Monday, June 30, 2008

Call me Scarface

A fun afternoon in the pub yesterday with lots of lovely chums, many of whom brought presents or at least bought pints. It’s just possible that at some point in the evening I’d had too much beer. The inevitable gloom of the not-quite-a-hangover today provokes the following self-indulgent whinge.

I seem to have become quite an adult this last week. Having spent since the age of 13 feeling, well, like I’m 13, now I am clearly a grown up.

For example, the neighbour thinks I’m adult enough to discuss the finer points of plumbing. Our bathroom (not that it’s got a bath in it) is leaking into his kitchen, and we spent a happy time on Saturday looking for holes and generally scratching our brains.

The plumber didn’t turn up this morning (well, he says he did but didn’t think to ring either of the two doorbells), so there was some more analysis of skirting boards and the possible routes of water run-off. Those who have met me will be delighted by the thought of my trying to be of any practical use.

Then at noon a nice estate agent popped round to make a judgment on our flat. We’re coming to the end of our fixed-term mortgage and Northern Rock doesn’t want us on their books any more (apparently you’re less handsome to banks when you pay them on time). And we’ve also been having thoughts about converting our loft into a padded cage for writing.

This is quite a daunting prospect, where we might have to remove the ceilings from our existing rooms and even move out for a couple of months. Somehow it all needs to be paid for, so, like wide-eyed lambs to the slaughter, we’ve been trying to suss out the numbers.

And the nice man explained the microclimate of the market, what with the proximity of train lines and the Olympics. It was only when I was writing up this conversation for our nice financial advisor that it occurred to me how grown up and sensible it all is. Or rather, how monstrously terrifying. And how little like I sound like I know what I’m doing when I say we’re going to put off any building work until we’ve got the planning in place. Yet those I’m talking to seem not to have twigged.

Then I rang my dad for some advice about diseases, on the basis of something I was hurrying to finish. One of the beta-readers had politely suggested that it sounded like I made up the science. Yes, as if he expected that this is something I would not do.

So Dad explained the difference between diptheroids and diphtheria (a tickly, annoying throat thing that’s not harmful in itself but the latter secretes a toxin that can stop your heart). He corrected my wobbly understanding of how different diseases can team up together, so you get rare and virulent things like anthrax and small pox only being transmitted as easily as a common cold.

And he explained that though we’ve got antibiotics to combat most bacteria, we don’t really have them for viruses. This is why Bird Flu could be such a problem; it the disease teams up in such a way as to spread quickly among humans, we don’t really have much to fight it. Excitingly, I happened to know the word for a disease that jumps from other animals to humans: zoonoses.

Dad’s one of a number of experts I can rely on to cheat on my homework. But as well as being kind enough to point out which bits I’d got sort of right, he then asked for a favour in return, and asked for a showbiz contact. And I managed to have the chap in question’s phone number. As if the kind of stuff I get up to useful.

Soon after, my boss and neighbour G. emailed to ask if I could help him fix broadband on his laptop, being under the impression I have any idea at all. Only yesterday Nimbos was having to explain in short and simple words that no, it’s not a matter of a new operating system. The PC I’ve had since I went freelance six years ago really has just died. So on Wednesday I am going to have a grown up and expensive day picking out a new one. And I still don’t know what the leaky bathroom is going to cost me.

Joy. I realise why people think I might know stuff. The Doctor’s friend Leela once explained that, “If you are bleeding, look for a man with many scars.” Perhaps I’m the one you run to when things are falling apart.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Share and share alike?

The not exactly new but current issue of SFX (#171, July 2008, The X-Files on the cover) includes a three page feature by Jonathan Wright on spin-off novels and shared universes.

Wright talks to a whole bunch of important people: critic and writer Roz Kaveney; Mark Newton, assistant editor on the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street books; my boss Justin Richards; writers Rob Williams, Peter David, Kevin J Anderson, Una McCormack and, er, me.

In such esteemed and clever company, I get just a paragraph towards the end. But here's what I originally said:
Let's get this one straight out of the way, franchise work is maybe regarded as not creative in the same way that 'original' work is. What's your take on that?

Original work probably seems harder because you've got to start from scratch – the people, the setting, the tone. A franchise at least gives you a rough idea of what's expected and your major characters. But you've also got to find a way to do new things within that same set-up and that gets trickier the longer a franchise has been going. There's 45 years of Doctor Who – television episodes, books, audio plays, comic strips. Fans are quick to spot repetition, but the fun – for you and for them, I think – is in producing new twists and ideas. It's sort of a parlour game. Is that any less creative? I'm not sure. It's certainly different.

I think franchise writing is also safer for a writer. There are fixed guidelines, word counts and contracts, so it's a lot less risky to write. Original work doesn't just need writing, it needs much more work to get publishers interested and then to get punters to buy it. That's a lot of investment and there might be very little return. With a franchise you know there's already an audience.

Are the rules with existing franchises slightly different to when you're pitching a new [thing]?

I've pitched original things to other people, but not very successfully. So what do I know?

Related to the above – do fans expect certain things of franchises and is that something you think about very much?

Yes, I think they probably do, but I'm not sure how you go about measuring those expectations. There are vocal minorities in most fan communities whose opinions could skew your thinking. But also you want to surprise and excite your readers, so you're looking for new perspectives anyway. You can talk to fans, or eavesdrop on their
conversations, but I think you can only really respond to your expectations. When pitching my first Doctor Who book I was thinking about the kinds of Doctor Who books I'd liked reading myself. Ones where the Doctor and his companions were prominent. Ones with mad ideas. Ones where I didn't know where it was going to go next. Even if it's not a franchise you know particularly well, you do your research and you work out what elements you yourself are a fan of.

To what extent can you decide plotlines?

For the Doctor Who books, all these things have to be approved by a great number of people but you're the one coming up with the ideas. My first Doctor Who novel, The Time Travellers, is pretty much the 5,000 word synopsis I send on spec to BBC Books in early 2003. My second Doctor Who novel, The Pirate Loop, began as a whole series of ideas I sent range editor Justin Richards after he asked for something science-fiction. We spent about a week batting the ideas back and forth, pruning them into shape. That outline then had to be approved and the approvers made some suggestions. I think the Doctor and Martha spent less time together in the original outline.

I've also commissioned stories where I gave authors a one-line or one-paragraph outline and then left them to do the rest. That works well if you're commissioning a whole series. It seems to work best if the authors aren't given too many things to squeeze in and are left to come up with the plot themselves. They tend to be keener and more creative when its their own idea.

How does the commissioning/editing process work?

These days, they call you. The editors might have an idea for the kind of thing they're after – a space story, or anything so long as it isn't set in London. They might tell what else they've got lined up and just want you to fill the gap. There's usually some general guidelines to the series – rules and footnotes you might not pick up as an outside observer. There's a set word count, deadline and contract, so you just need to come up with the outline.

Once that's approved, you go away and write the thing. Then there's various stages of editorial – a close reading by your immediate editor who might ask for all manner of changes, a proof read by a sub who'll be checking grammar and inconsistencies, and then the panel of approvers who check for tone and style. They might also ask you to tweak things to make them more in keeping with forthcoming stories.

