Friday, March 31, 2006

Beyond good and evil

Been a bit caught up in things the last few days but little to show or say for it. A last pitch in for something that closes today (and that has failed to be wowed by my efforts so far), some research for something I'm pitching tomorrow, and some etching away on a story and script that are still far from finished.
"Some people don't believe in evil, Rose. It's all subjective. No moral absolutes."

Dr Who in "A Groatsworth of Wit" part 1 by Gareth Roberts, in Dr Who Magazine 363 (7 December 2005), p. 30.

Was meant to see AC Grayling talk on Wednesday about his new book, Among the dead cities. (Do you see someone talk, or hear them?) It's about how heftily the goodies of World War Two bombed the baddies, and asks difficult questions about moral absolutes. Can the ends justify the means?

Was going to post something about what got said and how it relates to the opening moments of Genesis of the Daleks part 6, having thought about the subject myself. Saw (read) the Guardian review and (heard) comments on Grayling's book in the House of Compromises, and years ago I read Slaughterhouse 5. So considered myself quite the expert.

Didn't happen though - went to collect our tickets only to be told they didn't know who I was. The Dr took me to the student bar instead and then for nice pizza where the she told me all about that heathen hound you'll likely hear more about later in the year...

So this is a bit of a non-post, really. In case you hadn't noticed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

To introduce the guest star

As it happened there were 12 of us for curry, and as many as two had not ever been employed by happy finish. I cannot count.

Joel Grey as evil goblin Doc in BuffyWe got onto fascists and boobies pretty quickly by discussing the great works of Joel Grey.

As well as being the evil goblin doctor in Buffy (who seemed so lovely and fluffy when first we me him), he was also the third special guest on the Muppet Show.

It shows how weird the Muppets were that, on a silly, family entertainment show they had the bloke best known for cross-dressing in Cabaret, a scary, funny-perculiar film for grown-ups. As well as Joel's rude dancing (with Nazis and bosoms and an ape), the film features the murder of a Jewish dog and Michael York in a threesome. Can't remember offhand if it's an actual threesome or just a suggested one, but it's not exactly teat-time family fun, is it?

The Muppets, I argued, got away with all sorts of mad shit that even late-night telly wouldn't dare.

Joe Turkel as Lloyd - not the same.Grey is not, though, Lloyd from the Shining - as I'd thought, and as Dr D Darlington corrected me last night. That is bloke called Joe Turkel. Sorry, Joe.

Still, I'd not be that surprised if the evil ghostie barman who gets Jack Nicholson pissed (and also built Daryl Hannah and an owl) turned up as a Muppet guest, too. It's the sort of thing Kermit might do just to freak out our minds.

The Muppet Show also seems to have been shot out of order; I'm guessing the episodes were assembled later from a pick-and-mix of gags, so the continuity's a bit all over the place. Fozzie shows up backstage after we've just watched his act, for example, complaining he's not had any work this week. In Episode 1 (the Juliet Prowse one) he starts with the voice we know him with, and then two episodes later he's grown up in the Bronx. Miss Piggy likewise looks and sounds more or less right, and then in some sketches she's much softer spoken.

The glorious DVD is apparently in production order, too, though that's not the way they were broadcast. Gosh, I sound like I'm on the Restoration Team forum, and must just stop myself there.

Also discussed over curry last night was why blog. Isn't it a bit sad and self-indulgent? Well, yes, pretty much. But then you don't have to read it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The pies! The pies!

S. and S. invited us round to their flat yesterday, which is on the same road as where my brother used to live. The Dr and H. had also looked at a flat there in the Time Before Me, and almost took it on the basis of it having the same name as one of Jane Austen's cads. They instead chose a flat with a view onto squirrels.

Anyway. As we rang the doorbell, the Dr and M. asked what I might like to eat on my birthday (it being merely three months away). "Pies," I said.

So it was with some excitement that S. then revealed what she'd cooked us. Oh yes. Home-made, hand crafted pies of some excellence. And pecan puddings and ice-cream. And a modest amount of nice wine. Mmm. I had enough belly afterwards to rest my drink on, though the gathered ladies seemed not to appreciate this feat.

Conversation led inevitably to bosoms and the Nazis. No, not at the same time. The taximan on the way home tried to run L. over as he dropped her off, and then told us about his rank being asked if they'd beaten up a fare.

"The police didn't think we'd done anything, but they still had to check our books," he said. I wondered why you'd keep notes on roughing someone up, which seemed a bit officious.

Our road does not have the same name as someone in Jane Austen, but there is another road with the same name a few miles away. Which would be confusing enough if our's wasn't hiding.

Tonight there is curry for 10 of us, and all but the Dr has been on the Big Finish pay roll. Will report back how long it takes us from kick-off to reach Hitler and tits.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

What pants are you wearing?

Dressed up like James Bond for posh cocktails last night, and then 11 of us in our glad-rags trooped round the corner to the local fish and chippie. There were sparklers and many bottles of fizz, and a whopping great chocolate cake too. What a brilliant way to celebrate being past it.

Amongst the learned and astute conversation, I used the dead clever analogy "like knowing what pants you're wearing". And was then a bit surprised that most of our party actually knew.

Pah. It's not something I ever remember, anyway. Is it Darth Maul? Is it Wallace and Gromit? Is this too much information?

H. is getting married and C. is starting to show. J. was telling me about SpongeBob though I already knew.

The After Eights (yes, that's how posh we were being) came with a game where I was Madonna and the Dr John Tavolta, and in Celebrity Top Trumps Brad Pitt proved more chav than Johnny Depp. Perhaps this is because he boffed her-out-of-Friends, I suggested.

No, I didn't know who any of the other trumps were. Apparently there's some bloke who is Famous because he went out with somebody who went out with somebody in EastEnders. Good for him. But as H. (a different one from the getting-married H.) and L. went through the cards, I could only respond as the elderly Duke of Wellington did to the names of the new Tory Cabinet in 1850.

Who? Who?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Nosotros amigos en el norte

Last night, the Dr finished watched the last of Our Friends In The North, which she'd not ever seen. This time 10 years ago, she might have been at a proper red-brick university, but my scabby ex-poly at least had televisions.

The nine-part series follows four friends over 31 years, each hour-and-a-bit episode set in just one year. The story covers the corruption of the Metropolitain police, the self-destruction of the Labour party, sex, drugs, violence, sex, pub bands and shagging.

It's odd to see James Bond, Dr Who, the Queen of Shadows and the one good thing in Revolver all in one place, like some special Marvel/DC universe cross-over. The performances are all very striking, and the leads especially show no fear at uglying themselves up - though Eccleston's hairpieces are a tad distracting. I'd also not realised watching it originally what sods the characters are pretty much all of the time.

The Dr was less excited by the last three episodes, set in the 80s and 90s, which she felt lost the anger and power of the first six. I still found Peter Vaughn's brilliant, awful descent into Alzhiemer's mortifying, - it's really just awful to watch. The Dr also found the whole thing too worthy and hard-going, and we put on an episode of the Muppet Show afterwards to cheer her up. I will speak of Muppets another time, but it is clearly the greatest TV show ever made.

OFitN does have flashes of wit and levity - some of them genuinely brilliant - but they're rather well-spaced apart. This is probably the point; there's a sentiment in the final episode about making a stand against life continually pulling you down. It seems the last gap of the angry, working-class writing so prevalent in "serious" telly of the past.

At the same time, it does have important things to say about the complex inter-linkings of people and politics, and how history is shaped and affects us. And I wonder what Nicky, Mary, Tosker and Geordie are up to now...

Up at six this morning for getting to Invasion on time - my first convention as a proper, named guest. Right at the bottom of the bill, of course, but got to see lots of good chums and had a lovely lunch with Richard Briers. He made us laugh a lot telling stories about drunk actors he'd known.

Also met Alan Ruscoe, who played monsters in both Droo and Star Wars, and also a small role in The Settling. He said nice things about the few pages of script he'd seen.

The panel itself was a bit nerve-wracking (never been keen on having to speak in front of people), and I'm glad I had colleagues with me. Think I survived the thing by just not shutting up. We announced the titles and authors of the year's forthcoming Benny plays, and discussed how New Show has got us all thinking.

