Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pop and loot

Hello again. I've had a lovely few days off, gorging on food and pals and telly. Dr Who + Kylie + Bernard Cribbens = WIN. I think I might have popped at least once, and the Dr wept as if it were the end of Return of the Jedi. How splendid to see that Cribbens will be back later in 2008.

Did very well in terms of loot; lots of books and socks. My laser screwdriver (thanks to Codename and Mrs Moose) however, doesn't seem to work right. No matter how much I try, I can't get it to make all the Dr's clothes fall off.

Being taken to see Spamalot now as part of my festive haul. The Dr's on a deadline so hogging the computer, but I've just had time to check my emails and have word from Simon K that The Pirate Loop is at #166 in's bestseller list. Cor blimey. I have taken a picture because no one will believe me.


P.S. It's in all good bookshops now, and has healing properties.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

First review of Pirate Loop

Stuart Ian Burns seems to be the first person I don't actually know to have read Doctor Who and the Pirate Loop, which he's reviewed for Behind the Sofa. My "bizarre fantasty" suffers from "an over-familiarity of ideas", while "the characters too, with the exception of a well interpreted Doctor and Martha, are all fairly irritating". Ho hum.

He's critical of the characterisation, and says "the author takes great pleasure in reproducing" the badger pirates' West Country accents. Which is odd, because the book specifically says that they don't have accents like that.

"Despite all of that it’s not an unenjoyable read and sometimes quite ingenious," he concludes, which I guess is good. He's pleased with my structuring and foreshadowing, and my Martha is made of win. But hell, I'm gonna quote the last bit of his review, because it seems whatever my failings, so am I:
"But you know what in the end makes this worth reading? A single paragraph of introspection in which our hero ruminates on what would need to be done were he really to lose his companion. It’s perhaps the most powerful bits of writing about the lonely god since the bottom end of The Family of Blood."

Stuart Ian Burns, Yeah, well, you know I once saw Mika live in Denmark...", Behind the Sofa, 21 December 2007.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fuat Deniz RIP

Just heard that Fuat Deniz was murdered last week.

I last saw Fuat just over two years ago, when I was over in Sweden. I can see him vividly now, laughing, teasing his brother-in-law, passing me a beer. There he is, around him his wife and young daughter and family...

He'd talked to me and the Dr about his research into the Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. (It's this that forms the backdrop of the forthcoming Neil Gaiman movie, The Road to En-Dor.) As Fuat said, the Turkish authorities still won't acknowledge the genocide even happened. Nor has it been officially recognised as happening by any other country.

Fuat's research was not only into the fates of Christian minorities in Turkey, but also their experiences as exiles and refugess elsewhere. He was a passionate, clever man with flashes of sudden humour. His murder seems to have been for political motives, and his murderer remains at large.

As his brother-in-law says:

"This is of course a major tragedy for the family, the Assyrian community and for everyone who believes in democracy and freedom of speech.

Tomorrow (19th December) at 18:00 (GMT+1) there will be demonstrations in eight Swedish cities in response to this tragedy. If you are near or can get to Orebro, Stockholm, Norrkoping, Linkoping, Uppsala, Lund, Jonkoping or Gothenburg, then please make your way there and show your support for the cause."

Details here (in Swedish).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Knowledge or certainty?

It was reading Prime Witness that finally prompted me to make an effort with the Ascent of Man. It’s the third of BBC 2’s decades-old, prestigious, full-colour documentaries, following on from Civilisation (a history of western art) and America. And it endeavours to be something quite unlikely: a history of science without all the boring bits.

This is not an easy proposition. Civilisation and America had both involved pointing the camera at pretty objects and landmarks. The Ascent of Man DVD has a single special feature, in which then-Controller of BBC 2 David Attenborough explains that these were easy ways for the Beeb to flog colour telly. You just had to get some respectable presenter to put the glossy shots in order.

Yet science is less about pretty objects and more about ideas and theory. It is not, as Attenborough admitted, ideally suited to moving pictures as distributed by cathode ray. To solve this knotty conundrum, they commissioned the polymath Jacob Bronowski.

His answer was to cover not just what we think of “science” – laboratory experiments in biology, chemistry and physics – but the broader development of thought, art and articulation. As he says late on in the series, “science” is just another word for “knowledge”. This, then, is the history of how we’ve sussed stuff out.

His examples span art and science, poetry and performance and music. There’s stuff about the way churches were built – physically and politically. And he’s good at adding in funny stories and anecdotes about great scientists he has himself known. At one point he says that “all science is analogy” (– which I wished I’d heard when I wrote The Pirate Loop).

To begin, he asks a deceptively simple question: what makes mankind different from other animals. Bronowski’s contention, in the pre-credit tease of episode one, is that while we have discovered the remains of other species, only humanity leaves behind it the remains of things it has made. We do not merely best fit the circumstances of the world around us, we adapt and shape the landscape, use tools to bend it to our will.

The current reckoning is that about 250,000 years ago, the development of skull and brain in Homo erectus enabled the kind of abstract thought needed to shape and use stone tools. The scion of erectus who most embraced the fashionable new Stone Age were a new species, Homo sapiens – that’s us.

As Bronowski argues, for the great majority of our existence as a species, we’ve been wandering about willy-nilly, foraging after undomesticated animals. Bronowski himself visited the Bakhtiari in Iran, to show how the hand-to-mouth existence following and living off the herd means that there’s little space for innovation or thought outside the box.

Some 10,000 years ago or so, people began to put down roots. Bronowski visits the ruin of Jericho to show how the development of common wheat, fresh-running water and such modern technology as walls completely changed human perspective of what could be done with any day. Rather than disputing the Old Testament, as we might expect from a champion of science, he uses the accounts given in the handed-down stories to add credence to his archaeological proof. The harvest, he argues, meant busy times working in the fields and fighting off those who would steal the resulting bounty, but it also left man free to think and talk and try stuff.

It takes two whole episodes to reach this point, establishing the conditions for history and science as we come to know them. A mere 4,000 or so years after man settles down (i.e. 6,000-ish years ago), he invents two things that will again change life quite utterly – bronze and writing.

