Monday, November 30, 2009


"Jam", the film I saw at BAFTA a couple of weeks back, is now available on the internet for you to enjoy:

It's depressingly accomplished, with a stellar cast and high production values, plus a sparkling script by mate Lizzie Hopley. Support the team behind it by buying a credit on their full-length feature.

I've spent this morning reading other chums' short film scripts and making notes on my own. Now on to the Novel.

Spent the weekend scribbling. Braved the deluge to go see "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" performed at the Brockley Jack. It's a funny, smart but my-god-depressing tale of a young couple in the Sixties struggling to stay cheery with a severely disabled child.

The Issues and achingly self-aware cleverness is very much of its time, and I've found other plays by Peter Nichols to be crushingly worthy. But the intimate theatre and some nimble direction kept this one zipping along. The play depends on small cast really showing off their Acting, and they pulled off that tricky feat of being heart-rendering and getting big laughs.

Last time I saw it, the ending was different, so this time it wasn't quite the tough-but-uplifting tale I thought the Dr might appreciate. In fact, it ended up pressing some emotional buttons to do with stuff we've been struggling through ourselves this year. Whoops. Had to buy her cider after, during which she our pals M. and K. laughed and called me a twat.

Lunched with the stunt-wife yesterday to celebrate his birthday, thence to R's housewarming, which included a tour of vacated offices and the promise of ghosts. Fun chat with chums - and sober, as I'm on antibiotics all this week. Then home to catch up on season one of "True Blood", which I'll blog about more when I get to the end of the first series.

But just when I think I've seen all the regular cast's bosoms, they introduce a new pretty girl and swiftly take her top off. Quality drama.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My hovercraft is full of eels

Gratuitous pimpage: here's a nice place to stay in Eger, Hungary, where you could also explore the fine castle and volcanic baths.

I never did write up my own splendid trip there in May, but I did read a book about its history.

Good day writing today; one outline agreed, got to pitch for something else, and have been working on the Novel. Now off to the doctor's. (Not the Dr's or the Doctor's.) And also have a cheque to pay in. Woo.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noises off

There's now a trailer for my Blake's 7 CD, and my casting notes are blogged on the Blake's 7 website.

Busy on some other stuff, none of which can be spoken of yet. So I'll just shut up.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Victorian rhapsody

To the British Library last night for a “Late at the library” event. There was Victorian Values – a lively show by the Ministry of Burlesque. There was the chance to dress up and have pictures taken by Madame la Luz's Photographic Parlour. A splendid brass band played versions of “YMCA” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And there was a high proportion of slapped-up goth girls in the audience, bursting from their clothes. Though I, er, didn't really notice.

Portrait by Madame La Luz's Photographic Parlour
There seemed to be too audiences for the event – the goths affecting the age with barely corsetted flesh and those wanting to perambulate round the Points of View exhibition (free until 7 March 2010), which tells the history of photography through some rare and extraordinary images.

We ably straddled both factions. The exhibition is glorious – and free. There's film explaining the difference between the Daguerre and Fox Talbot methods, and a wealth of nineteenth century capturings from all round the world.

The Dr was thrilled by the archaeological specimens – including that famous shot by Corporal J McCartney of Charles Newton and the ropes round the lion of Cnidus, on which she wrote a book. I loved Philip Henry Delamotte's images from the construction of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, including my beloved monsters.

There was also the splendid Victorian hippopotamus and an astonishing nineteenth century photographic atlas of the moon, and photography changing our understanding of family, history, science and our own time. The explanatory panels delved into the politics of photographing empire and criminals, and the assumptions made by the “reality” of the image. There were gems embedded all through the thing, and I will have to go again.

It perhaps dwelt too much on the process and practice of photography, with less on the way the ordinary punter might collect, display and use the images. And, of course, the shop was shut by the time we came out, so there was no chance of checking which images exist as postcards.

