Monday, May 31, 2010

Books finished, May 2010

Books I finished in May 2010
I've already blogged about Doctor No. I reread The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who - for which I wrote a foreword - in advance of being on a panel at the launch last week. (I've also skimmed through a PDF of Daddy's Girl by Deborah Watling, in advance of interviewing her a fortnight ago at Utopia.)

Roald Dahl is keen to explain upfront that Boy is "not an autobiography", but rather a series of vivid memories that made an impression on him. This first volume sees him up to leaving school, and is full of the kind of hi-jinks we'd expect from his fictional stories. There are beastly teachers and grown-ups, outrageous (and cruel) pranks like putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets or making his brother-in-law smoke a pipe of poo.

The book is aided by extracts from Dahl's own letters, meticulously kept by his mother. We get glimpses of the rather serious child, struggling with spelling and the expectations of his posh school. There are plenty of insights into corporal punishment and the etiquette of the tuck box.

It's a fun, engaging read but there's little to suggest Dahl has particularly re-examined these scenes. There's little reappraisal or apology, so that though we learn a lot about the early life of the author, there's no sense that, in writing this, he has.

Going Solo - which I'd not read before - is an altogether more adult book, and I think would have shocked me as a child. Dahl joins Shell and is posted out to Africa, where he lives a rather comfy existence with servants (or "boys" - he doesn't notice the irony of his own nickname) before the outbreak of war.

The episodes are a lot more vicious than the innocence of Boy, with a man being shot in the face right in front of him and his servant murdering a German. As always, Dahl is good on vivid detail, and the book is again littered with extracts from his original letters and also from his log book.

There's a lot on Dahl the pilot, flying in the 1941 Battle of Athens and barely surviving a crash in Egypt. Writing decades after the events, he's still furious about the poor management of the air force and the ghastly waste of lives. Characters are introduced quickly and are then abruptly shot down. While Dahl never shies away from telling us he was a brilliant flyer, he also admits repeatedly that he only got through it by luck.

The book ends with Dahl sent back to England in the summer of 1941, the persistent headaches following his crash invaliding him out of service. It's frustrating to leave it there with so much more still to tell, and I assume there'd have been at least a third volume if Dahl had only lived. With a birthday looming I've set the Dr to find me a good biography so I can find out what happened next (and how much of the story Dahl's already told me can be considered true).
"The achievements of great men always escape final assessment. Succeeding generations feel bound to reinterpret their work. For the Victorians, Morris was above all a poet. For many today he is a forerunner of contemporary design. Tomorrow may remember him best as a social and moral critic of capitalism and a pioneer of a society of equality."

Graeme Shankland, "William Morris - Designer", in News From Nowhere and Selected Writings And Designs (ed. Asa Briggs).

Shankland's introduction to a short supplement on Morris the designer underlines the emphasis of this odd collection. The first 180 pages comprise letters, lectures and reflections in which Morris puts forward socialist ideas, plus some pretty uninspiring poetry and hymns with which to entertain the workers. Though the sentiments are noble, there's little of great wit or insight, and I couldn't help feeling I'd read this kind of thing better put by other people.

Shankland's short supplement addresses the extraordinary design work, with 24 photographic plates that, being in black and white, don't quite show the sumptuous richness of the man's achievements. Vibrant and heavy, Morris's stuff is from an age of large rooms with high ceilings before the anti-chintz mandate of Ikea. Even in their own time they were retro, harking back to a pre-industrial, hand-crafted age.

Being so woefully impractical myself, I view Morris with considerable envy. (The Dr is also a great fan, so I live with a fair bit of his wallpaper.) He willfully embraces a romantic myth of England's past in his subjects, and believes in good and practical design. His infamous quotation to "have nothing in your home that is neither beautiful nor useful” is a rejection of Victorian tat and ornament but is all the more relevant in our jostling flats and apartments. Ikea might have extolled us to chuck out the chintz, but it's elegant, uncluttered and socialist use of space is not a million miles from his.

The main meat of the book, though, is a maddeningly abridged News From Nowhere, the science-fiction tract about a man from 1890 popping to the 21st Century. It's largely a chance to explore a sunshiney, communist idyll, where dustmen wear gold clothes, the Palace of Westminster is used for storing manure and crime and ugly children no longer exist. There's equality between the sexes and a minimum wage.