It’s the breadth of Bronowski’s knowledge and insight that makes this such a compelling series. He links up all kinds of different ideas in ways that are often surprising. For example, we watch a katana being forged in the traditional method, the metal slow-fired and folded, then fired and folded again. Bronowski shows how this method makes a sword that’s both durable and sharp; as if (his analogy) mixing the desired properties of rubber and of glass. This, he explains, was the both cognitive and alchemical leap that – prior to iron and a bit of carbon making steel – mixed tin and copper as bronze and so got mankind out of the stone age.

It’s no coincidence that this is also the dawn of recorded history – and I’ve heard before the idea that Bishop Ussher’s calculation gives not the date the world was made, but a good approximation of when humans first began to record it. 23 October, 4004 BCE is a rough guess of when pre-history gave way to people keeping records and diaries. The written word enables man to pass on his learning to subsequent generations, so they need not waste time puzzling it out for themselves. In so doing it creates the potential for scientists to climb on to each other’s shoulders.

Once man is mixing alloys and writing, the series comes into its own. Each of the subsequent episodes explores a particular scientific construction – Newton’s mathematics, for example, or heredity and evolution. As part of Attenborough’s brief to provide colourful, arresting images, Bronowski travels the whole world, weaving together all kinds of cultures and stories into his over-all thesis. The images are indelible: a baby being born; a small child taking its first steps; nomadic peoples living the same existence that was humanity’s lot 10,000 years ago.

The music and poetry of the periods in discussion are mixed with wild-eyed modern stuff by Pink Floyd and Dudley Simpson. (I tried to describe Deadly Dudley to the Dr – as an Australian Sir Didymus off of Labyrinth.) Droo fans will also enjoy Brian Hodgson’s trippy sound effects. Surely that’s not the noise that molecules make but some kind of Cyberman gun. The state-of-the-art computer graphics would have been better realised by Kevin Davies and sheets of acetate.

As the series goes on, it becomes evident that Bronowski has an ethical agenda, a morality of science. One episode deals with how the church secretly acknowledged but publicly suppressed Galileo’s observed proofs of Copernicus. The theme returns again and again: Mendel’s studies of heredity being burned by his monastic order, the Nazis burning whole demographic groups.

It’s the best argument I’ve heard to counter the old line that Nazism and the holocaust is what happens when you give free reign to scientists and atheists.
"[It] was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 374.

In the broadcast (rather than book) version, he speaks of “despotic belief”, and does so as he steps into the ponds at Auschwitz where members of his own family were butchered. It’s utterly compelling television, more so as the summation of that episode’s whole thesis, that we can never know anything entirely.

That episode, “11. Knowledge or certainty”, is particularly brilliant in explaining the limits of our perception and so of our knowledge. It begins with a blind women feeling the face of an elderly fellow, and telling us what she thinks of him. We then see an artist’s various scribbly impressions of the same man, broad brushstrokes exploring his features.

Bronowski uses this model to explain the limits of our eye sight – “visible” light is only a tiny section of the range of wavelengths. So we run through images of the same man through radio waves, infra red, visible light, ultra violet and x-ray, each filter offering new information and perspective. The last shows us what our eye-sight did not – that’s he’s missing most of his teeth. Yet we still don’t know who or what this elderly man really is.

Bronowski explores gaps in knowledge, and how scientists fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s so they’d be able to keep on asking questions. He speaks of the necessary integrity of science, of people striving for truth that dares confront ideology. The principle of uncertainty established by those fleeing German scientists does not mean that we know nothing, but that we know to build in allowances. The analogy Bronowksi uses is from engineering; a threshold of tolerance.

Scientific thought and discovery thrives where there is tolerance of new ideas and a respect for that integrity. It is not science but dogma when awkward questions are persona non grata. It made me think of Agent Zigzag, and the bureaucracy of the Nazi secret service, where no one could admit to the failings in the system so nothing could be done to fix them.

The episode finishes not, as in the book, with Bronowski putting his hands into the water where the ash of thousands of dead people lie. Rather we return to the old man we’d seen at the beginning. We have seen him through all the wavelengths of light and by touch and extrapolation. But we start to know him, to gain insight into who he might be, when the picture fades to one taken much earlier. When a younger version of him stares forlornly, wan and undernourished, in the striped uniform of the same concentration camp.

It is the sudden spark of cognition, of understanding, that makes it so moving. That episode - not just that scene - is one of the most intelligent and powerful things I've ever seen on telly.

The final episode, filmed mostly in Bronowski’s Californian home, ties up the many disparate threads into a thesis about our future. He talks of teaching in schools and the dangers of ignoring scientific discovery – of downplaying evolution, of not facing uncomfortable truths. Bronowski himself speaks of the end of Western civilisation 50 years from when he’s speaking – or, of the curriculum babies born now will be studying at A-level. The Ascent of Man might continue elsewhere, he says, but the Western – or, more accurately, the English-speaking – claim on it will be a footnote in another culture’s history. By not facing history and not exploring the present, we write ourselves out of the future.

I wonder what he’d make of now. And would a series like this be possible today? Matthew Collings’ recent update of Civilisation only ran for four episodes, which the Dr says is indicative of modern telly’s impatience. I think it may also be that a lot of what he’s addressing and showing onscreen is more readily available to us; a sizeable number of those watching Civilisation back in 1969 would not have seen much of the stuff on it before.

I think there’s a market for a new history of science, one that does not ignore the controversies where evidence meets belief. One that perhaps takes its cue from Bill Bryson’s tolerant and plain English Brief History of Everything (which I see’s been re-released in a lavish and illustrated version, proving again that these difficult theories and ideas can be visualised).

One that asks the simple questions behind all science of tolerance and integrity… Why is it like that? Oh really? It’s an interesting idea, but can you prove it?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wakey wakey

The Big Finish website has been updated with the final cover for my final Benny play, The Wake.

Bernice Summerfield - The Wake

It may well be my favourite of all Ade Salmon's lovely work, and I'm a little bittersweet that I'm not his boss for any more. The play itself is now out next month, and is fast being completed by top noise monkey Matthew Cochrane, who springs hot from his work on exciting new Big Finish classic serial Phantom of the Opera.

