Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Value-added material (VAM)

Things that shouldn't be labelled "special features" on the back of a DVD:

interactive menu screens
How you spoil us with the ability to start and stop the DVD! And of course it's "interactive" - it's not a menu if you can't choose something from it.

chapter selection
Oooh! What next? You tantalise us with the prospect of a box and a sleeve and the shiny surface of the disc?

My Christmas DVDs, incidentally, were Alistair Cooke's America and Private Schultz, both of which I hope to blog about sometime. The Dr got the two-disc Princess Bride and Night of the Hunter.

And my previous DVD-buying methodology is the subject of Clemmo's despair.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Five exhibitions

The Dr and I have spent Christmas eating too much, drinking even more, seeing some chums and enjoying – for the Dr at least – a busman's holiday. If that busman also worked in museums.

1. Cold War Modern – Design 1945-1970
(Victoria and Albert Museum until 11 January 2009)
There's a lot of big ideas crammed into this exhibition – even for such a large space. As I've blogged before, the post-war period saw a punch-drunk sweeping away of the past in favour of big, bold ideas in art, design and ideology. Perhaps it was the horror and damage done by the Second World War, perhaps the burgeoning threat of mutually assured destruction, but the artefacts of that time spell out a bleak and awful picture of the world, with a yearning for something better.

I liked how they put astronaut and environment suits up close with the fab and groovy gear available off the peg in the Portobello Road. There's examples of revolutionary politics from all round the world; '68 and Nam and Che, both the hope and frenzied propaganda from all sides.

Into this context they squeeze clips of Ipcress, Bond and Strangelove, all featuring big, futuristic set design by Ken Adam (the sketch for the play area where Goldfinger spells out to his hoods the details of Operation Grand Slam is, marvellously, called “the Rumpus Room”). These sit beside drawings and photographs of grand housing projects on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and then plans for domes over New York or cities on the Moon. On big screens high above the space stuff, the “stargate” sequence from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey faces the arrival of Kris Kelvin on the space station above Solaris. East and West's visions of man reaching for cold, unfathomable space - opposite and yet so much the same.

In all this grandeur, there's a disturbing desperation. I wondered who they – the hopeful people who dreamt up these things – thought they were kidding. The problem with planning such a monumental new programme of building and social organisation, of so radically creating a new world, is that it assumes we've already lost this one.

(Afterwards, we had coffee and pastries while enjoying the William Morris-styled bit of the cafe, but there wasn't enough light for my camera-phone to get pictures. And the V&A shop proved very good for small trinkets and silliness for the Dr's stocking. No, she didn't just get coal and birch twigs.)

2. Darwin (a.k.a Big Idea exhibition)
Natural History Museum until 19 April 2009
“Before Darwin, the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created. Today, his theory that they undergo modification and are all descendants of pre-existing forms is accepted by everyone (or by everyone not determined to disbelive it). Most people would, if asked, find it hard to explain why.”

Steve Jones, Almost Like a Whale, p. xxii.

Like Jones' book, the Natural History Museum exhibition shows how Darwin came to his radical proposition of the history of species as a family tree of connected, branching variance – and then updates the evidence. We see the specimens of birds and beetles Darwin himself caught on his boat trip round the world, and then – like Jones – how 150 years of scientific hard graft has honed and bolstered that central idea, filling in the gaps Darwin himself acknowledged.

There's stuff on why Darwin delayed publishing his findings for so long, and a glimpse of his home life. There are even real creatures to coo at – a lizard called Charlie who apparently doesn't like it if you tap the glass, and a fat, ugly toad that looks like a green and yellow cow pat.

There's sensibly no apology at all to the dissenters, and no mention of “intelligent design”. Yet, the Dr noted they kept speaking of evolution as a “theory”. Her research elsewhere has shown a strange shift in the 1980s and 90s; telly and radio before that rarely felt the need to qualify Darwin's idea as a “theory”, now it's rare that they don't.

That said, the exhibition is keen to explain that, in science, a theory isn't the same as a guess; it's a carefully worked out and tested hypothesis from evidence, one from which you can make accurate predictions. I thought that was what we called a “fact”, but apparently not. Wikipedia boasts a whole page discussing evolution as theory and fact. But why qualify Darwin like that? We don't talk of Newton's “theory of gravity” - which the work of Einstein (and Eddington) actually disproved (or, at best, radically refined).

3. Byzantium 330-1453
Royal Academy of Arts until 22 March 2009
By the time we got to this one in the mid-afternoon, London was swollen with tourists enjoying the hilarious ratio of euro to pound. They crowded the pavements and train stations, and – a bit to our surprise – the Royal Academy. Yes, let's go to England for the closing down January sales and while we're at it shell out to see some trinkets from the wrong side of Europe...

The exhibition apes the dark and churchy feel of Istanbul's grand churches and mosques, from which the objects come. Boris Johnson's surprisingly superb two-part series After Rome had important things to say about Western prejudice; not only the destruction of the city during the Crusades (and the legacy of that word in the Middle East) but also the fact that Constantinople was a second Rome, continuing the traditions and learning of the Empire long after the West has succumbed to its Dark Age. The Renaissance was less a “rebirth” as the Western powers learning to stop bashing their neighbours and instead start borrowing their books...

(I meant to post my thoughts on Seville and Cordoba ages ago, having visited in September. And then there's Boris going and saying a whole load of stuff I wish I'd thought of...)

In the exhibition, I struggled to follow particular ideas or stories. The exhibition seemed to assume a robust, academic knowledge on the part of its visitors – artefacts, for example, were described as being from Harare or Sinai without any explanation of where these were or on what terms they stood against Byzantium / Constantinople at the time. The Dr, meanwhile, muttered that it grouped different traditions all in together – Coptic (especially) and Ptolemaic with Orthodox and Islamic. It seemed less an attempt to explain or explore the history of and our relationship with the Middle East as a collection of pretty, glittery things.

Favourite artefact: a painting of monks being tempted off a ladder to heaven by spindly, sneaky devils. Weirdly they had postcards of this in the shop after – they almost never have the ones that I like.

4. Babylon – Myth and Reality
British Museum until 15 March 2009
Two years ago, the Doctor and I marvelled down the brilliant blue streets of Babylon, up to the Ishtar Gate. It's vast, it's bright blue and it was nicked by German archaeologists from what's now Iraq and reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon museum. If you can, go see that before you see this exhibition, which struggles to convey the scale of the Biblical city, squeezed as it is into the upstairs of the old Reading Room.
“Many individuals' first encounter with the name of Babylon will have come from the Old Testament. Of the momentous events that took place in the city, not the least concerned the Judaean exiles taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar as part of a conventional military campaign. The repercussions of the Babylonian Captivity in theology, culture and art are still with us, while our knowledge of the historical events has been enhanced by some of the world's most important cuneiform texts.”

IL Finkel and MJ Seymour (eds.), Babylon – Myth and Reality, p. 142.

The Old Testament paints Babylon as cruel conqueror and enslaver. Daniel and his pals Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are remarkable because they stand up to Nebuchadnezzar – the implication being that no one else ever dared to. Interestingly, the section on Rastafarianism linked Babylon to Western greed and commercialism, not to the West's history of enslavement.

Brilliantly, the exhibition closes with those who identify not with the oppressed but the oppressors. It is pretty out-spoken about the site today and the damage done by, first, Saddam Hussein and then the US army. For both, the ancient site is an excuse for extraordinary grand-standing, on a scale beloved by tyranny.

There's comparatively little of the actual city here: some bits of bright blue stone, some small, ancient objects. There are models of the street up to the Ishtar Gate and of the Etemenanki ziggurat – also known as the tower of Babel. Tiny little Scale Guys help suggest the mahoossive. But mostly it's about the how the city's been interpreted since it fell. It compares representations of the city in the Bible or myth (while never quite daring to suggest they're the same thing) with the evidence uncovered since the 19th century, and it discusses how Babylon continues to play a part in stories. There's a picture of a Rod Lord-designed Babel fish and the cover of Hollywood Babylon.

With the same mythic buildings and characters depicted by different art traditions over the centuries, this is an exploration of stories and cultures bleeding into one another, becoming scared as they help define – or at least shape – identity and power. The real ninth century BC Assyrian queen, Sammu-rammat, for example, ends up worshipped as the goddess Semiramas by the Greeks.

