Friday, November 29, 2019

Astounding in the Lancet

The new issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry includes a review by me:
"Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee is the story of the hugely influential science fiction magazine of the same name, told through the lives of the magazine's editor John W Campbell and three of his most influential writers: Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, and L Ron Hubbard. It is also the story of science fiction transcending its humble origins in cheaply produced magazines with relatively few readers to conquer the mainstream. As the prologue tells us, 'For the last two decades, the most successful movie in any given year has nearly always featured elements of science fiction or fantasy…in what amounts to a universal language that can captivate or divert audiences worldwide…The same holds true for literature and television...'" (Simon Guerrier, "The Fiction Behind Science-Fiction", Lancet Psychiatry vol 6, issue 12, pe32, 1 December 2019, DOI:
You need to pay to read the whole thing but here's a short post about the same book from February.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Conan Doyle and London

Yesterday, I attended Conan Doyle and London, a one-day symposium organised by the Institute of English Studies and linked to the forthcoming deluxe reissue of Conan Doyle's books by Edinburgh University Press. It was a fascinating, scholarly day - but perfectly pitched to both academics and Sherlockians, as well as the itinerant hack (that was me).

We began with Douglas Kerr's "Man of Letters, Man About Town", which explored Doyle's life in London - the places he lived, the clubs he attended, the male-dominated culture of dinners and connections he was part of.
"Few men are ever absolutely natural when there are women in the room." Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures: An Autobiography, p. 265.
That clubbable culture was essential to his career: on 30 August 1889, at a dinner at the Langham Hotel, Doyle was commissioned by editor Joseph M Stoddart to write the second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, to be published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Oscar Wilde was at the same dinner, and soon afterward wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray for the same editor and publication (the implication being, I think, that he was commissioned at the same dinner).

Douglas' first slide was of the blue plaque on the wall of 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood - not far from where I live - and I didn't know that almost as soon as he moved there, Doyle wrote Beyond the City (1891) all about suburban life. As Douglas said, Doyle was writing about experience he'd not quite yet had himself.

I should also add that before we started, Douglas made a point of introducing himself to everyone as we arrived, making us all personally welcome. As neither an academic or a Sherlockian, I was feeling a bit of a fraud, a bit daunted by the knowledgeable company I had snuck myself among, so really appreciated that.

Next was Jonathan Cranfield's "Of Time and the City: Conan Doyle and London Print Culture." As a jobbing writer, this was right up my street. How fascinating to understand the kind of literary culture Doyle had grown up in - as a child he sat on Thackeray's knee, as Thackeray was a friend of Doyle's grandfather John. Jonathan also listed Doyle's early publications - one-off commissions in very different styles, each for very different publications. It really hit home: that's how writers begin, trying anything and anyone, slowly developing voice and the all-important relationships with editors and readers. I could well understand Doyle's description of Cornhill editor James Payn, who he met at yet another dinner (this time at the Ship in Greenwich) as a "warden at the gate."

Andrew Lang, editor of Longman's, had dealt with this early, green Doyle and remained a little dismissive of him even after Doyle hit it big.
"Now the native pewter of Sherlock Holmes is a sixpenny magazine with plenty of clever illustrations." Andrew Lang, "The Novels of Conan Doyle", Quarterly Review (July 1904), p. 160.
But Jonathan seemed to argue that Lang had a point. The Strand was the first magazine to have an art editor (WHJ Boot), with a picture on every "opening" - I think that means spread. That wasn't just Sidney Paget's extraordinary, vivid illustrations: the Holmes stories include maps, ciphers and fragments of documents. (In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie mentions Holmes just a paragraph before the first mention of her own detective, Hercule Poirot, indicating the legacy of Doyle; her book also has maps and fragments.)

I was also fascinated by the letters Doyle sent to the press about other writers, muttering at ungentlemanly behaviour of publicising their stories or making too much of the process. He refers in the two letters Jonathan showed us to "wire-pulling," and it only occurred to me afterwards that this might link to Doyle's interest in spiritualism - his strong belief in the truth of it in principle, and his horror at those who faked or exploited it. Was writing just as much of a mystical process to him?

