Saturday, January 31, 2009


My chums at the Herald asked me and some other sage persons to write 100 words on a favourite children's book. I've chosen "The Hermit and the Bear" by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Andre Deutsch, London 1984).

Death to the Daleks, cover by Roy Knipe(I thought better of best-cover-ever Death to the Daleks, or of best-opening-line ever Dalek Invasion of Earth ("Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man"). And I could also have gone for Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger or The Twits, or Mr Silly, but they should be set texts for kids, so I chose one you might not have heard of.)

Apparently no-less-august a person than Brian Cant read "The Hermit and the Bear" for Jackanory in March 1988. Like Tom Baker reading "The Iron Man", Rik Mayall reading "George's Marvellous Medicine" and the million-and-one books read by Bernard Cribbens, these things should be made available for download - perhaps just as MP3 sound files.

Friday, January 30, 2009


(No, not kklak!)

To the Coach and Horses on Tuesday (or to a Coach and Horses, since there’s a whole myriad gang of them in London), where m’colleague Will Howells was one of 11 brave entrants in that night’s heat of the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year 2009 competition.

I hate having to stand up and speak in front of people, and thought being a writer would mean someone else would always do that bit. But part of the gig is flogging the product and I’ve developed a technique of talking too fast and about not very much and so generally sort of scrape through.

Which means I’m in awe of these brave ladies and gentlemen who dared try their comedy on people they don’t even know. There’s no grey area in telling a joke: people either laugh or sit in hollow silence. Even a slight titter or knowing smile can cut the teller apart. It’s excruciating enough with an audience already on your side.

Each turn got exactly five minutes before being dragged back into the darkness. Will was, I’m relieved to say, quite brilliant – and easily leapt through into the next round of the contest.

There were several very good other acts, too. And some that failed to ignite our cruel mob. When I should have been fighting to meet pressing deadlines, I’ve been trying to fathom just why.

1. Working the audience
Several acts started with a cheery, “How you doing, all right?” The smallish audience didn’t have the anonymity to call back, so met the comic with an uncomfortable murmur. You could see it the comics’ eyes: stood there in front of the microphone and it already not working.

2. Watch the opposition
That happening to one comic would have been bad enough, but it happened again and again. So, watch the other acts and don’t do what they didn’t make work. And if the audience doesn’t respond to your first cheery hello, don’t then spend the rest of your act asking the audience questions: “Who’s in love?”, “Who’s from London?”, “Who here has their own nose?” Answer came there none.

3. Why do women wear make-up and perfume?
There were a lot of jokes at the expense of women – about shopping and smear tests and sex. When these worked at all they were being told by women. It helps to get us on side if you’re mocking yourself rather than pointing at other people.

4. Rude ≠ funny
There were also a lot of jokes aimed at shocking us – about bowel movements or the evils of women. Shocks are like exclamation marks; they work if you use them with caution. Too much and you deaden their impact. You might as well write out your act in the Comic Sans typeface to show us how cray-zee it is.

5. Keep us busy
Some acts made observations that weren’t exactly funny. Others spent their allotted five minutes setting up one joke. We need a steady stream of funny bits; small woofs peppered between the big ones. Keep us engaged and surprised and we will be grateful.

6. Relevant
A lot of acts tried to be topical – with mentions of Obama or the credit crunch. At worst, these just felt tacked-on to the pre-arranged act, or just obvious and lame. Every comic on the telly, every paper, every wag at work, is doing their spin on the news. So your joke has to be something amazing to stand above the crowd.

7. Funny = smart
There’s an important difference between silly and stupid. A lot of comedy seems to work on the basis of “Isn’t subject X stupid?” Which subject X is, especially when you wilfully distort it. The late Douglas Adams, who made his name fondly mocking science and philosophy, found himself falling out of love with comedy as a result of, in his own words:
“hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation. "These scientists eh? They're so stupid! You know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they're meant to be indestructible? It's always the thing that doesn't get smashed? So why don't they make the planes out of the same stuff?" The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn't really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they'd be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?”

Douglas Adams, “The hitchhiker's guide to the 21st century”, The Independent, 19 December 2000.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Absolutely capital

Via BoingBoing (and Nimbos), here’s some extraordinary, beautiful images of London from above at night (apparently a follow-up to images posted lasted year). It gives me warm, glowy feelings about the city I share with just a few million other Londoners. And there’s a whole bundle more pics at photographer Jason Hawkes’ own website.

