Monday, November 29, 2021

Blake's 7: The Terra Nostra

I've script edited one of the three Blake's 7 audio stories that make up The Terra Nostra, a new set out in January 2022 from Big Finish. It's all the wheeze of that criminal mastermind Peter Anghelides; my job was to offer notes and criticism without him having me shot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Long Game, by Paul Hayes

Loved this deep dive into how exactly Doctor Who came back to TV in 2005, talking to many of those involved including Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter and Lorraine Heggessey. It's a story I thought I knew pretty well but Hayes has covered all sorts of stuff that was completely new to me - not least the key role played by my old friend Daniel Judd in sorting out the issue of rights.

I especially like where Hayes presents conflicting published accounts of what happened to the people involved in an effort to get at the truth - and his acknowledgment that sometimes people remember the same events differently. He's also very good at placing Doctor Who in the wider context - of changing BBC politics, of BBC and British television more generally, and of imported drama from the US such as The X-Files and Buffy. The result is a sense of myriad separate forces all pulling in similar directions - Doctor Who was always going to come back in some form, none of the other options quite as good as what we got. There are no villains and yet it's thrilling to relive the sensation as the stars gradually align...

As Hayes says, the book seems especially timely what with the recent announcement that Gardner, Tranter and Russell T Davies are taking over Doctor Who once more. But how brilliant, how satisfying, to find an original story to tell and make the familiar new.

Oh, and joy of joys, a small-press book with an index. This is definitely a book I'll be coming back to... 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

This largely autobiographical novel was first published in 1847, the same year that Anne's sisters published the better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though it's thought this was the first to be written. 

A business investment goes wrong, putting pressure on the already limited means of the Grey family. To help her parents, Agnes takes a job as a governess for a wealthy lot. Her first, young charges are unruly and cruel: at one point, Agnes kills some wild birds rather than allow them to be tortured. The wayward behaviour is blamed on Agnes and she is dismissed, but she has the resolve to try again. Her second position is as governess to older children, who are no less spoilt or unruly. One is playing off various suitors, enjoying the attention and the chance to turn them down. This contrasts with Agnes, who modestly admire the virtues of a young parson...

It's a less dramatic book than those by Brontë's sisters, or Anne's own The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In those books, first impressions are often deceptive, and we only uncover a person's true character in time. Here, things are much more as they appear - the good are always meek and modest and good, the bad seem unlikely to ever find redemption. That lack of twists may come from the fact that this isn't a heightened, gothic fiction but grounded in real experience: it is thought that the novel is based on Anne's own diaries.

The violence, the threat, the powerlessness, all feel horribly real. There's also no climactic event - a fire or a storm or whatever - to bring about reckonings for all involved. Towards the end, Agnes speaks to another woman trapped in her own awful life and can only advise her to weather it as best she is able. There is no escape.

Agnes gets a happy ending but the author quickly passes over marriage and children, it being outside her own lived experience. For all she mentions further challenges, it's where the book slips into fantasy - poignantly, given that the model for Agnes's husband is thought to be a curate Anne knew who died the year her book was published.
"We have had trials, and we know that we must have them again; but we bear them well together, and endeavour to fortify ourselves and each other against the final separation—that greatest of all afflictions to the survivor. But, if we keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown, surely that too may be borne..."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila is stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter) but longs to get back to his home - and the good weather - in Clusium (in modern-day Tuscany). Then his garrison are attacked by Britons, including those Marcus considered as friends. Wounded, Marcus cannot continue as a soldier, which means he can't make enough money to return home. In considerable pain, mental and physical, he is well supported by an uncle and some new friends, and in time develops a plan. He will undertake a dangerous quest to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, who - with Marcus's father among them - went missing somewhere north of York...

