Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A day out

Have spent most of the last week sheltering indoors, stuffing myself full of food and booze. J. and J. put on a splendid spread for Christmas and we watched The End of Time Part One on their ENORMOUS television. Otherwise, we've been at home, the Dr slaving in the kitchen while I have wrought what must be writ.

Amongst the house-guests, the Baldrick-in-law and his Bird were here the last two nights, and today I escaped the current OpenOffice document for a day in the cold and rain.

We bussed to Lewisham and got to sit in the very front seats of the DLR to Greenwich - a quite special treat. There's not a lot to see of the Cutty Sark at the moment - it's all boxed away - but the signs said it would be back and better than ever in 2010. Which is the day after tomorrow.

We followed the river a bit, which even at full, slopping tide seemed less wet than we were. Then we slunk through the Water Gate and nosed round the Old Royal Naval College.

Greenwich Hospital from the Water Gate
There's a gap in the two wings of the Hospital so as not to spoil the view of the river from the Queen's House (where me and the Dr got married and the Doctor told Leela that the Rani had two time-brains). You can also just see in the picture above the Royal Observatory up on the hill, where I did various bits of work this year - and from whence I took a similarly drizzly grey photo looking back the other way in May.

We had a nose round the Chapel (in the left-hand wing of the College, through a door nestling behind those nice columns) and the Painted Chamber (in the right). The Dr pointed out that the bit of road running just in front of the columns is used in all sorts of costume dramas.

Having dazzled our visitors with this High Culture, we ambled to the pub. The Trafalgar was full of smart people enjoying a Private Event, so we snuck down the alley to the Yacht, for a pint or two of Doom and a Big Ben Burger.

A Big Ben Burger at the Yacht, Greenwich
Yes, that's a good hunk of a BURGER plus BACON and CHEESE and TOMATO and SALAD and an EGG. Hardly even touched the sides.

No longer a Big Ben Burger at the Yacht, Greenwich
After we'd filled our faces, we queued in the rain for a Clipper to Waterloo, gazing through the steaming windows at the grey-shrouded landmarks passing by. And then home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A letter from Father Christmas

Hello children. Have you been good?

Father Christmas – that's me, hello! – will only bring you presents on Christmas Eve if you've been good. That's what the grown-ups tell you, isn't it?

In the days leading up to Christmas, you might hear it a lot. Grown-ups say it when they think you're being too noisy or silly, or when they want you to help with the chores. Have you noticed?

Be good and good things will come to you. Be bad and I won't visit you, or I'll just bring you single lump of coal, or even a birch twig for hitting you with. That's the story.

And it's a good story. My name's been used to make children behave for more than a thousand years.

It's a bit like other stories you'll hear a lot from grown-ups. That you have to do well at school or the rest of your life will be ruined. That there's something wrong with you if you don't cheer a particular football team or pop group or politician.

That if you're good you go to Heaven, while people who lie or cheat or make you cry will go to Hell. That life might not seem fair but gods and spirits watch over us who know best.

You can see why these stories keep getting told. It's nice to think that good things happen to good people. We'd like to think stories like that were true. And that's useful to the person telling the story, because it means we're likely to behave how they want.

Some people don't like to be reminded that I'm only a story. They think I don't matter if I'm not true. But stories are how we learn things. They shape who we are and how we behave. So they're very important.

And I love the story of Christmas. How can you argue with a story that says you should be good, that you should help other people and not be greedy or mean? Christmas is a time for catching up with family and friends. It's a time for giving gifts. The grown-ups don't go to work, and there might be parties and games. It's great!

But like any story, Christmas is sometimes used to persuade you to think or do something. Some people will tell you that Christmas is a Christian celebration – that it's the day we remember the birth of Jesus. They might even tell you that 25 December is Jesus' birthday, or that all the stuff about being good and giving good is because it's a Christian celebration.

But Christians aren't the only people who tell their children to be good. And a lot of the traditions of Christmas aren't Christian at all.

Jesus was born in a place called Bethlehem, which doesn't have reindeer or holly, and where it doesn't often snow. Those things all come from northern Europe, and pagan traditions in winter. At the darkest and coldest time of the year, the people in northern Europe would keep themselves warm with a big party and stories.

