Wednesday, January 31, 2018

St Mary's, Ickworth - inspiration for the Weeping Angels

Last summer, then big chief of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, explained to me his inspiration for the most successful of his monsters, the Weeping Angels:
"We were at a hotel in Dorset and there was a graveyard next to the hotel. The church was closed down and the graveyard gates were all chained up with a big sign saying, 'Unsafe structure.' That seemed really frightening. I went over and looked inside, and saw all these leaning gravestones and one lamenting, weeping angel. I thought that was really creepy and strange, and wondered if that was the unsafe structure. So a few years later I wrote it up as [2007 episode] Blink, including the chained-up gate which we had at the very beginning." [From my interview with Steven Moffat
In September, Marcus Hearn at Doctor Who Magazine asked me to write something about Blink for a new special issue, The Essential Doctor Who - Time Travel, published in November. I asked Steven to confirm the hotel he'd stayed in all those years ago, so I could track down that church. It turned out not be to be in Dorset after all. He directed me to the Ickworth Hotel in Suffolk, and said the abandoned church was right next to it.

John Porter, director of the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust, invited me to come see for myself. It was a 180-mile round trip, and I chose to visit the same day as a Wood Fair in the surrounding National Trust grounds, which made it a little crowded and busy. But the church was easy to find and John kindly gave me a tour. These are some of the pictures I took:

As I wrote in my piece:
"Sadly, there’s no lamenting angel statue in the churchyard today. Gargoyles stretch out from the top of the church tower, and some of the graves are carved with cherubs – like those seen in Steven’s 2012 episode The Angels Take Manhattan – or skulls. Stacked neatly against one wall, a broken-off stone crucifix and other pieces suggest that some monuments did not survive the period of neglect.
Though John hadn’t heard of there being an angel statue in the churchyard, he admits that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. He shows me the church’s impressive eighteenth-century chancel boards and explains they were saved at the last moment from a skip. “Who knows what was thrown away?” he says. Perhaps the original weeping angel wasn’t thought worthy of salvation."
Steven had also been back to the church since creating the Weeping Angels. As he told me,
"It was gone – oh no! Now, there are two possible explanations. One is that Weeping Angels are real and we're all doomed – unless a moth sees them. Or, I misremembered and in my fake memory created the Weeping Angel in that graveyard."
See also:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Geis - A Game Without Rules by Alexis Deacon

A Game Without Rules (2017) continues the beguiling story begun in Geis - A Matter of Life and Death (2016), the extraordinary, beautiful graphic novel by Alexis Deacon.

When the chief matriarch dies without an heir, a contest is held to find a new ruler for the island state. Fifty contestants - some of them the least likely competitors - then begin some peculiar and deadly games...

Page 81 of Geis - A Game Without Rules
by Alexis Deacon
I've followed Alexis' career for some time as we have a mutual friend (who introduced us, very briefly, late last year because I asked). His books for younger children - Slow Loris, I Am Henry Finch - have been favourites of the Lord of Chaos.

Geis is aimed at older readers and presents an absorbing, rich fantasy world full of strangeness and horror and magic. I meant to post here in praise of the first volume but only got so far as a tweet:

"Geis by Alexis Deacon is great: eerie, epic
fantasy like a fairy tale twisting wrong. Plus
people wear amusingly shaped hats."

The second volume is just as enthralling, full of the same dream-like disquiet and sudden shocking turns - and those excellent hats. The characters from the first book are caught up in games and plots they barely understand, and which not all of them survive. The violence is implied rather than shown, but the beautiful artwork and lightness of touch in the storytelling are underpinned by constant, real threat. A book that compels you to read on.

I eagerly anticipate the third volume, The Will That Shapes The World. You can see more artwork from Geis on Alexis Deacon's website.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

This life of SOE agent "Christine Granville" - born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek in Poland in 1908 - took a while to get in to, not least because it's so dense with meticulous research. There is lots on the frustrations and false starts of a life running messages under Nazi noses, on the bureaucracy and "office politics" of rival intelligence factions, and on her tangled love life.