Friday, November 20, 2009

You're not my type

I'm now at the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, having not been entirely won over by the mini-series. Spoilers obviously follow.

Season One continues with more of the same – people in uniform being cross in dark corridors, having to make difficult decisions and being spectacularly stupid. The more it tries to convince us it's clever, with debates on politics and morality, the more tedious it becomes. “Speculative fiction” – the posh name for sci-fi – is a synonym of ponderous. But the dogfights and explosions are very exciting, and as the show continues there's some exemplary flourishes and twists.

The opening episode is a bold idea – the Cylons attack every 33 minutes, so no one has had any sleep. But why don't they organise shifts for the staff; and why don't they work in shifts anyway?

There's a nice moment when our heroes have to shoot down one of their own ships, but perhaps the story played it safe by showing us the ship is empty. How much more horrible to see innocent passengers on board, and having to shoot it down anyway? Apollo also acts like he's never shot anyone before, but he's an experienced pilot in the fleet.

Episode two displays an extraordinary fumble of infodump, telling us something outright in the story-so-far captions that we've not been told before. There are Cylons who don't know they're Cylons.

This becomes a major part of Season One, as our regulars are increasingly stupid. Boomer finds herself planting bombs all round the ship, and there are explosions killing people. But she and her boyfriend still don't think to mention this to anyone for weeks and weeks...

It's good to see Richard Hatch in episode three, and when he's cross at the new, young Apollo I assumed some kind of in-joke. The Dr, strolling in, thought this was all a bit 24, with terrorist stuff intercutting with the office politics round the President. And she's right: it's very like 24, with heroes “forced” to do terrible things by the writers, which are quickly forgotten by the next episode. Shocking Stuff happens all the time, but it doesn't always feel like the writers are quite keeping up.

By this point it's becoming clear that any plot hole or appalling coincidence can be lain at the feet of the Gods. The opening titles tell us the Cylons have a plan – a plea to the viewer to stick with the show, that it will all make some kind of sense. But it keeps feeling random. The Cylons can follow them, then they can't. It's like the Cylons attack just to keep it from being insufferably dull and pompous.

The fifth episode sees Starbuck stranded on a rock, and reminded me a bit of Dirk Benedict's last appearance as the character in Galactica 1980 (that episode, leaving him stranded, didn't have traumatise me as a kid). There's a brilliant idea that the Cylon ships are living beings themselves.

But there's also lots of stupid stuff too. There's the guy on Cylon-occupied Caprica (which I keep thinking of as COC) who doesn't want to be spotted yet still shouts to his friend. There's how often the Adama boys put everyone else at risk.

I'm also a bit bored by the sex. It's all a bit Hollywood and beautiful, too posed and plastic to convince. Imagine it done with the same dour realism as the uniforms and corridors. Balthar being a bit sordid or quick could give us an insight into his character.

Balthar's weird. We're meant to empathise with this guy who betrayed the human race and who continues to plot and scheme against his people. When we see him smashing the computer in episode seven, it's played as if it's funny. And why, when he knows Boomer is a Cylon, does he not tell anyone else? Surely he's putting himself and everyone else at risk. And in episode nine he's actively searching for Cylons...

In fact, by the end of season one I was beginning to lose patience. Balthar's “popularity” with the masses in inexplicable – he's twitchy and strange and uneven. Boomer decides to kill herself when Balthar's already “proved” that she's not a Cylon. There's the tedious boxing match in episode twelve, a montage so oddly cut together for a moment I thought Adama was in bed with his son. And there's the wild coincidence of Helo just happening to find the same arrow that Starbuck has crossed all of space for.

Yet, as with the mini-series, there's a whole bundle of things to keep watching for. Starbuck calls Balthar “Lee” at just the wrong moment. Richard Hatch becomes a regular character. There's the cynical doctor who smokes in his theatre.