Early Christians joined with the pagans, mixing their stories up together. That helped the pagans to become Christians. Christmas was just one of the stories the Christians took over for themselves.

Some people might tell you that I – Father Christmas – am a Christian, too. That my other name, “Santa Claus”, comes from a real man, Saint Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in Turkey.

But again that's just part of my story. The way I look now, in my fur-lined clothes, with my big belly and red cheeks and even my laugh, that's all part of north European – and pagan – traditions. Ho ho ho! I have more in common with a woodland spirit called the Green Man than with the real Bishop Nicholas. He wouldn't have driven a sleigh or climbed down people's chimneys.

Other people have used Christmas – and me – to sell fizzy drinks or stationary. Shops and charities and holiday companies all use Christmas to make us give them money. There are Christmas films and TV programmes that show us how we should behave – with families all together, eating Turkey and pulling crackers.

It's such an established story, told again and again, that it must feel strange and sad if you don't take part. I sometimes get letters from Jewish and Muslim children, wishing I would visit them, too. And sometimes, with their parents' help, I do.

How could any one be upset by that? I'm a nice, friendly, generous character who helps make children behave. I'm so familiar even adults can feel warm and cosy when they see me.

But I'm not real. I'm a story. And I'm a story for children. I can't think of anything more important or valuable to be. I'm happy being a story.

I'd worry if grown-ups still thought I was real, not a game of let's-pretend. And since I get used to shape how people behave, there's a risk that sometimes I might be used to make people do bad things, or to convince them of things they normally wouldn't believe.

Would you trust a doctor or teacher who told you they believed in Father Christmas? Would you vote for a politician who did? Would you follow one to war? If someone on trial said they believed in Father Christmas – or that I told them how to behave – would you let them go? Or would it worry you that a grown-up still behaved because a children's story? That doesn't sound very grown up at all.

What is being a grown up? I think it's knowing that a story isn't true just because we like it or want it to be. When someone tells you a story, watch they're not trying to change how you behave. And just to make things tricky, this is a story too. Right now, I'm trying to change how you think and behave. Ho ho ho!

I love the story of Christmas – and stories generally. Just remember that they're stories. You shouldn't need to be told to be good, should you?

Merry Christmas. And I hope to see you again this evening. Do leave me a mince pie.

Love from

Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Signs, portents, types

On Saturday, I was at the launch for Rob Shearman's "Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical", with a whole bunch of mates. The venue is also used for comedy, and I admired the cheery signs:

We wish you wouldn't be merry

On Sunday there was curry with the folks and thence my first go on a Wii, at which I played table tennis and cheated at fencing. Here is my wii-persona, which the Dr designed herself. Note the beard where I'd not shaved for a few days:

Simon Guerrier on the Wii
On Monday I did writing while ice fell from the sky. Was meant to meet chums for a Christmas drinkie but there were no trains into town. Apparently the Dr and Codename Moose were barefoot in the pub, socked socks and boots on the radiator. I sulked on a drizzly platform for over an hour while the information board just said "Delayed". Gave up and had fish and chips and mushy peas.

Glad I'm not traveling this Christmas, and really sorry for the younger brother who was meant to be in Hungary by now.

Yesterday, me and Codename Moose recorded a thing for something as-yet unannounced, and then went to the pub. Hatched plans and discussed projects before I stumbled home.

Up late today full of cold, and schlepped out across the ice to the postal depot to collect some parcels. I've received copies of both The Panda Book of Horror - in which I've got a short story - and the Blake's 7 CD I wrote, which sounds all splendid.

Am also in receipt of Fluid Web Typography - A Guide by my chum Jason Cranford Teague, which the Dr has already pinched. It looks very fine indeed, and my beloved Gill Sans gets a mention. Though there's no mention I can see of Divide By Zero - Tom Murphy's splendid free fonts, which include my favourites "Tom's New Roman" and "Douglas Adams' Hand". I've stuck this post in Trebuchet.

Digital Spy continues to post videos of me and other fine fellows discussing David Tennant's Top 10 moments as Doctor Who - I'll update that original blogpost with links to each one. I'm also among the luminaries looking back to Christmas Eve 1999 for Paul Cornell's blog.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New road

Being Human: The RoadAmazon now have a cover up for my Being Human novel, The Road. The series is back on BBC Three on 10 January 2010 at 9.30 pm. The book should be out a couple of weeks after that; Amazon are saying early February.

