Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Christmas from AAAGH!

Doctor Who Adventures AAAGH! at Christmas
A merry Christmas to all of you at home from AAAGH! Excitingly, Doctor Who Adventures #248 is still in shops until next week, but my bosses thought we'd share this with you now. Script by me, art by Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes, who gave kind permission to post it here. You can also read all my AAAGH!s.

Monday, December 19, 2011

One man and his dog

Been a little busy, but on Friday I got two trips out. First, Scott Andrews took me to see Sherlock Holmes 2, which was whizzy and silly and fun. Then I made the epic trek to Chiswick to review Hogarth's house for something out next year (which I shall post about when it happens). What follows is stuff I didn't say in that.

Hogarth lived in Chiswick between 1749 and his death in 1764. Chiswick seems quite proud of the connection. His house was opened to the public in 1904, but re-opened in November after a fire in 2009. In 2001, a statue by Jim Mathieson of Hogarth and his pug-dog Trump was unveiled on Chiswick High Street. It was unveiled by Ian Hislop and David Hockney - I assume symbolic of his status as satirist and artist.

A picture by Hogarth shows the house surrounded by fields, but now it's right next to a busy road and roundabout (both named after Hogarth). You can see and hear the traffic grumping past as you poke round the displays. (I did not put in my review that Donna Noble realises her taxi driver is a robot on this very road.)

The house was built in what was once an orchard, and the mulberry tree that apparently still blossoms each year is thought to be older than the building. You can just about make out the tree in this picture.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

AAAGH! and the carol singers

Another festive AAAGH!, this one from Doctor Who Adventures #246 and owing a little to last year's Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, but with added monsters and tomfoolery. As ever, it's written by be, illustrated by Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who also gave kind permission to post it here. You can read all my AAAGH!s.

As an added treat, here's what Abigail is singing.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Hundred year-old cat

The builder currently rebuilding our house made a cool discovery: Cat paw prints in late 19th or early 20th century brick
The house is at least 100 years old, possibly late 19th century. And there in the original brickwork are the paw prints of a cat. We're going to leave them on show.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

AAAGH! and the Advent calendar

AAAGH! and the Advent calendar from Doctor Who Adventures 245, 24 November 2011
Another AAAGH!, this one marking the start of Advent. There's all sorts of Christmas festivities coming in Doctor Who Adventures in the next few weeks, as we approach the Christmas episode. As ever, the script for this silliness is by me, the art by Brian Williamson, and the strip was edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who gave kind permission to post it here. You can also read all my AAAGH!s.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

First Wave interview

Daniel Tostevin interviewed me about my Doctor Who story The First Wave for the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine. But I wittered on so much that he had bits of what I said left over. He has published my additional wittering on the official Daniel Tostevin website.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy birthday Doctor Who, love AAAGH!

AAAGH! celebrate's Doctor Who's 48th birthday today in a bit of silliness written by me and illustrated by Brian Williamson. Doctor Who Adventures #244 is still in shops for another day, and includes a whole bunch of old-skool stuff, including mention of Koquillion.

As always, this AAAGH! was edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes and posted here with their kind permission. You can also read all my AAAGH!s.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blake box

For your delight and delectation, here is Anthony Lamb's cover for Blake's 7: The Liberator Chronicles, which includes The Turing Test - written by me and starring Paul Darrow as Avon and Michael Keating as Vila. It's out in February 2012.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Finished my chum Matthew Sweet's The West End Front this morning. It's a magnificent, funny and strange collection of stories about London's posh hotels during the Second World War (though he freely extends the scope when it means another good story). It was Book of the Week on Radio 4 last week - you've still a chance to hear Kenneth Cranham reading choice cuts on iPlayer.

Matthew has interviewed more than 100 people - those who were there at the time, or the families of those who have since died. The result is a gleefully gossipy account of some often shocking incidents, carefully backed up with solid documentary research.

The book undermines the sentimental view of the Second World War, the idea of a nation steadfastly keeping calm and carrying on, all stiff-upper lips and good humour. There's scandal and skulduggery, scoundrels, sex and death. Some of the events make for very uncomfortable reading. But really this is a testament to the strangeness of real life - in an extraordinary period of history and anyway. Matthew's got a good eye for the incongruous detail, the grotesque detail, that conjures the period vividly.

There's a wealth of top facts, too. Captain Leonard Plugge, Conservative MP for Chatham, gave his name to any "brazen commercialism in the media". Crooner Al Bowlly (whose work I adore) was killed by his own bedroom door. There's the extraordinary image of Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister and so no longer living at Downing Street, installed in the penthouse at Claridges because, his wife said, "We have nowhere to go". It is there, on a borrowed wireless, that he heard the news of Japanese surrender.
"'Then he went out into the rain and there were three old ladies under an umbrella who had heard he was there and gave him a cheer.'"

Philip Murphy, Alan Lennox-Boyd: A Biography (1999), quoted in Matthew Sweet, The West End Front, p. 286.

Many of the lively characters Matthew speaks of - and spoke to - have died, and as he argues the Second World War is now passing out of living memory. This chance to capture and record these fleeting ghosts before they are fully gone is utterly compelling.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dream the myth onwards

Here's the introduction I wrote to the book of academic papers, The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who (2010) - available as a paperback and on Kindle and things.
Dream the myth onwards
Simon Guerrier

Do stories matter if we know they're not true?

That seems to be central to the idea of myth. They are stories that matter. Ken Dowden, in his book The Uses of Greek Mythology, argues that “myths are believed, but not in the same way that history is”(1). If they were true they would be history. But stories still illuminate the truth.

The father of psychoanalysis certainly thought so. Sigmund Freud used the stories of ancient mythology to illuminate aspects of the human condition. Most famously, he named a group of unconscious and repressed desires after the mythical king of Thebes, Oedipus.

The story of Oedipus has been retold since at least the 5th Century BC. By linking to it, Freud suggested that the desires he'd uncovered were not new or localised. They were universal.

Freud was clearly fascinated by myth. His former home in London – now a museum – contains nearly 2,000 antiquities illustrating myths from the Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, many lined up on the desk where he worked. He argued that psychoanalysis could be applied to more than just a patient's dreams, but to “products of ethnic imagination such as myths and fairy tales” (2).

But, as Dowden points out, you can only psychoanalyse where there is a psyche. Who are we analysing when we probe ancient myths – which have been retold for thousands of years? Do we examine a myth as the dream of an original, single author, or of the culture that author belonged to? Dowden argues that “psychoanalytic interpretation of myth can only work if it reveals prevalent, or even universal, deep concerns of a larger cultural group”(3).

He also quotes Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the “collective unconscious”, a series of archetypal images that we all share in the preconscious psyche and which, as a result, appear regularly in our myths. Jung warned against efforts to interpret the meanings of these images: “the most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress”(4).

That seems to me what Doctor Who does, retelling old stories in new ways, surprising us with the familiar. The archetypes of Doctor Who – the invasion, the base under siege, the person taken over by an alien force, regeneration – have been embedded for decades. Yet the series keeps finding new ways to present them, and new perspectives and insights along the way.

That's also true of this book, probing the Doctor's adventures for new perspectives and insights. The essays contained here don't take Doctor Who as the dream of one single author whose unconscious desires can now be exposed. Instead, it probes our shared mythology as Doctor Who fans – of which the TV show is just a part – to explore our own cultural unconscious.