Then an hour or two's signing, which was all rather friendly. I did, though, manage to make a boob of scribbling something for Millennium Elephant and his daddies. This is because I am rubbish.

Snuck out early as have a 30th birthday bash tonight. Off now to make myself pretty.

Oh, and this is, incidentally, my 200th post. Corks.

Friday, March 24, 2006

No speak?

I have 15 minutes to play before my dinner is ready, so this had better be quick.

No aural explosion as yet, thanks to those who asked. Meant I couldn't hear one of my bosses calling me today, though she was only a desk away.

Went last night to a discussion of British silent films at the NFT. M'colleague Matthew Sweet was on the panel, and there were clips of his forthcoming "Silent Britain", which looks just as whizzo as you'd expect. There was a proper preview after this debate, but being a clot I'd misunderstood you had to buy separate tickets. So we skulked off home early.

The panel were keen to enthuse that silent film deserves a larger audience, and much mention was made of the Good Stuff - the films, the actors, the direcors, what did cool films before people invented talking.

Having shamefully not yet read Matthew's book (it's only just come out in paperback, and I am still up to my elbows in Venice) we did feel a bit ignorant about who and what they were talking about, and it all felt a bit technical and for those-in-the-know. But that's rather to be expected given where it was, and the clips from the documentary itself were a bit damn good. Look out for that.

We also got seven whole minutes from "Piccadilly", with new music by Neil Brand (also sat on the panel). It showed the shocking goings on in a gin joint, with people asleep at their drinks, and ladies dancing in a manner most unladylike. Sex and booze and violence and race, and some rather nice camera tricks and set-ups. Star Anna-May Wong was also the sultry sidekick in Shanghai Express, of course (he says, having just read it here).

I was also thrilled by a projected still from an early sci-fi something, with the clocktower of the Palace of Westminster (yes, the one with Big Ben in it) dwarfed by the space-age skyscrapers either side. And the air full, of course, with new-fangled bi-planes.

And the programme notes the NFT does speak of a film in which we see
"the channel tunnel blown to smithereens by a terrorist bomb"
and from before 1929. You can't leave it there, you rotters! What, and when, and is yet on a DVD?

The big thing, though, was the problem of getting Joe Public interested in this stuff. One suggestion was that it needed a better name that "silent film", and something more snappy than "British film from earlier than 1929". "Live cinema" suggested Neil Brand, who had spoken of live scores and the sense of occasion you just don't get watching at home.

Having already mourned the loss of all the people who worked in the industry - there's only a handful of survivors still living for Sweet to interview, for example - that seemed rather good.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ear air ear

Here is more information than you probably want to know. In our view, it is not suitable to those of you who may have a squeamish disposition.
"Different individuals vary considerably in the amount and consistency of their ear wax. There are two types described, wet and dry, which are inherited. Dry wax is common in Asia, while wet wax is common in Western Europe."

Timothy C Hain, Ear wax: What is ear wax?

My left lug'ole is a shriek of tinnitus, and not much of anything else. It's a bit like that "underwater" feeling you get on an airplane, before yawning pops it. Only yawning isn't working, and neither is being surprised.

It's been like this a few days now, but a prescription of 5% sodium bicarbonate ear-drops is promised to unclog the whole thing, in the manner of cleaning a drain. Nice.

The Dr gets the fun job of administering this unblocker, and then having me completely unable to hear what she's saying. My sense of balance is also a bit out, so I'm a bit dizzy as well as a bit deaf. (And I've eaten too many pies recently, too. As we roll merrily on towards our second wedding anniversary, I'm sure she's just thrilled how I turned out.)

My dad, what is expert in these matters (and also an authority on snot), says the bright orange clog is a bit like roof-tiles held together with velcro. The mildly alkaline unclogger persuades the velcro to unstick, and then the whole roof caves in. Looking forward to that, then.

My mum, from who I have apparently inherited rubbish aural passageways, tells me that it'll suddenly all unclog with a strange gurgling noise. And probably drool bright orange gak down my neck, most likely while I'm out shopping or commuting.

So look out for that if you're coming along to the gig on Saturday.

Yesterday I had an unexpected day off, so pootled down to see the best mate, who is back from extensive travels in the east and must now be referred to as Chief Piako. He's not got anyone to be chief of yet, but I've asked about membership. Many stories told and beers drunk. And I bought a new top.

Right. On with some writing things. Or maybe even some lunch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Chewing gum for the soul

The grand tour part 2: Rome

A five-hour trip down to Rome from Venice, where I mostly sat opposite a doting, snogging couple sharing one seat. Which didn't help the limited legroom.

Took time off from Norwich on Venice to zip through the fun Colosseum book the Dr had bought me, co-written by one of her PhD examiners. It's very good on the way the Colosseum has been used over the centuries - as propaganda for one group or other. Despite the best efforts of the church to claim otherwise, for example, there's no evidence that Christians were ever fed to lions there. Also:
"In the sixteenth century, Benvenuto Cellini, the brilliant Florentine jeweller (even if appalling self-promoter and thug), went to the Colosseum on at least two occasions by night in the company of a Sicilian priest (and part-time necromancer) in order to use the black arts to recapture his girlfriend. On the second occasion this proved a rather too successful experiment in summoning the spirits and the necromancers terrified the wits out of themselves. As Cellini explains in his Autobiography, no fumigations seemed effective in persuading the demons to leave - until one of the party in panic 'let fly such a volley from his breech' as John Addington Symonds' delicate translation puts it ('gave such a blast of a fart accompanied by a vast quantity of shit' is closer to the demotic Italian) that the evil spirits took to flight."

Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, The Colosseum, pp. 150-2.

The train called at Florence, with a tantalising glimpse of Brunelleschi's tower. Golly, wish we'd had room in the schedule to see more. Next time, next time...

Arrived in Rome early evening, and was immediately assailed by the noise. It's a dirty, smelly, autophile capital, no worse than my beloved, curmudgeonly London, but still a shock after the tranquil Rialto.

We dumped our bags in our dismal hotel room and went to explore. The Dr found the quite backstreet where Charles Newton had stayed about 150 years ago. Then we got a bit lost making our way to the Spanish steps - the Roman equivalent of the 7-11 for bored teenagers to hang around listlessly. And then we found a restuarant on the way home where I ate all of a huge Calzoni. Mmm.

Not getting up as early as we'd meant to, we reached the Colosseum by 10 the next morning, having stopped for a peak in the Santa Maria Maggiore on the way. The Colosseum is very cool, but close up it becomes obvious just how much it's been rebuilt and mucked about with over the centuries.

The queue to get inside would have eaten up too much of our one day in the city, so we admired the place from outside, and the Dr took pictures of tourists taking pictures of the gladiators.

We then made our way up the Via Sacra to the Forum, hanging a left to go see what was left of the Circus Maximus. It's not quite all it was when they filmed Ben Hur. We sat and watched the joggers and dog-walkers still using the ancient site.

Next we headed to the Tiber and followed it round into the Jewish quarter. There's an ancient theatre and more ancient stuff round the back of the synagogue, ruins side-by-side with memorials to those taken off to concentration camps in 1943.

Then, on the Ponte Sisto while admiring the great wolf murals decorating the Vatican side of the river, the Dr bumped into one of her colleagues - a freelancer, running a school trip. Last time she was in Rome, 10 years ago, the Dr had bumped into a group from her old school in the Colosseum. I suspect bumping into her learned chums in the world's hellenic-period sites is going to become a more and more regular occurence.

We followed the river up to the Castel Sant' Angelo - a castle that's star-shaped on the maps and round on the horizon. Then we doubled back onto the Via della Conciliazione and up to St Peter's. The Dr, crowing about my Catholic past, was insistent I see inside.

Dear Christ. The HQ of the most theatrical religion in the world is a strangely unmoving and clinical place. The twisted, black canopy over the altar is just nasty, but otherwise the vast marble cladding and statuary left me cold. Obviously the clattering prattle of the tourists didn't help, but there just wasn't any empathy or spiritualism in sight.