We emerged into a crowded museum, the Dr spitting feathers as a huge Biblical tour stopped for no man or woman or child. She was not incensed at their rudeness but the nonsense they were being told, provenance and context completely ignored to make chosen objects fit the pre-agreed story.

5. Taking Liberties
British Library until 1 March 2009

This one is exemplary: a collection of iconic documents brilliantly grouped and explained so that visitors are challenged on their own political ideas. There's Magna Carta, or the death warrant for Charles I, the 1832 Reform Act, a copy not just of the Beveridge report in English but in half a dozen other languages as the world looked in awe at our pioneering social wheeze. It's fascinating enough just to gaze on these things, and all of it for free. But there's more.

The documents – and explanations, associated items and illustrations – are grouped under broad headings like “Rule of law” or “Freedom of speech”. There's stuff on Lords reform and on whether referenda are actually democratic, CCTV and a national DNA database – all sorts of complex, knotty stuff. It's brilliant at simply and concisely laying out the different sides on a given issue and then getting you to do some thinking. In fact, it's a shame this isn't a permanent exhibition. It's the only one of the five discussed here I'd want to mooch round a second time.

At the end of each section you're encourage to vote on three or four questions, choosing a statement from a list. To do this, you have to scan your wristband, so the machine remembers your answers. At the end of the exhibition, you can see how you voted compared to the mass of other visitors, and where on a political graph your votes place you.

A couple of times, what I'd seen in the exhibition made me at least reconsider my natural instincts at the poll. But I also found on several occasions I didn't quite agree with any of the statements, that there were exceptions or at least things I'd want to clarify. So there was some fudging towards the statement that best exemplified by fluffy, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along sensibilities.

And that's, I think, the one thing the exhibition lacked: something about party politics, the Whip system, the way it reduces any kind of issue to a simplistic yes or no, your answer as much dependent on the will of HQ as your own insight or conscience. (I'd quote Paxman on just this point in The Political Animal, but we seem to have leant it to someone.) There's nothing on political compromise, on supporting something because that's supporting your team.

The exhibition raises an eyebrow at the Levellers and Chartists – whose ideas that were so terrifying and radical in their own day are now rights we take for granted. But it doesn't explain why that happens. It's a great strength and a great weakness that our system allows change only in a series of small, hard-negotiated steps. That's fundamental because you can't understand the liberties and law we have now without understanding how these decisions are made.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cards and carols

Christmas was invented 165 years ago with two important inventions. First, on 19 December, 1843, Chuck Dickens published "A Christmas Carol". I am currently reading this in installments to the Dr, wowed by the fecund and twisted imagery. (You can currently also hear versions read by David Jason and Mitch Benn.)

Scrooge is Dickens' response to the horrors of Malthus, but he's also a richly drawn, smart, funny guy. It's implied he suffered abuse from his father - something skipped in the Muppet's own version. I love that his visitations could all be put down to what he ate late at night - "there's more of gravy than of grave about you," he tells the ghost of Jacob Marley. And there's something almost commendable about his insistence on hard work and financial self-reliance. He's a brilliant, memorable character because he's so much more than just a panto grotesque. As the story unfolds, Scrooge warms to Christmas but we also warm to him.

It is also 165 since (my hero) Henry Cole invented the first Christmas card. I like to think that brilliantly moustached Victorian gentlemen turned to their wives at the breakfast table and cried, "What the hell am I meant to do with this?"

Their wives will have considered and then smiled, "Send him one back by return of post." (The fifth Doctor Who discusses this economic model in part two of The Judgement of Isskar.)

Anyway. The Dr and I have dispensed with the card Card. We've bunged some money to Comic Relief and instead offer this electric alternative:

Merry Christmas!

A merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No one wants to buy this dump

The Dr sends this clip from a 1992 episode of Spitting Image whose time has come again:

Speaking of houses, my own Doctor Who & Home Truths has had spankingly good reviews in the geek press:
“A science-fiction ghost story, similar to Nigel Kneale's rationalistic hauntings [...] An effective and disturbingly spooky tale, Home Truths lingers in the mind long after the open-ended conclusion, and is one of the very strongest of this latest series of Companion Chronicles.”

Matt Michael, "The DWM Review", Dr Who's Magazine #403, 7 January 2009, p.56.

“a surprisingly atmospheric and menacing tale. Author Simon Guerrier has sensibly realised that these audiobook-style discs are often best when spooky, and packs plenty of unsettling moments into this MR James-style story of an apparently haunted futuristic house. One of the best releases yet...”

Saxon Bullock, “Rated Misc”, SFX #178, January 2009, p. 130.

(That said, my story in Christmas Round the World doesn't get a mention in Andrew Osmond's review on p. 115 of the same issue. Guess that means he thinks I'm one of the “sprouts or socks”.)

The Big Finish website now boasts a trailer for Doctor Who and the Judgement of Isskar – which is out next month.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis…

…is the title of a new book by m’colleague Jonathan Clements, and an accompanying promotional blog. Best Name Of Anything Ever.

(And I have named characters "Zing Zang", "Georgina Wet-Eleven" and "Harmonious 14 Zinc"...)

Says Clemmo:
“I have been writing about Japanese comics and animation for almost two decades, taking potshots at anime, manga and related fields, spreading scurrilous gossip and telling tall tales. And my friends in the business didn’t seem to mind, as long as they had plausible deniability, which meant that sometimes, even though the real name of a work was obvious to everyone, I needed to call it something else.”

Jonathan Clements, Welcome to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis blog, 11 November 2008.

A-viking his way through the industry’s oddest stories, Clemmo positively sweats Opinion and Insight. It’s mad, it’s funny, it’s not-quite-explicitly rude. And I’m told it might yet feature a post called “Cat moves”, whose point-and-laugh subject is me.

The book is published by those splendid fellows at Titan, who are also publishing my Fire and Water.

By timely coincidence, YouTube has a trailer for the third series of Primeval, which will be on ITV1 at some point in the new year. There’s no clips of the one set in South Africa, which must just be an oversight. But I’ve read scripts and seen rough-cuts and generally been In The Room and important, and it is wholly fabtastic. Dinosaurs! Chasing pretty people! What is not to be in love with?

Monday, December 15, 2008

With both barrels?

Annoyingly, I've already called a post “50s way to leave your lover”. Indeed, that might be useful context before braving the review that follows of The Envoy by Edward Wilson.

Kit Fournier works as a senior diplomat for the US in London in 1956, ostensibly enjoying a “special relationship” with the Brits and fighting a Cold War against Russia. But things are never so simple... Amongst other plots and counterplots, the US don't like the UK's attempts to have their own hydrogen bomb. It just so happens Kit's cousin's husband is one of those doing the attempting. Trouble is, Kit has always had a thing for that cousin...

The Envoy is a thrilling read, filled with grubby detail and observation in the manner of good le Carre. In fact, there's a lot here that's familiar from the Smiley books: the “tradecraft” of codes and of chalk marks and dead-drops in Kensington Gardens, the olive oil drunk to line the stomach before boozing with the Russians. There's a lot on the mechanics and political pressures of day-to-day spy work.
“Mice, thought Kit. Not tiny rodents, but MICE: money, ideology, coercion, excitement. Basic training for case officers: the four means that you use to recruit an agent or persuade someone to betray their country. MICE, he thought, how apt an acronym. It wasn't that simple. The 'E' could stand for ego as well as excitement, but ego could cause problems – like bragging. Of the four, most section chiefs preferred 'money'. When you get someone to take a bribe you have a paper trail for blackmail, then you get 'coercion' as a bonus – and that's even better than greed.”

Edward Wilson, The Envoy, p. 17.

Like le Carre, the author's biography suggests he might have practical experience of this kind of stuff. I find myself, having read the book, reading between the lines and wondering how much Wilson shares Kit's own frustration with the country of his birth – the country he fought for – when compared to “civilised Europe”.
“Edward Wilson served in Vietnam as an officer in the 5th Special Forces. His decorations include the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for Valor. Soon after leaving the army, Wilson became a permanent expatriate. He formally lost US nationality in 1986. Edward Wilson is a British citizen but has also lived and worked in Germany and France. For the past thirty years he has been a teacher in Suffolk. The author enjoys sailing and has a twenty-foot sloop at Orford on the River Ore. Arcadia also published his first novel A River in May.”
(The book sets the covert British nuclear programme at Orford Ness, and Kit spies on it from his boat.)