Do you think such developments as the boom in fan fiction/online shared worlds/a more 'interactive' future will change our ideas about what shared universes are?

Fan fiction has been going a long time. There's a wealth of authors now who started out in fanzines. Back in 1990 Virgin Publishing were so impressed with the Doctor Who stories published by fans that they invited them to pitch for their New Adventures line. But that's a rare example, at least as far as I know, of a publisher actually reading fan fiction – or admitting that they have. Fan fiction's value – to me, anyway – is that it gets wannabe writers writing and gets their writing seen. You gain confidence and practical skills, which helps when then sending your work out to the professional publishers.

Do your 'original' work and your franchise work feed off each other?

Yes. You come up with ideas that maybe don't fit the thing you're working on just then, so you jot them down to use later in something else unrelated. Or you go off on tangents which prove to be whole other stories. But also just the practical stuff plays a part – you work with an editor on a franchise line who then gets a job with a
different publisher. It's even smaller scale stuff – I've learnt tricks writing copy for the government and advertising that's been useful in my fiction. My own sentence structure is certainly better having had to produce and edit other people's stuff. The great thing about writing – especially if you don't really have any other abilities – is that you can make use of any experience.

Anything else you'd like to add?


A brief bio of yourself would help a lot too.

I am 31 [not any more] and live in south London with a bright wife and a dim cat. I have written stories for as long as I can remember, though for a long time not very good ones. I started pitching to 2000AD at the age of 16, and the Doctor Who books when I was 18. It took 10 years to get a book commissioned, though by then I'd had some Doctor Who short stories published by Big Finish. I've been a freelance writer since 2002. I'm editing my third anthology of Doctor Who short stories at the moment. "How The Doctor Changed My Life" features 25 stories by first-time authors of fiction, the winners of a competition we ran last year. It is published in September 2008.
The SFX website boasts Rob Williams answering the same questions. Incidentally, this is my 650th post, in 3 years and 27 days.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Just back from a short gad around Cornwall on the occasion of my birthday. Trained down to Plymouth, picked up a hire car like we did three years ago. This time it was a K-reg Vauxhall Astra, which I pretty much fitted into and which was much easier to drive than the Meganne(though I found it a bit unresponsive in reverse).

Hadn't driven in three years and was just wondering if I could still remember how as we hurfed into the Plymouth traffic. That was fun.

One we were over the Tamar it was all a bit of a mystery. Was a bit apprehensive as I ulled into the steep, grand drive of Tregrehan house and gardens, but it turned out the Dr had hired us what I assume was once servants' cottages or stables. What a terribly dignified place to stay.

The weather to begin with was appalling; we were soaked to the skin in seconds and had to dry our clothes by the electric fire, even on Midsummer's Eve. Worse, the fog was so thick that cars - even with lights on it - seemed to just fade away maybe 50 yards ahead of us.

The Dr explored Par beach - and got soaked - on Saturday while I endeavoured to do some work. Then up to see Suetekh, who already had Scott et famile staying. There was much excitement in the construction of a mammoth chocolate cake; the two year-old assistant chef was much taken with the edible glitter.

We delayed the watching of Droo while small child was put to bed. Me and Suetekh ventured out to Bugle to fetch the take-away, only to discover that despite the heavy rain and fog some kind of contest for marching bands was determined to go ahead anyway. We sat in traffic for half-an-hour watching soaked, thick-coated people insist on enjoying themselves, though even up close the rain snatched away any sound of the bands.

Back to Chez Suetekh to eat, and to discover that the Sky box has fritzed and not recorded Droo. Scott and I are much teased as various frantic efforts are made with laptops and iPlayer and such. But our main concern is that we'd rather wait to watch it properly than see it popping, clagging bits where the connection's not there. After a great deal of effort, it all works out in the end and we sit mesmerised and excited.

After, I check through the various texts from people who watched it on time. "They stole the Time Travellers!" comments Codename Moose. "Holy fuck!" comments everyone else.

We roll home through fog-shrouded, eerily quiet roads. Then next day, with the sun daring to peak through the clouds, we walk the half-hour to the Eden Project. Cor. Just cor.

The Eden ProjectIt is a lunar or Martian spacebase, just a practice version. Suetekh and the Family Scott joined us after the Dr and I had done the domes. We listened to live music, explored the gardens, dallied with ice-cream and Eden's own beer. I bought too many books about the architecture and things, and generally just blissed out. The science and pillow-like hexagonal structures are based on what they've learnt from 200 years of greenhouses and railway stations.

On Monday we went to Charlestown, which the Dr thinks was used as a location in Mansfield Park and Poldark. The local shipwreck museum was keen to tell us that shipwrecking happened all round the country rather than being a specifically Cornish trait. We liked the accounts of local protest about livelihoods when it was suggested making wrecking illegal.

But the museum is a strange hodge-podge, with displays of jewels a bit like Kate Winslet's in Titanic alongside a severed human foot. The Dr muttered that there was "no narrative".

The Dr braves the many, many stepsThen we went for a walk, following the coastal path (apart from the bits that were blocked off because the path was falling into the sea). This was, probably, a mistake, because after Porthpean the path didn't seem to go anywhere but steeply up and down. After one climb of 172 steps we emerged onto a Y-fork in the road. And taking the left fork we ended up - some time later - emerging from the right. It is just conceivable that I should have listened when the Dr suggested we turn back.

We stopped off in Charlestown for beer and cheesy chips, and much replenished but bone-tired and sore we wearily made our way home. Stopped off at Tescos for steak and beer, and then I made up for my earlier Neanderthal pig-stubbornness with Neanderthal fire skills on the barbecue.

Tuesday was the actual birthday which began with a good haul of presents: a huge book of castles from the air; The New Five Doctors and Flight of the Conchords; a mammoth book of Icelandic sagas, with a lovely coarse cut to the edge of the pages so in profile it looks a bit like crinkle-cut chips...

Drove to Fowey where we peeked in the bookshop and stopped for coffee. The coffee shop included signed menus and photos from when Tony Blair visited - including one above the toilet in the gents. Then we clambered back up to the car park and snaggled along to Looe to visit the Dr's relatives.

I'd done Looe hill in the Meganna last time, so we parked in the main car park at the bottom and then walked up - which is about just as daft. Relatives were baffled we hadn't driven and couldn't believe we don't own a car.

Poked about the Looe shops looking for saffron cake, but there didn't seem to be any. It seems Cornwall has been quiet of late, and saffron is expensive. One baker explained that they only baked saffron cake on one day of the week.

Having seen off the relatives about six, we made our way back to Suetekh's for tea. The sunny day greyed into rain the nearer we got to her, so it ended up being an indoor picnic. I'd been fed by two separate sets of Dr-relatives, both keen to show their love in cooking, so I picked rather bloatedly at the fantastic spread. New potatoes dipped in hot Camembert is not easy to resist.

And too soon it was gone 10 and we had to be moving. I struggled to turn the car round and got us back out into the fog, and we cruised back to our lodiging without incident. Though as we pulled into the quiet car park another, parked car flashed its headlights. Didn't think much of it until we'd unpacked all our goodies and got back into our flat. And then I wondered if the other car was there for dogging, or to guard against it.