And Season Two picks up pretty quickly. There's still a lot of coincidence, and people acting oddly and out of character because it suits the plot. But the moral dilemmas really pick up, and we start to see lots of sides to the characters. Sometimes it's a bit blunt – one mentions abortion a few times but seems to think its dealing with real issues, and the presidential stuff generally is pretty na├»ve about politics.

I'd have liked the episode where a journalist records a documentary about life on Galactica to have all been the documentary footage, and there's a weary sigh now every time Blonde Cylon turns up alongside Balthar.

But the Pegasus episodes are very exciting, and it suddenly feels like everything's moving. The ideas and dilemmas seem smart, and there are fewer stupid or lucky solutions. The last few episodes of Season Two are really very compelling – depending on what we know about characters and their relationships with one another. The body count remains high, but once it starts killing regular characters everything matters much more.

There are a handful of beautiful flourishes in this season which seem to have influenced new Doctor Who. There's the swaggering confidence of declaring “One Year Later” in the midst of your season finale. There's Roslin's nice president making steely, hard decisions – like Harriet Jones destroying the Sycorax. And in humanity struggling not to set a violent precedent for its own future, there's all that stuff about the Dr forging his mates into guns.

There's still stuff that's odd: the President-Elect can visit his Cylon lover - and deliver her a nuclear bomb - without anyone seeming to notice. And surely the plucky regulars who don't live by the rules might have turfed him out of office before that first year was up. And Adama's moustache is... well, I hope they rethink it for Season Three.

I loved the episode from the Cylons' perspective, though again I'd have preferred it without the cutting back to the normal stuff. How brilliant for Blondie to hallucinate her own Balthar! And Dean Stockwell's performance and character are superb.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Both cutting the cake and eating it

Neal Stephenson's Anathem is a typically robust brick of a novel, 937 pages packed with action, maths and top facts. It was a Christmas present, though the weight of thing put me off starting it until my long flight out to Florida.

At first, I thought it was running along the same lines as my great favourites A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker: the people of a post-apocalyptic Earth struggling to put the world back together, making sense and science from the fragments left of the past. For the first 200 pages that's exactly what it is, detailing young Erasmus' life in a Concent, caught up in chores and philosophical discourse, and cut off from the world and his family outside.

But there's quickly hints of something going on in that external world which will will affect the young scholars – and might even lead to a fourth great Sack of the concents. Erasmus is soon on a peregrination into the dangerous exterior, trying to make unravel what's happening.

Without giving too much away, the quest and mystery are suitably thrilling, while allowing much discussion of Big Ideas. A lot of that discussion – on mathematical proofs, on etymology, on perception – is engrossing.

Admittedly, one chapter is more than 100 pages of one great conversation over dinner. It's broken up with trips to the kitchen (where people comment on the conversation), and notes on the food, but it left this reader rather weary. Especially since it's right in the midst of some very exciting stuff involving explosions and – hooray! – unexpected ninjas.

But generally, what makes this – and Stephenson's work as a whole – so compelling is the deft mix of the action and theory. There's the dizzying wheeze that our brains, by being able to imagine other worlds and circumstances, work at the level of quantum uncertainty – that we flicker between possible Narratives and even physically rewrite the past.

(See also the Telegraph's recent list of the top 10 weirdest bits of physics.)

There's a nice idea on page 102 that becomes integral to the plot: there are no new ideas, and the order's job is not to invent new philosophies but to tend, nurture and preserve the wisdom and insight (“upsight” in the book) of the past, like gardeners.

I also thought Stephenson's invented lexicon – the glossary lasts for 19 pages – might lose its appeal pretty quickly, but it's nicely woven through the story. Usually, we learn the meaning of a word just in time for it to become pertinent, so that the invented etymology is a kind of foreshadowing, adding layers and depth to the plot.

It's a gripping adventure, and there's loads I'm still picking over – the plot, its ramifications, even just some of the top facts. It's a geeky, lively, often funny book, full of great characters and moments. And it's got the best, most satisfying end of any of Stephenson's novels.