It'd difficult reading this idealised parable without comparing it to the practical examples of Communism that existed in the 20th Century. As in Child 44, the dogma that socialism will rid the world of crime merely meant crimes were ignored or brushed under the carpet, and the abuses of the capitalist system were replaced by abuses of different kinds. We keep being told it's like something out of the 14th Century, too, which hardly makes it sound inviting.

There are some fascinating things in Morris' vision, though. London seems comfortably multiracial in this future:
"Within [the shop] were a couple of children - a brown-skinned boy of about twelve, who sat reading a book, and a pretty little girl of about a year older, who was sitting also reading behind the counter; they were obviously brother and sister."

Morris, William, "News From Nowhere And Selected Writings And Designs", p. 212.

(Yes, I appreciate that the boy might just be tanned from lots of time playing outside, but that's not quite how it reads today.)

There's free love and yet with the propriety of marriage (a young couple have been married, she's then married someone else, and now they're getting back together). People are prettier and seem younger than they would in 1890 as a result of better living conditions (something that turns out to be true).

There are also odd things: quarrels between lovers leading to death is not uncommon in this paradise. They still use whips to drive their horses, and it's weird reading of,
"the natural and necessary pains which the mother must go through [in childbirth, that] form a bond of union between man and woman".

Ibid., p. 235.

Mostly, the book is taken up by a long dialogue between our Victorian traveller and an ancient man who knows his 20th Century history, explaining some of the changes. For all its aping the style of Plato's Republic, this is really a monologue setting out the vision of a cheery future.

And, then at the end of this lengthy interview, this edition skips to the end:
"[Chapters 19 to 32 describe Morris's journey up the River Thames past Hampton Court and Runnymede, the characters he met and the sights he saw. The book ends with a feast at Kelmscott and his sudden return from utopia to the nineteenth century, from the world of 'joyous, beautiful people' to the 'dirt and rags' of his own time. He ends with these reflections.]"

Ibid., p. 300.

It's like deciding to publish 1984 but only with the excerpts from The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, and none of that boring stuff between Winston and Julia. This edition could easily have included the whole unabridged text, making room for it by excising the selected other writings. You can't hope to convince us of the importance of Morris's utopian vision by such brazen selective quotation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Have you seen him?"

Fun night at a leaving do last night, which included some earnest discussion of the work of Sean Connery. In 2003, I wrote a feature for Film Review Special #47 - devoted to Sir Sean - on his non-James Bond film roles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It used to be up on the now-departed Film Review website, so here's the article in full.

Part One - The 1950s and 60s

Knowing Sir Sean Connery’s talents as we do, it’s not just funny to watch his faltering early work, it can be downright disturbing. In Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), not only does he smile prettily throughout, he sings:

‘Pretty Irish Girl’, his mawkish, Oirish ballad, was even released as a single. Connery plays the love-interest of an Irish girl whose hilariously mischievous dad has meanwhile kidnapped the king of the leprechauns. Clean-living, well-meaning and thoroughly decent in a way your granny would approve of, it’s not the Sean Connery we expect. He’s nice!

The film effectively made Connery a star. Disney spent so much on the full colour special effects they needed a low-cost but value-for-money lead. The then-unknown Connery was suitably able, available and cheap. Which was lucky, because future Bond producer Albert R Broccoli took his wife to see the film – and she let on that Connery had a certain appeal.

He had already earned a reputation as a fiercely-driven actor whose conscientious intensity impressed those working with him. That keenness and motivation may in part derive from his unglamorous background. In 1997, at a star-studded Hollywood tribute, he explained ‘If I do my job right, you won't ask for your money back. If you do, I'll just have to go back and sell the milk.’ He had spent three years in the Navy, then been a milkman, a bricklayer and even worked as a coffin-polisher before taking third-place in the Mr Universe body-building contest. This subsequently got him a job in the chorus of a touring production of South Pacific and he decided to stick at the acting.

As well as small roles on the stage, he got odd bits of television. In 1955, he had a part in an episode of Dixon of Dock Green. A year later he appeared alongside Robert Shaw in The Escaper’s Club, which led to several BBC dramas. During the filming of Anna Christie he met his first wife, Diane Cilento. He started to appear in movies, too - apparently appearing (uncredited) in the 1955 Errol Flynn vehicle, Lilacs in the Spring, though I looked hard and couldn’t spot him!

