Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Head bone’s connected to the...

On Friday night, having spent the afternoon with young actors and Lance from Doctor Who, the Dr and I made our way to the Institute of Archaeology for a talk about some dead faces.

The authors of “Living images – Egyptian funerary portraits in the Petrie Museum” each spoke, giving context to the writing of the book and to the portraits themselves. The portraits were discovered while Flinders Petrie was looking for something else entirely. But he found a great cache of sarcophagi, each painted with their contents.

The sarcophagi in question are from the period when Egypt was governed by Romans (as seen in the TV show Rome). Which is also, of course, the Dr’s period and she loves the details in the faces. The Roman ex-pats couldn’t afford the gold opulence that was once lavished on mummified pharaohs, so a portrait was the next best thing. These portraits, and the grave goods found with them, give all kinds of clues about the Roman middle-classes – their clothes, jewellery, diets and lives.

Petrie’s interest, though, was in their use for phrenology. His notebooks detail how he eagerly reaped the shrunken heads of the mummies – as well as the portraits of them alive. Skull A, says his notes, goes with Portrait A.

Phrenology, and its emphasis on the supremacy of particular races based on the shape of their heads, is less in vogue today. This is because it is bonkers. Over the years, many museums and institutions have quietly returned or got shot of their less savoury human remains. The authors of the portraits book believed the skulls Petrie collected were long lost when they started writing their book. Only for them to turn up in a box at the V&A. Matching the skulls to the portraits gives a sense of how good the likenesses are.

The Dr, though, is still troubled by Petrie’s head-snatching antics. The Egyptians were keen on their heads, you see. Heads weren’t just where your brains were, but your heart and soul as well. (BBC Four’s recent repeat of Magnus Magnusson’s trip to the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition included an ornate and uncomfy-looking head rest.) So removing the heads from the mummies is especially problematic.

This makes studying, displaying or even acknowledging the heads a little problematic, what with the new but relatively untested rules set down in the Human Tissues Act (2004) – which came into force last September.

It’s a complex and controversial topic, though I’m rather of the side of the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
“If you dig up a man with bowls and things all round him, like those people we dug up at the east end of Maiden Castle… They were dead, they’d been dead a long time and they were going to be dead a long time. They’re still dead. But round them were all sorts of possessions which were of interest to us. They helped us to put a little piece of our history into perspective which we otherwise wouldn’t have had, and so on. They enabled us to reconstruct the world and the history within which we lived. And I think that’s worthwhile. We do know harm to these poor chaps. When I’m dead you can did me up ten times. I won’t haunt you… much.”
Chronicle: Sir Mortimer (BBC Two, 1973)

And, glibly and probably wrongly, I forgive Petrie a lot for one very good joke. His notebooks include a sketch of the excavation, showing where the sarcophagi were recovered. And the building where he kept all the mummies heads is marked “Skullery”.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The goldfish bowl

One of the many questions asked by Jeremy Paxman in his book “The Political Animal” is what effect standing for Parliament has on the lives of your children. Living in the public eye, of being some kind of exemplar of proper living to the community, can affect every moment of a child’s life and colour any interaction they have with other people. Paxman gives the example of one spawn-of-MP who wrote to discourage other parents from standing.

I thought of this as I made my way through “The Enchanted Places”, an account of the real people and places that informed the writing of Winnie the Pooh, and of the impact the Pooh books had on those same people and places. It’s a rather meandering and melancholic book, and the saddest thing about it is that its author is a grown-up Christopher Robin.

Christopher Milne was 54 when he wrote the book, running a small bookshop where he felt both obliged and embarrassed about stocking his father’s books. He’s frank about not caring that his old toys were sold off to America, and told a family friend he had no interest in having back the letter he’d written her when he was 12.

Milne’s disquiet with the adventures of his alter-ego are complex, and must be teased from his accounts of the houses he lived in, of his nanny and of the parts of the wood where he played. It’s no help in sorting fiction from reality that the two are so intertwined. Photographs show the meticulous care EH Sheppard took to portray the Poohsticks Bridge correctly, as well as how accurately he depicted Christopher Robin’s girlish haircut and clothes. And Milne admits he couldn’t have been happier in his days playing at Cotchford Farm.

A shy boy, Milne still enjoyed taking part in the pageants and recordings where he had to perform as himself. But it’s his subsequent life, as a bullied and teased schoolboy, that seem to have taken their toll. He has inherited his parents’ attitude to the fan mail, requests and questions (his mother referred to this blanket non-response as “Wol”, since Wol says wisely that doing nothing is “the best thing”). The book, says Milne, might placate some of those who’ve written, and maybe explain why he will not respond.

There’s a strong sense that Milne has been victimised because of his childhood role in a fairy tale. He remains cross, after some forty years, that a journalist once fabricated his words to make him more precocious. He is annoyed that his own childhood and relationships are so picked over, and by the assumptions strangers make of him. He cluckingly tells of a visitor to his bookshop thrilled to see him writing, a thrill he punctures because he’s merely writing an invoice.
“If my father had a talent for writing, my mother had an un-talent. Why should people assume that I ought to have inherited the one rather than the other? If talents always dominated un-talents we should today be a world of Newtons, Shakespeares, Leonardos and saints. Blessed are the untalented!

“Writing (so it seems to me) is a combination of two separate skills: the ability to use words and the ability to create with words; rather in the way that building a house demands two separate skills, the bricklayer’s and the architect’s. A writer, in other words, is simultaneously a craftsman and a designer.”
Christopher Milne, The Enchanted Places, p. 135.

But Milne’s past is not only difficult because of the attention of strangers. His relationship with his father is cordial but guarded, and his own struggles to find a role for himself as an adult coincide with his father’s diminishing career. He says he’s unsure how much his parents sieved and edited the requests for appearances, but to a modern reader their attitude to all they put their son through seems at best naïve. He’s also guarded about exploring their thoughts and motives, admitting worry about what he might find.

Milne also seems to suggest that he disappointed his parents. He seems to have been an awkward and timid only child. His mother hoped he would marry the “Alice” who accompanied him to the changing of the guard in the poem – the same Alice to whom the book is dedicated. (There’s no reason given why he didn’t marry her.)

By the time he writes the book his parents have died and the old house and toys have been sold off. He doesn’t even mention the sale of film rights to Disney, or the peculiar film that resulted in which a posh boy somehow lives in a jungle with real (not stuffed toy) bears and tigers. (Which is especially odd, because that first film rather deftly makes it part of the plot that this is all happening inside a book... )

Often Milne is hazy on dates and details, so that things happen in a jumbly fog of upbringing. I found myself wishing a ghostwriter could have contributed a little basic research. There are just three sources: AA Milne’s own autobiography; a transcript of that single letter written by 12 year-old Christopher Robin; and his own memories as an adult. Milne resents the conjurings that surround his family’s life, based on guesses and speculation. But his loose and woolly reminiscences don’t exactly dispel any myths.