America is puerile and brash in the book: there's much made of its embarrassingly unsophisticated view of art and music, as the symptoms of homosexuality. And I don't think that the British were any less suspicious of gayness; the intelligence service's treatment of Alan Turning being a case in point. Another character remains closeted – Kit blackmails him - because the British won't tolerate his being gay.

Otherwise, Wilson's novel is crammed full of choice historical detail. Prime Minister Eden is sozzled on amphetamines as he gets manic over Suez. Just like in From Russia, With Love, one of the characters can reveal the truth about the secret killing of Beria. And Kit is responsible for the death of Lionel 'Buster' Crabbe – and the ensuing scandal, which I'd seen detailed in the IWM's Ian Fleming + James Bond exhibition earlier this year.

The acknowledgements oddly then claim that, “A few real names are used, but no real people are portrayed”. Which again isn't true: Joseph Kennedy storms in as early as page 6, after five pages all about his daughter.

I also think Wilson is a little disingenuous with his history. His intelligence agents are always bang on the nose with their secrets, as if they've got access to history books from decades in the future. Le Carre is much better at the sense of agents gleaning scant fact from the fug of misinformation and plain confusion (the hard work very like the kind of proper journalism Nick Davies pines for in Flat Earth News, which I shall write about later this week).

Yet I'm incredibly envious of the vivid, complex and rich 1950s Wilson conjures here, the compromises and moral dilemmas on every page, the way he has us siding with Kit despite his being such a relentless arsehole. Kit is selfish to the point of flagrant treason, vicious to the point of hospitalising a bloke he has already entirely outwitted, and a coward when running away from battle or a comrade being horribly killed. Yet we're with him all the way – perhaps just to see how long he can keep ahead of those who are clearly going to kill him.
“This is not the kind of escapist spy thriller generally found on the bestseller lists. Wilson's story has no heroes. It's a sophisticated, convincing novel that shows governments and their secret services as cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless.”

Susanna Yager, “Cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless”, The Daily Telegraph, 14 March 2008.

It's busy, it's exciting, it's bleaker than an unhappy goth, it's got things to say about the selfish motives and unlikely happenstance that influence the fumbling forward of history. And however much a shit Kit might be, he still believes in some kind of rules.
“Perhaps Vasili was right: Russians lose their soul when they leave Russia. That, thought Kit, was the good thing about being an American. If you wanted to find your soul, the best way to find it was to get the hell out of the country. They all did it: Whistler, Henry James, Josephine Baker, Eliot, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald – even the Duchess of Windsor. And when they did go back, they usually killed themselves or ended up, like Pound, in St Elizabeth's insane asylum. Pound, thought Kit, had got off too lightly. The poet should have been shot for turning traitor and siding with fascists. Still, there's nothing wrong with being a traitor if that's what you think you've got to do – but in the end, they have to shoot you and you shouldn't complain. The rules are clear and simple.”

Wilson, pp. 172-3.

And then it does two things which really, really annoyed me. About page 200 (of 268) there are two major revelations about Kit which throw the story into a whole different gear, and which are at best a little elegant, at worse just plain cheating. The plot twangs off at an angle due to a past illness and a document he keeps at his home, neither of which have been mentioned before. It's like a Whodunnit where the murderer is someone we only meet – or hear of – in the final chapter.

And the final chapter shows us the fall-out that falls on Kit and brings us forward to the eighties. It denies any chance of a sequel and ties the whole thing up. But it breaks the rules of the le Carre shocker, and dares try a happy ending. He should die! He should suffer some bizarre, gruesome “accident” the press can't quite explain, like all those who've suffered his actions.

Kit said it himself: the rules are clear and simple.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Scenes of Bispham

Took a stroll with the Dr and the Baldrick-in-law to enjoy Blackpool's unprecedented glimpse of Orb.

Dr and Baldrick
The Dr and Baldrick-in-law. They are huddling together for warmth.

Sun! In Blackpool!
Sun! In Blackpool! Truly it is the end of days.

Embankment - walking the glorified drains.

Welcome part 1
Welcome part 1 - Tourists brave the pleasure beach at their own risk.

Welcome part 2
Welcome part 2 - Danger: pleasure.

Castellations: The impressive complex of defences around the Norbreck Castle. Probably to keep the Picts out.

BL099: More warnings of danger of fun DEATH.

S Club 7
S Club 7. No, wait, I mean Steps.

A wee slope
A wee slope, with toilets at the top.

Of fence
Of fence: We begin the long trawl back again.

Stoppage. The Dr and the Baldrick-in-law bask in the sunshine.

Tram pulled
Tram pulled. Funny-looking cycle lane. You can't see paraglider motoring above the beach; my phone couldn't pick him out against the sky.

Sunset. Just left of this, you'd see the tangled street furniture of trams and streetlights, and the Blackpool tower in amongst it. But my camera didn't like that.

Beware trams
Beware trams. I was too late to snap the tram heading for the Starr Gate - and, I assume, ancient/alien Egypt.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I know, I'll take you to B-

Hello from grey, rainy Blackpool. I know, what a turn-up, I can hardly believe it myself. Last night, with the rain bashing the Velux windows like someone outside brewing popcorn, I tried to remember a time I've been in Lancashire where the sky wasn't falling. I lived for three years as a student in Preston, and one time the rain was so hard it bruised...

(In the south, of course, it never rains. It's specks of liquid sunshine.)

Finished a few bits of chore yesterday morning - including several days' washing up since the Dr's been away in Aberdeen. Have, excitingly, now been commissioned for two things which I'm really buzzing about which cannot be announced. And on Thursday night, met with a bloke who explained clever stuff at a level I could understand(!), who is going to be very useful for something else I'm working on. No, I can't tell you about that yet, either.

Bundled up to Euston to find that the ticket the Dr had bought me was for a nice seat in first class. Apparently, she'd told me this in one of my more attentive moments. But what a nice surprise! Virgin threw in free egg sandwiches and orange juice and wine, and I sat comfy and content. I've finished The Envoy, which I will blog on in due course, and am now mesmerised by Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, a fascinating, damning and thorough exploration of the collapse of journalistic standards in the last decade or so. Again, it'll get a post of its own sometime.

The in-laws took me for fish and chips and then we drank whisky and watched TV. I realise that, before I went freelance, I was Jen from the IT Crowd. Which is odd, because after I went freelance, I did a couple of days' work with Chris O'Dowd. But yes, I once wowed the execs with a speech about the weightlessness of the internet. It is made of dreams.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

House proud

I've scrawled a great long thing for the Big Finish blog on the writing of Doctor Who & Home Truths.

I've also seen a more-or-less final version of something I'm working on with Codename Moose - he is clever. Have the last bits of that to chase up as well as getting going on the next two commissions. No, I can't tell you what it is yet. Also waiting on approval of a couple of things I've pitched for which I really hope I'm allowed to do.

And, completely unrelatedly, I had a new dinner table delivered at 06.45 this morning. Didn't half confuse the cat.


A bloke at work recommended this short, Hungarian film, thinking it might be my kind of thing. And it is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hitting the books

I've a couple of reviews in the new issue (#257) of Vector, “the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association”. Dalek, I Loved You by Nick Griffiths and Debatable Space by Philip Palmer are both “lively” and fun but neither is quite as bright or insightful as perhaps their authors think. Might post the reviews up here one day.

I’ve also gabled through a bit of other reading. Eden is Tim Smit’s own account of the space-age bubblewrap project he set up in Cornwall. There are some great photos and some fun moments, but I’d hoped for a bit more insight into the design and philosophy of the place, something to add to the brilliant but brief Architecture of Eden, which places the thing in the context of whopping crystal palaces and train stations.

Instead, Smit lists staff and incidents like one almighty 284-page acceptance speech. There are rants about all the forms and hoops you have to dance through to be given several million pounds and a few aphorisms about comfy, fluffy business. A good edit would crop out all the dying metaphors, and I finished feeling it had been written too soon after the opening, so we don’t really get a sense of how successful things have been. The paperback edition includes an odd addendum, in which Smit was being filmed for This is Your Life when news broke about 9/11. I read it again just to check there wasn’t a point to it.

The Looking-Glass War is a typically bleak John le Carre. Three spies are sent out to gather scraps about what could potentially be a new missile base aimed at London. They’re variously screwed up by their own foolishness and the infighting of their superiors. George Smiley can only shake his head.