It's just a bit too long, with a wearying intensity that means it sometimes feels like homework – or, perhaps, as if we're part of the Concent ourselves. But then Stephenson's recent Baroque Cycle – which I loved – also demands a great deal of effort from the reader. This is not an author for the faint of heart; but he's also massively rewarding.

(See also Stephenson's lecture on the geeks inheriting the Earth and my thoughts on his novel, Cobweb.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Making history

What a splendid episode of Doctor Who. Will leave a little space for spoilers in case you have not seen it...

[Incidentally, I have written a diary of writing Blake's 7. And here is a nice photograph of me with stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Carrie Dobro. It will thrill you to know that this was taken outside the offices of Innocent Smoothies, of which I am an acolyte. Om nom nom.

Benedict Cumberbatch, me and Carrie Dobro at the recording of Blake's 7

End of spoiler space, back to Doctor Who.]

Perhaps not scary in a make-you-jump way (though I'm told by parent-friends that their kids were traumatised), but disturbing-scary because you knew they were all going to die, and because the Doctor walks away. And then...

It reminded me of the bit in School Reunion where Sarah tells the Doctor he can't save her from getting old; it's a really bothering and grown-up idea that sometimes people can't be saved. Kept me awake last night mulling it over.

I also loved the Jerking Deaths when people aren't looking. And how brilliant to make the Doctor saving everyone sinister. I also liked him calling "fixed moments in time" just a theory, so we can ignore it when we want to.

Yes, of much interest to a mercenary hack like me is the gaps it leaves for other stories. Most importantly of all, I don't think it contradicts a key work of Ice Warrior history.

Also watched Sarah Jane and Mona Lisa's Revenge, and afterwards as I chopped parsnips tried to reconcile it with City of Death, in which that portrait of Lisa Gheradini spends 400 years bricked up in a cellar and has “This is a fake” written in felt-tip under Leonardo's brushwork. Why didn't she reach critical mass in the cellar?

This sort of thing is what passes for fun in my house when the Dr is out.

Both the Doctor Who and Sarah Jane stories note that Lisa didn't have any eyebrows, as was (probably) fashionable at the time. But they don't mention some other interesting things about that portrait. Lisa sits high up on a balcony, a mad fantasy landscape behind her. As the landscape recedes into the distance, it fades to blue-green murk, an early example of aerial perspective – that is, the affect of the Earth's atmosphere.

That fantastic background contrasts with the calm posture of the sitter. And that enigmatic smile isn't gas or not being able to sit still; the effect is created by shadows at the edges of the mouth and eyes, a technique called sfumato (that is, as if seen through a veil of smoke).

So I had embarked on a complicated theory involving as-yet-untold interventions by the Doctor, Leonardo seeing an alien world through a veil of smoke and learning about the Earth's atmosphere. And then Lizbee tweeted a fine, indeed handsome, answer which is all a lot easier on the brain:
“Only the one painting was made of living ink; Leonardo had enough for the first six? Figures the psycho one would be fireproof...”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scenes from south London

To no less august a place than Kennington yesterday for a reading of “The Ride”, a fun new play by Andrew Cartmel. Blogging now and hoovering later while thinking of notes to give him.

A bunch of other chums were in attendance. Admired Ben Aaronovitch's rewrite beard and got to meet the writer Piers Beckley who bought me a pint of Spitfire. Lively chat on all things Grub Street, and thence out into the storm.

Bus home took an hour to get down the Walworth Road due to some kind of works. I read quite a lot of The Big Sleep. Three youths tore up a newspaper and threw it at people, scoring points on direct hits. A mother and her teenage daughter had an argument in the seat behind me, their voices and heavy sighs identical which made it hard to follow.

Home to chops with the Dr, then out again to see the gestalt that is Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, who had spent all day writing and so were collapsed of brain. Even more than usual. Dozy and comfy in seats by the fire, and last ones to leave.

