Thursday, May 28, 2009

What’s brown and sounds like a bell?

The splendid fellows at the BBC Archive have posted lots of films and photos of the Palace of Westminster’s clock tower, also known as Big Ben. A medal – and cake – to whoever came up with such a brilliant idea.

(As I've blogged before, the bell is 150 years-old this year, and Big Ben’s own website has a feast of good stuff, too.)

Speaking of things politic, have been catching up on a week’s blogs, much of them bothered by MP’s expenses. Impressed by Peter on expenses and then on transparency, and Web of Evil on expenses and earlier on ID cards.

(Hungary was fun and sunny; photos on Facebook and will blog more the far side of a few pressing deadlines…)

Monday, May 18, 2009

The band that never existed

To the Roundhouse last night for a gig by the Radiophonic Workshop, formerly of the BBC. The tone of the night was set by the A5 flyer:
“To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this unique institution a few of the old inmates, now on day release, have put together a programme of music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. There will be plenty of old favourites and some new material, played by the band that never actually existed… until tonight.”
It then lists the players and their 18 synthesizers.
“Apple’s Logic Audio provides surround playback, with MainStage allowing us to use the latest virtual synths alongside the vintage hardware.”
The audience was pretty much what you’d expect: scruffy, sweaty boys lashing through the lager. I saw plenty of chums there, though me and M. were too late for the Q&A. Expect we’d have known all the answers anyway.

I did glean a few top facts from the evening. The building in Maida Vale once used by the Radiophonic Workshop is now where Jonathan Ross records Film 2009; a little, hot room right at the end of a long, long corridor. And the Roundhouse itself was built for turning trains round. (There were boards up detailing its history, with Victorian railway magnates in tall top hats, and some groovy nudity when the place was home to Oh, Calcutta!)

After some gins and a plastic pint of Becks, we squeezed into the dark mosh pit to stand for a couple of hours listening to nostalgic strange noises. In the best traditions of rock and roll, the band appeared later than billed, just as the audience were getting restless. Then there they were: Mills, Limb, Kingsland, Howell and Ayres. And – hooray! – all wearing lab coats. (Rain Rabbit has photos from the gig on Flickr.)

The Radiophonic Workshop are, of course, responsible for the odder bits in the soundtrack of our lives. They created the Doctor Who theme tune and the noise of the TARDIS coming and going. But they also produced tunes and effects for schools’ programmes, documentaries and various dramas.

It was, to be honest, a mixed bag of music, covering the enormous range of the workshop’s output. Strange, alien stuff led into jaunty, light jazz. Tunes you could sing along to followed the sound of space. The barn-owl-tastic titles to 80s computer programming show Micro Live got a big cheer from the geeks.

Between the tunes there were good-natured if geeky intros from the band-members. Kingsland explained that the Radiophonic Workshop had closed in 1997, but – being British – were “blustering on anyway”.

A lot of their stuff was painstakingly hand-made in the days before the synth. These days, as Peter Howell admitted at one point in the evening, their entire output fits on one Mac. A lot of the workshop’s work was inventing pre-recorded sounds and editing them together – all done with tape and razor blades. The gig nicely mixed the recordings with live performance. There were live versions of the regeneration from Tom Baker into Peter Davison and the theme to John Craven’s Newsround (electric guitars and drums complimenting John Baker’s pre-recorded and played-with bottle tops). The enthusiasm of and for the old duffers was what made this such fun. An entirely bizarre line-up but a great night out.

It’s not just the tunes and noises the workshop produced themselves: they were hugely influential on the wilder ends of pop. Coincidentally, tape loops featured in Saturday’s St Etienne gig, as reported by Paul Cornell.

You’ve got three days left to listen again to Night Waves where Matthew Sweet chats to the Radiophonic Workshop prior to the gig. And, if that doesn't sate you, whizzo documentary The Alchemists of Sound is up on YouTube.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

“Have a go to see what happens”

Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery is a fascinating, gruesome, layman-friendly book, packed with anecdotes and horror stories. Author Richard Hollingham, following Michael Mosley's TV series, takes us from Galen's treatment of gladiators in the Second Century AD, through Vesalius and Paré in the Sixteenth Century to 2006, where Stuart Carter was freed from paralysis by Parkinson's disease through the use of electrical brain implants.