It struck me that rather than some insight into the writing process or the effect of childhood fame, this is a memoir of lost innocence, just as is “The House at Pooh Corner”. Milne himself argues that that book is as much about his father’s own childhood and loss as it is about his son’s. Both books tantalise adults with longing for those long-lost sunny days. Yet Christopher Robin’s own account – and despite its title – denies us the consolation that somewhere,
“a little boy and His bear will always be playing.”

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Something must be done

I have blogged my enthusiasm for George Orwell before (his views of politics and the English language; his time in Spain during the civil war). And back when I was caught up in too much writing of my own, I said I’d been making notes on his essays.

The Penguin Books’ edition of Essays was first published in 1984, as part of a general celebration of Eric that fateful year. The content was snaffled from four previously published volumes of essays, journalism and letters published in the late sixties. Many of these works are now available on the Internet (indeed, that’s where I first read his “Politics and the English Langauge” (1946)).

There are chilling, insightful accounts of poverty from his time down and out in Paris, of attending a hanging and of being an ineffectual policeman in Burma. He writes about the wars he’s been involved in – on the front in Spain and in London during the Blitz. There are toads and sport and murder, politics and political figures. Yet the most striking thing about this selection is how much Orwell had to say about writing.

As well as “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell discusses his own motivation for writing, his own time in a second-hand bookshop and as a reviewer, and his plea to us all to buy more books on the basis of their cost relative to cigarettes. There are essays on the work of Dickens, Kipling, Arthur Koestler, Tolstoy, Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, HG Wells, Wodehouse and WB Yeats. He also addresses more esoteric subjects: boys’ adventure weeklies, Habberton’s “Helen’s Babies”, Hornung’s “Raffles” books, the broadcast of poetry on the radio, governmental controls on writing, nonsense poetry, even the appeal of “good bad books”. Whatever his subjects, his work shows a broad and comprehensive reading, and a description of his own bookshelves proves his eclectic tastes.

It’s no surprise that there’s a strong political worldview underpinning much of his output. Orwell continually argues that good writing makes us care about the lot of the protagonists, and that this empathy with strangers must surely beg broader questions about our ways of life.
“[Dickens] is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, in Essays, p. 75

But these essays are not just vehicles for his political ravings. Orwell is also good at showing his working, tying his ideas to his own practical, often gruelling, experience.
“[Kipling] is accused of glorifying war, and perhaps he does so, but not in the usual manner, by pretending that war is a sort of football match. Like most people capable of writing battle poetry, Kipling has never been in a battle, but his vision of war is realistic. He knows that bullets hurt, that under fire everyone if terrified, that the ordinary soldier never knows what the war is about or what is happening except in his own corner of the battlefield, and that British troops, like other troops, frequently run away.”
Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, ibid., p. 209.

Astute observations such as this, peppered by a wealth of top facts, make this a riveting and punchy read.
“The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we admire. It is strange, for instance, to hear the Nazi broadcasters referring to the Russian soldiers as ‘robots’, thus unconsciously borrowing a word from a Czech democrat whom they would have killed if they could have lad hands on him.”
Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, ibid., p. 211.

In fact, the essays are proof of the manifesto put forward in “Politics and the English language”. The plain style of the prose makes his arguments and ideas simple to follow and engage with. He avoids clichés in favour of vivid, new images, some of which don’t half stick in the mind. For examples, there’s the wartime coalition government, and the problems of it having moral purpose beyond achieving victory.
“It is at best a government of compromise, with Churchill riding two horses like a circus acrobat.”
Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, ibid., p. 180.

Or there’s his description of a bathhouse for down-and-outs.
“It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed: the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together with dirt.”
Orwell, “The Spike”, ibid., p. 8.

Note that his plain style is not devoid of any feeling or artistry, as some of his detractors have claimed. Orwell is all for clarity, but he’s also keen on the texture and depth of good writing.
“The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dicken’s writing is the unnecessary detail … The unmistakable Dickens touch, the thing nobody else would have thought of, is the baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn’t.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, ibid., pp. 68-9.

As a whole then, the essays show Orwell testing, re-examining and putting into practice a literary rather than political manifesto. Yes, Orwell’s politics inform his reading (he critiques Marx as he applies him to Dickens). But there are also glimpses of his reading affecting his politics and work.

For example, his essay on the work of Arthur Koestler was written in September 1944, before he’d written a similar conclusion to 1984:
“[Koestler’s] Darkness at Noon describes the imprisonment and death of an Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who first denies and ultimately confesses to crimes which he is well aware he has not committed. The grown-upness, the lack of surprise or denunciation, the pity and irony with which the story is told, show the advantage, when one is handling a theme of this kind, of being a European. The book reaches the stature of tragedy, whereas an English or American writer could at most have made it into a polemical tract.”
Orwell, “Arthur Koestler”, ibid., pp. 272-3.

That his reading shapes his own ideas is important, because for all Orwell is persuasive he is not dictatorial. He has a case to put in each essay, yet I was struck by how much he seemed to engage response, as if each were concluded with the words, “But what do you think?”

This dialogue of ideas is partly, I suspect, because by puzzling out what these other writers are up to, Orwell seeks to make sense of his own stuff. But the range of his reading and the consistency of depth he applies to high literature and low are not merely a mark of inquisitiveness. They suggest Orwell is searching high and low for answers to questions nobody’s asking. This is backed up in his more political writing with his dissatisfaction with both sides of the argument – whether they’re factions warring with weapons or in the popular press.
“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old – generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently, two view-points are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another … The central problem – how to prevent power from being abused – remains unsolved.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, ibid., pp. 47-8.

It is not just his dissatisfaction with the rigid (and petty) oppositions of party politics that struck a chord with me. It was also the realisation as I worked through the essays that Orwell’s radicalism wasn’t all it has been painted. Yes, he was a socialist, yes he fought for the communists in Spain, but it would be wrong to see him as a feverish revolutionary campaigning to tear down English institutions.

Perhaps his motives are best shown in “Such, such were the joys”, which undermines the vision of public school as some very heaven idyll. Orwell seems taken by the history and traditions of his own school, but speaks of endemic injustices, where boys are treated and punished differently depending on the wealth of their parents. He’s still perplexed and livid about the unfairness of being punished for things he hadn’t done or – in the case of bedwetting – that he had no control over.

We can follow this early sense of fair play into his accounts of a hanging or the shooting of an elephant, where he cannot see the sense behind the official response, and rails against acting solely to satisfy the baser cravings of the mob. It’s especially important that his anger is in part directed at his own complicity. This keen sense of justice for all, whatever their circumstances, also explains why he would become a vagabond to expose the misery of the poor.

