Tuesday, July 31, 2007

This bath’s too hot

I wonder if Archimedes got distracted easily. He invented the water screw and the laser gun, and also sussed out how to measure the volume of irregularly shaped objects by the displacement of liquid. While getting in the bath, so the story goes.

I am equally involved in displacement activities, but to not quite such good effect.

Today I have been to the local hospital (only, er, 10 miles away) and to the gym, delivered materials and proofed amends, taken the Dr for lunch with my bosses and body-swerved some free theatre. Have tried to break a website, approved a cover and – but for some changes of typeface – the whole of a book, and chased the end of a CD. Have also discovered a whole cladge of old chums via Facebook, and am knee-deep in 10 years of their lives. And A. is sending me emails about his naked weekend.

This is not what I should be up to though, and there’s a great, hard edifice of granite ahead of me metaphorically, from which I must chip many words. Kind of happy with where it’s at right now, if I am still a little behind. It so far includes the words “chimpanzee”, “washing-up liquid” and “Mika”. And I have learnt from the old man about checking for concussion, and the clever tests that can reveal if someone’s bleeding inside their head. No, that’s actually part of it, and not me just wandering off.

Another cup of tea, I think.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Children of Tomorrow

M'colleagues at Big Finish inform me that the Stephen Gately song "Children of Tomorrow" is now available on iTunes for 79p.

Horror of Glam RockIt's the frankly barking track from Big Finish/BBC7 Doctor Who story The Horror of Glam Rock. Which featured Gately, Bernard Cribbin and Una Stubbs.

Friday, July 27, 2007

No Englishman is ever fairly beaten

Anne-Marie Duff as St JoanWent with the Dr last night to see St Joan at the National. Met m’colleague R. outside just beforehand, who was queuing to see a circus of performing insects, who warned that Shaw was “hard work” and “worthy”. But I have weathered plays in their original ancient Greek, performed by not-brilliant students and with the subtitles not working. So three hours of worthy English held only small fear.

I need not have worried. Anne-Marie Duff, in an otherwise all-male play, was by turns funny, inspiring and not a little mad, which made for a captivating performance. The rest of the cast discussed, argued and fell in love with, and ultimately failed to save her.

The £3 programme speaks of Shaw’s current unpopularity among the “blogging classes” (which says a lot in itself; the vast range of blogs is pretty classless, while the audience of a play in the Olivier Theatre is not). The play does feature some very long scenes, though they’re deftly punctuated by clever choreography. It doesn’t sound much to tell, but the cast move and manipulate their chairs to suggest the passing and pausing of time, and to tie the action into the music. The chairs are bodies and munitions being dragged through the mud during the siege of Orleans. They are the pyre on which Joan is burnt, and they are the off-centre-stage jurors who heckle and condemn.

It was also far wittier than I’d expected, with some clever gags about English bigotry. But for the long scenes it feels very contemporary and not nearly 100 years old. Its care not to make anyone a villain and its vision of history repeating felt particularly modern.

The programme is full of good stuff and talks of modern martyrs / terrorists, the history of France and of Shaw. But it has little on the context of when the play was written (in 1923). Is it, for example, playing on events in Ireland at the time? Duff plays Joan with an Irish accent while the rest of the cast are English.

“France” and “England” are dangerous, nascent concepts in the play, which challenge the system of feudal lords, who have complete power over their lands and, despite nominal lip service, are equals to their kings.

Joan is dangerous, then, for challenging the social order. As a commoner in direct talks with the Dauphin, she cuts out the intercession of the feudal lords. As a commoner in direct talks with God and his angels, she cuts out the intercession of the Catholic Church. She is therefore accused of two heresies well ahead of their time: nationalism and Protestantism.

Shaw wrote the play shortly after the Catholics had canonised Joan, and referred to her himself as a “Protestant martyr”. Yet the play seems to conclude that she died more for her politics than for her religion, the Inquisitor (played by Oliver Ford-Davies) saying that innocents must always be sacrificed.

It is, then, a savage attack on political necessity, and a critique of the well-meaning piety of those who insist upon it. The soldiers and lords and priests beg Joan to consider that she might be wrong in her beliefs, but the villains are those of them who remain unswayed in theirs.

The Dr wondered if it asked more general questions about colonial power after World War One, citing the Amritsar massacre of 1919. I was a little reminded of Orwell’s sense on inadequacy in the governance of the foreign mob, as in his Shooting an Elephant.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The younger, slimmer, beardier brother has youtubed the wee movie he made as his final project on South Bank University's special effects course.

Monday, July 23, 2007

As wet as a fish's wet bits

Doctor WhoThe deluge continues, and there are mad pictures of Reading, with the cinema I used to go to and shops where I'd buy milk now under feet of water.