There's some fun to be had in it hailing from 1965. Betty listens to “dance music” on a gramophone on page 136, and there's confusion when guns go metric on page 181: the “three-eight” is now a “nine millimetre”.

But this is compelling in its tedious anti-Bond detail; the drudgery, the pettiness, the ruptured mental health of anyone stupid enough to get caught up in spying. And, as so often the case, the ending underlines Britain's delusions of grandeur in the face of the cold war.
“'They're crazy people, the English! That old fellow by the river: they think the Thames is the biggest river in the world, you know that? And it's nothing! Just a little brown stream, you could nearly jump across it some places!'”

John le Carre, The Looking-Glass War, p. 286.

I’m now reading The Envoy by Edward Wilson, a 50s-set spy shocker in a similar vein to le Carre. So far it's superb.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fountain of snot and knowledge

I've returned from Chicago with a cold, plus chocolates and Indiana Jones Lego for the Dr. She's also pleased I know the stink she likes after only four years of being hitched.

Snow outside my hotel windowThe convention was great fun but exhausting - a Doctor Who convention is one of the rare places where the rubbish filling my head can be useful. The food was huge, the snow was festive, and everyone was just lovely. Made a lot of new friends and got drunk with some old ones. The air-con made it feel like I'd sunburnt my face, and the heating meant I couldn't decide whether to where muppet-skin jumpers or tee-shirts.

Spent most of my time in the hotel itself, though we did escape to TGI Friday one night for enormous food and K. took me to Target. Both were just the far side of the hotel car park, so they hardly count. But hey, it was cold.

Oddly, the snow seemed to affect domestic flights more than it did international. There was much concern as the blizzard came down on Sunday, especially amongst those who had a million miles to drive.

They've got lionsOn Monday, a fantastic fellow called Dennis ferried us into town for a last look round the Art Institute of Chicago. How strange to see it covered in snow, the same yet so different from last time.

I'd last been there in June 2004, in the blistering heat of my honeymoon. Chicago was the one place we visited in our grand tour of family and friends that the Dr and I thought we might like to live. Again, I was impressed by the beauty and history and buzz of the place, still zinging from the election of their boy.

After the art we went for a long walk looking for something to eat. Had a last, gargantuan lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, then nabbed a taxi back to the car park and raced to the airport.

My plane home was on time until the last minute, when the cold killed the tug towing us from the gate. We eventually took off about an hour and a half late; hope everyone else got home okay.

I watched WALL-E (which might have been written by Russell T Davies), Iron Man (far, far better than I'd expected) and a really rather brilliant documentary called Young @ Heart. Also did plenty of writing.

Have spent the morning trudging through my email. Now have Codename Moose popping round to show me his homework and to watch something that counts as Research. Have pitched for something, been organising something else and am generally back in the thick of it like I was never away...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off to the windy city

A frantic few days getting everything ticked off in time for jetting to Chicago. I've freelanced for two days, invoiced them, rewritten Slitheen, pitched for something, pitched again, got rejected for two things I really wanted to do, proofed "Pass It On", chased up a few things, borrowed soundtracks and sourced images for a thing we cannot speak of yet, collated all the bits of paper that I need for my travels and even bought some jumpers (the "Muppet-skin" ones that the Dr likes). The packing is almost there - it is bothering the cat - and then I can eat something.

Hell's teeth I am tired. And seem to have pulled one of the muscles in my neck. But tomorrow I fly off across the pond. I'm told Illinois is even colder than London, but I don't think I'll see much outside of the hotel.

For my own convenience as much as anyone else's, here's my schedule for the weekend:

  • Noon Benny Summerfield's Fifteenth Anniversary Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 1 p.m. Roundtable Lilac A/C
  • 2 p.m. Big Finish Q/A Session Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish From Both Sides Lilac A/C
  • 6 p.m. Opening Ceremonies Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 6:30 p.m. All-Access Photos Lilac B/D
  • 10 a.m. Journey's End Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 11 a.m. Writing for Different Media Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish Panel Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 4 p.m. Autographs Lilac B/D
  • 5 p.m. How to Write Better Fan Fiction (I'm moderating this one, eek) Lilac A/C
  • 2 p.m. Autographs Grand Ballroom A-D
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish Then and Now Grand Ballroom E/F
  • 4 p.m. State of the Whoniverse 2008 Grand Ballroom E/F
  • 5 p.m. Closing Ceremonies Grand Ballroom E/F
I fly back Monday, arriving Tuesday, in some kind of state again Wednesday. Might check email while I'm out there, depending on the hotel. If you're there, say hello and buy me beer. I don't bite very hard.

A few other things:
Rob is also foxed by the setting of the framing bit:
"And although it seems like the story's supposed to be set in the early 19th century, the story is supposed to have been set thousands of years before that yet clearly couldn't have been, so I've no idea what was going on there. Some sort of weird retro colony planet?"

Rob Buckley, Review: The Companion Chronicles 3x5 - Home Truths, 26 November 2008.

No, it's not a retro colony planet, and no it's not set in the early 19th century. And Sara does explain...

Monday, November 24, 2008

How does a cat learn to love melon?

Leslie has produced The Terrible Zodin, a free fanzine to celebrate Doctor Who's 45th birthday. It includes a short story I wrote about 10 years ago but nobody else ever wanted. There's also a revealing interview with Ben Aaronovitch and an even more revealing dressable paper-doll Leela. Hooray for freezines. Everyone should make them.

Simon Holub's cover for Doctor Who and the Prisoners' Dilemma
Big Finish have revealed the cover for one of my two Doctor Who audio plays out in January - the Prisoners' Dilemma. I'm off to Chicago on Thursday for ChicagoTARDIS to pre-flog the thing, along with stars Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington and a heap of Big Finish's finest.

Just got to get all my chores done before I go. Sent Davy some quotes from the Judgment of Isskar for using the preview in Doctor Who's Magazine. Racing through the last of the rewrites of Slitheen, plus gather materials for an exciting new venture that has yet to be announced... So back unto the grindstone.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Guttenberg, Bromley

Surely I dreamt the adverts for the panto in Bromley starring Police Academy's Steve Guttenberg. But no, the "Hollywood idol" (as it says on the flyers) is flogging it on YouTube.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

False Starts

I’ve been avidly following Lance Parkin’s Eyeless blog, in which he unpicks how he goes about writing a Doctor Who book. Some things I concur with wholeheartedly, on other stuff he’s Entirely Insane. And that’s why it’s so fun.

Lance has got past the stage of the synopsis being approved and is on to what happens next. In an interview at the start of the year, I said:
“The first chapter is usually the hardest, because you have to rewrite and rewrite until you get the ‘voice’ of the book right. There were maybe five or six completely different openings to The Pirate Loop before I got it working. Once you get that tone and style, the rest follows much more easily.”

Julio Angel Ortiz, The Ten With… Simon Guerrier, 8 January 2008.

You want the book to start with a bang, to hook the audience from the first sentence. So what were those different openings?

On 28 June 2007, I scribbled in my notebook. I came up with some questions to ask Stephen Fewell for the Inside Story of Benny and I made a note to “send Lisa [Bowerman] script for Final Amendment”. And then there’s the first attempt at a prologue to The Pirate Loop. It needed to begin with the Doctor telling Martha about the Starship Brilliant and how it disappeared.

(Italics is stuff I went back and squeezed into the gaps; asterisks are a note to myself to insert the extra bit further down the page. And I work on the basis that it’ll all be polished anyway when I type it up.)
‘But you know everything!’
Martha [?] Jones was [age] running for her life pursued by android per hover sheep*. The sheep, it turned out, were programmed to protect the lush pink pasture of the planet Valley of Welp.

* The sheep firinge lasers from their eyes.

