Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cat portents

Cat leeching heatSnot and sore throat since last Tuesday is not the only sign that the nights are drawing in. The air bites briskly on the way into work, and the cat leeches our warmth at night.

I’ve been reading, researching and writing these last few days, mostly for some on-spec projects that I’ve been meaning to get to for ages. The cold may also be my body reacting to the fact that for the first time in maybe as much as three years I don’t have a pressing deadline. What a giddily light and airy world it can be. However do any of you cope?

Yesterday, we met up with A. and her new beau J., who have been visiting from New Zealand. We lunched on burgers (in the kiwi style, with fried egg and beetroot), got a tour round the fun old stuff in the Petrie Museum (for which I’ve been doing some of this ‘ere research), and then fell into the Birkbeck student bar, where five drinks were less than ten quid.

The Dr was able to join us having reached a good point in her own book-writing efforts – I’ve chapters to edit on the train tomorrow, as I make my way to Swansea. Plan is not to be part of the official convention, but rather part of the fringe. That is, in the bar.

Have heard from the best mate, as he storms through the Russian railway, while a colleague heard I’ll be in Sheffield next week and tantalised me with talk of Eyam. So next week I shall be reading a book about it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Shooting history in the foot"

I’ve enjoyed Jon Snow’s often jokey Snowmail preludes to each evening’s Channel 4 News, which are often funnier, more insightful and more to the point than the various BBC journalists’ blogs. Then there’s Snow’s terrible taste in stripy, brightly coloured ties, his ever-present bike and the occasional scandalised tabloid front page. Usually because he’s beaten them to a salacious scoop.

But that was about all I knew about him, really. So I wasn’t sure what to expect of his memoirs, Shooting History. The paperback offers some intriguing pull-quotes. Denis MacShane of the Independent calls him,
“a modern-day George Orwell”
while Matthew Parris offers the rather back-handed compliment that,
“when it dawns on the reader how extremely anti-Establishment Jon Snow’s views are, one’s respect for his impartiality as a broadcaster only grows.”
The book starts with Snow’s comfortable childhood, the son of the head of a public school (and later Bishop of Whitby), and he’s a better chorister than scholar. He’s brief but surprisingly frank about near-abuse and early sexual encounters, but it’s his year as a VSO in Uganda that really makes an impact, followed by an anti-apartheid sit in at Liverpool Univeristy, flunking out of college and three years hard graft for a drugs shelter. There’s something of the radical zealot about this character-forming period, like having realised he’s been one of the privileged ones he’s desperate to make amends.

Snow rather comes to journalism by accident, but the political zeal is vital to the kind of journalist he becomes. There’s a terrific tension between the imperative to report objectively and professionally and his own deep-rooted desire to act. There are times meeting Idi Amin or other dictators when he’s aware he could physically attack them, even kill them… His horror at Europe and America’s various colonial and militaristic projects (for all his evident love of the countries and people) is born from the simple, evident proposition that they’re not playing fair.

In effect, Snow’s been right there in the midst of some of the key events and with the key people of recent decades, and this is an insightful modern history. But for all the big stuff about wars and world leaders, there’s plenty of telling small details. On pp. 74-5 his bicycle gets him to a scoop long before his stuck-in-traffic rivals, and later the bike astounds his colleagues in Washington DC. There’s mention of his influential friends – lawyers and politicians of the crusading bent – and the effect his thrill-seeking wanderlust has on his family life. These, too, are dealt with briefly and frankly, and I can see why the Independent might liken this plain style to Orwell.

There is, though, more good humour than in Orwell’s reportage, and a delight at the absurd.
“Geoffrey Howe, still Foreign Secretary, once told me how Mrs Thatcher, who rarely took a holiday, found herself, with her husband Denis, on a five-day break in a small town in Austria. By some ghastly coincidence, the Kohls were at a hotel nearby. She decided she’d best nip trouble in the bud, and sent word to the Chancellor suggesting a casual meeting. He replied that he could not possibly find time to see her, being too tied up with work commitments. That afternoon, she and Denis took a stroll, and there, three streets from their own hotel, was the substantial figure of Kohl sitting happily with his wife Hannelore and a solitary security guard in the sun outside a café, devouring a vast cream bun.”