How does this affect his assessment of other writers? Orwell applies the same innate sense of fair play to the politics implicit in writing. He critiques the worldviews expressed by the writers, and explores how they themselves address need and inequality. Yet he doesn’t just dismiss someone for being ignorant of the world around them – his defence of Wodehouse being a case in point. His sympathies are as all-embracing as the breadth of his reading. He enjoys light comedy and boys’ own “shockers”. He approves of poetry and propaganda. What he loves is work that provokes a response, than excites and engages as it entertains. And what concerns him is activity that does not engage with or empathise with other points of view, and that ultimately forces its meaning.
“It is not merely that ‘power corrupts’: so also do the ways of attaining power. Therefore, all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the OGPU, Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive.”
Orwell, “Arthur Koestler”, ibid., p. 274.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"It's all Cornell's fault"

The new Doctor Who site Tardis Travels has posted up an interview with me. Leslie McMurtry grills me about the Doctor Who short story competition (from back when I was sifting through the entries) and about writing in general.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Construction maximus

Cloud Atlas by David MitchellI’ve made a start on the great stalagmite of books assigned as “quite like to read”. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was one I picked up for the train back from Sheffield, having heard so many fine things about it – winner of a Richard and Judy award, shortlisted for the Booker and blogged about by Phil.

It held me captivated from start to finish, the straightforward prose style drawing you into a complex and enigmatic epic that well deserves its praise. I’m still trying to puzzle it all out…

As my well-informed readers will know (though I didn’t ‘till I started to read it), the book tells six distinct stories, set over several hundred years. Each story stars an archetypal character, and though each of these reminded me of other books I’d read, Mitchell’s ability to give them distinct voices and to turn their lives upside down makes for thrilling reading.

It’s fiddly to explain, but each of the first five stories is cut short in an abrupt cliffhanger, and concluded later on. The structure, to use the A-level labelling of rhymes in poetry, goes A1, B1, C1, D1, E1, F, E2, D2, C2, B2, A2.

Story A is told by Adam Ewing, an American scholar exploring the Chatham Islands in the early nineteenth century. In some respects, this reminded me of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers – with the naïve narrator similarly giving the reader more insight to his voyage than he himself comprehends. It also covers similar ground about native populations being wiped out.

Ewing’s exploration includes him stumbling through the roof of some kind of primitive shrine. My immediate thought, having seen from the book’s blurb that we’d be visiting the future, was that this was some alien spaceship… But Ewing vows to keep the place secret so that his shipmates don’t exploit the discovery. And as he sets out again to sea with them, he’s suddenly taken sick. And then –

We’re left hanging in the middle of a sentence.

Story B begins some hundred years later, and thousands of miles to the west. Robert Frobisher writes to his friend (and lover) Sixsmith about his adventures in Belgium. Frobisher has been cast out by his wealthy father and is making his own roguish way – just ahead of a wake of unpaid bills and scandals. He’s a very different character to Ewing, with a voice so distinct that it makes for striking contrast.

Mitchell himself acknowledges that “certain scenes in Robert Frobisher’s letters owe debts of inspiration to Delius: As I Knew Him by Eric Fenby (Icon Books, 1966; originally G Bell & Sons, 1936).” We follow Frobisher as he ingratiates himself with an elderly, syphilitic composer, bedding the man’s wife at the same time as helping him finish a number of late compositions.

What links Frobisher to Ewing is not immediately clear – there’s no apparent plot, theme or structure to link them. They could not be any more different. But as Frobisher scours his host’s exemplary library for items he might sell, he stumbles across the first half of Ewing’s story, the half that we’ve just read.

(The only insight we get from this is Frobisher pointing out what we’ve only begun to suspect: that Ewing’s “sickness” is an attempted murder.)

Story C is a “shocker” in short bursts of chapters, the book’s only third-person account. Luisa Rey is the daughter of a famous war correspondent, struggling to follow in his footsteps. She’s chasing a story about the local nuclear plant and an internal report damning its safety. And in doing so, she meets an old scientist called Sixsmith – forty years after Robert Frobisher wrote to him.

Again, it’s a very different story to what has gone before, told in a distinct and fast-paced style. It mentions Watergate itself, but the all-pervading moral decay reminded me much more of Chinatown (a seventies film for all it’s a period piece).

Luisa Rey isn’t just linked to the previous story because she reads Sixsmith’s letters. She’s also got the same comet-shaped birthmark, and it’s strongly suggested that she might have been Frobisher in a previous life. The Guardian review suggests that the six characters in the book are all reincarnations of the same person (a trick done previously in Kim Stanley Robsinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt).

But that’s not the case; indeed the next protagonist pooh-poohs the idea. Only Luisa and Frobisher are explicitly linked this way, which adds a haunting aspect to the pot-boiling thriller. The third person telling also means we can leave the first part of Luisa’s story on a particularly nail-biting cliff…

Story D is set in the present day, with the flamboyant Timothy Cavendish reaping the whirlwind that follows his publishing the memoirs of a London gangster. Cavendish is an acerbic story-teller, and his tale features some great and unexpected twists. The observant scorn of contemporary mores – as well as the way it keeps pulling the rug out from under us – is a little reminiscent of Alexei Sayle, but that is no bad thing. To speak more would spoil its surprises.

Story E is told by Sonmi~451, a clone bred to work in a fast-food franchise in not-too-future Korea. The battery existence Sonmi has only ever known is punctured by a sudden epiphany, and we learn she’s been intellectually augmented as part of a revolutionary experiment. A pawn in the cruel games of this society’s elite, her story is at once a thriller, a satire of rampant consumerism and of Communism, and a play on Soylent Green.

The middle story is the only one not split in two. Zachry’s spelling, punctuation and post-apocalyptic world reminded me of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. At first it seems the sophisticated visitor come to review Zachry’s island is just studying comparative savages. As the story continues we get hints of how much has changed since Sonmi’s time. I only realised towards the end we were in the same group of islands that Ewing explored in Story A. By Zachry’s time, the white settlers who wiped out the savages are living no less enlightened lives…

After Zachry, we go back to each of the five previous narrators for closure, each in turn. Knowing the future, and having had hints of the endings to come (Cavendish, for example, concludes Story D2 by spoiling the end of C2), adds an extra suspense to this second half. But it becomes clear that the links between the stories are not so obvious as reincarnation or some other great plot revelation.

Frobisher is, for example, no longer just an engaging rapscallion – his adventures also have something to say about the nature and value of our existence.
“People are obscenities. Would rather be music than be a mass of tubes squeezing semi-solids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.”

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, p. 489.

Since the book’s chronological “story” (as distinct from the structure by which it is told) starts and ends in the same group of islands, it seems this is a history of the rise and fall of enlightenment, as understood by the west. There’s a case for the conquerors having become the conquered, of the world of technology and genetic engineering hanged with a rope of its own making.

There’s also a sense of the characters being broadly divided into two groups: those who fight to benefit themselves, and those who fight to benefit others. This informs earlier events in the book, putting bullying, corruption and rampant sex in an epic historical context.

But it is Ewing’s final thoughts as he finishes his journey that bind the myriad happenings and themes. Without giving too much away about any of the stories, his conclusion is that we – as individuals, as a species – can only reap what we first ourselves sow.