The one exception was Michelangelo's Pieta, a genuinely heart-breaking vision of a mother distraught at the death of her son. It speaks to emotions we all relate to - love, death, our's mums and the awfulness life can deal us. I tried, distracted by the epileptic flashing of cameras all round, to see what I'd been taught at school - that Mary is a good third bigger than her son, which is how Michelangelo can have Jesus sprawled across her lap like he's on some great, comfy sofa. It's a hell of a nifty trick; it just seems so right, so natural, so universal.

But that was the exception. Rather than speaking to the people in the congregation about their own lives, as the other various churches we'd seen did, this was all about the cult of dead popes.

St Peter's is a church not to God, his son, or his people, but to a line of uncharasmatic old men in funny hats. Popes, you know, aren't the most exciting bunch - the more inbred pedigree royal's are more fun.

Then again, we didn't have to queue to get into St Peter's - the great snake of fans pilgrims was there to see the tomb of Jean-Paul 2. So we must be wrong, I guess. Popes are cool. We bought a pope calendar and pope magnet in the gift-shop.

Then on to the Piazza Navona, where they're all out having tea in Fellini's Roma. Wasn't too bothered by the Pantheon, whose 17th century roof looked like it had been built in the '30s, and by one of those boring fascisti. The Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was much more beautiful, the darkness and quiet, the sense of intimacy and mystery, exactly what the last two churches had lacked. It felt less like it was saying, "Do as you're told" as "You are welcome here".

Our Rome guide recommended us some eats round the corner, the tiny Enoteca Corsi on the Via del Gesu, which you'd miss if you weren't looking specifically for it. "Very cheap, and a real taste of old Rome," said the book. And exactly right.

Then to the Trevi fountain, which lacked the feeling of the film by being jam-packed with tourists - especially, for some reason, those with huge rucksacks. We tried to work out where Charlie Newton's father-in-law had had rooms, and think we identified the right street.

Then, as evening fell headlong into the night, we trekked back to the hotel up La Nazionale, for beer and (really very unpleasant) take-out. The taxi came for us at half four, and we were back at Stansted by 8.

But our adventures were not yet over, as there were no trains through Penge East because of a fire. We had to go round and down and about, and then walk the half-hour back, already foot-sore from the previous day's touristing, and under the weight of all our luggage.

But home, eventually, where M had made us breakfast (as well as preparing Dr Who's sandwiches all week), and then sleep. Marvellous sleep.

Foom: Penge East on SundayTurned out that a carpet warehouse down the road had caught fire. They were still putting it out in the evening, when we went to see if the local pub we'd found on our detour proved to be any cop.

M's picture, right, is from out our living room window, earlier in the morning. Foom! Posted by Picasa

Monday, March 20, 2006

Do look now

The grand tour part 1: Venice

The boat from the airport took longer than the flight, allowing for some initial impressions. The first delight was the sunshine. From a distance, the Venetian skyline with its towers and domes reminded the Dr of Istanbul (a city with many links to Venice, as John Julius Norwich’s history of the place explains in detail).

Pretty, history, goth, costVenice is a lot like the Dr herself – very pretty, packed full of history, quite goth out of season, and on the costly side. Yes, I shared this observation with her, and yes, I survived. Eventually the boat dropped us just by our pad, La Calcina, where Camberwell’s John Ruskin put up in the 1870s while updating his book on local stones.

We found a little place for breakfast, then walked into St Mark’s square. The sunshine prevailed, lifting our wintry spirits, and the perfect blue sky picked out the green of the water and the pale pink and white of the buildings. You’re suddenly able to understand what all those paintings you’ve seen of the place are trying to capture.

We stopped to admire things on the way, like the baroque splendour of the church of Santa Maria Zobegnigo (or Santa Maria del Giglio as it called itself – the churches seem to have numerous names, which makes finding them in the guidebook lots of fun).

Sculptures of the patronising Barberos are resplendent on the front, with the same silly hats, beards and cloaks as Guy Fawkes. It’s odd to see such “hip” fashions on the outside of a church; because of the Reformation, the most contemporary catwalking you tend to see in English church stonemasonry is medieval and, at a push, early-modern.

Much less impressed by San Moise, in an ugly little square with its own ugly hotel. Venice is elegant but a bit gone-to-seed, the shabby tat and graffiti adding to its appeal. But this little square was something else, and stuck out like a sore thumb of concrete.

And so we reached St Mark’s square, more full of pigeons than people. Odd to see seed being sold; London’s long realised the damage done by winged vermin. We admired the outside of the Basilica – which reminded herself of pictures of Moscow, and me of the Brighton Pavilion. We opted to get the Dr’s homework done first, and scurried round the piazzetta admiring the bits of statue the Venetians had nicked from antiquity before that kind of thing got all trendy.

Pushing through the clots of tourist who – as everywhere else – stop to gape and take pictures wherever streets bottleneck, we took a detour into the Museo Diocesano where an exhibition caught my eye. It began with several rooms of pretty unremarkable religious efforts, gloomy and none-too-well observed.

Then we emerged on to Tintoretto’s sequence of huge canvases, a vast comic-strip biography of St Catherine. The Dr was captivated, admitting she knew little about the artist (a surprise, since he’s a favourite of her beloved David Bowie, whose tunes are published under the name Jones (his real surname) Tintoretto).

The series mixes quick, blurred impressionism and moments of fine detail to create a strong sense of movement and physicality. I commented that in the scenes where St Catherine gets shockingly but rather tastefully disrobed, her tits look all wrong. We decided that Tint was probably not allowed to see his model’s naughty bits – so limbs and hips are womanly, but torso and norks are a man’s.

Next we got a boat across to the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, which affords a picturesque view back across to St Mark’s, but little else. There was an advert being filmed for some breed of car, which I assume was being archly ironic. Venice is incredibly quiet and chilled out being car-less.

Sorry-looking maneless lionWe popped back across the water to the Arsenale, the most beautiful military base I’ve ever seen. The Dr was delighted to catch up with the vast stone lions the Venetians had half-inched from the then newly-exploded Acropolis. I liked the sorry-looking maneless one best, but the other (as Ruskin noted) is very like that from Knidos, now languishing in the British Museum’s Great Court.

This was our reason for coming, so lots of pics got taken as soon as the gaggle of overly dressed and middle-aged ladies had buggered off out the way. There’s a lot of fur coatage in Italy, which to my untrained eye looked stitched together from small, brown creatures, the tall, narrow patches creating – I assume – a slimming effect. Again, like Venice, it’s elegant and rather tatty at the same time.

The Scuola Dalmata di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni was closed until 3, but our wanders found a bar where the bloke – in English barely better than our guidebook Italian – explained that it was his compleannos, and we were welcome to a beer though really they'd closed. Which was all very pleasant, if sitting down made us realise how tired we were.

The Scuola itself had a fun St George, defeating a dragon amid a wasteland of bits of other bodies. Which was pretty grisly and cool. The Dr remarked on how much is lost seeing holy decorations like this in a museum or gallery; they’re much more impressive and powerful stacked up against one another in the dark and god-terrified ambiance of a church.

Then the boat back to the hotel for a much-needed siesta, before stepping out for dinner. I had the steak. It was good.

Next morning, we were at the Basilica for 10am, a beautiful place mixing Byzantine and more western traditions, picked out in black and gold. I’ve never really been that wowed by gold, though, and was less impressed by the pay-to-view gold plate behind the altar than the exquisitely carved marble columns nearby.

The cat not missing us in the slightestAlso enjoyed the museum upstairs, which my mum had recommended just for the horses. We took some pictures on the balcony to text to our friends, and in reply got a picture of the cat not missing us in the slightest.

Then, shivery with cold, we headed on to the Chiesa di Friari and Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with the Rialto Bridge along the way. The day was greyish, but warm whenever the sun peeped out. Deb was wowed by much more Tintoretto, though again his women all sport man-boobs.

After returning to the hotel for lunch, we ventured out for another explore and found a pizzeria where the service was pretty atrocious. And we think the jug of water may have come out of a tap…

We made a hasty exit, and found a nice little bar off a side-street, where we made friends with a six-week-old puppy comprised mostly of Labrador and bounce. I regret to say that this might have been the highlight of the holiday.

Some hours later, and rather full of wine, we stumbled back to our digs in time for my bottom to fall off. Spent a not very happy night feeling like some villain was squishing my intestines. Have since discovered there’s a noble tradition of Venetian Tummy. Ick.