Hollingham argues there were four obstacles to successful surgery: surgeons needed to understand the workings of the body (usually through dissection of dead bodies); they had to learn from the experience methodically; they had to bypass the pain of an operation (by inventing anaesthetic); and they had to prevent infection.

So we follow the haltering steps towards achieving these goals, such as the discovery of chloroform and carbolic soap. We also see some of the cul-de-sacs we've since backed out of – usually the result of surgeons insisting they know best rather than looking at the evidence.

Hollingham is also hot on the statistics – no two patients are the same, so operations are judged not on a single win or lose, but the percentage of success when trying the same procedures time and again. Before the discovering of carbolic soap, infection was fought by operating quickly; Liston could remove a leg in 30 seconds.
“The morality rate from Robert Liston's operations was remarkably good. Between 1835 and 1840 he conducted sixty-six amputations. Ten of his patients died – a death rate of around one in six. About a mile away at St Bartholomew's Hoispitals, surgeons were sending one ion four patients tot he mortuary, or 'dead house', where the all too frequent post-mortems took place.”

Richard Hollingham, Blood and Guts, p. 38.

Yet Hollingham is also quick to show that the medical heroes are also all-too human.
“Jealous rivals would whisper that Liston was so quick that he once accidentally amputated the penis of an amputee ... The most worrying incident for his students occurred during an amputation when Liston accidentally amputated an assistant's fingers. The outcome of this operation was horrific: the patient died of infection, as did the assistant, and an observer died of shock. It was the only operation in surgical history with a 300 per cent mortality rate.”

Ibid., pp. 41-2.

All to often the effort is, “Well, we don't know, but we'll try this...”, and slowly, over the centuries, that philosophy has benefited us all.

The two world wars meant the raw material with which to make extraordinary advance in grafts and the treatment of burns. There are harrowing stories of the multitude of operations suffered by men without faces – and there are also harrowing photos. This is really not a book for the squeamish. But I'm less squeamish of blood and guts per se as unnecessary pain and procedures...

There's some terrifying stuff about lobotomies. The 1941 operation on Rosemary Kennedy (sister of future President John F.) left her,
“a very different person. Slow and emotionless, she was hardly able to move or speak. Although she eventually learnt to walk again, she was left permanently disabled and ended up in a residential institution in Wisconsin ... Freeman never said a word about the case. It was in his best interests not to publish the details of any high-profile failures.”

Ibid., pp. 279-80.

Walter Freeman refined and developed the lobotomy, after it had first been performed in 1935 by Portuguese surgeon Egas Moniz. By 1946 Freeman was now offering a new refinement, the “transorbital” lobotomy. The “transorbital” bit is where they shoved an ice-pick up through your eye socket to detach bits of your brain. It was a shockingly quick procedure, and doctors were quick to recommend it, too.
“Freeman ... personally performed about three and a half thousand lobotomies, and trained doctors across the world. In total, it is thought that around one hundred thousand people were lobotomized.”

Ibid., p. 283.

The case of Howard Dully, an eleven-year-old boy who wasn't getting on with his step-mum, is like something out of a fairy tale. Her evidence for why the wayward child should receive the treatment included that “he daydreamed and scowled if the TV was tuned to some programme other than the one he liked,” (p. 285). Using “orbitoclasts” - a step up from ice picks – Freeman operated on the boy on 16 December 1960.
“Howard has spent most of his life coming to terms with what happened to him. He suffered problems with work, relationships and money. He drifted in and out of jobs and in and out of jail. Gradually, he was able to piece his life back together. Today he holds down a job as a bus driver. There is absolutely nothing about him to suggest that he has two black holes in his brain. What saved him from going completely off the rails was probably his youth. Howard's young brain was able to rebuild neural pathways and compensate for the damage Freeman inflicted.”

p. 287.

Yet Freeman is not portrayed as monster, for all he “operated on a total on nineteen children, including a four-year-old,” and he ignored criticism and the new drugs that “did much the same thing only without the danger or permanence of surgery,” (p. 287). Hollingham lays as much blame on the authorities who let Freeman continue working “when the procedure was discredited and opposed by almost the entire medical establishment,” (p. 288).
“But it is difficult to reconcile the image of a monster with the kind and gentle doctor his patients encountered. When the lobotomy was conceived it seemed to provide the only treatment for chronic mental illness. It certainly transformed some people's lives for the better.”

p. 288.

In fact, Freeman spent the last five years of his live travelling “some fifty thousand miles” tracking down former patients to see how they had fared.
“To the end of his life he believed in what he had done, and he believed he was right.”

p. 289.

