Friday, November 30, 2007


Fellow December novelists Trevor Baxendale, Jim Swallow and I will be signing our Doctor Who books at Forbidden Planet in London on Saturday 12 January.

We'll then be in Manchester on Thursday, 17 Janaury, for a Doctor Who quiz and reading thing at the Borders bookshop.

The Gallifrey convention website has updated details of the guests who'll be in LA from 15-17 February next year. Excitingly, I've moved up to mid-position, having been right down at the bottom last time.

It's going to be a seventh-Doctor-tastic weekend, with Sylvester McCoy there plus his friends Ace, Benny and Grace, the script editor, the bloke who did the music and some people who wrote books. The Dr is coming with me (yes, her first Droo convention, lucky thing) and said she should probably do some homework.

So, we have done Remembrance of the Daleks and the Curse of Fenric, and we've got Ghostlight and Survival next. Will report back on what she thinks.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Matter arising

"Oh yes, you're a Banks groupie," said my former tutor when we bumped into each other last night - the first time I've seen him since I graduated in spaceships. We, and a few other people, were at Imperial College to hear Farah Mendlesohn interview Iain Banks.

There was a lot of rambling and hand-waving and mugging at the audience, and lots of laughs as well. Farah had re-read his complete works and came at him with some very clever questions. Why, for example, is there so much masturbation in his black-and-white covered "mainstream" books? Simple, he said. He was just trying to do stuff other writers didn't.

Farah suggested that there was a lot of bodily detail in his books: we know what different characters are like in bed, what torture feels like, even how Frank in The Wasp Factory gets splashback when sat on the toilet. Banks argued that this stuff is part of everyone's lives, but is politely excised from most writing. He talked about the importance of "truth" in writing, but I think this vivid lubricity of detail matters in his work because it pulls us in close to the characters. It's part of what makes his writing so intimate, like he's writing this just for you.

This maybe also squares with Farah's observation that he's more reticent about the sex in his sci-fi; the people in space are more unknowable other than the everymen of his mainstream. Maybe.

It was also of great excitement to hear that he's not yet finished with the Culture - his joyous, utopian mish-mash who return in the forthcoming Matter. A colleague who's normally much above this sort of thing actually, genuinely squeeed when I told him this; he'd believed Look to Windward was a final word on the subject, and that The Algebraist was the first of a new series. Banks explained he'd maybe return to that universe if he could come up with a good enough plot, but that the Culture is where his heart is. Writing other stuff is more about professional pride - that he can write something else - rather than being Cultured out. Hooray!

Iain Banks admits my geniusAfterwards, Banks was happy to sign people's long clutch of books and to acknowledge my own merry genius. I plan to write up a sequel to that paper which will examine the three Culture books published since I wrote it, as well as what clues might be garnered from Walking on Glass and The Bridge, in which the Culture perhaps sort of maybe make cameos.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Contract killing

The sacking of the voice of the Underground made front-pages last night, and was even picked up on telly’s Ten O’clock News. London Underground apparently didn’t see the funny side of Emma Clarke criticising the work she herself had done for them.

We giggled at the spoof announcements (which London Underground were keen to point out they didn’t have a problem with), and the Dr suggested that Clarke had not done herself any harm with all the publicity. But you don’t exactly see someone mocking their patrons and then think, “Must give her a job.”

(Clarke herself says she’s been misquoted.)

It’s worth saying it again: the Internet is not a private conversation between a few intimate friends. It is a publication – like a book or magazine, but one where Google Alerts* makes it dead easy to see when your minions are kvetching about you.

(* Other search and destroy agents are available, as agitate the increasingly desperate ads.)

At the risk of doocing myself, there was much entertainment yesterday in my current employ at this:
“I like free magazines because they're hilariously desperate, and the classier they purport to be, the more desperate they are. Nespresso magazine is the most acute example I've ever seen. It's as hateful as Tatler, but with an overbearing and whorish emphasis on coffee pods bunged in for good measure … In total, there were 281 visible coffee pods – 281 tiny bullet-shaped reminders of the bizarre, anxious banality of marketing. On one hand, it's a pointless free mag. On the other, it's the by-product of an entire industry peopled exclusively by desperate, snivelling lunatics.”

Charlie Brooker, “Nespresso isn't just coffee ... it's an aspirational lifestyle marketing exercise by desperate lunatics”, The Guardian, 26 November 2007.

I’ve worked in contract publishing of one flavour or another for seven-ish years, as one of these desperate, snivelling lunatics. I’d like to think there’s more to mine efforts than just the payment of squalid shillings. And so I have been thinking…

Done well, this kind of lifestyle stuff can work very well – my old boss Toby set out a manifesto of why its better than a lot of other ways of flogging product. Customer magazines are less expensive, less wasteful than other kinds of selling because you’re talking to people already nominally interested in what you’re trying to sell. They’re much more effective than being constantly begging for wholly new customers. And the good vibes and loyalty generated can have dead impressive results.

There are those, of course, who think that any kind of marketing is inherently evil. I think it’s more a matter of what you’re selling, and who to, and how.

It’s also difficult to define the difference between customer magazines and other magazines. Magazines and newspapers all have their own character and set of values which we dress up in, to varying degrees when we read them. Think of Jim Hacker explaining who reads which newspapers in Yes, Prime Minister:
Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; the Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.

Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Prime Minister – A Conflict of Interest, broadcast 31 December 1987.

There’s then the question of customer magazines being solely a means to sell more product. But newspapers are filled with small-ads and inserts flogging us ever more tat. In large part, it’s the revenue from this that finances them, while the price we pay at the newsstand goes to person selling it. So these things become customer magazines for “shopping in general” rather than shopping for particular, licensed products.

News companies also branch out into books and satellite telly which are not always so subtly plugged. There’s even a column in Private Eye devoted to spotting these.

A phrase that’s often used in selling customer magazines to clients is how much they “add value”. This isn’t the same as the economic returns they offer (customer magazines should obviously bring more money in than they cost to produce). Yes, added value tends to be used to mean customer loyalty and stuff like that. But it’s also about added value to the customer. If the magazine is good, it’s a bonus to them. But there’s something more…

Something like Doctor Who Magazine isn’t generally thought of as a customer publication, but its insights, top facts and jokes make us feel better about being Doctor Who fans (this is called “adding value”). It was so successful at this that it even managed to run for 16 years when there wasn’t any new Doctor Who.

A major part of its appeal in those dark times (especially under the editorship of my pal Gary Gillat) was the lifestyle it promoted. It wasn’t just a magazine for people who liked a TV show. Especially evident when compared to other one-show and genre mags, DWM was for smart, articulate and well-read folk, it’s tone generally good-humoured and a bit self-mocking. Before I got into fandom more properly, it really felt as if it had been written just for me. Or rather, for the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspired.

I also felt the same about the thrilling and clever New Doctor Who Adventures. The handful of Star Trek and Star Wars novels that I tried at the same time all felt knocked-off and derivative, just after me for cash. A mate of mine had a similar, if opposite epiphany, when he realised that the sole benefit of being a subscriber to his favourite football team was to be bludgeoned every week with yet more weighty offers of naff merchandise.

The Doctor Who books were far better than they ever needed to be; and they sustained themselves because the people buying them were part of a loose community with the people producing them. It wasn’t just that several readers wanted to – and succeeded in – writing them. The books encouraged debate about what worked and what didn’t, and how Doctor Who could be made even better.

I wouldn’t be the first to argue that the new show – its depth and range and success – are the result of that period in the ghetto, when rather than flogging whatever old tat they could get away with, authors and editors worked to prove the critics wrong, and to produce something of quality.

So, and I think I’m agreeing with Charlie Brooker, customer publishing can be brilliant when it doesn’t just treat the readers as “marks”, who need to be cajoled or bullied or fooled into forking out for more product. Like any kind of writing, in whatever form, you try knock to knock out just any old rubbish, but to make it the best that you can. Confound expectation, make people think, squeeze in one extra joke…

This is still the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspire.

ETA: Amidst these thoughts, I received news of a toiletastic venture. Wonder what the accompanying customer magazine would be called. “Poos of the World” maybe. Or “The Poo Paper”. Or even “Toiletreats”. I wonder who I pitch to…

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chequed out

Space-archaeologists and historians of the future may be excited by the following. Everyone else can just talk amongst themselves.