“Myth” means many things in this book. It's any fiction with a ring of truth. It's any story with cultural of psychological value. It's any work with staying power, whose themes and ideas are still relevant generations after the first telling. It's the established, fictional history of characters and worlds, the “continuity” so often complex and contradictory. It's the moment at which a character becomes a hero or even a god. It's anything we want it to be.

And that is why it's so revealing.

(1) Dowden, Ken, The Uses of Greek Mythology, London: Routledge 2000 [1992], p. 3.
(2) Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, Leipzig and Vienna: 1913, English translation ed. J Strachey London 1955. Cited in Dowden, p. 30.
(3) Dowden, p. 31
(4) Jung, Carl and Kerényi, C, Science of Mythology: Essays on the myth of the divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis, 1949, English translation, cited in Dowden, p. 32
Thanks to editor Anthony S Burdge and Anne Petty at Kitsune Books for permission to post it here. I landed the Doctor in ancient Greece in my book, The Slitheen Excursion - where he met what might be the real people who inspired the myths of Athena, Noah and the Medusa, amongst others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Re: Re: The First Wave



[Whopping great spoilers for my recently released Doctor Who story, The First Wave, follow.]

[End of spoiler warning.]

Hello Rose

First I should thank you. Your post is full of nice things about my writing generally. You call me “educated and intelligent”, which is not something I hear a lot. So thanks for those bits.

You clearly don't like The First Wave, and I don't intend to try to persuade you otherwise. But you make a number of claims that I don't think are fair. So I'll address those.

You make a lot of comments about Big Finish generally. I don't speak for Big Finish – what follows are my own opinions – and I'm not going to guess what producers or writers were thinking or trying to do. But there are openly gay and bisexual characters in several Big Finish Doctor Who stories, as well as in related ranges such as Bernice Summerfield and Graceless.

My own experience is that it's tricky writing an openly gay character in a Doctor Who audio story. There's already a lot to set up in a Doctor Who audio: a new location in time and space, created entirely from what characters tell us about it; a plot that hasn't been done before in all the hundreds of TV episodes, books, comics and other audios; an exciting monster and lots of jeopardy. Into that must go the Doctor and TV companion – and under the terms of Big Finish's licence with the BBC, they must be as they appeared on TV.

That doesn't leave a great deal of room for anyone else, so other characters tend to be sketched in lightly – character types that the listener can quickly visualise. I'd argue that we're rarely told the sexuality of any of the characters, heterosexual or otherwise.

Oliver Harper gets more depth than most because I created him as a new companion who'd appear in three stories. But his life and background are still quickly and lightly established. And that means it's tricky to avoid tokenism and cliché, to make him a character rather than a label or manifesto. You kindly praise my efforts in Oliver's previous two stories. Thank you.

But you don't like The First Wave specifically because I “stereotypically, pointlessly, offensively” killed off Oliver, who is gay. I'm sorry for causing any offence. You direct me to the TV tropes page on the “bury your gays” cliché. It's a good, fun piece that makes important points. But look again at what that page says:
“Please note that sometimes gay characters die in fiction because in fiction sometimes people die (this is particularly true of soldiers at war, where Sitch Sexuality and Anyone Can Die are both common tropes); this isn't an if-then correlation, and it's not always meant to "teach us something" or indicative of some prejudice on the part of the creator - particularly if it was written after 1960. The problem isn't when gay characters are killed off: the problem is when gay characters are killed off far more often than straight characters, or when they're killed off because they are gay. This trope therefore won't apply to a series where anyone can die (and does).”
“Anyone can die (and does)” is a good summary of the era of Doctor Who in which The First Wave is set. By “era”, I mean Season Three – not, as you argue, the First Doctor's adventures as a whole. In that season, Katarina and Sara die, Anne Chaplet (a sort-of companion in The Massacre) is apparently killed, Vicki is written out during a bloody battle that leaves Steven badly wounded, and Dodo vanishes off-screen having had her brain scrambled.

Actor Peter Purves discusses how abruptly the cast were let go in this period on DVD documentaries on The Ark and The Gunfighters – both of which I worked on. The production team even tried to write out William Hartnell as the Doctor in The Celestial Toymaker, before doing so a few months later in The Tenth Planet. There's a sense in this season that no one is safe and no one gets a happy ending. Steven's own exit from the series in The Savages could have been happy – he goes off to be a king – but that's not how it's played. So what happens to Oliver is perfectly in keeping with the series at the time (something the terms of our licence with the BBC requires).

What's more, a new companion gives us a lot of freedom. Not only can I make him a stockbroker and gay, but I also don't have to return him safely at the end of a story to where he was at the start. That's something we have to do with the TV characters under the terms of our licence. So part of the appeal of creating a new companion is that the listener doesn't know how things will end – or if he will survive.

That's the central point of the three plays featuring Oliver: anyone can die, and the longer they stay with the Doctor, the more they're on borrowed time. The phrase “borrowed time” appears in all the stories, and The First Wave would have been called Borrowed Time had there not already been an Eleventh Doctor novel called that. From that starting point, I tried to write an adventure that was exciting and also moving. You're meant to like Oliver, and not like him dying.

You object to Oliver's “noble self-sacrificing death to save the main [i.e., heterosexual] characters”*. I don't think you're arguing that he should have died ignobly – perhaps screaming for mercy or siding with the villains. And I don't think you're arguing that I've killed him off because he's gay. I think you're arguing that because he's gay I should treat him differently from any other character. You want me to discriminate.

You praise my previous story, The Cold Equations, because Oliver's “sexuality wasn’t constantly brought up, it was just a fact about him.” But I'd argue that you've made his death – and the scene where he helps Steven dress up in The Perpetual Bond – all about his being gay.

I don't expect any of this to change your mind. But remember that I brought Sara Kingdom back from the dead. The return of Oliver Harper would be a cinch.

All the best,


(* I could also point out, pedantically, that the show offers little evidence that the Doctor or Steven are specially heterosexual. But anyway.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

AAAGH! at the gym

AAAGH! Forest of Cheem run a gymAnother AAAGH! from Doctor Who Adventures #243 - in shops till yesterday. This one features Jabe the tree from The End of the World and the Minotaur from The God Complex. (Sadly excised to make it all fit was the First Doctor in vest and shorts on a treadmill muttering that "*Puff!* This old body's wearing a bit thin. *Pant!*")

As ever, the script is by me, the art by Brian Williamson, and the editing my Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who also gave kind permission for me to post it here. A special birthday AAAGH! next week. You can also read all the AAAGH!s I've written.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two covers

Some forthcoming things by me:

Doctor Who: The Anachronauts stars Jean Marsh and Peter Purves, directed by Ken Bentley. Cover by Iain Robertson.

Graceless 2 stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington, Fraser James and Derek Griffiths, directed by Lisa Bowerman. Cover and design by Alex Mallinson.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Loads of things we learned about making short films

Cleaning Up won Best Thriller at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival this weekend. Brother Tom and I had an amazing time in York, seeing loads of the 150 short films shown, comparing notes with lots of spectacularly talented film-makers and wannabe film-makers, and generally larking about.

As a result of all the nattering, we've realised how much we've learned by making our film – and stolen from all the clever people we've worked with.