Hollingham says “Freeman's greatest failure of judgement was not knowing when to stop,” (p. 288), but that sits uncomfortably with what follows. In the 1950s, the US intelligence agency were “toying” with “brainwashing individuals, invariably communists”. In 1967, psychiatrist Frank Ervin and neurosurgeon Vernon Mark's proposal in “the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association” to prevent urban riots by subduing black rioters with brain implants (one of Ervin's medical students, Michael Chricton, later wrote The Terminal Man). In 1972, psychiatrist Robert Heath proposed using “brain implants to 'cure' homosexuality,” (all p. 293).

And yet Hollingham doesn't talk about one of the biggest areas of surgery today – and one of the most morally problematic. Cosmetic surgery is booming, yet its only mention in the book is the cautionary tale of Gladys Deacon, a beautiful lady in 1903 who wanted a more beautiful nose. The hot paraffin wax surgeons injected her face turned her into a “freakish waxworks dummy” (p. 222).

Nor is there much on the philosophy of surgery – the Hippocratic oath, the impact of the National Health Service on surgeons (who insisted, when it began, that they kept their private work) and the role of the private sector today. Perhaps the NHS bits would be too parochial for a book that tries to cover the global history of surgery (and its covered anyway in NHS plc), but who pays for surgery – and for surgeon's mistakes – would have lifted this fascinating pop-history into something more profound.

(No, I've not yet read Bad Science.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Partial eclipse

I'm off to Hungary next week for a brother's wedding. Spent a weekend in Budapest for my stag do five years ago, have drunk some good Tokay and I've also seen Countess Dracula, but otherwise don't know a great deal about the country.

So my soon-to-be sister-in-law leant me Egri csillagok – or, in English, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, A tale of the siege of Eger, 1552 – by Géza Gárdonyi. First serialised in the Pesti Hirlap newspaper from Christmas 1899, the edition I read was translated into English by George F Cushing in 1991.

Wikipedia summarises the five sections of the book, which begins with two children, Gergely and Éva, being kidnapped by some villainous Turks. Gergely is clever and he and Éva escape. Years later, when Buda has been taken by the Turks, they meet up again and get married, have some adventures before getting caught up in Eger as it's besieged by an army of 200,000.

It's a rich and patriotic story, full of incident and fun characters. The Hungarian heroes are a lesson in most noble bravery; they're resourceful, canny and honest. Báliant Török, for example, finds dealing with the dishonest Turks hard work: “I'm not used to hiding my thoughts from other people,” (p. 182). Szalkay, meanwhile, knows who to shake hands with: “His practised eye told him [Miklós Réz] was not a gentleman,” (p. 425). During the siege itself there's a merry discussion of cutlery and recipes (pp. 426-7), and plenty of good-natured jokes.

When one naughty fellow, Hegedüs, is caught trying to negotiate with the enemy, he gets an unquestionably fair trial: Zoltay is even relieved of his duties as a judge for flaring up in anger. As Hegedüs swings from a gibbet we're left under no doubt that this is a sterling, civilised bunch.

There aren't a lot of shades of grey. The Turks are variously greedy, cruel, cowardly, sneaky, dishonest and hypocritical (yet apparently still better to live under than the Austrians). In general, it reminded me a lot of The Horse and his Boy. If I'd understood Edward Said's impenetrable prose (I think he's sort of saying the same things as Tusk Tusk), I might dare to call it Orientalist.

It's not as if the Turks can do anything right: they're mocked if they break their vow of abstinence of alcohol, and mocked if they stick with it. The new bey is described as,
“a coward and a fool ... Can someone brought up on water be anything else?”

Géza Gárdonyi, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, p. 271.

(It's a little like the Russians of the 1950s, as described in Edward Wilson's novel, The Envoy. The Russians won't trust those who aren't boozers, so spies learn to line their stomachs by drinking olive oil.)

When our heroes dare visit the Turk's own lands, there's a lot of wide-eyed pointing and gawping. As with the boozing, the Turk's odd behaviour gives clues to Hungarian norms:
“Constantinople is a paradise for dogs. There are no courtyards here, or if there is anything like that, it is on the roof of the house, so there is no room anywhere for dogs. Those red-haired, fox-like creatures swarm in hundreds through the streets in some parts. The Turks do not disturb them; indeed, when one or other of them has a litter of puppies, they throw down rags or a bit of rush-matting by the gate to help them. Those dogs keep Constantinople clean and tidy. Each morning the Turks empty the square tin dustbins beside their gate. The dogs eat the contents. They devour everything except iron and glass. And the dogs are not ugly or wild either. You can pat any of them, and they will wag their tail with delight. There is not one of them that is not glad to be stroked.”