Yesterday we got up reasonably early, packed up our things, washed up and hoovered, and then idled round the gardens where we were staying before falling back into the car. A quietish journey back, with a successful stop-off for saffron cake, and then onto the train. Where, in the seats behind us, a very dull pair of suits discussed their company accounts loudly for the whole journey home.

Tired and with baggage we fought our way onto the Tube and bypassed the rush hour by going to the Antelope, where Terrance Dicks was addressing the BSFA, interviewed by Tim Phipps. Lots of laughs, some beer, some pub grub, some good chatter with mates - how nice to see Paul Cornell well past the worst of his car crash. But soon me and the Dr were both seriously flagging and tried to slip off quietly...

It seemed to take forever to get home, where the cat and many presents and cards were waiting. The cat-sitting sister had been an exemplary guest; washing sheets, hoovering and leaving flowers. I unwrapped presents, got my new sonic screwdriver working (it doesn't make the Dr's clothes fall off, even when used at the same time as the Master's laser screwdriver), and breezed through several hundred emails, mostly saying happy birthday.

And then, at last, sleep. I can feel today in my neck and shoulders how little I enjoyed the driving. It's less the driving itself as the apprehension of other people on the road. But so much done - work and play - and such an expertly judged break. Now I merely have a whole gamut of big projects to get finished, including the small matter of rebuilding the top of our house...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Memes don’t work; pass it on

I don’t normally do this sort of thing but two chums have recently tagged me with memes.

Paul Cornell says I must obey the following, so long as it’s a sci-fi book. “To participate,” say the rules, “you grab any book, go to page 123, find the fifth sentence, and blog it. Then tag five people.” Righto:
“‘It’s me,’ Jenny said.”

Steven Saville, Primeval: Shadow of the Jaguar, p. 123.

And my five saps are:

Pete has also tagged me, but his instructions are a bit more complex.

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to."
Well, I’m at work so I’m not listening to music. And anyway, I find it difficult to talk about music because the point about music is that it does things you can’t express in other forms. But here goes.

Bohemian like you, Dandy Warhols
The only one of these here listed that I’ve seen live. They were supporting David Bowie in 2003 and what a splendid night that was. This is currently what I tend to start the day with when I’m writing at home. Itunes then shuffles up something unlikely to follow, as incongruous as…

Hang out the Stars in Indiana, Al Bowlly
Archaic, hissy vinyl track which I first heard in the background of Withnail and I. Found it recently while doing some googling about the stars going out without fuss (more in relation to this Saturday’s Droo than to Arthur C Clarke). I like the rather easy genteel thing going on in this.

Close to you, the Cure
The Dr’s very into the Cure (the dim cat hides when he hears Love Cats because he knows she’ll want to dance). And because it was by the stereo, I’ve been listening to their greatest hits a bit. How fantastic the acoustic disc is. This particular song sticks in the brain cos it’s also the theme tune to The Smoking Room, a marvelous sitcom thing which I’m only just catching up on.

Go, LemonJelly featuring William Shatner
I love LemonJelly. This is one of their songs I can remember the name of. The others are Ramblin’ Man and The Staunton Lick. All LemonJelly is good. This one’s got the Shat on it, I think following LemonJelly’s effort on his splendid album Has Been. You’ve not heard of that? You is a fool.

Tiger Rag, Louis Armstrong
A million years ago I bought this for my grandpa, who’d talked about it as the music of his youth. Apparently he and his fellow rascals would try and get to separate gramaphones playing it in synch – the 1920s equivalent of turning bass up to 11. I also love the glimpse of cray-zee, gleeful cavorting.

Space March, John Barry
Why doesn’t John Barry have a knighthood? Hot damn he is good. I rediscovered this particular one as a result of buying David Arnold’s album Shaken and Stirred – superb reimaginings of Bond themes. (Pulp’s version of All Time High is really very good, and the Dr goes all wibbly when Iggy Pop caroons that they’ve all the time world). There’s a Leftfieldified version of this on that, but I’m gonna choose the original. It’s fab music for evil space rockets swallowing each other. And it also reminds me vividly of watching You Only Live Twice ever Saturday morning on video, before going off to swimming.

Dead Man Walking, David Bowie
And to finish another one for bouncing round the room. This is off Earthling which may well be my favourite Bowie album. (I came close to choosing Little Wonder what with its video in which bass-player Gail-Ann Dorsey jumps about in devil horns and boots that look like hooves. Phwoar. I put her, unnamed, into my short story There’s Something About Mary, and in the same shop where I first saw her.)

Easy. And seven people who now must take up the challenge:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I must have read Diamonds Are Forever when I was about 11 or 12. Reading it again, the only bit I remembered was James Bond meeting up with Felix Leiter, who pretends to hold him up and who is missing a hand and a foot after their last adventure. Even having finished it only yesterday, I’m struggling to remember the plot.

It starts in French Guinea with a scorpion and an arch-racist dentist who hates anything black. Including scorpions and ants. He hands some diamonds to a bloke in a helicopter. And thinks some not very reconstructed things.

Then Bond is given a crash course in diamonds and learns how to put a jeweller’s glass into his eye socket.
“’Don’t push it in. Screw it in,’ said M impatiently.”

Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever, p. 12.

Yes, even Bond laughs at that.

He’s sent to Valance, the policeman from Moonraker, who gives Bond some make-up to hide his scar and warp his cheekbones. Then they go to Hatton Garden and annoy a dodgy bloke flogging diamonds.

Bond’s mission is to locate and extinguish the diamond-smuggling line, and of course it just so happens that he’s spotted the villain straight off. To do this, he pretends to be a posh burglar called Peter Franks, who’s already been hired by a sassy broad called Tiffany Case.

Bond flies to America (the plane stops off in Ireland on the way) with diamonds hidden in his golf balls. He’s dismissive of the American mobsters he’s out to bamboozle, and they turn out to be tough customers – a ginger hunchbuck and a guy who lives a cowboy fantasy in his own purpose-built town just a little out of Vegas.

The blurb on the back of the book quotes fellow shocker-writer Raymond Chandler in the Sunday Times:
“The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”
But I kept feeling Fleming was pushing the clichés. Perhaps it’s because we’re more familiar with Las Vegas and the mobsters after a string of films about them. As Bond is told the story of Buggsy (sic) Siegel I was thinking of Warren Beatty. And Spectreville – the villain’s Victoriana train and playset – reminded me of the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West. It also foreshadows the villainous gang behind Thunderball.

Again there’s the pornographic level of detail: the simply dressed women with little make-up and jewellery, Bond’s woollen clothes, his drinks (bourbon and spring water; his famous Martini with a twist of lemon) and omelettes. There’s psychological realism (or verisimilitude) in describing how casinos are built to drive people to the games, and the dead-eyed women filling the fruit machines with change.

Tiffany Case is a funny, lively broad, and Fleming gives her an awful past to make her that much more interesting. But I felt it was “interesting” like early 80s Doctor Who companions – they become awkward and difficult because of the burden of backstory. In this instance, Tiffany got brutally raped in her teens and hasn’t slept with a man since. How does Bond flatten her prickles and cure her of her horror? He, er, looks at her in a certain way. And buys her a few drinks.