‘Unauthorised personnel,’ bleated the sheep in identical weary tone, ‘are to be eliminated.’
‘Not everything,’ said the Doctor, helping Martha across the over meta the paddock gate & back to where the into the next muddy field. He was a tall, skinny brightly smiling bloke and Martha had something of a crush on him. ‘You see?’ he said, arms outstretched. ‘Perfect countryside & a twinge of helium in the air. That’s why your voice is a bit squeaky. Bit of your H.E. ‘on ‘em, Human vocal chords go all stretchy.’
‘You were telling me about this spaceship,’ said Martha.
Martha made a concerted effort to sound less like a mouse.
‘Meeeh,’ said the sheep burbumping up against the far side of the gate, ‘we’ll get you next time, intruders.’
‘Well,’ said the Doctor. ‘The Starship Brilliant just disappeared There’s a perfectly rational explanation. Somewhere.’
‘Right,’ said
And that just wasn’t working. So, after a line break, I thought I’d start instead with the Brilliant disappearing:
Cap Captain Window was a short, square man with a brisk moustache & temper. He was perfectly at home on the flight deck of any starship, but he had little en delight in his passengers.
‘Teddy bears,’ he muttered
‘Her brother is in the space chancery,’ he said irritably as he inspected the hyper-geometer’s post.
‘Sir?’ said the geometer, who was a new posting & hadn’t yet learnt.
‘The space chancery!’ roared Captain Window, who loved any excuse to shout. ‘One of these lawyers who agrees the boundaries of the empire. The sort leading us all to war.’
‘Yes sir,’ said the geometer.
And that wasn’t working either, so I left it for a few days. And came up with the wheeze that the Doctor and Martha were in mortal peril, or about to be killed. What if, to take her mind off that the Doctor told her about the Brilliant? (Back when I thought I might produce Benny Series 9, I came up with a wheeze for a cheap two-hander, where Benny and Peter are in a cell waiting to face a firing squad, and Benny keeps Peter's mind off it by chatting and telling stories.) On 7 July, I wrote:
‘You’re kidding me,’ laughed Martha Jones, the day before she died. ‘I thought you knew everything.’
Beside her in the prison cell, the Doctor
She and the Doctor were in a prison cell, under sentence of death. The It was the usual thing;
And that wasn’t working, so I left a line break and started again.
Martha Jones wasn’t really worried, so long as she was still with the Doctor. He lounged beside her in the prison cell, long skinny legs stretched out in front of him, his feet in mismatching, stripey socks. The robot guards had taken his shoes, his coat & sonic screwdriver.
And then another line break.
‘You say it all the time!’ laughed Martha Jones. For someone under who was going to be executed at dawn, she was in good spirits. Beside her, in the prison cell, the Doctor stretched his long & skinny limbs.
‘I do not,’ he said.
And then another line break.
A crowd turned out to see them die.
And then another line break.
You take your time,’ said the Doctor amiably.
‘We’re not in any hurry, are we?’
‘No,’ said Martha. ‘And you want to make sure you get it right, don’t you? With all these people watching.’
And then another line break.
Martha Jones first heard of the Starship Brilliant while waiting on her way to be executed. She and the Doctor The robot people of the planet Soft had never ‘unplugged’ humans before, & while they debated twittered & bleeped about the best & most efficient method, the
And then another break for a few days. On 13 July I jotted some notes about Martha’s relationship with her family having chatted to Monster Maker. On 15 July, Millennium’s daddies hosted a marathon watch of Martha’s TV adventures and I scribbled more stuff down. And at some point around that time, Codename Moose updated his Facebook page saying he was sick of hearing Mika’s Grace Kelly everywhere he went. All this lodged in my brain, and on 20 July I wrote:
Sixty million robots danced through the streets of Milky-Pink City. They had never been program taken any dance lessons and they’d never been programmed with any styles. But they all flaunted & twisted & cavorted their metal limbs with abandon in time to the rhythm in their heads. There were tall robots doing what was sort of a rumba, & wide, heavy-lifting robots doing potat what were almost potatoes and squares.* And on all their blank expressionless faces was something like machine joy.
‘It’s funny,’ said Martha Jones watching them as the Doctor stuffed his. ‘My brother hates that song.’
‘Yeah?’ said the Doctor beside her as he rummaged through his deep pockets for the TARDIS key. ‘I like the line about [Grace Kelly by Mika].’

* They had been built to serve and pamper holiday 1000s of human holiday makers, who had then never showed up. The robots had waited patiently, but intergalactic tourism is a harsh & cruel business. The tourists never came. Until two travellers just happened to stop by.
The robots had fallen over themselves to oblige these two. They’d fought each other to make their drinks. They’d had a war over who got to help take the Doctor’s coat. Eventually They’d turned on the visitors…
Much better, and the rest of the book went from there. (And all that stuff about being stuck in a prison cell got turned into "The Great Escapes" in Short Trips: Defining Patterns.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"What claptrap!"

My clever uncle Bob has updated his website with details of his latest musical choons. We've swapped notes on our current activities, and in doing so he fondly recalls old-skool, old-man Doctor Who made with cardboard and copydex.

My chums at the BBC Archive are celebrating Doctor Who's 45th birthday with a clear-out of old bits of paper. Learned fellows at the BBC wonder if science fiction might work on the telly and slowly tease out the basis of what might just work as a show...

Here, in 1963, is CE Webber nailing the magic of Doctor Who back before they'd even come up with the TARDIS (except for it's “light-resistant paint”).
“Evidently, Dr. Who's "machine" fulfils mary of the functions of conventional Science Fiction gimmicks. But we are not writing Science Fiction. We shall provide scientific explanations too, sometimes, but we shall not bend over backwards to do so, if we decide to achieve credibility by other means. Neither are we writing fantasy: the events have got to be credible to the three ordinary people who are our main characters, and they are sharp-witted enough to spot a phoney. I think the writer's safeguard here will be, if he remembers that he is writing for an audience aged fourteen... the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated, audience there is, for TV. In brief, avoid the limitations of any label and use the best in any style or category, as it suits us, so long as it works in our medium.”

CE Webber, “Dr. Who” - General Notes on Background and Approach, 1963.

Clever old Red Scharlach notes wryly, of the Audience Research Report for the very first episode, that fans have not changed a great deal in 45 years. The BBC have made a lively, exciting and fun TV show with astounding, broad appeal? What in the name in jibbering flip were they thinking?

These documents are well-known to us fans who stuck it out in the Dark Times; they were picked over in the First Doctor Handbook and the pages of DWM, and then used in the excellent Beginnings DVD documentary. But how fab to see the original bits of paper, tatty and scribbled on and real.

Monday, November 17, 2008

James Bond = FAIL

After the not-so-great Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever, Bond Book 5 is a bit fab.

Bond himself doesn't appear until page 78 of From Russia, With Love – more than a third of the way through. In that time, a huge conspiracy is set in motion, the full apparatus of Smersh (the Soviet Union’s spy-killing squad) focused on ruining one man.

In the film, the scheme – by SPECTRE not Smersh – is revenge for Bond killing Doctor No. But here it’s not personal; the real target is to embarrass the British Secret Service, and by extension to fray the Special Relationship for sharing secrets with the US. Bond himself is not important and certainly not a hero. One top Russian says of him:
“The English are not interested in heroes unless they are footballers or cricketers or jockeys. If a man climbs a mountain or runs very fast he also is a hero to some people, but not to the masses. The Queen of England is also a hero, and Churchill. But the English are not greatly interested in military heroes. This man Bond is unknown to the public. If he was known, he would still not be a hero. In England, neither open war nor secret war is a heroic matter. They do not like to think about war, and after a war the names of their war heroes are forgotten as quickly as possible.”

Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love, p. 43.

Their wheeze is to get Bond caught up and killed in a sex scandal, preferably in France where the press is most salacious. The honey trap includes a beautiful girl defector and a code-breaking machine. Bond knows it sounds dodgy but the prize is too much to resist; he heads off on the next flight to Istanbul.

The book is full of fecund exoticism – Istanbul itself, the Orient Express, Bond eating a kebab. As always, this is in sharp contrast to contemporary privations. The world is still deeply scarred by the recent world war.
“The clouds broke up and a distant blue haze, far away to their left, was Paris. For an hour they flow high over the burned-up fields of France until, after Dijon, the land turned from a pale to a darker green as it sloped up into the Juras.”

Ibid., p. 93.

That battered landscape reminds Bond of how much he himself has been ravaged by the last few years. He remembers his teenage self,
“bracing himself against the top of a rock-chimney on the Aigulles Rouges as his two companions from the University of Geneva inclined up the smooth rock towards him [...] If that young James Bond came up to him in the street and talked to him, would he recognize the clean, eager youth that had been him at seventeen? And what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognize himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear – this man with the cold arrogant eyes and the scar down his cheek and the flat bulge beneath his left armpit?”


I point this out chiefly because it implies Bond gets his scar after the age of 17, while SilverFin has Bond scarred during his first year at Eton. Pedantic sod that I am.