Calling card
Short films are a way to get noticed, to get more – or different – work, and to prove that your idea for a TV series or film really works. Make your short representative of the things you want to do next.

We spent a day as runners on Danny Stack's Origin and two days as coppers on James Moran and Dan Turner's Girl Number Nine. That gave us a good sense of what to expect, plus we learned loads of practical things that helped us set up our film and make the shoot run smoothly. We also nicked Danny's producer, one of James and Dan's stars, and loads of crew from both.

Watch all the short films you can. Go to the festivals. Buy the DVDs of award-winning shorts. If you've got a particular genre or audience in mind, research it and find out what other people are doing. Most festivals will put your film in a group with a similar theme (we've been shown as a thriller, a comedy, and as part of a group called “wrong place, wrong time”).

No matter how much of a film buff you are, the festival programmers will have seen more films than you. A festival can easily receive 1,000 to 7,000 submissions. What makes your comedy, horror, fantasy any different from the hundreds of others? What are you doing that's better? Watching lots of film, you’ll see they usually all very well made. And then one makes you sit up and take notice. How can you make your film do that?

Are you making a genre piece – comedy, horror, thriller? That can help you place your film with the festivals, sell it to an audience, build a following. Having watched a huge number of shorts now, comedy is clearly the hardest to get right – and there's nothing worse than an audience sitting stony-faced waiting for a comedy to end. But when it's right, when it works, you can be the talk of the festival.

Good script
We watched a lot of short films before making ours. A lot of people will tell you that it's easier to make films now – you can even get mobile phones that record in HD. But that makes it all the harder to stand out from the rest. A lot of short films look beautiful and are stylishly played and edited. But the thing that makes the best ones stand out is that they have good scripts. Commission a writer, as Tom did, to write something an audience will remember.

It also helped that we had a professional TV writer as our script editor. Joseph Lidster made me work very hard: the script for Cleaning Up went through more than 20 drafts.

Why should anyone care?
You need to ask this a lot. Will the basic idea of your film grab people? Will the tag line? Will the names of the actors help sell the film? Are the roles they're playing not what they normally do? Or is the point that you're using people who aren't so well known? Your film needs to fight to gain attention.

Make a film on your own
Before you start assembling a big cast and crew, make a small film first, perhaps on a mobile. That way, you understand the process from start to finish, can see where your weaknesses are and can make a lot of mistakes – without a whole huge crew watching. It doesn't have to be any good; you don't have to show it to anyone. But edit it, put music on it, make sure you complete it.

Make it count
The standard of shorts is high, so make sure your money shows on screen. Every shot and line of dialogue has to count. Good locations, good production design and music all help sell your film. (A heck of a lot of short films include sunsets, which look amazing and are cheap.)

What do you offer the star?
I'm presuming you don't have much of a budget. So the only thing you can offer an established, “name” actor is a good script, with a good role for them – and something they don't normally play. And you've no comeback if they turn you down. Nobody owes you this.

Also, every actor should play a character with a name. They've given their time and skill for free, so the least you can offer them is a credit as “Keith”, not “Guard number 5”. It looks better on their CVs.

What do you offer the crew?
You're (probably) not paying people, so you have to treat them well. Don't tell them it's a great opportunity for their careers (klaxons go off, there are axes and bazookas). Define the working hours – and stick to them. Make sure there's a good lunch provided for everyone, tea and snacks and supplies.

You're the one who'll benefit from the film, not them. So you need these people more than they need you. And a good, experienced crew is essential. Ideally, you'll be the least experienced person on set.

Your cast and crew will – and should – drop you in an instant if they get another good, paid gig. You also find you can't work the schedule to get your dream cast and crew together in the same same place at the same time. So you have to work out who is the most important.

Say what you don't know
I made a stupid blunder on Origin by not letting on that I didn't know how to work the walkie-talkies. Don't bluff your way through. Ask advice. Listen and learn. There's a lot of bullshit in films – you have to big a project up just to get it made and seen. But people, especially the crew, will be much happier when you're honest.

Do as much groundwork as you can yourself. Your producer and crew may only be there for the shoot itself. Make people's lives easy, and have as much prepared in advance as possible.

You set the tone of the shoot. So be cool, decisive and fun. As director, everyone will want your opinion all the time, so know what you want from every aspect of the film – and don't dither when they ask you. A happy crew works 10 times harder.

As much as you might plan, all shoots run on luck, short films even more so because there is no money. So you'll have to adapt and improvise. Roll with it.

Say thank you. Buy drinks. Have a cast and crew screening. Keep everyone informed of what's happening. Return the favours people have done you. Let them know to call the favours in.

When you finish filming, you're halfway through the process. Keep your film short and relevant. Cut every frame you can. Cleaning Up lost a whole scenes and at least one of my favourite lines. Be ruthless. Audiences sitting through lots of shorts in one go will thank you.

More people will see the trailer than the film. The cut of the trailer is potentially more important than the cut of the film.

Don’t just watch lots of short films – look at how they’ve marketed themselves, too. Some do fancy websites and loads of PR, others don’t. We based our efforts on the Academy Award-winning short The New Tenants.

Don't waste people's time. You want a simple, good-looking website where people can quickly – no, immediately – find your trailer, a list of cast and crew, the tag lines and blurbs, a press release and how to contact you. Make it easy for people to see where it's playing and what awards you've won.

We'll write about sending your finished short out into the world later, when we've a better idea of how what we've done has worked.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

H for themselves

The Dr sometimes accuses me of tumbling through life as if a guest on QI, where points are scored for top facts and dodging cliche. A while back, for my own entertainment, I came up with my own QI questions, complete with the cliches that set off a klaxon and lose you 10 points. The "H" series was on at the time.

Which profession is a baboon the god of?

X Actors
X Politicians

Thoth – as a baboon – was god of writers and scribes in ancient Egypt. The thinking is that baboons chattered and babbled like humans, which was a sign of intelligence. And baboons throw poo at each other and bear their bottoms, which is like a lot of writers. The ancient Egyptians also used baboons as police dogs.

Who else died the same day as John F Kennedy?

X Lee Harvey Oswald
X A bodyguard
X Liberal America

Well, lots of people also died on 22 November 1963 – including the writers Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. Huxley famously experimented with hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline and LSD, and at his own request was injected with LSD while he was dying.

Holy Days
Why do most of us get Sundays off work?

X It's the sabbath
X The Bible says so

Edward VI's father Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic Church and formed a (Catholic) Church of England. Two acts under Edward VI sealed the split. The First Act of Uniformity in 1548 introduced an English prayer book, imposed penalties for non-observance and ordered the suppression of images and Latin primers. It was the first time religious practice in this country was proscribed by a secular authority. The Second Act of Uniformity in 1552 required every subject to attend church on Sunday at one of the rechristened services or morning prayer, evening prayer or the Lord's supper. It was the beginning of keeping Sunday's special, and accompanied by an act for the control of alehouses – the first time liquor began to be licensed. So, strictly speaking, keeping Sunday holy is an anti-Catholic measure.

What does Honorificabilitudinitatibus mean?

X It doesn't mean anything
X “I'm very clever”

It means “with honour”, and is Shakespeare showing off in Act 5, scene 1 of Love's Labour's Lost:
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.
James Joyce then used it in Ulysees. But is that all that it means? In 1910, Sir Edwin Lawrence-Durning pointed out that it's also an anagram “Hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi”, or “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world” - which Sir Edwin argued showed Shakespeare's plays were written by Francis Bacon.