The expected bank-bursting of the Thames last night seems, thankfully, not to have happened. M'colleague Matthew Sweet took the picture showing how the Evening Standard boldly and nobly takes such matters on the chin.

Evening StandardThis reminds me of another billboard from when the London Underground was flooded with Yeti.

The press have had fun explaining why it's been so wet, and the new PM was live on telly in the gym yesterday talking tough about water and the causes the water. But he's pressing ahead with plans to build more houses on flood plains. Those who've suggested this might not be the wisest bit of genius ever - that flood plains are called flood plains because they, er, flood - are being accused of "playing politics". Not, you know, fulfilling a consititutional obligation to oppose the Government when they are silly.

Still, I suspect policy will be re-shaped anyway, not by the Government but by the money. There are estimates of claims to come of £2 billion, which could have the same knock-on effect on the economy as a whole as did the hurricanes and disasters of the late 80s. More importantly, it was the problems of insuring any workplace that allowed smoking (because of subsequent claims from workers on health grounds) that ultimately got smoking banned - where years of moral and medical lobbying had failed.

Am intrigued to see how the former Chancellor, with his reputation so tied to the health of the economy, weathers the ensuing financial storm.

All was well

Stayed up until half two this morning to see off Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which the Doctor read all of on Saturday (due to the rising tides making it impossible to get to Mr Cornell’s 40th birthday party). Some spoilertastic thoughts follow, so come back when you’ve got to the end.


         spoiler space




     is split

  seven ways...

For the first time, it’s not about another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With Harry now 17 and, as a grown-up, suddenly no longer protected by the safe-making magic of love, a whole world of baddies is out to get him – and anyone in the way.

It’s a gripping read, full of violence and excitement right from the beginning. In fact, two major characters are killed in the first action sequence and another is seriously wounded – a shocking, horrific start that sets up that no one is safe. I remember (but can’t attribute) a bit of writing advice that an audience will let you get away with killing all the people in a burning people so long as their pets escape… And the deaths and maimings keep coming.

It’s a brutal book with a high body count, and many of those killings are sudden and abrupt. Suddenly people we’ve come to know well over the last 10 years / seven books are just not there any more – but that’s true of the characters that survive, too. The ending is also rather abrupt, and bar the handful of classmates mentioned in the epilogue, we learn very little of what happens to people after the final battle. Presumably Hermione recalls her parents from Australia. Can we also assume that at some point in the 19 years Harry catches up with the Dursleys again?

This blunt despatch also means that you’re not always sure who you’ve just said goodbye to for good. When Hagrid is dragged off by spiders on page 520, I did think that was him done for – and hoist by his own hairy-legged petard.

In fact, a lot of the book is reported rather than seen, and even when there are big action sequences like Harry escaping Privet Drive or the Battle for Helms Deep Hogwarts, we follow Harry doing something else then later catch up on who didn’t survive. This means that while everybody else is fighting for their lives, we’re following Harry as he goes camping and looks for lucky charms. It’s not that these sequences don’t work, but it perhaps limits the book by having almost all of it told from Harry’s perspective, so that major events are given in reported speech as he catches up with friends.

It may also have to be like this is Harry’s not going to fight. The key thing about the book is that he doesn’t go to war while everyone else does, and it’s the fact that he won’t kill – that his trademark spell is to disarm not wound, that ultimately everything hinges on. It’s telling that he learns a lesson that, at his age, Dumbledore did not – that magical might is not right. After seven years at magical school, the most important thing Harry has learned is when not to use his powers.

Being the last one (and its ending makes that pretty definitive, too), Deathly Hallows revisits many of the characters and settings of previous books in one last farewell tour. We also visit for the first time the house where Harry’s parents were killed, and learn a great deal about the early lives of Dumbledore and Snape. The Dr was especially blubby about chapter 33, but then it was her favourite character being all noble and misunderstood. Which is all suitably goth.

Some of the things we’d predicted were right: about Snape, his real motivations, and Harry Potter’s mum; that R.A.B. was Sirius’s brother; that we’d see Ollivander again. Other things I was completely out on: I had the Hogwarts-hidden Horcrux as either Godric’s ruby-encrusted sword or the Mirror of Erised (artefacts set up in the first couple of books). I assumed either Ron or Hermione (or both) would die, while the Dr had Harry not making it to the last chapter. There were also wrong-feet as I read it: assuming Mad-Eye would return as a reanimated corpse, for example, and assuming we’d find out what that gateway from the end of Order of the Phoenix was all about.