Chores and pitches and begs-for-work today, all as a distraction from the Great Excitement of the Evening.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Then welcome

To a star-studded showing of the star-studded "Jam" last night, the short film written by my pal Lizzie Hopley and directo-produced by the clever teens behind

It's a fun film, in which Annette Badland and Patricia Hodge are competing to make the best jam, as judged by Frank Skinner. The cast includes Linda Bellingham, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, Stephen Fry, Gary Rhodes and Philip Schofield. And also, on the left-hand back row, two other chums of mine.

Having dabbled a bit in short films myself this year (I was a runner on "Origin", a crucial-to-the-plot copper in "Girl Number 9" and am trying to set up my own effort at the moment), was really impressed by the look of the thing, the money on screen, the comic timing and just what can be achieved for next-to no money. Damn them.

On the strength of this short, I'm keen to see what they can do with Clovis Dardentor, the feature film they're trying to set up, based on a little-known Jules Verne novel from 1896 and also adapted by Lizzie. You can help by buying a credit.

The event at BAFTA was packed with frighteningly young and pretty people. I hunched in a corner with a couple of folk I already knew, feeling old and ugly. But there was a free beer, and mostly I was just consumed with envy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Three different kinds of archaeology

1. The Dr is engaged in an exciting project in experimental archaeology. London's own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is going to make a pair of woolly socks based on the ancient originals they have on display, and using – as far as possible – the same methods.

You can follow the adventure on the Sock It! blog, and members of the public are invited to come along and help at special sessions on the last Saturday of each month.

2. Big Finish have announced a new run of Lost Stories. I've adapted an unmade 1968 Doctor Who story, “Prison in Space” by Dick Sharples, for release on CD in December 2010.

It's a fun story in itself and an interesting what-may-have-been – “Prison in Space” got as far as even casting Barrie Gosney in a role before it was cancelled. You can read a bit more about it's history at Shannon Sullivan's Lost Stories page.

ETA: You can now preorder the second series of Lost Stories - including mine - as a special discounted price.

3. The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features a splendid review of my history of space-archaeologist Bernice Summerfield:
“The overall sense is that Benny's story – from its very beginning, and particularly when Big Finish took it over – was a labour of love: something that's also true of this book. A long time in the making, and absolutely worth the wait, this is the definitive story of one of Doctor Who's most enduring and well-loved characters. Essential.”

Matt Michael, The DWM Review, Doctor Who Magazine #415, 9 December 2009, p. 62


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“He likes cats, but not from kindness”

For what might one day be a work thing, I asked m'colleague M to recommend Dirk Bogarde films from the early 60s. Am woefully ill-read in the man's work, so blimey: three compelling, peculiar movies.

In The Singer Not The Song (1961), Bogarde is an oddly well-spoken Mexican bandit. Anacleto preys on a small town until Irish priest John Mills walks in. Mills is determined to win Bogarde over to the side of the angels; Bogarde wants to drag Mills down to his own level.

It's a sumptuous film in full colour, filmed in southern Spain. The story is raunchily Catholic – about community and duty and salvation. There are small roles for Doctor Who later regulars Roger Delgado, Laurence Payne and Eileen Way. And it doesn't quite all come together.

Bogarde, who's grown up through the revolution to hate the church as part of the old regime, speaks in perfect English. Locha – daughter of a rich Mexican (Delgado) and his glamorous, American wife – speaks with a distinctly French lilt. And Bogarde's performance is... well, he doesn't seem all that bothered.

It was apparently the last film he shot in his seven-year contract for Rank. On the DVD extra, director Roy Ward Baker says there was an enmity on set between Bogarde and Mills. But Michael Brooke for ScreenOnline argues that it has the opposite effect on the film: charging it with homoerotic subtext. I'm not wholly convinced.

That's not, though, true of Bogarde's next film. In Victim (also 1961), Bogarde plays a top London lawyer with a pretty wife (Sylvia Syms), who finds himself open to blackmail for giving a gay young chap a lift home. This is six years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the film is apparently the first mainstream effort to directly address the issue.