Jon Snow, Shooting History, pp. 283-4.

The villainous Eliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies says that the most important question for a journalist to answer is why. Snow’s great achievement here is to interlink the wars and world leaders he’s encountered, joining up the dots to explain how we get where we are now. He shows how the mess made of Africa by withdrawing European colonial powers provided a breeding ground for terror. He was there on the ground in Grenada to see the Reagan administration wilfully ignoring the nonsensical elements of its intelligence to pursue a reckless, aggressive war.
“It was one of the very rare occasions on which America took not a single journalist into war with her. Ostensibly the aim of the invasion was to ‘rescue’ the American medical students from the annexe at the bottom of the runway. Five thousand US troops were sent on the mission. Instead of hitting the bunkers that didn’t exist, they attacked the wrong building, a mental hospital, killing patients. Resistance was almost non-existent, but that did not prevent three US Black Hawk helicopters from crashing into each other while they assaulted another building which turned out to be completely empty. At the end of it all, after a couple of hours of ‘fighting’, sixty Cuban workers, twenty-four Grenadians and nineteen American troops lay dead. Most of the medical students complained that that they didn’t want to be rescued at all.”

Ibid., p. 221.

In the final chapter, Snow draws these many threads together into a crusading manifesto – one aimed at the broadcast media as well as political leaders. He is angry at the media’s shrinking horizons and the failure of the North of the world to engage with and comprehend the concepts and imagery – and grievances – of the South.
“This is a time for nations and peoples to come together, a time to rekindle the United Nations dream and let it reflect more honestly a fairer new world order. But the national politicians don’t want to talk about it, and the media is relieved – for it is the stuff of boredom. If the fashion for war against a noun is with us, why not a ‘war against ignorance’? We have an obligation to our children and our children’s children to break out of our self-centred lethargy and to engage – not as we did before, extracting whatever we felt was worth taking – but in enabling everyone to share in whatever is productive and enriching for all of us. If we do not, assuredly the resentful and dispossessed will come for us with greater and greater ferocity. They will not come in an overwhelming Second World War kind of way, but in never-ending stabs that render our developed daily lives more and more insecure.”

Ibid., p. 378.

We must ask the difficult questions and face the difficult truths. As he says, the attacks of 9/11 were not, “just a band of disaffected educated Saudis. These people are emotionally succoured and backed by great numbers in the world who see no hope, who have nothing to lose, and who think ‘America had it coming’.”

It rests on us to ask why.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Keep it secret, keep it safe

“It’s like Allo! Allo!, but without the laughs,” said Monster Maker as he tried to explain to me Secret Army.

“Oh,’ I said. “So just like Allo! Allo!”
Secret Army (1977-79) was one of a number of highly acclaimed BBC telly dramas based on the Second World War. Thought up and produced by the same gang what did Colditz, this is about the adventures of the Belgian “Lifeline”, a top secret network that rescued crashed Allied airman and got them back to fighting Nazis again. For several wise people I know, it’s the best thing ever on telly.

In the first series, Jan Francis plays Lisa – codename Yvette – the brave young zealot running Lifeline. She works through Brussels café le Candide run by the charming Albert Fourier (Bernard Hepton). Albert’s crippled wife is bed-ridden, but aware that Albert’s carrying on an affair with waitress Monique (Angela Richards). Lifeline also gets help from teenage waitress Natalie (Juliet Hammond-Hill) and vegetable-seller / radio-operator Alain (Ron Pember), plus Doctor Keldermans (Valentine Dyall). There’s also English agents, old ladies and helpful peasants along the way.

It’s a brutal series where nobody is safe, the work of saving some 800 airman taking a terrible toll. As the Germans continually point out, an airman being captured goes becomes a prisoner of war, but anyone helping them escape will be shot. So there’s plenty of chases across roof-tops and through the country, and some occasional firefights and explosions.

Pretty much every actor of the time is in it, plus several young faces yet to be names. Matthew Sweet and I invented a game for watching it, where you get one point for naming an actor, two points for naming something else they’ve been in, and five points for their role in Doctor Who. The Black Guardian’s a regular, and so is Doctor Skagra, and there’s roles for the Security Chief from The War Games, Griffiths from Attack of the Cybermen and even the boss of the Krillitane.