This week, two of my employers have been in touch asking for my bank details. They're entirely unrelated to one another, but both organisations now no longer pay their leagues of extraordinary freelancers by such last century-ness as cheques.

I wonder if this is one of those sea changes in the way we live our lives that we don't really notice at the time. Like stopping changing nappies.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My mates’ scribbling #2

One way not to write is to spend lots of time deciding on names for your characters. Is he a George? Is he an Alan? Does that fit on the shoulders of a bloke who's just invented the warp drive and is, really, a Mim?

Some scribbling buddies pick place-names from maps or borrow surnames from the cast and crew in programme guides. Or you find that their aliens are anagrams of where they've worked. In Dr Who and the Pirate Loop, anyone who isn't Doctor Who or Martha is named after friends-of-mine's kids. (And their parents don't love them if they don't buy them copies.) And in Dr Who and the Time Travellers, it was all about killing my friends.

Because of the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey paradox going on in that book, one pal managed to get himself killed more times than any other. Colonel Scott Andrews is shot, he's strangled, I think he falls down some stairs and there's also a bit where half of him is embedded in a wall.

The real Scott Andrews is, as it happens, one of my scribbling pals. His latest book - and first novel - is School's Out, the third in Abaddon's Afterblight Chronicles, in which a mystery disease wipes out everyone who doesn't have O negative blood. Lee Keegan is just 15 when his mum is one of those to suffer the cull. Alone in a world descending into chaos, Lee heads for his public school. It's a place of weird rules and traditions, and institutionalised bullying - but it can't be any worse than anywhere else. Can it?

As you'd expect, this is a pulpy, violent shocker, a series of increasingly grotesque and bloody incidents. Chapter Ten features a glimpse of my corpse.
"'Still, couldn't they have just, y'know, knocked on the door and said, "hi, we're the neighbours, we baked you a cake?" I mean, there was no reason to come in guns blazing, no reason at all.'

'Look where it got them.'

'Look where it got Guerrier, Belcher, Griffiths and Zayn.'

I had no answer to that.

'I don't want to die like that,' he said eventually.

'If it's a choice of being shot or being bled and eaten, then I'll take a bullet every time, thanks. After all, been there, done that.'

'Yeah, yeah, stop boasting,' he teased, sarcastically. 'By my reckoning you've been shot, stabbed, strangled, hanged and savaged by a mad dog since you came back to school, three of those in the last twenty-four hours.'

'I also shat myself.'

'All right. You win. You are both vastly harder and more pathetic than any of us.'"

Scott Andrews, School's Out, p. 157.

The prose style is straightforward and things are kept moving quickly, which makes for an exciting read. While the pulp format doesn't exactly encourage any great depth, I was impressed by how often Scott muddied the moral waters. The insane tyrant who doles out macabre punishment is given an opportunity to put his case - and, as Lee himself admits, it's almost convincing.

There are also some fun tangents as Lee compares the events he's caught up in to those suffered by the school's other old boys. One particular drastic action is inspired by a former pupil who died in the First World War. This kind of thing helps make this more than just trashy, guilty pleasure.

Perhaps there are a few too many references to films and TV, and the "witty" quips as characters face death and dismemberment aren't as smart or funny as the characters might think. But then my own teens were all risible jokes and endless quotations from Blackadder. Lee is even accused of behaving like he's the hero in an action movie, rather than a spotty adolescent with a rubbish haircut. So it's all part of the point.

Lee narrates the story and we watch him changed by the events he's caught up in. He becomes a killer and learns some nasty truths about what it is to be a leader. The grim tone of the book then comes from him. Even early on, he shows (or recalls) little remorse for the loss of his friends. Scraps of detail show us that he's a snob and a hypocrit - a public-school boy who rants about posh kids. For most of the book he has to hold down fierce anger, and he's quick to judge other people. Yet it's not lost on him that his own mistakes have cost a lot of people their lives.

Lee is, in short, a bit of a dick. And that's what sets him apart from similar, self-reliant and righteous heroes of shocker fiction, such as Richard Hannay or Bill Masen. He also reminded me of Harry Potter's angry tantrums in The Order of the Phoenix - an element of the book kept thankfully to a minimum in the film.

As a result, I didn't ever really warm to him and was unmoved by the horrible things that befell him. Perhaps it would have helped to have had more from the perspective of the school's young matron - a character who's fate we really care for. But that's not to fault the book. It's a well-told, well-structured, inventive and absorbing example of its kind. The problem is that this genre of gritty misery is not entirely to my taste.

So if I'm picking any holes at all it's because I'd have wanted to do things differently. And that is no doubt why Abaddon employed Scott and turned down the five things I sent them. Pah.

Oh, and what a cop-out. The wuss only got to kill me once.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

SJ and company

Pottered round to Nimbos's last night for the final episode of Sarah-Jane. Won't spoil it for those watching on sorry old terrestrial. But wheee!

A few chums have dared speak the heresy that Sarah-Jane's adventures are more fab than those of Doctor Who. It's certainly been one of the best yes-really-for-kids shows I can think of. The skillful, unsettling inclusion of things like Alzheimer's that can't be cured or the ethics of killing children harks back to the issues-based kids' dramas I used to like. It's exciting, and afterwards it makes you think...

Some years ago, when I was vainly pitching ideas to CBBC (one of which was called "Life on Mars"), it was explained that the reason Grange Hill and Byker Grove rather lost their teeth was 'cos people realised older kids were watching EastEnders and Casualty anyway. The impression I got was that all kids TV should from thence be vapid and fluffy. And golly, it really isn't. It's a bit fab: telly for grown-ups for kids.

That's not to say that the series has Things To Say. It's just got more complexity and depth than it needs. There's also character development and back-stories that matter, so the more you watch the more the series rewards you. These things never get in the way of the monsters and jokes and quite spectacular cliffhangers, so the effect is that it's a far better, richer, cleverer, more involving series than we've really any right to expect.

The only grating thing (for me, anyway), is the bookending stuff where Sarah looks up at the night sky and tells us it's soooo amazing. It's the same kind of bludgeoning as from Dr Suresh in Heroes. Both shows aren't quite sure when to treat us as if we have brains and when to spell out the themes in words of one syllable.

Another highlight, and as much a part of the experience of watching it on Nimbos's Sky Plus box, is the continuity filling from CBBC's Ed Petrie and Oucho the cactus. They shred the pictures kids send in, they try to find Swan Cake for Queen Victoria, they asked Sarah-Jane her age... I wish Ed and Oucho could plug the gaps between all of TV. Like that night Tom Baker did BBC One in the style of Little Britain.

Oh. And of course [spoiler] could have [spoiler] any day - just like Daleks twatting the Trods.

The Dr is also much taken by Young Dracula, in which Dracula's pre-16 (and so pre-vampire) kids go to school with the son of Van Helsing. With its slayers and schoolwork it owes a pretty blatant debt to Buffy, but the mix of outright slapstick and smarter jokes means it works really well. She's also got a thing for the camp, vamping fellas.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cloud Atlas

The last few days I have been a Simon Head-in-Air. If I remember rightly, this means I’m due to fall into a canal and drown. And the reason for this is Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide. (For those who’ve not been keeping up, here’s what I thought of the novel Cloud Atlas.)

As you’d expect, it explains how to identify the main kinds of clouds. And reading it is like an epiphany – I find I’m looking up on the way to work, or while waiting for buses and trains. As Pretor-Pinney says, it’s a hobby you can take part in anywhere, and for as long or as little as you wish.

The nebulous nature of clouds means several share characteristics or even bits of the same name – alto, cirro, cumulo, nimbo, strato. I got even more list over which combinations merge into which other combinations, and then there’s the huge number of sub-species, features and effects. It’s no wonder the book comes complete with a cloudspotter’s diploma. (There are also copious plugs for the Cloud Appreciation Society, which the author founded.)

Mixed in with the scientific explanations and Latin etymology are a wealth of top facts. For example, I now know where the phrases “cloud nine” and “cloud cuckooland” come from. Yet, as well as the top facts, there’s far too many terrible jokes and asides which can get a little grating. Part of me wonders how much that stuff just pads it out, and how much the author or his editors feared scaring punters off with too much technicalia. The clutter of tangents and silly bits makes it harder to remember the clues to diagnosis. Of course, this is a book to carry with you and refer back to, but I’m a bit annoyed I don’t remember more as I went along.