That’s the most frustrating thing: Fleming suggests real difficulties and complexities and then doesn’t deliver on them. Case just switches side at the moment most plot-convenient. Likewise, Fleming’s attempts to address the race issue are quite startlingly clumsy. One paragraph might as well open with, “I’m not a racist, but…”
“Bond had a natural affection for coloured people, but he reflected how lucky England was compared with America where you had to live with the colour problem from your schooldays up.”

Ibid., p. 91.

There then follows an ill-considered joke from Leiter about the response to insensitive language – along the lines of “It’s political correctness gone mad!”

And then of course there’s the two homosexual villains, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. There’s admittedly a delicious bit of detail in Mr Kidd being a nervous traveller – he carries a suitcase with the label “My blood group is F”. But these two killers don't feel particularly gay: they wear the label like an eyepatch, just something to make them less bland as henchmen.

A friend who has recently started reading Bond has been surprised by the latent, repressed… well, everything about the man. So I was amused by Bond’s qualifications for the perfect wife: “Somebody who can make Sauce Béarnaise as well as love.” He’s joking of course:
“‘And you’d marry this person if you found her?’

‘Not necessarily,’ said Bond. ’Matter of fact, I’m almost married already. To a man. Name begins with M. I’d have to divorce him before I tried marrying a woman. And I’m not sure I’d want that. She’d get me handing round canapés in an L-shaped drawing room. And there’d be all those ghastly “Yes, you did – no I didn’t” rows that seem to go with marriage. It wouldn’t last. I’d get claustrophobia and run out on her. Get myself sent to Japan or somewhere.’”

Ibid., pp. 163-4.

So no issues there, then. Case wins him over by, er, making a Sauce Béarnaise Bond finds “wonderful”. And she demands of him,
“’Everything you’ve ever done to a girl. Now. Quickly.’”

Ibid. p. 173.

Yes, that’s the mark of a Secret Agent. He can be in and out in perfect, swift silence – without you even knowing he was there.

No sooner has Bond got his leg over with un-legoverable Ms Case than Wint and Kidd turn up to bump them off. I’d mis-remembered Bond spotting them as crooks because one of them can’t whistle (yes, Bond thinks a man who can’t whistle is a homosexual, but he thinks it about Scaramanga) or because they’re wearing perfume (that’s what happens in the film). There’s a moment when Bond almost spots them based on a carefully dropped (clang!) signpost. But no. Instead, M sends him a telegram about the two would-be assassins just in the nick of time.

Bond stages a dashing rescue and leaves Wint and Kidd looking like they killed each other. But for all the slyness of this, it all feels convenient rather than clever. There’s no explanation of how Bond then traces the smuggling line back to French Guinea, where the last loose threads are played out.

No mention of what’s happened to Tiffany, last seen installed in Bond’s London flat. No mention of whether he’ll marry her. In all, it’s a disappointing book, with too few action sequences which anyway feel a bit abrupt and rushed.

Overall, I got the feeling Fleming was getting bored, and just wanted done with the thing. But that’s more true of the next one…

James Bond will return in From Russia With Love.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Paperback writer

Paperback Pirate LoopAn exciting surprise delivery this morning: a box-set of "Ten bestselling novels based on the TV series" - including my own badger-faced nonsense. Didn't even know they were doing these.

I have, of course, already rearranged the books into chronological order. Which makes mine the last in the set.

Poor Jim Swallow misses out on this paperback version, but I assume they can add him to a box-set of the nine books out this year.

ETA: The Book People are selling the box-set for £9.99. That's a quantum less than £1 per book. You'd be bogglingly foolish-like not to.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zero zero colon zero zero

I’ve never been especially squeamish. A trip to an abattoir only made me hungry and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre leaves me cold. In fact, a lot of what’s labelled “horror” just comes across as nasty, brutal and short on much intelligence.

So I recently set myself the challenge of writing something spooky, and in the process tried to understand how spookiness is done. (Whether what I wrote is successful you can judge for yourselves later in the year...)

It’s not the splatter and spray of gore that freaks the audience so much as the spooky idea. The scariest bit in Halloween is not the teenagers being torn limb from limb but the moment Jamie Lee Curtis runs to her neighbours’ and they coolly ignore her plea for help. It’s the easy way they condemn her, the casual, banal meanness...

It’s not horror films and telly that appeal so much as disquieting ones. So I love the old BBC adaptations of MR James stories – and have recently reread a whole bundle of the originals. (It’s weird how varied his style can be. The Rose Garden is a comedy of aspirational manners, like a David Nobbs sitcom with an added angry ghost.) I love the shiversome unsettlingness of the silent, child ghosts in Lost Hearts and the simplicity of the adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman, where our only cue is the increasing botheredness of Denholm Elliot.

These things often depend on us waiting for weirdness to happen: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man are both about the anticipation of something awful (and then the delivery is a surprise). They often rely on performance – good quality actors carrying the lack of budget: Mawdryn Undead terrified me as a kid, all down to how David Collings plays it. And they often hinge on beautifully simple idea: the Buffy episode Hush achieves something like that bit in Halloween when a freshman can’t call for help.

So last night’s Doctor Who was, I thought, spectacular. A simple idea expertly spooled out, where the reaction of ordinary humans is just as spooky as the alien monster. Well done Mr T Davies OBE. I hope Steve Moffat employs you in future.

I even dared to suggest to the Dr that Midnight was Doctor Who as scripted by Dennis Potter.

“Minus,” she said, “an unhealthy obsession with breasts.”

No, but you can’t have everything.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Disquiet Dead

The Dr has something of the night about her. In fact, we met at a goth dinner party where I was in a black velvet suit and she was vamped out with mad hair and make-up in what I suppose is now an Amy Winehouse stylee. The Dr could – and did – hide tiaras and horns in her high Barnet back then. These days she’s really quite staid.

(Yes, it occurs to me that this is my fault like some kind of Petruchio.)

Recently, two things have been flicking her gothic switches and making us giggle with glee. First, we’ve read Paul MagrsNever the Bride – at least I’ve been doing the reading and even some of the voices.

Poor old Brenda runs a guesthouse in Whitby while being on the run from her past. She and her best mate and next-door neighbour Effie like nothing more than tea and a gossip, and there’s plenty of scandal to go around. A magic boutique that makes waitresses younger, or a séance live on TV… What terrible something are the nice Green family escaping? And how long can Brenda resist revealing her own awful secret?

It’s a lively, funny and often moving story full of rich description. Magrs nicely ploughs his way through all kinds of classic goth sources which it would be a shame to spoil here. Effectively, it’s five separate adventures for our aged but plucky duo – and it looks like the sequel Something Borrowed (which we’ve just bought) continues in that style.

This giddy mix of frothy fun and hijinks is really tricky to pull off (as I’ve been discovering recently in my own Magrs-inspired writing that’s still yet to be announced). But Brenda’s a delight, as is the spotting of clever references and the witty, twisty plot. My only complaint is that it needs more “she said” tagging if you want to read it aloud. So I added my own.