Peppered with good moments, it then really picks up once the firm (as SOE was known to its employees) finally gives Christine something to do, dropping her blind (without help) into France. She's brave, resourceful and charismatic, and it's thrilling to be at her side in the thick of the action. The odds against her and her comrades make these chapters utterly compelling - particularly the Nazi attack on Vercors, and Christine's attempts to rescue comrades when they're arrested and sentenced to death. Later, the Warsaw Uprising is just as deftly conveyed - Christine wasn't there, but we're haunted by the dreadful events just as she was.

We feel Christine's righteous anger when artillery is not dropped to the desperate resistance fighters in Vercors and Warsaw, despite repeated and urgent requests. There's also her justifiable fury at being constantly overlooked - a mix of sexism, xenophobia, Antisemitism and office politics. After the war, despite distinguished service and the support of such figures as Lord Selbourne - who appealed directly to the Home Secretary on her behalf - Christine was still denied British citizenship. In fact, says Mulley,
"it now turned out that Christine's service to Britain was irrelevant, because she was not a man. 'A married woman is disbarred, under the present law, from obtaining naturalisation independently from her husband...' a rubber-stamping official explained. Without evidence of [her husband] Jerzy Gizycki's death or a valid dissolution of his and Christine's marriage, the Home Office simply saw 'no point in considering whether she could be regarded as eligible in other respects'. Over six million Poles had died during the war, there were few official records, and Christine was in any case disbarred from returning to Poland because of her service for the Allies, but her marital status was more important than her war record. It was a low moment for Home Office policymakers."
Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved (2013), p. 289.
She felt the firm had also let her down, failing to find her suitable work after the war. She's a restless woman of action who doesn't fit easily in peacetime, and SOE was itself closed down at the end of the war. Christine didn't exactly help herself - she was spiky and rude, and refused to take on administrative or secretarial duties - but it's hard not to share her anger.
"'I am rather tired, after six years of more or less active service with the firm,' she wrote bitterly, 'of being treated as a helpless little girl.'
Ibid., p. 294.
We follow her efforts to find a place for herself post-war: a spell farming in Kenya; visiting a friend in Germany but too disquieted about being in enemy territory; working on passenger liners. And then too quickly it's over - shockingly, awfully, in July 1952 Christine was murdered by a jilted admirer.

Mulley is also good at picking through the accounts of Christine's life, weighing up their claims. She spells out the case for Christine having inspired Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale - written a few months before Christine's death. It seems quite convincing an idea until Mulley then unpicks it: there's no strong evidence Christine actually ever met Ian Fleming.

An epilogue detailing how Christine's friends tried to protect her reputation after her death is concise and moving. Mulley then offers a note on how she went about collating this story - from an extraordinary range of sources.

But the book then ends on a sour note, with one appendix speculating on why Christine never had or seemed to want children, and then another other giving more detail about her murderer. They're surely appendices because they don't fit with what's gone before, and there's a feeling of prurience, even disrespect to the difficult, brilliant agent who deserved something more.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


This morning, the Dr and I took our poorly, frail cat Shaggy to the vet one last time, where he was quietly put to sleep. It was quick. It has all been horribly, mercifully quick.

For months now, he’s been losing weight and confidence, no longer daring to go outside in the cold and wet, let alone to brave the domains of Other Cats that he once kept in line. Then, in the last few weeks, he’s taken a sudden turn for the worse and been miserable, too. This morning, there was no fight to get him into his carrier, no resistance at all.

Thirteen and a half years ago, Shaggy was my wedding present to the Dr. Growing up, she’d not had any pets but could never pass a cat in the street without stopping to say hello (she still can’t). The day after we got back from honeymoon, on 14 July 2004, we headed to what’s now Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

The Dr was jumpy with excitement, so my role was to be the cool, collected one. I reminded her on our way in that we’d been warned not to expect to take a cat home that first day. No, this was just the start of the process. We were interviewed about our past experience with pets (I grew up with cats, dogs and chickens), about the kind of home we could provide and whether there were dangers such as nearby busy roads. They concluded we needed a nice “entry-level” pet. There was a colour-coded system: we were told to look for green cats.

Then we were led upstairs to where the cats were waiting. They were all in individual hutches, inset into the wall floor to ceiling, each with a card giving details of their temperament and background. Older, crosser cats had red stickers. One particularly furious red beast glared at us from its cell. The yellow cats did a better job of imploring us to love them. The green cats hardly seemed to notice us at all.