The Dr left me to sleep the next morning, and nipped away to see the fun things in the Acaddemia. We then caught the boat down the Grand Canale to the train station, marvelling at the pretty buildings along the way. We had a while to wait for the train itself, so we sat reading on the steps in the sunshine, letting the world turn around us.

Despite the blissful setting, and the kind attentions of herself, I was feeling pretty raw. So this bit appealed especially:
“Columbus’s three ships, returning to Spain from the Caribbean in 1493, had brought with them the first cases of syphilis known to the Old World; through the agency of the Spanish mercenaries sent by Ferdinand and Isabella to support [Neapolitan] King Alfonso against the French invasion, the disease had rapidly passed on to Naples, where it was rife by the time Charles [VIII of France] arrived. After three months of dolce far niente, his men must in turn have been thoroughly infected, and all the available evidence suggests that it was they who were responsible for introducing it north of the Alps. Certainly it had reached France, Germany and Switzerland by 1495 and Holland and England by 1496; by 1497 not even Aberdeen had been spared. In that year Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached India, where the disease is recorded in 1498; seven years later it was in the Canton.”

John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, p. 379.

Next episode: The Slave Traders.Posted by Picasa

Stop, look and listen


Lee's rather splendid cover to 'The Settling'Had a lovely time away, and will detail the grand tour just as soon as is practicable and I'm not so tired.

Busy catching up with work at the mo, and all sorts of very exciting things are pretty much bursting to be announced.

In the meantime, gaze in wonder at this lovely work by Lee. Isn't it wonderous?

You can also hear a trailer for it by clicking through to the Big Finish site.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

...and Robert Dick

Off to Venice first thing tomorrow, so have mostly been doing chores and getting things agreed so they can progress without me. A few new projects are up and running, and am already embroiled in a learned discussion on the teaching of 20th century history...

Also come up with a silly idea I only hope I'm allowed to do, and have until the end of the month to get another pitch in for something that's already turned me down five times. This is what freelancing is all about; throwing ideas every which way, in the hope that one or two of them stick.

It used to be ('cos I counted) that maybe one-in-ten on-spec pitches got a reply, and-one-in ten of those ultimately led to paid work. Not surprisingly, I have a stack of pitches, scripts and stories of one sort or another lying about the flat.

Every now and then something gets reused. "A Good Life", for example, took the better bits from my very first pitch to Big Finish, "Killing Demons". But generally, it's better to come up with new stuff.

Not only are there usually good reasons why stuff has been turned down, it's also less exciting to write about something second-hand. Which all leads me back to stuff I've been discussing by mail, regarding this Da Vinci Code trial.

(The discussion began because a mate pointed out that the third author of "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail", and the one not taking part in the court case, is Henry Lincoln, who co-created Yeti, Quarks and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.)

Anyway, my not-entirely-the-same-as-what-the-court-case-is-about view is it's not helpful to bogart your ideas. Don't look back, just get on with the next thing.

Right, back to work. Being dragged off to do my second interview this week (with me being asked the questions). And it's also just been announced that I'll be doing my first panel at a Doctor Who convention next week.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rabbit season

“It was only commissioned in the first place 'cos Tony Robinson took a year off from Maid Marion.”

Russell T Davies, interview for’s Cult site.

A chum kindly leant me Dark Season, Mr Rusty’s first go at telly drama. (Well, technically he’d done dramatic stuff to Why Don’t You…?, but anyway…)

Three kids – Reet (played by Kate Winslet), Marcie and Thomas – suspect a suspicious blond man of being up to no good when he offers everyone in their school free computers. And they’re right – the suspicious blond man plans to use a decades-old programme (coded by Cyril Shaps) to blow up the world. Blimey.

CBBC don’t make this kind of spooky stuff any more (at least, that’s what they said the last time they rejected me), and it does feel like telly from another age. And here are a few thoughts scribbled down as I watched it.

The serial owes an obvious debt to the then-just-dead Dr Who. The strange and scary Other invades an everyday street and school, and only the sassy kids notice. There’s evil computers, neo-Nazis and archaeology. And it’s up to the misfit kids and their nerdy, clue-spotting mate to save the day. The kids themselves could go to Ace’s youth club, and be just as sulky about it.

As well as Shaps, there’s a brilliantly batty turn from Jacqui Pearce as a big lesbian Nazi, with Brigit Forsyth as a put-upon teacher, trying to keep everyone calm. A bit cheaper looking and much more aimed at kids, it still says a lot about the state of the last years of Who that it wasn’t a whole lot more clever.

The Cult site mentions similarities to Buffy in the set-up, though it’d only be Season 1, and then the more silly episodes. Then again, the not-a-uniform pastels all the kids wear at school reminded me of the rock n’ roll utopia in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Like his subsequent Century Falls, Russell creates a great spooky mystery, which is not altogether explained. There are some odd continuity things: what happened to Olivia – the swotty girl taken over by the baddies in episodes 1-3? She doesn’t even warrant a mention in the second half.

Likewise, it’s established early on that Marcie’s in a different year to her friends, and there’s some stuff about the irony of her being the youngest and bossing them around. In part 4, though, she’s in the same class under Miss Maitland, allowed a visit to the dig. Maybe part four is many months after part three, and the school’s brought in some drastic streaming.

Such nit-picky details don’t matter – it’s the atmosphere conjured that counts. Dark Season is more a mood piece than Dr Who usually ever was. Holding back on the explanations ensures that the weirdness is never punctured, and leaves the viewer to join the dots for themselves. And, I’d argue, is something we’ve seen more of in New Show.

The splitting of the serial into two 3-parters is again like late 80’s Who (squeezing the most from the budget while also not trusting the audience’s loyalty for six weeks). The return of Mr Eldritch at the end of part five is exactly the same gag as the Daleks popping up right at the end of Bad Wolf.

The stuff about kids not being listened to by adults is a little over-wrought, and the gag about Marcie carrying a canoe paddle is too contrived. The Nazism stuff is just… shit, to be honest. But there’s plenty of wit and mystery, and things crack along at some speed.

I also really like Miss Maitland finally rolling her sleeves up to combat the Nazis, and her taking charge of the JCB is a joy.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Elephant is dead, long live elephant!

Due to joyous things last year like our Internet service provider not, er, actually providing much in the way of an Internet service, Nimbos and I have decided not to renew our subscription for

It's not like we'd added anything to it in ages anyway, and it's been more of a spam magnet in the last couple of years than anything else. The original, paper version was a cynical effort to get Famous People in a pub to know who I was, and even to give me some work. Which it did. Hoorah!

Sooner or later - when the ISP finally realises that we've not paid up - Elephant will vanish from the Internet (to haunt the vaults at the Internet Archive ever after). So go have one last play on it now. It's not very funny, but it's free*.

And yet, like the Dalai Lama and vampire slayers, the death of one elephant requires the scouring of All Earth for a successor. The spiffing Millennium Dome, elephant has my very vote for that destiny.

The Dr was especially pleased with MD's detailed biography of CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER, MR FROWN.

Oh, and just 'cos I'm lazy, I reserve the right to post old Elephant stuff up here, too. If there's anything that's still any cop.

* Dependent of what ISP package you're using, of course.

Friday, March 10, 2006

An alternative present

With a week to go before the proper release of V for vendetta at the pictures, here's something I originally wrote for my MA in spaceships. I've updated it a bit, but the original version was written in early 1997 - during the 12-month period in which the book's set.

It goes on a bit, and inevitably contains a wealth of SPOILERS for the book (and therefore also the film).

The Alternative Present in "V For Vendetta"
Simon Guerrier

It’s a comic. It’s twenty-five years old. It’s set in a 1990s that never happened. Why bother with it now?

First, a little background. The plot: a decade after a nuclear war, England in 1997 is run by an oppressive and authoritarian fascist government. On the fifth of November, a masked vigilante, begins his attack on the regime by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. His name is V (for clarity, I'll refer throughout to the comic itself in full, and to the character as "V"). The same night, he rescues a sixteen year old girl, Evey, who, over the course of the novel, he encourages to appreciate the practicalities of anarchy.