Annoyingly, we missed the radio version. But I’d love to see this on telly and spent more time than is probably sensible casting it in my head. Julie Christie as Brenda is my best so far.

We’ve also been utterly in thrall to Young Dracula, a CBBC series that won awards Sarah Jane was up to. The wheeze is that Dracula’s kids go to the same state school as the son of Van Helsing, but the thing’s an outrageous steal of Buffy (the Dracula episode and season seven especially).

Importantly, neither Young Dracula nor Magrs’ book are clever because of the references they make to other films and telly. (It’s an old joke but “semiotic thickness” is when you’re not as clever as your references.) Rather, they both freely thieve high-concept elements and warp them into something new.

Keith-Lee Castle never knowingly underacts as the Count, and has got himself in the litany of camp goth gentlemen the Dr recites when she’s fighting her own vampires. The rest of the large cast are also fantastic, though its Simon Ludders as the is-that-joke-really-suitable-for-kids Renfield I like best.

Like Magrs, it mixes strong plotting with strong characters and bad jokes and slapstick. And for knockabout silly children’s TV it is far more clever and funny and surprising than it has any reason to be. It’s one of the best British TV shows in ages. (And how fantastic that in just two seasons they’ve clocked up a whopping 27 episodes!)

It is an accursed outrage that Young Dracula’s not already being commissioned for a third series or out on DVD. I feel like raising an army of undead celebrities to bring these things about.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“The Trojan War did not take place”

So says Ken Dowden on page 65 of his book “The Uses of Greek Mythology”, which I finished today. His point is that accounts of the battle of Troy and etc. are all from many hundreds of years later, and that those accounts are not “history” as we would understand it – assessments based on evidence.

The end of the Bronze Age (the Mycenaean period in Greece) is prehistoric – literally before history. That basically means we don’t have any written evidence; if they wrote anything done at the time we have lost it.

The equivalent I suppose is to think of historians in the space year 4500 AD. There’s been a terrible war in the meantime (probably featuring Daleks) and they only have scrappy evidence for the Norman invasion of 1066. In fact, all they’ve got are bootleg videos of Excalibur and The King’s Demons. How much can those tell them about real history?
“There is of course no Mycenaean history. There is Mycenaean archaeology and there is Greek Mythology. Archaeology has its limits as a historical tool: I do not think we can use it to distinguish between various Greek tribes; and we certainly cannot discover much about named important individuals of the past. There is no narrative … Myth is treacherous because its accounts of peoples and individuals are usually designed to construct identities and make statements … I think it is not going too far to say that there is not a single individual in mythology in whose actual existence we can believe.”

Ken Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology, p.62.

Even the classic writers of Greece and Roman acknowledged the problems of authenticity in myth, and justified it in terms of allegory and real-history-that’s-been-eroded, as more modern classicists have also done. Dowden is a little scathing of psychoanalytical readings, and prefers to see in stories of girls transforming into bears and young men transforming into wolves some kind of ritual significance.

This, I’m afraid, rings alarms bells. My taller brother once dabbled in things archaeological and says that when archaeologists speak of something having a religious or ritual purpose, what they mean is “no idea, Guv’.” Dowden, admittedly, makes the point repeatedly that we are at best guessing our way.

Myths are not facts; each fragment of story we possess now is just the end of a centuries-long game of Chinese Whispers. He quotes the chronological table given on the Marmor Parium (“Marble of Paros”), in which one bloke recorded history from Cecrops or Kekrops, first king of Athens in 1581 BC, to his own time of 264 BC. There are 25 entries for the years up to 1208 BC, and then just seven between then and 683 BC.
“There are two reasons for this phenomenon, both of which are revealing: first, real historical information just peters out in the Dark Age and the quantity of what precedes is a measure of the success with which myth masquerades as history of the prehistoric period. But second, this period of beginnings, firsts and legend has a magic aura about it, luring the Greeks into their mythology. That is what it is for.”

Ibid., p. 52.

Myth, then is often about origin stories: how the Gods were born (theogony), who has best claim to a particular bit of land because their heroic ancestor was born out of the earth there (autochthony) or experienced some adventure or event nearby (basically, who stuff is named after), where laws and religious observances come from, or even why particular trees and rivers furnish the landscape. Myths are then explanations of how we are here. And they’re also stories. Like our own present ideologies, the reasons given impose moral codes of conduct: not just how we are here but why, for what purpose.

I’ve argued before that stories don’t have to be true to mean something. Dowden shows that the same stories can be retold - have always been retold – to suit the particular needs of the teller. And, from this distance, we can barely glimpse what those needs might have been.

Origin stories, he says, tend to mark the beginning of order. A great flood washes away the chaotic past, leaving space for the new social system. It’s no coincidence then that, according to the Marmor Parium, the first king of Athens more or less coincides with Deucalion’s flood and the competition between Poseidon and Athene for the heart of the city. In an age before writing, with knowledge passed on by oral tradition, these origin stories aren’t just exciting adventures featuring gods and monsters. They answer the question eternally asked by any inquiring child: why do we do things like this. Because there must have been a point back in history when we didn’t.

But myths are also more than that. The fact that they survive after all three-and-a-half thousand years, and so infuse our own culture, speaks of an extra appeal.

(Incidentally, it’s odd realising how much of Doctor Who nicks from Greek mythology. That’s not just Troy and Byzantium or the two Tom Baker versions (this one and this one)of the story of Theseus. I assume when David Tennant talks of the Fall of Arcadia it’s a nod to the Doric invasion of Earth. And then there’s references to Demeter, Kronos, Lamia, Megara… Yes, so the writers have been classically educated. But diegetically, I assume so have the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits.)
“We have got to recognise that there is a deep yearning in us to make contact with the world of myth , as we can see from the Turin Shroud , the countless fragments of the True Cross and the multiple heads of St Peter.”

Ibid., p. 65.

Hence also Schliemann’s determination to uncover (and, in the process, rather demolish) the site of Troy. (Incidentally, I didn’t know that the “correct name” of the city we call Troy is really Ilion – hence the book about the siege there being the Iliad. Our modern name for the city follows the convention of naming a place after one its local heroes.)

We want to believe in stories when they make sense of the world. Perhaps we like myths because they reassure us that there’s a reason behind all the random-seeming viciousness tumbling out of the sky. If heroic, smart chaps like Oedipus or Odysseus are fated to get totally dumped on, at the whim of all-powerful gods and monsters, then we don’t really have cause to complain about our own, relatively petty concerns.

And stories are orchestrated contrivances that seek to manipulate the audience. So it’s no wonder they reassure us the world is ordered on moral lines; that there are rules we might not see, that we might suffer under, but rules nonetheless.

More than that, a good story makes us care for its characters and forget they’re constructed from smoke, there specifically to fulfil some kind of story function. Our heroes capture our imaginations, ignite our tawdry fantasies. We write to characters in soaps as if they are real or write our own knock-off Doctor Who adventures.