If you like that, I also recommend the exceptionally squeesome book, Castles from the Air. And, in a deft bit of linkage, there’s a castle in The Judgement of Isskar…

In a follow-up to my notes on writing Home Truths, the Big Finish website now boasts my diary of writing The Judgement of Isskar. There’s also an interview with Laura Doddington, the wicked sister I created in my brain. (I'll do a separate, single post on reviews and stuff sometime next month, so it's easier for you to skip.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, the BBC Archive have posted up a selection of incredible, brilliant and awful materials from the liberation of the death camps. Reporters are barely able to get the words out but desperate for the world to know what's happened.

Some might question the wisdom of this, given the BBC drawing fire for declining to show the appeal for humanitarian aid in Gaza. What with this, and then airing a dramatised version of Anne Frank's diary, isn't it too obviously picking sides?

But I don't think it quite works like that. There's an argument that guilt and horror over the Holocaust led to the creation of Israel. That doesn't mean the Holocaust in any way justifies or excuses the policies of that country now. They are judged not on their past but their actions today. And there are plenty of Jews who object to the Israel's treatment of the occupied territories. These things are complex; the country should be able to defend itself.

More than that, the Holocaust can't just be a black-and-white opposition of monstrous Nazis bullying innocent Jews. There were also homosexuals and communists and political dissenters in the death camps, and their guards weren't just the party's most faithful. There might be a lesson about what ideology can do to people, but it isn't about any specifc ideology. What makes the Holocaust so appalling, so worthy of memory, is that people - ordinary people - did this to other, ordinary people.

But we should not remember the Holocaust to just despair at the terrible, awful things that our species - that we - can do. There's an argument the values of the United Nations, of universal human rights, were the result of fighting the war: by opposing the Nazis we defined our own position. Or there's the example of Black GIs who liberated the death camps returning to America determined to fight for their own civil rights. Whoever the victims were, whatever their race or religion or politics, there is no excuse. We should know better. We have to know better.

Which is why it's all the more pertinent to recall the Holocaust in the current circumstances.

Monday, January 26, 2009

First chance to see...

Stephen Fry was on the telly on Friday night discussing Kakopos. For the uninitiated, these are silly green parrots what live on New Zealand and have forgotten that they cannot fly.

I first heard of them from Douglas Adams. The Observer sent him and a zoologist, Mark Cawardine, to Madagascar to write a Sunday supplement feature of the endangered aye-aye. Adams had such a nice time that (when he'd finished his commitments to Dirk Gently) he and Cawardine then swanned off round the world writing up other endangered species. There was a Radio 4 series, apparently a CD-rom and a book - my favourite of all Adams' efforts. It is amiably, compellingly harrowing. There aren't many other books like that.

Stephen Fry has spent the last year swanning off round the world with Mark Cawardine shooting a TV version of Adams' book. Some of the endangered species Adams saw are are no longer endangered - some have had some more babies, and some are either now or inevitably extinct.

The series will be on later this year, but the official BBC website has some tantalising tasters.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shambolic fantasy

Here's my review of Debateable Space by Philip Palmer, as published in the BSFA's magazine Vector last month:

Space pirate Flanagan declares war on the evil chief executive officer of the human universe by kidnapping his daughter. The “Cheo” has already allowed thousands of his offspring to die, so what makes young Lena so special? Well, for one thing she's not nearly so young as she seems...

Philip Palmer's Debateable Space is a sprawling space opera set over hundreds of years. It's lively, exciting and packed with ideas, yet the author's afterword might be about another book entirely.

Palmer says this is rigidly hard sf. He quotes books on quantum theory and emergence and mocks the teleportation booths in Niven's Ringworld. Yet while the physics might be extrapolated from the real thing the story is shambolic fantasy.

The huge incidents described don't see to have much consequence - plans either work or fail, the characters just keep buggering on. At one point, for example, an army fills the years on its way to a battlefield by breeding thousands of reinforcements. We start to get to know some of these individual children, who are then abruptly sacrificed without a second thought - born and killed off in the space of a few pages. Only one parent is traumatised by the loss.

The textual cleverness doesn't help. Different typefaces convey different voices. There are gaps in the text to spell out when people are thinking or flying. Kidnapped Lena is editing her own story, even as we read it. At one point we're told to skip through an infodump to get back to the action. At its most annoying it takes three pages to spell out the word “Antimatter” in giant letters and seven pages to say, “You are prey”.

This all gives the sense of brash effect with little substance behind it. Characters rarely seem changed by their experience. In fact, there's little differentiation of character other than their being pissed off or horny. The cast are crude sf archetypes - a space pirate rock star, a sexy cat woman, a socially inept geek, an alien made out of fire. They're clever but also shallow and cruel. There's no wit or kindness and any surprises come from Flanagan out-manipulating people or having to commit appalling acts of violence (with the noblest motives).