It’s also odd to see Klinkerhoffen, von Strohm and Gruber from Allo! Allo! in it. But also odder to imagine anyone being sold “Let’s do Secret Army as a sitcom”. Did someone really respond, “Yes, that’s a good idea…”?

Like a lot of old drama (and maybe Casualty now) the pathos comes from watching people dashed on the rocks of ill-fortune. Yes, like Casualty, we can sometimes spot which characters are going to die from the moment they’re introduced. But other characters, like (muto) Stephen Yardley’s Max and (my friend) Paul Shelley’s Major Bradley, are both sudden and nasty surprises.

Likewise, Yvette is suddenly killed off in the first episode of season two, just as le Candide becomes a posh restaurant and changes the whole dynamic of the series. This means that it can cater for the occupying forces, so there’s more interaction between the goodies and the German villains. These are lead by Clifford Rose’s Kessler, head of the Gestapo, and Michael Culver’s Brandt as the firm-but-fair head of the Luftwaffe. The series also explores the Germans’ relationships, and offers a sympathetic view of the ordinary German soldiery, as separate from the Nazi sadists.

Which is odd, because Andy Priestner’s notes and the DVD extras tell us that Clifford Rose was the one the audience went for. Perhaps that’s because the ladies like a villain, or because even he is made sympathetic through his relationship with Hazel McBride’s Madelaine. She didn’t, though, continue into the dubious-sounding spin-off which sees us rooting for Kessler on the run.

In fact, a hell of a lot of the series is about the complexities of what’s often portrayed elsewhere as a simple war of good versus evil. Lifeline has to make tough decisions and sacrifice people, just to protect themselves, while the Germans are often kind and caring people, just as hurt by the ongoing war. The fact that the series can so ruthlessly, unexpectedly despatch its characters also adds to the sense that we don’t know what’s coming next.

Season Two also sees a lot of stock footage mixed in with the action, tying the events and characters of the drama into the real, historical record. I wondered how much more effective that would have been at the time, so soon after The World At War.

The second season ends with news of the Allied invasion, and the prospect of liberation. But this in fact causes more complications in Season Three, as it becomes harder to run Lifeline with the roads, trains and phones out of action, and with Terrence Hardiman’s Reinhardt breathing closer down their necks. What’s more, the communists see Albert as the enemy, and the rest of Brussels see him as a conspirator. It becomes a race against time: will Albert and his friends be lynched before the Allies can explain their efforts.

The four episodes leading up to the end (bar the final episode) take place on consecutive days as the Allies get into Brussels. There’s a sudden change of pace and loose ends get tied up very quickly. There are still some last-minute deaths for regular characters, but there’s also a sudden romance and rescue that I hadn’t seen coming at all. Calling the final episode “The Execution” had me thinking it would go a whole other way entirely. Good herring there, fellas!

I’d heard something of the events of the penultimate episode from my parents, who remembered the series fondly. The bit that stuck in their mind was Monique having her head shaved by the Brussels mob, for being an adultress and collaborator. Is it wrong to be disappointed that it’s only an extra who gets the grade 2 treatment? I felt that this rescue and Monique’s subsequent adventures were too contrived a happy ending – even if the final scene of the series plays again into the complexity of everyone’s relationships.

And then suddenly it’s all over. A never screened, never available final episode is described in the DVD notes, reuniting the characters in 1969, while Albert and Natalie had cameos in the spin-off Kessler. And there are details of a CD of singing on Andy Priestner’s website.

Is it the best thing ever, then? The structure’s a bit odd in places so that suddenly whole long plot lines are over. Sometimes it’s pretty hysterical (“Plague!!!”), and I’d have liked some more funny bits to balance the general misery. But it’s a gripping, intelligent series full of fantastic characters and detail, and really rather special.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's so little else occupying my head

Devon drizzled with occasional sunshine. Salcombe conspired to have 45 degree slops whichever route you took, but is a pretty, posh-shopped little town. I drank a lot of the local Tinners and answered the same questions from friends-of-the-parents over and over again: living in south London; married for three years; yes, writing pays; no, we don’t have kids yet.