Myths are things that we know are not true and which tell of awful calamity and suffering. And yet the reason they still flourish so abundantly is because we want them to be true.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

One of those what I'm up to posts without saying what I'm up to

It’s been a busy couple of weeks writing, re-writing and researching, but all the things that needed signing off now have been and some of them are even recorded. Or about to be recorded. Or being scheduled today.

How strange that only the most recently written is the one to have been announced. And in the last five months I’ve written as many as –

No, I’ll hold off saying that one till they’ve been announced.

What has been announced is three new Doctor Who books that’ll be out in December. Gary Russell’s one has got Bernard Cribbens on the cover which is something of a delight – and has already prompted much rabid hope that he’ll do the audio version. Dan Abnett told me a bit about his anthology one when we meet a few weeks back to –

No, that’s embargoed information as well.

But anyway, his writers include Rob Shearman and the bloke responsible for Dimensions in Time. Ha ha! I got married in one of the locations for that, too the Dr’s delight. (R. trumps that by having been at the filming.)

Lance Parkin is already blogging about his one, The Eyeless. Plenty of good stuff to be said about being a proper writer, and only a bit more than six months to go. Personally, I'm holding out for his first obligatory cat post.

Also, how strange to be plotting something new to do with Bernice Summerfield, a hangover of my producing her adventures until the end of last year. (No, it’s not the Inside Story, which is still held up in technical, legal wossnames. I don’t actually have any influence over that, besides infrequently jibbering at my former bosses who are the ones doing all the work. Wearily they assure me that it’s all being seen to.)

I’ve also made a start on my two huge summer projects, have written three short films for Codename Moose (he already wants one of them rewritten without the bits at the train station) and promised myself I’d finish a new spec TV script by the end of the month.

The wheeze behind it is based on an original Doctor Who novel submission knocked back in 2003. (My response to the “no but try again” letter was what ended up as The Time Travellers.) And having written all my efforts in Word so far, I’m finally going to need to invest in Final Draft.

Like some kind of proper writer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why read?

"Living your life is a long and doggy business, says Mrs Lupey. And stories and books help. Some help you with the living itself. Some help you just take a break. The best do both at the same time."

Anne Fine, Goggle-Eyes, p. 139.

Monday, June 09, 2008


The sister is back from Oz for six months and we had a summons back to the ancestral home of the Guerrier clan yesterday. It should only take an hour and half to get down there, but there's always something, like trains being diverted via Switzerland or the end of the world.

So we were a bit cautious. At about eight in the morning the Dr, who is better at getting up at the morning, fell into the shower and I went to answer the insistent buzzing of the doorbell.

"Are your lights working?" asked the man from next door. And they weren't.

"Eek!" added the Dr from the shower, where the water was all icy cold. The boiler and lights rely on power not being cut.

So we boiled pans of water and washed the old-skool way, then headed out to see if there might be such things as trains. People texting to tell me I had no power quickly used all my phone's battery, but not before I snapped the darkening of the sky.

Sydenham Park fire, as seen from Venner Road, SE26Later, we'd discover that Sydenham Park substation had caught fire, thieving the lights and hot water from quite a lot of South East London.

In the meantime, we traded information with strangers - yes, in London! - and as we passed his house our friend M. called down to us for what titbits we had gleaned. There were lots of people out, making the best of it and the nice weather, and lots of burglar alarms and fire engines.

"How like Survivors," I thought.

There were no trains - at least none that were stopping - so we tramped on to a bus and enjoyed the acrid stink of the previous night's vomit, all dried and steaming in the morning heat. Finally found Waterloo and narrowly missed a train to the parents as I queued for tickets. Ng.

A nice few hours with lots of family I'd not seen in ages (even L. who lives just up the road), and then we tramped back again on a train that said it stopped only at London but which stopped every moment it could. And still no trains where we live, so we had to get one sort-of near. Spent the whole journey back looking for signs of electric life: working traffic lights, the glow of people's doorbells, the signs above shops...

And, after more than seven hours travelling, we got home to find our power back on. A block away they were still going without, as we found when we thought we'd enjoy the last of the sunlight with a sly pint of beer. Schleped back across the postcode to another pub, and discovered R., who was also without power. Had a beer in the candlelit Dolphin, where the power came on just in time for last orders. It looks like everyone had their power back by the end of the day - well done everyone involved.

R. said he'd seen a two-car family making the best of it: in one car, a child had a laptop plugged into the dashboard and was watching cartoon; in the next child's parents were, with the same method, sharing a DVD.

Not the end of the world, then, but for a moment - and despite the nice weather - it did feel like a rehearsal. A timely reminder of how much we depend on the fizzing electrons in the wall. I'm rather stuck in my hackery without a working computer - yes, there's still paper and pens and notebooks and stuff, but blimey it's so much harder. And I'm already a little behind on a project or two, and was despairing of how this week might go anyway.

And, since I'm in a jolly, apocalyptic mood, how likely does the looming energy crisis mean this is just a foreshadowing of things to come a lot more?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dinosaur-flavour custard

“On paper, it may have looked as though Wildcat was a no-brainer – sci-fi thrills for the junior audience – but in fact it was a decidedly dicey proposition. With the comic audience aging dramatically in the Eighties, it just didn’t seem as though there was a new generation coming through to pick up the habit. As a result, juvenile publications were dropping like flies and , in truth, it flew in the face of all the evidence to tailor a new publication to what was the once traditional eight to twelve-year-old target group.”

Graham Kibble-White, “Wildcat”, The Ultimate Book of British Comics, p. 285.

Fleetway’s Wildcat ran for just 12 fortnightly issues from 1988-89 and was “the last new traditional adventure comic (to date) to be launched in this country” (Kibble-White, p. 287).

Until now.

The DFC launched two weeks ago. It’s not a tie-in with films or telly or computer games or a newspaper. It’s not trying to flog you something. It doesn’t carry advertising and – amazingly – the first issue didn’t come with some precious free gift sellotaped to the cover.

Instead, it’s a subscriber only comic, delivered to your door every Friday in a distinctive red-and-yellow striped envelope. There’s a subscription offer where you get issues free, but it’s basically £3 per shot of 36 full-colour pages. Issue two arrived yesterday and, after a lot of prologueish scene-setting in issue one, it seems already to have hit its stride.

The contents page includes a running gag about what DFC might stand for – though this Times interview with the thing’s creator reveals it’s really the David Fickling Comic. And Fickling, who publishes Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time in the North, is the reason the headline strip is by Philip Pullman.

Illustrated by John Aggs, “John Blake” is about a ghost ship seen sailing about the Pacific – seeing it augers a sudden change in fortune. In issue two the Henderson family are out sailing round the world, when they’re suddenly caught in a unexpected tropical storm…

As you’d expect from Pullman, it’s a rich and involving story that gets going really quickly. It’s also quite scary and strange, and I was a bit surprised by Mr Henderson shouting “bastards” on page 7. But I’m already caught up in the story. And, like the best stuff I used to read (and watch) when I was eight-to-twelve, it feels a little like we’re getting away with something too adult here, that it’s almost not really suitable and Mum and Dad wouldn’t approve…

The other science-fiction adventure story is Kate Brown’s “The Spider Moon”, about Bekka Kiski’s diving exam in a strange and doomed sci-fi landscape. Somehow as yet unexplained, Bekka’s diving can save the world.