Lena is no better - spoilt, selfish and resentful of the long past. She's had an eventful life fighting international criminals, creating the links between the stars and becoming the first President of Humanity. I'm not sure we're meant to believe all of this - the book doesn't say she's lying as such, but she's been pivotal to the major developments in civilisation for 200 years, yet without ever getting the credit.

Lena first made her name through a radical interpretation of emergence theory. But her life's work (until that point), a mash up of hard physics, psychology, history and pop culture, was ridiculed by the academics. Palmer's book likewise mashes up all kinds of wild ideas into one brash and teaming narrative. But there's little subtlety or insight, it's an excess of explosions and mad violence.

It's fun and exciting, with some great twists (and some which feel too much like cheating). But ultimately this is a brash, adolescent adventure. And that would be fine if Palmer didn't seem to think he's written something else.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Key 2 Time now out

For just 99p you can hear the first episode of my new Doctor Who play, The Judgement of Isskar. The accompanying Prisoner's Dilemma is also out now, too - and you can hear a trailer for my forthcoming The Two Irises.

There's already a Livejournal community devoted to Amy and Zara - the characters I created for the Doctor Who plays - with (hooray!) glowing reviews and even (already!) some fanfic.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stones of London

BBC Broadcasting House, from aboveWhile everyone else in the world was watching events in Washington yesterday, I was in a posh hotel room working on something that’s as-yet unannounced. From room 641 you get a nice view of BBC Broadcasting House. I love it when work gets me through doors and to see stuff I’d never normally be allowed.

The Victorian magnificence of the Langham hotel is being refurbished in even grander style; our cabs were much confused by having to drop off / pick up from the makeshift entrance round the south. The place has a fascinating history, though I’m most excited by its time as extended offices for the BBC.
“The ballroom became the BBC record library and programs [sic] such as The Goon Show were recorded there.”

Wikipedia, Langham Hotel, London, as of 21 January 2009.

It’s also where those first early meetings were held to create some silly old TV show.

Portland Place, on which these two buildings stand, gets its name from the white stone from Jurassic-era Dorset that’s so prevalent in London’s buildings. The subject of my efforts yesterday was impressed I knew why it’s so prevalent.
“In the years following the Industrial Revolution, the acid rain, resulting from the heavy burning of coal in cities had the effect of continuously (slightly) dissolving the surface of Portland stone ashlar on buildings. This had the interesting effect of keeping exposed and rain-washed surfaces white as opposed to other (non calcareous) stones which quickly discoloured to black in the smoky atmospheres. This self-cleaning property also helped to enhance the popularity of Portland stone in London.”

Mark Godden, “Portland's Quarries and its Stone”, Mark Godden’s Little Bit of Cyberspace Mk II, 2007.

Well, I say “impressed”; he didn’t run out of the room screaming.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Who's next?

First it was Oliver Postgate. Then Number 6 and Kaaaaaaahn went on the same day (I imagine them agreeing to meet one last time on the Reichenbach falls). Then it's Tony Hart. Great chunks of my childhood detaching themselves like melting icebergs. I'm going to go all fadey.

I start to wonder who'll be next. The great Tom Baker is 75 today – happy birthday! But also look out behind you.

Because it's not just that the Doctors have been dying in order. William Hartnell died in 1975, Patrick Troughton died in 1987 and Jon Pertwee died in 1996. On that pattern, Tom's got til the end of the year.

Fight the numbers, Tom!

Monday, January 19, 2009


TrojanTrojan condoms, this machine boasted, are "No. 1 in AMERICA".

Isn't Trojan a virus?

(You could, incidentally, choose between "Ultra Pleasure", "Her Pleasure - Ribbed" and, er, breath mints.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flatshare horror

To the NFT last night for a preview of the first proper episode of Being Human, which airs on BBC3 at 9 pm on Sunday 25 January. WATCH IT - IT IS FANTASTIC.

The wheeze is that a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf share a house in Bristol. They're sexy young twenty-somethings with angst and problems with relationships, plus the perils of being monsters. It's sort of a mix of Buffy and This Life, but I felt that even this first episode set it up as distinctly it's own thing.

Writer/creator Toby Whithouse (his episode of Doctor Who made me blub) makes it funny, scary, moving, violent, twisty and just so, so good. We also got a teaser trail for the rest of the series, and yikes I am stupidly hooked.

In the Q&A afterwards with Whithouse, star Russell Tovey, producer Julie Gardner and some other producers, one audience member said she'd been surprised to like it since she's not into that "fantasy" stuff. This is one of those things that really annoys me, based as it is on two woefully stupid assumptions.

First, it assumes that anything sci-fi is rubbish or at least unworthy of serious attention. The zine Ansible has a regular "As others see us" column collecting pundits denying something is sci-fi because they thought it was good. That's not to say that everything SF is brilliant, just that there is some very good stuff.