Transformer Construction MaximusThere are other things (some listed on the book’s Wikipedia entry): the difference a peaceable individual can make; they way we are remembered. These people are so vividly alive in their own stories, and long-dead in everyone else’s.

Most of all, these individual lives are all engaging enough reading. But taken together, they are transcendent.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Benny's birthday!Alex Fitch's Benny show has been aired, and is now available to download. Odd listening to the rambling, nasal, awkward bloke that is, er, me. And it would help if I had thought to explain each of the people, stories and things that I'm on about. Assume too much you already know...

But still, it's free and it's comprehensive and I'm jolly pleased. And I think the bosses will be pleased that we got our message across:
  • Benny's next adventure: a short snipper from the forthcoming "The Wake", including the dramatisation of some of Justin Richards's novel "Theatre of War" (pp. 32-34).
  • Utterly all over the place as I answer Alex's questions at the recording of "The End of the World", 6 May 2007. (Yes, that's the recording you can hear in the background.)
  • Yesterday, Alex interviewing Lisa Bowerman.
  • Paul Cornell (and, er, me) interviewed by Graham Sleight on 24 January, at one of those BSFA things.
  • Regarding Jason Kane: Alex interviewing Stephen Fewell yesterday.
  • Over the phone, me interviewing Sophie Aldred for the Inside Story of Benny, 31 May 2007.
  • Did this one mano-a-mano - a snippet of me interviewing Gareth Roberts for the same book, 7 June 2007.
  • Upcoming Benny anthology "Missing Adventures" is being given away free (listen to the show for details how to enter).
  • Can't resist a mystery... Benny takes a job on the Braxiatel Collection in another short excerpt from "The Wake", this time dramatising some of Justin's "Tears of the Oracle" (pp. 276-7).
  • The end

Monday, October 22, 2007

The two Doctors

The Two DoctorsThe fifth Doctor Who will be meeting the tenth Doctor Who in "Time Crash", Steve Moffat's special little Droo episode for the forthcoming Children in Need. Needless to say, all across the Interweb there are squees and woots and rejoicing.

Peter Davison was sort of where I came in with the Doctors Who. I'd watched Tom Baker's last year as the Doctor avidly, and on 15 March 1981 he fell off a thingie and turned into someone else. I had to borrow my big brother's Doctor Who Monster Book to find out what it meant. That told me about (hushed whisper) Other Doctors, and about paperback books in which they featured...

For all there's been talk of the New Show making the Doctors younger, handsomer and more regional, Davison remains the youngest person to have played Proper Doctor Who. Born on 13 April 1951, he was just 29 years-old when Tom Baker fell off that thingie.

Except for Davison, each Doctor has been younger than the last one (even if the seventh Doctor is just 73 days younger than the sixth). They've since come back to play older-sounding Doctors on audio, and people like David Warner have also have a go. But the oldest person to play a Proper Doctor on the telly was, of course, the first one. When William Hartnell (born 8 January 1908) first blustered into the TARDIS as a cross and cantakerous old man, he was 55.

Peter Davison is now 56.

I find myself staring at the pictures of him larking about with Tennant thinking, "Surely but that can't be right..."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The wonders of Ephesus

After the first one and the pictorial one, here's a third postcard from the Dr:
"Spent day on beach rewrıtıng my ıntroductıon and checkıng references. Very sunny, ıf blowy, and have got abıt of a tan. Restful day needed after yesterday. But to go back on Mopday spent the day ın Ephesus, whıch was though bıg was not as ımpressıve as I remembered ıt 13 years ago. Impressıve ıt ıs but havıng been to Dougga ın Tunısıa and Pompeıı agaın recently has spoılt me. Any way got the dolmus there and walked up the hıll to the sıte entrance, whıch ıs surrounded by the usual shops and expensıve cafes.

Past the entramnce ın the theatre gymnasıum was a man readıng St Paul to hıs group of bıble tour tourısts from the US. A bt scary actually. Then went to the Theatre ıtself whıch Turtle Wood also excavated (as well as the Temple), whıch was closed last tıme I came as Stıng had blown the foundatıons wıth hıs bass or somethıng when he dıd a performance there. In the ancıent world the sea and busy barbour would have been seen from the seats even wıth a full Roman stage buıldıng.

The lıbrary of Celsus, whıch was reconstructed by the Austrıans ın the 1960s, ıs the maın ımage of Eğhesus and ıt certaınly ıs ımpressıve. It was recostructed ın the second century and was a memorıal for a consul of Rome who was burıed ınsıde but only lasted c. 150 years untıl some goths bunrt ıt down. I wonder ıf they were lıstenıng to Fascınatıon Street. Would quıte lıke to be burıed ın a lıbrary - kınd of suıtable.

Opposıte the lıbrary ıs the brothel - the story goes that there was an underground passage that lınked the two. Ummm. Looked roubnd the rest of the Roman stuff and though the sıte ıs very ınterestıng and ornate, I prefer the Greeks and Greek stuff.

Wıth that ın mınd ı went off to Bodrum to look at the hole ın the ground and varıous column drums that was the Mausoleum of Halıcarnassus. We had a very long day and chased buses untıl we got there. Met a black cat at the Mausoleum who became my frıend and spent much tıme photographıng saıd hole, before pullıng my mum up the hıll (who saıd I lıed about how steep ıt was - me?) for the fab vıew from the nearby Greek Theatre. We then went to the Castle of St Peter whıch ıs the best castle I have been toç It ıs made from varıous bıts of the Mausoleum and ancıent town and was constructed by the Knıghts of St John ın the 15thC. they dıdn't last long there though as ın the 16thC the Ottomans beat theır arse and took over - usıng the castle as a mılırtary fortress untıl the 20thC. It was last bombed ın WW1. It ıs now a musem of underwater archaeology and a jolly good one too wıth lots of glass and pots from Mycenan age boats to Byzantıne wrecks.

The next day we recovered on the beach where I rewrote my ıntro (thıs ıs the way to wrıte a book).

Then we went to Prıene on Thursday whıch ıs a 4thC BCE Greek cıty and laıd out ın the grıd style plan that became so beloved of Greeks and Romans. It was very hot and full of lızards. The sıte ıs moulded ınto a grey hıll wıth many pıne trees gıvıng shade and a lovely fresh fragrance. My mum sat under a tree whıle ı pranced around photographıng the Temple of Apollo, whıch was excavated and surveyed by Rıchard Pullan ın 1867-8 and - guess what - parts of ıt ended up ın the Brıtısh Museum. As well as the temple there were the greek cıvıc buıldıngs of an agora and bouleterıon - can tell ıt was not really used by the Romans as no forum or ımperıal cult temples. Dıscussıon buıldıngs rather than ımposıng state mınuments - defınıtely Greek not Roman. A nıce theatre wıth a very extant stage buıldıng and more ınterestınly actual Greek houses, ıncludıng the one where Alexander the Great stayed. Talkıng of whıch ı was readıng Appıan's account of Alexander the Great's travels and battles and decıded that he was just a great psycopath who unfortunately had an army and many weapons at hıs dısposal. Puttıng a trıgger happy man ın power who belıeves ın ınvadıng countrıes and ımposıng regıme change ıs never a good ıdea.