I love the artwork, and the story is playful as well as strange. Fickling talks in the Times interview about the Manga influence on this one. I can see what he means, but am also aware of how many people will shout, “But Manga just means ‘comics’”.

There are two school stories. “The Boss” by John Aggs and his mum sees a whole bunch of school kids involved in foiling a crime, all taking their lead from one organised kid who shows his authority by not wearing a blazer. Neill Cameron’s “Mo-Bot High” sees Asha arriving at a new school to discover everyone has Digital Mobile Combat-suits – or giant robots – with which to settle playground scores.

Both work on the wheeze of empowering the kids and both are distinctive and fun, though both are still setting up their stories at this point.

Dave Shelton’s “Good Dog, Bad Dog” is about two detectives in what looks like a 1930s American city… where everyone is a dog. It’s smart and funny, and nicely orchestrates some great slapstick set pieces – something I’ve not seen much in comics. The two detectives have just met up, caught two crooks and it looks like issue three will be a new adventure.

The Etherington Brothers’ “Monkey Nuts” really got going with issue two, in which Sid the newly unemployed tap-dancing monkey meets Rivet the newly unemployed robot coffee machine, just in time for the flashoom entrance of The Amazing Amazing, who’s going to flatten the whole town unless everyone submits to slavery. As Sid says in the last panel so far, “Do you think dancing will help?”

The other comedy strips are all one-pagers. James Turner’s “Super Animal Adventure Squad” is about “the world’s maddest mad scientist” stealing some cakes. Sarah McIntyre’s “Vern and Lettuce” and Jim Medway’s “At the Zoo” have both so far based themselves round terrible puns. Oh, and on the back page is Simone Lia’s “Sausage and Carrots”, a four-panel delight of weirdness.

With a competition page which leads to extra web content, a puzzle page and endorsements to draw your own comics, there’s plenty to get involved with, too.

All the stories are very different, which should mean there’s something for everyone here. It's a shame they're all part ones of ongoing series; it’d be nice to have an anthology series of one-off stories so that each issue offers something complete. And some of the part ones did feel a bit too prologuey, so it's hard to judge the strips just yet.

But this is a bold and exciting comic, and very much worth supporting. I am already looking forward to Friday.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The dialogue person

To mark five years of his own blog, the noble and gallant Duke, Lord James Moran has posted a whole bundle of things he's learnt as a writer. And what a wondrous collection it is, too. I'm delighted his 1-in-10 hit rate is roughly the same as mine (if, ahem, mine's on a much smaller scale).

A moran is, of course, a Maasai warrior, after he's passed the initiation of being circumcised. Morans share their wives, go in for jumping competitions, and wear coloured sheets called shuka.

Anyway, here's a handful of other pointers:

Nobody owes you a job
Really, they don't. Even if you know them, even if you bought them drinks, even if they employed you before. Even if your idea or finished story is the most fantabulous thing in the universe. When they say "no", they mean it. Don't hang on like a stalker ex. You just walk away.

Likewise, if they say, "That sounds interesting - email me," or "Can you write that up," that's code for "Go away just now." Don't continue to harrass them about your brilliant idea; you're just making them less likely to love it. Especially if they're in a pub or anywhere else not on duty. They don't owe you this. And it's really very creepy if you're still following on their heels, explaining your brilliant idea, as they go to the toilet.

(This happened to me once. Well-meaning bloke still pitching to me while I was having a pee.)

Make it easy
James quotes the great Wil Wheaton's "Don't be a dick". And that's true. Be as not like a dick as you can be. (I see various people at least raising their eyebrows at me of all people saying this.) But also make things easy for the people you are working with, and also those people you're not. It's a small world and you never know when you'll bump into these people again, or what position they'll be in. You don't want to be the difficult genius who makes everyone's lives just impossible. Be the perfectly competent workman who can just get on with the job.

That doesn't mean just doing whatever they say. If you think something's wrong, you say it; you get to argue your case. But if whoever's in charge then makes a decision, you kind of have to abide by it. No use storming off or shouting at them. They're the ones in charge. As it will tell you in the contract you signed.

You don't want to have to surrender your genius? Well, you'll have to produce it yourself. Good luck! You want someone to stump up the cash and make your writing into a real thing? Then they get a say.

Don't get comfortable
Once you've been doing this a while, once you've found your style and "voice", make sure you're still stretching. Try different styles, try different voices. The broader portfolio of things you can do, the more likely you'll stay employed. But also (and perhaps more importantly) the more you stretch and hone your writing. As one editor told me recently, when it feels easy you are doing it wrong.

Pay the rent
There's this idea of writers in smocks in garrets, all booze and syphilis and frustration. I know people who've lived off food parcels, or been late on a deadline 'cos their word processing kit got impounded by bailiffs. Get a day job if you need to. Get one that involves writing if you can. (Again, writing adverts and labels and speeches and jokes all strecthes what you can do.)

And don't carp on at your editors, like it's all their fault. Especially when they pay you on time. You don't want to give them the impression they employ you out of pity rather than 'cos you're good.

Call for back-up
I've got an accountant, know a few lawyers and have used their sage advice quite a lot. It's much easier to chase madly late payment. One time I was several thousand pounds out of pocket at Christmas, and had to get a lawyer involved. Having big guns on your side is good because they have to start taking you seriously.

(I don't, though, have an agent. I don't need one for what I do at the moment; it's all take-it-or-leave-it fixed rates and conditions. It's haggling over that stuff which - I think without having one - that an agent is for. They have the awkward conversations so that you don't have to. They're not there to edit your stuff or tell you you're brilliant (though the good ones do that as well).

That said, one of the projects I'm working on might mean I need an agent...)

Enjoy it
You don't have to be a writer. Or rather, you can write just for yourself. So if you're going to make a go of writing for a living, just remember that it's your choice. 'Cos if it's just like any other daggy old job, you might as well get one with more regular payment and hours.

And that's it.

This blog, incidentally, was three years' old on Monday.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Work, rest and play

Scott pointed me in the direction of a new pic from NASA: sunset on Mars. Cor.

I'd assumed at first glance it was a new one from Phoenix. (You know that lander designed by Damien Hirst with a landing bleep composed by Blur? The one that pinged off the Sycorax space-asteroid a couple of Christmases past? Well, Phoenix is just like that, only it didn't break.)

Phoenix is very exciting. It sifts Martian sand not for alien life, but evidence of Ice Warriors and Ambassadors...

... of Death
. I half expect Phoenix to have been secretly stashed with clever sci-fi lichen that will transform the atmosphere, like what happens in the Mars Trilogy.

And you look at the pictures from Phoenix, of black and white dust and equipment, and no you can't spot the monsters. But, to quote Rob from last week:
"While some see a disappointingly familiar, Earth-like desert, when they were secretly hoping for tangerine trees and marmalade skies - I can see an Earth-like desert, but with no life of any kind. How weirdly, wildly fantastical is that?"

Rob Stradling, 27 May 2008.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

100% official

Slowly and slowly things I've been doing can be talked of.