The penultimate chapter is perhaps the most interesting, as it covers man-made clouds. First there’s the militaro-cloud technologies, as worked on by sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut’s brother Bernard. In the movie of the book I imagine him played by Andre Morrell (or his modern equivalent, which would be Ian McKellen). Anyway, back in the 1940s and 50s, Bernard K (not Bernard Kay. See, these asides are annoying!) studied how clouds formed, and that led to seeing if they could be influenced or controlled.

Soon the US Naval Weapons Center took over the funding of this research. According to Pretor-Pinney, this was because it was believed that the Russians were also investigating the same area – though he gives no evidence for this belief. I can’t help feeling it’s a good excuse to do stuff you want to do anyway. Can’t get permission to build atomic bombs, rocket to the moon or stock your museum with other people’s statues? Hell, just say, “But if we don’t, some foreigners will…”.

So what was the result of the militaro-clouds?
“Operational cloud seeding commenced on 20 May 1967 and continued for six years over parts of Laos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Cambodia, at an estimated annual cost of around $3.6 million a year. It is impossible to say whether it was really successful in increasing rainfall, since no systematic assessment of precipitation was made after the initial test phase, which itself could not be considered to be statistically rigorous.”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, p. 264.

Still, once the story got out that clouds were being developed as weapons, there was a bit of a rumpus. Some laws were passed to technically stamp out any further such projects. But, amazingly enough, the US has wriggled around its own legislation and Pretor-Pinney lists some unsettling developments.

More unsettling, though, is the second part of the same chapter, which addresses the clouds produced by plans. Condensation trails (or “contrails” if you wanna get with the lingo) have been the hot topic of debate for cloudies recently. There’d been some discussion anyway about how they influenced weather systems – affecting other clouds’ formation. And then, when US airplanes were grounded after 11 September 2001, eagle-eyed observers noticed that this pause seemed to have an affect on ground temperatures. Since then, it’s been shown that contrails “reduced ground temperatures during the day and raised them at night” (p. 274) – by as much a whole degree centigrade.

(Yes, that’s quite a lot.)

Pretor-Pinney is good at covering the different possible outcomes of this – it could add to global warming, it could lower temperatures – and also of the problems in trying to tackle it. Getting planes to fly lower would stop contrails forming, but would make them use up more fuel. So whichever way, the environment is shagged.

A little ironically, the final chapter sees Pretor-Pinney jetting off to the other side of the planet to see a cloud formation that’s also been seen over the English Channel. The “Morning Glory” is a miles-long tube of cloud that can clearly be seen cutting across the north of Australia in a wowing satellite image. Turns out that the place Pretor-Pinney goes to see it is Burketown, one of the dusty, ramshackle stop-offs on my brother’s trek across the outback.

Yes, he tells me, everyone talked about the “Morning Glory”. No, he admits, he wasn’t there at the right time to see it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ripper tearer slasher

You know what? I wouldn’t object to Angelina Jolie giving me the horn.

Last night, Codename Moose fulfilled his blood-oath and took me and the Dr to see Beowulf at the IMAX. He’d tried to get tickets over the weekend but it had all been fully booked. Last night was crowded, too – mostly with bright-eyed, slightly balding fellows around the age of 30. Many wore suits and had clearly come straight from proper jobs. But the general sense was that here was a film was aimed at those who never quite grew out of He-Man and Transformers. A film with fighting and monsters and perhaps a small hint of bare girl-flesh.

Which it is. Hooray!

There were a few women taggers on, looking mostly long-suffering as we waited to go in. The Dr admitted her bias against this rough and tumble Old English stuff, so thunderously barbaric compared to her helleno-classics. But I dared suggest that Beowulf might be a little less heavy handed than that other recent CGI-fest, Frank Miller’s 300.

Who would win out of the Geats and Spartans? Well, I don’t know, but whichever one lost would probably do it really well.

As in the Old English poem, a big scary monster called Grendel starts attacking a mead hall and eating the people inside. Then, from across the sea, comes Beowulf, young and bold and so impossibly cool he’ll fight Grendel with his bare hands…

It’s an impressive-looking movie, all the more so in IMAX 3D. The swooshy “camera” moves are all a bit reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – and obviously it’s easy to see other influences, which Tolkien nabbed from the original poem. But this is all on a much smaller scale than the War of the Ring. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s script sets events almost exclusively in the same township – with Beowulf never going home. I’d argue this actually makes the world depicted bigger, because travelling any distance is so much more arduous and so man is more at the mercy of the elements. There’s no chance of a last-minute, wizard-led cavalry coming to the rescue.

The 3D is very exciting: blood drools down on us, monsters leap out at us, bare and toned bottoms look real. There’s a bit of a warm-up before the film to get you used to the 3D stuff. Examples of fish and dinosaurs and a trailer for The Polar Express help make you feel a bit less silly about the huge, 1980s-style glasses.

In general, the action sequences are much more involved than in the poem. Beowulf’s win against Grendel makes use of the eaves and a chain and a door, where in the poem he just keeps his grip. But these embellishments are needed to help tell the story visually, rather than via a narrator. They also give more dramatic pace than “they fought and Beowulf won”.

Only yesterday, Gaiman himself noted reviews being impressed by the faithfulness of the adaptation to the source material. The script sticks closely to the events as given in the poem, but also interweave the random fragments of plot into one cohesive story. They also give motivations to each of the characters, so there’s a bit more depth and sense underpinning all the fighting.

One example of this is explaining who Grendel is and why he’s attacking the mead hall. He’s a rather more sympathetic character than the monster in the poem, though he does come across a bit like a nuisance neighbour always complaining when your TV’s on too loud.

The language Grendel himself uses when speaking to his mum again suggests a closeness to the Old English original, and at one point they even squeeze in a bard singing Beowulf’s story just as it has been handed done since. It occurs to me that despite what’s been changed, we can still believe that the poem we know followed from these events – the storytellers and friends in Beowulf’s own lifetime are already embellishing their accounts.

The film also very deftly incorporates the tensions between pagan and Christian ideology over which critics have so come to blows. Anthony Hopkins’s Danish king won’t put his faith in the Roman god, but his young wife and other courtiers are seen wearing crucifixes. Without ever being intrusive, this becomes more telling in the last section of the film, where the older Beowulf and his demons seem like a relic from a previous age.

Gaiman’s post yesterday suggests the film has got the thumbs up from the one-true-God squad. But this is in response to the CAP thinking it “the most heinous culprit for stealing childhood from children ever made”. The gore is wet and vivid, and I can see that anyone expecting another Polar Express might be a little surprised. But, um, it’s a tale from the Dark Ages about a man who fights monsters… you betray your own ignorance by assuming this stuff’s just for kids. And Homer and fairy tales are full of sex and violence too. The Bowdlerised versions lose a great deal of sense of meaning.

Even then, for a film that’s essentially about three very gruesome fights, the sex and violence aren’t gratuitous. At the IMAX, Angelina Jolie stands 40-foot tall, in nothing but gold paint that’s falling off her. As she sashays about and makes gimps of us all, look carefully (as I did) and you just about get a hint of a nipple. She’s about as real a naked women as a Barbie. The ever more contrived efforts to keep Boewulf’s willy out of shot reminded me of an old Hale and Pace sketch (or, for younger readers, the opening of Austin Powers 2).

But this hardly detracts from a thrilling adventure, full of wit and detail. The Dr admitted her previous fears were unwarranted, and she quite liked Beowulf’s six-pack. Definitely recommend the IMAX version and the 3D specs (not just for the six-pack). And, as we tramped blinking down the long staircase after it was all over, Codename Moose and I spotted a poster… Transformers in 40-foot 3D!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My Doctor

Much excitement round at Nimbos’s last night as we ate pizza and watched Doctors Who. Delighted by the wealth of gags and continuity and it’s quite possible I might have squeed.

You can watch it and the making of at the BBC site for another six days. And also, obviously, then chip in some monies for the needy kids.