Despite Darby O’Gill, it was quickly clear that Connery best-suited rogueish characters. Also in 1957, he appeared as a criminal in No Road Back, beating up Alfie Bass. In the gritty Hell Drivers the same year, he was one of the surly truckers. He was a drunken first mate at the beginning of Action of the Tiger (directed by Terence Young, who would later support Connery’s casting and direct three of his outings as Bond). He also played ‘Welder number 2’ in Time Lock, and though it’s not a huge role in the film, it’s Connery’s character who ultimately saves the small boy locked in a vault. It wasn’t that Connery made a convincing ‘rogue’ that matters so much as his ability to make the ne’er-do-wells so charismatic. Even in these early roles, he is positively scene-stealing.

Jacqueline Hill and Sean Connery in Requiem for a HeavyweightHis continuing work with for the BBC gave him a bit more variety, ‘proper’ acting with which to develop his talents. He was getting better parts, too. In An Age of Kings (an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays) Connery was the blood-and-thunder Henry Hotspur. He had the major role of Wronksi in Rudolph Cartier’s Anna Karenina and took the lead in Requiem for a Heavyweight [I've since learnt that Connery got this first starring role on the advice of his co-star, Jacqueline Hill].

After Darby O’Gill, his next film leading role came in 1958 with Another Time, Another Place. Connery plays a BBC reporter having an affair with the married Lana Turner. It’s fairly predictable stuff, until Connery’s character dies in a plane crash. In mourning, Turner decides to seek out the Cornish village he comes from, and - to our surprise as much as hers - finds he has left behind a wife and child. It’s the first real sighting of the Connery we recognise today – a confident, able rascal, getting away with it.

What’s more, legend has it that during production Connery was threatened at gunpoint by Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. Connery dealt with the gangster just as we’d expect one of his characters to – punching him. Whatever the truth of the matter, it didn’t do any harm to Connery’s fast-growing reputation as a movie hardman.

Leading roles continued to come his way. In 1961 he co-starred in On The Fiddle. Wily Alfred Lynch leads Connery’s none-too-bright Pedlar Pascoe into all kinds of antics to avoid the frontlines, though they ultimately prove to be heroes. It shows Connery’s rarely used gift for comedy (sly wise-cracking aside). Around this time he also appeared as one of Herbert Lom’s mob in The Frightened City, and briefly as Private Flanagan in the star-studded account of D-Day, The Longest Day (1962).

There’s no doubting that even without Bond, Connery would have been a star. His small role in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) is a good example of how his attitude and talent impressed those he worked with. Connery appears as O’Bannion, one of the four surly British villains whose greed for diamonds threatens the whole jungle. Anthony Quayle had been the star, but turned down another film in the series for a part in Lawrence of Arabia. Connery was the producers’ first choice for the new Tarzan. They were too late: he had been optioned for 007. ‘But I’ll do your film next,’ he assured them.

Having suddenly become a Hollywood icon, much of what other work Connery could get in the 1960s shows a surprising versatility and willingness to take risks. His character in Marnie (1964) is not so different from 007 – a ruthless, determined playboy. But Connery’s heavy-handed tactics, forcing Marnie to confront psychosexual horrors in her past, make for unsettling viewing, and the film was not the hoped-for success. Director Alfred Hitchcock later said he regretted casting him and should have chosen someone older, though co-star Tippi Hedren disliked acting frigid opposite Connery. ‘Have you seen him?’ she’s said to have complained.

In Women of Straw (1964) Connery plays a rare villain. In madcap comedy A Fine Madness (1966), he played the womanising poet Samson Shillitoe, peculiar at the best of times and now suffering writer’s block. In the title role of Shalako (1968), he’s a misanthropic loner leading rich and naive Europeans (including Brigit Bardot and Goldfinger’s Honor Blackman) safely past some Indians.

But possibly the best performance of his whole career is as Trooper Joe Roberts in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), where he’s the victim of a sadistic army camp regime. It’s utterly compelling, and Connery – more one of an excellent ensemble of players than the film’s star – is superb. It’s nothing like Bond - by no means suave or glamorous, just gritty and mean and horrifying. It’s not even in colour.