Fleming’s prose is often functional, brutal, yet littered with concise observations and occasional glimpses of poetry. The following, for example, seems to thieve from the famous quote by Viscount Grey of Falloden, watching streetlights being lit just before World War One:
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris.”

Ibid., p. 150.

Likewise, the Bond girl Tatiana is a surprisingly well-drawn character, with conflicted and developing motives. The film nicely makes her chose between Bond and her country at the end; in the book Bond seems to assume that he’s won her over but we never know quite for sure. She’s a graceful, good looking girl and Fleming makes a point of her classy, royal heritage. But he also likes women to have some kind of flaw. Tatiana’s might be evidence for those who think Bond is a secret gaybo.
“Her arms and breasts were faultless. A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's.”

Ibid., p. 59.

Bond’s sex life is worth a post all of its own. He apparently considered marriage to Tiffany Case (from the last book) but agrees with M that it’s for the best it didn’t work out. But more importantly, his “normal”, “healthy” appetites serve to contrast with villainous extremes.

Fleming apparently found villains difficult to write, but in this he’s created two corkers. Rosa Klebb is a toad-faced, predatory bisexual – one of the cliff-hangers is that she’s a woman, another that she tries to seduce Tatiana. In stark contrast, Red Grant is a handsome if ginger-haired sadist with no interest in sex. You can tell he’s helluva tough because when Klebb punches him with a knuckle-duster he doesn’t even flinch.

Importantly, the villains seem better than Bond. Grant is taller than the six-foot Bond (p. 101), more powerful, more ruthless. Note that unlike the 007 of the films,
“Bond had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn't liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.”

Ibid., p. 141.

The Russians are also better equipped. Bond can’t see any trace of forgery in Grant’s faked documents.
“Bond knew most of the signs to look for in forged passports, the blurred writing, the too exact imprints of the rubber stamps, the trace of old gum round the edges of the photograph, the slight transparencies on the page where the fibres of the paper had been tampered with to alter a letter or a number...”

Ibid, p. 176.

Grant has a copy of War and Peace that shoots people, Klebb has poisoned knitting needles and shoes. Bond might have knives and gold sovereigns hidden in his brief case, but nothing quite so crafty.
“He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man's face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!”

Ibid., p. 195.

Spy stories are at their best when pitting one individual against huge odds. What makes this one so exciting is that the hero is so clearly out-matched. In some ways it’s like the creation of Moriarty to destroy Sherlock Holmes: it’s the extraordinary stakes that make this one memorable. There’s incident aplenty – naked wrestling gypsies, explosions and stuff – but even several chapters of train journey, eating meals and looking out the window, feels exciting because we know the jaws of the trap are straining at their springs.

The film version wisely stays faithful to the book. The documentary on the DVD explains where they reordered scenes in the editing to make more sense of the building conspiracy. Richard Maibaum's last minute rewrites – made when filming had already begun – also make more of Grant, brilliantly having him one step ahead of Bond at every turn. Again, this emphasises that Bond is out of his depth. The shooting War and Peace is also replaced with a less silly garrotte-wire hidden in a watch. It tightens up the structure, making more of the book…

And yet the book pulls off a singular coup which the film series never could. Bond seems to have dodged the claws of the conspiracy, but there’s one last brilliant twist in the tale. No film Bond would ever dare go so far as the killing of Bond…

You wouldn’t know it from the book, but James Bond will return in Doctor No.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Monkey see, monkey do

This goes on a bit: it’s a book review but also the janglings of my brain in my sparer moments of man flu. Sorry.

After the invasion of 1066, England was pretty much divided between lords and peasants. The lords swanked around in trendy new castles, feasting and speaking French. The peasants either starved or ate root vegetables and spoke Anglo-Saxon. And these two factions saw the same objects and stuff in completely different ways.

To the Anglo-Saxons, a four-legged, mooing animal was something you herded and tended, not something you got to eat. They used the Germanic word, “cow”. When the cow was served up as dinner to the lords, they called it by the French word for the mooing animal, “beef”. Uniquely (I think) English still differentiates between an animal in its state of being alive and one in its state of lunch. By having two words for the same thing, the same thing becomes two distinct entities.

This may, of course, have something to do with how weird we are generally compared to them foreign-speaking fellows about eating things that run and jump. But I shall evangelise St Hugh’s Philosophy of Meat another time.

The point is that our use of language defines our perception and behaviour – what’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though its more of an axiom. Speaking a different language, or using the same language differently, means living in a different world.

Cow/beef is an example of a physical, tangible creature being perceived differently. In general, nouns are easy to translate – languages just have a different word for the same object. But idioms and more metaphysical concepts are trickier. There’s often something uncomfortable about a literal translation (a “calque”); it doesn’t quite fit. (English tends to dodge this problem by just adopting the foreign term.)

It might then, seem, that we can’t imagine something without having a word for it – that’s how Sapir-Whorf is sometimes explained. So which came first: the ability to name things or our conception of the world around us? Can we think without a language?

This metaphysical conundrum has foxed a good few clever fellows. Charles Darwin, for example, wrote in Notebook M on Thursday, 16 August 1838:
“Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysic must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”
This oddment of jotting has been pinched as the title for a very good book indeed, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind by Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth. It compiles years of research and close observation of a group of baboons to make sense of what might be going through their minds.
“Roughly 30 million years ago, baboons, chimpanzees, and humans shared the same ancestor. The ancestral line leading to baboons and other Old World monkeys then diverged. For almost 20 million years thereafter, chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor, before separating roughly five to seven million years ago. In what ways have baboon and chimpanzee minds diverged since their separation? And what selective pressures might have resulted in the obvious differences between the chimpanzee and human minds?”

Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind, p. 278.

As the authors say, it’s hard enough to know what a human being is thinking, and they can answer direct questions. So the book details a series of clever experiments, each one revealing one more tiny piece of proof. They monitor stress levels by testing for adrenalin levels in the baboons’ poo. They record one baboon's grunts and wahoos and play them back in different situations to see how others react. Slowly an evidence base is built up.

This might sound pretty gruelling but it’s a remarkably easy read. The first hundred pages or so chart the history of man’s interactions with baboons, from the days the ancient Egyptians used them as police dogs and recognised their ability to learn. The evidence of experiments is compared to other animals and human children, but also – brilliantly – to the social observation of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Jonathan Swift.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged in baboon society that, while success in the male world is determined by sex, fighting and posturing, success in the female world depends on family, social networks and intrigue.”

Ibid, p. 62.

It’s a nicely packaged book, too, full of photos of the baboons in question – though it's not always self-evident that the photos really show us the behaviour that the captions claim. The baboons might just as well be sun-bathing.

(The look and feel of the thing as a physical object add to the ease of the reading. I’m intrigued by the note in the legal indicia, that:
“the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences – Permanence of Paper for Printed Materials ANSI Z39.48-1992.”
How splendid – a book that’s built to last.)

The authors are chiefly interested in giving evidence for the ways the baboons model the world around them than how they behave: the processes going through their heads. While we never get close to what or how they’re thinking, there’s clear evidence of social knowledge (i.e. keeping up with gossip), complex modelling and unconscious workings out. The authors admit to a wide range of gaps in their own knowledge, and the book lays out the areas for future research. But the complex stuff the baboons are doing is all without a language.

Language isn’t just how we talk to other people, it’s how we explain objects in relation to one another. It’s how we talk to ourselves. It is the mechanism for considering our position and our actions, and not just reacting. Because humans are capable of more than just reacting. It’s just we don’t often show it.
“Words tell us what stuff is doing and where it is. The simplest proper sentence is a thing and what it’s doing … Pretty much everything else – adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions – is just qualifying this construction, placing the thing and what it’s doing in the context of other things and actions. It’s all about making sense of where things are.”

Me, 2 April 2008.

Interestingly, the authors also conclude that baboons don't really have a sense of empathy. They don't seem to be able to see things from another individual's point of view, which leads to infanticide, abandonment and generally callous behaviour. They appear mean though they don't know any better – it's just that us humans do.

That said, a review by Frans de Waal in New Scientist says:
“Curiously, their book omits the work of half a dozen luminaries of earlier baboon fieldwork, including that of Barbara Smuts and Shirley Strum, who have given us a glimpse of a gentler baboon.”
But I wonder if language – as an abstract model of the world around us, a way of distancing ourselves from the immediate – is then the key to empathy. We can only imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling by having the language to model it.

