Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Day No One Woke Up, by Polly Ho-Yen

This is another excellent, creepy novel by the author of Boy in the Tower. Ana feigns sickness to get out of going to school, where she's being bullied by Tio - her next-door neighbour and one-time best friend. Another friend, Layla, tries to intercede and only makes things more awful. Then Ana's aunt is suddenly taken ill, suffering from a weird, unsettling loss of memory. And then everyone starts getting sleepy...

As with Boy in the Tower, this is John Wyndham for kids. We start in grounded reality and very relatable problems, and then the weirdness slowly creeps in, ever more unsettling. That means the more outlandish, sci-fi bits of the plot feel solid and real; they are earned. Without spoiling the central wheeze, it's a fun reversal - things being done to humans that humans to do others. 

The conclusion satisfying ties up all the mysteries but leaves a couple of questions - what might the children remember of all they've been through, and what is the fate of the character-I-won't-spoil they encounter? A brilliant book, one that linger longer in the memory...

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Penelope Fitzgerald - A Life, by Hermione Lee

Last year, when I asked what books by Penelope Fitzgerald I should read, a few people suggested this very good biography by Hermione Lee. Lee knew Fitzgerald personally; in the final pages of the book, she scrupulously lists exactly how. With access to Fitzgerald's papers - those held by the family and those at the University of Texas - plus interviews with huge numbers of those who knew and worked with her, the result is a richly detailed portrait of the good, bad and peculiar.

"Dillwyn had his fiftieth birthday party at the Spread Eagle Inn at Thame, a chaotic event at which the notoriously grandiose and eccentric landlord locked up all the lavatories, so that the guests had to pee in the gardens, pursued by ferocious bees, and the only food provided was a dish of boiled potatoes. (This story may have grown in Penelope's telling of it over the years.)" (p. 40)

This Dillwyn, Fitzgerald's uncle, is the Dilys Knox whose work on codebreaking at Bletchley during the war I also ready knew about. His brother Ronald is the Ronald Knox whose writings on Sherlock Holmes I've noted in the Lancet. Their brother Evoe Know, editor of Punch, was also a name I'd seen before, but I'd never made the connection between these Knox brothers, or that Fitzgerald was Evoe's daughter. The book is full of such connections - Fitzgerald's children friends with the young Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, Fitzgerald's family close to that of EH Shepard, illustrator of Winnie the Pooh

By chance, I went to see Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD at the cinema about the same time as reading the section about Grace, the canal boat on which Fitzgerald lived in the early 1960s, and on which she based her novel Offshore. Lee tells us (p. 144) that Grace was moored opposite St Mary's Church, Battersea - which is where Peter Cushing is standing when he sees a Dalek emerge from the Thames. So the background of those shots is what inspired a Booker prize-winning novel. I initially hoped that perhaps Grace was one of the bleak-looking boats visible in the film, but Fitzgerald's modest home sadly sank in 1963, taking with it many of her prize possessions just when she had so little left to lose.

(There's another Doctor Who connection: in about 1969, Fitzgerald owned an "old 1950s car" called Bessie (p. 219), just as Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor was first motoring about in his vintage-looking kit car of the same name.)

Lee tells us when she doesn't know something, or at least can't be sure. And she's brilliant at using Fitzgerald's fiction to tease out details of the author's real life - not that anything in a novel must be based on real experience, but that the narrative is revealing of a state of mind. At one point, Lee cites the owner of the shop on which The Bookshop was based, writing to Fitzgerald in praise of the novel but underlining differences between fact and fiction (real life was, apparently, more benign). Elsewhere, we close in on a man who may be the older, married colleague we know broke Fitzgerald's heart. Lee names her suspect, and presents a good case for him being the one, then admits there's not really enough here but tantalising fragments.

There is still plenty that's unknowable - and, as Lee admits at the end, plenty that Fitzgerald kept to herself to the end. But there's a vivid portrait here, a sense of Fitzgerald as a real, complex and contradictory person. I feel I know Penelope Fitzgerald now: the person, the work, the extraordinary, often difficult life. This is more than portraiture: it is vivid history; it is animation.

I'm keen to read Fitzgerald's own work of biography, The Knox Brothers, about her father and his brothers. And I'm keen to read Human Voices, a novel based on her own experience working at the BBC during the war. And Hermione Lee's Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing looks very good, too.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #580

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts a cover by Anthony Lamb showing the Daleks as they blaze into action. There's lots of coverage of the two Dalek movies from the 1960s - and of the never-made third movie, too. In "Mine Craft", me, Rhys Williams and Gavin Rymill detail - and reconstruct - the sets from the second Dalek movie.