Which leads into the second assumption, that because you like one thing that's got a sci-fi element in it that you must then like everything skiffy. So if you like Doctor Who you must also like Star Trek, if you like Star Wars you must also like the George Clooney version of Solaris, if you like Watchmen you must also like Green Lantern. But a football fan tends to only support two teams - a city team (not necessarily the local one) and one national one. All other football teams must be considered the enemy.

An awful lot of the activity of being a fan is discussing the precise bits you're not a fan of. We wade through the mountains of dross in search of the occasional nuggets of good stuff. It's why we cling to good shows so devotedly: we know they are precious and rare.

I like telly that's exciting, surprising, involving and smart. I like The Wire and Gavin and Stacey as much as I like Doctor Who. It's not that shoving in monsters makes telly suddenly good (hello, Demons). But, as Whithouse said last night, sometimes a fantasy element can lift an ordinary show into being something special.

It's only recently that British telly has caught on to this idea, as a result of the success of Doctor Who. In 1998, Ultraviolet tried a similar Buffy / This Life mix and was broadcast while no one was watching. Most people I know caught up it on video or DVD. It's a brilliant, brilliant series. But Channel 4 hid it away in the schedules, and forced the show to hide its fantasy credentials, embarrassedly. The vampires are never called vampires but instead "Code fives". (Five in Roman is "V", geddit?) Though I think that worked in its favour...

Post Doctor Who, telly is happy to announce its high concepts. The success of the Doctor has made it okay for TV to be bolder and madder. Importantly, Being Human is very different to Doctor Who - it's also got a very different feel from Torchwood, which is probably the thing it will be most likened to.

And yet... This first episode is a retelling of last year's pilot. Some of the cast has changed since then, and also some of the emphasis. And the thing that's most noticeably different, and the biggest improvement, is that they've made the vampires less all-out goth monster, and made them much more mundane.

I guess the fantasy elements work to pepper the drama, but what makes these things work is the people, their characters and relationships. The stuff that all good telly depends on.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Englishman gone wrong

Alistair Cooke was born in 1908, the same year as Ian Fleming and William Hartnell. These days, all three seem to have been from another world, one all cigarette smoke, bad dentistry and crackling black-and-white. And yet, watching Cooke’s 1972 TV series America: A Personal History of the United States I’m struck by how the past explains the world we live in now, and what hard-learnt lessons we seem to have forgotten. It seems especially pertinent this week, with America bounding bright-eyed into a new era on this coming Tuesday.

The 13-part TV series is from the same stable as landmark BBC series Civilisation and The Ascent of Man. It's an effective use of the small number of colour TV cameras; like the landmarks shows today that show off high definition. Cooke had already spent 40 years explaining the States to the Brits. The BBC radio programme Letter From America (so much good stuff on that site) ran from March 1946 to 20 February, 2004 – there’s a deluxe hardback of the best of his letters, and various other collections, but the whole damn lot is going to be put online by the University of East Anglia. Hooray!

So this is an ex-pat’s view of his adopted home. The first episode covers Cooke’s own passion for the country, the places he visited when he first arrived, the music and vibe that so wowed him. There’s no doubt he’s got it bad… And that flavours a lot of what follows.

The next eleven episodes tell the history of the country. Though Cooke starts with the first people to arrive from the East, things really get going with the arrival of Chris Columbus and then the empires of Spain and France. Episode three is about the British taking charge of their territory, and the first clamour for independence.

Cooke then follows the efforts of these nascent Americans to achieve in practice the promise of their famous declaration: the self-evident equality of all men, the life and liberty and happiness. Note it is “happiness” not “profit”; much of Cooke’s story of America is about inequality, success and enrichment at the expense of others.

Cooke admits his love for the Supreme Court as – more often than not – the defender of the little guy and thus of the American dream, that anyone can make it so long as they’re prepared to work. Cooke’s villains are those who ignore the Supreme Court, his crises when they get a decision wrong. The nation we know today, Cooke argues, is the product of the Supreme Court having to intercede: “No, this is what America is...”

The American system of checks and balances is interesting because, I’d argue, it looks backward. Everything is referred to the original, 18th century constitution and its 27 amendments. (Cooke covers the first 10 tweaks (the “Bill of Rights”) in some detail, but then rather speaks of the constitution as unchangeable monolith.)

For example, Americans today have the right to bear arms because of lines written by James Madison in 1789 and ratified by three quarters of the 14 then-existent States on 15 December 1791. Imagine our own gun laws being based on people’s habits in the year that Mozart died and Charles Babbage born; so many of our assumptions about the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness have completely changed since then.