The comic: originally serialised in black and white in the UK magazine, Warrior (1982-3), V For Vendetta was only two thirds of the way through when Warrior folded. DC Comics later commissioned Moore and Lloyd to complete the tale, which was published, in colour, in a ten-issue comic series (1988-9), including two short interludes and "Behind the painted smile" - a text article by Moore on the genesis of the story.

DC - a large US company - are best known for comics characters that have become icons of popular culture: ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’. The main character of V For Vendetta, and the story itself, is influenced by the traditions of the costumed super hero genre, but the novel deconstructs and reconfigures many of the ideological elements of that tradition.

V is a costumed hero. "The appearance of a costumed character in a story will generate a specific set of expectations - a state of affairs which the writer and artist can work with or against," says Richard Reynolds in "Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology". Clothes can be read like signposts, and the costumes of super heroes signify ‘super-heroism’.

The styles and colours of this clothing are also signs of kinds of super heroism. "Batman’s dark, bat-like costume is one utterance within the code [of super hero attire] that elegantly speaks the proper range of associations: night, fear, the supernatural. It also suggests Batman’s mode of operation: stealth, concealment and surprise," says Reynolds.

V wears a ‘Guy Fawkes’ mask, period clothes, cloak and hat. This not only serves to contrast him with the functionally dressed ‘ordinary’ people in the story. His clothes also conjure a sense of theatre and of history to the reader.

Theatre is crucial to V. In the opening panels of the story, we witness V dressing himself. Around him are theatrical props - further signifiers. He dons his costume at a dressing table, which has a long wall mirror surrounded by light bulbs: vaudevillian. There are posters for old films on the walls. This contrasts with Evey; who dresses herself in a ‘seedy’, ‘real world’ way; as a prostitute.

V’s clothes also connote history. He uses daggers not guns. The 17th century clothes may hark back to historical values and politics. Moore admits in 'Behind the painted smile' that V’s mask configured him as a "resurrected Guy Fawkes". The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 began a century that saw the Civil War and the beheading of King Charles I for tyranny. Both attacks on English government construed the government as repressive. The first few pages of Moore’s novel show us more directly the ways such associations link to V.

Richard Reynolds has compiled a working definition of super-heroism, constituting seven contingents all of which V fits. V is marked clearly out from the rest of society. His devotion to justice is above his devotion to law. The ‘extraordinary’ V contrasts with the ‘ordinary’ people. He is above the law, yet capable of patriotism and moral loyalty to the state, though not to the letter of the law. The story is mythical, and uses science and magic indiscriminately to create a sense of wonder. I will deal with both this ‘convenient’ use of science, and V’s political aspirations, shortly.

The remaining two qualities of super-heroism are also relevant to V, though less directly. V does not have super-human powers, nor does he act like an earthbound God. However, he can also get into almost anywhere - no matter how secure. He can apparently do anything he pleases, and for most of the novel seems immortal. He has access to materials and information, including his own version of the government’s Fate super-computer - the system that maintains the government’s panoptic surveillance of London.

In fact, he is equipped in much the same way as many other non-God-like super heroes, perhaps most obviously Batman, with his Batcave. Thus, while not a super-human, he is a super-able human.

The last of Reynolds's defining factors is conflict caused by the super hero’s ‘mundane’ alter-ego. Such is the genre expectation that the anticipation of V’s unmasking is a major element of the narrative. This expectation is frustrated. We never discover his ‘true’ identity. In fact, the narrative purposefully reveals his identity to be unimportant. This, again, has serious implications.

But despite its theatrical and almost magical lead character, the narrative is continually based in gritty realism. There is a definite sense of logical cause and effect. There is a very definite sense of pain. Violence is seen as horrific rather than titillating, as is so common in super hero comics. Characters’ actions have very real, often very unpleasant consequences.

Even the theatrical and enigmatic V, while not unmasked, is to some extent explained. We learn to recognise rooms and the connections between them in his initially estranging home, ‘The Shadow Gallery’. On pages 104-5 of the main text, as well as in the interlude, ‘Vincent’, we see him stealing documents and artefacts connected to his inspiration, Valerie. This is the only evidence we are given as to the way in which he has stocked his home. It suggests he’s assembled his collection of books, music and paintings through tangible means.

We are even, finally, able to locate the mysterious Shadow Gallery in ‘our’ world: the detective, Eric Finch, finds his way in from Victoria Underground station. We see V’s own version of the government’s Fate computer, and thus appreciate how he has been able to operate. We see ‘behind the scenes’ of the mythic presentation he makes of himself, even without actually knowing who he is. We learn what he is and how he does what he does. All the flamboyant and rather magical tricks he has performed for us throughout the story are ultimately explicable. Thus is it possible for Evey to take his place.

David Lloyd’s illustrations for V For Vendetta are also ‘realistic’ - not the muscle-bound exaggeration typical of traditional super hero adventures. The proportions of the people we see are ‘normal’ rather than ‘improved’. Even the colouring of the originally black and white pictures is stark and simplistic, with a plain mix of tones.

V For Vendetta is presented in a very cinematic form, using elements of cinematic story-telling rather than conventional comic story-telling. John Byrne used a similar technique when drawing the super hero comic, The X-Men, between 1977 and 1980.
"Byrne employed a sequential art that was ‘cinematic’ in the sense that it constantly interpreted each panel and each segment of the narrative from an implied and subjective point of view. The reader was drawn in, invited to take sides in the characters’ conflicts."

Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, p. 86.

In V For Vendetta, however, these ‘cinematic’ qualities are taken further. Much of the story is told through silent panels and dialogue. Often, there are pages, occasionally even whole chapters, with only one or two captions. There are no thought balloons or sound effects whatsoever. This adds a seriousness and bleakness to the narrative.

Thought balloons in comic strips make blatant a character’s feelings. Moore had been concerned that this self-imposed restriction would make it impossible to confer what he calls (in "Beyond the painted smile"), "nuances of character". Rather, it means that instead of being ‘told’ what characters are feeling, the reader must scrutinise the dialogue and illustrations for such inflections. Sound effects highlight narrative peaks. V For Vendetta has to express these elements within the dialogue and framing of the scenes.

This all means that the reader must be more active in decoding and negotiating the story - reading the panels carefully to follow the characters’ responses. Readers are ‘shown’ the characters’ emotional responses rather being than ‘told’ them. This also makes the text more ‘real’.

While reality is important to the narrative, there are, however, a number of implausible aspects. There are several plot-holes that we can nit-pick. For example, V’s own abilities and provisions are extraordinary. While we see how he has stocked the Shadow Gallery with material with regard to Valerie, it is altogether harder to accept that he has constructed his own working version of the government’s Fate computer. Evey replaces V apparently without anyone else noticing. Yet she is clearly shorter than he, of a different build and has, presumably, a different voice. V has already caused great problems for the government by removing the ‘voice’ behind their news broadcasts. We see listeners shocked because ‘There is something wrong with the Voice of Fate’ (p.36). V’s iconography suffers no such propaganda upset.

The England of V For Vendetta is perhaps just as unlikely. It is difficult to understand how the regime operates. It makes great use of the video cameras it has on every street corner and in many rooms, but surely these can only be used in London and urban areas. What about in the country? A television programme addresses ‘senseless terrorist acts’ in Aberdeen and Glasgow, and the announcer promises that the next edition of the programme has ‘satellite pictures of the Soviet wheat-crop failures and asks Is Russia Facing Another Revolution?’ (p. 110). V comments that ‘riot-zone soap operas’ still broadcast after he has sabotaged the state’s broadcasting (p. 220).

Despite this acknowledgement of a chaotic world outside the unnatural city, it is not substantial. We see very little of the world outside London. Finch visits both Norfolk and Larkhill, but both have been deserted for years. We see little of the economics of the alternate world, get no idea, for example, where food comes from. Only the city - the realm in which V operates - is available to us.

More importantly, this whole post-holocaust locale of the story is at best, ‘convenient’. Moore admits as much in his introduction to the DC edition of the novel. "Back in 1981, the term “nuclear winter” had not passed into common currency," he says (p. 6). As a scientific study of the climatic effects of nuclear war concluded,
"... even in regions far from the conflict the survivors would be imperilled by starvation, hypothermia, radiation sickness, weakening of the human immune system, epidemics and other dire consequences."