The Dr, my Dr, was entertained but felt less of an epiphany – though she’d not been feeling well all day. She expressed the opinion that it was fun but “one for the fans”. Hmm. There’s rather a lot of fans these days. 10.9 million viewers is more than one sixth of the whole population, and of a Friday evening some 45% of everyone watching telly was in our gang.

Also of much excitement was a delivery yesterday morning. Any post is proving to be something of an achievement these days, so the first batch of my author copies of Doctor Who and the Pirate Loop is particularly splendid. It will be available in all good bookshops from 27 December AND YOU WILL BUY IT.

My book, my beautiful REAL book

Loopy writer - and where he writes

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nature versus nurture

As followers of this blog might have noticed, I read – and probably write – a lot of trashy, melodramatic hokum. Adventures where the barest bones of character are slapped about by unlikely coincidence and bludgeoned by unsubtle shocks, all in the name of contriving cheap thrills. I like the fiendish plot twists and wily revelations, and that glorious epiphany that comes when an author gets it right; a book crammed full of the most outrageous zigzags, yet at the end you look back down a single, entirely straight, entirely inevitable corridor. This truly is the good stuff.

So it’s might seem puzzling that my notebook struggles to find anything positive to say about Tarzan of the Apes. Published in 1912, this is the first of a massive 26 volumes of Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The tonnage of that canon, let alone the countless movies and TV shows that followed, automatically suggests a quality of concept to transcend the pulpy, throwaway genre from which it sprang. There must be something special about Tarzan for him to join the elite of heroes who outlive their age, heroes like Holmes and Bond and, er, Summerfield.


But Tarzan is really a bit cock.

The first 100 pages are swiped from Kipling. A white baby is adopted by the nicer, more middle-class animals in the jungle, and grows up bald and vulnerable and picked on, but also wily and better with tools. Mowgli learns to use his brains and weapons against monkeys and a tiger, Tarzan against apes and a lion. Both stories get to remark on the human creature by showing how it fares in the wild.

Mowgli does all this in three short chapters. Tarzan pads it out to 100 pages. There’s an ape who everyone else lives in terror of, and Tarzan fights and kills it. There’s a lion who everyone else lives in terror of, and Tarzan fights and kills it. There’s a polar bear in a false beard and sunglasses who everyone lives in terror of, and… No, wait, that’s Lost, isn’t it?

As well as learning how to plunge a knife into rivals, and so taking charge of his small ape tribe, Tarzan is also a bit of an intellectual. He teaches himself to read English from a collection of books – though it becomes a plot point later that he doesn’t learn to speak it, and nor does he learn French. His reading teaches him that showing his bits is naughty, and he’s wearing a loincloth in time for the arrival of the love of his life.

Now, a certain amount of wild coincidence is to be expected in this kind of stuff, but Tarzan really takes the piss. Tarzan himself comes to be in this bit of Africa because of a mutiny on his parents’ ship. Twenty years later, once Tarzan’s bored of the apes he grew up with, an almost identical mutiny brings to exactly the same spot another small party of white folks – and one of them happens to be family. John Clayton has taken the title Lord Greystoke what with Tarzan having been out of the picture.

Yes, Tarzan is, deep down, an English lord of the highest order. He’s spent his whole life running about naked, mucking about with apes and having only a tangential understanding of civilisation and morality. So he’s probably from the Tory front bench. Ho ho.

Clayton’s part of a dangerous adventure involving treasure, and in his party are two doddery old professors who provide comic relief by bickering and wandering off lost. Archimedes Q Porter is a Professor Calculus type, and it turns out he’s rather been blackmailed into this adventure by a rich scoundrel back home in the States.

Obviously, what with the great risks involved in their adventure, Porter has brought along his young and beautiful daughter Jane – who has a thing for John Clayton. And obviously, the moment Tarzan sees her his loincloth is astir.

There then follows 100 pages of pretty silly stuff. The professors get lost and fail to notice when they’ve been rescued. Jane’s maidservant Esmeralda is not very much better an offensive Black stereotype than the cannibal savages who kidnap potential lunches. And there’s no end of hilarious mix-up because the sophisticated Westerners can’t believe that the nice man of mystery who leaves them polite notes can be the same tanned and handsome mute who carries them out of danger.

Jane finds herself falling for both the Tarzan who leaves her letters and the fit fella who picks her up. And it’s all the more complicated because she loves John Clayton, but is also promised to the villainous dude blackmailing her old man. There’s the potential for some good romantic quandaries but it comes out a muddled jumble.

I’m afraid I kept feeling that Burroughs was just making it up as he went along, and not making it up with much effort. It’s all a rather nonsensical runaround, not made any more palatable by the constant bloody harping on about the supremacy of Tarzan’s class and race.
“It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural out-cropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate […] Contact with this girl for half a day had left a very different Tarzan from the one on whom the morning’s sun had risen.

Now, in every fibre of his being, heredity spoke louder than training.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, p. 154.

I think what ultimately left me cold is that Tarzan is too boring a Superman (yes, in the DC Comics sense). He’s all muscles and handsomeness, and possessed of an innate moral sense, but since he so repetitively defeats his foes in but a single bound you never get any sense of real jeopardy.

But whereas Superman at least has the antics of Clark Kent to add some level of depth, Tarzan’s alter ego is even more boring. Newly taught French and rich from some manly tough gambling, Tarzan turns up in a suit and car – in the convenient nick of time to rescue Jane from a fire in Wisconsin. He fells the blackmailer and then nobly surrenders Jane to John Clayton, before heading back to his savage home in Africa. What a guy!

Yes, that he surrenders the girl is a great conclusion – just like it is at the end of Casablanca. But it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that Jane will soon follow him back to the jungle, where he’ll be all tough and muscular and keep villains away, and they’ll read books in all different languages.

This effortless brilliance that comes from having blue blood is all too wearisome. Tellingly so, in fact; the successful versions of Tarzan on screen have played up his ignorance of the civilised world – think of Johnny Weissmuller enjoying a shower with his suit on. As it is, the Tarzan of the book reads like puerile wish-fulfilment, and I found myself wishing he’d screw something up – giving in to his animal instincts with Jane, or just falling out of a tree.

Perhaps though it’s not the book’s fault at all, and I am just seething with envy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Searching questions

For your delight and entertainment, here are a few recent search terms that suffer people unto this blog.
  • Beowulf kit off
    Regretably, there is no nudey CGI Ray Winstone here.

  • Cabbage cleans
    David Essex explained this one; it's meant to clean the blood.

  • Coterminosity
    Nobody else knows what it means either.

  • Dawkins resurrection
    And on the third day, nothing happened.

  • Dirty rascals
    Modern poetry's not-quite rhyme with "king of the castle".

  • driver_unloaded_without_cancelling_pending_operations, this driver may be at fault: CDR4_2k.sys
    This one crops up quite a lot, which suggests DivX didn't just have sexual congress with my computer. The tart.

  • Doctor for ladies
    Because you don't want to see the same man as your servants.

  • English term for la vendetta
    That would be, er, "vendetta".

  • Example of sentences with noun-verb-adverb-adjective
    Cats sleep quietly long.

  • Get angry with mother sex
    What, sex triggered by being cross with your mum? Or getting angry because your mum is having sex? Be more specific!

    I like how the capitals suggest sudden urgency. DAMMIT, THE WAR STARTS ANY MINUTE.


  • Mowgli beating
    Surely a euphemism.

  • Old Norse mead bench
    What distinguishes a bench as "Old Norse" and "mead". Is it to with how many tough Vikings can squeeze on it?

  • Popped gum abscess
    There's an image we all needed.

  • Short stories about the main characters discovering their identities because of the antagonist
    I'd recommend "Imposter" by the late Philip K Dick.

  • Valley of Jehosophat
    That bit of slatey Wales where Anthony Ainley hails the third Doctor.

  • We’ve got lions
    The clincher in Kenya's national anthem.

  • Why the Swiss army is rubbish
    The punchline to a foppish joke, no doubt mocking pen knives.

  • You touch my tra la la
    Is that a euphemism for a mowgli?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My mates’ scribbling #1

A sizeable chunk of the stalagmite of wanna-read books are those by my colleagues and playmates. The loyal and supportive thing is to buy the things (even more so, in the case of School's Out, after a freebie copy had been swallowed up by the post). But actually, you know, reading them has been on hiatus.