Next came Andrew Glazzard's "'A great traffic was going on, as usual, in Whitehall': Public Places and Private Spaces in Sherlock Holmes' London". This was great, using maps to explore the settings of three spy stories: "The Naval Treaty", "The Second Stain" (a case which Watson tells us in "The Naval Treaty" that he cannot share) and "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". Each one is about the loss of compromising documents, and although foreign agents are keen to buy the missing papers, the fault often lies with incompetent civil servants. Andrew argued that this romanticisation of bureaucracy on which the fate of the nation then hangs would appeal to white-collar commuters reading the Strand.

He also linked the bureacractic incompetence of well-connected duffers (something that would never happen in government now, of course) to the "Hotel Cecil" cabinet, stuffed full of relatives of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, the man from whom we have the phrase "Bob's your uncle."  He also linked the stories to other real events in the time they were written or published: the first Official Secrets Act (1889), which was a response to internal carelessness not external threat; the signing of the Entente Cordial in 1904; the coming together of train companies in 1907 which resulted in the first consolidated map of the London Underground network in 1908. Matching story to map shows the all-important journey is from one triangle of lines on the left to a triangle of lines on the right. In these stories, he suggested, we could see a changing relationship to Europe - particularly Germany - in the years preceding the war.

I was really taken by Andrew noting how much the role played in government by Mycroft Holmes changes between his first appearance in "The Greek Interpreter" and his return in "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". It struck me that Mycroft in the latter is an all-powerful special adviser of the sort we're more used to today, a kind of Dominic Cummings but competent. Surely, I thought, there's a story to be told in which Mycroft misses some small element in his great calculations to devastating effect, where things don't quite go as planned despite his reputation for cleverness...

We stopped for lunch, where I chatted to an American academic who specialises in the history of Spanish-speaking countries but is interested in Doyle the spiritualist. Then we were back for
"I have my eyes on a suite in Baker Street" by Catherine Cooke from Westminster Libraries (of which I'm devoted, card-carrying member). Catherine detailed the history of the real Baker Street and  the various efforts by Sherlockians to work out where 221B "really" must have been. That then expanded into exploring the bits of London Doyle knew himself, such as the Psychic Bookshop, Library and Museum he part-owned at 2 Victoria Street, telegram address "ECTOPLASM, SOWEST, LONDON". Catherine's paper was so packed with clever deductions and interesting titbits of history - the Marlyebone Road was the first ever bypass, designed to relieve pressure on Oxford Street - that I was too absorbed to scribble many notes.

Then it was "Conan Doyle and Medical London" by Roger Luckhurst - my friend, whose tweet had made my buy a ticket for the event in the first place. Roger's focus was the period 1890-91 when Doyle had consulting rooms on a site almost exactly where we were sitting in Senate House. Just as previous speakers used maps to elucidate Doyle's literary world, Roger used maps to show Doyle's universe as a doctor - where he was, where he aspired to be, what else was around him. The big money was just to the west in Harley Street, working as a specialist, but that was open only to the elite. Doyle, a relatively provincial general practitioner working in Southsea until 1890, then spent a train journey with Sir Malcolm Morris - a well-respected surgeon who'd also started as a lowly GP. As well as his practice, Morris was a writer, a member of the MCC and the Reform Club - and Roger showed the profound influence he had on Doyle's ambitions - the kind of man Doyle wanted to be. That train journey, too, was to see Robert Koch - yet another provincial doctor outside the establishment who'd made it big anyway (in Koch's case by his work on anthrax).

Roger's editing the Edinburgh edition of Doyle's Round the Red Lamp (1894), a collection of medical stories that sound gruesome and disturbing, and were not well-received at the time. Roger linked that response to the horror that met the trial of Oscar Wilde the following year. I dared to ask a question: a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty dark and disturbing, and they're also relayed by a doctor - so what made these medical stories different? Roger suggested that Holmes solves or explains the events in his stories and Watson anyway won't share the worst or most disturbing cases. Both, then, frame the events in a reassuring way.

As the son of a consultant, I know doctors share horror stories with one another. There's a sense, I think, of Doyle sharing the kind of tales he swapped in the gentlemanly clubs he belonged to. At least, that's the sense I get without reading the stories - which I now very much mean to.

In the tea-break I spoke to a couple of young academics sat near me: both American, both here pursuing studies that overlapped with Doyle. One asked me how long I'd lived in London. When I said just over 20 years, he said that was how long he'd lived. Reader, I cried into my complimentary biscuit.

