Thursday, September 29, 2011
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
Joe worked for British Rail and used his free pass to take his family all across
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.
(Wikipedia says Hanratty wasn't the last person executed in the country - I assume that's dramatic licence.)
“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
, staying in a boarding house named Ingledene run by a woman called Mrs Jones, in the attic room, which had a green bath. Rhyl
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
on 4 April 1962, still protesting his innocence. Bedford
Joe was away for a week attending the trial in
. 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. Bedford
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
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. Britain
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.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Friday, September 16, 2011
Wheeler himself calls the book,
“an average life in one of the great formative periods of history”.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.Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Still Digging – Adventures in Archaeology (1958 ), p 9.
“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.”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:Ibid., p. 24.
“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.”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.Ibid., p. 174.
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”.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.Ibid., p. 206.
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.”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.
Ibid., p. 9.
“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
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
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.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.
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.
But if that’s the case, why is there proof that Zoe was in Uzbekistan in 1919.
Can the memory cheat?
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.
Friday, September 09, 2011
Another AAAGH!, this from last week's Doctor Who Adventures, issue #233. As always, the strip is illustrated by Brian Williamson and edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who gave kind permission for me to post it here.
Issue #234 - currently in all good shops - features another AAAGH! by me, with a Peg Doll and a dog called Bernard. You can also catch up on all my previous AAAGH!s.
Tuesday, September 06, 2011
Full cast and crew for Cleaning Up - a short thriller starring Mark Gatiss and Louise Jameson - is now up on the spangly official Guerrier brothersTM webventure. Why not follow @cleaningup_film on Twitter and join the Facebook Cleaning Up experience journey thing.
Screenings start next week with a showing at the Cambridge Film Festival at 1pm on Saturday 17 September, followed by a screening at the Branchage Film Festival in Jersey at 1pm on Sunday 25 September. More screenings and things to come.