There are some very good surprises – shock reveals of baddies and some major revelations about Harry and his world. It’s a while since I read anything that demanded I keep reading, especially at the end of chapters. There’s also some good closure to character and story arcs all the way along: Ron worrying about the plight of goblins; Mrs Weasley going to war; Neville being the hero.

Also key to the book as a whole is Harry now being an adult and standing on his own. By the end of the series, all the adults Harry once held in awe – his parents, his teachers, his enemies – are seen to be just as flawed and capable of great mistakes as he is.

I’m curious what kids will make of such a brutal and complex book, so lacking in the mad antics and laughs of Harry’s previous adventures.

And by my reckoning (though I’m sure many others have got there first), Harry’s from the class of ‘98, and the last chapter takes place in 2016.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Jehosophat, it is you!

At a little after noon the sky above Trafalgar Square is low and black and doomsday. A torrent of water heaves thick over the shoes of those daft enough to be out in it. Tourists stare balefully at what would clearly be the end of the world, if only it weren’t too dark to see.

(Funnily enough, only this morning I wrote the words “Intergalactic tourism was an unforgiving business.” And braved the Ragnarok weather to agree terms with the boss.)

Then, a minute later, there is sunshine and smiling and sausage sandwiches in the Harp. One colleague suggests that perhaps Mr Saxon had attempted to destroy all London (again), but not-his-brother must quickly have stopped him. I smile into my herbidaciously aromatic Lincolnshire.

And then, in one of those nice coincidences, my post-lunch work means I’m looking at this picture:

Absalom's Pillar in the Valley of Jehosophat by Edward Lear

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to get rejected

The Guardian is carrying a story today about the author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers' pride and prejudice. Basically, David Lassman, whose own book keeps getting rejected then submitted to different publishers several works by Jane Austen with a few words swapped round. Funnily enough, no one wanted to publish them.
“David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, said he was amused and disheartened by the experiment. He added: ‘It's interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand.’”

Steven Morris, The author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers' pride and prejudice, The Guardian, 19 July 2007.

This sort of experiment has been run before, and always with the same result. The conclusion seems to be that if the editorial staff can’t spot the great works of literature they shouldn’t be in their jobs. But having just read more than 1,000 2,500-word short stories for the How the Doctor changed my life competition, and with a great wealth of rejection letters of my own, I think this is hugely missing the point.

First, Lassman’s wheeze rather depends on editorial staff recognising the beginnings of classic novels. And while a devotee of Austen might know how each of them begins, it’s unfair to expect everyone to, just because they work in publishing. It’s not just presupposing that editorial staff have read particular books, but that also they recall specific passages from them.

Personally, I remember the gist of books and key moments in them. And the only first line I can think of right now is from The Dalek Invasion of Earth by Terrance Dicks. Rather than the beginnings, it’s incidents later on in great books that stay with me – stuff that happens to characters I’ve come to know and care for, drama and conflict that’s been earned as part of the story-telling process.

Lassman says he was prompted to test the publishers in this way by his own struggles to find a publisher for his own book. “I know it isn't a masterpiece,” he admits, “but I think it is publishable.”

Publishers aren’t looking for something publishable, they need to find books that will sell. And sell lots of copies. Publishing is an uneven and risky business, with great losses to be made. Even the largest houses can go under if they have a run of books that are merely “okay”. They depend for their survival on books that grab the attention, that surprise and excite the reader, stories that demand to be told.

It’s more likely, then, that the readers in Lassman’s case just went, “It’s a little familiar.” Indeed, Austen’s work has inspired and influenced books and other media for the last 200 years – Mills & Boon even have a line of Regency-period novels. So sending in something that’s reminiscent of Austen (because it is Austen) is going to seem very generic.

Publishing staff have got lots of unsolicited stuff to get through, as well as their work on commissioned and scheduled books. An editor might be tempted to check whether it’s not just copying-and-pasting from an original, but if you’ve already decided to reject it anyway, why would you even bother?

And it may be harsh to hear, “I’m not really bothered,” or “Haven’t we seen this before?” but in the end the editorial staff is not there to employ anyone with basic competence at scribbling. They’re there to pre-empt the response of readers – it’s the readers they serve, not the writers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Friends and relations

We have been visited. First on Monday, J. arrived from Bath (and more usually the USA). She had not seen our flat before, nor our William Morris wallpaper and cat, and there was much catching up and gossip over good asparagus lunch. It was the first time J. had been so long away from her two year-old, so it was all quite something.

Once the Dr left with, I did washing up and working, and was on the phone with work things when I should have been collecting my South African cousin. N. and her friend S. are into the last leg of a European tour, and came to me having done Paris and Dijon and Venice and Rome (and also London and Cambridge). We did food and then, when their plans to meet up with other South Africans didn’t work out, took them to the Dolphin. We sat outside in the swish new garden, and pretended not to be freezing.