Darby O’Gill may have made him, but as his other work shows, Connery isn’t at his best playing heroes. His real ability lies in making compelling what are at best rough diamonds. He makes thugs and playboys dangerous yet charming, charismatic yet deadly. 007 is just one example of that. As he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996, ‘the person who plays Bond has to be dangerous. If there isn't a sense of threat, you can't be cool.’

Part Two - The 1970s

In 1971, Diamonds Are Forever made Sean Connery the highest paid movie star ever. There could be no doubting his commanding star quality or the power he held in the movie industry. But, conscious of the shadow James Bond cast over him, part of his vast fee for returning to the role included finance for his own pet-project – a film as unlike Bond as it could be. It’s almost as if Connery has sat down with director Sidney Lumet and asked ‘how far can we go?’

In The Offence (1973), Connery plays Johnson, a policeman struggling to keep it together after all the nastiness he’s seen in his job. When Johnson beats up a suspected paedophile, the film offers no easy answers – whether or not the suspect was guilty is left unresolved. It’s a startlingly bleak and disturbing film, even when watched today, and certainly no mass-market crowd-pleaser.

It has been argued that The Offence is indicative of Connery’s willingness throughout the 1970s to try ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ films, to get away from Bond. He certainly undertook several ‘worthy’ roles around the same time. But he was paid the vast sum of a million dollars for The Molly Maguires (1970), so much money that he didn’t quibble when Richard Harris got top billing. Though making no concession to an Irish accent, he’s good as the leader of a gang of immigrant miners, rebelling against the cruel working conditions of nineteenth century Pennsylvania. The bleak grittiness of the story, though, did not encourage a wide appeal and the film was not a financial success. The size of Connery’s fee probably didn’t help.

He also got second billing in The Red Tent (1971). He didn’t command the same kind of fee for this, but then he only appears fairly briefly. As Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, Connery again makes no concession to the accent, and his appearance is really only notable for his silly white wig. It’s again an okay film, but not any kind of mass success.

As a rule, where Connery does try ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ roles, they just don’t work. His 70s sci-fi is a case in point. Zardoz (1974) has him running around the Irish countryside in a jockstrap, battling evil witches who declare ‘the gun is good, the penis bad.’ The budget for this effects-heavy science fiction nonsense was famously less than Connery’s fee for Diamonds Are Forever. With that and the actual story, one wonders how director John Boorman convinced him to take the part. Screen legend Charlton Heston, though, was also making similarly portentous sci-fi rubbish around this time, the kind of grand pretentiousness that Star Wars, being fun, killed off. Its limited cult appeal now must derive from it being so bafflingly bad. Connery’s other sci-fi in the 1970s was the equally dismal disaster movie Meteor (1979) – noteworthy only for being Natalie Wood’s final film.

He’s also limited in playing ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ characters when they’re not Scottish nationals. In Ransom (1974), Connery plays the Norwegian Chief of Police (with a Scottish accent). Refusing to surrender to terrorist Ian McShane’s multiple activities, he spends most of the film having shouty arguments over the radio, not making for the most exciting of films. In The Next Man (1976), Connery’s an Arab diplomat (with guess what sort of accent) trying to bridge differences between the Arab nations and Israel. Ostensibly topical and earnest, it soon descends into derivative thriller and isn’t anywhere as good as it ought to be.

His best non-Scot is easily Sheik Raisuli, the eponymous Lion in The Wind and the Lion (1974). Set at the turn of the century, the Sheik kidnaps an American woman in protest at Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy. Despite the accent, Connery gives a thrilling performance, lending a dignity to the character which overcomes the sentimentality of the plot and creates real drama. It would be easy to have made the character a two-dimensional cur, but Connery plays him as a roguish hero. As a result, we root for the bad guy.

That’s where he’s excellent, of course – playing charismatic rough diamonds. Because of his age, in the 1970s his characters are usually getting on a bit and out for one last thrill. It’s there to some extent in Diamonds Are Forever. It’s also true of The Anderson Tapes (1971). Working with Sidney Lumet again, this is another highlight of Connery’s career – a genuinely gripping star part for him. We’re with Anderson all the way as he battles the odds and the CCTV to get one over the police and rob a load of rich penthouses.