As Cooke later argues in the penultimate episode of the series, the Second Amendment sought to prevent the US having its own standing army. The newly independent Americans feared creating a tyrant of their own, one with soldiers to back him up. But, at risk from pirates and Indians and each other, early Americans had to be ready to defend their homes at a minute’s notice. Now they have a standing army – and police force and everything else – haven’t they lost that excuse?

There are those who want a Bill of Rights for the UK, who argue we should have a written constitution like the US. But we have a written constitution; it’s just all of it – every act of law, and the precedent of every decision in a court room. (Madison himself was against a Bill of Rights for that reason and some others.) Ours is a constantly developing system of prohibitions: you’re free to do anything that’s not specifically banned or limited.

One of my history teachers argued that ours is, at least in principle, a much freer system. My understanding is that the reason we have so many laws and amendments is because of people (not always intentionally) abusing loopholes in the law – or wanting some prohibition relaxed. The latter is interesting for reasons I’ll come back to. But as Madison observed, if we only behaved better we’d not need a Government watching us.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

James Madison, The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, The Federalist #51, 6 February 1788.

A few articles on Cooke I've read criticise him for not really proving the darker side of the US, for being such an establishment yes-man. I think that's most telling when he talks about segregation. When Cooke arrived in the US, he says, he found the racial divide very difficult. He argues – I think not very convincingly – that his winces were no different to his American friends wincing at British “norms” such as sending young kids to boarding school.

Yet episode six, “Gone West”, is unflinching in its horror at the treatment of the native Americans, and episode seven, “A Firebell in the Night” concisely explains the issues of slavery, the Civil War and its legacy today.

It's true he doesn't really explore the racial clashes of the post-war period, and he glosses over the assassinations of both Kennedys despite having been in the room in 1968.
“There was a head on the floor, streaming blood and somebody put a Kennedy boater under it and the blood trickled down like chocolate sauce on an ice cake. There were flash lights by now and the button eyes of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders. She was slapping a young man and he was saying "Listen lady, I'm hurt too" - and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb.”

Alistair Cooke, Letter from America, 9 June 1968.

But this series isn't about what is wrong with America, but how often it has been right, and how its national character has been hard won. There's the adversity of the early settlements and trails, the need for Nietzschean will against the enormous odds. This creates the myth of the American dream of triumph through effort.

This story is brought alive by footage of the places as they are now, by contemporary paintings, sketches, architecture, graffiti. Yet it's hearing the songs of wagon trains and revolution that really bring the story alive.

Then when nature is conquered, it is man-made adversity that must be battled: the astonishing violence of the Wild West. We lose the folk songs in favour of brutal photographs of doubled-up families, living on next to nothing.

Innovations slowly make life better: a steel plough to get through the unrelenting ground, barbed wire to make the cowboys into rangers, the mail-order catalogue to allow even the furthest flung family to get the latest clothes and haircuts. Cooke doesn't say it explicitly, but I felt he was implying that the American people became just as domesticated as their animals.

I'm also a little hesitant about some of the stories Cooke relates – they might have lost him 20 points on QI. There's Sacajawea, the native guide who Cooke relates throwing herself in front of her brother to save Lewis and Clark. Isn't that the same story as Pocahontas? Cooke tells us the Sacajawea lived to be 90 and to bitterly regret how her people had been forcibly dispossessed. This again seems to be disputed.

That dispossession is one of Cooke's examples of the Supreme Court being over-ruled by a villain. When President Andrew Jackson ignores Worcester vs. Georgia, Cooke calls him “imperious”. In fact, the story of America is one of empire: of conquest by France and Spain and then Britain, of 13 states then conquering the West.

Yet at the same time it's an empire of incredible, radical liberalism and tolerance. In many ways America sees itself less as a imperial conqueror as a haven for the world's bullied and oppressed. (Perhaps there's an argument that the US, and Israel, are victims of a cycle of abuse: the bullied growing up to be bullies...)

Cooke explains the astonishment of Jews in the nineteenth century on being able to practice their religion freely. (Until recently, only one race or religion had a word meaning their persecution specifically – pogrom – a signpost of centuries of oppression. Since the 1980s, but especially since 11 September 2001, there's also been islamophobia.)

It wasn't just pogroms that caused the huge emigration to America in the nineteenth century. There were the failed revolutions of 1848, the potato famine in Ireland, the stories of American streets lined with gold that dated back to the time of Cortez.

Cooke visits Ellis Island, at the time of filming derelict and recently gutted by fire, what Cooke calls,
“A frowsy monument to the American habit when something wears out of junking and forgetting it.”
He retells the experience of the immigrants, a route visitors can walk themselves today as Ellis Island is a museum. The Dr and I visited on our honeymoon in 2004, stunned that two out of every 10 who’d made the vast trek across the planet to get into this place were sent home – for looking sick or old or useless. US immigration still barks harder than any other sentry post I’ve been through.