Yesterday was N’s 20th birthday, and I’d promised her and S. a tour. They’d already seen Buckingham Palace and Kensington Gardens, and we’d agreed we’d do museums if it got rainy but otherwise try to be outdoors. So…

Train to Victoria, tube to Embankment and then the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridge (east side) over the river. Pointed out that the Embankment is a great big sewage pipe you can walk about on top of, and also Cleopatra’s Needle. By the time we reached the far side of the river, we were looking out for the Anthony Gormley figures stood iconically on rooftops.

Having pre-booked no-nonsense tickets, we were pretty quickly on to the London Eye, sharing our cabin with some very excited kids, keen to point out their estate. Tried to point out things of interest: Nelson’s Column and Downing Street, and the clock tower of St Pancras (made famous by H. Potter).

After that we followed the south bank past the new spangly Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre, the National Theatre and along past the shops and the Oxo Tower to the former Bankside Power Station. This is now Tate Modern, and we mooched around a free exhibition about Global Cities all round the world. N. got a bit weirded by a series of photos of her home town, just showing security warnings (see the Johannesburg section of Diversity).

Out into the sunshine again and across the Millennium Bridge and up the stairs to St Paul's cathedral. Didn’t get the Whispering Gallery to work, but we did clamber all the way to the top for some spectacular views. We were about as high up as we’d been on the Eye, only a lot more sweaty for it.

View from the top of St Paul's CathedralHad trouble making the low-ceilinged descent, and we moved pretty swiftly through the crypt and out to find a quick something for lunch. It threatened to rain as we ate, but the sun came out again as we headed down Cheapside. I pointed out the Church of St Mary le Bow, and explained about how it works with cockneys. Got sight of the Bank of England, then headed right to Cannon Street, passing the monument to the unknown wanker.

Made our way to the Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London in 1666, though the girls oddly declined the chance to climb to the top. Instead we carried on down river, weaving down between the old Billingsgate fish market and the old customs house, and then getting to walk round the perimeter of the Tower of London, getting up on to Tower Bridge and following it north to Tower Gateway station.

DLR’d through all the Docklands developments (passing the new Billingsgate before cutting through the inside of One Canada Square) to Island Gardens, a much more crowded journey than I’d expected to the girls didn’t get to sit at the front – which is the coolest thing. We looked out on the all the new high-rise developments with their expensive views of water, then got out at Island Gardens. Having enjoyed the view of Greenwich, south across the water, we took the foot tunnel (yes more steps), and emerged where the Cutty Sark isn’t.
Took them into the grounds of Wren’s old naval hospital (now the University of Greenwich), and to the bit of street used in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. We then headed across the road to the Maritime Museum, and had a look round the bits of the Queen’s House used in the same film, and the Orangery (where I got married). They had then had enough of climbing things, so we didn’t do the steep hill to the Royal Observatory, but crossed the line of longitude as we made our way to the pub. Took them to the Trafalgar (where I had my wedding reception). They drank Smirnoff Ice.

The traffic-light tree at Canary WharfIt was about four as we headed back along the river and got ourselves onto a slow boat back to Westminster. We sat out on deck, which was blowy but blue-skied. I pointed out the traffic-light tree just down from Westferry Circus, and good pubs like the Captain Kidd. From the stop at the Tower of London, one of the lightermen took over the commentary, explaining about bridges and buildings. I think my Top Facts were a little more accurate, but his jokes got bigger laughs.

Eventually got to Westminster Pier, and headed back down the Embankment where I got to point out one of my favourite statues: a pilot with broken angel’s wings, commemorating the Fleet Air Arm.

Took the western pedestrian bridge back over to Festival Hall, and met Nimbos for a couple of bottles of vino. Discussed options for the evening, and decided to head home for N. and S.’s first ever go at fish and chips, plus a call to parents. Ended up boozing and watching telly.

N. and S. left this morning – and sneakily left money to pay for yesterday, the minxes. I have washed and tidied but not entirely Dysoned. All in time for the Dr being back from speaking wisdom in Bristol tomorrow… And now, though it was reckoned we would finish work about half eight this evening, it looks like we’ll be here another hour at least… Ng.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I am not going to come quietly at all

Couldn’t be bothered to think of a birthday present for Codename Moose, so took him and Mrs Codename to see the new Harry Potter. Scary, funny and dripping with style, my one concern is how easy it’d be to follow without having read the book.