He’s also great opposite Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), as a pair of unscrupulous old soldiers planning one last great swindle. There are some lines you can’t imagine any other actor getting away with. It takes real talent to get through a mouthful like ‘I'm heartfully ashamed, for getting you killed instead of going home rich as you deserve, on account of me being so bleeding high and bloody mighty,’ and make it funny and real and moving all at the same time. Again we’re rooting for the rogues all the way, and the collapse of their little kingdom is genuinely tragic.

Something similar is going on in Robin and Marian (1976), where Connery plays an aging, disillusioned Robin Hood. An amazing cast might overplay some of the gags, but Robin’s realisation that King Richard is a bloody despot like any other, and the finale where Marian betrays him are quite astonishing. There’s real chemistry between Connery and co-star Audrey Hepburn, and the ending makes [the editor of the magazine] cry.

There’s a third great double-act in The First Great Train Robbery (1978), where Connery and Donald Sutherland are robbers chasing though marvellously rich Victoriana. Some of the set-pieces – a fireworks display at the old Crystal Palace, a chase across the train rooftops – really are very impressive. The film may not be as sublime as the previous two films mentioned, and verges too often on the sentimental, but it nevertheless remains highly entertaining and worth looking out for.

It’s interesting that apart from Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s successes are all collaborations. He’s great as one half of a double act, and his only great solo ‘star’ parts are when he’s working with Sidney Lumet. As a rule, Connery is fantastic in ensemble films – in both Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977) he puts in confident, perfectly-judged performances that complement the multitude of famous co-stars. For all that he’s the archetypal Bond, the loner secret agent no one can get close to, Sean Connery is at his best when playing off other stars.

His last film of the period Cuba (1979) brought his 1970s to a disappointing close. Richard Lester’s film has Connery playing a British Major who meets an old flame, their rekindled love caught up in the political context of Castro taking power. The film itself was as doomed as its subjects. There were various mishaps during production and then it proved to be a financial disaster, seeing little release. The sort of classic, character acting that might have got an Oscar for another leading man (think of Michael Caine in The Quiet American), it’d take the eighties for Connery to be acknowledged as a masterly supporting actor.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Free, the Silurians

I'm reminded by the new issue of Doctor Who's Magazine that those who want a bit more Silurian action can get that fix for free with this audio play what I wrote. It features the Brigadier (though he's not the Brigadier any more) and some explosions. The very fine Silurian story Bloodtide - which features Charles Darwin and some explosions - is also currently available for the bargainsome price of £5.

Um, otherwise not been blogging or tweeting much as I've been chasing about after paid work, and when that's not been happening I've not exactly felt chatty. But there's the signs of things changing - a few new tentative bits and bobs. So you might soon get the pleasure of my insight on matters arising or you might yet be spared.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

B7 on BBC7 (more me, me, me)

Word from the Masters that the Blake's 7 plays I wrote will be broadcast on BBC Radio 7 in a couple of weeks. "The Dust Run" and "The Trial" star Carrie Dobro as space-pilot Jenna Stannis, plus Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Lord. They have space-ship chases and naughty bits. On radio.

The Blake's 7 "Early Years" series will go out at 6.30 pm every weekday from Monday 31 May, with my two episodes on the Wednesday and Thursday.

The full line-up is:
All very exciting. And free!

See also: my posts on the Blake's 7 website

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thus was it written

Mythological Dimensions of Doctor WhoI've just received a copy of The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who, the book of 10 academic papers for which I scrawled an introduction. Reading my bit over again, I realise it's basically my notes from when I wrote The Slitheen Excursion, swiped wholesale from Ken Dowden's book. But, er, reworking ideas as your own is what myth is all about. Ahem.

Looking forward to meeting the proper contributors at the BSFA event on Wednesday 26 May - will have reread the book by then so can appear all wise and knowing. Do come along to cheer.

Speaking of events, tomorrow I'm off to Milton Keynes library to discuss things Doctor Who with Guy Adams, Mark Morris and Sarah Pinborough - though I gather the event is now sold out.

Also of great excitement is the announcement of the winners of Big Finish's thing for new writers. No less than 22 new scamps will be writing short Doctor Who stories for audio, alongside such long-in-the-tooth hacks as Arnopp, Dinnick, Moran and me. Oh, and Doctor Who himself will be writing one, too.

ETA: My story is called "Letting go".

And also, you can vote for my esteemed employer Doctor Who Adventures in the Maggies.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

No? Spelt like Yes?