(One chum was telling me just a while ago that he’s given up any pretence of keeping up with his mates’ stuff. It is easier and cheaper and probably less cruel than to keep on saying, “But I mean to.”)

But my current employment means a couple of hours commuting, which means I’m fast catching up. I’ve also just had this two-week stint extended to 21 December, so I’m afraid there’s going to be quite a lot more book posts to come. Sorry.

Robert Shearman’s Tiny Deaths is a collection of 14 short stories all on the subject of death. The final story, “Somewhere in a small room a little boy sat waiting”, is the only one I’d read before, when it appeared in the Benny anthology Life During Wartime, edited by Paul Cornell. (Alongside TWO stories of mine, because clearly I am best.)

In the context of Tiny Deaths, it’s a very different story. No longer is it implicit that the small boy in question is the half-doggy son of a space archaeologist, hidden away while the museum-on-a-planetoid that’s his home is invaded by space-Nazis. Instead, we only get things as he understands them, so there are hints of something happening that means he must be hidden, and that Mummy is somehow involved.

Reading it in this new context, I realised the story had no especially science-fiction elements to it. The events could almost be happening anywhere, any when – and it’s that universality that makes it so affecting. (Interestingly, to me anyway, Cornell gave me notes once that Benny stories should always be noticeably sci-fi.)

It’s tricky to discuss the rest of Tiny Deaths without spoiling it’s many wondrous surprises. Like a lot of Rob’s plays on stage and on Radio 4, there’s a prevailing bitter-sweetness to the stories, with wry comic detail punctuating the sense of loss. On the back cover, Martin Jarvis compares him to Douglas Adams, Alexei Sayle and Philip K Dick. I also thought of Alan Bennett.

The cover – a lovely thing of a Goth girl blowing bubbles that are also holes – is a great summing up of this light-touch melancholia. It occurs to me as I write this that she only needs an ankh and she could be Neil Gaiman’s fun, lively Death.

Often Rob’s characters are rather numb to the things happening to them – people who aren’t in love or aren’t grieving, or don’t quite understand all the fuss. This leads them to attempt to explain themselves, which is a good device for creating a skewed perspective. It also means that many of the stories have a dream-like quality.

Another thing that makes them dream-like is the strict adherence to the rules of fantasy. Like his celebrated Doctor Who work, Rob will start a story from some mad idea – everyone suddenly all being told how and when they’re going to die, or that Hell does not discriminate between its human souls and those of other animals. And having established this “novum” (which is what the clever academic Darko Suvin calls the weirdshit that’s crucial to sci-fi), he then explores its consequences on ordinary people.

As Douglas Adams famously said, the effect of following this weirdshit through is that an idea that’s initially silly and funny becomes something affecting, and moving, and scary. Stranger still, the mad ideas become somehow plausible, even convincing. By changing the rules of sacred stuff we yet take so for granted – how we die, how we grieve, how we are thought of afterward – Rob undermines our sureties. As a result, it’s an unsettling sequence, at once playful and profound.

Again, it’s difficult to describe this without giving anything away, and the stories are full of quite brilliant veerings off. But the titular story is a particular gem. It begins with a description of Jesus not as an ordinary person as such, but at least as one we feel we might almost have known. He’s good on scripture, the story explains, but not brilliant on practicalities.
“As his parents had said, somewhat ruefully, there was a lad who knew the value of everything and the cost of nothing […] He’d listen patiently as his disciples at the Last Supper tried to tot up the bill and work out how much everyone should put in – they should just split it thirteen ways Andrew had suggested, but Simon Peter pointed out that was all very well but he hadn’t had a starter, and Thomas went on to say that he had had a starter but it had only been olives, that was the cheapest thing on the menu, that hardly counted, in some restaurants they’d be thrown in gratis, it was hardly his fault this one didn’t. And Jesus would say nothing, just watch them indulgently, would wait until he was told what his contribution should be, and put in without further comment.”

Robert Shearman, “Tiny Deaths”, in, er, Tiny Deaths, pp. 175-6.

It’s a story that’s at once deliciously blasphemous and yet at the same time dares to give insight on what Jesus’ death means. There’s both something of The Last Temptation about it, yet also of Life of Brian.

And in struggling to explain what the book’s like, I realise I’m just listing other things I’ve loved. Which is about as a good a recommendation as you’re going to get.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The face of Beowulf

In lieu of rent, Codename Moose is due to take the Dr and I to see Beowulf in 3D at the Imax. I am a little excited about this and may have mentioned it to a few people. Sorry. (At least I didn’t need to be taken for a walk to calm down, like I did the afternoon before The Christmas Invasion.)

What’s not to like? There are monsters, Vikings, lots of big fights and too much violence for sexy Angelina Jolie. Who seems set to get her kit off in eye-popping CG. Cor!

That said, I only actually read Beowulf last week. The epic, Old English poem written sometime in the 400 years prior to the existing version of about 1000 AD has been recommended by all sorts of people over (blimey) the last three decades. But I think the main reason I’ve never quite got to it was I didn’t know where to start.

There are various different translations and things, and many of the people who’ve said “But you’ll love it!” have also warned “Be sure to read the right version.” And I’ve always neglected to make a note of which exactly one that is. There’s one by famous Seamus Heaney (whose bog poems I studied at A-level), and one by Julian Glover (who, top fact, was Justin Richards’s original model for Doctor Who’s brother Irving).

So a couple of weeks ago I asked Psychonomy, and he not only recommended but lent a rather nice edition by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which includes all kinds of notes, family trees, maps and explanations.

Beowulf is a young Geat – which is some kind of Dane – whose dad owes a favour to a bloke with a very nice painted hall. The trouble is, every time the bloke tries to have a party in this very nice painted hall, along comes the monstrous Grendel and carries off his guests. Grendel likes to eat people, and weapons don’t seem to touch him.

Beowulf is the Mr T of his day, and so helluva tough he takes on Grendel without a weapon. There’s a lot of gripping and then Grendel’s arm tears off. Grendel runs away and there is much rejoicing. Beowulf is given some treasure and some nice things to drink, and people tell stories.

But Grendel’s mother is not amused and comes to the painted hall that evening. She eats some people, so Beowulf tracks her back to a river of blood, goes swimming in this, finds he wounded Grendel and stabs him with a magic sword. The sword melts.

So far, so good. Not surprisingly, the style did remind me of Tolkein, what with the swords that have names and the legends of bravery. Oddly, about half way through we’re told that Beowulf wasn’t always the baddest dude around.
“He had been despised
for a long while, for the Geats saw no spark
of bravery in him, nor did their king deem him
worthy of much attention on the mead-bench;
people thought that he was a sluggard,
a feeble princeling. How fate changed,
changed completely for the glorious man!”

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The poetry of legend: classics of the medieval world – Beowulf, p. 110.

This comes a bit out of nowhere, to be honest. If we’d know it at the beginning, we might have seen some kind of character journey or moral development of our hero. As it is, the throwaway comment feels a bit tacked-on for no reason.

In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that feels tacked-on or inconsistent. And Crossley-Holland’s explanatory notes are good at giving some insight into the various fights Beowulf has inspired in historians. Partly, these scuffles are about the clues in the text which might tell us when Beowulf was first written. A reference to a King Offa might be the original author trying to lick bum of Offa, King of Mercia from 757-796 (yes, he of Offa’s Dyke).

But the historians seem most bothered by the intrusion of God. Beowulf is basically a brutish sort hero in a brutish story. The story rather assumes that life is one long series of bloody and bloody stupid battles, small pockets of neighbouring tribes smashing the shit out of each other whenever they’ve the chance.

Beowulf returns home from fighting two monsters and spends the next decades fighting his neighbours. He eventually becomes king of his people less because he’s such a brilliant slayer of monsters as that all the other candidates have been hacked to bits.

The ideology, or system of values, underpinning this seems to fit with other, non-Christian thingies of the period.
“’One thing I know never dies not changes,’ goes an Old Norse proverb: ‘the reputation of a dead man’; while the Anglo-Saxon poet who composed the elegiac poem ‘The Seafarer’ spoke of the inevitability of death by ‘illness or old age or the sword’s edge’ and exhorted each and every man to ‘strive, before leaves this world, to win the praise of those living after him’.”