The next day we went to Samos where we got there too late to do much other than go to the museum (of course), where there were some stunnıng archaırc kouroı/aı and more materıal for my book, and eat and drınk nıce Greek wıne. I do prefer greece to turkey - ıt ıs much more laıd back. Yesterday we made ıt to Izmır on the traın - the same traın that took the antıquıtıes to the Brıtısh shıps ın Izmır harbour. the vıews was beautıful as the tracks run along an agrıcultural plaın, eıther sıde of whıch were hılls. Found the Brıtısh consulate ın Izmır whıch ıs a bızaare 19thC church and Brıtısh cottage ın the mıdst of a Turkısh cıty.

Tıme runnıng out so must go...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Can you hear me pumping on your stereo?

I make my radio debut next week.

Tuesday 23 October, 8 pm
Resonance FM 104.4 FM (in London), or www.resonancefm.com on the Internet.

In an hour-long programme, Alex Fitch interviews me about Bernice Summerfield, who this month turned 15 years-old. I then interview Sophie Aldred and Gareth Roberts about things Benny, Graham Sleight talks to Benny's creator Paul Cornell, and there'll other fab stuff, some giveaways and exclusive snippets of things to come.

After broadcast, the show will be available to download from www.readyformycloseup.blogspot.com.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Under the eagle

A few folk have asked about the play I saw on Monday. Was it, they ask, any cop? And, since it was by former Droo script editor Andrew Cartmel, did it allude to Dr Who?

On the latter, no it didn’t, though Ian Briggs and Graeme Curry were in the audience and joined us for beers after. (We talked a bit of shop: Droo, Big Finish and our other projects. Turns out I’m to be in the same something that Ian is writing for. And Graeme confessed he didn’t know why his Kandyman was made to look like Bertie Bassett.

“Because it was cool,” I said. Perhaps not very helpfully.)

The White Bear Theatre is a smallish, old-man pub with the “theatre” at the back; an intimate little space ideal for this kind of play reading. For this reading of Cartmel’s “Under the Eagle”, the six-member cast sat in a row on the stage and performed their parts where they were sitting. To make things more interesting, they only took their seats on the stage as their individual character entered the play. Before this they’d sat in with the audience, so there was some fun guessing which of the assembled throng were the actors.

They also each shuffled quietly off the stage when they’d finished all their lines. This took my quite by surprise the first time (and even gave me goosebumps!) but helped focus attention on the two remaining characters and the relationships between them.

Otherwise there were no stage tricks: no lighting or music. Cartmel himself welcomed us and told us to switch off mobile phones. So it was just the words on the page and the feeling expressed by the performers.

The new US President, Lenore Rose Lock (Kate Brown, who was fantastic in a Big Finish earlier this year), is dining with the British Prime Minister. The main topic for debate is rendition. The US are moving a terrorist suspect to a place of interrogation, stopping off in the UK to refuel. The Prime Minister has concerns.

Also on the table are a new missile defence system and the teaching of intelligent design in British schools. But as the evening continues other topics crop up: the place of sex and prayer, the balance of the “special relationship”. And just to liven things up, the Prime Minister’s wife has invited a guest to the party. Vi Hooper is a gutsy stand-up comedian who’s just called the PM a “gutless whore”.

For a serious play about “issues”, it’s a lively and often very funny play. The one-liners show that these are all intelligent, able people, quick to think on their feet. I was initially concerned about the cliché of the evangelical Yanks, but Cartmel makes the President and her Chief of Staff engaging, complex people. The politicking between them and their UK counterparts is clever, twisty stuff.

In some ways, the PM’s number 2 (played brilliantly by Jonathan Rigby) reminded me of Lord John Marbury, British Ambassador to the West Wing. Though less posh and silly, he plays a similar roll in undercutting the pomp of the White House. There’s also a similar steely quality that emerges when it’s needed.

I especially liked the way the play kept us guessing, and how the “reversals” of the plot arose naturally from the interactions of character. For all it’s about real issues and events, the characters are less reacting to off-stage happenings as they are, by dint of their being together here, making those off-stage happenings happen.

It’s a strong and engaging play, and the hope is for a run at the White Bear some time around February. I recommend you go along. You can even take your drinks into the theatre with you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A dim animal, yesterday.

Dim animal

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Little wonder

150 years after Doctor Who was there (and 18 years after me), the Dr is in Bodrum. Back in the day, it wasn't called Bodrum but Halicarnassus; site of the vast tomb of the satrap Mausolus.

The Dr's texted two pictures showing the range and bias of her researches there...

Site of the mausoleum

Cat at the site of the mausoleum

Monday, October 15, 2007

What's next?

Spent yesterday prevaricating and watching DVDs, then settled down to the proofs of "The Pirate Loop". Spotted a full stop that should be a semi-colon and made a tiny number of notes. Am quite pleased with it, really. And it feels such a long time since I wrote the thing, I even laughed at my own woeful jokes.

Odd that it now goes off to makes its own way in the world as a real, proper book. Is in bookshops end of December, by which time I'll be well into other things and badger pirates shall be a fond memory... Writing books can be like watching downloaded telly (or next episodes on CBBC). You spend months biting your tongue about spoilers. And by the time anyone else has caught up with the plot stuff you know, it's all like ancient history.

(No, ancient history as in old, not as in violent and sexy.)

So, on to new things. Have an idea to write up for my friend Sin's second book of scary stories. Note that they're open to pitches from anyone, but you've got to write a whole story not just an idea, the scoundrels. And they rejected my last one.

Pitched some stuff elsewhere and done a bit of work-related (ish) researching. Tonight I'm off to see a reading of a new play by m'colleague Andrew Cartmel. I also have the exciting prospect of lots of washing up and a freezer to defrost. Shall work up some enthusiasm by breaking myself in the gym. Been weeks since I last went, but at last (hoorah!) I seem to be over my cold.

Isn't life showbiz and glamorous?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oriental cunning

The Dr and her ma are in Turkey, half holidaying and half doing some research for the forthcoming bestseller, "From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus - British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire 1840-1880". (I wanted her to call it either "The Time Travellers" - which is a good name for a first book - or "Oriental Cunning" - which is a quote from one of the chaps she's writing about.)

Anyhow, here's her first report, complete with wobbly spellings where she's on a foreign keyboard.
"Sheets of lıghtıng dısturbed my sleep last nıght. A dramatıc storm took place ın what felt lıke my bedroom or the sıttıng room where I am sleepiıng on a pull out bed. We were at the centre of the storm and the lıghtıng stung your eyes even wıth your eyelids closed.