Who's a homo?

X You are
X He is

We all are. All modern humans are examples of Homo sapiens sapiens – note the two “sapiens”, which distinguish us from our late cousins, Homo sapiens idaltu, who died out about 160,000 years ago.

The “homo” bit means “human” or “person”, though “human” derives from the Latin “humanus” - an adjective cognate of “homo”. So the homos came first, then the humans. “Homo” looks like it derives from a Proto-Indo-European word which we now call “*dhǵhem” - that is, “earth” or “soil”. So “Homo” means “Earthman”. Think also of Adam, first man in the Bible, whose name seems to come from “Adamah”, meaning “ground”.

The “sapiens” means “wise”, so we must be especially wise if we're “Homo sapiens sapiens”. But other creatures also have repetition in their names. There's pica pica – the magpie. And my favourite, Meles meles meles – the Eurasian badger.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blake's 7: The Turing Test

Big Finish have announced that my Blake's 7 play, The Turing Test (out in February) will star Paul Darrow as Avon and Michael Keating as Vila. The news story says that in my story,
"Avon goes undercover on a research base… in the guise of an advanced android."
The other stories released alongside mine are by Peter Anghelides and Nigel Fairs. Gareth Thomas is also returning to the series as Blake, and it's been announced that Anthony Howells and nice Beth Chalmers will be in it, too. There will be more Blake's 7 CDs later in 2012 - and books as well. So that's all a bit exciting.

I'll be joining producer David Richardson and fellow scribbler Peter Anghelides at a Blake's 7 convention in Oxford this Saturday to natter about what we done.

Meanwhile, my previous Blake's 7 adventures The Dust Run and The Trial - starring Carrie Dobro, Benedict Cumberbacth and Stephen Lord - are available for £3.95 each or £8.95 on one CD from the Blake's 7 website.

The site also has some blogs I wrote about those plays, too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The angels had the phone box

Weeping Angels in Kensal GreenThe Dr spotted these sneaky Weeping Angels in Kensal Green cemetery, London. There's a TARDIS-shaped gap in the midst of them, which can surely be no coincidence. Empirical proof that Doctor Who is real.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Atwood and definitions of science fiction

Margaret Atwood was in the Guardian again yesterday, explaining that her books are not science fiction because she doesn't have the skill set to write about Martians. Her “speculative fiction” is about stuff that could really happen, not lurid fantasy about monsters.

I find this kind of semantic argument about what is or isn't sci-fi a bit wearying – and have no problem with Star Wars, Cold Comfort Farm, Mars Attacks and Frankenstein all being part of the same gang. I've written stuff where I've tried to get the complex physics right, and stuff where I've completely body-swerved real science. I suspect a lot of these arguments are less about defining a genre as attributing value. I get the impression from Atwood's article that what she really means is her stuff is serious, with things to say. It can't be science fiction because that's a pejorative term.

(In responding to Mary Beard's lack of love for Cold Comfort Farm, people have explained it's a parody - as if that automatically makes it good.)

There are reasons why you wouldn't want your bestselling book to be labelled as sci-fi. That sci-fi shelves of a book shop are a special ghetto, where many shoppers will not venture. It's not just a value judgement: the definition also affects sales.

I do, though, think there's a way of reading science fiction. Like a murder mystery, you read the story looking for clues – not to spot the murderer, but to create the world in which the story's set. We're told that a door dilates rather than opens, and that vivid, odd detail is like an establishing CGI wideshot, framing the story in an eye-poppingly alien world. With a lot of sci-fi, we're asked to play an active part – which is what can make it so rewarding and immersive, but can also put off the newcomer. Those who've not learned to decode the clues – usually when they're about 12 – will say they just don't “get” sci-fi.

Oryx and Crake, one of the three books Atwood discusses in her article, I read in August, making notes which I never quite got round to writing up. There's no mention in the blurb that it's anything so crass and silly as sci-fi. Rather, it's “a less-than-brave new world”, “an outlandish yet wholly believable space”.

Which is odd, because it's not exactly believable. Smart, funny, insightful and full of quirky perspective, it's monstrously contrived. Crake, the villain, destroys the world to build a new utopia, and no one – not even those closest to him in this techno-future where everyone knows each other's secrets – ever suspect what he's up to.

I guess there's an argument that it's difficult to stop anyone determined to self-destruct – which reflected a post-9/11 worldview when it came out in 2003, but struck a chord with me as I read it because Amy Winehouse had just died. But there's no sense of how Crake's got away with what he's done. All too often his being autistic and into science effectively means that he's magic.

Snowman, our narrator, also just happens to be at the centre of these huge events – and never through any fault or effort of his own. Oryx, Crake and even Snowman's mother drive everything, and he coasts along in their wake. That he's had a ring-side seat through all the key bits of the plot, and is then the last man alive at the end is a convenience for the author. It's not wholly believable.

Rather than some realistic account of where science might take us, this is a parable, a fable. It feels a little mythic because it owes so much to stuff that's come before. There are parallels with the expulsion from the garden of Eden. There's Mary Shelley's The Last Man, while the end is a bit Robinson Crusoe. The Crakers reminded me of Hothouse.

The plot hinges on a classic love triangle – though, again, Snowman gets the girl because she thinks he looks unhappy, not because he does anything to win her heart. Events are contrived to allow discussion of how we escape the violence of our past: Oryx is reconciled with her abusive upbringing but Snowman can't let it go. That matches the efforts to remove violent instincts from the Crakers, though it looks like dreams, singing, art and religion are too much a part of us to be eradicated – and it's implied that means we'll never be free of the violence either.

There's some fun speculative stuff about sex drives, the Crakers' rude bits turning blue when they're in season. But less than a decade after the book came out, the details of its future make it feel parochially of its time. The dot com crash is referred to as if it were a major moment in history, and “Web site” is spelled with a capital letter because it's new and unusual.

Atwood argues in the Guardian that the book portrays a “ustopia” - her own ugly coinage for something that's a utopia (good) and a dystopia (bad) at the same time. I'm not sure what this new definition adds to discussions of utopian fiction. And I can't help feeling that this worry about definitions is missing the point. Books aren't good or bad because they're science fiction. There's good sf and bad. Definitions don't fix plot holes or poor writing, or change how we respond to a story. They're just a way of saying, "look how clever I am".

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

AAAGH! The Wedding of Mrs Tinkle

Another AAAGH!, this one from Doctor Who Adventures #238, published a few days after The Wedding of River Song.

As ever it's written by me, illustrated by the amazing Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes, who gave kind permission to post it here. Paul takes over the AAAGH! duties for the new weeks. But I shall return. Oh yes, I shall return.

In the meantime, you can read all the AAAGH!s I done wrote.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

M1, NGC 2776 and NGC 4216

As part of my Astronomy GCSE course (which I did 2010-11 at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich), I took some photographs of celestial objects for my coursework.

I used the National Schools' Observatory's Liverpool Telescope on La Palma, using the website to tell it what to look at. I then used image editing software to make the most of the pictures. I had to write a full account of my efforts and an analysis of the images. (And I got an A*, so ner.)

Here are the pics and a few brief notes.