Yes, that's right, I said "Big Finish classic serial"; how exciting is that? And it's available to purchase by DOWNLOAD! By jove, we live in interesting times.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

All friends betrayed

To the NFT last night for their annual Missing Believed Wiped night, a hotch potch collection of roughly snipped snippets of dodgy old telly, none of them known to exist just 12 months ago. It’s only a very recent idea that telly should be kept and if not cherished at least out on DVD. For decades it was as ephemeral as live theatre, repeats fleeting and rare.

I’ve been to these kinds of evenings before, and love my Lost in Time DVD. The tantalising glimpses of missing episodes of Doctor Who – scenes cut by foreign censors, frames captured on super-8, trailers and alternate takes – are probably far more exciting than the complete programmes ever were.

There was, sadly, no Droo in the haul this year, so last night was more about rather common TV. There were comedy sketches from pre-Python Pythons and pre-The Two Ronnies two Ronnies. There was some terrifically bad acting from Cliff Richard as a cat burglar in a 1968 drama, A Matter of Diamonds. We gaped at Lonny Donegan ‘dancing’ on a 1970 episode of It’s Lulu, in the manner of an electrocuted eel. Yes, I was taking tips. The same episode featured two enthralling live performances from Aretha Franklin.

Rupert the Bear took a trip in a flying hat, an episode introduced by its director, Mary Turner (late of directing the Thunderbirds). It was one of a whole bag of episodes she’d had gathering dust in her greenhouse. We sat in rapt silence watching nth generation video (from regular 8 filming) of the BBC’s coverage of the moon landings. The footage of Neil Armstrong strolling about was a grainy blur and we’ve all seen it in better quality. What thrilled us was the BBC’s simulations of rockets, the captions that used the same typefaces as in Doctor Who, the voice of Patrick Moore in the gaps between the astronauts and mission control…

Not entirely unrelatedly, there was then the whole pilot episode from 1956 of Douglas Fairbanks Junior presenting Bulldog Drummond. London’s most famous daring-do fascist was played by Robert Beatty (he of Tenth Planet and 2001).

The Other Man on the cover of TV Times
Yet the highlight was the extant 81 minutes of ITV’s 1964 drama, The Other Man. Where else could you see Michael Caine, John Thaw and John Noakes – yes, him from Blue Peter! – all in the same scene? We got the first 45 minutes and then a skip to the end.

It’s a striking Hitler Wins story by Giles Cooper, directed with great verve by Gordon Flemyng (him of the two Dalek movies and Quatermass’s dad). It’s surprising how much it strives to overcome the limits of telly of the time. There’s a huge cast, plenty of quick scenes across a whole range of locations, and a hell of a lot of stuff filmed on location. Yes, the same paltry backdrop of mountains is meant to show both India and Bavaria, but it’s the range of ambition of the script as well as the direction that convinces us of huge scale. This is bold and clever writing, enthralling and full of moral complexity.

George Grant (Caine) is a British officer at the end of the Second World War. That is, in 1941, after Churchill has been assassinated. The British slowly come to terms with the Nazis, and we follow the uncomfortable compromises as the two armies and societies link up. Grant is not keen to join the Germans, yet his constant attention to the good of the regiment means making some tough and nasty choices…

There’s an early conflict about whether its appropriate to toast the führer at the same time as toasting the king. The script artfully underplays the real dilemma for the Nazis in the scene, that the British soldier who’ll be making the toast is Jewish.

Grant and his brother officers fail – or decline – to notice the singling out their Jewish colleagues, who are all sent off to ‘promotion’ in Dover. Dennis Chinnery is brilliant as David Lewin, meekly following orders to his doom. Suddenly a whole section of the regiment has gone, we think never to be seen again. And then Grant’s coming back from a jolly honeymoon in Paris and dares to look out of the window… Lewin is one of the beaten, wraith-like creatures working on the line.

It’s moments like this that leave us waiting for the worm to turn. Caine’s charm and screen presence mean we’re constantly surprised and appalled by Grant’s compliance in the new regime.

There’s a sizeable chunk missing from the middle of the piece, which seems to include Grant having to denounce and execute his best man (Thaw). As a result, he’s increasingly estranged from his own countrymen and his wife (Sian Phillips), who succumbs to booze. (The fantastic cast also includes Carol Cleveland, Kenneth Colley, George Layton, Vladek Sheybal and Brian Cant – although he’s in a bit that’s still missing.)

Yet no matter how much Grant gives his Nazi masters, it is never quite enough. In the last section, when he’s about to meet Hitler in reward for all his hard graft, Grant is interrogated by a Gestapo officer (a terrifying depiction of banal evil from David Graham) who seem to need him to incriminate anybody else. The Jews have been dealt with, so they’re now looking for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, the Irish… Anyone will do.

With yet another of his friends betrayed, Grant finally starts to crack. He numbly lets himself be led to the officers-only brothel, and confesses his doubts and regrets to a whore who’s got a microphone. Grant’s subsequent suicide attempt is interrupted by enemy attack, his confession lost when he orders bombing of his own base camp.

The mangled hand protruding from the wreckage could have been the end. Grant then takes the only option left to him, the same one as his wife’s first (Jewish) husband, who shot himself rather than be sent to Dover.

But The Other Man then has Grant wake up in hospital a whole year later, alive thanks to brilliant Nazi advances in medicine. They’re keen to reconcile him with his wife and send the couple back to England as exemplars of the new regime. But Mrs Grant does not recognise her husband, and it emerges he’s really not the man he was.

Six men have died to provide Grant with his replacement limbs and eye, the Ukrainian prisoners he can see from his hospital window racially pure while remaining inferior. All along, Grant has stayed just inside the ever closing circle of Nazi privilege, and doing so by sacrificing those around him. Even at the end he is unmoved when the doctor tells him that, his wife having rejected him, it will be more convenient if he’s widowed.

The assimilation has come in small steps, each betrayal and revelation more appalling than the last. But the script also dares suggest there’s little else that Grant can do – anyone else who cracks jokes, expresses doubt, even takes part in acts of petty disobedience is swiftly, harshly dealt with.

