Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Four non-fiction books

"The people interested in the history of comic books are not the same as the people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)"

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is extraordinary: a compelling, strange secret history of alternative sexuality and modern times. William Moulton Marston - under the pseudonym Charles Moulton - based the superhero he created on his wife and their girlfriend - the latter the niece of Margaret Sanger, the campaigner who popularised the term "birth control". There are reasons why Wonder Woman proclaims "Suffering Sapho!" and that she's so often tied up in chains...

Marston, who invented a "lie detector" based on a test of systolic blood pressure, which later led to the polygraph, was shrouded in falsehoods - about his private life, about who in his household wrote what, about his qualifications as a psychologist. There's lots on how his threesome contrived to build a myth around him, and how for all he extolled the versions of men submitting to dominant women, he rather had it the other way round.

The epilogue is especially interesting, placing the feminist reclamation of Wonder Woman in the early 1970s amid what else what happening in the feminist movement at the time. The examples Lepore cites of "trashing" seem like a modern phenomena.

I also remain haunted weeks after finishing Do No Harm, a memoir by brain surgeon Henry Marsh. Marsh recounts a number of different cases where he has got it right or wrong - the latter always with horrific consequences. Really this is a catalogue of the terrible awfulness that life brings to us, and of human efforts to get through it. Marsh is painfully honest about his own fears and weakness, but what haunts me are his perfect turns of phrase: that all surgeons are carry with them cemeteries of the patients they have wronged; that, when facing the angry parents of a young patient, love is selfish; that doctors forget patients and patients forget doctors if everything goes well, and it's only the tragedies that linger...

Marsh's anger at the management and cut-backs, and the effect he can see them having on people's lives, echoed Nick Davies' Hack Attack, his account of the hacking scandal that he originally broke in the Guardian. At the end, he rants against a system that has removed accountability from our political systems, where even the most terrible personal tragedy has become a commodity. Like Marsh, Davies is forthcoming about his own failings - how he missed connections or said the wrong things or jeopardised his whole case. He's also good in making his account of Leveson so much about human character.

And now I am 35 pages into H is for Hawk, which is currently collecting literary prizes all over town. It turns out to echo much of these other books - how we handle tragedy and injustice and anger, how we're losing the old world in exchange for something as yet unknown. I'm not quite sure what it's about yet - so far a memoir of loss, some personal history and falconry, and the works of TH White (I am also rereading The Once and Future King) - but there's this striking moment on the process of grief, gleaned from too many books.
"I read that after denial comes grief. Or anger. Or guilt. I remember worrying about which stage I was at. I wanted to taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible. But there was no sense, and I didn't recognise any of these emotions at all."
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014), p. 17.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Modern Man at the BFI

Modern Man, the short film I wrote, will play at the BFI on 21 February as part of the 8th BFI Future Film Festival. It's included in the short fiction selection in NFT1 at 1 pm.

The Future Film Festival promises to "provide opportunities to connect with the film industry, kick-start your career and develop new and existing skills with inspirational screenings, masterclasses, Q&As and workshops." So it's a bit gutting that I can't go due to other commitments. Bah.

Modern Man is the third film I've written to get screened at the BFI: Wizard played as part of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival last year, and The Plotters was shortlisted for the Virgin Media Shorts Award 2012.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sherlock Holmes and immortality

You can read my piece for the Lancet Psychiatry on the Museum of London's Sherlock Holmes exhibition (running until 12 April), which really explores the nature of Holmes fandom more generally.

I'm also thrilled to see that the BBC website has a clip from the newly discovered 1916 film of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette. The clip includes the moment that Holmes meets his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, with them saying "Bonjour" to one another - this version of the film was discovered in France.