I'm not sure what I expected from this children's classic, my copy a 50th anniversary edition embossed in gold, but assumed it would be a stirring tale of heroism in the Roman army. Instead, its hero is quickly hobbled and forced out of his job, and spends the rest of the book as a misfit. The consequence is a far more interesting book: Marcus can guide us through 2nd-century Britain from two perspectives, having known the privilege of a position in the army and now as an underdog. We get a rich, layered portrait of the Roman province and the land beyond Hadrian's wall, with Rome itself a distant yet powerful influence. 

It means Sutcliff can have it both ways, sympathising with Roman characters and with the subdued, resentful Brits. There's no particular sense that the Romans are right or wrong to occupy Britain, no great feeling from the author that Britons ought to rule themselves. Colonisation is simply the way of things, which seems striking and odd now. I wonder how odd it felt when the book was first published in 1954 when Britain still had colonies - they were increasingly in the news - and also where Sutcliff stood on things. Is it a twist to show Britons being colonised, or suggesting that colonisation has always been (and always will be) with us?

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Marcus adopts a wolf puppy and then, once its old enough to fend for itself, takes it out of the city and sets it free. His hope is that the wolf will remember his kindness and return "home" of its own volition. A comparison is made to Esca, a former slave granted his freedom who remains on good terms with his former master. Sutcliff is shrewd enough to show the awkwardness and resentment that linger long after this, yet it's solved by a few words from the former master, telling Esca not to be so insufferably proud. 

At stake throughout is honour: for Marcus, no longer able to support himself financially; for his father and the lost Ninth Legion; for Esca. We understand these stakes for all they're an alien system of values - and I think that's what makes The Eagle of the Ninth so effective. The plot is fairly slight and straight-forward, a trek north and back again to fetch a particular object. And yet it's a journey through an ancient, foreign land that feels credible, comprehensible, tangible - since we can flip to the glossary at the back and map the Roman names onto modern British cities and towns.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Gallifrey's Most Wanted - Runcible Report #24

Doctor Who: The Cold Equations starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen
I'm a guest on the Gallifrey's Most Wanted podcast, chiefly chatting to hosts Jeff and Ross about the trilogy of Doctor Who stories I wrote starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen. But there's also some stuff about my new Sherlock Holmes novel The Great War and much more besides. You can listen to the podcast here:

Sunday, November 14, 2021

In Search of HV Morton, by Michael Bartholomew

This is a very good biography of a very successful writer and pretty awful human being. Michael Bartholomew brilliantly teases out the real man from the literary persona, effectively providing biographies of two people: the real Harry Morton and the invented HV.

Morton's most famous work is In Search of England (1927), in which he escaped London for excursions in a bull-nosed Morris. Bartholomew makes the point that the title suggests this England had become hidden or lost and so had to be sought through its countryside and history. He goes on that this struck a chord in a nation still reeling from war. He also points out that the final destination in the book, a village in which Morton finds this England, is almost certainly a fiction. As he says, there's a subtle but important difference between a myth and a lie... I'll return to this when I reread In Search of England.

Bartholomew is aided by a wealth of evidence which any researcher would envy (me included). HV Morton published more than 40 books, almost all of them non-fiction, often recounting his adventures with wry, self-deprecating insight. Many of the books were collections of reports for newspapers (and, later in life, features for glossy magazines), with telling differences between what was originally printed and what was then revised. That would be quite enough, but Bartholomew also had access to a 200-page unpublished autobiography written in Morton's last years and a collection of diaries and correspondence ranging right back to his earliest days. This means the biographer is able to compare a diary account of a formative experience with how Morton chose to remember it a half-century later, and then contrast this with the version put in print. There is even a dated list of Morton's sexual conquests, totalling some 100 different individuals, with "wh" marking those that he paid for, which Bartholomew matches against the other details in his timeline.

There are plenty of gaps in the record - missing diaries, absences in what Morton tells us - and Bartholomew is good at deducing connections, motives, feelings. He also tells us when it's his own speculation by adding "I think", as well as saying when nothing firm can be said. Literary biographies can all too often be an annotated list of published works, reductively pinning down real events that inspired the writer, as if writing is little more than copy and paste. Bartholomew achieves something very different - and better. Morton is more than simply a witness: we come to understand the creative act, even in non-fiction. There is careful research beforehand, skilled observation at the time, a period of reflection to put things in perspective, and then craft in the actual process writing - from moulding loose events into a story, to the striking turns of phrase, the well-chosen idiom or analogy, and the deftly worked light humour.