This is not, then, the story of a man left with no way of fighting back, as it would have been had it ended on his death. Rather, like 1984, we watch the regime batter the individual to monstrous conformity.

As with Philip K Dick's Hugo award-winning Hitler Wins novel, The Man in the High Castle, the final section flashes to some new reality where things have played out differently again. The Other Man ends with Caine in ‘our’ world (we only see it briefly but it seems to be ours). He’s still a hero, still called upon to lecture and inspire the next generation of soldiers. The real horror of The Other Man is not how divorced from our world Grant becomes, but how close we still could come.
“In its inexorable action, its unempathic exactitude of human observation, and its fearsome demonstration of how men are changed by what they choose to do, this is far more than a superior piece of Grand Guignol. And although the specific evil it attacks is as dead as St George’s dragon it asks questions about the value of professional duty and personal ambition which are still too close for comfort.”

The Times, 12 September 1964 (quoted from BFI screening notes).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dane law and order

The third law of thermodynamics can crudely be put as follows:
Things fuck up. The more one tries to unfuck them, the more they get fucked up.
This principle has been demonstrated in art as well as science. In all kinds of worthy books and stories, Fortune’s fools are dashed against the rocks of outrageous circumstance. In these epic tragedies, it’s as if the whole of creation has contrived to label them with a sign saying “kick me”.

Sometimes this misery just seems to come from nowhere – the short story “The Cold Equations” sees a pretty girl killed by unforgiving mathematics, while the old poem Beowulf has a monster mash a kingdom for no reason.

By authorial conceit, we often learn of some tragic flaw on the part of a character which then caused the sky to fall. That’s true, for example, of the film version of Beowulf, and also of another Danish epic, the novel Kongens Fald.

Johannes V Jensen (1873-1950) has been called “Denmark’s Kipling” and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944. In 1999, Kongens Fald (1900-01) was independently named best Danish novel of the 20th century by two separate Danish newspapers. Though, er, until Jonathan Clements made me a present of a 1995 translation by Alan Bower, I had never heard of him.

It’s divided into three sections. Mikkel Thøgersen starts out in 1497, a not very studious student, dropping out of college to grow himself a beard. He ambles round the town, joins a rowdy bunch for beers but is not with them when they later take apart a carriage and reassemble it on a roof.

Mikkel’s not really sure what to do with his life, but he does want it to involve pretty Jewish girl Susanna Speyer A few other townsfolk have noticed she’s pretty, and there’s often rude graffiti daubed outside her house. Mikkel is neither so presumptuous or so bold as to approach her, so he bides his time…

When an old acquaintance forces himself Susanna, Mikkel swears revenge – and forces himself on the bloke’s meek fiancée. Well, it’s only fair…

There’s some rather anti-Semitic stuff about Jewish gold and curses, yet the injustices meted out to Susanna and her father provoke sympathy in the reader. It is rather brutish Christian hypocrisy that sets the tone of the proceedings. Jensen was apparently “a reckless polemicist and his often dubious racial theories have damaged his reputation” (says Wikipedia), but his treatment of these Jewish characters is complex and equivocal.

The second section picks up some 23 years later, when the spawn of these rapacious acts get it on together. Susanna’s son Axel never new his mum but has been bequeathed some Jewish treasure. Unfortunately, his own sexual exploits lose him his inheritance and get him in further hot water when Mikkel catches him up.

In the meantime, King Christian has also been busy. We’re witness to the “Stockholm Bloodbath”, in which the king trumped up charges against nobles who’d betrayed him, and then had everyone wait indoors while these nobles lost their heads. The viciousness of this act, the brute force and lack of mercy, are deftly juxtaposed with Axel and Mikkel’s base treatment of the ladies.

It’s the never-ending, unforgiving war, where whole families are struck down, that’s so reminiscent of Beowulf. Likewise, there’s an uneasy mix of old pagan gods beneath the surface of Christian virtue.

The “tragic flaw” of these people is then greed, their appetites for sex and power and gold. For all its vividly imagined digressions and haunting magical asides (Mikkel’s bastard daughter is made pregnant by Axel’s ghost), the book seems mostly about the terrible effect of our actions in grim reality, that we reap only what we sow. It’s bound, then, in what mark individuals can make on history, and what damage we unthinkingly do.

Part three sees an elderly Mikkel now assistant to the king, who has fallen on hard times and is living as a prisoner. Christian is depicted, says Wikipedia, with “characteristically Danish hesitancy and failures to act”. Mikkel, too, is a rather aimless wanderer, weeping when he kills a man but otherwise refusing to take responsibility for his actions and mistakes. His refusal to reconcile with one estranged family member in the final chapters is especially galling, the more when we’ve been witness to the great trek and effort the other party had gone to just to find him.

Mikkel’s story interweaves with the real historical events; sometimes affected by them, sometimes having an affect. In some ways, that’s rather like Vorenus and Pullo in the BBC/HBO Rome – the ordinary lives caught up in history giving insight into what those events mean. But the way Mikkel’s life shambles along, people being struck down by war and disease and poor luck all around him, also ties in with a later discussion about the discoveries of Copernicus.

King Christian has a crisis of faith at the thought that Earth revolves round the Sun – is he too not at the centre of things but the one doing all the orbiting. There’s a sense that all the people and the hard graft of their lives are caught up in the gravity well of things they barely comprehend. And if even the king is at the mercy of the elements, what hope for everyone else?
“The last little cluster of peasants defended themselves frantically, screaming madly. They cried through clenched teeth, but the sword was upon them. Iron and lead ripped through their lambskin coats and into their trembling bodies, while maces crushed their hands, cut through their fur hoods, and smashed their heads. No mercy was shown, and they were wiped out to the last man.

If King Christian had killed all the noblemen in Stockholm instead of only a score, then there wouldn’t have been so many to give vent to their irascibility later. The story of the [Stockholm] bloodbath has passed down through the centuries, but Johan Ranzau pulverized two thousand men at Aalbog and few have bemoaned the event. There the peasants were crushed so thoroughly that not even the story of the misdeed could be handed down. After that conflict an oppressive stillness fell over Jutland.