Ibid., p. 31.

It’s a world of blood-oaths and warriors’ honour, where the fleeting delights of treasure and feasting are paramount because there’s so little joy in the world. And this doesn’t exactly square with Christian teaching, or the Christian spin on Beowulf and what he gets up to which peppers the narration.

As Crossley-Holland points out, the most jarring example of this is when Beowulf dies. In a bit that made me think, “Ooh, it’s Smaug!”, a dragon is accidentally wakened from where it had been sleeping on a heap of gold. It flies amok and kills lots of people, and old King Beowulf staggers out of retirement to take on one more monster.

There’s lot of warrior-moral stuff as Beowulf’s retainers run away, despite the fact that he gave them nice rings to wear in exchange for their loyalty. One young fellow stays true, and together the two of them defeat the Big Worm. In the process, the young fellow burns his hand and Beowulf is mortally wounded.
“Then the wise leader
tottered forward and slumped on a seat
by the barrow; he gazed at the work of giants,
saw how the ancient earthwork contained
stone arches supported by columns.”

Ibid., p. 126.

(We know, of course, that he’s looking not at the work of “giants” but of the Roman period. Though did the Romans make it to Denmark, and did they do much building? Or is it just that the English author of the original Beowulf had seen impressive things like Leeds? And again, isn’t it like Tolkein to have a land so rich in old bits of big masonry?)

Once Beowulf is dead, his young helper berates the other of the thanes who bravely ran away. They are, he says, bad knights and should give their rings back.

But the poem’s narrator then has a go at Beowulf too; he’s brought his end upon himself by being too keen on dragon gold. He should, of course, have put all his trust in the one, splendid God who looks after us all and not thought about vulgar stuff like treasure.

Which rather comes from nowhere. Beowulf fought the dragon because it had been killing people, and he only seems to notice the old gold after the dragon’s defeated. Up until that point, it felt a bit like Tennyson's Ulysses (because I have read more than one whole poem), where old Ulysses wants one last adventure before he goes and snuffs it.

Crossley-Holland seems to suggest that the debate consists of whether Beowulf is a Christian story or not. I think it’s both; a non-Christian story with some Christian bits tacked on. It’s like the teller is all excited by the fighting and the monsters, but every so often remembers to put in a word for Jesus.

This can make it a little inconsistent, and I’ve sympathy for those historians who struggle to fit the evidence so it’s either one way or the other. But these contradictions, these continuity errors, are an inevitable part of any long-sustained narrative.

Arthur Conan-Doyle, for example, gave James/John Watson two first names and two wives. The effect is even more peculiar when the long-running narrative is the work of many different authors. But we shall leave the debate about Sarah-Jane Smith being 13 in 1964 for another day.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Egypt in a hedge

On Saturday, I went to see Paul Cornell in Faringdon, about 17 miles out of Oxford. There was quite a lot of lager and a furious game of Spoof (where you have to guess the totals of everyone's 0-3). And the next morning, after a late but hearty breakfast and the minute's silence, I was taken for a quick gander round the local highlights.

Egypt in a hedgeWe admired the spindly folly, which only got planning permission on the proviso that it also had a wood planted so people wouldn't actually see it. I took a picture of the statue called Egypt apparently "rescued" from the Crystal Palace.

Since I'm usually rubbish at taking photos, I'm really rather pleased with how this one came out. Especially since it was taken on my Sony Ericsson flip-phone. (I have looked to see what make it is, but it doesn't seem to say. "M2" seems to be the type of the battery. But is a black phone, with large friendly keys.)

My host then took me into the churchyard to see a cannonball lodged in the side of the wall. Gobber Cromwell apparently had a battery of guns placed where the folly now stands. Only the cannonball is not the relic of the civil wars - it was put there by some eminent Victorians to make the church more exciting.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lover traitor hero spy

As I noted in last year’s post about Casino Royale (the novel), Commander James Bond of MI6 earned his licence in the Second World War. He compares war stories with a waiter, and was part of the Special Operations Executive – the real secret service which got up to all kinds of neat tricks and nastiness against the Nazis.

Author Ian Fleming had played a role in intelligence matters during the war, and was even named in a bit of misinformation about anti-submarine technologies in 1944. The chap responsible for morsing this lie to Germany was one Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a hugely accomplished double agent: the only British citizen to receive the Iron Cross, a pal of Noel Coward and Dennis Wheatley, and, according to one anonymous lady acquaintance, “an absolute shit”.

He’s the subject of Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, on which I have just gorged. Cor, it’s a bit good. John le Carre is on the nose in his assessment (which is the reason I picked the book up):
“Superb. Meticulously researched, splendidly told, immensely entertaining and often very moving.”
Chapman was a small-time crook with a thing for explosives who found himself in a jail on Jersey when the Nazis took the island over. He avoids the labour and death camps by offering them use of his explosive skills, and is soon being trained as a German agent. He learns how to hide explosives in pieces of coal and there’s quite a lot on the different ways to make timers from watches and alarm clocks. We get insights into the mechanics of spy work and the ornate puns and anagrams of which the coders were so fond.

The Germans then parachute him into England. He doesn’t fasten his mask properly so nosebleeds down his suit; his pack is so big he gets wedged in the plane’s trapdoor when he tries to bail out, and one of the pilots has to give him a kick; and when he finally hits the ground, he gives himself up to the British.

What follows is a complex tangle of intrigues as the British debrief and then use the double-agent, all the time struggling with his amorality, his need for excitement and cash and loose women. Macintyre musters a huge wealth of newly declassified contemporary reports and more recent interviews to give a comprehensive picture of the man.

As Sir John Masterman, chair of the misinformation-making Twenty Committee noted of his charge,
“Certain persons … had a natural predilection to live in that curious world of espionage and deceit, and who attach themselves with equal facility to one side or the other, so long as their craving for adventure of a rather macabre type is satisfied.”

quoted in Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag, p. 71.

But it’s not just that Chapman is such a fascinating, charismatic snake. Macintyre also expertly guides us through the complexities of spy work, the conflicting hierarchies of British and German military and intelligence groups, and the real and perceived events of the war that Chapman reported on, lied about and affected. It is an extraordinary achievement that so richly detailed a study as this is so straightforwardly engaging. In explaining the context, Macintyre packs in a wealth of brilliant top facts and details.
“Between the extremes of collaboration and resistance, the majority of Norwegians maintained a sullen, insolent loathing for the German occupiers. As a mark of opposition many wore paperclips in their lapels. The paperclip is a Norwegian invention: the little twist of metal became a symbol of unity, a society binding together against oppression. Their anger blew cold in a series of small rebellions and acts of incivility. Waiters in restaurants would always serve their countrymen first; Norwegians would cross the street to avoid eye contact with a German and speak only in Norwegian; on buses no one would sit beside a German, even when the vehicle was jam-packed, a form of passive disobedience so infuriating to the Nazi occupiers that it became illegal to stand on a bus if a seat was available.”

Ibid., p. 228.

This wealth of detail means Macintyre can marry up the inconsistencies in people’s accounts with solid facts – and several times he can point out when Chapman lied through his teeth. He also makes us care about the people Chapman met and worked with, so that it’s as rewarding to find out about the post-war lives of Chapman’s guards and mentors as about his later scams.

If there’s any criticism at all, it’s that occasionally the descriptions are a little too overwrought – “the sun that poured through the dining-room window of the Hotel de la Plage formed a dazzling halo around the man sat opposite Betty Farmer” (p. 3).

It’s also interesting that one other of Chapman’s many acquaintances, called upon to as a character witness, was Terence Young. Young later directed the film Triple Cross, in which Christopher Plummer played Chapman – though Macintyre dismisses it as bearing “only a superficial relation to the truth. Chapman was disappointed by it” (p. 318).

