Thursday, March 30, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #589

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features interviews with the three directors of this year's forthcoming TV episodes, and has the results of the poll into the best First and Second Doctor adventures. The latter is the subject of my latest "Sufficient Data" infographic, illustrated as always by clever Ben Morris.

I also interviewed Moses Ogundeji, who explains what it means to be "best boy" on the new series recording at the moment. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Beautiful Shadow - A Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson

I said in reviewing Martin Edwards' The Life of Crime last month that Patricia Highsmith had been "smuggling her snails in her bra." Edwards was quoting Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, which a kind friend then sent me.

It's a fascinating story of a fascinating life. Highsmith is a complex, contradictory subject - on several occasions we're given completely different accounts of her, by turns cruel or kind, quiet or outspoken, fearful or bold. There are lots of reasons not to like her - the racism, the snobbery, the meanness with money when she was so wealthy. Yet understanding her background, her relationship (or lack of it) with her mother and her various struggles and heartbreaks makes this a compelling read.

There are all kinds of odd, striking moments. As well as the snails, there's her short-lived relationship with Tabea Blumenschein,

"the 25 year-old star and producer of the lesbian avant-garde pirate adventure Madame X" (p. 366).

Highsmith and Blumenschein spent six days together in a flat in Pelham Crescent, South Kensington, in May 1978 and at one point browsed the record shops. Blumenschein told Wilson that,

"Pat bought me the Stiff Little Fingers record" (p. 367),

presumably the band's debut single "Suspect Device" (released 4 February that year), before they went to dine with Arthur Koestler. The incongruity of that is even more striking when compared to Highsmith's selection the following year for Desert Island Discs: Bach (twice), Mahler and Mozart, and George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland".

A number of things made me begin to suspect that Highsmith was neurodiverse, and late on in the book her friend and neighbour Vivien De Bernardi told Wilson,

"In hindsight, I think Pat could have had a form of high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome. She had a lot of typical traits. She had a terrible sense of direction ... She was hypersensitive to sound and had these communication difficulties. Most of us screen certain things, but she would spit out everything she thought. She was not aware of the nuances of conversation and she didn't realise when she had hurt other people," (p. 394).

De Bernardi said this explains why Highsmith's relationships did not last; I think that's a bit glib - and that Highsmith may also have had some kind of attachment disorder, not helped by her (lack of) relationship with her mother. But I'm struck by De Bernardi's perspective of how this neurodiversity impacted Highsmith the writer:

"Although she didn't really understand other people - she had such a strange interior world - she was a fantastic observer. She would see things that an average person would never experience," (ibid).

Wilson has much to say about the content of and responses to Highsmith's lesbian novel The Price of Salt (1952), later republished as Carol and adapted into the acclaimed film. Highsmith originally published the book under a pseudonym and even when it went out in her own name was guarded in interviews about her sexuality. Often, people who knew Highsmith speak of her attitude to women as if from an outside perspective - as if she were a man. Wilson quotes Highsmith's own cahiers (notebooks) at great length, including a passage from 1942 that is ostensibly about other women and yet surely about herself.

"The Lesbian, the classic Lesbian, never seeks her equal. She is ... the soi-disant [self-styled] male, who does not expect his match in his mate, who would rather use her as the base-on-the-earth which he can never be," (p. 48, quoting Highsmith's Cahier 8, 11/18/42, Swiss Literary Archives in Berne).

Repeatedly, Highsmith identified with her most famous fictional creation Tom Ripley, signing a copy of Ripley Under Ground for her friend Charles Latimer as "from Tom (Pat)," (p. 194, but see pp. 194-6, 199, 350 and 454 for further examples). I now want to reread The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) with all this stuff in mind - from a queer (in the sense of both "strange" and "homosexual"), autistic, trans perspective. It's a book about somebody wanting to be and transforming themselves into someone else; an act of disguise that I think, having read this biography, might be very revealing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine special: Showrunners

The new special edition of the official Doctor Who Magazine is devoted to showrunners and producing the series from 1963 to now. I interviewed Julie Gardiner, executive producer of the series from when it returned to TV in 2005 until 2010, and then again for the episodes that will be broadcast later this year. What a thrill!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

In conversation with Fatima Manji - video

You can now watch the video of my interview with Fatima Manji about her book Hidden Heritage, conducted yesterday as part of Macfest.

It's a fascinating book. Among the many stories told, I was much taken by the fact that Abdul Karim, known as the "Munshi", taught Queen Victoria,
"to speak and write in what was then known to Britons as 'Hindustani'; essentially the Hindi and Urdu languages. She learned the Nastaliq writing system of Urdu which itself derives from Persian." (p. 137)
In 1902, her son the Duke of Connaught spoke Urdu when he welcomed dignitaries from India and elsewhere to commemorations relating to the coronation of his brother, Edward VI. As I say in the interview, my grandfather also had to learn Urdu while serving in the British Army in India in the 1930s - he apparently had three months to learn it before undergoing an exam with an Indian examiner; if he failed, he got sent home. Grandpa was then encouraged to learn a second Indian language and learned Pashto, which was of use in his time in the North West Frontier. He was still reasonably fluent in the early 1990s.

But as Manji argues,
"Victoria's enthusiasm for Urdu, her passion for art and culture of the Orient, and her defence of her friend Abdul Karim are admirable. They are under-reported inspirations in Britain's history for us to draw upon. Yet they cannot whitewash her presiding over a repressive, destructive colonial empire. Ultimately it is the structural, and not the personal, that determined the fate of the millions she ruled." (p. 151)
I'm also struck by the story of two Indian brothers fighting on opposing sides in the First World War: Mir Dast was awarded the Victoria Cross by the British; Mir Mast was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans. Oh, and Manji also speaks to my friend Vinay Patel about his 2018 Doctor Who episode Demons of the Punjab (p. 111).

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #588

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts a 28-page retrospective on The Sarah Jane Adventures which are now back up on the BBC's iPlayer. 

The 'Sufficient Data' infographic I've written, illustrated by clever Ben Morris, looks at what Sarah endured in her time travelling with the Doctor. "I must be mad," I thought as I tried to work out if Skaro and Voga qualify as cold and/or wet.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

In conversation with Fatima Manji

On Saturday 11 March, I'll be in conversation with award-winning author and broadcaster Fatima Manji about her book Hidden Heritage: Rediscovering Britain's relationship with the Orient, as part of Macfest. 

This free event takes place online from 2 to 3.30 pm. For more details and to book tickets, see the Eventbrite listing for Hidden Heritage: A Fresh Persective. Blurb as follows: 

Fatima Manji will be exploring and answering some of the following questions: Why was there a Turkish mosque adorning Britain’s most famous botanic garden in the eighteenth century? How did a pair of Persian-inscribed cannons end up in rural Wales? And who is the Moroccan man depicted in a long-forgotten portrait hanging in a west London stately home?

Throughout Britain’s museums, civic buildings and stately homes, relics can be found that reveal the diversity of pre-twentieth-century Britain and expose the misconceptions around modern immigration narratives.

In her journey across Britain exploring cultural landmarks, Fatima Manji searches for a richer and more honest story of a nation struggling with identity and the legacy of the empire.

‘A timely, brilliant and very brave book’ Jerry Brotton, author of This Orient Isle.

Flyer for 'A fresh perspective' event on 11 March 2023 with Fatima Manji in conversation with Simon Guerrier