Met the brother of a film star – one I sort of interviewed once – who showed remarkable patience at being always introduced as this-is-Film-Star’s-brother. We bonded over a love of food, and how a bit of exercise keeps the gorging in balance.

Also saw some of an uncle and his family who I’d not seen in nearly 10 years. We have vowed to do better in future, and I hope to get up to see him next month. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite avoid telling my all-grown-up cousin that the last time I’d seen her she’d been toddling. Gather she got that a lot.

Ate and drank and chatted and drank. Then on Sunday to see some of the Dr’s family, who live either end of a steep hill in Cornwall. Ate five Cornish pasties, two lots of trifle and a couple of hefty saffron cake wedgess. Back to Devon for pub tea and more beer, but too knackered to make a bash at the big brother’s which started at about 10 pm.

Wended our way slowly home yesterday, with a brief stop at Totnes castle. It’s a fairly bare, round keep with commanding views over the town towards the curving river. Schoolkids dashed about and shouted, none of them very interested in how a round keep is harder to undermine, or in the politics England post-Hastings. Must admit the extant shell is not the most exciting castle I’ve ever been to.

Having left our nice B&B at 10 in the morning, we finally got home just gone six. Was meant to be eating sushi in town for seven to celebrate J’s latest birthday. Wussed out in favour of an early night… and so was around to help L when she turned up to heft her many boxes and bags from our attic.

Back to working today. Plenty to be caught up on – last niggles on the Inside Story and the boss’s notes on The Pirate Loop. Has been a fun and long-time-coming break, but I don’t half feel like I now need a holiday…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Run Simon Run

A long day of chasing about madly yesterday – and my limbs are still not recovered from wild disco at a wedding on Saturday. It has been too long since I last did “dancing” (in quotes ‘cos of my own unique “style”). But cor, it wasn’t half fun.

First off, an appointment at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, which has been confirmed as the venue of a special signing for the Benny Inside Story on Saturday 3 November.

I’ll be there, as will Lisa Bowerman (Benny), Rebecca Levene (editor of many of Benny’s books, and of the forthcoming Missing Adventures), Nicholas Briggs (my boss and the voice of the Daleks and Cybermen), plus Benny regulars Steven Wickham and (I hope) Sam Stevens. More details to come, but put 3 November in your diaries.

After a coffee and discussion with one of my bosses, I chased down to the station to have my picture taken by LB Photography. This is mostly for the back-flap of the Inside Story and partly just ‘cos I is vain. Sat under a hedge just out of the sunshine and did as I was told – leaning forward and raising my chin and other tricks of the trade. After, there was calzone, gossip and a search for other photos.

Then hauled myself up to what used to be a pub not far from one end of Mark Brunel’s famous tunnel. Worked with clever designer Alex Mallinson on amends to the Inside Story until 9 pm, by which time mine eyes were glazing over. Home by nearly ten to watch a draft music video Codename Moose had directed on Saturday. It features some pretty impressive fisticuffs, the same Alex Mallinson leaping over the bar in a pub (I expect he practices at home) and my friend O. being a bruiser.

Last proofing tomorrow; another long day. And then fleeing to Darkest Devon for my parents’ ruby wedding bash. They were of course married the same day as The Tomb of the Cybermen part 3.

Friday, September 07, 2007

"Simon? Oh - he's rubbish!"

The third issue of free Doctor Who fanzine Shooty Dog Thing is now online.

It's packed with all kind of Bernice Summerfield goodness. As well as interviews with Lisa Bowerman, Stephen Fewell and, er, me, you get a potted history of Benny's adventures, some reviews and all kinds of good stuff. And I love the cover.

Plenty more fun to come in honour of Benny's 15th birthday. Watch this space.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The philosophy of numbers

(For those keeping score at home, this is my 500th post.)

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain BanksThe Steep Approach to Garbadale, the almost-new book by Iain Banks, is like a comfy old pair of trainers, an effortlessly easy, lively, funny read for the train up to Blackpool. I’m somewhat relieved by this having read some mixed reviews – especially one in Private Eye which seemed to think this effortlessness not only easy but contemptible.