But to go back we got here (Kusadası) late on Thursday nıght / Frıday morning and ouur apartment ıs nıce. There ıs a very cold swımmıng pool whıch ı have been ın once. Lounged about on Frıday untıl İ dedecıded to frogmarch my mum to fınd out where the domuses went from ın Kusadası. The resort ıs a resort caterıng for package tourısts but ıt ıs a good base and ıs startıng to close down. Went to the ubiquitous tour rep meetıng where I discovered: 1. don't buy ıcecreams when cruıse shıps come ın (Tuesdays apparently) 2. Not to walk around on my own after dark (yeah rıght) 3. they / them mean the turks who have dıfferent customs to us 4. I am very mıddle class. Ok I knew the last one before. My general demeanour was not helped my my mum occasıonally laughıng or raısıng eye brows. Informed rep we may be away for a few days doıng sıtes so not to worry about us. She saıd any thıng can happen ın Turkey. As ındeed ıt can any where.

Yesterday went to Selcuk after fındıng the rıght dolmus (bus). Selcuk ıs near to Ephesus and where the museum ıs. It ıs also where the antıquıtıes were loaded on to the traın to go to the Brıtısh shıps that were waıtıng at the harbour ın Izmır so we located the traın statıon after gettıng lost.My mum now ınsısts on having the map. There ıs an old steam traın ın the sıdıngs and several 19thC features stıll reemaın - such as the water towers - so all evocatıve for my photos. Checked the traın tımes out for Izmır and suspect may go on the traın only to come straıght back agaın. By the traın statıon ıs a Byzantıne aqueduct that houses several stork nests and further down ıs buılt ınto an old Ottoman warehouse.

Selçuk ıs also the burıal place of St 'Book of Revelatıons' John though funjıly enough I'm sure I also went to hıs burıal place ın Patmos, whıch was an ıntrıcately decorated cave. Any way due to thıs dısputed fact, there are the ruıns of a huge 6thC basılıca on top of Ayasolouk Hıll whıch had a walk ın baptıstery and the tomb of St John, as well as great vıews. next went to the 14th mosque that was ın the process of beıng restored. Loads of Roman and Byzantıne capıtals and columns every where. Then onto the sıte of the Temple of Artemıs whıch ıs about 500m out of town. there ıs very lıttle there now bar one column made of bıts of column drums whıch also hosts a storks' nest. Some one asked me where the rest was and I saıd ın the Brıtısh Museum, whıch ıs almost true. The temple ıs now home to ducks and goats and the odd touırıst who can be bothered to go from Ephesus and selcuk. Can see why Wood had such problems fındıng the place as ıt ıs 2km away from the maın sıte of Ephesus. My mum got bıten very badly by mosquıtos whıle there and I saıd Wood constantly had malarıa whıle he worked therer. Funnıly enough that dıd not cheer her up. I lıke travellıng wıth people who are tastıer than me.

Museum was last - some ınterestıng antıquıtıes. Lıked the every day stuff from the Roman houses best. Been to Rome and Naples (and etc) and ımperıal portraıts just lkook the same really. Japanese tourısts gıggled at Prıapus - god wıth a massıve erectıon - but I lıked Eros rıdıng on a dolphın best. Also had cult statue of Artemıs of Ephesus whıch ıs very bızarre and has breast / testıcle appendages over her chest. there ıs a testıcle / breast debate - I go wıth breasts myself but that could be for aesthetıc reasons.

Today veryy tired so got up late and lazung around. Undecıded as weather strangely sunny and thundery. Tomorrow to Ephesus proper.

Lots of love to you and the cat."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reduced Droo

The following nonsense was first performed before a live audience of Doctor Who fans in Winchester in July 2002. The Dr played the lady parts, and me, Nimbos and N. played everything else.

I have thoughts of doing a New Series one. If just to do Eccles's mad-wave "Hellooo!"
The Entire History of Dr Who...
in Six Minutes

That girl Susan’s an oddball.

She borrows my books.

Let’s follow her home. Barbara! This police box is alive.


What do you want, hmm?

Excuse me, Dr Who...

That’s not my name, Chatterton. This is the TARDIS. It’s like television. It doesn’t have wheels. You’re coming with me.

I don’t know why, but I believe you.

The ship still looks like a police box. That’s not right. Once it looked like a chair. I’m off for a smoke.

Ug. Fire.

Back to the ship! I’m giving up smoking. It gets me in trouble.

Where are we? All the trees are dead. Can we stay in the ship?

No, I’ve broken it and we need new mercury.


My legs!


Break their computer!


Susan, put those scissors down.

Hello Dr Who, I’m Marco Polo. I don’t exist in the archives, but I’m really good.

Hello Dr Who, I’m Yartek – Leader Of The Alien Voord. I do exist in the archives, and I’m rubbish.

I should say there’s a pattern here.

Hello Dr Who, I’m Tlotxl, Aztec gentleman and –

I don’t want to know.

But –

Not one line.

Doctor, I think you’ve got us home!

DALEK (swimming):

Masters of Earth? You poor, pathetic creatures – we must dare to stop you! Oh, and Susan?

Yes grandfather?

I shall come back for The Five Doctors. See you.

Hello Dr Who, I’m Peter Purves, pilot of the future.

You don’t look like you’re from the future in that sweater, m’boy!

I have a Panda called Hi-fi.

So you do. Happy Christmas.


They’ve killed the new girls!

Call that a masterplan? It’s not very clever at all, just The Chase for twice as long!


CYBERMAN (with sing song voice):
Hello Dr Who. I am Krang of the Cybermen. We will move our planet near your planet and take over your planet with our planet.


Oh. Our planet being near your planet has destroyed our planet. Not that I care.

I’m feeling tired and moody and... and...


... and I want to play the recorder!

But Ben! That’s not Dr Who!


Oh, well if the Daleks recognise him.

Oh my giddy aunt. My trousers are shrinking and I’ve lost my hat.


DR WHO (with JAMIE hiding behind him): Don’t worry Jamie, it’s all done with mirrors.

Have some Jamie Factor, laddie!


Look out Jamie! Monsters for weeks and weeks!

Dr Who! What have you been up to?

Oh no! My people! Um... well...

Don’t try to wriggle out of it – we’ve got quite a lot of video clips.

I’ve battled the most terrible monsters. The Daleks! The Cybermen! And... and... the Quarks!

You’ve been very naughty. So we’re going to exile you to Earth during the early, experimental years of Colour Separation Overlay.

You utter shits! Nooooooooo....


I say old man, you’re not the Dr Who I know!


How about a job as my scientific advisor?

Can I have a job too? I did general science at A level.

You will obey me.

I won’t! I won’t! And I’m marrying my boyfriend!

Jehosophat, Brigadier. Captain Yates has been up to something despicable behind our backs!

He can’t be all bent - he said about the spiders.

Spiders? I’m scared to death of them.

Here we go again.


You all right, Doctor?

What?!? Of course!?! Feck!?! Girls!?! Wires! Little leather costumes!?! Dog!

K9: Affirmative, master.