I first read Doctor No when I was 11. I was all about James Bond at the time, thrilling at the new guy in the films and trying to work out which ones I'd not seen. Bond had been a staple of Sunday afternoons and bank holidays for as far back as I can remember, but at 11 I suddenly got it like a fever.

The books, I knew, were not like the films. They were harder and nastier, proper Grown-Up books. There were fewer jokes and explosions and a lot more stuff about sex. And while the films were all modern and gadgety – almost set in the future – the books were from the 1950s, packed with details about the clothes, foods and medicines of that prehistoric age.

Hooked on Bond, I was desperate to at least try them, whatever warnings I'd been given about how hard they'd be to read. Then, at some second-hand book stall, Raymond Hawkey's tinglingly simple cover (right) used nothing more than a cobweb to suggest the visceral thrills inside. I could not resist.

It's odd reading the thing again now and glimpsing the 11 year-old me in its pages. It's really not suitable reading – and I'd never had got away with it, or dared to pick it up, the version I've just reread, with the cover by Michael Gillette in which a sultry blonde is wearing only a belt. I remembered it as a serious, gritty thriller full of close and brutal violence. And, because I aspired to adolescence, I thought this made it somehow more gritty and real than the cool and enjoyable films, as if Bond – and Doctor Who and the other comics and books I adored – improved the more stark and humourless they were. Surprisingly, the book turns out not to be an experiment in documentary realism.

Like the film, Bond is despatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of local Secret Service agent Strangways. It's meant to be a routine job, almost a holiday – Fleming killed Bond off at the end of the last book, so he could do with taking it easy.

As with the film Castaway, before we get to the sunny islands, we start in drab, cold London, cursing the “hail and icy sleet” (p. 13). It's ten o'clock in the morning, but it's dark enough outside for M to need to turn the lights on.

It takes two whole chapters to brief Bond on his mission, even though M already assumes that Strangways has merely run off with his secretary. M is all about the infodump, lecturing us on guns, poisons and the bits of the body a man can do without (important, since Bond has just been resurrected). As always, there are mentions of academics who've written papers on this stuff, and a string of brand names also help make it all seem authentic.

Bond swaps his Beretta for the famous Walther PPK 7.65 mm – though it's the hammerless Smith and Wesson Centennial Airweight revolver .38 calibre that he actually uses on the job.

Then we're out to Jamaica, and with all the exotic description, there's a constant casual racism as Bond sizes up the local ethnic populations. His friend Quarrel, last seen in Live and Let Die, is a good friend and it's never made an issue that he's Black, yet he's also characterised as a big, superstitious child and Fleming's attempts to convey his speech suggest he's fluent in Minstrel.

At surprising speed, Bond and Quarrel are soon on the heels of Doctor No, who owns an island that mines bird guano as fertiliser, and who has upset some American bird geeks. Strangways also just happened to be looking into the complaint when he disappeared. Even if the trail wasn't any more obvious, Jamaica's “Chigro” (“Chinese negro”) population are all terrified of him and Chigroes keep trying to kill Bond.

With this useful clue, Bond races ahead far faster than he does in the film. So there's no Felix Lighter, no “He's just dead”, no Chinese girl up in the mountains who Bond shags even though he knows she's a villain, and no coolly killing an assassin that Bond's just disarmed. These are all inventions of the film, making Bond smarter and drier and a million times more cool.

When he finally meets Honey Rider on the beach, film Bond has bedded two girls already and gets stuck right in to the flirting. Book Bond has gone without since From Russia With Love and spends until the last page resisting Honey's advances and trying not to notice she's naked.

Yes, there's no white bikini in the book, but instead, scampering about on the beach:
“It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at he right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic.”

Ian Fleming, Doctor No, p. 101.

Lucky he added that last sentence, in case we hadn't noticed. The description continues more oddly:
“The behind was almost as firm and rounded as a boy's ... She was not a coloured girl.”

Ibid., p. 102.

This before he's even told us the colour of her hair, which suggests some rather odd priorities. When Honey turns round, though, there's something odder. She's got a beautiful, perfect body and a broken nose that makes her – Bond will keep telling us until the final pages – somehow all the more perfect.