Richard P Turco, Owen B Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James B Pollack and Carl Sagan, ‘The Climatic Effects of Nuclear War’, Scientific American, Vol. 251, no. 2 (August 1984), p. 23.

Through Evey’s memories - of a ‘yellow and black’ sky, and of the disintegration of civilisation (‘There was no food. And the sewers were flooded and everybody got sick. Mum died in 1991’ (p. 28).) – there’s some appreciation of the difficulties involved in surviving nuclear war.

However, Moore doesn’t go far enough, and his idea that a nuclear war of a scale enough to destroy Europe and Africa could have left a demilitarised England hungry but alive is not at all likely. The global debilitation of major nuclear conflict had been explored in novels such as Neville Shute’s On The Beach (1957), subsequently made into a film.

This raises the question of plausibility. In his introduction to the DC edition, Moore goes on to argue that nuclear war is not necessarily what will push England into the fascist state he depicts. His contention, writing in 1988, is that we are headed in that direction anyway. In our own world, according to Moore, "the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating cameras on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against," (p. 6).

In the twenty-first century, elections have been dogged by race riots in various English towns and cities, even before we mention the attacks on buildings in the US [NB this was originally written prior to 11 September, 2001]. That’s not to say that there are direct correlations between the book and the real world of today, but rather that many of its key features remain pertinent and terrifying.

When it was begun in 1981, the novel was a projection into the future, starting out on the near-future assumption that Labour would win the 1983 General Election. Even before the story had finished being written however, this scenario had been ruled out by history. The narrative was no longer a future projection but an experiment in alternative history.

Alternative histories are interesting because they are about considering other possibilities. The world as we know it is logically reconfigured from some point in history. As one historian has put the case,
"To understand [the world] is to make it coherent. The coherence is ours and in it, the loose ends of mere possibilities have no place."

Carr’s argument, as cited in Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 1991), p. 9.

That totality of coherence is likely an ideal rather than achievable goal. Alternative histories rethink the ‘coherence’ with which we ascribe our world. By rethinking the choices made, they reconsider what our society is and how it has come to be. They are a philosophical exercise in practical history, working in gaps left by absolutist historians.

As Moore’s comments about contemporary government mirroring the nightmare regime of his imaginings show, the politics of the novel are relevant to the present, despite the debunking of the novel as a plausible future. V For Vendetta is an alternative present. It is set between November 5th, 1997 and November 10th, 1998, but it is ‘present’ because it’s about a way we could be living now.

That it offers a world we recognise to be ‘wrong’, to be clearly different to the world we exist in, is crucial. The alternative present compels the reader to compare and contrast the ‘real’ present and the ‘alternative’, to acknowledge (and critique) the ways in which our own society operates.

This intrinsic questioning of the constructs of our own ‘present’ is key to V’s mission itself. V encourages the people of England to question their government. The alternative present therefore echoes V’s own political mission. And because it is this concept that is crucial to the novel, the authenticity of the location, the plausibility of the chosen divergence, is unimportant. The parameters of the alternate present are set, we require only some basic explanation of the divergence.

What is important is that by following through the consequences of this difference, and doing so ‘realistically’ and in a way that involves the reader actively, it is conveniently possible to explore a range of contemporary political issues. The settings and solutions of the story are cataclysmic. The oppositions in conflict are foregrounded by the alternative present setting.

This makes the issues very evocative and effective. In reality, the conflicts are not so obvious. As Moore acknowledges, however, the kind of fascism he depicts is still visible in the ‘real’ world. More than ten years later, and despite a change of government, for example, legislation on homosexuality, such as Section 28, is still (contentiously) in place. As the report into the climatic effects of nuclear war concludes, it is long-term environmental damage that,
"... might in the end prove even more devastating for the human species than the awesome short-term destructive effects of nuclear explosions."

Turco, et al., p. 33.

It is, however, convenient to highlight the ideological conflicts in a more immediate setting. This is what V For Vendetta is essentially involved in. As Moore asserts, "Since both Dave and myself share a similar brand of political pessimism, the future world [is] pretty grim, bleak and totalitarian, thus giving us a convenient antagonist to play our hero off against," ("Beyond the painted smile", p. 270).

For the state itself to be the enemy of the costumed super hero is a radical departure from traditional comics. In the adventures of traditional super heroes, says Reynolds, "the initial plot development predictably leads to a violent confrontation with a costumed villain. A five-page fight scene is the obligatory result," (p. 50).

Yet V is not defending the regime from super villains, he is defending ‘the people’ (in the opening chapter he saves Evey from the police, as the novel progresses, he frees the people of England) from the regime itself. This is a much more serious and politically charged theme than usual for a costumed super hero.

Ideologically, this is radical for the genre. Mostly in super hero stories, "the villains are concerned with change and the heroes with the maintenance of the status quo" (Reynolds, p. 51). V is not the ‘traditional’, passive figure, reacting only when provoked by the villainous actions of others. He is the instigator of change, disrupting the status quo, from the beginning of the novel destroying the icons with which the regime has presented itself.

V consciously lives what in the 1990s was referred to as the ‘DIY lifestyle’, wherein,
"... new agendas are being set, often outside the traditional framework of British constitutional politics, and employing and developing strategies of direct action"

George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (London, 1996), p. 1.

V belongs to the traditions of counter-culture and oppositional politics of the late 70s and early 80s. The ‘slogans of resistance’ over these years - 1970s: Reality is a substitute for utopia, 1980s: Fight war not wars, power not people’ (cited in ibid., pp. 5-6) - might be seen as V’s own agenda.

We might also argue that V uses similar strategies as those of ‘punk’ to spread his message amongst the people: scandalous broadcasting, self-conscious explanation of his motives, iconography, even something of "a streak of English Puritanism" (McKay, p. 78, while studying the anarchic bricolage used by punk band ‘Crass’ pp. 78-90). While V is not himself a ‘punk’, he uses similar means to spread his political agenda. His attributes are iconic: easily recognisable and repeatable.

V is emblematic. Items associated with the letter ‘V’ itself, are left behind him. As the title of the novel tells us, the letter ‘V’ stands for the vendetta against the state. The encircled ‘V’ that V graphities beside his victims itself reminds us of the encircled ‘A’ of anarchy. All we know of him is that at the concentration camp in which he was incarcerated, he was ‘The Man in Room V’ (‘Five’ in Roman Numerals). Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony plays in the background as he kills the Bishop of Westminster - as Finch points out, the "da da da dum!" is Morse code for the letter V.

Extra-diegetically, this stylistic can be found in the novel’s chapter headings, for example, ‘The Villain’, ‘The Voice’ and ‘Victims’. These constructs confer mythic significance to V. The icons of V are adopted by the people. One young girl spray-paints the encircled V logo symbol alongside the word ‘Bolucs’ in defiance of the sabotaged street cameras (p. 189). A strip club has a character in a version of V’s costume placing a banger into the knickers of characters in approximated military uniforms (p. 192).

But because V has no ‘mundane’ alter-ego, these iconic elements, the ‘myth of V’, are all there is to him. Thus there is not so much a character to V as an idea. This iconic concept of V is far more effective in spreading itself than any ‘mundane’ individual. As he says to Finch after being shot, "There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bullet-proof,"(p. 236).

And because the importance of V is not ‘who’ he is, but ‘what’ he is, as Evey discovers, it is possible for her to succeed him. She, in turn, takes in her own eventual successor. V is not so much an individual as an inheritance.

Even gender is not important to the ‘idea’ of V. It is Evey, a young girl, who becomes V’s undisputed replacement. We know that he is male, but V is sexed not sexual. Evey suspects him to be her long lost father on the basis that he has made no sexual advances on her. She has lost this prejudice by the end of the novel, and comes to realise why she must not know who V is. Her - and everyone else’s - ignorance of his individual identity ensures his immortality.

The ‘mythic’ V confronts the myth of the state. In Althusser’s definition of ideology,
"... in order to ensure that political power remains the preserve of a dominant class, individual ‘subjects’ are assigned particular positions in society. A whole range of institutions, such as the Church, the family and the education system, are the means through which a particular hierarchy of values is disseminated"

Althusser, cited in ‘Ideology’, Marion Wynne-Davies (ed.), Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, The New Authority on English Literature (London, 1989), p. 615.