Not many came home to Graabølle. Niels Thørgersen fell at Aalbog. His eldest son had already died at Svenstrup. Mikkel sought out his brother’s body outside Aalbog and covered his face with earth. Neils had fallen as an honorable man, his back crushed by a cannon ball.”

Johannes V Jensen (trans. Alan Bower), The Fall of the King, pp. 218-9.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Space-pirate badger #1

In the run-up to The Pirate Loop being available in all good bookshops, I shall be posting some space-pirate badgers.

First off, here's my rubbish sketch for a possible book cover, from 18 March 2007. The terrible handwriting says, "Savage, eye-patched badger in neckerchief + battered space suit. Focal gold loop through ear." And also, "THE PIRATE LOOP by SIMON".

Space-pirate badger #1

Excitingly, this was then made a real cover by the cleverness incarnate that is Lee. I shall be posting that sometime soon...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"U" for "misms"

Inspired by the devil's dictionary, here are 10 defintions of business buzzwords. Readers are invited to do better.

Noun. Style - do not use. Change can be for the better or worse. For change for the better, use "improvement". Otherwise use "meddling".

Noun. Cheaper, inferior services forced upon the end user (q.v.).

Noun. Redundancy.

end user
Noun. The final, helplessly dependent sap to be considered in any question. If they are considered at all.

Adjective. Any technological system or business model that actively avoids hearing what the punters say.

Verb. Have sex with. E.g. "We're going to outsource the department's computers."

Noun. A new logo. Especially when it costs more than someone's salary.

Noun. Revelation late into a meeting that no one in attendance has the authority to decide anything.

Verb. See outsource.

Noun. Couldn't be given away free.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lies, damn lies and religion

Special agent Fox Mulder had a poster hanging up in his office at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It showed a classic “proof” of alien visitation, something like a blurry hubcap seeming huge above some treetops. Or perhaps it wasn’t a UFO, and was just a blurry hubcab.

The poster could be glimpsed in several episodes of The X Files, and it bore the legend, “I WANT TO BELIEVE”. Part of the drive of the show was Mulder trying to prove his weird shit to sceptical partner, Dana Scully. Long-suffering Scully would try to stop him wasting his life traipsing after any old nonsense… Her job was to insist on evidence and to make the X Files not look silly.

I was thinking of this as I finished The God Delusion. It’s odd, but prior to reading it for myself (and I’ve delayed ‘cos I knew it would need thinking about) I’ve sat through lots of earnest discussion of Dawkins and his book, with learned folk on both sides of the religious fence getting rather cross. It’s a little surprising – and disappointing – to discover that Dawkins himself addresses all the criticisms I have heard.

It’s a rather rambling series of thought experiments that not entirely systematically undermine belief. Dawkins addresses the continuity errors in the holy books, and the less savoury aspects contained within them, too. He discusses morality as distinct from religious doctrine. He has things to say about religious epiphanies and the voices religious folk hear in their heads. He explores the solace religion is meant to offer. And again and again he comes back to the harm that belief can do.

Throughout, there is a strict adherence to the idea of “truth”, where propositions are backed up by evidence. No, he admits, you can’t entirely disprove God’s existence, no more than you can disprove that Zeus and Hera are the true gods. He not only uses the idea of other religions against one another, but proposes alternative theories that are more probable and verifiable.

The idea is to start at first principles: how can we know anything for sure? More importantly, what makes the religious beliefs we happen to hold more right than those of any other religion? As he says, the debate between different faiths is essentially, “My book is bigger than your book”.

I agree with some critics that there’s a petulant tone to a lot of Dawkins’s arguments, so that he comes across as a nerdy, frustrated teenager. Yet he’s also clearly aware of how he’s perceived, and does his best to address this, too.

There are jokey asides from his wife and clever friends (including those in the clergy). Yet these insights into his home life, and into his sense of loss at the death of his chum Douglas Adams, can feel a bit forced, like he’s trying to convince us of a cosy world of bright ideas. They feel like the similarly twee and embarrassing stuff about Al Gore’s home life and upbringing that tries to make more fluffy and personable the arguments of An Inconvenient Truth.

Actually, I think it’s just that Dawkins is not, in his writing, as warm, engaging or as witty a correspondent as Douglas Adams, who was his best advocate. Adams could make Dawkins’ ideas about the practicalities of genetics sound cool and exciting and funny.

You can tell who Dawkins likes because they are “regarded” or “respected” or “venerable”. At times he shows considerable patience with those who’ve misrepresented his arguments to score petty points against him, or those with, as he says, “Christian charity” delight in thoughts of him burning in hell. And yet there’s a considerable anger behind this book, and he’s not afraid to call many of the arguments put against him “idiotic”. This is especially true of those who take pride in believing something despite the evidence to the contrary.

I can sympathise with that pride – for all it’s manifestly foolish. At school, as a Catholic, it was easy to uphold my faith while my schoolmates asked difficult questions. It became an exercise in sheer bloody-mindedness; I refused to yield any ground. Only when I changed schools and people stopped ribbing me about what I was meant to believe did I start to examine it for myself. And the holes and inconsistencies were not the ones my schoolmates raised.

What bothered me was the idea of Heaven as a private members club, where you only get in if you sign up to the right religion. Does that mean good people who aren’t Catholic are due to burn? And surely if you’re behaving yourself because of the rewards in eternity, you’re not behaving because it’s the right thing to do.

I wish I’d read then Dawkins's argument of how distinct morality is from religion. He shows that the cornerstones of morality are shared across many peoples and cultures, and that these absolutes of sparing pain, of trying to do right by other people where we can, are warped by the religious dimension. Children think differently about those they are condemning or saving when the experiment involves their religion.

That’s another key argument, that Children do not have a religion, only religious parents. I’d argue even the church knows that – that the sacrament of confirmation is acknowledgement that we have to decide for themselves. (And despite what I thought at the time, at 14 I was too young to make that commitment). There’s some appalling stories of children being poached by religions – taken from their parents after some farcical baptism.