Alban McGill doesn’t want to be found by his family. But cousin Fielding tracks him down because he needs his help at their gran’s 80th birthday. The family’s made its fortune from a board game called Empire!, and the gathering will see a vote on whether or not to sell the game and family name to an American corporation…

The inside flap of the book calls this Banks’s “most compelling novel since The Crow Road” – as if that’s his Scary Monsters, and as if he’s not since produced anything good. It certainly has a lot of similarities to The Crow Road, as the black sheep of a large and eccentric Scottish family falls for the wrong, posh girl, delves into the family history and unearths a terrible secret. Structurally, this new book is perhaps a little stronger – I always felt The Crow Road’s murder mystery was a bit tacked on.

Yet I also spotted the main twist of this one well before halfway, and so found the ending a little anti-climactic. But importantly, like The Crow Road (and the Banks-thieving Dr Who and the Also People), the plot as such is more a distraction from the book’s real brilliance – exploring people’s lives as they meet up, have drinks, fall in love… It’s often at its best, and funniest and most insightful, when you don’t feel anything important is going on. Fielding trying to impress his elderly aunties with PowerPoint, or a night out on too many drugs. VG struggles to explain the philosophy of numbers.

There’s also lots of things that reminded me of other books by Banks. Games are models of morals and society as in Complicity and The Player of Games. Tango’s bad grammar as he narrates parts of the story are a bit like Bascule in Feersum Enjinn. Alban and cousin Haydn in Paris made me think of The State of the Art, while the suicide made me think of Look to Windward. This is not a criticism, rather an acknowledgment that Banks returns to certain themes; it wouldn’t be a criticism of John le Carre to say his new book’s about spies and big money.

Another Banks trait is the effort to get the zeitgeist. There’s mention of Live Aid, 9/11, Iraq and the Boxing Day Tsunami, and a sense of how these things – some experienced first hand, some experienced as news on the telly – affect and change people’s lives. It’s a way of blending the personal experiences of the characters with the broader experiences of the reader, making the characters more real and convincing.

This sort of thing’s at its best when it also shows us something about the characters. Alban split up with a girl over his (initial) support for the Iraq war. But too often there are glib bits of politics that come not from the mouths of the characters but feel like the author ranting.
"The USA, perhaps not surprisingly, proved reluctant to accept Empire!; sales were miserable. Henry tried a version of the game based on a map consisting only of the contiguous states of the US, but that did little better. Finally he bought up a small printing firm in Pittsburgh so that the box and board could each bear the legend Made in the USA, altered the map of the world on which Empire! was based so that the USA was centred – the boundaries of the board cutting through the heart of Asia – renamed the game Liberty!, changed nothing else and watched the dollars roll in."

Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 130.

This is just one example; there’s also a history of the 20th century given in the names of different permutations of the game, and a thing about how being right-wing is a sign of a lack of imagination. This is a shame because it detracts from the richness of detail and character that makes the book so engaging.

In fact, some of Banks’s best work is where he tells a story from a point of view he doesn’t agree with. The utopian Culture of his sci-fi is often seen through the eyes of those it has not won over and – as I argued in my academic paper nearly a decade ago – most of the Culture stories contrast the Culture with other societies, showing aspects that are both better and worse. Complicity, likewise, has a main character who we empathise with yet never like.

This hectoring aside, there’s some great insights throughout the book. I especially liked the line about readers of science fiction not being taken in by sweeping statements like “the end of history”. It’s extremely good at evoking the embarrassment and thrill of first love and naughties, and the pressures and delights of a sprawling great family. For all it is funny and lively, it’s also quite a melancholic book, the potential sale of the family business a symbol of everything else that’s been lost.

I’d been nervous about the book based on other people’s reactions, but The Steep Approach to Garbadale was simply a pleasure to read. And now I am hopping with excitement about the forthcoming Matter.
"Had he said the right thing [...]? He'd tried to say what he felt, what he believed. He'd probably been too political, too self-indulgent, but when else was he going to get a chance to say stuff like that to an audience willing to listen?"

Ibid., p. 357.