Especially thrillingly, while the intertitles narrating the film refer to "Sherlock Holmes" (see, for example, at 01:09 in the clip), Moriarty either speaks with an accent - or a typo:


Friday, December 19, 2014

The Couch on which John Hunter Died

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London is a fascinating place full of dead things in jars. The surgeon John Hunter (1728-93) collected specimens of lizards and other animals, using them to teach the next generation of doctors.
"While most of his contemporaries taught only human anatomy, Hunter's lectures stressed the relationship between structure and function in all kinds of living creatures. Hunter believed that surgeons should understand how the body adapted to and compensated for damage due to injury, disease or environmental changes. He encouraged students such as Edward Jenner and Astley Cooper to carry out experimental research and to apply the knowledge gained to the treatment of patients."
- Hunterian Museum website
It wasn't just medicine that benefited from Hunter's collection. In 1824, Gideon Mantell tried to match a fossilised fragment of jawbone he'd discovered to a comparable modern-day creature. He visited the Hunterian Museum, where assistant-curator Samuel Stutchbury saw a resemblance - in shape if not size - to a specimen of iguana. The following year, Mantell announced to the Royal Geological Society the discovery of Iguanadon - "iguana-tooth". Along with the fossilised remains of two other creatures, Iguanadon would later be used to define a new kind of animal: the dinosaur.

I visit the Hunterian Museum a fair bit, most recently to look up what it has to say on regeneration - the way some animals are able to regrow lost limbs. (I should also declare an interest: my dad volunteers there and gives a good talk every other Friday on the history of syphilis.)

The collection, though, is not just of animals: there are also plenty of human bodies - whole ones as well as partial bits of interest. If this can leave visitors feeling a bit squeamish, the ethos is very clear: by better understanding the body and how it can go wrong, we can better mend injury and cure disease. That said, deciding what specimens count as "better understanding the body" can be open to debate, such as the museum continuing to display the body of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant", against his clearly stated views.

I don't have a problem with Byrne's skeleton being displayed, but I was struck by something else I saw this week. By the reception of the Hunter Wing of St George's Hospital in Tooting there's a display devoted to Hunter. The hospital has just done very well in the results of the Research Excellence Framework for 2014 and links its current research to the precedent set by Hunter - who worked at St George's, but back when it was based at Hyde Park Corner (the hospital moved in stages between 1976 and 1980).

I can see why it might not be appropriate to show medical specimens as people go to their medical appointments in the hospital - it would be too blunt a reminder of our inevitable fate. But is the couch on which Hunter died a more tasteful relic for display? It doesn't seem to do much for the better understanding the body. I find myself more bothered by that the bones of Charles Byrne.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015

Out now is the Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015, a sumptuous celebration of all this year's Doctor Who. It includes some things I done wrote:

An interview with Albert DePetrillo, senior editorial director at BBC Books who oversees the Doctor Who titles.

A feature on fans who have been inspired by Doctor Who to make the most extraordinary things. I spoke to: Billy Hanshaw who posted a video on YouTube earlier this year that led to him designing the show's opening titles; Ailsa Stern who is the brains (and nimble fingers) behind Dr Puppet; Mette Hedin who creates the most amazing monster costumes for wearing to conventions; and Steven Ricks who hand-tailors exquisitely precise recreations of the various Doctors' clothes.

A piece on all the awards Doctor Who has won in 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Doctors Who and all their friends

I am in love with this magnificent effort by the amazing Red Scharlach:
As Red explains:
I set myself a few ground rules: canon Doctors only (so no Shalka Doctor or Peter Cushing, sorry); not all recurring characters are companions (so no Jackie Tyler or Kate Stewart); and companions must have appeared more than once but not necessarily in the same medium (e.g. Sara Kingdom has been in Big Finish and Grace has been in a comic). But then I broke those rules on occasion (e.g. to include Cinder, the War Doctor’s only companion), so the end result is all a bit wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fuzzy-brainy won’t-fit-in-the-box-neatly. Rather like Doctor Who itself, in fact.
Anyway, the design is now on sale in my Redbubble shop as a poster or art print (i.e. on heavier paper) and there’s still a little bit of time to order one before Christmas
But look: Oliver, and Amy/Abby and Zara, and even Decky Flamboon...

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Box of Delights and dreams of Christmas

I've written another piece for the Lancet Psychiatry, this time on The Box of Delights and other stories about dreams.

Having loved the TV adaptation from (whisper it) 30 years ago, writing the feature gave me an excuse to compare it to the original book and marvel at Alan Seymour's adaptation - full of small improvements that never intrude themselves on the source.

The cast are all excellent, too, but special mention must go to Bill Wallis, whose performance as Rat is brilliantly disgusting. What a brilliant actor he was.

I'm also thrilled to learn the top fact that as well as the casting of former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the wizard Cole Hawlings, working as an assistant floor manager on the production was Paul Carney - grandson of William Hartnell. Thanks to Guy Lambert for sharing that!