As instructed, we looked at the green cats. They were… cats. All very nice but nothing exactly suggestive of how we were meant to choose.

Then they let some green cats out, one at a time, so we could get a better idea. One dark-haired cat with both green and yellow stickers was set down on the floor and wandered nonchalantly off, barely glancing our way. The Dr had his card and asked why he’d been called “Shaggy”. The person showing us round grinned and clapped her hands. It made us jump – and Shaggy, too. His thick, long hair all stood up on end, an endearing scruffy mess.

Sensing our interest in this ridiculous creature, it was suggested we pick him up. The Dr was nervous, so I went first. Shaggy immediately collapsed into my arms, snuggling up like a baby. That did it for my cool composure.

Now it seemed that we might get to take this purring fur-bag home with us that same day. That was, if we could sign all the paperwork and buy up all the equipment we needed before Battersea closed for the evening. There was a bit of a scramble and some crossed wires, but finally we were in our cab home – cradling our new cat.

Back home, we did as instructed and shut ourselves in one room before letting Shaggy out of his carrier. The idea was not to scare him with too much at once: he could get used to one room at a time. (Years later, our surviving cat, Stevens, was so terrified on her first evening with us that she spent the night clinging to the top of a door, and only came down to pee all over the floor.)

Shaggy was never shy. He immediately took charge of the room – our bedroom – and was then scratching at the door. Within an hour or so he’d taken charge of our flat. And that night, we were woken by his happy howls on discovering the mouse problem we’d inherited from our previous tenants. Shaggy, for all he was a beautiful, soft fluffball, was a very practical mouser.

He was always a character. When one friend came round to meet him, Shaggy playfully climbed on to a potted plant in the front room and – brazenly staring all of us out – proceeded to crap in it. He was fascinated by frogs, scooping them up from the old pond at the end of the garden and bringing them into show us them leaping around. When the Dr was bedridden with sickness, he helpfully dropped a frog on her head.

In short, we’d hoped for a good entry-level cat and Shaggy was magnificent. Affectionate, cheeky and rarely ill until these last few weeks, he’s given us a very easy ride. He’s been quick to warm to friends and neighbours (I discovered he’d been getting second breakfasts across the road each morning). More than that, he’s seen us – the Dr especially – through plenty of tough times over the years, always knowing when to pad softly over for a cuddle and that deep bass purr.

He had such a close bond with the Dr that we worried how he might respond to children, and so got a second cat in part to prepare him. But Shaggy was just as affectionate with the interloper cats and then with the children, snuggling up to them and suffering their clumsy but well-meant attention. One friend used to guarantee good behaviour from his daughter with the promise of visiting Shaggy.

For our own Lord of Chaos, Shaggy has always been part of the family, and they had one last cuddle this morning before school. His name is one of Lady Vader’s few but well-practised words. It’s hard to tell how much they take in what’s been happening or how it will affect them. I suspect the main issue they’ll have to deal with is their tender parents.

We knew Shaggy was getting on in years. He was a kittenish 15 months-old when we acquired him so would have been coming up to 15 years now, somewhere between 75 and 90 depending how you calculate cat years. That’s not a bad age, and it’s not been a bad life – doted on by the Dr and spoilt rotten when I wasn’t looking. You could tell when he wasn’t happy, and that’s been mostly rare: when we didn’t share prawns or tuna; when we were ever packing a bag he couldn’t climb into; in his long war of passive aggression against my mother-in-law; in these last few weeks.

This morning the Dr and I went with him to the vet, and soon it was all over. We buried him with his favourite pink mouse toy in the garden, in the corner he’d always made his own because it caught the sun.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2018

The Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2018 is out in shops now. Among its myriad delights are some things I did the typing on:

An interview with Stephanie Hyam, who played Heather - the enigmatic student, spooky puddle and love interest of Bill Potts.

Sound engineer Cathy Robinson details how the especially unsettling "binaural" sound mix for Knock, Knock was achieved.

Ysanne Churchman tells me about returning to Doctor Who after 43 years to reprise the role of Alpha Centauri.

Many of my previous interviews with Doctor Who cast and crew can be read on the Koquillion site.