It takes a comparatively long time, though, for the film to name the love that dare not speak its name. Until then, its lots of people being worried and in a rush, not quite saying why. That sells us on the basic wheeze – that this is a thriller, with a villain to be spotted from the many rich characters – and means by the time we find out what it's about we're already hooked. I can see the producers worrying that audiences of the time might not flock if they knew the subject.

The film puts across a lot of points of view on the subject. In fact, there are several almost-soliloquies, where peripheral characters state their Opinion on the matter. It seems keen to encompass a range of views, but they puncture the thrill of the story, taking us out of the action.

It's beautifully played by Bogarde and Syms, with a nice turn from Alan MacNaughtan (who I recognised from Sandbaggers and To Serve Them All Our Days) and a whole world of people who would later be in Doctor Who.

The film is much written on elsewhere, mostly noting that it's a brave choice of role for Bogarde a) because he was mostly then known as a teen idol and 2) because he kept his own private life private.

But if I'm not misunderstanding, Bogarde's character is not a practising homosexual. He promises Syms that he hasn't broken his promise to her – that he only gave Boy Barrett a lift in his car a few times. An earlier, alluded-to dalliance at college doesn't seem to have been acted on either. And before we know what the film's about, we see Bogarde in a passionate snog with Syms.

Rather, Bogarde seems open to blackmail for a thought crime - “I wanted him!” he declares to Syms in a pivotal moment. The all-important photograph – which we ourselves never see – shows him sat next to Barrett. As is said in the film, the only thing to suggest anything untoward is that Barrett is crying.

If Bogarde weren't such the moral type, I could see him easily bluffing his way through – especially since the Establishment seem just as bent as he is, or don't care what he does in his own time. But it's an extraordinary film; a complex and involving thriller with a rich cast of possible villains and some neat twists along the way.

You can still hear Matthew Sweet's interview with Syms about the film on The Film Programme in July.

The Mind Benders (1963) is a bit like an English version of the Manchurian Candidate (1962) – though rather than Communist villains brainwashing a man to assassinate a Presidential candidate, here a chap's colleagues at Oxford make him perfectly beastly to his wife.

Again, there are some fun cameos to watch out for – Delgado again, a young Edward Fox, and Wendy Craig as the university bike.

The method for making Bogarde nasty is an eight-hour spell in a flotation tank. I'd half expected the plot to develop with Bogarde then exposed to extreme aromatherapy. But instead it does something just as extraordinary – and pulls back on the promise of a tragic ending to put everything right again. There's not a lot of apology from the chaps, but otherwise everyone ends up okay.

In all three films, Bogarde seems above the petty concerns of ordinary mortals; his gaze falls with equal withering on priests, bigots and women. He's gaunt, elegant, bequiffed – and eminently watchable for such striking and strange roles.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Geek heaven

So, that holiday in Florida then, in which I learned many top facts about the history of the NASA space programme. You have been warned.

First, I demonstrated my own unsuitability as a spaceman by missing my flight. I read 13.00 as 3 pm, and arrived at Gatwick at ten-to-twelve thinking I was heroically early. Saw my error the moment I looked at the departures board, and hot-footed it over to the Virgin Atlantic desk, who thought I’d still have time to make my flight. They then vanished for 15 minutes, trying to work out if I could be fast-tracked through security. Answer came there none.

The airport was extremely busy, it being half term. And the longer I waited the more obvious it was I wouldn’t be jetting off that afternoon. Got put on the same flight the next day at no extra charge, which seemed a pretty good compromise. Schlepped my luggage back home.

The flight the next day was packed, mostly with families spending half-term at Disney. They ran about and squealed. I read a couple of hundred pages of Anathem (still not finished it yet; it’s huge!) and watched Star Trek, the first ten minutes of Ice Age 3 – a world of unfunny whenever the characters spoke – and something else so dull I can't even remember. Didn’t sleep; I never do on planes, and my knees were pressed against the seat in front so I could never get comfy.