Finally, Christine Ferguson's "Cosmopolitan Spiritualism and Doyle's The Land of Mist" explored the 1926 novel seen as propaganda for Doyle's belief in the spirit world - in which even the great cynic Professor Challenger goes from calling it all "twaddle" to becoming a true believer. Christine described Challenger as a kind of blend of Brian Blessed and TH Huxley, with a quote from Huxley where he also described spiritualism as twaddle.

The general consensus in the room from those who've read and know the book is that The Land of Mist isn't very good. Christine thought Arnold Bennett's The Glimpse (1909) a better advertisement for the world of the spirits, one in vivid colour whereas Doyle's is all grey. That made me think of A Matter of Life and Death, where the after-life is in monochrome and to be appealed against. Christine also said she found Doyle's evidence, his arguments, unconvincing - and afterwards it struck me that if he'd really wanted to convince his readers of the truth of his beliefs, he'd have done better using another of his characters. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a convert, the zeal with which he'd pronounce the evident, empirical truth...

To conclude, Douglas Kerr told us more about the forthcoming reissue of Doyle's books, beginning with the autobiography Memories and Adventures, which should be out sometime next year. There was natter and wine after, and then I reached St Pancras just as a fast, direct train back to Norwood Junction pulled in - Doyle's ghost evidently looking over me. Home in good time to say goodnight to the children, me and the Dr then caught up on the final episode of Dublin Murders, a properly disturbing case filled with the ghosts of the past.

Related wittering:

Friday, November 15, 2019

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

After Case Histories comes One Good Turn, which brings former soldier, cop and private detective Jackson Brodie out of retirement, ruining the happy ending of that previous, devastatingly sad book.

Jackson's at the Edinburgh Festival where his actress girlfriend is in a terrible play. Idling around without her during the day, Jackson is by chance witness to a moment's road rage but doesn't want to get involved. He then, by chance, discovers a dead body - but loses it again. Then a man tries to kill him, and when Jackson fights back he ends up on a charge. This does not help convince newly promoted Detective Sergeant Louise Monroe that he is a good guy. Which is tricky because Lousie and Jackson clearly fancy one another...

In fact, Jackson doesn't turn up until page 51 and the road rage incident is first conveyed from the perspective of two other people, including Martin Canning - an author of not very good detective stories, which allows Atkinson some fun. For example, there's the flashback to Martin taking a first writing class and the teacher's words that inspired him to make it his job:
"You're the only one in the class who can put one word in front of another and not make want to fucking puke, excuse my split infinitive. You should be a writer." (p. 38)
There's the strange competition and jockeying for position that goes on at panels of writers. Or there's the simple truth of what writing involves:
"For some reason people thought it was a glamorous profession but Martin couldn't find anything glamorous about sitting in a room on your own, day after day, trying not to go mad." (p. 122) 
There's a lot of this - the meandering thoughts of the characters in whose heads we're in, their memories and connections and musings. Concealed in some of this are vital clues to the plot, but it largely feels like Atkinson is just having fun. The result is that the story, for all it is about murder and corruption, and the disintegration of relationships, is much less cold and disturbing than Case Histories.

Yet there are moments when she twists the knife, as when a character I won't name here is encumbered by a dead body.
"The only thing he could see was her handbag. He rifled through it to make sure there was nothing to incriminate him, that she hadn't written down his name and hotel address. Nothing, just a cheap purse, some keys, a tissue and lipstick. A photograph in a plastic wallet. The photograph was of a baby, its sex indeterminate. [Name] refused to think about the significance of a photograph of a baby." (p. 494)
That's horrific, as is what then happens to the body.
"He had thrown a human being away like rubbish." (p. 496) 
That haunts the reader as it does the man I won't name.

Atkinson is brilliant at these distinct characters, and the book is full of telling detail. Another principal figure is Gloria Hatter, frustrated wife of a dodgy businessman. Gloria poses as a potential buyer to nose rounds the houses that her husband's company builds, and gives a perfectly withering assessment of the company - and him.
"Everything was built to the tightest specifications, as little garden as possible, the smallest bathroom - it was as if a very mean person had decided to build houses." (p. 254)
As before, the disparate elements are eventually woven together in a satisfying way. My only disquiet is what happens in Jackson's love life - he's told something towards the end of the novel about a third party, but not who that is or what exactly happened, a mystery that lingers. But I loved the final pages in which we return to a character from the beginning and learn something new and devastating and brilliant about someone we thought we knew.