Crab Nebula, M1Here's the Crab nebula - or M1 in Messier's catalogue. It's an exploded star, and Chinese astronomers reported seeing the supernova in 1054 AD. At it's heart there's a small, very dense neutron star. I thought the tendrils of gas looked a bit like the insides of a heart.

The image was taken at 21:00:00 GMT on 20 February 2011, with an exposure of 120.00 seconds using filter HA. Temperature was 6.5C, humidity 23%, pressure 779 mBar. It was a dry night with a wind of 2.5 m/s in a SSW direction.

Galaxy NGC 2776The galaxy NGC 2776 is a lot less famous - or studied - than M1. It's a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Lynx, which appears disc-on to us.

This image was take at 22:19:00 GMT on 28 February 2011, with an exposure of 120.00 seconds and using filter R. The temperature was 8.5C, humidity 9%, pressure 777 mBar. It was a dry night with a wind at 8.6 m/s in a SSW direction.

Galaxy NGC 4216
NGC 4216 is another spiral galaxy, but this time edge-on to us, giving a better sense of the bulge in the middle (containing a super-massive black hole). The dark bits round the edge are probably dust obscuring the stars. NGC 4216 is in the Virgo Cluster.

This image was taken at 04:16:00 GMT on 1 March 2011, with an exposure time of 120.00 seconds and using filter R. The temperature was 8C, humidity 7%, pressure 775 mBar. It was a dry night with a wind at 7.2 m/s in a SSW direction.

There's a more impressive image of NGC 4216 here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

How to write a speech about someone you know

I sometimes get asked to help my friends and family when they have to write things. In the last few months, I've offered more or less the same advice to a lady writing a eulogy and a gent stuck with a best man's speech. That advice seemed to work out okay, so here's what I said...

You've been chosen to write this because you know the person well.

Maybe you've not known them as long as other people who'll be there. That doesn't matter. You know them and I don't. If I asked you, "What are they like?", you could tell me.

And you probably wouldn't start by telling me how tall or old or fat they are, but the kind of person they are. To do that, you can probably think of something they once did that tells me exactly what they're like. You can probably think of three different things they once did that gives me a rounded picture.

A time that shows their sense of humour. A time that shows what they were especially good or bad at. A time they were kind or brave.

At least one of those stories should involve you. Another story might be one you've been told by someone else about the person. Something that when you heard it made you think, “Yes, that's exactly them”.

(When someone dies, their friends and family tend to tell stories about things they've done. Ask around.)

Write these stories down. Write them as if you're telling them to me over tea and biscuits. Keep things informal and simple.

Some people like to write the whole speech out in full. Some people just want bullet-points on note cards, so they can make it up as they go. If you're not sure which works best for you, write it out in full and then see how easy you find to read it out loud. You can always have notes on the day.

Put the best story last.

Then think about how you're going to start. It might be something as simple as: “What sort of person is X? Here are three examples...”. Or explain, briefly, how you knew the person and why (you think) you've been been chosen to speak.

If you're going to do jokes, put a first joke in early so people know what to expect.

Go over what you've written. Cut it down. Keep it short and to the point.

Read it out loud to yourself. It feels a bit weird but it really helps. Make sure you can read it without running out of breath or stumbling over the words. Time how long it takes - but make sure you're reading at the same speed you'll read it on the day. Don't rush.

Read your speech to someone you trust and who knows the person – and won't go telling people what you're about to say. Listen to what they say afterwards. More importantly, watch how they react while you're speaking. Rewrite the bits that need it.

Don't drink before you deliver it. Make sure someone else has a copy of the speech in case you lose yours.

Speak up, so people at the back can hear you. Don't rush.

Remember that the audience is on your side: they want you to do well.

Good luck.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

AAAGH! and the Cybermats!

Another AAAGH!, this time from Doctor Who Adventures issues #237, published just a few days after the episode Closing Time, where the Doctor battled Cybermats in a department store.

In issue #238, out in all good shops today, Nervil is a guest at the wedding of Mrs Tinkle...

The script of this episode is by me, illustrated by Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes. All my AAAGH!s are posted here by kind permission.

Incidentally, there's a review of the event I did last week, discussing Cybermats, Doctor Who and Egyptian archaeology with Christopher Frayling and John J Johnston.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Doctor Who - The Age of Heroes

Here, for your entertainment and delight, is my first outline for what became the Doctor Who book The Slitheen Excursion. Big boss Justin Richards had asked me for something featuring the Slitheen and set in Earth's past.

We knocked this back and forth between us for a few days before agreeing a final outline, but this still contains spoilers if you've not read the book or heard the audio version read by Debbie Chazen.
Doctor Who – The Age of Heroes
Simon Guerrier
27 March 2008

June is 17 and not very confident about her forthcoming A-levels. She’s on a college trip to the Palace of Westminster (not, she has learnt that morning, the “Houses of Parliament”) when she spots the Doctor. He must be important because he doesn’t have a security pass – not even the pastel-coloured stickers that they give to the tourists – and yet the policemen with machine guns let him go where he likes.

June dares to follow him and saves his life when a monster jumps out on him. The Doctor stops the monster by talking nonsense. It feeds on nonsense and illogic – so the Palace is like a restaurant. The Doctor owes June a favour and she asks if he can help with her essay. She’s got to write about the history of democracy.

Chapter 1
The Doctor says he knows a thing or two about history. Seeing history live – touching it, smelling it, getting your fingers dirty – is more exciting than dusty old books. But as they set the coordinates for the golden age of ancient Athens, he picks up a signal from an alien spaceship that’s got into trouble. They’re going to have to make a quick detour.

They arrive in Athens, 1687 AD. The Venetians are at war with the Turks. There’s a Turkish garrison in the temple up on the rock overlooking the town – the Parthenon is pretty much complete and looking good for its 2,000 years. For a brief moment June and the Doctor are separated and June realises she could be stranded in the primitive past. There’s something odd about the war though; both sides accusing the other of using strange and magical weapons.

The Doctor and June are reunited. They get away from the fighting Turks and Venetians and investigate the distress signal. They soon discover a party of Slitheen.

Chapter 2
But it emerges that they’re not there to muck up the war. They just want to keep everyone away from a grotto of stalactites and stalagmites which they’re using for some nefarious purpose.

The Slitheen are, though, fascinated by the Doctor and June – who must, they think, be using some kind of warp-core technology to journey back in time. And even schoolkids know that warp-cores are dangerously unstable. So the Doctor finds himself arrested as a dangerous maniac, when that’s what he normally accuses the Slitheen of.

June helps the Doctor escape, but rather than running away the Doctor insists they find out what the Slitheen are up to. It turns out the stalactites are calcified Slitheen – these Slitheen’s ancestors who were on Earth thousands of years ago.

Chapter 3
As they get older, Slitheen suffer from hardening of their soft tissues – a bit like we suffer from hardening of the arteries. They slowly lose the moisture inside themselves, and mineral deposits build up until they can’t move. The early affects are like Calciphylaxis, with brittle skin etc. And then they harden out entirely and become like statues.

At first the Doctor assumes it is some kind of rescue operation. But the young Slitheen want to know what happened to all the loot they never inherited. When the older Slitheen won’t tell them, they throw tantrums and blow things up.

Chapter 4
The Doctor has to intercede. The Slitheen spaceship, hidden on the top of the Acropolis, explodes. This blows up the Parthenon – history will assume the Venetians did it.