Arrived in Orlando eight hours later feeling itchy and stinky, and then spent an hour getting through customs. A nice man wanted to go through all my luggage, and was suspicious of the various Dr Who books I’d brought for the convention’s charity auction. But then he looked up the details of Hurricane Who on his computer, lit up that it was something to do with Torchwood, and let me go.

J and J were waiting to collect me, and with this delay were a little concerned that I might have got it wrong again. We drove to the hotel in Celebration, and after a shower and a change of clothes, I emerged in time for dinner at a place down the road. American food is often big and meaty, which can leave you feeling a bit like a blocked sink. But we found a splendid Japanese place where a man cooked noodles and juggled knives on the table in front of us, and I stocked up on lots of veg. A world of tired after the journey, I think I spent most of the meal just grinning.

On the Wednesday, a party of us made our way to Universal Studios, where we did the usual rides. Think the 3D simulator Simpsons was probably best. There was bar and meal in the evening, with more chums arriving ever moment.

On Thursday, K magnificently drove me out to Kennedy Space Center, while our chums gambolled off to Disney. We stopped off for provisions on the way; the only British papers available were the Sun, Express and Mail.

After an hour’s drive, we reached the edge of the vast swamp that is the Space Center, and I went into geek overdrive. There was an IMAX show and things to gawp at first, and I poddled about in a state of bliss.

The IMAX show included footage of a fake Moon landing, NASA happy to laugh at the conspiracy theory. There was also a tribute to those who’d died pioneering space travel which included the names of cosmonauts, given equal billing with the Apollo 1 astronauts and Challenger and Colombia. It wasn’t quite the Corporate NASA I’d been expecting – less flag-waving and triumphalist than a lot of coverage of this stuff.

We then clambered aboard our bus for the Then and Now tour through the beach-side missile launch sites that first put Americans into space – basically, those bits covered by The Right Stuff. We drove past the warehouses and hangers where things really happened, and where the film was really filmed.

Model of the Ares rocketMany on the tour had been in the area the previous day to see the launch of the Ares 1-x rocket – which I’d missed, dammit. There was much talk of the launch being like the good old days before the Space Shuttle (which Ares is replacing), when rockets rattled windows 20 miles away. I had to be content with spying the Shuttle Atlantis out on the pad, six miles away on the horizon. Cor.

We stopped off at the site of some of the early Mercury launches, and got to poke round inside the squat little buildings no more than 500 feet from the launch pad. Nowadays, the boffins sit three miles from a launch, but in the days of DC current, they couldn’t be further away. Even today, a rocket launch will rattle your windows 25-30 miles away, so this small, cramped bunker crammed with chain-smoking boffins would have been very noisy.

The squat little buildings have huge, heavy blast doors and 15 layers of laminate glass so thick the view outside is greenish. The wall-to-wall computers are bulky to cope with the rattling of a launch. They managed just 528 bytes, and I liked the built-in ashtrays. When there were software problems, they'd use a manual typewriter to rewrite the code and feed it in on spool tape.

Our guide was nicely open about the origins of American rocketry, showing us a rare example of a V2 engine while explaining what rockets like that had done to south London. He himself raised the dubious morality in pardoning the former Nazi Werhner von Braun; again, this wasn’t the kind of corporate history I’d quite expected. NASA seemed keen to challenge their own history, to ask the difficult questions.

In fact, it didn’t feel very on-message for what’s clearly a highly secure military base. Our map of the launch sites shows its original purpose as a missile base, and the garden – or graveyard – of old rockets was curtly unapologetic about the ballistic and nuclear capability.

The missile base on Florida's Cape Canaveral was chosen for three reasons: the generally good weather; on a “bad day” the launches would fall into the ocean not into populated areas; and it's relatively close to the equator, which means less effort to get into space because of the speed of the Earth's rotation.