(An odd thing to study the movie in such depth, and then go and see it on the big screen at Home in Manchester. I saw all sorts of details I'd never seen before, such as the glistening lava on the exploded Dalek castle at the end...)

There's also another "Sufficient Data" by me and Ben Morris, this time on distances Doctor Who has fallen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Blake's 7: No Name

Big Finish has announced Aliens and Enemies, a new trilogy of Blake's 7 audio plays due for release in November, and including one written by me. These stories feature the return of actress Sasha Mitchell as Arlen, a character from the final episode of TV Blake's 7. The other stories in the set are Saurian Major by Lizbeth Myles and Sedition by Jonathan Morris. Otherwise, details are under wraps for the moment...

It's the first time I've written for Blake's 7 since Remnants, which came out what now feels like a lifetime ago in 2015, though I did also script edit The Offer by Peter Anghelides, in last year's The Terra Nostra set. Thanks to Peter for asking me back.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, by Eddie Robson

Lydia is a translator for Fitz, an alien cultural attache, but translating his psychically spoken thoughts into English has an effect like drinking alcohol. As a result, Lydia causes an embarrassing scene at an official function and thinks of quitting her job in New York to go home to Halifax (in Yorkshire, in the future). Then suddenly there's a murder and Lydia is a suspect...

This is a typically imaginative, clever and often funny novel by my mate Eddie Robson. It rattles along but the settings, characters and big ideas all really stick in the mind. Amy Scanlon reads the audiobook version very well - there are a lot of characters and accents, but she makes individuals distinct so we know exactly who is speaking when there is dialogue. A real pleasure of a novel.

I've been puzzling over what it reminded me of. Lydia is, I think, the latest in a line of klutzy, plucky young women Eddie tells stories about. In fact, the first chapter put me in mind of the relationship between Katrina and the alien Uljabaan in Eddie's sci-fi sitcom Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. And that, in turn, had something of the feel of Paul Cornell's Happy Endings, in which all sorts of aliens descend on a village to attend the wedding of plucky, klutzy Bernice Summerfield - another young woman in a complex relationship with an alien being.

Lydia isn't Bernice and Fitz isn't Dr. Who, but there's an echo of the New Adventures Doctor Who books here - that mix of boggling sci-fi concepts with the ordinary domestic, the wit of it, the boozing (even if it's not exactly boozing). The result is at once dizzyingly original and comfortingly familiar. Loved it. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

20 years as a freelance writer

Dr and me, about 2002
Twenty years ago this evening I took the Dr - though she was not then a Dr - to the pub to pitch a modest proposal: I wanted to jack in my job as an account manager in a contract publishing company and go freelance. I thought she would be horrified; in fact, she was relieved.

The idea wasn't entirely out of the blue. I'd begun to get some paid writing work - my first feature in Doctor Who Magazine, a few things for Film Review, the odd bit of copy for the customer magazines in my day job, such as the listings magazine for ITV Digital. When ITV Digital went into administration in March 2002, it hit my workplace hard. I expected to be made redundant but the payout would have covered bills for at least a couple of months. If ever there was a moment to make the leap into freelancing, this was it...

Except that I didn't lose my job and instead got promoted. I threw myself into new responsibilities, extra training, last-minute work trips. My birthday plans were cancelled so I could go to a meeting in Leicester; delays getting back from Barcelona meant I missed the wedding of some close friends. These were among a whole bunch of frustrations at work - small stuff, petty stuff, stuff that wasn't really about the job in the slightest but all about me. It took months to admit my disappointment at not having been made redundant.

So I looked into money and I talked to people. There were those in my day job who said they would employ me as a copywriter if - rarest of rarities as freelancers went - I delivered what I was asked for and on time. People who'd been made redundant from my work had since found jobs elsewhere in publishing and some could offer me work: updating spreadsheets, fiddling with Flash animation, even things involving writing. I also knew - or now introduced myself to - people in Doctor Who fandom who worked in publishing of one sort or another. Some couldn't offer work but gave useful advice: who to pitch to, what to pitch, who might be good as an accountant...

By the time I took the Dr to the pub on 15 July 2002, I had a list of potential employers and a budget based on needing to pay £600 in bills each month. She didn't need to see any of that. Next morning, I handed in my notice and later emailed everyone I could think of seeking work. My notebook from the time is full of lists: people to contact, ideas to send them, responses received and how I would follow those up. Hungry, for pages and pages and pages. Enough people were generous, or at least took a chance on this green, eager dork, that I picked up enough jobs to get by. I've been getting by ever since.