Chapter 5
The ancient Slitheen will not survive long. But they recognise the Doctor and June, having met them thousands of years before. They’re dying, and realise the Doctor hasn’t met them yet. They say he’ll understand what happened to the loot when he goes back to meet them. And they die. June is upset by this, and the Doctor admits he’s not used to feeling sorry for Slitheen. They’re a very strange family.

But now it seems he and June have to go back in time to meet these Slitheen in the first place.

The Doctor looks through history for the Slitheen signals. He finds them – roughly the same place but about 3,000 years before. And that’s worrying because mankind is quite impressionable back then. Sophisticated, space-faring aliens mucking around with the ancient Greeks could do terrible things to the development of human history.

Having landed in about 1,500 BC, the Doctor does a scan for aliens. And there are nearly 2,000 of them in the area. They step out into a world where aliens are living amongst the humans quite openly. Spaceships and high technology can be seen everywhere.

Chapter 6
There’s a great tourist industry running to the place, all kinds of aliens getting to mix with humanity when it hasn’t even sussed out basic architectural stuff like the arch. These aliens aren’t changing history. They’ve always been there – they’re the Gods and monsters of Ancient Myth.

At first it seems fun, but June is horrified by how the aliens pretend to be Gods to the locals. And some aliens are very badly behaved, frying the humans with laser guns just for a bit of a laugh.

The Doctor just runs off. June tries to stop some aliens picking on the humans. The aliens turn on her. She is going to be fried.

Chapter 7
The Doctor arrives dragging some Slitheen with him, insisting he and his friend didn’t pay for their tickets expecting to get fried. He waves his psychic paper around and people assume he’s a tourist, too. And the Slitheen intercede: it’s not done to fry fellow holiday-makers.

June recognises these Slitheen. The ancient Slitheen they met in 1687 turn out to be running the tourism. They are young and sprightly hucksters, and don’t take kindly to the Doctor and June interfering.

They invite the Doctor and June back to their office for a glass of something to make up for the inconvenience. The Doctor is keen to find out more of what they’re up to so agrees to go along. On the way, the Slitheen explain the terrible complexities of this project – how they use accelerators to grow food very fast to feed the demands of the tourists, how the bookings system keeps breaking down… all the rigours of a small business.

But the invitation to drinks is really a trap. The Slitheen know psychic paper when they see it. And they assume the Doctor is some kind of anti-time-travel protestor, and the one who has been causing all the earthquakes. For the sake of saving humanity, the Slitheen will now execute him and June.

Chapter 8
The Doctor and June escape death at the hands of the Slitheen when a half-man, half-snake called Cecrops comes to complain about how some of the other tourists are treating the locals. The Slitheen insist they’ve got a contract with the local kings that strictly agrees the terms of tourists’ behaviour.

Humans are to be respected. The Doctor uses this point of law to get himself and June released. The Slitheen get very nervous the moment anyone mentions lawyers.

Cecrops is very embarrassed about the tourist trade. He is a real humanophile, though his enthusiasm for how the little ape people slowly puzzle out problems doesn’t go down very well with June who finds him patronising.

The Doctor asks about these anti-time-travel protests, which people assume are some sort of politically correct statement that humans should be left alone to develop. Cecrops explains that he’s got problems with that ethos, too – the humans’ lives are nasty, brutal and short. June is surprised to discover she would be considered in late middle-age by being 17.

But anyway, Cecrops hasn’t seen and sabotage. He’s seen natural phenonema – earthquakes and things. It’s just the earthquakes have been really bad recently. And, as if on cue, there’s a terrible earthquake.

Chapter 9
The Doctor, June and Cecrops try to help people. But the Doctor insists this isn’t any ordinary earthquake. It’s a warp shift; the side effect of unstable warp core technology. June remembers the seventeenth-century Slitheen saying even children knew that was dangerous.

They investigate. Yes, the Slitheen here are using some dodgily acquired warp core technology to bring their tourists here. And they’ve been greedy; the system is exhausted and sagging at the edges. There are earthquakes and other strange phenomena. The Doctor tries to fix things, but the Slitheen catch him and it’s them trying to stop him that pulls the plug on everything. There’s not an explosion; instead the whole world seems to be falling apart.

Chapter 10
A widescreen disaster movie. The huge explosion causes a massive flood right across the Mediterranean. As described in the Greek legend of Deucalion, the rivers swell over the coastal plains and engulf the foothills, washing everything clean (the legend might also be the same route as that of Noah and Utnapishtim, but we’ll skirt round saying so explicitly). From the Acropolis they watch the great tidal wave coming in, and thousands are killed.

(I’ll probably expand this action stuff; have June separated from the Doctor and having to be a bit of a heroine. Have the Slitheen show that, though they’re greedy and dangerous, they don’t actually mean any harm.)

Chapter 11
The floods pass; the climate and timeline just diffusing the kinks in the system. The warp core technology is wrecked so all the alien holiday makers who’ve survived now find that they are stranded. Facing this mob, and the thought of insurance claims etc., the surviving Slitheen throw themselves off the Acropolis into the receding waters – ostensibly to their deaths.

June can’t believe they wouldn’t have had an emergency escape plan, and the Doctor is delighted. He leads the aliens to the cave where, in 2,000 years, there’ll be Slitheen-shaped stalagmites. There is a small vortex pod hidden at the back of the cave. The Doctor messes with its dimensions until it’s big enough to carry everyone.

But Cecrops is one of a few aliens who want to stay. If they don’t help clear up some of this mess, he says, the humans here are all going to die.

Chapter 12
June is suspicious of the Doctor – he seems happy to let the aliens believe that if they don’t take the vortex pod they’ll be stranded here forever. Why won’t he mention the TARDIS? But she has come to know him and she supposes he must have a good reason. Anyway, it looks like the aliens could do these humans some good.

Cecrops adopts the daughters of the dead Athenian king Actaeus. (In legend, the half-man, half-fish Cecrops, first King of Athens, taught the Athenians marriage, reading, writing and ceremonial burial.)

But with the waters all round the Acropolis, how are humans going to survive? The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to draw water from the rocks – a spring of not very pleasant-tasting water, but water all the same. And June has seen how the Slitheen provided food for the tourists. She points their accelerator at the rock and up springs an olive tree. It’s not quite what she had in mind to feed everybody, but the olives will serve as an appetizer. (This makes the Doctor Poseidon and June Athene, I think.)

There’s a party later that evening. It looks like things are going to work out. With the loss of the aliens and creatures, a new age begins. One not of Gods and monsters but of extraordinary human beings. The age of heroes.

But the Doctor is still not content. He’s not sure history is quite on course as it should be. And anyway he promised June he’d show her real democracy at work.

Chapter 13
The TARDIS arrives in 480 BC to see the Parthenon being built and the golden age of Athens in full swing. June is appalled to discover that 17 is still considered quite old here. And that women aren’t going to get the vote until 1952 AD.

The Doctor and June soon get separated, but June has learnt a lot in her adventures thus far and is okay now to explore on her own. It seems the Gods and monsters are remembered as legends. But the town isn’t known as Athens – it’s called Cecropia.

She thinks the Doctor will make for the Acropolis to see the building work going on. And she’s curious to see the view of Cecropia up there. At first the male builders don’t see what business it is of hers, but their old, fat foreman seems pleased by June’s interest and offers to show her around.