DR WHO (morosely):
Actually. Now I’ve had Romana, I might just... let go. (Gestures as per Logopolis).

NEW DR WHO (tossing hair, looking pretty):
Hmmm. Adric’s died and it’s all my fault. I’m a bit blond, me.

Goodness me! So there are five of me now!

PERI (acting with breasts):
Dark-ter! Turlough rescued me from drowning, and now I’m covered in this horrid sticky stuff!

Hold tight, Peri, and swallow my milk. Gosh, none left for me. Is this death? Adric!

Dark-ter – you’ve changed. Ezz sarm-then rarng?

Sacked? Sacked?? SACKED??!?



DR WHO (now all moody):
So, you’ve conquered stairs. You better have the Hand of Omega. Bwah ha ha!


ACE (cockernee):
‘Ere Professor, I ain’t a little girl no more.

You’re shit, ah. No, I lied. Come on Hace, we’ve got work to do. Oh no! I’ve been shot!


[He turns on GRACE.]

You stuck your tube in me. Now it’s my turn…

Friday, October 12, 2007

Good writing

This is one of those blog entries where, by putting down something here, I can stop boring the pants of every poor soul in real life. I seem, for example, to have had the same pitched battle about this some half-a-dozen times while in Swansea. So apologies if you have heard it before, and apologies if you feel your eyeballs being fried by red-hot rant and spittle.

(Yes, it’s also one I’ve written on before. But it’s not like you’re paying for this stuff anyway, is it?)

Also, this is something I have to consider daily, what with it being My Job. I am all too aware that the vast body of the human species giveth not a shit. If that’s you, you can go about your business. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Bad writing is nothing to do with punctuation.
There, I have said it. And I am all too aware that many people disagree. I have met people – and even otherwise respect some of them – who think well of Lynn Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.

Ignoring its contradictions, its smug tone, its not having an index despite supposedly being a reference book for those involved in writing, the Big Sin of “Eats…” is that it assumes meaning is all in the apostrophes. It argues that if we don’t put our plurals and possessives in the right places, no one will get what we mean.

But the shop windows and market stalls that the book so hilariously points its gnarled and withered fingers at surely beg to differ. The meaning of “new potatoe’s” is clear enough to attract the shoppers, even if it’s not technically correct. The sky does not fall on our heads because of it, and the stall holders’ trade cannot be seen to suffer.

Bad punctuation can be annoying, but there are other, direr sins in the sphere of scribbling with which to get all angry.

Bad writing is not being understood.
As we have seen before, George Orwell wrote as far back as 1946 that in any of these grammatical, syntactic, punctuational quandaries, we should “let meaning choose”.

We should be clear, we should be concise and we should get our meaning across vividly. All other considerations follow, so long as we are understood.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t bother at all with apostrophes. As a professional scribbler, grammar is one of the things I have to Get Right. Inconsistency is distracting even if it doesn’t warp the meaning of a given clause.

What bothers me, though, is the special attention often given to this one, minor aspect of scribblin’.

Hung-up on a comma
As Truss herself admits, there are no hard and fast rules to this stuff anyway. Some nineteenth-century publications help us see how our conventions are governed by fashion. Truss gives the example of some nineteenth-century prose where every other word is followed by a comma. But there are books where colons and semi-colons are always preceded with a space, or where words like “bloke” and “gent” are italicised for their strangeness.

So while there are conventions of use (a comma is a pause not a breathing space, for example), these are not set in stone. Rather than Truss providing the rule for use, she presents a rule, based on her own personal bias.

In my work, the arguments about punctuation I’ve sat through are often less about something being more helpful or clear, as about defending someone’s grasp of the “rule”. If I had an Asterix book for every time someone said, “But I was taught….”, I’d probably be up to the Mansions of the Gods.

I don’t share some people’s delight in misplaced apostrophes, and the Facebook group damning those who use “you’re” instead of “your” beshudders me with fear (because I do that all the time, first draft). It’s ironic that Truss says punctuation is a matter of courtesy, since she then discourteously mocks all those lesser-schooled persons who so obviously get it wrong.

More importantly, the arguments I’ve witnessed have got so caught up in whether the singular possessive should be followed by an “s”, even when the word ends “s” or “z”, that they entirely ignore whether the average reader will understand what the sentence is getting at.

In this way, punctuation can all too be too attentive to small details, ignoring the important, bigger picture and so of no practical or moral value to anyone.

“What, like the Alpha Course?” some wags might say. Wholly unfairly, of course.

Clarity rules
Orwell argues for simplicity, concise construction and fresh lucidity of image. This plain style makes prose compelling and ensures against muddiness of thought – from the writer as well as the reader.

Likewise, the precise use of words can lend greater meaning to our writing. But too often readers do not need to worry about the difference between, for example, jealousy and envy.

(Strictly speaking, you are envious of something not in your possession, and guard jealously something that is. But the two are used pretty interchangeably.)

There are rules for clarity of writing – and ones we ought to learn at school. The Dangerous Book for Boys says there are nine kinds of word in any sentence: noun; verb; adverb; adjective; pronoun; conjunction; article; preposition; interjection. But it would be more useful to say that most sentences have one purpose.

Sentences describe where things are (in relation to one another)
Language tells us where things are and what they are doing – often in relation to one another. To get all technical, we might talk of an “object” that affects or defines a “subject”.

The simplest proper sentence in English is three letters long: “I am”. That tells us what an object (me) is doing. We can then add more detail to that statement: “I am male” (adjective), “I am writing” (verb), “I am writing nonsense” (verb, adverb), “I am writing nonsense but later, oh yes, I’ll be going to dinner across the river with my mum” (showing off now).

This is all a way of mapping our reality, making sense of all the noise and activity around us so that we can better make our way through it, and direct our neighbours, too.

Good writing shows us where to go. The best writing even takes us there.

Do they laugh?
You can’t fake comedy. You tell a joke and if it’s funny people laugh.

In a lot of ways, writing is like telling a joke. You can tell the same joke in different ways, embellishing it to suit the audience in question. You might change the details of the set-up, or change the pace or choice of words. And if you’re telling the joke in person, you watch the person you’re telling, adjusting your performance in time to their response. All this is done to achieve the pay-off: that they laugh at your punchline.

Good writing also has a pay-off, but it’s not necessarily that the audience laughs. You might want them to cry, or to remember some salient detail (“This supermarket sells good food”, “That man cannot be trusted”).

You also shape your writing based on your audience’s responses. Often, though, you’re shaping it in advance, pre-empting and guessing at their responses.

Just as a comedian might have some smaller, wryer laughs in the lead-up to a big woof, you structure your writing to engage and excite an audience. When you’re telling a joke in person, you can gauge an audience’s interest, and throw in details and asides to keep them hanging on your words. In prose, you can combat the flagging of the crowd with “reversals” (i.e. plot twists) and cliffhangers.

The memory doesn’t cheat
A former boss told me a good one. “There are two types of presentation,” he said. “There’s the ones done on PowerPoint and the ones you remember.”