In the meantime, there's a world of fine video and gossip at the Being Human blog.

My book is, I think, the first time this 'ere blog has actually got me work - I got invited to pitch for the thing after my squee about a screening. On the off-chance anyone is listening, I'd also love to write for The Muppets, True Blood and James Bond. All at the same time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Radio GaGa

I got interviewed by Phil Hawkins for his Sunday Soundtracks show on North Cotswold Community Radio, which will be broadcast from 4 p.m. this afternoon. My bit should get played around 4.30.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The 78 Steps

After the adventure of The 39 Steps, dashing South African Rhodesian hero Richard Hannay finds himself caught up in the Great War. Greenmantle, first published in 1916, begins with Hannay convalescing after service at Loos, ready to take on a new and vital secret mission.

As Hannay's boss, Sir Walter Bullivant, explains in the first chapter, the Germans have got the Turks on their side under Enver. What's more, Bullivant's own son has died delivering vital intelligence on that the Hun is up to:
Kasredin cancer v. I
Hannay must find out what the bally-flip this message might mean. He soon recruits his old chums Peter Pienaar and Sandy Arbuthnot, and a new character, the American John S. Blenkinson, to head for Constantinople. It takes half the book and a pile of adventures to get there, where they discover that the prophet Greenmantle is about to unite the Moslem world under the Kaiser – and against the Brits. Horrors!

As with Hannay's earlier adventure, it's a gripping read packed with incident, villainy, pluck and extraordinary coincidence. The threat of a united Islamic world might also suggest something more; that it's relevant today. Indeed, in July 2005, Radio 4 put off broadcasting the second episode of an adaptation after the London bombings (it was transmitted later that year).

At the time, Charles Moore in the Telegraph muttered about this decision. Quoting several chunks of the book – which he himself called “unimaginably silly” – as evidence, he thought it might teach us something useful about the Middle East and the people who live there. Because, you know, it's like a text book, with Hannay an exemplar for relations with other races. Only, um, in no way whatever.

Hannay himself is a problematic hero for modern readers. For example, there's the bit where he takes over the engine room of a boat on the Danube. The captain, Hannay says,
“liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn't been a nigger-driver for nothing.”
John Buchan, Greenmantle, p. 136.
Later, Hannay and Peter Pienaar are feeling low and their whinge about the war is quite striking – but not very heroic:
“'Europe is a cold place,' said Peter, 'not worth fighting for. There is only one white man's land, and that is South Africa.' At the time I heartily agreed with him.”
Ibid., p. 164.
It's from this authoritative, enlightened protagonist that we are told about other races and nations. The character of Blenkinsop – a brash, fat, hypochondriac windbag who speaks of himself in the third-person – was apparently a bid to encourage America to join the war. He's keen to join Hannay's mission because,
“My father fought at Chattanooga, but these eyes have seen nothing gorier than a presidential election ... I did think of some belligerent stunt a year back [to get involved in the war]. But I reflected that the good God had not given John S. Blenkinsop the kind of martial figure that would do credit to the tented field. Also I recollected that we Americans are nootrals – benevolent nootrals – and that it did not become me to be butting into the struggles of the effete monarchies of Europe ... I have never seen the lawless passions of men let loose on a battlefield. And, as a stoodent of humanity, I hankered for the experience.”
Ibid., p. 18.
It's not exactly the most flattering persona with which to woo a potential ally. I couldn't help seeing him as played by Joe Don Baker in a Hawaiian shirt.

Of most fascination is the book's attitude to the Islamic world. Hannay's mate Sandy is a devotee – he's learned the languages, lived among the different factions and dresses up in the clothes. This, obviously, wins him more points among the locals than the bullying Germans and turns out quite useful at the end.

There's lip service paid to the richness and history of the Ottoman Empire and its people, but it all depends on some clunky assumptions about how easily their affections can be bought or swayed. Sandy wears the right sort of clothes at the right moment, and the whole nation-state switches sides.