But as soon as they’re on their own, the fat old man unzips his forehead. Creaky and old folk, it’s the last of the huckstering Slitheen – stranded on Earth for 1,000 years.

Chapter 14
The Slitheen have been hidden on Earth for 1,000 years. They had tried to get rescued at first, and then they’d seen the difference Cecrops was making with the primitive humans. They helped out – not pushing them or inventing anything for them, but getting them to write things down so the things humans learnt could be passed on. They’ve got people telling stories, sharing ideas.

And it’s hard work because humans keep having wars and things. The Parthenon is being built on the ruins of a previous one razed to the ground just a few years ago. And the Slitheen are running out of time. They’re calcifying, becoming the stalagmites June has seen in the future. If they could reach their people there are possible cures, but they’re just going to dry out.

June knows it has to be like this because she’s seen what happens. But the Slitheen are glad to have played their part, to have written themselves into history even if no one will ever know. They’re glad that June knows.

She leaves the grotto of dying Slitheen to find the Doctor waiting for her. He left her to discover the truth for herself – just as the aliens had let humans develop their own way. Now the lesson is over and its time for June to go back home.

The Doctor takes her back to the Palace of Westminster the same moment that she left. But she’s a different person now; better and wiser for what she’s seen.

Only when the Doctor’s gone does she realise she can’t use any of what she’s seen in her essay. She hurries off to rejoin her college mates.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

AAAGH! and the Shining

Another AAAGH!, this one from Doctor Who Adventures issue #236, out a few days after the Doctor Who episode The God Complex. Issue #237, in shops from today, features Cybermen and Cybermats. I'll be wrestling with Cybermats live on stage tonight with Sir Christopher Frayling.

As ever, the above strip was written by me, illustrated by the amazing Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who also have kind permission for me to post it here. You can also read all my AAAGH!s.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Stalin Ate My Homework is a smart, funny and self-effacing autobiography by Alexei Sayle. It covers the years 1952 (when Sayle was born, on the same day that eggs stopped being rationed) to 1969 (when he started at Southport College of Art – his mum having sat the interview for him). There’s lots of this kind of odd, engaging detail in the 53 short chapters, Sayle’s life and times sketched out in fleeting glimpses.

Sayle was named after Maxim Gorsky. His parents, Joe and Molly, were Communists – dedicated to the party, even after the brutal repression of the uprising in Hungary. Sayle’s good at explaining the different factions, the personalities and the culture of the left. I found his explanation for how his parents could condone events in Hungary (seeing it as a test of their faith in totalitarianism), and then his own leanings towards the Maoists in the 60s, really illuminating of the politics of the period – I’ve not seen it spelt out so simply before. He manages to address the theory and the personalities involved, and get some jokes in, too.

Joe worked for British Rail and used his free pass to take his family all across Europe, so it’s also a travel memoir. Again, the family’s visits to Communist countries – at the height of the Cold War – are fascinating. Sayle notes the irony of a family so dedicated to totalitarian equality lording it up as guests of the Party, and the pang of having to return to ordinary living when these holidays were over.

While there’s a passion for the politics, there’s also a delight in human frailty and life’s strangeness, and he’s good on acknowledging his own weaknesses, anger and stupidity. There's lots on the way that Liverpool changed after the war - linking the architecture to the communities living around and in it. He’s good at unpicking the hippy and peace movements – young guys who were terrible at organising anything and who seemed mostly in it for the sex. It’s all told with an endearing sense of his own envy and confusion, belying the usual cool shtick of the 60s.

The book is dedicated “to Molly”, and it’s as much Sayle’s parents’ story as his own. Molly is a perfect comic creation – argumentative, sweary and utterly adored by the writer. Joe has an easy, carefree faith in the Party ensuring everything will be all right in the end and seems to hold it as an article of that faith not to get on a train until it’s already moving. He and Molly cut sparks and are devoted to one another.

Another child might have resented his "famous" parents overshadowing his own identity - just as he starts going to pubs, so does Molly and she holds court there. I wondered if there might be a link between the nerdy, shy boy who is known because of his parents, and the bullshitting that seems to pervade his teens. Is it an effort to define himself on his own terms - to find a way to get attention for something he's doing himself? But perhaps that would only work if Sayle were more hostile or resentful.

The glowing affection for Molly and Joe makes hints about Joe’s declining health all the more powerful. It's what makes this such an absorbing and feel-good read. But the following passage is worth quoting in full for its mix of history, comedy and gut-wrenching pathos. I find it utterly haunting, and a sign that this isn't just a funny, daft book but something really special.

“The Bedfordshire CID had come to our house to interview my father about the murder of Michael Gregsten at Deadman's Hill on the A6 in Bedfordshire, on 22 August 1961, along with the rape and shooting of his lover, Valerie Storie. James Hanratty, a professional car thief, had been charged with the crimes. Hanratty's alibi was that at the time of the murder he had been in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl, staying in a boarding house named Ingledene run by a woman called Mrs Jones, in the attic room, which had a green bath.

The police had discovered that Joe had stayed at Ingledene between 21 and 24 August, in the small front room on the first floor. He was there on behalf of the NUR, taking part in a recruitment drive. In his book Who Killed Hanratty? Paul Foot describes Joe as 'the most important witness from the prosecution point of view'. He says that Joe saw no sign of Hanratty, although he admits, 'he was out on union business from dawn to dusk'. Which sounds typical enough.

Hanratty's trial began at Bedfordshire Assizes on 22 January 1962. On 17 February he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Hanratty's appeal was dismissed on 9 March, and despite a petition signed by more than ninety thousand people he was hanged at Bedford on 4 April 1962, still protesting his innocence.

Joe was away for a week attending the trial in Bedford. One night Molly spoke to him on the phone, and when I asked how he was she replied that he had told her he was frightened. I asked her what my father was frightened of, and she said he was worried that Hanratty might have criminal friends who could harm him in some way.

When he returned from the trial Joe told us that what had upset him most was that he had been the final witness called in the trial. He realised that the last person Hanratty had heard testifying against him, the last person he had seen on the stand, the final person confirming his fate, was Joe Sayle. After that he was taken down, sentenced and hanged two months later. The last witness to testify against the last person executed in Britain was my father. Though he never talked about it, since he was such a good-natured man that must have been a heavy burden for him to bear.

Over the next few years the case did not go away: prosecution witnesses attempted or committed suicide and several books were written about the case, including one by Lord Russell of Liverpool. There were newspaper articles, radio and TV programmes, all of them contesting the soundness of Hanratty's conviction and reminding Joe that he might have taken part in the execution of an innocent man. When one of those programmes came on we did not shout at the TV as we usually did but simply changed the channel and said nothing. In 2002, the murder conviction of James Hanratty was upheld by the Court of Appeal which ruled that new DNA evidence established his guilt 'beyond doubt'. So the coppers got it right.”

Alexei Sayle, Stalin Ate My Homework, pp. 113-5.

(Wikipedia says Hanratty wasn't the last person executed in the country - I assume that's dramatic licence.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The AAAGH! Who Waited

Here's the AAAGH! from Doctor Who Adventures #236, last week, nicked broadly from The Girl Who Waited but with a guest appearance by Prisoner Zero. The new issue, #237, is out today and features a homage to The Shining which I'm particularly proud of for a magazine aimed at 6-12 year-olds.