There's a constant effort to stick to only what the evidence shows, a struggle not to anthropomorphise. But the book is less about how much the apes are like us, but how little different we are from them. We’re disturbingly similar – I kept reading the book thinking how true its conclusions were of humans, too. How much one particular baboon behaves like someone I used to work with, that sort of thing.

I made the links but not wholly kindly. Acting like an ape is still a pejorative term. “Humans,” said Douglas Adams, “are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner.” (In the TV version of the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, this pearly is accompanied by a tea party for humans and chimpanzees, with the caption “This never happens”.)

At our worst, at our most petty and mean and unthinking, we're very much like apes. We're only better than them when we judge the consequences of our actions, the affect on other people and from their perspective. When we squabble and fight and jockey for position, we're like the baboons; but manners really do make man. We’re no better than apes in our wars but better in our remembrance. And we can only do that because we have language.
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Stephen Hawking, er, hawking British telephony in 1993.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More stuff you should fork out for, sorry

Doctor Who and Christmas Round the WorldAs Herr Arnopp reports, there are now copies out of Doctor Who: Christmas Round the World. My story, "Do you smell carrots?", is set in Reading and features the words "Jawa", "helicopter" and "lion".

Authors include my chums James Moran, Kate Orman, Eddie Robson, William Potter and some other people who don't seem to have websites. Or perhaps I just don't like them. The wretches. Especially that Joff Brown.

It's a weighty tome all told - at 304 pages I think it's the porkiest Short Trips yet. Exactly right for laddering a Christmas stocking.

Doctor Who & Home TruthsAnd the Big Finish website also features a cheeky new ad for Home Truths, performed by the marvellous Jean Marsh. As well as co-creating The House of Eliot and Upstairs, Downstairs, she was a Doctor Who Companion. (No sniping at the back, yes she was.) I've heard it and couldn't be happier.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Damaged goods

This blog has been a casualty of my chasing around on a number of projects, some of which are very exciting indeed. Announcements in due course...

Took the Dr to see Quantum of Solace on Friday, and generally agree with Millennium's glowing review. It's all played brilliantly, it looks absolutely gorgeous but I'm not quite convinced by the frenetic edit. Watching Nimbos' Blue-Ray Casino Royale earlier this week (cor!), Codename Moose noted how well told the action sequences are. They're fast and complex and intricate, but every shot is framed perfectly, and in any given instant you know exactly where you are.

Quantum of Solace continually loses you in the midst of action. There's an opening car chase where someone loses their driver-side door, and it took me a moment to realise who. There's a scene of Bond and a villain swinging from ropes where you're not sure which is which.

I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't learn the real name of Mr White – or “Ernst”, as he is to his mother. Nor do I really see the point of keeping the gun barrel to the end. But hooray for MK12's opening sequence: different but very pretty.

Also, ignore the fools who say this isn't really a Bond film. Or that it's the first direct sequel to the previous film. There are no gadgets in Doctor No - “Q” is in it but he's not called that and he only gives Bond a new gun. From Russia, With Love is a direct sequel to that first film, too – with the Doctor's buddies out for revenge. Quantum of Solace is, then, continuing a back to basics exercise, not just getting back to the Bond of Fleming's novels but the films as they began.

I've also read SilverFin, the first of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels, which I enjoyed a great deal. The mad plot about eels and special serum is at the dafter end of Fleming (and more like the barking end of Sherlock Holmes). But it's a fun adventure.

A bit like River Phoenix in The Last Crusade, there's fun seeing Bong get his scar and learning to drive. In fact, Uncle Max explains to Bond for at least two pages exactly how a car engine works. I'd have loved this boy-stuff detail in my teens. It could almost have done with an Eagle cutaway.

Though we're never told the date in the book itself, the internet says this is set in 1933 – and Bond born in 1920. I think that's out by at least two years.
“[Moonraker] makes Bond 37 in a book first published in 1955, and possible set a bit earlier. He can't then be born any later than 1918.”

Me, 14 March 2008.

I'm now well into From Russia, With Love, and will report back as soon as possible. (I've also got notes on Baboon Metaphysics and a handful of other stuff. But you'll have to be patient.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Recent telly

A few pals speak of being at the “DVD boxset” stage in life. Some have kids, some can’t be fagged going out of an evening. I’m just a bit rubbish following telly as it airs. I either forget or something comes up in Real Life or I’m racing to meet a deadline.

The recent, needed lull in my writing commitments means I’m gulping down great swathes of the goggle box.

I've just got through the second series of The Wire – as leant by Codename and Mrs Moose. Having beaten the Barksdales last year, our gang of shades-of-grey cops are variously investigating the Baltimore docks, looking into murders and drugs and the union. The Barksdales are licking their wounds, either weathering prison or trying to restart their business. And slowly, very slowly, it’s all coming to a head…

As just about everyone on the planet has enthused, The Wire is a brilliant series. Funny and smart and rude and surprising, the serious, clever and violent adult stuff is nicely balanced with bits of slapstick and silliness, the stupid everyday things people say and do. If you’ve seen it you already know this; if you haven’t I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling its wonders.

But I’d be quite happy were Idris Elba to be the next Doctor Who.

It’s not just box sets. I have also been watching telly LIVE. Little Dorrit is am impressively grimy, dirty adaptation – and the trailers keep suggesting a sapphic something involving Freema Agyeman. What is not to like?

Dickens is particularly good on the petty viciousness people heap on one another, the debilitating effect of gossip, the decades wasted on silly intrigues. The Dickensian world is a ruthless, brutal place, everyone on the brink of ruination. Yet because he populates his stories with such comic archetypes, it's very easy to over-play. Actors pull on frock coats and mad facial hair and prance about doing funny voices.

Far better is to play against the comedy, to pretend you're not comic characters at all. That way – as in the books – the comedy works to underline the awful things befalling the weakest characters. And that's why The Muppets' Christmas Carol is the best ever adaptation of Dickens.

Also, in Little Dorrit Andy Serkis plays another compelling grotesque. I'd like to see him play something heroic. In fact, I’d be quite happy were he the next Doctor Who.

The new series of Spooks unleashed two thrilling episodes this week, featuring Richard Armitage as a new character. The Dr was very pleased with the important plot point that he's got William Blake tattoos (and so had to take his top off).

For all it's good fun with lots of chasing, there were lots of silly things. If you're sneaking around someone's bedroom while they're asleep in bed, it's probably best to switch your mobile-phone-cloning machine to silent rather than letting it bing. And the Prime Minister would be committing political suicide if he cancelled Remembrance Sunday.

Armitage is looking pretty buff having spent eight years in a Russian prison. Also, his debrief seems to consist of being asked “Are you a double-agent?” - to which he answered “Yes”. He hangs round the office waiting for a cup of tea, and then is quickly part of the next mission. The writers should look at The Man With The Golden Gun (the book) for what happens when James Bond comes out of the cold...

Yes, I appreciate they sort of address some of that in episode two. But not really very much. Again they ask him if he's a double-agent, again he tells them yes. So they let him back on the mission again. Still, I wouldn't mind if Armitage was the next Doctor Who.

Incidentally, I also saw Mark Lawson talking to John le Carre with its top fact that the word le Carre invented for a “Russian asset” – mole – came from The Wind In The Willows.

And then there's Dead Set, in which zombies get into the Big-Brother. It's impressively violent and grisly, though the quick cutting means you're not always aware quite how grisly it is. The Dr missed one episode so I explained about Davina being stabbed through the back of the head, the lamp-pole bursting out of her eye... And realised it was far more horrid telling it than it had seemed on the screen.

It licked along quickly, never explaining how the zombies came to be or suggesting any solution. Horror can often be just a sequence of horrific events, bludgeoning against your eyeballs. But this managed to be smart and funny, keeping us guessing right up to the end.

Oh, and I’d be quite happy were Kevin Eldon the next Doctor Who.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Return of the Decemberists

Another Doctor Who box setSurprise package in the post this morning; a new set of Doctor Who paperbacks. It's five months since the last box set. This one features The Pirate Loop, Trevor's Wishing Well and Jim's Peacemaker squeezed in with Terrance's Revenge of the Judoon.

Only saw Jim on Thursday this week, to discuss things that have not yet been announced. I had two cappucine and a chocolate muffin. That was a good day, as it happens. Later, me and Codename Moose met with someone who might deign to employ us in the future on stuff that would be very exciting indeed. But more of that if/when it happens.