Launch Pad 34As we stepped out on to the tarmac of Pad 34 the weather hit 94 degrees. The heat pressed against me as I walked round the tall concrete structure remaining, and the plaque to the Apollo 1 fire. We were warned not to step off the tarmac because of the alligators in the undergrowth. In fact, when the space shuttles come into land, it’s someone’s job to clear off the alligators sunbathing on the runway. All we saw today was a giant tortoise.

Saturn V and Command ModuleThe tour finished with a visit to a Saturn V rocket – the ones that launched the Apollo missions – and some other cool stuff. We gaped at the vastness of this great firework and took pictures, then had to get back to the car and our evening’s commitments.

First there was the Cricketer’s Arms, where there was London Pride on tap. Drank myself into a happy corner, and woke up Friday not at all well. Still, manfully, made my first panel – where adrenalin and Alka Seltzer saw off the hangover.

The convention was good fun, and I didn’t do too badly at Just A Minute – though New Fans are so new they didn’t get a reference to the Curse of Fenric which deserved a massive laugh. Our efforts were apparently recorded for a podcast, God help you.

Saturday morning, we had a talk from Russell Romanella, Director of the International Space Station and Spacecraft Processing at Kennedy Space Center, which was a further world of geek joy. When Kennedy made his famous speech about getting to the Moon within the decade on 25 May 1961, the US only had 15 minutes experience in space – Alan Shepherd having become the first American in space just three weeks before. It’s a balls out moment for Kennedy; either we divert everything into doing this thing, or we don’t bother at all.

The talk was also up to date, with discussion of the Ares launch from just that week, and what the Augustine report to President Obama might mean for NASA’s current targets.

There were more panels and signings and being talked to, and I got to see Toby Hadoke's Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf for the sixth time.

Goth ducksBetween my commitments, there were goth ducks and geckos to gawp at, and a pool to escape into. As always, talked rubbish, made new friends and molested the old ones.

After one last morning in the pool, I headed for the airport on Monday afternoon. Bloke next to me on the plane thought Moon was “rubbish”, but seemed quite taken by General Infantryman Joe. (Isn't that a dull name for a hero?)

Back to freezing cold London on Tuesday morning. There’s little more dispiriting than changing trains at East Croydon, especially when the train is cancelled and you have to wait an hour. So I fell into a taxi and home.

Slowly recovered from jetlag and the inevitable con lurgie. On Thursday went to posh singing in St Mary’s Undercroft, the chapel down below Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster. The Pugintastic furnishing and some of the tunes seemed a little arch-Catholic: an odd way to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ night. But the detailed programme included top facts.

On Saturday, there were more fireworks, this time in view of Alexandra Palace (from the Dr Who episode The Idiot’s Lantern, no less). We risked clambering out on to a chum’s roof to see the display, then clambered back in to drink too much and watch X-Factor.

Now steeped in work again: pitching for things, organising things, getting on with the writing. And hoping Virgin will fix my telly input in time for Doctor Who on Sunday. Will blog about Dirk Bogarde next.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Does Florida count as the "deep South"?

Just home from a lovely time showing off in Florida, and am now fighting through a deluge of emails before nap-time. Will report on my adventures with real, live spaceships another time.

Meanwhile, be sure to keep up with free thriller Girl Number 9, airing all this week at Especially since that riot policeman three minutes into episode two looks a little familiar. Oh yes, see my carrying-a-battering-ram acting.

Mad Norwegian Press have announced I've got a Doctor Who essay in their forthcoming Time, Unincorporated, due out next year.

And my short story in the aforementioned Panda Book of Horror also now has a title - "The Party in Room Four".

SF Crowsnest says nice things about my Robin Hood audiobook, "The Siege", while my former employee Phil is disappointed that the Big Finish history of Bernice Summerfield focuses, er, on Bernice Summerfield and Big Finish. Bless 'im.

Got all sorts of bits of work awaiting my attention now. But first sleep.