The new issue of Doctor Who's Magazine contains word of some things of mine. The Pirate Loop came 10th out of 14 in the readers' survey for best Doctor Who book of last year - with some 6.71 average points out of 10. Ho hum.

But excitingly I can now reveal who's reading the audio version. I got rung by the director one Thursday a while back who wanted to check a few things. Once I'd pronounced "Guerrier" and "Kodicek" and he'd repeated them back to me, I could hear a familiar voice in the background.

"Is that..." I stumbled... "Is that Martha Jones?"

And - hooray! - it is.

Also, my Sara Kingdom play is now called "Home Truths".

All right, that's not the most exciting scoop you ever heard. There's plenty more excitements to come. I was at a thing on Saturday... And then on Monday week...

No. You'll have to wait.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Devil May Die

100 years and five days ago, Ian Fleming was born in London. The man who’d later create James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was two days older than Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, and three years older than Thora Hird.

To celebrate this (well, the 100 years bit), Penguin have produced a new James Bond novel, written by Sebastian Faulks. Faulks had previously pastiched Fleming’s style in Pistache, and Devil May Care makes every effort to be the book Fleming would have written had he not died prematurely at the age of 56 – just as Bond was becoming a screen icon.

It’s set in 1967, eighteen months after the events of Fleming’s final Bond (in which a brainwashed Bond tries to kill M, and then tries to make up for it by chasing a man with a golden gun). Bond is on enforced sabbatical, wandering the world and struggling to decide if he’s going to quit the Secret Service.

In Marseilles, his killer instincts spot a man wearing one glove. And then in Rome he acts completely out of character, declining nookie with an amazing, married woman. What do these chance encounters have to do with a corpse in Paris that’s had it’s tongue torn out, and with the terrifying increase in heroin addiction amongst posh kids in London and Manchester?

This is very much the Bond of the books – a man who hates gadgets because they are cheating, and who doesn’t always get the girl. Yet Fleming was himself influenced by the films, and gave Bond a Scottish mother in the wake of Sean Connery.

(I’d argue that the films cast a much more definite shadow over the subsequent, post-Fleming Bond novels. The ‘M’ in Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun reads just like Bernard Lee, while there’s a tricky moment in John Gardiner’s novel of Licence to Kill where he has to rationalise Felix Leiter getting fed to sharks twice.)

Faulks, though, consciously steers away from the films. As early as page 4 we’re following Rene Mathis – a loyal friend in the books, but a suspect in the most recent film. It’s a neat and immediate signpost that this Bond’s not Daniel Craig.

Throughout, there’s evidence of Faulks’ spotless research, with a great weight of references back to Bond’s earlier adventures. He remembers his card games with Le Chiffre and Sir Hugo, or his time on the Orient Express with Tanya. There’s the skin graft on his right hand, and mention of his various adventures in Jamaica. (Fleming would also reference his previous books, with footnotes explaining which books you should have read already.)

Bond aficionados will also spot specific Fleming turns of phrase: the comma of hair that hangs down over one of Bond’s eyebrows, or how we always know exactly what he’s wearing. The pornographic detail for clothes and food and pretty objects remind us Bond is an eagle-eyed watcher. Yet his constant omelettes and whiskies remind us that while he may be a snob, his tastes can be pretty bland. He likes simplicity: beautiful women who don't wear too much make-up, cooking that doesn't need fuss. For all he likes good wine, he often order food more as fuel than pleasure.

This is an old-skool secret agent, who despairs at the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and doesn’t like using gadgets. It’s the villains who have the cool new vehicles and ways of cheating at tennis. There's also something rather gentlemanly about how, while clothes and lipstick are painstakingly documented, we get no description of girls when they're naked. (When clothed it's okay to keep mentioning their breasts.)

But Bond’s muttering about silly, middle-class kids ruining their lives smoking marijuana makes him sound out of touch; from a generation and set of values that is ebbing away. Of course, Bond can identify the strain that they’re smoking with his brilliant nose. And he is himself a big drinker and smoker, as well as guzzling Benzedrine and sleeping tablets. But you feel a little as he drives perplexed through hippy London that he's being left behind.

Just as with the period setting in the most recent Indiana Jones, there’s fun to be had in making references that resonate with now. A sizeable chunk of the book has Bond agenting in Iran – or Persia, as it was under the British-positioned Shah. There are mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq and some hand-wringing about Western intervention in these countries. There’s a great gag, too, when Felix Leiter has never heard of Tehran.

But this isn’t an especially profound book with things to say about Britain’s role in the world – then or now. The villainous Gorner gleefully quotes the horrors done by the British under the imperial banner – the opium trade in China, the Mau Maus and the Irish potato famine. But these things seem more there to show he’s a maniac obsessive than to adeptly critique anything Bond himself stands for.

(The films have done better there: Sean Bean has a justifiable grudge against the Brits in Goldeneye, and there’s a brilliant moment in Casino Royale when Le Chiffre, in the midst of torturing Bond, knows the British will still offer him clemency.)

Gorner is a pantomime villain with a deformity, very much in keeping with the grotesque sadists Bond has fought before. Faulks obviously has a brilliant get-out clause that anything clunky, cliched or absurdly contrived in this is just him being authentically Fleming.

How convenient that Bond just happens to spot the villain several chapters before he’s even briefed on him. How convenient that Bond so uncharacteristically turns down the advances of Scarlett when he first meets her, so that he can spend the rest of the book anticipating getting into her pants. You wonder how differently things would have gone if he’d shagged her on that first night – without the thrill of the chase, would he have been half so bothered?

There’s an outrageous attempt to cover the mad coincidence by having people ask Bond if he believes in destiny. (The same trick is tried in John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, where Richard Hannay also just happens to stumble into all the people who’ll be vital to the story. And, like here, you can only gape at the bare-faced cheek of trying that excuse.)

But Faulks also writes a gripping tale, full of Fleming’s abrupt and sadistic surprises. He improves on Fleming’s woeful ear for dialogue while still doling out pages of exposition.

There are some great set pieces: a tennis match where Bond insists on playing fairly against a foe who won’t; a fight on a train which ends like Vivyan in The Young Ones; an incongruous machine described early in the book that ends up doing for the villain at the end. The final twist is also neatly done, and just about manages to explain away some very odd behaviour by one person.

One small blooper: Bond says he's not been to Russia before, but that's where he got brainwashed in the period between You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun. Okay, so maybe he doesn't remember being there, but he'd know that he had been.

What makes the book so enjoyable is how much it feels like Fleming. But that also means it doesn’t push the format too far. Fleming himself tried to keep things varied, setting Moonraker all in the UK, for example, or telling The Spy Who Loved Me in the first person. Faulks brilliantly captures the crude thrill and hackneyed inelegance of the books’ Bond, and it’s a considerable achievement to produce what feels so like perfectly generic Fleming.

It’s a seamless addition to the James Bond canon and a rollicking, punchy old shocker. But I think Faulks’ regular readers, or those who don’t know their Fleming, or only know Bond from the films, may well be scratching their heads. If Devil May Care pricks your interest, make sure to have read Casino Royale first.