The no-nosed snake Lord Voldermort is back from being dead, but no one but Harry, Dumbledore and the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix believe this can be true. The Ministry of Magic is so determined to quash the worrying rumours that they’ve provided a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher to Hogwarts. Dolores Umbridge will also bring some order to the school…

Imelda Staunton is brilliant as Umbridge, insipid and chilling by turns. She seems to be dressed like the Queen in the 50s, or even Mary Whitehouse (though I hear cries of anguish at my even trying to talk clothes).

There’s plenty of familiar faces in small roles – Lupin and Moody get a couple of lines each, and there’s Pettigrew in the photo of the Order. Helena Bonham-Carter is also nicely batty as Bellatrix Lestrange for the brief amount of time that we see her. (I got told off for giggling when she first appeared. Bonham-Carter being witchy is NOTHING like the Dr.) Ron, Hermione and Hagrid are all in it less, too – though I think that is sort of the theme.

The Dr and Mrs Codename were especially pleased by the washed and conditioned Sirius Black, while Moose and I were much impressed by the sod-the-Jedi fighting. General conclusion was that it’s the weakest of the books but made for a brilliant film. But there was a lot to take in and we want to see it again.

The Dr is signed-up to collect book 7 at midnight this coming Friday. I am more mature and not excited at all…

Friday, July 13, 2007

Blood, toil, sweat and tears

Some folks have asked eagerly – and not a little disturbingly – for details of the blood-dashed events of Wednesday. And I am reminded of Eric Blair thinking it interesting to be shot. But it’s also all a bit ICKY, even for me to recall, so other folks may prefer to look away.





Okedoke. I’ve had problem with this ‘ere former tooth since a heroic/damn stoopid (delete as applicable) altercation in a Northern public house. A hairy-palmed, ring-wearing local was bothered that I didn’t angle vowels the same as my comrades. At least, he singled me out of a group of students, rather than skelping in general. As we made to find somewhere else less shouting, he started waving his arms around. And with a lucky slap popped one of my back teeth. Blood spattered everywhere and, drooling gore, I watched one comrade in particular respond in kind. That was quite exciting.

The tooth, though, has needed some work ever since. It's been filled and looked at and stitched and root canalled. I’ve also enjoyed the draining of a sub-tooth abscess (that is, a great volcano of pus swelling inside the gum. Nice). This ongoing trouble threatened to weaken the whole jaw (so the dentists said) and was also a bit rank and icky.

So anyway, the tooth was a liability, and it’s not such a great surprise that I split it top-to-bottom amid deadline panic. It’s continued to splinter since my last report, and then there was something funny tasting in my mouth, so I trooped off to my appointment rather early. With all the calm and solemnity of Beaker from the Muppets.

The lovely dentist (weirdly, I hate going to the dentist with a terror like race memory, but I’ve always got on well with the dentists themselves) discussed what was going to be done, and also her theories about the forthcoming last Harry Potter. “You’ll feel pressure but not sharpness,” she said very pleasantly. “And I think ‘R.A.B.’ must be [SPOILER].”

Yes I felt the pressure. No, I felt no sharpness. But what pressure. She alternated between two sets of pliers and needed to hold on to my lower jaw as she heaved and waggled and wrenched. There’s something monstrously disturbing about the cracking of your own teeth and I could feel an apeish need to escape up the nearest tree. And then, pok! she’d yanked the thing out.

mind the gap“We’ll just rinse out that taste,” she says, prodding a tube of lovely cool water into my numb and frothing mouth. I’m thinking that wasn’t so bad. Then she’s dabbing at my face where splashes of blood must have got me. But no. “There was an abscess behind the tooth,” she says. “And it sort of went everywhere.” Ick.

There’s then some more good news. Only the top part of the tooth came out. It’s crumbling, so she needs another go. You know I said I don’t like going to the dentist? Well, she’s swapping different terrifying tools and trying to staunch the bleeding because it makes it hard to see the remaining bits. And each drilling, poking, heaving, wrenching brings out just a tiny scrap more.

The plugI’m watching these tiny splinters being added to the bloody, drooly mess on the tray to my side, thinking it makes for an impossible 3D puzzle, of the sort naughty children get for Christmas. I’m trying to remember how to breathe, aware that my legs and belly and, well all of me, is shaking like a Jibber Jabber. But eventually, a very long hour later, the deed is done and I quiver from my chair with a temporary denture in place. My instructions are not to spit, not to smoke, not to eat or drink nowt hot, and not to booze (waaah! on that last one). I also have to leave the strange acrylic tooth in place over night so my mouth will bruise around it.

Back home, I tried to watch some of the Ealing comedies received for my birthday (Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts and Coronets), but brain wasn’t really functioning. The anaesthetic was not much replaced by Anadin, and the cat showed his sympathies with a great log of a fur ball. The Dr made me omelette and we Pottered a bit (film three and two chapters of book six). I think she’s quite delighted that I suddenly so old.