But more famously, Young was director of the first two James Bond movies. Many have said that Sean Connery based his performance on Young. But in the cool, funny, sophisticated, adventure-loving rascal that is more Connery’s invention than Fleming’s, there’s clearly something pinched from Agent Zigzag.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mike, it’s all an illusion

As a special treat, the Dr took me to Brixton last night to see “Elizabeth II”, also known as “The Golden Age”. We had to wait nearly 40 minutes for my pizza, and then discovered we’d been given tickets for the performance three hours previously. Once we’d got seats, the rat from Ratatouille asked if we’d kill a policeman, steal his helmet, shit in it and then send it to his widow. And there were the usual trailers for films that might be a bit like what we’d paid for – films with History and Proper Acting.

They ought to have trailered The Golden Compass, Beowulf and other adventures. Elizabeth is a glorious, good-looking, finely played whirl of national myth-making. But it’s also total baloney.

After the events of film one, we rejoin Elizabeth in 1588. She’s beginning to notice her age, looking sadly at her bits in the mirror. The various princes on offer as husbands are all a bit rubbish – though she does get rid of one of them just when they’re getting on. And then three things happen at once: the imprisoned, former Queen of Scotland seems to be planning something against her; Elizabeth’s brother-in-law the king of Spain seems to be planning something too; and there’s this dashing pirate just turned up with potatoes and good shit for smoking.

Like the first film, this creates a vivid world of huge castles and densely packed poverty. The use of so many period locations and the wealth of bosom-squashing costumes help convince us of a complex and real setting.

That said, it did also remind me quite a lot of The Lord of the Rings. Partly, the castles have the same Norman zigzags and arches pilfered for Middle Earth. But there were also several set-ups in which main characters stood moodily in the foreground, looking out over sprawling CGI. There’s a CGI forest being hacked down; there’s a CGI ocean on fire. There’s also lots of bits of cameras spinning around people, and stirring music over people just gazing.

More importantly, the intrigues of not-a-softy Walter and Elizabeth ride rough-shod through stuff that’s not just well known, it’s on the national curriculum. They don’t use the “heart and stomach of a concrete elephant” speech, and the defeat of the Armada seems to take place in the English Channel.

Yes, the film does make a thing about the queen getting on a bit; she is starting to get a few wrinkles. (Her bare bum still looks quite pert, though.) Yet in 1588 Elizabeth would have been 55 years-old (the same age, for example, as Bill Hartnell in November ’63). The film also concludes, as if it means something, that Philip II then died a mere 10 years later – just five in advance of Elizabeth. These things would both be less troubling if the film didn’t end by reminding us in big letters when it was Elizabeth got born and died.

Mary Queen of Scots was French and spoke with a French accent. She was executed a good four years before the Armada set sail, and when they raised her traitorous, severed head to the audience, it dropped from the wig and bounced across the floor. Though I can see that would have spoiled the effect the film went for.

It would have been good to at least have glimpsed her son, which would have prefigured the inevitable third movie. It would have been good to understand that Elizabeth had already spared Mary’s life; and that the Scottish wanted to kill her.

It was also odd how much this was a war with Spain, and not with the rest of (what the Elizabethan’s would have perceived as) the world. Philip II didn’t just have the Catholic church on his side; he was part of a vast sprawl of interconnecting families that pretty much ruled all of Europe.

Importantly, he’d also been married to Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Bloody Mary. They married in Winchester Cathedral (I think one of the locations of the film, based on what seemed a familiar bit of cloister). Though English law didn’t acknowledge him as any kind of heir (he was not, in Mary’s lifetime, a king of England), this was also part of his claim.

It’s also important that England’s monarchy had been much fought over for more than a century until Elizabeth’s grandfather won the battle of Bosworth Field – just a century prior to the Armada. Without a husband, without an heir, Elizabeth left England with an uncertain future…

I did like the stuff about Elizabeth setting a precedent by executing a queen for crimes against the state. There’s a nice exchange with Walsingham, where he explains that kings and princes may be above such things as legalities, but the law is there to protect the people. The precedent Elizabeth sets by condemning Mary will fall on Mary’s grandson…

I also quite liked what they did with the hubris of holy war – there’s a rather nice bit of scarlet-robed priests tiptoeing away from Philip. But I’m not sure it really worked in the way I think it was meant: rather than Elizabeth’s tolerant, protestant humility being more on the side of the angels, it felt like two fingers to God.

This wasn’t helped by a silly contrivance, in which Elizabeth steps out into the drizzle in her nightie to watch the Armada from what I think is meant to be the white cliffs at Dover Tilbury. Yes, it contrasts her simple English humility with the pride of the Spanish, but she’s liable at least to catch a sniffle. And, when they then show the storm and great waves crashing against rocks, I thought for a moment she’d been swept into the sea. (Where a strong swimming pirate would be ready to rescue her.)

There’s also much made of a horse on a ship that’s then seen swimming in the water – which just reminded me of the flood-confused bloodhound towards the end of the Coens’ Oh Brother. A fine line exists between the profound and the stupid.

The Armada wasn’t just destroyed in the Channel, but had to make a slow journey round the whole of the British Isles, caught be more storms and wreckers and starvation. It was an arduous and ever more humiliating defeat, and there’s an argument that the enemy was defeated by the whole of Britain (and not just some brave pirates and their fire-ships). That would, surely, have worked better with the themes of the film.

There’s some tedious stuff about destiny and the rise and fall of great empires, which I assume was a call out to any Americans watching. The holy war against the infidel Brits (and their American allies) also seemed a bit too unsubtle. I don’t remember the first film being so crude about the links to today.

It also concludes with a rather desperate attempt to then claim the period that followed as the golden age. But England was still at war in Europe, and its future uncertain what Elizabeth not having an heir. And the killing of the Queen of Scots had set a precedent that would define the next century… I came away feeling that the film wanted it both ways, that 1588 was the best of times and the worst of times.

This stuff bothered me as we made our way home (on trains full of middle-aged punks who’d seen the Sex Pistols). It’s a good, enjoyable film but it didn’t need to be quite so much hokum.

Jonathan Ross’s review on Film 007 was effectively that it looks so wondrous and is played so well we shouldn’t worry about a little monkeying about with the history. There’s probably an argument that these tinkerings make the plot structure and character journeys more cohesive, in ways which Robert McKee might approve.

I imagined what I’d say to him in response, and an analogy he’d understand. It bothers me like the Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman. No, it doesn’t really matter that the films excise Joe Chill. But it adds a convenient portentousness to the relationship of the two lead characters if they’ve always been linked.

“This is a story,” it says, rather than, “this really happened.” The “truth” is good enough for the story, and you don’t make it any better by changing it. And by changing it, making it more explicitly a story, you’re implicitly saying, “These events don’t really matter…”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Damn puzzling bliss

I’ve spoken before about my concerns with writers’ biographies – that they tend to place too much emphasis on the Real Events and Real People who influenced a writer, denying the possibility that authors often Make It Up.

But there’s a flipside to this; the stories can influence the writer. Something you invent in your brain can then become something real. You might find yourself quoting one of your characters, or doing something that’s more them than you. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle would apparently use phrases he’d created for Sherlock Holmes – “the game’s afoot” etc. And later in his life he even played the detective.

Arthur and George is a novelised version of Conan-Doyle’s first major investigation. Geroge Edalji has been in prison for three years for mutilating livestock. Conan-Doyle doesn’t just believe but he knows the man to be innocent; the mild-mannered, meek and myopic little solicitor could never do such a thing. But George, whose Dad was from India before he became a Church of England vicar, refuses to believe that the police and the jury may have been biased by the colour of his skin.

The book is not merely about this miscarriage of justice, the appeal and the search for the real culprit. Arthur and George don’t even meet for the first 300 pages. We follow their separate lives developing, from their earliest memories to the strange circumstances that ultimately have them collide. Along the way, we learn something of their view of the world, their expectations and aims. George, for example, has a rather serious, cartesian outlook that does not easily entertain fantasy.
“George finds himself increasingly preoccupied by the civil connection between passengers and the railway company. A passenger buys a ticket, and at that moment, with consideration given and received, a contract springs into being. But ask that passenger what kind of contract he or she has entered into, what obligations are laid upon the parties, what claim for compensation might be pursued against the railway company in case of lateness, breakdown or accident, and answer would come there none. This may not be the passenger’s fault: the ticket alludes to a contract, but its detailed terms are only displayed in certain main-line stations and at the offices of the railway company – and what busy traveller has the time to make a diversion and examine them? Even so, George marvels at how the British, who gave railways to the world, treat hem as a mere means of convenient transport, rather than as an intense nexus of multiple rights and responsibilities.”
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George, p. 70.