Ibid., p. 254.

So in Hungary the dogs are wild and ugly, and shooed out of sight. No wonder its such a surprise to find them being friendly. I assume as well as eating the rubbish, the dogs helped keep down the plague.

Yet the book also pokes fun at the ignorance of its heroes. There's a glimpse of a map depicting,
“the three continents. (At that time scholars had not yet mapped out the land of Columbus; there was merely a rumour that the Portuguese had discovered a hitherto unknown continent. But nobody knew how much truth there was in it. And even Columbus had not yet even dreamt of Australia.)”

Ibid., p.110.

That's in Part II, set in 1541 – 50 years after Columbus stumbled into America. I wonder how long it took for word to get round?

Or there's the moment our heroes are shocked to hear from one spy of the bey's habit of drinking ink:
'Ink. He drinks ink like we do wine, sir. Morning, noon and night he drinks nothing but ink.'
'Come off it! It can't be ink.'
'Oh, but it is ink, sir, good genuine black ink. They make it out of some kind of bean, and it's so bitter that I was still spitting it out the day after when I tasted it. And in Turkish the name of the bean is kahve.'”

Ibid., 349.

For all the book protests, the Hungarians and Turks don't half overlap. The stealing of children – as seen in Part I – is a reasonably common occurrence, and there are numerous instances of people who've swapped sides and / or forgotten their heritage. Though the author prefers not to point it out, there are examples of noble Turks and of lazy, good-for-nothing Hungarians.

Further muddying the water, the Hungarian and Turkish languages are also very similar, as Jancsi explains:
“'Well, for example: elma = alma [apple], benim = enyim [mine], baba = papa, papuch = papucs [slippers], daduk = duda [bagpipes] chagana...'
'Csákány [axe]!' cried Eva, clapping.”

Ibid., pp. 227-8.

This suggests the cultures have been mixing for centuries. I gather Hungarian is a Uralic language and shares roots with Finnish and Estonian, while a chum in the pub says its also been linked as far as Japanese.

(T Majlath compares Hungarian and Japanese words, but is also keen to state that these are only “similarities” ... “Nowhere do I claim that Magyar (Hungarian) is related to Basque, Etruscan, Japanese, Sanskrit, Sumerian, or Martian or whatever. I wouldn't dare to make such claims which are, after all, the sole prerogatives of Indo-European.”)

There are plenty of fun observations throughout. Zoltay is described as “a jolly man without a beard, so he was unmarried,” (p. 301). Later there's an example of a Christian not quite living the spirit of his order.
“The office of bishop isn't only an ecclesiastical post, but a military one, too. Every bishop has his own troops. And every bishop is also a captain.”

Ibid., p. 360.

When we get to the siege itself, there's plenty to be said on tactics, experience and intelligence in war. There's stuff about when best to fire on the enemy and how to check if they're trying to mine under the castle.
“Get the drummers to put their drums on the ground too and spread peas on them ... Go round all the sentries and tell them to examine the drums and dishes [of water] each time they pass them. As soon as there's any movement of water in the dishes or peas and shot on the drums, they're to report immediately.”

Ibid., p. 450.

You also feel the historical moment, as new technologies threaten the old ways of warfare. On page 325, Cecey declares that, “A good bow is worth more than any rifle.” Yet 50 pages later we're told that gunfire is in the Hungarians' blood:
“Ever since the discovery of gunpowder, Eger more than any other place in the world had resounded to the noise of firing. Even today spring festivals, firemen's parties, elections, choir celebrations, garden parties and public performances are inconceivable without being preceded by gunfire. The gun is a substitute for the poster. Sometimes there are posters too, but all the same they do not dispense with the gun. In the fortress there are always a few mortars lying around in the grass. Anyone who likes fires them. So how could the folk of Eger feel afraid?”

Ibid., p. 367.