Yes, these examples might be atypical, but it’s the point they make that’s important. Like contracts in law, I’d argue a baptism doesn’t count if the person subject to it doesn’t understand and honour the commitment.

To my surprise, Dawkins is himself sympathetic to the anguish of losing faith. In my own experience, there’s a notable difference between those who have loved and lost religion, and those who never embraced it at all. I still feel strange fury that I was hoodwinked for so long, and torn about those friends who cannot yet make the leap of lack-of-faith.

Dawkins was barely ever a believer, but his book seems prompted less by those who have disagreed with him as by those he has inspired. Later chapters dwell on correspondence received from those who’ve been ostracised for reading his books, who have lost friends and family as well as their beliefs.

His detractors would have us believe that Dawkins is warring against all those who believe, but the truth is much more complex. He has friends in the clergy – some very senior – and his own wife has written books on astrology. Yet we can clearly hear his impatience with the many pitiful arguments and accusations put against atheism. As a professional scientist, he’s used to probing and scrutinising theories and ideas in ways that we laypersons might consider harsh. But no more so than when an editors despairs, “No, Simon, you can’t do that…” As I must remember as I heave my poor ego from the floor, the editor doesn’t mean to cause pain.

An editor’s job is to look at the text from different angles, seeking out weakness and error. And, in this process, what’s written becomes stronger. Dawkins applies no harsher scrutiny to the Old Testament that might be expected from a GCSE student of English, and the thing falls apart in his hands…

“But we don’t think it’s literally true!” is the response from some. “But the stories have moral and cultural value!” So Dawkins looks at those arguments next. Something else that hit me when I was 18 was how self-fulfilling religion can be. So much of the ritual involved in mass and prayer is perpetuating the meme. It’s important that we repeatedly avow our beliefs, as if the repetition is what makes them so. Reading Dawkins’s own thoughts on the recursive loop, I thought of the appeal of repetition to children. “Again! Again!” squeal the Telly-Tubbies, and for the same hookish reasons does the church.

Where Dawkins is more militant than me was in his anger at the damage religion can do. I’d have argued that on the whole God is no worse than believing in Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. It would be nice to believe that you could really be a Jedi, but look at the misery the Jedi Council bring about by demanding blind obedience from Anakin Skywalker.

Dawkins amasses a strong argument about how beliefs can break up families, imposing all kind of neurosis, even provoking violence and war. He favours evidence as opposed to absolute decrees of “good” and “evil”, where if you dare to ask questions you must be part of the problem. And obviously that means Iraq.
“Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own rights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from cradle to grave, to have total and unquestioning faith.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 304.

As he says, the religions of northern Ireland were conveniently forgotten when referring to the sides as “loyalist” and “nationalist” rather than “protestant” and “Catholic”.

More than that, he’s good at dispelling the smug assumption that religious bigotry is a problem of foreigners – that it is Muslims and the American Christian right. He’s not just talking about the privilege accorded to Thought for the Day or the House of Lords (nobody listens to them anyway!). His scrutiny of the Government’s new academies is particularly damning; tens of millions of pounds from the taxpayer going to schools that deliberately seek to undermine scientific methodology.
“It apparently didn’t occur to Mr Blair that, if the OFSTED inspectors give a rave report to a school whose head of science teaches that the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog, there just might be something a teeny weeny bit wrong with the standards of the inspectorate.”

Ibid, p. 335.

Some have argued that he’s as evangelical about science as any kind of fundamentalist, but that is seriously – even wilfully – missing the point. His detractors, like the very powerful and the very stupid, seek to change the facts to suit their beliefs. Dawkins will revise his assessments, hone his theories, on the basis of evidence. He’s proud of being proved wrong, of being made to revise his opinions.

He does not simply argue that religion is bunk. His is just another book, so what gives it authority over the Bible or Koran? What makes the arguments of The God Delusion so damning is the open challenge to prove otherwise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Clay town hick men

Back in September, I sat at the back of a talk by Jane Portal, curator of the British Museum’s First Emperor exhibition, where she explained some of the diplomatic, academic and managerial complexities involved in putting the whole thing together.

“Ooh,” I thought, in the manner of a wide-eyed orang-utan. Chinese history isn’t something I know a great deal about, but what’s NOT to like about a whole buried army? And this morning, I finally went for a look-see.

The exhibition is in the old reading room of the British Museum (the reading now being done in swanky style at Kings Cross). This makes for an atmospheric, eerie setting. The low light that protects the ancient relics also greys the pale blue of the reading room’s high dome. There’s something not just churchy about the effect, it’s especially Catholic. Incense, says this former thurifer, would have gone down well.

There was some confusion as we arrived, with a gallery assistant patiently explaining that there was no reason to queue on the stairs. He’d have fared better were the queuers not all engrossed in their audio guide, and it was the guide’s long introduction that seemed the cause of the bottleneck. (The Dr and I braved the thing guideless, and I think did better ‘cos we could nip in between the huddled bunches of other visitors.)

There’s plenty of fab and fascinating things to see; fancy bronze weapons and food bowls, and the establishment of the now familiar Chinese coins, which are round with a square hole in the middle. Many of these objects are new discoveries – indeed, the army itself was only discovered in the mid 1970s.

The terracotta fellas were made to guard China’s first emperor, and part of his mountain-sized tomb. He’d started out as the 13 year-old King of Qin, but his highly trained army with their mass-produced bronze weapons had beaten the neighbouring dominions. This newly swelled nation was still called Qin (pronounced “chin”, hence “China”), but he was now an emperor.

There’s been some debate about the politics of the show, of which I admit I’m only loosely aware. M’colleague Jonathan Clements was kind enough some months ago to tell me about legal texts found in 1975 in the grave of Judge Xi, which, “make it abundantly clear how awful life was under the first emperor”.

The exhibtion didn't mention this - at least as far as I could tell. Apart from gleeful accounts of the conquest of the other dominions, our impressions of the first emperor are gleaned from just two clues. First, following his conquests, he commissioned a big wall with which to keep out baddies. (Not the Great Wall, which came later.) The exhibition briefly mentions that during the building of this wall many conscripts died.