A good example of this use of different sources is what Bartholomew can tell us about a particular photograph, chosen for the back of the dust jacket:

The photograph is also included in the plate section of the book, with the following caption:

"The opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923 -- Morton's first big break as a reporter. The photograph was taken by the Times photographer. Under armed escort, treasures are being removed from the tomb. The figure leading the way is the official archaeologist, Howard Carter. The figure on the extreme right, furtively shadowing the party and taking surreptitious photographs, is Morton. When the photograph was published in The Times, Morton, the interloper, was cropped from the image."

The next plate is the front page of the Daily Express for 17 February 1923, with Morton's coverage - "Pharaoh's Coffin Found" - the first headline. Bartholomew follows the thread of Morton's early passion for archaeology and friendship with antiquarian GF Lawrence, how this helped him get the Tutankhamun gig (the Express determined not to let the Times have a monopoly on the story), the effect this trip had on Morton and how it all tied in to the historical perspectives in his later books.

It's interesting to read that, while waiting to be sent out to fight in the war, Morton was stationed in Colchester and involved in some excavations of Roman finds there. This was also true of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There's no mention of Wheeler in this book, or of Morton in Jacquetta Hawkes' biography of Wheeler, and perhaps they never overlapped in life. Yet it strikes me that these womanising rogues had a lot in common, and Wheeler had a similar way of making direct connections to the ancient past. During excavation of Maiden Castle in the 1930s, Wheeler's brilliant deductions about the stages of a Roman siege were informed by his own battlefield experience in the war. Yet I wonder if the two men would have been at cross purposes: Wheeler using modern experience to unpick the truth of history, Morton looking to the past to provide a modern fiction... I'll keep an eye out for references to Wheeler in Morton's books.

Bartholomew has an eye for wry humour, such as when he details a break-in at the office young Morton was renting with a friend so that Morton could write a novel and the friend a play. 

"The project petered out, before Morton had completed chapter one, when a burglar broke in and made off with the kettle, tea and biscuits, but disdained to steal the manuscripts." (p. 82)

We also quickly get a sense of Morton's character, his presence in any room. While I envy Bartholomew his wealth of evidence, I wonder how much he enjoyed the time spent with his subject. Morton's insecurities and womanising are exhausting from the off but the racism creeps up on the reader. True, his travel writing is full of caricatures - there are often salt-of-the-earth yokels or idiot Americans for his narrator to converse with - but Bartholomew is good at showing how often Morton plays against easy stereotypes and presents a more complex view... at least in his published writing. In private, he's often shockingly racist, continually sympathising with the Nazis during the war and then emigrating to South Africa just as the apartheid regime came in.

Bartholomew confronts this head on and at some length: 

"For him to to have persisted with a rosy view of fascism, long after others had seen the light, indicates more than naivety." (p. 172)

He also points out the contradictions in Morton's prejudice: this man who made his name celebrating England actually despised much of its people and ways of doing things. Morton sympathised with and admired the Nazis and assumed they'd win the war, and yet was also a dedicated leader of a Home Guard unit, expecting to die with his men in token, doomed resistance to the inevitable invasion.

There are other ironies, such as - "improbably", as Bartholomew says - when the Labour Party published a pamphlet by Morton, What I Saw in the Slums (1933), with a foreword by party leader George Lansbury. Bartholomew makes the case that George Orwell surely read this ahead of his own, better known, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and even argues that of the two, Morton is the more sensitive and egalitarian.