Mostly, it's been fun - more like larking about than working, for all the hours put in. I've had a very broad-ranging career, doing all sorts of varied stuff in very different media. Some jobs have been joyous, some very challenging but rewarding. I've worked with many brilliant, talented people. There is loads I'm really proud to have been part of. But freelancing has always been precarious - and just now publishing is in a worrying state. 

This week, Eaglemoss went into administration, taking with it my regular job on the Doctor Who Figurine Collection. Seven books I've worked on are currently in limbo, my work on them either entirely or mostly done but no publication date in sight because of... well, everything at the moment. Some projects aren't cancelled but stall; they're put back a few months or a year, as is the date when I can invoice for the work I've done on them. 

It's not as if things were easy before the cost of living crisis, COVID, Brexit, paper shortages and whatever else made them harder. In many cases, freelance rates have barely risen in two decades. That's had, I think, a corresponding impact on the demographics of people in publishing.

What can be done? Well, that's been much on my mind. Last week, I was elected chair of the Books Committee of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. I've 20 years experience of knocking about through this industry, and of being knocked about. As Leela says in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, "If you're bleeding, look for a man with scars." Hello, that is me.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Once Upon a Galaxy: The Making of the Empire Strikes Back, by Alan Arnold

This remarkable book has long been out of print and copies sell for silly money, but it's well were tracking down. Alan Arnold was the publicist on The Empire Strikes Back, his job to big up the first sequel to Star Wars, on which so much was riding. Arnold had worked on some 40 films before this assignment, but admits to "misgivings" about whether "a writer with a detached and ambivalent outlook" was really the right person for this particular job. He describes the first Star Wars film as "a 'light show', an audacious pantomime" (p. vii), which is not exactly a compliment. 

His detachment is quickly evident. The diary starts on 3 March 1979 with the crew struggling through a blizzard to reach Finze in Norway for the start of location shooting. Arnold mutters that in these treacherous conditions no one helped him unload the suitcases from the train, singling out Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in the film) in particular.

"But [I] told myself without total conviction that Mark was probably more concerned about his [pregnant] wife." (p. 5)

Yes, that may have been on his mind.

Arnold details the problems faced by the production and the ingenious solutions: shooting key scenes in the snow just outside their hotel; getting Harrison Ford (Han Solo) to join them last-minute as the schedule is changed; the logistical response to mounting costs and delays.

There's plenty of great detail, not least because Arnold had access to the lead actors and a wide range of those on the crew. There's a good interview with the notoriously reticent Harrison Ford on page 24, though the actor later brushes off a second attempt. I didn't know that the film's Snowspeeders were designed by Ogle Design Ltd, "a company better known for its Reliant sports car (p. 39), and I like production designer Norman Reynolds' description of these new creations as flying "close to the surface like an airborne tank." (p. 43). 

It's interesting to see how practicalities shaped things, and how very different Star Wars might have been: the carbon-freezing of Han Solo, described at times here as his "execution", covered the fact that Ford might not have featured in the third film. On 15 May 1979, well into production, producers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz take Sir Alec Guinness out to lunch to discuss whether he will participate in the film (p. 85), something still apparently in doubt until 5 September when he turns up for his single day (p. 240). At one point Lucas suggests the part might have been recast.

Arnold is a little pretentious at times, sharing a history of the medieval Mummers (p. 60), or likening new character Boba Fett to Shakespeare's Richard II (p. 67). But he's also got a good eye for the telling, incongruous moments.

"Of England it's alleged that everything there stops for tea, but this is not true in the film business. It is taken on the run, without interruption to the work continuing on the floor. Morning and afternoon, trolleys bearing urns of tea and coffee are wheeled onto the soundstages by ladies whom you suspect have spent the interim studying their horoscopes. They are actually immune to surprise, even when the lineup for tea includes, as it did today on the ice-cavern set [4 April], a platoon of snowtroopers in white armoured suits, a robot, Darth Vader, and the Wampa Ice Creature. The imperturbable tea ladies served them all with their characteristic cool, as calm as Everest explorers confronted by an abominable snowman. They know that anyone who enjoys a cup of tea can't be all that abominable." (p. 61)

There's an especially extraordinary sequence, pp. 128-147, in which Arnold has director Irvin Kershner miked up while shooting the pivotal scene of Han Solo's "execution" in the carbon-freezing chamber. He and Ford puzzle over dialogue and motivation, honing the words on the page into something really powerful. But Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) then objects to getting these changes last minute, and from Ford rather than the director. She lashes out - literally slapping Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian). And just as it's all kicking off, David Prowse (Darth Vader) tries to interest the director in his new book on keeping fit!