Second, we’re told about his fear of death and determination to outwit eternity. But the tone of this explanation is, I felt, as if the whole enterprise was more an exercise in kingly grandeur than psychotic paranoia.

As the Dr pointed out, the tens of thousands killed in the construction are far more than (we believe) died building the pyramids. It made me think of something I’ve been reading recently, about Hitler and Stalin being no more evil as people than other tyrants in human history. What made their actions worse than Genghis Khan or Caligula (some readers will guess what I have been reading) was having access to modern, industrial processes.

It’s ironic that the army got looted as soon as the emperor had snuffed it. The terracotta fellas now look a bit awkward, their hands grasping long-pinched bronze weapons. There’s something a little sad about the ancient, shattered, carefully reconstructed people – my Western prejudice made me think of Ozymandias.

Arguably what’s been left is the people not the things. The terracotta soldiers seem to be individuals – each with their own fine moustaches and top knots. I’d be interested to know how representative they are of the ordinary people of the day; are their faces those of real, grand faluting officers, or of the craftsmen and their mates. Are these the middle classes commemorated here, or even peasants who happened to be hanging around? I like the possibility that it’s these every day folk left behind to posterity, not the image of the king.

The great king himself ultimately retains his secrets. The penultimate panels explain that Chinese archaeologists won’t excavate the emperor’s tomb for fear of disturbing what’s inside. That’s a very different attitude to the daring, live-television, moustache-twirling archaeology of over here. I can hear the ghost of Sir Mortimer Wheeler muttering, “Pshaaw!” as he rolls his sleeves up… No, I don’t know who is right.

It also means that however modern the discoveries – the terracotta musicians trying to woo flamingos to dance were discovered in 2001 – this isn’t presented as a modern dialogue with ancient history. Rather, the reverence of the setting and care not to ask difficult questions puts up a kind of barrier. Just as we can’t get too close to the terracotta fellas for fear of setting off the alarms, we are not allowed to get too close to this timeless, magic antiquity.

Perhaps that’s most evident in the final part of the exhibition, where there’s a replica of a statue as they think he might originally have been painted. It’s a bright and garish display, even in the muted light, the archer’s armour laquered in something that could almost be plastic. Suddenly the soldiers look comic and tacky.

Tucked away right at the end, I’m not sure you’re actively encouraged to think, “all that stuff you’ve just seen would have looked as garish as this…”. It would have been more effective, surely, to have seen this man of colour in the lead-up to the main display, so that we viewed the figures in real context.

Rather, we’re left to think of these extraordinary objects as muted, uncoloured icons. They are cut off from us in time. And while they remain so untouchably other, they cannot be anything so bothersome as the awful vanity of a tyrant with uncomfortably modern ideas…

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wet bits

Adam Grose has announced my inclusion in his forthcoming FLOOD comic, which features one-page strips and drabbles to raise money for flood charities.

My one-pager is called "The Coral Invasion of London", features some fine quality sci-fi motifs, and is illustrated by a fantastically talented fellow called Tony Suleri.

The FLOOD comic is not available to download or buy just yet - I'll holler again when it is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Am I not a man and brother?

What with being a perfumed ponce, this week I’ve seen two plays. By coincidence, both feature strong performances from their all-Black casts, and have Things To Say. Both, I’d argue, address less Black/white divisions as discord within the Black community. Conflicts arise in defining and retaining an identity in the face of those who've sold out themselves and their brothers.

I can already see some readers of this blog rolling their eyes at such earnest, issues-based drama. But as with the best writing, the issues are only one part of the stories.

Statement of Regret has a smart and funny script, all set in a flash PR agency that’s maybe past its peak. Their thing is campaigning for the Black community, and they claim plenty of credit for the new Minister for Race. Now they need a new initiative, and Kwaku has an idea. They’ll campaign that only those of West Indian descent should benefit from any financial compensation for slavery…

The sparring of Kwaku’s two sons – one legitimate, one not – is a good analogy by which to discuss the wrongs of history and how they affect the present, and what anyone can do to make amends. It also raises difficult questions about what we fight for and at what point the fighting can be over.

Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah (yes, him from Casualty) is good at putting lots of points of view at once, without us ever feeling which one he’s behind himself. For the former Ian Roberts, there’s also some fun poked at those who give themselves more African names. The play self-critiques and questions as much as it points fingers.

The response from the rest of the audience was just as enthralling as the play; people gasped at the claims and the names-calling, whooped and applauded the jokes. It helped underline the potency of the subjects being stirred. In fact, it’s astonishing how much ground is covered: violence towards women, homophobia, education… As well as the broader themes of fidelity between friends, between lovers, between families.

This packing-in of conflicts meant that at half-time we were caught up in the story without any idea where it might lead. I was also impressed how, even at the end, it won’t offer easy answers but leaves us hanging on a question.

It also scored points for a trilby of Droo people: Rassilon, Martha’s papa and Major Blake from new UNIT. With this kind of witty, twisty and engaging script, I wonder what a Kwame Doctor Who would be like... Time for a whole other demographic of readers to roll their eyes.

The Brothers Size is a smaller play, with just three actors and no props or scenery beyond a chalk circle and red sprinkles. Oshoosi is recently out of prison, haunted by his experiences there. And while his brother Ogun tries to get him a job and to straighten him out, Oshoosi’s old cell-mate Elegba has other ideas about how they enjoy their freedom...

Again, it’s lively, funny and surprising, with songs and jokes suddenly cutting to sustained and moving pathos. There's deft leaping between scenes, and the way the actors speak the stage directions also works well to give the thing pace and energy. That it’s all held so compelling together by just the three actors is quite a feat of conjuring. D. called it a real “actors’ play” because it all hangs on the performance.

Heh. I’d also say its strength is in how it strips everything down to the words of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s deceptively simple-seeming script. But I am a wee bit biased on that score. Both plays are recommended.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


My conquest of all media continues. I've got my name in Radio Times for the first time ever. Yes, okay it's in an advert for Doctor Who books (on page 55 of the one with Dr Who and Kylie on the cover), but IT STILL COUNTS.