Nor did she grumble at my paltry efforts to sleep. I dreamt of Matthew and Davy being at the extraction waving their recording wossnames around. And Matthew asking if we could pull out another one to make sure he got it taped.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tutored in the ways of righteousness

Mary and the GiantMary and the Giant is one of a small number of non-sf books by sci-fi freak-boy Philip K Dick (author of the cray-zee tales that became Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly). Most of these “mainstream” efforts, including Mary, were published after his death in 1982 (just prior to the release of Blade Runner “introduced his vision to a wider audience” – as the biog in the back of the book says).

I first read Mary when I was 17, as part of a cache of the Dick Good Stuff bequeathed by a wise mate at college. I’d remembered it fondly, but on rereading it find how little of the plot I retained.

Mary Anne Reynolds is 20 years-old and living in a small town not far outside San Francisco. She’s bored and restless and a bit difficult, and looking for ways to escape. To begin with, it looks like the giant Black singer, Carleton Tweany, might be her way out. But when Tweany ditches her for another, married woman, Mary Anne’s best hope is the 58 year-old Joseph Schilling, who’s just opened a record shop in town…

Was a bit surprised about how little Tweany, the giant of the title, features – disappearing entirely for most of the latter half. It’s Schilling’s relationship with Mary that’s more important; his grooming her to work in the shop, to appreciate music, to want more from life. It’s through Schilling that we come to understand Mary, her irascibility and constant flight from commitment, even from those who want to help her.
“If she were let alone she would recover. If she had always been let alone she would not need to recover. He had been trained to be afraid; she had not invented her fear by herself, had not generated it or encouraged it or asked it to grow. Probably she did not know where it came from. And certainly she did not know how to get rid of it. She needed help, but it was not as simple as that; the desire to help her was no longer enough. Once, perhaps, it would have been. But too much time had passed, too much harm had been done. She could not believe even those who were on her side.”

Philip K Dick, Mary and the Giant, pp. 221-2.

But what I also think I missed the first time round was the constant tension and paranoia. Yes, there’s a murder attempt and a bloke gets killed, and there’s the casual, sexual violence threatened by Mary’s father. But there’s even threat in the quietest of moments: the stench of new paint in an otherwise perfect apartment; Mary’s ignorance among the experts on music; and the general horror that a white girl might choose to live in the “coloured neighbourhood” – a horror only Mary seems to miss. Seems, because it’s this wilful running into danger that Schilling slowly comes to comprehend.

It’s the paranoid tension that really makes the book something special, a vivid and enthralling read. But I think at 17 I maybe missed that aspect, and mistook her awkward restlessness for teenage despair at grown-ups.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bread crumbs

O. gets cross if I don't blog too often, and I also find it useful to know where I have been. So:

On Saturday the Dr took me to Bristol as a belated and post-book birthday treatoid. We went to the Break the Chains exhibition, bought some mighty aspirin and taxied to B's house in Montpelier. After some tea and Pimms and Thandie Newton dying on stage for Lyverf, we fell into a pub and met O. and other chums. Good Moroccan food followed, and then we wussed out about 10 to head back to the posh hotel.

Swam in the morning, watched by classical Roman heads (most of them the same one) and ambling back from breakfast grinned at a blonde I sort of thought I knew. It was Jackie Tyler.

Slow train back to the smoke in the afternoon, where the dull ache of my jaw made reading and scribbling arduous. The Dr could not resist falling into Monsoon at Paddington, and then we trekked from one end of the station to the other in search of the Hammersmith and City line. Blimey, travelling at weekends is hard bloody work.

Arrived at the studio about 4 for the last bits and pick-ups of The Final Amendment - the last studio day under my producership. Dished out contracts and cheques to the exemplary cast (who will be announced in due course), and even got the Dr in a booth to play a small role as the producer's totty.

Had brought some fizz to mark the occasion, and we also fell into the pub. Monsterously slow bus back to Victoria because of the works outside Harvey Nichols, but m'self and m'colleague Joe Lidster discussed Who Are The Baddies and the beer inside me helped.

The Dr suggested we try to get through the first four Harry Potter films in time for the seeing the fifth one this Saturday (we're taking Codename and Mrs Moose because it's easier than thinking of a birthday present). Stuck on the first one on Sunday night and was boggled by how young are the children. It's a bit hit and miss in places, but a rather fun, easy entry to Hogwarts. Did Film 2 yesterday, and we're also three chapters from the end of Book 6 - me glad to get past the need to do rasping when reading out Dumbledore's bits. Impressed by all the complexities of plot and character, and how nicely Big Things are set up.