What the museum doesn't show is the experience of immigrants once they've succeeded in reaching the mainland. Cooke visits the offices of the Jewish Daily Forward, which has run since 1897 and had a peak circulation of 250,000. Its letters pages speak volumes about the migrant experience: the struggles to learn English, to retain their old identities and religions, to fit in with the locals. Cooke marvels at the Daily Forward still being printed in Yiddish; I found it more strange and alien to see it laid out in chunks of movable type.

The different migrant communities shared the same problems if not the same culture and language. Cooke neatly explains how this shared experience led to a uniquely American style of comedy, the burlesque. He waves an actual slap-stick, explaining that the jokes were all corrupt cops and landlords, lascivious judges, the risks and suffering of the young as they try to make good the promise of their parents. From this shared sense of the little man surviving on his wits, Cooke says, come Keaton and Groucho and WC Fields.

The immigrants also meant cheap labour – and produced a few very rich individuals. Cooke ignores the presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt because he doesn't think they actually held any power. Instead it was the business interests that ran the country and dictate policy – an accusation still levelled today.

Roosevelt gunned for the industrialists, but also wanted the immigrants to sign up to a distinct, indivisible American identity, distinct from their mother countries. I'd always been a little spooked by in-your-face American patriotism – the oath of allegiance in schools and public meetings, the heavy presence of the stars and stripes outside people's homes. Who, I thought, are they trying to convince, and of what? But Roosevelt's call for there to be no more “hyphenated Americans” suddenly puts that in context.

And the second generation of immigrants flourished in their new home. Cooke sorts through the index cards, finding the parents of Irving Berlin and Alfonse Capone, sundry judges and political chieftains. He also makes the link between America's toleration and its success over other nations: the German Jewish physicists fleeing Hitler in the 1930s were to ultimately win America the Second World War.

(See also me on what the bloody foreigners have done for us.)

Cooke is fascinating on the Wall Street Crash of 1928, on the frippery and greed immediately before it and the lie it was built on. He describes the problem brilliantly as,
“A mountain of credit on a molehill of actual money”,
and explains that in those primitive days there was none of the regulation and scrutiny that would stop such a thing happening today (!). (It's also eerie seeing footage throughout the series of the New York skyline, with the World Trade Center still being built.)

Those who ignore history are damned to repeat it. It strikes me that those bankers and money men who've fought so hard to de-regulate the markets are little different from teenagers hosting a party while their parents are away. They don't want rules or conditions either. After all, what can possibly go wrong?

But what can history teach us on how to get out of the present financial mess? Well, new president Franklin Roosevelt brought in a strict regime of what Cooke calls “national socialism”, ending speculation with other people's money for a whole two years (until the Supreme Court over-ruled him). There were huge public works like the Hoover Dam – but Cooke acknowledges it wasn't this Stalinist programme that solved the problem, it was the outbreak of world war.

As detailed above, for its first 160 years, the US had a “dogged distrust” of a standing army. The standing army in 1941, says Cooke, was no larger than Sweden’s. There’s comic footage of what look like boy scouts scampering through the woods, which Cooke starkly contrasts with the vicious efficiency of German Blitzkrieg.

The war changed everything. Cooke rather sees it as the apotheosis of American will, American ingenuity, American tolerance for the Jews so badly treated everywhere else. America bails out the UK and liberates France and Germany, turning the tables on its mother countries. The hydrogen bomb secured its position over the whole world.

Between 1945 and 1953 America’s nuclear toys went unrivalled. This unique position maybe explains their incredible paranoia and witch hunts – though as Cooke says they might as well have tried to keep secret the laws of gravity. The American arsenal and war machine is vital to the US economy, Cooke seems to say, and vital to its modern identity.

The penultimate episode of the series, as Cooke visits the men on duty in a nuclear bunker, is utterly chilling. We watch the nerdy young men who can bring about the end of the world going about their routine. Cooke explains they wear pistols to shoot each other should they start to act strange. He hopes the systems will not become too coolly automated, that there might always be some key human component who’ll be able to have second thoughts…

The last episode seems to begin with a prologue from some years later – perhaps after Reagan has been elected. Cooke admits his predictions in 1972 have not all come to pass, and flavours what follows. He ties his history together, comparing the America of the early 1970s to the founding dreams and ideology of the late 18th century.

It’s fascinating; he’s sure the self-sufficient communes will be part of the future, that America will be living the Good Life, that cities will be left far behind. He shows footage of a young Jesse Jackson, and then tells us of his amazement that – so soon after such violence and deep-rooted segregation – there are now black mayors and senators.