And the reason my book is first among the other Decemberists, Jim and Trevor? Clearly because I am best.

Also today, I have written a column for the Glasgow Herald. The "think tank" seeks to provoke response, so go comment on why I am wrong. (In what I say in the column, rather than just generally).

ETA: In addition to the comments on that page, the Herald also published separate responses.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Whack my bonobo

(Technically, this is “My mates’ scribbling #3” as I’ve known Penny Morgan for about as long as I can remember. But the title for this post is from Chris Morris and so is made of win.)

A fire at a laboratory near Southampton is not all it seems. The young woman apparently killed in the blaze turns out to have been murdered. The police soon realise she was not so much the target, as was the work she’d been doing. The lab is studying the intelligence of a bonobo ape called Caro, in the process attracting all kinds of enemies. There are the differently militant animal rights groups, there are those with vested interests. And there are those who have profound and heartfelt objections to any muddying of the line between humans and base animals…

As the investigation continues, it soon becomes clear that the case against the killer depends on the testimony of a single witness. But that witness is Caro.

This is, simply, a brilliant premise for a thriller, and Prime Witness plays out a riveting, twisty mystery. Along the way, there’s plenty of detail about criminal and legal procedure, about the mechanics of political careers versus lobbying, about studies of language and psychology, about what it’s like living with arthritis (as the police inspector does), and about how business dovetails with scientific research. You’re left with the impression that the author has read-up on every possible angle, that she’s ready for all possible objections to the radical thesis that apes are owed greater legal and social status because they think and feel like we do.
“‘The general consensus amongst most psychologists – and here I’m going to oversimplify drastically – is that bonobos like Caro are at a similar level, cognitively, to a four or five year old, ahead in some areas, lagging in others. Like children, they advance their knowledge as they grow, and those growing up in such an environment as Caro’s, flower. Conversely, those brought up in impoverished environments like those used in medical experiments, wither – as do deprived children. At the most privileged end of the scale lies “enculturation” with exposure to a human culture, producing what Steven Wise, an American animal rights lawyer, called “summer minds”.’”

Penny Morgan, Prime Witness, p. 352.

Penny’s good at weaving this scholarly knowledge unintrusively into the story, so that the specifics of this “small” and local murder investigation quickly escalate into something much larger and more profound. The cast swells as the plot reaches across the globe, too, and these are complex people with complex interactions, all with their own traits, perspectives and motivations.

It’s this that keeps us guessing about where the plot wwill turn next. There are several good red herrings, tangents based on what people are thinking at any given moment. Paul (the policeman) has a recurring thing for the doctor who injects him for tetanus; his daughter at one point late on in the book seems to be the next target of the killer. These wandering thoughts makes them seem more real; their lives a series of potential opportunities and decisions.

That said, characters sometimes use words or images that are too technical for who they are. That's especially true of an early scene from the perspective of Caro, where she seems to be fully conversant in psychological vocabulary. It’s my job at the moment to pick holes in first-time writers’ work, and to anticipate the kinds of criticism general readers might have. I’m also aware that Prime Witness has had to battle to see print.

With that in mind, were I the editor, I’d want more attention paid to whose perspective we’re in at any given moment, perhaps withholding detail and clarification because the character is more ignorant than the author. A good editor would also pick up on the inconsistent use of dashes and ellipses, and red-pen those bits with too many adverbs. Without wanting to give too much away, it might have made for a better revelation later had we not learnt straight away that Caro witnessed the murder. And I’m afraid one major character reminded me too much of The da Vinci Code.

But these are petty quibbles with a well-told and clever thriller that always kept me turning pages and even made me think. The end is genuinely moving, which proves how well the different characters and issues have been drawn. Those last few pages are brilliantly frustrating in not giving easy closure – and the characters left standing could easily, indeed should, return in further books.

Yes, if I were the editor and this had come to me, I’d be commissioning the next one.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Right Stuff

Went to see In The Shadow of the Moon on Friday afternoon. It’s a Channel 4 documentary enjoying a small run in cinemas, telling the story of the Apollo moon landings in the words of the astronauts who took part. As well as their septuagenarian talking heads, it’s packed full of eye-popping footage of things exploding, things falling out of space, of things that are science-fiction and yet real. Worth the £6 entry just to see this stuff on the big screen.

I’m told the pay-off for this footage is that it’s not quite as critical of NASA as the book Moondust, which did much the same thing. I’ve not read Moondust but mean too soon because it counts as research for something I’m caught up in at the moment.

I have, though, seen From the Earth to the Moon (or “Moon porn” as it is in our house), so found I knew a lot of the stuff the astronauts discussed in more detail than they discussed it. Not all the moon men are alive today, and not all of those still alive wanted to take part. Neil Armstrong is a notable absence.

And yet this gave more room to those we wouldn’t normally hear from. Yes, there’s the other guys teasing Buzz Lightyear Aldrin because he’s so fascinating about the mathematics of docking when they all wanna woo girls. And that footage of him pausing as he comes down the ladder? That’s him, he says, being the first man to have a pee on the moon.

My favourite, though, was Mike Collins, who remained in lunar orbit while Neil and Buzz went skipping in the charcoal-like moondust. Funny, engaging and nicely self-effacing, he deservedly gets a lion's share of the screen time. It made me think of Jonathan Frakes in Futuruma: "Front row at last!"

It's full of great stuff, too. Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, talks about his guilt for missing "his" war - his contemporaries having been caught up in Viet Nam while he was training to be a space man. Then there's what the astronauts make of the conspiracy theories that it was all faked, and that they actually just went as far as a Hollywood backlot.

That said, as well as not presenting anything too unsavoury (Apollos 7 and 13 are quickly glossed over), it also doesn't even dare to suggest why the moon missions came to an end, or what the chances are of there being anyone else up there one day. I can see an argument that these aren't the things you'd ask the astronauts themselves - and this is their story, not anyone else's. But I think people less clued-up on the subject may be left with nagging questions...

This is, then, a perfect entry level programme for anyone even remotely interested in the subject. Or in modern history. Or people. Or in anything really. Go see.