Am sat next to Pyschonomy today at work, who has been telling me about the madly sci-fi delights to come with Surface. The traditional discussion of Macs versus PCs, but I hold that Microsoft would not be nearly such the necessary evil if their sales teams were just not so pushy. The actual stuff the techno-bods are welding together are usually pretty splendid.

Have notes to write up about Orwell's essays, and stuff about song lyrics and explaining things in sci-fi. Will endeavour to get to them soon, and reboot the regular updates. But all the things I put off to finish the behemoth are coming back to bite me. Got things to write and pitch and finish. And, yes Dr, I will tidy the office.

Friday, July 06, 2007

You’re going to find it hard eating corn on the cob

My old man’s a doctor, he wears a doctor’s hat.

Well, he’s retired now. And it wasn’t really a hat so much as a head mirror. Which is, as everyone of course knows, a dead give-away that he was an otorhinolaryngologist. That is, a snot doctor.

As well as ear wax, halitosis and nosebleeds, the old man dealt with a lot of colds and flu. Which meant he wasn’t always sympathetic to us when we had sniffles. “It’s probably death,” he’d say as he threw together one of his Jeevesish toddies, “there’s a lot of it about.”

(Hot toddy for when you feel like someone’s stuffed a pillow up your nose: generous two-finger measure of whisky, the same of boiling water, a spoon of honey, a squeeze of lemon and don’t be standing up when you drink it.)

But much worse than the wry sarcasm was when he took your illness seriously. Like Jimmy Nesbitt blinking into Hyde he could gear-change into a terrifying and cool professional, there to conduct your passing. I well remember his enthusiasm for my appendectomy scar – a lovely bit of work, he thought. And though I was bruised all up my body (what with being delicate like a princess) he cooed at the pretty sunset shades. He was less impressed by the junior doctor having had three goes to get the drip into my arm. “You’ve got very prominent veins,” he said, eyeing my arms hungrily. “You could get nails into them.”

Anyway. This morning my dentist was similarly delighted with me. “Ooh,” she said with great excitement, “how have you managed that?”

I have had some pain in one of my back molars for the last few days, having been chewing my teeth to accompany the happy, contented dreams in which I am battered to death by giant and blank-paged copies of the Benny Inside Story. I thought maybe I’d bruised the gum line, or cracked some of the filling. No, I have fractured the whole tooth from top to bottom. That takes some doing, apparently. And it cannot be repaired.

So on Wednesday I’m having the thing wrenched out and then getting the bloody gap fitted for dentures. Have three months with that before we can even think about gold replacements and other gangster accoutrements. But I realise I won’t be able to have this ersatz nasher in a glass of water by the bed at night. The cat would only drink it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Things BennyThe Internet had caught word that I am giving up my crown as Handsome King of Benny. Eddie Robson had actually been in charge since Sunday, and I answer to him for the timely delivery of the rest of 2007's Benny goodness.

He has not yet suggested the fate of Kings in Slaine the Horned Comic - that after your brief stint in the comfy chair your people's play footie with your head.

Spent today catching up on things; Nobody's Children is ready to be laid out and I'm about three quarters through writing up my notes of Missing Adventures (which is mostly just about style). I've heard words and noise from forthcoming CDs and commissioned the next batch of pictures, and have also confirmed a cast for Sunday's recording session - which will be the last of my Bennys.

And on Thursday I shall be checking out a boozer for a leaving do.

Monday, July 02, 2007

I’ll see what I can do

Some years ago, I wrote my (not very good) MA dissertation about science-fiction being more fiction than science.

Yes, you might get a wheeze for a story by reading the news in New Scientist, but then your story is still all Made Up. Yes, sf writing worked out geostationary orbits and old Star Trek used things like mobile phones. But at the same time we don’t commute on inter-city travelators, nor drive atomic-powered motorbikes and flying cars. More’s the pity.

This cropped up recently when Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was lauded by those who profit from denying climate change. The book is about a conspiracy of leftie scientists who have dreamt this whole global warming thing up to get us to raise taxes. “See?” said those who would like this to be true. “See – it’s there in black and white. So leave the free market alone.”

Something is not true just because it is written down, especially when it is a story. Stories can include accurate details and philosophical truths, but they remain works of fiction, the worlds described in them entirely the creation of an author.

Science fiction sometimes claims otherwise because some of its authors care so much about the details; the description of, say, the engine on an atomic motorbike shows off lots of high-calibre research. But suppose we apply the same thinking to some other genre, where authors don’t need to rationalise the props. Because John Buchan describes trains and motorcars accurately in The 39 Steps, does it then follow that – as in the book – the Jews started World War One?

That would be silly. (Though I have spoken before about how it might have been a train what done it.)