I found Cooke discussing the race question while stood in Chicago deeply strange: he'd finished writing his letters in 2004 just too soon to have mentioned Barack Hussein Obama. I wonder what Cooke would have made of him.

It's a love-letter to a nation, and I found it compelling. The English, Cooke says, often think of Americans as “an Englishman gone wrong.” His series shows how wrong we are.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New postal service

Printed on a letter* today, this charming offer:
Sending diagnostic samples?
Sending diagnostic specimens?
Use Safe Box
from Royal Mail
What, like goo and secretions and stuff? (One day, I'll post my hilario-comedic Adventure of Giving Rude Specimens.)

I can see that sending man-juice and snot through the post might be something some people might have to do. But is there really such a demand for such service that you advertise it on everyone's letters? Or perhaps this a response to it being quite common, and there being too many icky leaks.

(Me on the decline of the postal monopoly.)

* the letter itself was a contract for something exciting and as yet unannounced. Woo!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The prince's balls get bigger every year...

Went to see Cinderella starring Steve Guttenberg last night (it runs until 18 January). A lively, silly show with lots of songs to sing along to (at least, our token American, K., knew all the words). Stupid, stupid, fun.

Afterwards, me and K. lurked at the Stage Door for autographs, ahead of a sudden throng. Keen-eyed girls stalked their way forward, shrugging off the pretensions of a queue. Every time the door opened there was a gasp of excitement, then a sigh as some mere ordinary thesp emerged. That must really get to you after a while...

We got scribbled greetings from Helen Lederer and the bloke who'd played Dandini (K. and the Dr liked him), before deciding we couldn't be arsed and going to the pub. K. got a bus home, me and the Dr got chips.

The girls have made a pact to go see Little Shop of Horrors (featuring Sylvester McCoy) next month; I can't go with them as I'll be in San Francisco.

Oh, had I not mentioned that before?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"If your mummy and daddy are scared..."

"Tardis Timegirl" has youtubed this superb CGI recreation of the 1968 trailer for Doctor Who and the Web of Fear (or the Yeti Invasion of the Underground):

Friday, January 09, 2009

"You must always have a ying/yang aspect to the search..."

The fantastically monickered Brian A Terranova of online zine Kasterborous has written the first review of Judgement of Isskar. He thinks it "very interesting", and is looking forward to the rest of the series. Hooray!

(Next post will be about something that isn't me, promise.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

I am beautiful, am I not?

You might want to skip this post - it's all more me, me, me. The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features a preview of The Judgement of Isskar, with me describing it – with typical erudition – as “charging around space and time a bit.” (Oh, and there's now a Facebook group for Isskar - come buy, come buy.)

The Two Irises, cover by Anthony DryScott Handcock's feature, “How to Survive 2009” includes mention of five forthcoming things of mine – I have been busy – including The Two Irises. Big Finish's website now boasts the blurb and Anthony Dry's superb cover for that, which is out in April.

DWM also boasts a glowing review of How The Doctor Changed My Life – liking Michael Rees' story best, and calling Arnold T Blumberg's one “clever and moving – not always an easy combination”.
“While there's not enough space here to cover all the stories, each one is worthwhile, written out of genuine love for the series and with something to recommend it. With 25 stories and not one dud I can't praise this enough.”

Matt Michael, The DWM Review, DWM #404 (4 February 2009), p. 60.

The booked also earns a hefty 9 out of 10 from Richard McGinlay at sci-fi-online; Richard gives Home Truths a perfectly respectable 8. Hooray!

Oh, and the British Library are so chuffed with my thoughts on Taking Liberties there's now a space-pirate badger gazing from their news page (under blogs).

But it's not just my scribble that is fabulous. The Dr and some other mean chums are finding the first paragraph of this post from Mike the most hilarious thing since the invention of the spoon. The git monkeys.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Three items with increasingly tenuous links to Victorians

First, 2009 is the 150th anniversary of Big Ben – the bell inside the clock tower of the what tourists call the Houses of Parliament. The official Big Ben website has a neat Flash wossname showing how the clock works, plus a wealth of info and images. I’m particularly pleased with HJ Brewer’s perspective view of the old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII.

Secondly, you’ve five days left to hear the Radio 3’s Sunday night feature, “Vril”. Says the BBC's own website:
“Matthew Sweet finds out about Vril, the infinitely powerful energy source of the species of superhumans which featured in Victorian author and politician Edward Bulwer Lytton's pioneering science fiction novel The Coming Race (1871). Although it was completely fictional, many people were desperate to believe it really existed and had the power to transform their lives. With a visit to Knebworth House, Lytton's vast, grandiloquent Gothic mansion, where Matthew meets Lytton's great-great-great-grandson, and hears how his book was meant to be a warning about technology, soulless materialism and utopian dreams. At London's Royal Albert Hall, he discovers how a doctor, Herbert Tibbits, along with a handful of aristocrats, tried to promote the notion of electrical cures and the possibility of a 'coming race'. Along the way, Matthew and his contributors consider why so many English people have been so desperate to see the fantasy of regeneration transformed into fact.”
Thirdly, last night the Dr and I attended a special screening of Slumdog Millionaire, followed by a Q and A with director Danny Boyle.