As the siege continues, these folk of Eger have to roll their sleeves up. It's a great bit of patriotic fervour – like the ordinary citizens who help Spider-Man or Batman. It's also thrillingly blood-thirsty:
“Mrs Gáspár Koscis, a sturdy figure, drenches an approaching aga with a long bear so thoroughly with boiling water that when he makes a grab at his beard it comes away in his hand. Another woman seizes a flaming log from the nearby fire and strikes a Turk in the face with it so that sparks fly fly from it in all directions. The other women repulse the pagans with weapons.
'Jesus, help us!'
'Strike them! Strike them!' roars the smith from Felnémet.
He rushes with his hammer in among the women. Three Turks are fighting there back to back. He strikes one so hard on the head that his brains spatter out his nose and ears.”

Ibid., pp. 536-7.

The all-important differences between the Hungarians and Turks also play their part:
“Actually it was the soup that beat off the attack. The Turks had got used to fire, sword and pike, but knew hot soup only in spoons. As the boiling paprika-spiced liquid poured down the first ladder, the men seemed to be swept off it. The swarm of men at the foot of the ladders also jumped away. Some clutched at their hands, others their faces, others their necks. Covering their heads with their shields they backed away from the walls cursing.”

Ibid p. 478.

As the odds continue to stack up against our plucky heroes, it gets ever more gripping. Who lives? Who dies? Who will the siege?

George Cushing's introduction talks about Gárdonyi's research and what bits of the story he's invented, and I'm looking forward to seeing the real castle for myself next week. But I'm also impressed by how Gárdonyi scoffs his cake and keeps it for the historical record. Because while we get a happy ending for Gergely and Eva, satisfying the romantic feel of the thing, the real history sits heavy on them; they've only won a reprieve.

But way, way back it's let us know Gergely's not so brilliant future. One reason for Gergely visiting Constantinople in Part III is so the author can let us in on what's to befall him.
“When you've grown into a fine bearded man and a gentleman, that's where the wicked Turks will entice you into a trap and clap your hands and feet in irons! And only death will release you from them...”

Ibid., pp. 228-9.

And again later:
“Poor young hero! You bright star of the Hungarian galaxy, you will never turn grey on this earth! With what expression, I wonder, would you look into the mirror of the future if some divine hand displayed it for you, and you were to see yourself in captive's chains in this very spot, and you were to see the Turkish hangman knotting the rope for you round that rusty lamp-bracket!...”

Ibid., p. 272.

It's a nice cheat round the problem of historical fiction, where the author struggles to make us care about what's going to happen to characters who must be long dead.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Mozart and an army of vampires"

The Den of Geek site has interviewed me about writing Doctor Who and Primeval tie-in stuff: part one and part two.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A grey day

GreenwichThis afternoon I was in drizzly, grey Greenwich to discuss a potential project. I lived in Greenwich 2002-04 and got married in the Queen's House. For a couple of years I used to pass through the royal park pretty much every day. There were birthday picnics (and lightsabre fights) on the grass, and a good few parties and nights in the pubs... Happy days - but so long ago.

Nosed around a bit feeling wistful, fell in to Halcyon Books on Greenwich South Street (which the Dr and I fell into on our very first date) and - sighing - lugged myself home.

On the way back I finished David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. It's a massive, meticulous and extraordinary story, packed with lucidity and detail. Baltimore Sun reporter Simon follows a homicide department all through 1988. A small band of put-upon, grumpy and very smart guys fight a tide of stupid, stupid violence.

Simon explains the context, the pressures, the morbid dark humour that helps the cops through it, the toll it takes... There are pages on what takes place in an autopsy or in a court room, the personalities as well as the procedures. It's grueling and sometimes appalling to read, yet utterly compelling.

In a 2006 afterword, Simon lets us know what became of the men involved - and of him, as the book got turned into a TV show ("Homicide: Life on the Streets"), and Simon started writing for the telly (his next book, The Corner, then led to The Wire). Over 600 pages he's made all kinds of clever connections, and here on why he stopped being a journalist in the 1990s, is also the inspiration for much of the dour tone of The Wire:
"Some of the best reporters the Baltimore Sun had were marginalized, then bought out, shipped out and replaced with twenty-four-year-old acolytes, who, if they did nothing else, would never make the mistake of having an honest argument with newsroom management. In a time of growth, when the chance to truly enhance the institution was at hand, the new regime of the Sun hired about as much talent as they dispatched ... I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by - a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom - you will eventually be betrayed.

It seemed very Greek the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems a world in which individual human beings - be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoreman or smuggled eastern European sex workers - are destined to matter less and less."