Though Honey then puts some clothes on, they don't stay on for long. There's a lot of nakedness in the book – taking her clothes off to wade through the swamp, or in the bathroom and bed before dinner with Doctor No, or when the dastardly villain leaves her pegged out to be eaten by crabs. That's not merely for titillation but to make her vulnerable – Bond is likewise naked in bed when a deadly caterpillar climbs over him. (Yes, that really happens.)

I'd remembered the naked girl on the beach from when I read it before, but had not registered how much of the adventure takes place in the nude. But then I was also a little naïve. My dad enjoys reminding me that he'd had a quick look at the book I was so avidly reading, and I'd got to the bit where Honey tells Bond about the career she's planning.

“And,” said my dad, “do you know what a call-girl is?”

I rolled my eyes. Of course I did. In the old days you couldn't just phone people. There were girls who connected the call... I was allowed to continue reading.

To Bond's horror, Honey confirms all Quarrel's superstitious talk of a dragon on the island. There's some discussion of the strange things that exist in nature, which Honey knows all about because she's read the first third of an encyclopaedia and was friends with the rats in her house. We're reminded of the giant squids, who have never been seen alive but whose tentacles have been found inside the bellies of whales. It clangs a bit as proof that dragons might exist.

They then discover that the dragon is real, if it's really a customised dune buggy with a flamethrower. Quarrel is killed – and really horribly – and Bond assumes he'll be next. But there's then a brilliant twist where he and Honey find themselves in a luxury suite, with all the pedicures and pampering they can eat. Doctor No is a perfect gentleman for all he's a perfect villain.

The oddness goes a bit too far when, over dinner, he taps his eyes with his metal fingers. It's revealed he's wearing contacts, but at the time it suggests he's got metal eyes. For a moment, Fleming fumbles the line between the compelling grotesque and the madly daft. Because for all the strangeness of the story, it's utterly absorbing. The more Bond is put through – spied on, attacked by caterpillars and spiders and a metal dragon – the more vivid and thrilling the story. It ends with him forcing himself through an endurance course of horrors, which ends with him battling single-handed against the legendary kraken – the giant squid Fleming nicely set up by mentioning on the beach.

The madness of events is tempered by continual reminders of the mundane. It's not a realistic story in any sense, but Fleming's good at making it seem just about credible long enough to keep us hooked until the next outlandish moment. Like M, Doctor No can quote the authors of recent papers that back up his claims. His fortune is based on nothing so grand as bird shit – and it's the bird shit that ultimately kills him. Bond and Honey escape in the dragon, which we've been carefully told already is the perfect vehicle for the terrain.

As a result, though I made notes on all the odd and incongruous details – Bond mentioning his war service in the Ardennes on page 118, or Doctor No's endurance test including an “asbestos baffle” on page 249 – I couldn't put the book down. It's a very silly, convoluted story, full of casual racist, sexist and culinary assertions. And it's nothing like the serious tome that I remembered. That's what makes it so good.

Also, while the Bond of the films has no compunction about killing a man in cold blood, the Bond of the books is made of nobler stuff – which is funny for a man with a licence to kill.
“Bond knew he wasn't going to like this, killing again in cold blood, but these men would be the Chinese Negro gangsters, the strong-arm guards who did the dirty work. They would certainly be murderers many times over. Perhaps they were the ones who had killed Strangways and the girl. But there was no point in trying to ease his conscience. It was kill or be killed. He must just do it efficiently.”

Ibid., pp. 278-9.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Inexpensive fizz

Issue 15 of Vortex - the Big Finish magazine is now available online for free and includes me rabbiting on about how Graceless came about. There'll be plenty more on Graceless as we approach the release. Sorry.

Also, director Neil Gardner has a few things to say about the audiobook of The Slitheen Excursion. I listened to it for the first time yesterday and am very pleased. Though Neil seems to have missed that the book is a serious and gritty exercise in documentary realism, on the model of the Killing Fields.

Monday, May 03, 2010


Having kept my head down a bit over the last few months, I am suddenly Mr Performing Seal. Had a fun day yesterday at Sci-Fi-London, trying to be wise about writing and then reading in the stage directions for the live version of "Closure" by Paul Cornell.

This Thursday, 6 May, I'll be at the Petrie Museum, where from 5-8 pm there's a free sci-fi trail what I have written. Come along, grab a glass of wine, and explore the real bits of ancient Egypt which have been reworked into bits of Doctor Who, Stargate, Lost and Battlestar Gallactica. Details on the Petrie Museum's what's on page.