"Morton's own descriptions of women are just as powerful [as Orwell's], and are less patronising. He writes, for example, of women who strive to put a symbolic barrier between their home and the even more squalid street beyond, by whitening the doorstep: 'Thousands of horrid doorsteps, worn as thin as wafers in the centre, are whitened or raddled. Every time a door opens you see a woman cleaning something.' What I Saw in the Slums is an impressive little book." (p. 147)

Bartholomew is no less impressive. There's lots that's uncomfortable in Morton's life - or parallel lives - but the story is well told. Note to self: this is how it's done.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #571

The latest Doctor Who Magazine is, of course, devoted to the new TV series will lots of exclusive access to cast and crew.

There's also another Sufficient Data infographic from me and illustrator Ben Morris, this time on all the times the Doctor has used the alias "John Smith", or had it applied. Ben is also one of the contributors profiled on page 3.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Secret Barrister

It's taken a while to get through this because it's both dense and pretty grim. The anonymous author makes a compelling case about the failings of the judicial system and what and who is to blame. I worked in the House of Lords for 13 years and followed the passage of lots of legislation, so knew of some of the issues detailed here, yet much still came as a shock.

At its best, I think, the Lords could spot potential unintended consequences of proposed new law. Often, an elderly noble and learned figure would rise unsteadily to share some anecdote about a case they were involved in maybe 40 years before. They had learned from those mistakes, and hoped to spare some further unfortunate from a repeated injustice. It's a particularly insidious trick, then, to smuggle significant changes into secondary legislation where there's less chance of teasing out detail.

"The practical consequence of reforms snuck onto the statute book by stealth in 2012 is to financially punish innocent people for the 'crime' of being wrongly accused. When I explain this to non-lawyers, they assume I'm joking, or exaggerating for effect." (p. 199)

The issue here is the decimation of legal aid, the impact being what the author calls an "Innocence Tax", and entirely premised on a false narrative that spiralling costs were all the fault of the lawyers.

"In 2007, the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee heard evidence that the significant rises in Crown Court legal aid costs was largely down to increase in volume of cases, propelled by the creation of more criminal offences, and concluded that 'the average cost per claim did not and has not significantly increased'. Legal aid had therefore increased not because of fat-cat lawyers exponentially milking the taxpayer, but because the state was increasing the volume of cases." (p. 208)

Too often, Governments boast that they will bring about "change", a word that is not the same as "improvement". The result is ever more tinkering, meddling, chaos.

"To try to make sense of sentencing is to roam directionless in the expansive dumping ground of the criminal law. Statutes are piled atop statutes. Secondary legislation bearing titles unrelated to the amendments they make to primary legislation and the half-baked, half-enacted and half-revoked brainchildren of some of our dimmest politicians lie strewn across the landscape, stretching out farther than the eye can see. The many hundreds of legislative provisions exceed, at a conservative estimate, 1,300 pages. If one were seeking a totem to the despair caused by the work of licentious, headline-chasing governments revelling in the ruin they wreak, sentencing law would be it." (p. 286)

We've seen it over the past few weeks: the rush to respond to some incident by bringing in new legislation, rather than ensuring that current legislation has been adequately applied - which more often than not equates to whether it's being adequately resourced. That's the theme here: the awful cost inflicted by ill-thought attempts to save money.

The grimmest thing is that, like The Blunders of Our Governments, it paints a pretty bleak picture of systematic failure - which has only got worse since publication.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Out now: Sherlock Holmes - The Great War

Published in the UK today by Titan Books (and in the US on the 16th), Sherlock Holmes - The Great War is my first novel in a while. The blurb goes like this:

December 1917. An important visitor arrives at a field hospital not far from the front, who makes sharp deductions about the way the ward is run based on small details that he sees. Sherlock Holmes is apparently only present for a tour, but asks searching questions about a young officer who apparently died in the hospital, but whose records have mysteriously vanished. As Holmes digs deeper, details emerge pertaining to a cover-up that stretches from the trenches to the top of the War Office, and conspiracy on both the British and enemy fronts.

On Sunday, I was a guest on the live Writeopolis! podcast and talked a bit about the book, and the Jeremy Brett version of Doyle's "The Man with the Twisted Lip".