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, pp. 634-5.

Friday, May 08, 2009

"Some rather difficult words"

Douglas, Alexander, Scott, Helen, Alexandra, Mabel and Mhairi from Kinross Primary School have reviewed the Slitheen Excursion for the BBC's official Doctor Who website and given it an average of 9 out of 10. Hooray!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Porn for kids

To the BFI Southbank last night to see Coraline in eye-popping 3D. Eye-popping then replacing with buttons…

Coraline Jones moves to an old pink house in the middle of nowhere. While her parents are enslaved to their keyboards and deadlines, Coraline starts to explore. There’s the deep, deep well up the hill, the amazing mouse-circus ringmaster (Ian McShane) who lives upstairs, and the two mad old actresses (French and Saunders) living in the basement. And in Coraline’s own living room there’s a small door. Which leads to another old pink house where everything’s the same but much better… At least that’s how it seems at first.

It’s a wild ride, packed with jokes and scares and cleverness. Apart from a bit with a needle, the 3D is used sparingly to add texture to scenes rather than being all in your face. The Dr suspected you wouldn’t lose much without it, but I think the fact you’re not overtly conscious of the effect is really one of the film’s strengths. As with any special effect, the best ones are when you don’t notice it’s a trick.

That’s important because I assume the 3D is there as a hook to get people into cinemas and not squirreling pirate versions to watch on widescreen almost-cinema TV. It’d be easy to go overboard and showy.

There was a lively Q&A afterwards with Neil Gaiman (what wrote the book the film’s based on), Henry Selick (what adapted and directed it) and John Hodgman (voice of the Father and Other Father, and off the Daily Show and Flight of the Conchords). I liked that Selick started wary with his answers for fear of giving us spoilers.

Apparently Gaiman sent Selick the book long before it was published – and even before illustrator Dave McKean got to see it – having loved his previous work. That means the film has been in gestation for something like nine years. Also, Gaiman’s note on an early version of the script was that it was too faithful an adaptation. It’s a while since I read the book, but the film seems bigger, more visual, less inside Coraline’s own head. There are more set pieces and principal characters.

Answering a question from the audience, Gaiman explained that there are things you can do in a book which just don’t translate to the screen. If he describes the Other Mother as “not-quite-the-same” as the real one, the reader does all the work in realising the difference. Selick has got to realise his own vision, show us what she looks like.

But I also think a book, or a narrated story, means you’re much more inside the protagonist’s head, and the tension and excitement is as much from what they’re thinking. In film you’re rarely privy to a character’s thoughts – telling us what they’re thinking is cheating. As viewers, we stand outside the action, our emotions plucked by action not thoughts.

In book and film Coraline struggles to make herself listened to; even a boy her own age in the film doesn’t give what she says any heed. That creates problems where you’d normally smuggle exposition into the dialogue.

Gaiman says the staged version has faced the same problem, with their Coraline saying as dialogue much more of the descriptive bits of the book. If I remember by A-levels correctly, there are dramatic conventions for this sort of thing. This isn’t cheating, though there are dramatic conventions for a character addressing the audience directly. A soliloquy speaks the truth – or at least the truth as the character sees it.

I don’t think Coraline narrating more of the film would have worked. It would have placed us self-consciously outside the action, at a distance and safe from anything that befalls her. As it is, we’re right up there with her, experience things as she does, part of the 3D world ourselves.

It certainly draws you in; the Dr – the wuss puss – found a lot of it scary. Gaiman said he’s interested in the response in the UK since things like the New York Times review of Coraline dwelt on justifying the very idea of kids’ film being scary. Almost as if, said Gaiman, he was pushing “porn for kids”. Over here, he went on, we know full well that the best telly is watched from behind the sofa (he then body-swerved a question on whether he’d be writing Doctor Who).

It’s difficult judging how scary you can be: Coraline makes monsters from familiar sureties like your parents and friends and neighbours. Coraline’s own house and bedroom and dolls are warped into nightmares. Yet at the same time it’s colourful and fun, Coraline helped along the way with good and true friends, embracing the strangeness of the real world while battling the monsters.

The child who is not listened to reminded me a little of David McKee’s Not Now, Bernard. Being careful what you wish for is the basis for many a scary fairy tale. Yet the child’s vivid imagination reworking the world around them is a bit like Pan’s Labyrinth – a film Gaiman himself admits wasn’t always suitable for a 12 year-old. Just because something is told through the eyes of a child doesn’t mean it is for kids.