Underlying this is some insidious stuff about the personality of your average Turk. Within seconds of meeting his first Turkish officials, Hannay is up in arms.
“It was the first time they tried to bribe me, and it made me boil up like a geyser. I saw his game clearly enough. Turkey would pay for the lot to Germany: probably had already paid the bill: but she would pay double for the things not on the way-bills, and pay to this fellow and his friends. This struck me as rather steep even for Oriental methods of doing business.”
Ibid., pp. 147-8.
It's not just the blanket statements about bureaucracy and corruption that's odd. Hannay is at the time posing as a German, on a boat delivering guns to use against the British. But he's too much of a gentleman to let this cheating stand:
“We had a fine old racket in the commandant's office ... I told him it wasn't my habit to proceed with cooked documents. He couldn't but agree with me, but there was that wrathful Oriental with his face as fixed as a Buddha ... Looking back, it seems pretty ridiculous to have made all this fuss about guns which were going to be used against my own people. But I didn't see that at the time. My professional pride was up in arms, and I couldn't bear to have a hand in a crooked deal.”
Ibid., pp. 148-9.
I'm surprised his comrades didn't put him on a charge for treason. But no, Hannay's too busy playing the game fair and square to think about all the people his actions will have killed. In fact, the last sequence of the book has Hannay and his mates being shelled by the Germans – it's not impossible that they're using the guns Hannay himself delivered. The pompous dick.

Hannay's attitude to the enemy is also odd. The Kaiser – who he meets in the story – and the ordinary folk are all rather decent, but carried along by the fanaticism of a few angry madmen. (A bit like Doctor Who fandom on the internet.)

Stumm is a short, cross, stupid bully who might well have hailed from Sontar. When Hannay is shown into Stumm's rooms, there's also a heavy suggestion about his private life.
“At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing-room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, the evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. The room seemed a horribly unwholesome place, and I was more afraid than ever of Stumm.”
Ibid., pp. 94-95.
Perhaps this is Hannay protesting too much. Later we meet one of only two women in the book, the villainous ice queen von Einem. Hannay gets confessional, and it's so peculiar it's worth quoting in full:
“Women had never come much my way, and I knew about as much of their ways as I knew about the Chinese language. All my life I had lived with men only, and rather a rough crowd at that. When I made my pile and came home I looked to see a little society, but I had first the business of the Black Stone on my hands [in The 39 Steps], and then the war, so my education languished. I had never been in a motor-car with a lady before, and I felt like a fish on a dry sandbank. The soft cushions and the subtle scents filled me with acute uneasiness. I wasn't thinking now about Sandy's grave words, or about Blenkinsop's warning [about von Einem], or about my job and the part this woman must play in it. I was thinking only that I felt mortally shy. The darkness made it worse. I was sure that my companion was looking at me all the time and laughing at me for a clown.”
Ibid., p. 212.
Two pages later, having talked to her a bit, he is feeling bolder and I thought for a moment they might snog. But no, his response is more twisted weirdness:
“I see I have written that I knew nothing about women. But every man has in his bones a consciousness of sex. I was shy and perturbed, but horribly fascinated. This slim woman, poised exquisitely like some statue between the pillared lights, with her fair cloud of hair, her long delicate face, and her pale bright eyes, had the glamour of a wild dream. I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but I longed to arouse her interest. To be valued coldly by those eyes was an offence to my manhood, and I felt antagonism rising within me. I am a strong fellow, well set up, and rather above the average height, and my irritation stiffened me from heel to crown. I flung my head back and gave her cool glance for cool glance, pride for pride.”
Ibid., p. 214.
It's not just about his manhood being stiff with irritation. There's a whole load of stuff about power and dominance, and which of the races will blink first. A bit later, Sandy helpfully explains that, according to “a sportsman called Nietzsche” that,
“Women have got a perilous logic which we never have, and some of the best of them don't see the joke of life like the ordinary men. They can be far greater than men, for they can go straight to the heart of things. There never was a man so near the divine as Joan of Arc. But I think, too, they can be more entirely damnable than anything that ever was breeched, for they don't stop still now and then and laugh at themselves ... There is no Superman. The poor old donkeys that fancy themselves in the part are either crackbrained professors who couldn't rule a Sunday-school class, or bristling soldiers with pint-pot heads who imagine that the shooting of a Duc D'Enghien made a Napoleon. But there is a Superwoman, and her name's Hilda von Einem.”
Ibid., 231.
The book finishes with our heroes being bombarded by the enemy, and playing a weird game of chicken, refusing to flinch before Stumm and von Einem. The villains' resolve breaks first, and they die in the skirmish of their own making. Stumm is shot in the back; von Einem our heroes try to bury respectfully, what with not fancying her at all.