As always, script by me, art by the amazing Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes, who also gave kind permission to post this here. Why not read all my AAAGH!s so far?

Friday, September 16, 2011


“Archaeologist and Man of Action” says the back cover of Still Digging, the 1955 autobiography by archaeologist, soldier and “acclaimed Television Personality of the Year”, Mortimer Wheeler. Wheeler's something of a hero – Indiana Jones as played by Terry-Thomas, with moustache and twinkling mischief. This illustrated 2'6 paperback has been a joy to read.

Wheeler himself calls the book,
“an average life in one of the great formative periods of history”.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Still Digging – Adventures in Archaeology (1958 [55]), p 9.
He deftly brings to life service in two World Wars and the violence of the partitioning of India up close – there's a thrilling account of him rescuing a Muslim colleague's family from a siege only for them to tick him off for not bringing their luggage, too. All in all, it's a rather chappish rollick through his life, with excerpts from diaries and correspondence to add vivid contemporary detail. It's generally fun and good-humoured, with an eye for the absurd character or moment. At the same time, he's forthright in his opinions.
“The British Museum I abjured [as a young man] as I abjure it today, a place that suffers from a sort of spiritual cataract and out-stares the visitor with unseeing eyes.”
My 1958 edition adds a footnote to this view:
“I regret this remark. It was written before I became a Trustee of the British Museum and, had truth permitted, I should have deleted it.”
Ibid., p. 24.
That forthrightness is matched by an unapologetic vocabulary when speaking of other nations. There's plenty, for example, on the habits of “the Hun”. Yet for all the racial terminology, he's also strikingly tolerant for his time. The following passage is a typical mix:
“I have in mind the sixty-one students who flocked to me from the universities of India and from the archaeological departments of the Indian states: swarthy Muslims from the North-West Frontier and the Punjab, little round-faced talkative Bengalis, quick-witted Madrasis, dark southerners from Cochin and Travancore. Also, today – only a few years later – such an assemblage of races, tongues and creeds would no longer be feasible. Religious and political barriers have split asunder those who in 1944 worked together with single purpose and common understanding.”
Ibid., p. 174.
It's not just that he wished other races would bally well get along with one another. He's an enthusiastic participant in World War Two, but when the Eighth Army pushes the Germans out of Libya, he's happy to work with Italian – that is, enemy – and Libyan archaeologists, freely acknowledging their superior skill and expertise. He also readily credits the many women archaeologists he's worked with over the years, and is carefully to cite both their unmarried and married names. Foreigners, natives and ladies are treated as equals – all that matters is that they're up to the job.

Wheeler delights in archaeology as a proper, bona fide science, describing particularly fine discoveries or developments in method, and reporting with special glee when some new piece of evidence torpedoes a long-standing theory. He's surprisingly modest about his own contributions to the field – such as dividing digs into grids. Acutely aware that so many of his peers had been killed in the First World War, he concludes that his eminence in the profession,
“was the outcome of circumstance, not merit”.
Ibid., p. 206.
There's a shadow over much of his otherwise jolly outlook. As well as the wars, there's the death of Wheeler's first wife, Tessa, in 1936. Wheeler was away on a dig at the time. His account of learning the news while heading back to England and seeing it in the paper is told with exemplary restraint, which makes it all the more haunting.

He's quick to credit Tessa's contributions to several of his digs. But there's just a single, brief mention (on page 183) of Margaret, his wife at the time of writing, and no mention at all of the wife in between.

As I posted a few weeks back, Mavis was drawn and bedded by Augustus John – before and perhaps after her marriage to Wheeler. Wheeler divorced her in 1942 having caught her with another lover and excised her completely from his memoirs. John, though, gets a mention several times – and even gave the book it's title. (There's no mention of the duel.)

Wheeler is otherwise cagey on the subject of girls. Apart from Tessa, the only romantic entanglement is a newly liberated Italian contessa, who calls him “the General” before he escapes her advances. He's such an old rascal otherwise I suspect his private life might not have been nearly so tame as the book implies.

There are plenty of vignettes about the celebrities he encountered – such as eminent archaeologists Pitt-Rivers and Petrie. But Wheeler was also clearly interested in everyone, no matter their origin or status. The appeal here is as much his perspective as what he did or who he met. As an archaeologist and war-veteran, he takes the long view and sees his own insignificance in history.
“At its best, this book will be little more than a scrapbook: probably few lives are otherwise, save those of the very successful or the very humdrum.”
But there's also a compelling philosophy behind these rag-tag adventures. On the same page, he says,
“I do not believe in much except hard work, which serves as an antidote to disillusion and a substitute for faith.”
Ibid., p. 9.
He says, but for John and his publishers, he'd have called his book “Twenty Years Asleep” - based on the line in Don Juan that we miss a whole third of our lives. Wheeler is a fidget, too eager to get out and explore all the fascinating stuff. His enthusiasm engaged generations of young archaeologists all around the world, and then the TV-viewing public. That delight in rigorous investigation, and the wry, self-mocking twinkle in his eye, is just as arresting today.
“Whilst adoring luxury I abhor waste, and am firmly of the view that most of us are unconscionably wasteful in this matter of sleep. It must at the same time be added that I have been made aware of other opinions.”
Ibid., p. 205.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

AAAGH! and Bernard

Here's the AAAGH! from issue #234 of Doctor Who Adventures, out a few days after the broadcast of Night Terrors (in which a small boy who is scared of Peg Dolls and a dog must overcome his fears). Issue #235 - out in all good shops today - features some timey-wimey issues that might just possibly be inspired by The Girl Who Waited.

As ever, the script is by me, the art is by Brian Williamson and the strip is edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - and posted here by kind permission. You can also read all my AAAGH!s so far.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Plugs and plugs

Doctor Who and the Memory Cheats by Simon Guerrier
Sorry - a pluggy post. I have a new CD out this month - Doctor Who and the Memory Cheats starring Wendy Padbury as Zoe Heriot and Charlie Hayes (Wendy's daughter) as Jen. The spooky cover is by clever Marcus at Amazing15 (who I also sometimes work with doing daftness for Doctor Who Adventures). Here is the blurb:
Zoe Heriot remembers everything. But she remembers nothing.

A genius with instant recall, Zoe’s mind has been purged of her memories of travelling with the Doctor and Jamie in the TARDIS. And years later she is in deep trouble – prosecuted by the mysterious company that has evidence that she has travelled in Space and Time.

Except Zoe knows they’re wrong.

Aren’t they?

But if that’s the case, why is there proof that Zoe was in Uzbekistan in 1919.

Can the memory cheat?
The story owes a bit to Col. Bailey's Mission to Tashkent, which I have blogged about before. I'm interviewed about the CD in the new issue of free Vortex magazine (issue #31). Look, my name is even on the cover, as if I am a draw.

My next CD is out in November. Doctor Who and the First Wave is the final part of my trilogy starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen. Me and Will Howells went to see Tom's show in as part of the Scipmylo festival in Shoreditch last night, a chat show with guests Stephen K Amos, Katherine Ryan, Ed Byrne and some bloke called Matt Smith.

Will, Nimbos and the Dr will be on Only Connect on BBC Four on Monday. Oh, and there is a Twitter competition to win tickets to the first screening of my short film Cleaning Up.

Think that's everything.