On Friday, 14 May, I'll be back at the Petrie, where Steven Wickham will be reading Arthur Conan-Doyle's spooky stories "Lot 249" and "The Ring of Thoth" - the latter the basis for most Mummy movies. Very excited by this, but think it's now full. Sorry.

On 15-16 May I'll be at the Utopia convention in Oxfordshire.

On Wednesday, 26 May, there's the UK launch of "The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who", a collection of academic cleverness by clever people with a less-clever introduction by me.

On 12 June I'll be at Alt-Fiction in Derby with a bunch of other writers. Couple of other things coming up, too. Will speak of them when I've all the details.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Books finished, April 2010

Books finished April 2010
I wrote about the two Roald Dahl books, The Magic Finger and Esio Trot, yesterday.

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun 1 has taken me most of this month, though that's more to do with other things going on in my life than the book itself. Severian is a torturer, brought up as an orphan by the guild of torturers in a huge and complex city. The city feels medieval but is really millions of years in the future, and reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

When Severian is exiled for an indiscretion (which I'll not spoil here), we get to explore the strange, rich world of superstition and base villainy. There are travelling show people (like Riddley Walker), and alien creatures and plants. There are prophecies and goblins and sexy, sneaky ladies. And a plot against - or is it for? - the Autarch.

It's a full, absorbing read, and one much written on elsewhere. I'm aware it's much loved - this particular dog-eared copy is volume one in the Fantasy Masterworks series. But I must admit I tuned in and out of it, not always following events. For a wandering, free-wheeling sort of story, there's a lot of coincidence, stumbling into characters we've met before because it suits the plot.

This is really two books, or the first two in a series of four. The second volume completes the adventure, and though I'm curious to see what happens (and what it's all been about), the rather abrupt ending to each book doesn't exactly inspire excitement.
"Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I do not blame you. It is no easy road."

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun volume 1: Shadow and Claw, p. 597.

HG Well's The Invisible Man was first published in 1897; my battered Laurel and Gold series edition was published in April 1940. It's the story of Griffin, an albino student at University College who uses science to make himself translucent and then goes on the rampage.

The book shows its age in the details of travel and communication, and the suburban settings. A later section, set round Bloomsbury and Tottenham Court Road, suggests long-vanished slums and criminals just round the corner. I know those streets today, and it's a glimpse of a world both familiar and distant.

There's some uncomfortably forthright stuff about a Jewish landlord and "working like a nigger", while in other areas the book avoids spelling things out. The invisible man of the title spends pretty much all of the book larking about naked, but there's no mention of his invisible chap. (As with a lot of Wells, there's a lot of people ejaculating furiously, but it just means they're talking.)

Griffin is a strange character. We're led to believe on several occasions that his experiment has turned him mad, but he admits he's stolen money - and inadvertently killed his father - long before his researches bear fruit. That he's an albino before he begins his researches is, I think, meant to suggest some kind of racial predisposition or something. I kept feeling it was about to expound on some racial theory, but whatever idea Wells might mean to illuminate remains dodging around in the shadows.

Wells' writing style, though, feels impressively modern - punchy, evocative and absorbing. He's got a deft eye for character, and the suburbs are full of gossiping, bickering, funny individuals. There's a lot of "It seems that..." and "It may be that..." as if the story is presented from disparate sources, which gives a sheen of verisimilitude to the unlikely adventure.

Similarly, Griffin describes at length the processes by which he's disappeared himself - and there's lots on "invisible" creatures and why white paper turns clear when wet. The conjuring trick is not Griffin's technology, but convincing the reader such a thing could be possible. There's a long discussion on the pigments in the eye being the hardest thing to disappear.

But really the book is a series of comic and horrific set-pieces. There's the glimpses of nothing inside the bandages, or the outline of a mouth while eating or smoking. There's the horror of fighting this invisible and ruthless creature. And even the sympathy one feels for him as he tries to hide his footprints from children. The last section is a very effective thriller.

There's a nice twist in the epilogue regarding the tramp, but I felt Griffin's own ending a bit of a fumble. He is caught and beaten to death by some policemen, and then slowly fades back into sight. How much better - and foreshadowed by the fate of his invisible cat - if it were his invisibility that kills him. He's caught in a river or storm drain, and his pursuers struggle to help but can't find him...