It's a strange book, full of weird, naïve and convenient assumptions about the people of the Middle East and the things that make them tick. And that would be quite fun had it not proved such a disaster as a foreign policy in the post-war period, and now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Official "expert"

Digital Spy have posted the first video counting down David Tennant's Top 10 moments as Doctor Who, as voted for by readers.

Among the august and handsome luminaries speaking wisdom is, er, me. I note that none of the other young scamps thought to wear a suit. What has broadcasting come to?

The remaining nine top moments will follow in the next few days.

ETA: nine; eight; seven; six; five; four; three; two; one.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Block heads

The ever-talented m'colleague Mechalex has posted up pictures of his Dr Who / Lego creations.
Lego Daleks
This pleases me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All clear?

To the National Theatre last night with N. for a “An Evening with Private Eye”, at which Ian Hislop, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Lewis Macleod, Katy Brand, Richard Ingrams and Craig Brown performed bits from the magazine. A fun evening, and then afterwards I got plus-oned into N.'s work party and had fine salmon and liver and bacon. Latest and liveliest I've been out in weeks.

Excitingly, the kidney infection seems to be done with – though I've a doctor's appointment this afternoon where I'm hoping to get the all clear. Still battered and tired and stuff, but a whole lot less bleurgh than I was.

Am catching up on things needing to be writ. The Novel now stands at 15,000 words which I'm mostly happy with. Have a script to write by the end of the month, and trying to do bits of the Novel around it. Also got to rewrite some of the Short Film – which includes adding in a whole new character – and perhaps add one last piece of cleverness to a thing we're recording next week. None of which means anything to you, but will be of fascination to me when I look back from the future.

Now some fun free stuff:

The first of Big Finish's festive podcasts includes a competition in which you – yes YOU – might win a copy of the exceedingly fancy Bernice Summerfield – the Inside Story, what I wrote. There are plenty of other things in the competition, too, plus trailers and foolishness from the boys. More podcasts and competitions in the next few days.

(Looking forward to Saturday, too, when the Big Finish luminaries will be at the Corner Store in Covent Garden, flogging copies of Rob Shearman's splendid “Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical” between 12 and 5. Do come along if you can.)

Paul Cornell is also running up to Christmas with festive blogs, and I was enthralled by his new Doctor Who short story, “The Last Doctor”, which is hardcore, old-skool Cornell with its mad sf ideas and woman vicar and beating heart on its sleeve. Sadly, there are no owls.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Went with the Stunt Wife to Watford yesterday to see my second Cinderella of the year. The matinee was filled with excited schoolchildren who all got caught up in the shouting, and sang along with the pop songs I was too old to recognise.

My chum Laura Doddington gave a typically understated performance as the Fairy Godmother, while fetchingly dressed as a satsuma. And she seemed to have primed the Ugly Sisters to pick me out from the audience as a possible beau. Ho hum. But what festive cheer.

Speaking of the season, here are some choice stocking fillers. My Blake's 7 CD is now available in shops, either on its own or as part of the Early Years box-set.

ETA: First review says,
"Simon Guerrier's prequel to the revamped Blake's 7 is one of the strongest releases yet from B7 Media."

Paul Simpson, "Blake's 7 The Early Years: Jenna", Total Sci-fi Online, Friday 11 December 2009

And Big Finish have announced that they only have until the end of the year to sell their Doctor Who Short Trips books. They're available for the bargain price of £5 and I am in most of them. I posted earlier this year about the Short Trips books I'm in.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Penge Christmas

Outside a church this morning, as I schlepped down to be bled at Beckenham:

Applause because of Claus
And this on my way home:

Light house

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Homo satsuma

Not only did I remove the peel from my satsuma in one single piece - as is the Correct Method - but I inadvertently sculpted the shape of a dancing man. In flared trousers. If you sort of squint.

Homo satsuma

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Another review for Vector, this the full version of one published in #260 in August.