Today I am meant to be finishing off my tax return. Got a couple of introductions to write for something, and Leslie wants something for a fanzine. Have notes on an on-spec script to write up and send off, another script project to get moving, and then there is The Novel. And I'm expecting rewrites on three things to come in at any moment...

More importantly, I've been invited for tea and cake at four. So better get a move on.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The nuclear ‘pool

Having rattled through The Ghost, I’ve since rattled through The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter. I loved his The Time Ships (a sequel to The Time Machine by HG Wells), and this is a similarly thrilling adventure of freewheeling paradoxes.

1962. Laura Mann is 14 years-old and not happy at having to move to Liverpool when her Mum and Dad split up. Dad’s staying at his army base in High Wycombe, and Mum’s got a fancy man, the American soldier Mort who she knew during the war. But as Laura starts school, gets teased about her accent and looking a bit like their spiky headmistress, the world is facing a crisis. The Americans and Russians are at loggerheads in Cuba and threatening nuclear war. And in a murky cavern in Liverpool, Laura’s about to hear a band called the Beatles…

The lurid pink cover (which got a few odd looks on the train) and the teen-protagonist might put some adult readers off. But this is a compelling, complex and richly drawn adventure. It’s surprisingly violent and harrowing in places.

Baxter’s Liverpool is full of telling detail, from the names of contemporary shops and products to people’s assumptions about class and race and sexuality. He deftly describes and explains the world and worldview in a way that only becomes intrusive when a character from 2007 starts harping on about mobile phones and laptops.

I’ve sometimes found Baxter’s other books a bit cold and clever. Like a lot of sci-fi, his world-building is masterful but the characters are sometimes just background to the thrill of all the physics, convenient triggers for the plot. Here, though, he takes his time setting everything up before the plot kicks in.

To begin with, it’s a fish-out-of-water, North and South sort of thing with the girl from the Home Counties struggling to survive the dark and brutish scallys. It’s got the teen-angst feel of Tracy Beaker or the first episode of Byker Grove. Even at the end, the book hinges on Laura’s relationship with her parents, the new perspectives she has of them and of herself as an adult.

But an early reference to another Liverpool band, John Smith and the Common Man, is a fun nod to where the story’s going to go.
SUSAN: I-It's John Smith and the Common Men. They've gone from 19 to 2.
BARBARA: (Not understanding a bit of it.) Hmm. (She looks puzzled.)
IAN: (Laughing.) "John Smith" is the stage name of the honourable Aubrey Waites. He started his career as Chris Waites and the Carollers, didn't he, Susan?
SUSAN: You are surprising, Mr. Chesterton. I wouldn't expect you to know things like that.
IAN: I have an enquiring mind…(Motions to the loud radio.) and a very sensitive ear.

Anthony Coburn, Scene 4 of Doctor Who’s first episode.

As the plot gets going, it seems Baxter is doing what Steven Moffat said of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who: you create interesting characters and melt them. The vivid description of nuclear holocaust and its long-term effects reminded me of Threads. Importantly, the horror and complex plot stuff works because of our investment in and sympathy for a wide range of characters – real and invented.

It’s a quick, compelling read with constant revelations and twists. It’s similar in tone and in some plot gimmickry to my own The Time Travellers but also kept me guessing. But it does end a little abruptly – there’s the last revelation and a big bang and then that’s sort of it. Baxter ties up all the plot strands but I felt a bit short-changed. Perhaps an epilogue set a few years later might have helped. Having invested so much in these people, seen everything they have been and might have been through, it’s unsettling not to know how they ended up.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Iris and Iris

Big Finish have posted the blurb and cast for The Two Irises, written by me. It's out in April (or, as part of a boxset in February). And it may well be the silliest thing I've ever written - which is saying something.
A new adventure for eccentric adventurer, Iris Wildthyme and her companion, Panda in their time travelling London double-decker bus!

Panda wakes from a near death experience to find that Iris has sacrificed herself to save him. There’s a new Iris on the bus – and she is a he!

The new teetotal and decidedly male Iris sets course for the war-torn earth of the 22nd century, where “his” old enemies the Naxians are lying in wait…
The cast is Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme), David Benson (Panda), Dan Hogarth (Iris Wildthyme), John Dorney (Roger the Naxian), Scott Handcock (Barry). I'm hoping to hear the dialogue edit later today.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The spectre of defeat

Awake at five this morning as the Dr thumped around getting ready for her cab to the airport. She and the mother-in-law are now be in Cairo, visiting the pyramids and stuff. I will be holding the fort, attending to the cat and doing my tax return. Oh joy.

I’ve not made it through to the third round of the British Short Screenplay Competition, but the script is going somewhere else now and my name’s in for a couple of things that might be nice if they happen. On we plod.

In the meantime, I’ve promised all the days I can spare to one freelance gig which is keeping me busy. After a whole summer of writing from home, it’s odd to be commuting again. If nothing else, I am wolfing down whole books.

The Ghost by Robert Harris was a birthday present from a fellow writer. We never learn the name of the protagonist who narrates the story, which is apt in that he’s a ghost writer, the anonymous shadow helping former Prime Minister Adam Lang finish his autobiography.

There’s already a full draft, compiled by a loyal staffer of Lang’s who has died in mysterious circumstances. Our man’s more used to ghosting the memoirs of old rock stars, freely admitting he knows nothing about politics. But with Lang’s former foreign secretary and the international crimes court accusing Lang of war crimes, our man better bone up quick.

It’s a great shocker, full of excitement and intrigue. I read it in just four sittings because – after a slowish start – I couldn’t put it down. It has lots to say on writing-for-hire and hack work and process. There’s some great stuff with the protagonist completely failing to spot the danger he’s in (you keep wanting to shout “behind you!”). And there are also some great little details, like the Prime Minister’s security heavy reading Harry Potter. It’s a lively, exciting and intelligent read and comes recommended.

But there’s something about it that really bugged me, a constant distraction from the thrilling plot. A lot of the reviews of the book have concentrated on how much Adam Lang and his wife owe to Tony and Cherie Blair. It might be them in silhouette on the cover. The characters have similar backgrounds and quirks.

I think this is the weakness of the book. However shrewd these observations of the real former Prime and Mrs Minister, they’re wrapped up in a potboiling thriller, a conspiracy that’s patently not real. The real intrudes on the story.
“Harris, at one time a leading supporter of new Labour, had unprecedented access to Blair during the 1997 election campaign and during his heady early days of government. But his support withered over the Iraq war and Blair’s relationship with George Bush.”

Brendan Bourne, “Harris points pen at a leader very like Blair”, The Sunday Times, 19 August 2007.

As a result of Harris’s insider knowledge, we’re constantly second guessing the real writer. If Lang’s having an affair in the book, does Harris knows something about the Blairs’ sex lives? How much of the book’s conspiracy is real?

And where does it stop? If Lang = Blair, does it follow that X is a reference to Robin Cook, or Y is based on Peter Hain… The whole thing becomes a salacious guessing game, like something out of Popbitch: who is Harris satirising now?

Lang would have worked better as his own man, evidently not Blair yet faced with the same world and choices. That way the sharp contrast makes us think through the issues rather than the gossip. As it is, the book is a personal attack on individuals. And the attack fails because whatever real criticisms Harris might have to make, they’re all mixed up in an unreal, blockbuster plot.

The same is true of To Play The King (the TV version as I’ve not read the book). House of Cards worked because, by not being about any specific, real politicians, it was about all of them. Once you’d seen these fictional people being all smiles as they stabbed at each other, it changed how you saw the real politicians going about their business. But when Michael Kitchen comes in doing an impression of Prince Charles, our attention is all on his performance, judging how well observed, sympathetic or insightful it might be. It’s about him, not the story.

As a result, I kept thinking as I read The Ghost of Andrew Cartmel’s Under the Eagle. The play covers similar ground to this – a British Prime Minister compromised by his relationship with the US, the difficulties of his marriage, the thorny issue of rendition… Both feature an outsider – a ghost writer, a comedian – staying a night with the PM as all hell breaks loose.

But Cartmel’s characters are original creations, so our focus is broader. And just because of that, the points made hit harder. People in The Ghost keep insisting that the whole war crimes thing “isn’t personal”. It’s a shame Harris himself didn’t feel the same.