Anyhow. With this in mind, what are we to make of Sixty Days & Counting, the latest from Kim Stanley Robinson and the last of trilogy about climate change and politics? Well, first off, the indicia make plain that, “This novel is entirely a work of fiction… Any resemblance to actual… events or localities is entirely coincidental.” It might well be a model with which to discuss the real world, but it is not the real world itself.

Just as Crichton assumes that climate change isn’t a reality, Robinson assumes that it is. The first book in the trilogy sees Washington DC suffering unprecedented floods, and that’s swiftly followed by freakish and extreme weather and whole countries disappearing. It’s iconic, science-fiction-movie stuff – and as Crichton’s heroes would have it, blatant scaremongering.

Robinson also has a not-entirely-likely device of a US President blogging quite freely on any matters that take his fancy. With 5 million responses to any particular post, his communications directorate is in unsurprising meltdown. But this allowed Robinson to make explicit points about our attitude to the environmental problem:
“People were asking: Is it too late or not? And it seemed like this:

If it isn’t too late, we don’t have to do anything.

On the other hand, if it is too late, we don’t have to do anything.

So either way, don’t do anything. That was the problem with that way of putting the question. What we came to realize was that it was a false problem and not a question of better or worse. It was more a question of, okay, how fast can we act? How much can we save? Those are the questions we should be asking.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days & Counting, p. 330.

To explore these questions, Robinson has two sets of protagonists both linked to the new President who reappraise their contributions to society. Charlie wants to advise on policy but he’s also stay-at-home dad to two sons. Frank thinks happiness can be found in a (literally) aping a lifestyle more like our ancestors had on the savannah – running, throwing stones and living in treehouses. But in doing so, he’s caught up in a hi-tech and nasty intelligence scam – a paranoid conspiracy.

For all it’s ostensibly about the scientific community and the practical solutions to problems based on evidence, Robinson also works in a lot of magic stuff via some Buddhist monks. I felt the shadow of his earlier The Years of Rice and Salt, though here we’re never sure whether to take the grand destinies and reincarnation entirely seriously. But there is evidence – for all Charlie wants to deny it – that there are evil spirits at work. I liked a last sort-of twist about whether his son Joe is really possessed…

I guess, like a lot of Robinson’s work it’s about trying to live a more enlightened and elegant life. Seriously liberal families work out their carbon footprints and realise they need to move house, while specific scientific projects to trap carbon in fast-growing lichen are matched by more philosophical stuff.
“The Dalai Lama talks about the situation they find themselves in, ‘a difficult moment in history’ as he calls it, acknowledging this truth with a shrug. Reality is not easy; as a Tibetan this has been evident all his life; and yet all the more reason not to despair, or even lose one’s peace of mind. One has to focus on what one can do oneself, and then do that, he says. He says, ‘We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. Try to be at peace with yourself, and help others share that peace. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.’"

Ibid. p. 308.

But more importantly, I think whereas Crichton’s book seems to say “we can’t prove it’s happening so don’t anything”, Robinson’s point is “we shouldn’t just change our lives because of the weather.” I think both authors understand that combating climate change means radical changes to the economic models of modern society. And rather than being about scientific fact, their positions are defined by political instincts.

By the end of the book, President Phil is also hooked on Emerson.
“One day [the President] laughed, beating her to the punch: ‘By God he was radical! Here it is 1846, and he’s talking about what comes after they defeat slavery. Listen to this:
“Every reform is only a mask under cover of which a more terrible reform, which dares not yet name itself, advances. Slavery and anti-slavery is the question of property and no property, rent and anti-rent; and anti-slavery dare not yet say that every man must do his own work. Yet that is at last the upshot.”’”

Ibid., p. 406.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Like Free the group

Finished and delivered the Inside Story of Benny at a little before 10 pm last night, having not exactly had a whole load of sleep or shaving for the last few days. As with all these things, people I’d been chasing have sent in a few little extras since, so it’ll get tweaked and polished as it’s set into Mr Alex Mallinson’s beautiful page templates. But it’s quarter of a millions words, jam-packed with top facts and detail, and one or two minor wars. And I am feeling all light and giddy.

Thanks to everyone who’s answered my questions, offered fanzines and books and pictures, or just let me go on about the terrifying monolithic deadline.

Got up not very early today, ate some strawberrys and watched the DVD extras on Robot (thanks sooo much to Millennium’s daddies for their profound generosity!). I’m particularly delighted by the comment from Terrance Dicks that Robert Holmes took on the script editing job of Doctor Who thinking, “Oh, how hard can it be?”

Right. Some bacon sarnies and some more DVDs, and then tomorrow I hurl myself into the next project. And so it goes on…