Wiffle Lever to Full by Bob Fischer
Reviewed by Simon Guerrier

In November 2005, Bob Fischer braved a Doctor Who convention in his home town, then spent a year at events related to his other favourite TV shows and films.

Having not been wowed by Dalek, I Loved You (see Vector #257), I didn’t expect much of another memoir about watching TV. Fischer seems to model his book on those of Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace: a silly quest that lets him get drunk with new people to his girlfriend’s despair. Yet despite these misgivings, I was quickly engrossed. Fischer has a keen eye for detail, describing a panel of Doctor Who guest actors discussing their other work on Bergerac and Tenko as "like watching a touring stage revival of Pebble Mill at One." It’s exactly what a Doctor Who convention is like.

The book really hits its stride when Fischer attends his second convention – for Star Wars – and starts comparing fandoms. There’s the attendees themselves and the proportion who’ve come in costume. We learn which fandoms are most commercial, or the heaviest drinkers and which have the most pretty women. There’s the different strategies for meeting your heroes: mumbling, gabbling or slapping them on the back.

You sometimes feel he’s trying too hard with the jokes, but I loved his description of the James Bond film Moonraker: it "somehow managed to bridge the cultural gap between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Carry On at Your Convenience".

He’s good at providing background on the films and shows in question, the history of conventions and of viewing habits, too. Having watched Star Trek as a child in the late 1970s, he realises how strange it is that "a generation of seven-year-olds could be intimately familiar with a programme first broadcast almost twice their lifetimes ago." He explains the passivity of watching telly in an age of three channels before videos and remote controls.

It’s also fun seeing Fischer’s girlfriend and family get more involved with his quest. As he says early on, "It’s great to have a passion for your favourite films and programmes, but you have to accept that the rest of the world is unlikely to give a toss." Yet, later on he has to wonder, grudgingly, "whether there’s anyone left in the country who hasn’t emerged from the sci-fi fandom closet … and begin to feel as if some of my exclusive right to geeky cult-TV absorption is being unceremoniously chipped away."

Between each new fandom experience there’s an excerpt from "The Battle to Save Earth", a story Fischer wrote when he was nine. It’s a thrilling mix of his school friends, footballing heroes and bits nicked from Star Wars and Flash Gordon, hanging on the discovery of "a speicail [sic] laser called Bombpower. It can destroy anything." The book is largely an attempt to recapture this wide-eyed, care-free delight. But Fischer’s intelligence and insight are what make it so effective.

At one point Fischer quotes Camus: "A man’s worth is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened." He might well have been justifying his Dangermouse DVDs.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I've been on antibiotics for a week in an effort to kill off a kidney infection. The infection has left me feeling bruised inside and turned my wee an interesting colour. And it's still hanging on, so I've more tests and things next week. But it does explain why I've been feeling so run down these last weeks.

Here, for your entertainment and delight, is a review I did way back in February for Vector.

"Too Many Curses" by A Lee Martinez
Reviewed by Simon Guerrier

Nessy the Kobold is the servant in an evil wizard's castle. She feeds the monsters and chats to the ghosts and avoids the advances of Decapitated Dan. When the evil wizard accidentally gets killed, the castle thinks their curses will be lifted. But their troubles have only just begun.

It's a fun, fast-moving adventure packed full of daft characters and incident. The prose is straightforward and there are plenty of jokes. The chaotic plot, as more monsters and obstacles rain down on Nessy, is all nicely tied up in the end. It's a satisfying – and quick – read. Though there's plenty of icky things going on – belching and vomiting and being eaten alive – Martinez rarely lets us in on anyone's pain. For example, a character has the tip of their tail turned to ice and we don't get any sense of how that feels, how it chills the rest of the body. Nor is there much urgency about changing the tail back.

Perhaps this is part of Nessy's character – we're often told she's a practical soul, more worried about keeping the castle tidy than the various creatures that want to kill her. By the end she's changed her priorities and learnt to take charge of herself. But rather than her character developing all the book, this change comes rather suddenly in a final confrontation with... It would spoil it to say too much more.

I assume Too Many Curses is for the same sort of audience as devours Harry Potter. Which makes the swearing a surprise. Sir Tedeus calls people “wanker” several times and there's one occasion of bastard. (Ron Weasley can say “bloody hell” in the movies, but he can't swear in the books.)