Barnes is good at creating distinct and convincing characters. Though sections are marked “Arthur” and “George” by turns (and occasionally given over to other characters), he flits between perspectives in adjacent paragraphs. This would confuse and irritate if done by a less-gifted author; it’s vexing to note that we never once lose track of whose eyes we’re looking through.

Of at least equal importance to the criminal mystery is the matter of life after death. We see Arthur’s first inclinations to and growing interest in the spiritist movement, and the final section of the book deals with a particular séance.
“What she makes of it is that her brother is confusing religion with his love of fixing things. He sees a problem – death – and he looks for a way of solving it: such is his nature.”
Ibid., p. 273.

Barnes touches on Conan-Doyle’s need to believe in the spirits, as much as his need to believe in honour and chivalry. It also alludes to a nation’s need to believe after the impact of World War One. At one point there are thousands of people in the Albert Hall, all desperate NOT to grieve.

This plot element doesn’t entirely connect to the horse-ripping stuff, other than in the general sense of protagonists struggling to find answers despite the weight of people’s ideological prejudice.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work. (There’s some good advice on writing sitcoms, that you can have two plot-lines running concurrently that don’t need to tie up together). It’s more that the book doesn't have the same neat and convenient structure as the stories Conan-Doyle himself wrote. He started with an ending and worked backwards. This is more rambling, and we’re not sure where it might take us.

What links Arthur and George then is that they both see a self-evident truth and are baffled that others do not share the view. With George it’s his innocence, with Arthur it’s Geroge’s case, his own noble behaviour and the truth of a soul’s survival after death.

Like quite a few writers I could mention, Doyle often can’t fathom that people might not agree with him; that they still might think differently after he’s explained it to them. He is a passionate and able ally to George, but George also finds him a little reckless and over-confident. Doyle only once considers that he might have acted wrongly (in his behaviour while conducting an affair), but soon dismisses the very possibility.

But we finish with George and his scepticism, despite the allure of what’s claimed. The book finishes on questions that have been asked all along. What do we know and how do we know it? And can we admit when we’re wrong?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Knowledge of all fonts

Despite the slings and arrows of outrage loosed by the Dr and Codename Moose, last night I watched Imagine. Many and various designers spoke of their love and their hate for the Swiss typeface Helvetica, which is now 50 years old. Every now and then they even said something intelligible.

The Dr stomped off to bed in the midst of yet another talking head talking as if from their bum. I persevered, with much muttering at the telly. The gist seemed to be that Helvetica’s a neutral typeface that will simply go with anything. It’s used for signs and shop windows and throughout the evil corporate world.

There was little effort to really explain why that might be, though. Instead the documentary seemed satisfied with arty creatives damning it just Good or Bad. They spoke of its politics – or rather it's apolitics, since this lusty old tart will write beside anything. And missed the pretty fundamental point that it is BECAUSE it goes with anything that it is so used.

The dudes spoke of “neutrality” which didn’t impose any additional meaning. Simple, straightforward letters suggest simple straightforwardness. It’s direct without being bossy, serious without being too formal, clear without being childish.

Helvetica is an unfussy typeface. There’s no fiddly serifed ends to the individual letters, no complexity of thick and thin strokes. The Os are simply round not clever ovals, and it all seems pretty straightforward. It’s usually got a lot of space around the individual letters, so (as one dude said) it’s more about the space than the letters. Still, they did then go on to show a whole load of squeezed-up examples without even noting the difference.

I suspect this simplicity means there’s less information in it for us to process as readers, which means we take in the meaning more quickly. This would be why it’s so good to use in warnings and shop windows.

This is where it matters what you’re trying to say with such letters. Warnings and shop windows must communicate a message in what may be no more than a glance. Understandably, that’s not the kind of attention many designers would hope for their creations. They want stuff that people gaze at and unpick for years and years to come.

But a contempt for a typeface that’s so readily readable is just a contempt for the reader. That was made especially obvious when one designer showed one piece of his work; he’d found an interview dull so laid it out in incomprehensible Wing Dings.

Oddly, the documentary seemed to assume that clarity was a modern invention – as if we’d had no legible typefaces before the 1950s. There was especially ranting from this commentator when they used the complex scrawl of the New York tube map to show how easy Helvetica is on the eye. Beck and Johnston did it better a whole bastard generation before.

Basically, then, the problem seems to be not a fault of the typeface (whose ubiquity proves its success) but that it is now a bit too common. But again there were no alternatives offered – my beloved, graceful Gill Sans is just one of many go-with-anything fonts.

But more, I think all these things depend on the unease compromise between form and function, between what something looks like and what it is for. And the documentary could never say anything of value when it entirely ignored the latter.

My guide for this evening’s festivities has put on her lipstick, which I suspect means it is time to go out now. We think we know where it is we are heading to, but a colleague says it sounds like the blonde leading the blond.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sticker shift

I am currently writing a sticker-book. This is a first for me, and can be added to the great and peculiar range of things wrought that are not about time-travelling aliens (and so do not appear on my Wikipedia entry).

In so doing, I whizz with In-Design: APPLE+ E inserts an image; you warp the edges of the box with the oddly mono-buttonular mouse; then SHIFT + APPLE + ALT + E resizes the picture to fit the space. It's an odd fiddle to do it with one hand.

But this is not all that is a bit odd. For the first time in more than five years, I am working at the same place from Monday to Friday. I have two whole weeks of this extraordinary method, in which you finish what you're doing at 5.30 in the evening - whatever state it might be in - and then pick it up again at 9.30 the next morning.

My other commitments must fit around this unaccustomed routine. But I have been interviewed only this evening by Doctor Who's Magazine, and press on with bits of reading and annotation. Some other, less pressing commitments - some not-too-hastily due scribbling, speaking to the Dr and playing Scrabulous on Facebook - may fall a little behind.

Still, it helps that two birthdaying pals have overlapped their birthdays and are both in the same pub tomorrow. With distinct elegance, I can expend 50% less effort on each.

Friday, November 02, 2007

How ironic; I can't think of a title for this one

I have the signature of Nimbos to corroborate that what follows is my joke, and not at all that of Señor Will Howells.
Polly from Doctor Who's surname is ffey-Savatron.
Thank you.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Puritanical headwear

A long day yesterday in the fens, cobbling together research. There's this thing I've got in mind that needs me doing some reading. Got to the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon pretty much as it opened and made a lot of notes. The place is about the size of my living room, but free and crammed with useful things. And there's two whole portraits of... what it is I'm interested in. The helpful fellow behind the counter looked up some stuff for me, too. And on the way back to the station I had a quite nice pasty.

Train to Peterborough (where, annoyingly, I could have looked something else up; though I only realised that a couple of hours later), and then a long wait for a train to Ely. Lots of grumbling from lots of people with luggage who were late getting to Liverpool and Stansted.

M. joined me at Ely and we took the scenic route into town, along the river and through the jubilee gardens. Oliver Cromwell's old house is also the tourist infomation centre, a stripey old ex-pub now full of posh jams and chocolate. We paid the £4 each for a tour, and were narrated through wood-pannelled rooms with dwarf-sized interconnections. Made some more notes, watched a film about drainage narrated by John Craven, giggled in the "haunted" room and tried on lots of hats.

M shakes a tail feather

Refelections of a soldier

(M. took plenty more of me looking foolish, which I'll post when he bungs 'em over.)

We then poked our heads into Ely Cathedral, but thought it all too expensive to go further. Some school girls amused themselves with the floor-set labyrinth and M. explained that the cathedral's tower is the "lantern of the fens". John Craven's film had shown us how Ely used to be an island, and even as recently as 1947 suffered 100 square miles of flood.

Pottered down the high street, which set off alarms bells in me 'cos I grew up in a similar cosy market town. The same genteel, Georgian (I guess) buildings that are now Woolworths and Clinton Cards. Was just about to say that there didn't seem anything for the young folks when we spotted some teens looking bored outside the Spar.

Stopped off at the pub and then a slow journey back to London on a train with an ever-in-use loo. Thence to Nimbos for bacon sandwiches, 'cos we are so daring.