Those that the government sees as threatening ‘other’ - the socialists, the minorities such as Blacks, Asians and homosexuals - have been forcibly removed. The remaining populace are continually monitored and coerced to adhere to the system.

V’s attitude to this compartmentalisation is clear. "Authority allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured; twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate, while culture plunges into the abyss. Authority deforms their children, makes a cockfight of their love..." he says (p. 199).

The novel gives us plenty of evidence for V’s assertions. We see a large and diverse dramatis personae, all finding the society in which they live difficult and imposing. At the start of the novel, Evey is at the bottom of the hierarchic pyramid, and is forced into attempting prostitution, being so short of both food and money. Policeman (and thus agent of the state) Derek Almond is bitter and abusive to his wife, and it’s inferred that this comes from the pressure he’s under to rise in the hierarchy.

Crowds cheer and wave as the Leader, Adam Susan, is driven past – but they only do so when made to at gunpoint (p. 232). Susan is at the time in mid-soliloquy as to his elite status, disassociated from everybody else. He is emotionally detached and has admitted earlier the Spartan nature of his position:
"I am not loved. I know that. Not in soul or body. I have never known the soft whisper of endearment. Never known the peace that lies between the thighs of a woman. But I am respected. I am feared. And that will suffice."

Adam Susan, V For Vendetta, p. 38.

The mythic ideology serves only to be self-fulfilling. Nobody is happy. Nobody is fulfilled.

"Social change occurs when the ideology of the dominant class is no longer able to contain the contradictions existing in real social relations,"

Althusser, cited in ‘Ideology’, Marion Wynne-Davies (ed.), Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, The New Authority on English Literature (London, 1989), ibid.

Thus, the emotionally debilitating effects of the fascist regime are made apparent through the relationships and interactions of a massive cast. We do not just follow the story of V and Evey, we have repeated insights into the lives of Adam Susan, detective Eric Finch, the adulterous Helen Heyer, the widowed and impoverished Rosemary Almond, the thug Harper, and many more. Even V’s victims are given depth.

The cast are assigned characters as well as roles in the narrative. These interact continually throughout the novel. While we see little of the outside world, the people of London in V For Vendetta express themselves as a convincing social body.

We can navigate a whole series of causes leading to different effects, perhaps most notably the butterfly effect by which the widowed Rosemary Almond, un-provided for after her husband’s death, kills Susan, the Leader. We have followed this progression of emotional and physical events, and appreciate why she has taken this action.

In this way, the novel suggests something about the way society operates in general. After Moore’s comments on the ‘real’ England of 1988, it is no great leap to recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous "There’s no such thing as society" comments made the previous year. The structure of V For Vendetta would rather suggest otherwise.

However, in her autobiography, Thatcher is keen to point out that her comments have been widely misrepresented, and goes on to qualify the point. Rather than society, she continues, in neo-classical vein,
"there are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour"

Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London, 1993), p. 626.

She sees society as an excuse rather than an obligation. Thatcher’s problem is with what she calls the ‘dependency culture’, whereby the population expect the state to take care of them. V is also involved in motivating the populace, but in a diametrically opposed way. Rather than belittling the problems and unhappiness people visibly suffer in the social body in which they live, V encourages those who are not happy to protest.

Thatcher’s argument is that government shouldn’t exist to provide for the people. V’s argument is government shouldn’t exist. George McKay sees the 1990s DIY lifestyle I’ve already linked V to as constituting "a politics of the disenfranchised, wherein the youth and marginals left out of Thatcher’s revolution find their voices and use them to express their resentment and opposition," (McKay, p.1).

Because the government has become separate from the civic society, the excluded develop a new mode of political expression. Un-provided-for and desperate widow, Rosemary Almond is perhaps the most drastic of those V has liberated. Like Evey, she has stood up to the disenfranchisement imposed upon her. V has given her the freedom to express herself profoundly.

The ending of the novel concretises the issues here. Frederic Jameson argues that, through plot, science fiction dramatises the contradiction between the need for narrative totality (the need for a clear ‘ending’) and the fact that,
"closure or the narrative ending is the mark beyond which thought cannot go,"

Frederic Jameson, "Progress Versus Utopia, Or, Can We Imagine the Future?", Science Fiction Studies #27, vol. 9, part 2 (1982), p. 148.

This is because, he continues, science fiction’s intrinsic "vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending". His argument is that an ‘ending’ closes the speculation that the science fiction genre requires fundamentally.

V For Vendetta remains open and speculative. It ends ambiguously. Despite all the various characters reaching novelistically satisfying ‘end points’ in the narrative, there is still no certainty about what the future will bring. This is exemplified by the final images of Finch walking out of rioting London, and away up the M1. As we have already seen, there’s little clue as to what lies outside London, of what Finch will find in Hatfield and the North. If anything, the characters we have been following as central to the plot are no longer of individual importance to the anarchy V has provoked.

Either through death or marginalisation, each member of Moore’s huge dramatis personae is removed from the limelight. Even Evey, who takes on V’s mantle, is rendered no longer individually important. She merely takes her place as figurehead of the ideal. She maintains the all-important V iconography.

What V has done is turn the balance of power away from those who lead - the fascist elite - and, in doing so, passed it over to ‘the people’. It is no longer the ‘extraordinary’ V who must stand against the regime for the benefit of the oppressed. The oppressed must make the stand. V does not deal with the Leader of the regime, it is the ‘ordinary’ Rosemary Almond who kills him.

Thus Finch walks out at the close of the novel into a future that, while it is still dark, violent and uncertain, is no longer mediated by people determined (ideologically) as having ‘importance’. As V reassured Evey at the start, "Everybody is special. Everybody," (p. 26). All are equal. Effectively, V has turned the future over to everybody else. This includes the novel’s readers.

Jameson believes that the "most obvious ways in which an SF novel can wrap its story up - as in some atomic explosion that destroys the universe, or the static image of some future totalitarian world-state - are also clearly the places in which our own ideological limits are the most surely inscribed," (ibid). As he later argues, science fiction is not a way of imagining the future, but is intrinsically "a contemplation of our own [contemporary] absolute limits," (ibid, p. 153).

V For Vendetta’s ambiguous ending merely confirms that our ideology/ies are only limited so far as we allow them to be. Nancy A Collins believes that the novel,
"... should be on the reading lists of all those genuinely interested in the accessibility of alternative philosophies in popular culture,"

Nancy A Collins, "Eye Tracks: reviews and opinions", SF Eye, vol. 2, no. 7 (August 1990), p. 84.

It is not only an alternative, ‘nightmare’ version of our present, it offers our present an alternative political agenda - actively involved, oppositional and anarchic.

"Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world."

V, p. 222.

(If you're still reading this far, there's plenty more analysis at the V for Vendetta Shrine.)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shock tactics

"There's not many kids that got into fights in the street because some kid calls your dad a 'reactionary class traitor'. It was like living in one of them books written by Chinese women about life during the Cultural Revolution."

Alexei Sayle, Overtaken, p. 11.

Having raved to my mate Peter a few weeks ago about the really rather t'riffic Barcelona Plates and The Dog Catcher, he was really rather t'riffic and sent me Sayle's novel, Overtaken.

First, it's a much more leisuredly read than the boy's bumper book of space.

Secondly, it's got the same sharp observation as his short stories, the same wicked turn-of-phrase and sudden reversals so out of left field that they overturn the whole tale in a sentence. Yet it's not quite the revelatory experience as the shorts - which are perhaps the best examples of the medium I've ever read.

I've been trying to understand why I feel a bit disappointed, despite all the good stuff packed into the book.

Comic novels often have the feel of sitcoms and comic stage plays, with extreme sorts of people in contrived situations. But prose, being slower and less immediate, and with the reader in control of the speed it plays out, leaves plenty of space for real character depth, to explore motivation, to add detail.

What might play out fine and frenetic between actors can therefore feel vapid in print. Farces are facile and silly, but keep the audience busy in just keeping up, and they won't notice until long after it's over.