Fisher surely didn't approve the use of this in the book, or producer Gary Kurtz's comments that she "doesn't always look after herself as she should [and] doesn't pay sufficient attention to proper eating habits" (p. 123). Yet Arnold is also protective of the young actress, such as when she's subjected to a journalist who had got onto the set under false pretences - an experience Fisher describes as akin to a "rape" (p. 81). He's also sensitive to her skills as an actress, inspired by close study of old, silent films that focus on the close-up.

Arnold also reports a spat between Hamill and the director, soon after Hamill's baby son is born. At the time, the fractiousness is put down to Hamill having damaged his thumb (p. 150) which might mean the lightsaber battle that he has trained for will now be performed by a double. The sense is that neither Hamill nor Fisher had any say over this nakedly honest stuff being put in the book; the publicist who ought to have been protecting their interests was the one who wrote it. But later, Hamill at least gets to put this "terribly childish" disagreement in context.

"Our only real flare-up was on the carbon-freezing chamber set. Tempers were on edge anyway because it was like working in a sauna ... "Everybody felt guilty seconds later" (p. 213)

We finish with the film being edited, and Arnold getting lost on his way to the home of John Williams, who is busy composing the score. The book was published in August 1980 to coincide with the release of the film - so there was no way of knowing if all this work was going to pay off. Like the film itself, we leave on a cliffhanger.

Arnold concludes in philosophical mood about the creative arts in general, but more striking is what follows his words: credits listing all the many people involved in making the film.

See also:

Sunday, July 03, 2022

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"In all his time in camps and prisons, Ivan Denisovich had lost the habit of concerning himself about the next day, or the next year, or about feeding his family. The authorities did all his thinking for him, and, somehow, it was easier like that." (p. 40)

This extraordinary book, detailing the waking hours on a bitterly cold day in a Russian work camp sometime in the early 1950s, is based on the real-life experience of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was released from such labour in 1957. 

First published in the USSR in 1962, my 1970 translation by Gillon Aitken is at least the third version in English. I can see why this book so haunted a generation. It seems to have influenced subsequent memoirs - of Soviet gulags, of the concentration camps in the war, of systems of oppression more generally.

In the USSR, the book and its implicit criticism of the regime overseen by Stalin was initially welcomed - perhaps emblematic of the new, more liberated era of Khrushchev. When Khrushchev was himself stripped of power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn fell out of favour. His books weren't exactly banned in the USSR, but life was made increasingly difficult. 

When, in 1969, Solzhenitsyn was chucked out of the Union of Writers in Russia, various bodies around the world staged protests of one kind or another. Most notably, the author was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. In July 1969, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain sent two delegates to the International Writers Guild conference being held in Moscow with the specific brief of making some protest about the treatment of Solzhenitsyn. One of those delegates was David Whitaker, and I've been reading his accounts of what happened there - and the fall-out from it. More of that anon.

The book is full of extraordinary moments: the men discussing the merits and techniques of Eisenstein's cinema as they get on with their weary toil in the snow; the man who is in prison because of the heinous crime of having received a note of gratitude from an English admiral after service in the war; the way a prisoner receiving a parcel of food from their family finds themselves in debt to everyone else...

In observing these details within the drudgery, Solzhenitsyn shows us the mechanics of the operation, the way the oppression works. The infighting of prisoners compels them to work, to play an active role in the system imprisoning them.

 "Who is the prisoner's worst enemy? Another prisoner. If only the prisoners didn't fight with each other, then..." (p. 114)

And while it's about the system, it's also about how an individual might survive in such conditions. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov hordes a crust of bread, does favours to earn himself an extra bit of thin soup, and squirrels away a broken bit of hacksaw blade with which he can later fashion a knife that will be useful for mending clothes. Only then the prisoners get searched and this small theft risks putting him,

"in the cells on 300 grams of bread a day and hot food once every three days. He imagined at that moment how enfeebled and hungry he would become and how difficult it would be to recover his present condition of being neither starved nor properly fed." (p. 117)

All that effort to keep going could be undone in an instant. And we're left with the horrible fact that this is just one day in 3,653 of Shukov's 10-year sentence. The last line of the book adds one further systematic cruelty.

"The three extra days were because of the leap years..." (p. 157)