PowerPoint is all too often used to present complex and cluttered information, where the presenter is more concerned about getting all the information down than that the audience retain any salient points. Likewise, in the examples of bad writing that Orwell cites, the reader may read all the words but does not retain their meaning.

Good writing can contain bad grammar and punctuation, just as the best comedians need not wear a suit and tie. You remember good writing. You remember vivid details, choice turns of phrase, even the plot twists that came out of nowhere.

As much as “let meaning choose”, the rule might be “will my writing stick?”

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Why not make some coffee

Two years ago, as the country got to grips with Dr Who being a Good Thing, the Mirror caught up with former Dr Who girl Anneke Wills. From 1966-7, Anneke had played Polly, sexy blonde it-girl companion to the first and second Doctors. But, as she told Gill Swain in the interview, Anneke’s own life was just as exciting, wild and scary as her travels in the TARDIS.

Self Portrait by Anneke WillsSelf Portrait is part one of a two-part autobiography, and covers the first 30 eventful years. We see Anneke escape from a houseboat, and an eccentric, boho mum with abusive boyfriends, for a scholarship at RADA. This leads to her mixing with all kinds of slebs just as the 60s get going, and there’s raucous parties in Chelsea and all kinds of the wildest clothes.

Always, there’s a breathless, wide-eyed joie de vivre, a delight in name-dropping friends like Peter Cook and Sammie Davies Jnr and all the fab nights out. She’s also surprisingly frank about her days thieving coffee and school uniform, and about clumsy first sexual experience.

As the book progresses, there’s an acknowledgement that being a pretty girl is not in all ways a blessing. There’s accounts of people who won’t take no for an answer, of a respected actor following her home one night, and even of a bloke wanking behind his paper on the train.
“Men in the street, men on the buses, in the tubes, men at work, women’s envious glances. All this had led me to feel very self-conscious. Being pretty can be a lonely place. The men do numbers around you and so do the women.”

Anneke Wills, Self Portrait, p. 298.

I’m rather hoping times have changed. And Anneke herself speaks of how her own perspective was changed by The Female Eunuch. But she’s also funny about Germaine Greer, who she sees storming off a croquet pitch, muttering about the proper rules.

The sparkling narrative style also extends to the more horrific incidents. She’s frank about her abortion and the mess Anthony Newley left her in, and vividly, concisely depicts the sudden anger in her husband Michael Gough, when he pushes her off a balcony.

It’d be wrong to say Anneke recounts these events fondly, but part of the appeal of the book is how at peace she seems now about the things that have befallen her. Mostly. One event – which I won’t spoil – is particularly striking, and Anneke’s sudden switch to the second person to address the person in question really gave me shivers.

Polly Lopez-Wright admits her true feelings for meThe chief appeal, then, is how much it feels like Anneke addresses you directly, like you’re sat with her in a cosy pub, and the stories get wilder and more confessional the more you get through your drinks. It’s intimate, lively and fun so it’s like you’ve been best mates with her for years. Which is probably why I’m chummily calling her “Anneke” here, when I only spoke to her for moments as she scribbled in my book.

Droo fans may complain that the book only covers Droo in one chapter, but each of Polly’s stories gets a mention (though not that very fine short story where post-Doctor Polly goes for a new job). I think the book really benefits from putting that one role in the context of her other work and life.

Another criticism is the copy editing, or lack thereof. This is the first effort from the small-press Hirst Books, and it’s a beautiful production (fantastic cover, by the way) and packed full of exclusive photos. Yet it could really have done with someone agreeing a format for paragraphs and italics, and checking some of the spellings. Every now and then there were asides and paragraphs that could have been snipped out.

This, though, is a minor quibble because it’s such an engaging read. Far more important that it’s an engaging story than the n- and m-dashes are consistent. I hared through it on a train and then couldn’t put it down later that evening.

My chief complaint, then, is that the end comes so quickly, just as she seems to be turning her life around. I am very eager to hear more.

Monday, October 08, 2007

We all fall down

Just back from a weekend in Sheffield with family to find plenty of actual and potential offers of that there scribbling in by inbox. Which is good as on Thursday I learnt that the three-month gig that’s lasted nearly three whole years is finally coming to an end. At the same time, I’m well into my final production and editorial duties for Big Finish.

Lesser-spotted tree-monkey (cousinis guerrieri)Spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons trekking up and down different bits of the Burbage valley and its environs, trampling bracken and weasling through the huge rocks. Nattered and climbed trees and braved a strange ginger cake called Parkin, and discovered we were just a short drive from the village of Eyam (pronounced “Eem”), which I’d been reading about on the train up.

Year of Wonders is based on the events in Eyam of 1665-6. When the first cases of bubonic plague are detected in the village, the local vicar Mompellion convinces the population not to flee. Instead of spreading the disease even further, they will wait it out. Those who agree to this are slowly picked off by the horrific symptoms – two thirds of them are to die. But for Anna Frith, young widow and household help to Mompellion, this terrible suffering and loss will also transform her life…

It’s a gripping page-turner, and Geraldine Brooks is good at supplying enough detail that readers can follow the development and spread of the disease through flea-infested clothing, while the characters never quite make that same connection. Like watching Casualty, we’re glued to finding out which of the characters we’ve just met are to meet grisly ends. Like Casualty, for all there’s a moral dimension to the suffering and social breakdown, there’s also a horrid randomness to the infection and death, which spares neither good nor innocents.

As well as the plague, there’s witch-hunts and the perils of lead-mining, as well as a gravedigger who starts burying those as yet not dead. This packing-in of incident can make the book feel overly contrived at times. And for all Brooks draws strong and memorable characters, and deftly convinces us of the intrigues and scandals of a small community, the cowardly toffs who flee for their lives are too obvious and uncomplicated villains.

Also felt the final section, after the plague, a little too extraordinary, with sudden revelations and reversals that didn’t really fit the cosy, claustrophobic catastrophe of the main part. “This book is a work of fiction inspired by the true story,” begins the author’s afterword, and I felt the novel maybe changed too much of the wondrous-enough reality to fit the convenience and structure of its plot. It’s an absorbing and well-constructed read, but less successful the more it is not true.

Picaresque grave in the grounds of the Church of St Lawrence, EyamWe visited the Church of St Lawrence, whose plague display inspired the novel, and passed the cottages that tell you which families lived in them and how many of them died. We poked our fingers into the round holes of the boundary stone, once filled with coin to pay for food from those beyond the quarantine line, the holes filled with vinegar to kill the plague seed that might be attached to the coin.

Home on the 2.27 today, passing the wonky, twisty spire at Chesterfield on the way back to the nearly-done space-age refit of St Pancras Station. Having swapped a plethora of top facts with cousin A. all weekend, was pleased to hear a fellow passenger explain to their spawn how Queen Boudicca and her Iceni pals had bitch-slapped the Romans right where we was shlepping.