we reached the rock’s summit. Parents were suitably wowed - Dad, who’d never been to Greece before, had studied these buildings carefully when modelling our wedding cake.

The Acropolis itself was much improved site since we’d last been, though there’s still a lot of work ongoing. Odd to see the temple to Apollo Nike in bits. They’ve been repairing the stuff, putting in new marble to piece the Parthenon back together – so it’s all in a better state and more complete than ever. All the new stuff is clearly discernable by being a slightly different colour.

It’s controversial work, but the place was falling apart anyway, so it seems it’s either this or letting it collapse. And the small temple to Poseidon (whose Caryatids can be seen copied in the church at St Pancras) is now, you know, a temple now, and not just the crude impression of one.

We admired the views and took plenty of pictures. The Dr guided us through, explaining the pre-Classical stuff in the museum. This is stuff excavated from the site – long after us Brits had been stopped nicking things that were not always lying around. (I may be misremembering, but the site is much tidier, with none of the strewn stones and rocks that tourists were tempted to pick up; the constant whistling from the staff telling off such thievery is gone, too.)

Stomped on weary legs back down into the town, stopping for more pictures on the way. We don’t have a bath at home, so baths in hotels are luxuries; this one was especially bliss.

In the evening, our guidebook took us to a café favoured by and named after Melina Mercouri. We ate and drank extremely well, looked down on by great portraits of Mel with Dali, with politicians and leading men, such as James Mason. I resisted the primal urge to do impressions.

Easier day Sunday with a trip out to the island of Aegina, where the Dr and I once spent a few cheap nights when a passenger ship’s sinking meant we couldn’t island-hop anywhere else. We were poorer then, and spent our nights on the balcony, eating pistachios and reading aloud Harry Potter. (We started to get what the fuss was about in book 3, when the Dr would get up in the middle of the night to hunt for the book I had hidden…)

Saw the columns and pottered about. I bought two shirts but declined to paddle. Drank a fair bit and just soaked up the sunshine. Ferry home again, and then out to the place round the corner for proper Greek grub – moussaka and souvlaki. Yum.

Monday, we went to the National Archaeological Museum to gaze upon the face of Agamemnon. But despite the promise in the guidebook it was not open, so instead we went to the Benaki museum, which gives a patriotic history of the whole of Athens (and not just the classico-hellenistic bits).

Cooed again at Edward Lear’s drawings, the prep for watercolours that I find less interesting. His drawings include notes and doodles and scribblings out, and so make everything seem more alive and immediate.

Mum liked the various iterations of traditional Greek costume, and the wooden-panelled rooms look cosy and snug, and reminded me of an early date going round Leighton House. One day we will have a house big enough to recreate something similar. Though I will only spoil the Arabian effect by leaving out my sci-fi magazines and hardbacks…

After an expensive coffee on the top floor amid rich Athenian women, we took a stroll through the gardens to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The last time the Dr was here you could walk right up to the monument, but it’s now strictly roped off.

Lots more good photographs, and I asked if they might ever resurrect the one tumbled-over column. But it’s a Roman temple, so probably doesn’t merit the same attention.

Found a fantastic, traditional little eatery on our way back to the hotel. Ate and ate for less than 10 euros each, then picked up our bags and headed for the plane. Even the airport has a museum of the finds made during development. Dad was particularly taken with how a whole old church got moved.

Arrived tired and grouchy at Heathrow, and had to wait for our cab home to fight through the traffic. Ride home not helped by the M4 being closed, but I got excited when I realised we’d pass the TARDIS at Earl’s Court. No, I’ve not yet seen Saturday’s episode – though am even more keen after Nick Walters’s spoiler-free text…

And so home to much junk mail and waiting works. Going to be a busy couple of months now, with lots of stuff that just needs doing. So blogging nonsense may suffer for a bit. Sure you’ll all be relieved.

I like this, though, which awaited me in the office:

Natural Selection by Karen Knorr, at the Government Art Collection