There's the same recourse to books and the slow learning of magic as Potter, the same tests and dark wizards and dark humour. There's the same plucky, oppressed underling who must dare to challenge a legendary dark wizard to a duel. There's the same lessons of compassion overcoming evil, and of the hero's reliance on their friends.

But Too Many Curses lacks the emotional depth of JK Rowling. We don't feel for Nessy or her friends. The books ends open enough for there to be further adventures for Nessy, but there's no urgency for them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Having a go at astronomy

In amongst the research stuff and pitching, I have read some books. Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent (1907) is a chap called Verloc. He comes from an unspecified foreign country where he was up to unspecified revolutionary stuff, though we also know he did some plotting in France. Now he runs a rude bookshop in London, cover for secret meetings with other agitators and anarchists.

Verloc's an odd character, nervy yet ruthlessly cold. It's striking to post-war readers that his first name is Adolf. He's also a pretty terrible spy. But the thrill of the book is in getting into his head – and the heads of other characters – and understanding why he might do such wretched, despicable things.

The book begins with Verloc called to a foreign embassy where the new chap in charge is unimpressed by the titbits of information he's supplied over the years. Mr Vladimir wants Verloc to do something more noticeable. And a simple bombing will not suffice.

As Vladimir explains in a two-page speech, the middle classes are no longer impressed by attempts on the lives of crowned heads or presidents.
“It has entered into the general conception of the existence of all chiefs of state. It's almost conventional – especially since so many presidents have been assassinated.”

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, p. 35.

Explosions in churches and restaurants are no good either. The papers even have “ready-made phrases” to explain them: they are social revenge or exasperation.
“The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted ... You can't count upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake?”


Vladimir quickly dismisses the thought of a bomb in the National Gallery since “artists – art critics and such like – [are] people of no account”. Instead, the best target is science.
“It would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible ... I have also given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”

Ibid, pp. 36-7.

Thus Verloc is dispatched to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Conrad was inspired by a real attempt on the Observatory in 1894, ten years after the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC voted 22-1 in favour of defining Greenwich as 0° longitude, or the line between East and West hemispheres. The French abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911. The bomber in 1894 was French.

But there's no sense of clashing imperialism in Conrad's book. Instead, the anarchists work independently, even against one another. There's a sense that Verloc and his wife are both trapped by their genetic inheritance. We're often given physical descriptions of people as an insight into their characters. Winnie Verloc, we learn, is pretty but “dark” and has madness in her family. Another character seems to have got his political sense from his genes.
“Descended from generations victimized by the instruments of an arbitrary power, he was racially, nationally, and individually afraid of the police. It was an inherited weakness, altogether independent of his judgement, of his reason, of his experience. He was born to it. But that sentiment, which resembled the irrational horror some people have of cats, did not stand in the want of his immense contempt for the English police.”

Ibid., p. 183.

As a result, characters act from impulse not intellect, and the book is a motley collection of stupid, brutal acts and accident. There's the man who trips over while carrying a bomb and whose remains can only be collected by shovel. There's the man who misunderstands quite what's happening and throws himself from a train.

It's a violent, dark world full of twisted psychologies. It's a gripping read, but for all it's psychological richness, and the linking of people's actions to their circumstance, there's a strange dismissal of terrorism as just something mad people do. These villains are feverish, stupid and incompetent. So they're not really a threat.

(It also reminded me quite a bit of David Simon's Homicide, which is full of stupid crooks doing terrible things. And which, oddly, I finished reading in Greenwich.)

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) is a twisty thriller about a cool private eye in the style of Dashiell Hammett. I was thrilled by the sassy girls who keep falling out of their clothes, and by Philip Marlowe's easy cool, his straight-forward style as a detective matched in the unflashy prose. Also surprised by quite how much of the plot and characters made their way into The Big Lebowski.

I've also read my mate Rob Shearman's Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, a fine collection of weird, longing tales in the manner of his award-winning Tiny Deaths. You've still just time to listen again to Mark Gatiss reading “Love Among the Lobelias”.

And speaking of fine books, the Big Finish sale has the Doctor Who – Short Trips books at £5, and the superb Re:Collections best of at £10. I've got stories in most volumes, and also edited three-and-a-half. So this is your chance to catch up on my works. Sale must end 9 January 2010.