I'm very much looking forward to the next Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News?


I've added this sighting to my list of Doctor Who references in non-Doctor Who books:
"He had another cup of coffee as he walked, dispensed from a kiosk that used to be a blue police box, a Tardis. It was a strange world, Jackson thought. Yes, sirree." (p. 274)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 545

Out tomorrow, the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine names the writers and directors of next year's TV series, and details the results of a Twitter poll on the greatest Dalek stories ever. And that's just the start of the splendid things.

At the back, I've reviewed Christopher Eccleston's autobiography, I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me (which I read in September). There's also a nice review by Alex Romeo of The Target Storybook - apparently, in my story, first-person narrative is used "to great effect."

Monday, November 11, 2019

Galactic Yo-Yo 86

Episode 86 of the Galactic Yo-Yo podcast features an interview with me talking about writing Doctor Who books and audios, and confessing my love for 1985 story Timelash.

"Simon likes Timelash more than most people do," as Molly says in her introduction. It is true.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula le Guin

A few months after reading The Tombs of Atuan, I'm back in Earthsea for a third instalment. It's been "seventeen years, or eighteen, since the Ring of the King's Rune was returned to the Tower of the Kings in Havnor," at the end of that last book (p. 316). There's a brief reference to what the protagonist of that previous book is up to: having completed her training in magic, she's now, "the White Lady of Gont, Tenar of the Ring" (p. 309). But this is not her story.

A strange despair hangs over the islands, people losing their sense of magic and even of their own names. Ged, hero of the last two books, is now a distinguished old archmage who teams up with young prince Arren to venture out to the very edge of the world to confront an evil power hoovering up the sparkle of everyone else.

Told from Arren's perspective, this is a more conventional hero quest than the previous instalments, though for all Arren has a special sword there's little conventional bashing people. The one time he uses his sword to do someone a serious injury, it heals almost instantly - the weapon of no effect. Instead, he and Ged travel through a disconcerting wasteland, small communities sickening under the spell. Ged can help one old woman only by making her forget who she once was. Even dragons and Ged's heroes are caught in this fog - rendered unable to speak.

As before, a lot of the book is taken up with the ethics of magic. Arren is not magical but fascinated by the potential of spells, asking about the limits of what can be achieved. Fairly early on, he asks about the power to summon the dead back to life and Ged admits to having known "only one man" work such ancient, seldom-used power:
"He lived in Havnor. They accounted him a mere sorcerer, but in native power he was a great mage. He made money from his art, showing any who paid him whatever spirit they asked to see, dead wife or husband or child, filling his house with unquiet shadows of old centuries, the fair women of the days of the Kings. I saw him summon from the Dry Land my own old master who was Archmage in my youth, Nemmerle, for a trick to entertain the idle. And the great soul came at his call, like a dog to heel. I was angry, and challenged him. I was not Archmage then. I said, 'You compel the dead to come into your house. Will you come with me to theirs?' And I made him come, though he fought me with all his will, and changed his shape, and wept aloud in the darkness." (pp. 368-9)
This seemed an important moment in Ged's life and I flipped back through the previous two books to check it wasn't something described there, but it doesn't seem to be. Yet it is significant: the man in question turns out to be the villain of the piece, a wizard called Cob at least equal in power to Ged - if not more so.

Our first sight of Cob himself is a vision on a shore, as Ged explains:
"It was only a sending. A presentment or image of the man. It can speak and hear, but there's no power in it, save what our fear may lend it. Nor is it even true in seeming, unless the sender so wishes." (p. 446)
That made me think of Luke in The Last Jedi - though Ged tells us such visions cannot be sent across water. Like that film, victory seems possible not by force of will but the opposite, surrendering the spirit rather than clinging on. Cob is, in many ways, a mirror of Ged in the first book, too eager to dominate, to driven by his own fear. In facing him, Ged shows how far he has come - the farthest shore as much about the extent of his reach as it is the physical place where this occurs.

The result feels like a proper ending to a trilogy, though there's still a book to go in this collection...

Friday, November 01, 2019

Standing with Samira

Around the childcare, the Dr and I had turns this week to stand in solidarity with Samira Ahmed taking the BBC to tribunal over unequal pay. I've been Samira's producer on a number of projects, including four documentaries for BBC Radio 3, and follow the case with close interest.

Picture by Aaron Chown / PA Wire / PA Images - ref: 47995752