A lowly “chai wallah” in Mumbai makes it to the last round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The police can’t believe he’s not cheating, so attach electrodes and smack him about. Slowly they unfold his story…

It’s a great, on-the-whole feel-good film, probably Boyle’s best since Trainspotting. In fact, it’s full of the same chases, frenetic editing, wild mix of comedy and horror, and even a bit that’s quite like the “worst toilet in Scotland”. It’s fast and noisy and vivid, buzzing with wild, desperate life.

Jamal’s brother and the use of local talent (plus Dev Patel from Skins) reminded me of Children of God, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy says its “Dickensian”. I can kind of see that, with the comedy and tragedy as pressed together as the very rich and very poor. It made me think of Charles Booth’s 1891 poverty map of London – which I only saw last week. There are issues of urban development, social mobility and education that might spring from Victorian novels or pamphlets. Yet Dickens made much more memorable wrong ‘uns – there’s no Skimpole, Micawber or Dombey here, just a motley crew of hoods.

The questioners – uniquely, in my experience – didn’t ask for advice for budding film-makers but instead challenged Boyle on the morality, truth and disregard for the horizon in his films. Some who knew India expressed amazement at his getting past red tape and state interference (he said they allowed the film to show police torturing a suspect so long as it involved no one of higher rank than inspector).

He talked about the complex moral quagmire of casting people from the real slums: does he take them and their families to the Oscars? And he explained that, with Disney and Sony already producing their first films in Hindi, we’re going to see much more erosion of the line between Bolly- and Hollywood.

Afterwards, we went for a pizza and shared a bottle of wine and a Banoffi pie. The Banoffi pie was, of course, first invented by Nigel McKenzie for the Hungry Monk restaurant, Jevington, in 1972. No, I can’t think of a way to link this last bit to the Victorians.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Man* gets job

(* possibly a wo-man.)

In a bit less than an hour and a half, the BBC announce who'll be playing the eleventh Doctor Who, though they won't appear in the show for another year. The internet has gone crazy-mad and I keep getting texts begging what I know. Which is, of course, nothing.

I'm a bit baffled by the terror and anger cramming the airwaves from other people who also know nothing. They're damning actors they don't know have got the job based on not liking them in some other role. Or they're *still* suggesting candidates after all the phone lines have closed.

No wait, we didn't vote for this one, did we?

But we've been here before. There was anger and terror in early 2004 - a year before the series came back so triumphantly - when Billie Piper first got cast as Rose. A year ago, otherwise sage-like mates panicked that Catherine Tate would ruin the series. (There are, admittedly, a few strange individuals who still speak of new Doctor Who as a failure, based solely on the drumming in their heads.)

Likewise, there were those who hated the idea of Daniel Craig being cast as James Bond just 'cos he was blond (they didn't mind Bond flitting between being Scottish, Australian, English, Welsh and then Irish, so long as he had dark hair). A pre-titles sequence in black-and-white quickly made them forget their colour prejudice...

(Note they don't mind Felix being Black or M being a woman...)

I really don't mind if Eleven (get me and my net lingo) is black or a woman or Paul McGann. I'm keen to see what the new chaps in charge can come up with; the same old show and yet surprising. That's what I've always loved about Doctor Who - hotly, wetly, not altogether healthily - and it seems to be missing the point by several miles to argue that there's no precedent.

So hooray for whoever it is - a blacked up Shane Ritchie or Jennifer Saunders in drag.

But most importantly, it doesn't matter what I think anyway.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Not a good start

Happy new year – and happy birthday to the legion of chums whose birthday it is today. I don't think I'll be going to the celebrations as I have caught the flu bug that was fashionable a few weeks back, and am generally feeling beaten up and blue. Ow.

The Dr sweetly duveted me up in front of the telly to watch the Doctor Who Prom and brought me pasta and porridge (not in the same bowl).

Various bits of things I'm meant to be doing currently sit undone. But I've booked flights to Gallifrey, and a sojourn to San Francisco just beforehand which is all very exciting. I've sent some emails to get things rolling on another as-yet-unannounced project, and a load of rewrites is probably due my way once various bosses get back to their works.

Now I'm going to have some tea and a sandwich and watch episode five of Alistair Cooke's America - on which more another time.