The plot itself reminded me in some ways of another disappointment - Iain Banks's Dead Air. A crass, ranty rogue as narrator is shocked by cataclysmic tragedy and decides to show a few of life's bastards the error of their ways - in a variety of crass, ranty ways. Having been shown by example, the narrator uses shock therapy to enact ethical change... This sets up all kinds of unlikely adventures, with both the villains and narrator maybe learning something along the way.

In this case, narrator Kelvin is a 30-something property developer without a care in the world. He's just as crass and unthinking as those he comes up against, and for all the places and plays they've been to, his life with his five best friends is witless and banal, a stream of mobile phonecalls saying nothing.

(You never overhear anything intersting being said into a mobile, do you? Not ever...)

As well as talking through any journey, they natter through films and plays without a thought for anyone else. That they drive to the same places in different cars is a good indicator of their casual selfishness, as well as becoming a bit of a plot point.

Trouble is, in my head it comes with the voice of a bloke I used to know who'd regularly say stupid, crass things for effect. Stuff about race and class and women you'd find, if you argued him down long enough, that he really didn't believe in or care about. It was a cynical stabbing of people's emotional buttons, to make conversations a bit more abrasive.

More to the point, though you're clearly not meant to like Kelvin, there was never any point where I was rooting for him, either. Even when terrible things happen to him, he's a hard bloke to sympathise for.

Sayle's book is chock-full of wild, grotesque archetypes doing wild, grotesque things. More importantly, there's plenty of times when he leaps artfully out of the way of such cynical plotting. For example, what looks like another crude set-up with Kelvin (the narrator) and an old queen turns out to be a deft little gag about yo-yos.

It's constantly funny and diverting, with deft flashes of something more substantial. The result is something that doesn't quite reach genius (as I genuinely think the short stories do), but whose fingertips brush against it at times.

Looking forward to Sayle's next, Weeping Women Hotel - when I eventually get to it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hello Neil

...and hello to everyone who's found their way here from Neil's journal. My, but there are a lot of you. I'll just put the kettle on, and see what we got left in the way of jaffa cakes...
"It's also worth pointing out that writers don't have any say in casting. Occasionally we get a vote but it's only a vote."

Neil Gaiman, "Why I won't do homework".

Sometimes we get asked our opinions, and sometimes we can even think of people. Clive Mantle, for example, sprung to mind 'cos I knew it'd please my mum.

ETA: You might like to read my comment on Neil's talk in London last year, or on his Anansi Boys.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Happy goths

My interview with Dave McKean is now live, to accompany my review of Mirrormask.

Enjoyed Nimbos blogging our trip to the goth wossname at Tate Britain last week (well done with the title there, fella).

The Dr particularly like Fuseli's "Brunhild Watching Gunther Suspended from The Ceiling on their Wedding Night" (1807), in which some German bird ties up her new husband so that she can sleep unmolested. Bit bothered that this one's her favourite.

In fact, a lot of the stuff is about immasculated blokes, conquered by women or nature. I dared suggest this was showing the awfulness ensuing when the proper order of things is undone.

Definitions of goth are about as myriad, and useless, as definitions of science fiction. But it struck me, gawping at the pictures and the other vamps who'd come to see them, that the late eighteenth century was also the time of enlightenment, of experiment and proveable fact. Fact which, in building a scientific model for the world around us, underminded folk tales and myth.

So, I'd venture, gothicism is a conscious denial of the rational in favour of "dressing up" in the superstitious and strange. It's playing with monsters and nightmares when we know better; in the best possible terms, it's an affectation.

Yes, other defintions of goth are available, and I'm sure people will write in.

Whatever the case, goth is never the most subtle of art-forms, and the drawings on offer here are full of struggling and straining women whose clothes have fallen off, and naked, beef-cakey chaps with small winkies.

"And some quite big ones," said my friend C. as we headed to the pub down the road. Poor girl.

The pub was fun too, with a quiet upstairs done out in slightly tatty victoriana - which was just the Dr's thing. I chatted with a mate of S.'s about how writing and fighting are the same. No, really: there are those who just talk about it, and those who just get on with doing it. And it's most effective to keep your moves simple and to the point.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You can’t teach physics to a dog

“Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanics fully. And even Niels Bohr, one of the central pioneers of quantum theory, and one of it’s strongest proponents, once remarked that if you do not get dizzy sometimes when you think about quantum mechanics, then you have not really understood it.”

Brian Greene, The elegant universe – superstrings, hidden dimensions and the quest for the ultimate theory, p. 88.

It took a little over a fortnight, but I’ve finally finished the book on string theory which Nimbos got me for Christmas.

The book is about how clever people have spent the last 100 years trying to tie together two mutually exclusive ideas – one about how gravity works, the other about how light comes in lumps.

I’ve always been a bit of a plodder in understanding clever stuff, especially in the “real” subjects where you can’t just make it up. For the last two thirds of the book I was mostly just reading the individuals words and hoping that somehow my subconscious would put it all together later.

(Which is more or less my technique with Dombey & Son in my teens. And it worked.)

Greene admits himself that things get pretty weird and he’s often advising the layman to skip ahead (which I didn’t as I’m tough). Physics at the smaller-than-the-atom stage is counter-intuitive to an ape brain that sees in three dimensions, (a sense developed, I guess, from falling out of trees).

There seems, to me at least, an element of creative accountancy involved in string theory – that is, moving numbers around the page until the story adds up. That may just be my missing the sums, though (which I’d not have a hope of intuiting). The mathematics involved gets so complex – Greene says – that a lot of the weird stuff has to be taken on trust.

The horrific mechanical QuarksHauling my eyes over speak of pan-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes and the different kinds of oddly named quark (up, down, hot, carrot and Basingstoke), I felt the same “well, okay” response to the minutiae of theology. I broadly, for example, understand the difference between homoousios and homoiousio (and did before it was in Dr Who, and all) but not why it matters to anyone whether Jesus is exactly or pretty much like his dad.

But strings, Greene insists, aren’t philosophy. It’s all very well saying there’s this very, very small stringy bits that waggles in seven dimensions we can’t sense. The clever bit is working out how to test the theory, to prove that they really are there. Which is what Top Men like my mate Dr Kelly are struggling to fathom out now.

Am now working through Greene’s attention-deficit TV show version of the book, which Psychonomy kindly leant. “They can smell reality!” declares one of the talking-head boffins.

Yet for all I’ve rolled my eyes at the lame jokes and set-ups – or is that an epileptic response to the flashy graphics? – I can still nod my way through it comprehendingly. Yeah, a bit to my amazement, I get it.

So, in fact, no I don’t. QED.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lazy boy

Many things to speak of, which I don't have time for right now. Some writing things happening, and work all very busy. Some films and an exhibition seen. Some indulgences had. A I've finally finished a book that was making my eyes bleed.

Will endeavour to catch up in the week. In the meantime, here is what my wee brother is working on. Will remind you to check back on the 12th, but tell your friends.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Bad grammar

After getting it howlingly wrong yesterday – thanks to everyone who posted – I’ve read up a bit on the Tripartite system.

Blimey. Had assumed that ‘76, in banning selection on grounds of ability, saw the end of the grammar school system, and what remained were entrance exams for particular, snobby schools (like mine).

Turns out it’s all a lot more complex than that, depending on where you live. And it’s got more complex as time has gone on.
“Estelle Morris has left us with independent schools, over 160 grammar schools, church and faith schools, specialist schools, advanced specialist schools, beacon schools, city academies, city technology colleges, ‘fresh start’ schools, ‘contract’ schools – in addition to ‘ordinary’ comprehensives and secondary moderns. No wonder many parents are confused!”

Clyde Chitty, “The right to a comprehensive education”, Second Caroline Benn memorial lecture, 16 November 2002.

Chitty’s lecture is really interesting; an honest assessment of the pros and cons of the comprehensive system. Wikipedia also links to Michael Portillo’s counter-argument, in favour of grammar schools’ elitism.

Admissions policy is, of course, a major part of the newly unveiled Education Bill. "There will be no return to the 11-plus,’ said the White Paper. Oh yes?

I’ve muttered before that foundation schools seem very able to keep out the wrong sorts. Admissions policies suit the schools rather than the pupils. Imagine if, for example, hospitals decided only to treat the “right sort” of sickness, rather than the immediate needs of the surrounding community.

Oh, hang on, that’s what they’re doing.