Having tried to write scary stuff myself, and struggled to get that balance right, I’m fascinated by this kind of thing (see Scott on his three year-old’s response to Primeval). Just as with grown-ups, different kids will accept and engage with different things. One man’s meat is another’s monster. There’s stuff I was terrified of as kid (Worzel Gummidge, David Collings as Mawdryn…) that I knew at the time no one else was scared of…

It’s good that kids’ stories challenge and scare them, and that they overcome those fears. I guess the trick is in ensuring – trying to ensure – that you challenge, not abuse.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Look now

To the Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday to see Sickert in Venice. Walter Sickert (1860-1942) made three long trips to Venice in 1895-96, 1900 and 1901. The captioning explains that he repeatedly painted the famous bits – St Mark's Basilica, the Rialto Bridge etc. – because he thought they might sell.

Yet, as Richard Dorment noted in the Telegraph, it's immediately reminiscent of Monet's haystacks or Rouen Cathedral, where the same subject is painted again and again with different light effects and mood.
“But unlike Monet, after painting the whole building, Sickert then zooms in like a film director to make dramatic close-up studies of details like the golden horses on the roof.”

Richard Dorment, “Sickert in Venice at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – review”, The Telegraph, 20 April 2009.

I think there's a more telling influence on these extreme and cropped close-ups: Sicket is aping (and may well have been reliant on) photographs. The immediacy of the photograph had a huge impact on painting. First, there was no longer a need to strive so hard to capture a perfect image; painters were free to explore mood and sensation – the impression left by a scene.

Photography also made painters break up the strictness of composition. In the old days if you were painting a picture of a house, you'd put the house centrally in the frame, maybe foregrounded by its owner, maybe showing off the grounds. Sickert has images of the Basilica and other Venetian buildings that might have been snapped on a phone. It's not just (as Dorment suggests) that he's focused on particular architectural details. Instead, not getting the whole building into the frame makes it seem larger, more looming.

Sickert clearly used photographs as the basis of many of his pictures. The captions explain where he produced multiple outlines of a picture using carbon paper, working them up in paint so they had different lighting and effects. The exhibition shows a number of his works in progress – sketches, canvases divided into grids, scribbled notes and observations.

The Dr was fascinated by a portrait of Israel Zangwill, author of the novel “Children of the Ghetto” (1892), and later the play “The Melting Pot” (1908), with Zangwell in front of the Venetian ghetto. The background seems based on another small picture in the exhibition,
“so thinly painted on its panel that the wood-grain shows through, depicting the built-up warren of Venice’s old Ghetto. Sickert orients the facade of the buildings parallel to the picture-plane — something he does quite frequently, actually — but here, the lack of ornament and superabundance of windows creates a strange, grid-like pattern, scraped out in the thinnest layers of golds and bronzes. It’s a magical little painting. If it didn’t so clearly recall this distinctive Venice neighbourhood, it could easily be mistaken for an abstract composition, and a strong one at that. All of which goes some way towards explaining why the best of these paintings have the quality they do. Even at his moodiest or most workmanlike, Sickert rarely ignored the imperatives of formal persuasiveness. There are moments when one can almost feel the artist losing himself in the abstract challenges thrown up by colour and form, treated as ends in themselves.”

Fugitive Ink, “‘Sickert in Venice’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery”, 5 May 2009.

Of course there weren't postcards of either the ghetto or Zangwill's portrait.

I was also surprised by his models – the Venetian prostitutes, La Giuseppina and La Carolina. They're more often than not clothed, lounging about talking, doing nothing very provocative. There's a fascination with their madly piled-up hair, but also with them doing humdrum, ordinary things like sitting about and chatting. They're prostitutes and yet they're not doing anything rude (well, sometimes they're sat fully clothed on a bed); they're exotically Italian and yet not doing anything wild.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Short Trips recollections

Doctor Who: Short Trips - Re:CollectionsBoo! the range of Doctor Who short-story anthologies, Short Trips, comes to an end this month. Yay! it ends with a MASSIVE BIG SALE and new best-of volume, Re:Collections, featuring one story from each of the 28 volumes published in the last six-and-a-half years. I’ve chosen and written introductions for stories from the three Short Trips books I edited. Excitingly, another editor chose one of my stories as one of his favourites.

I owe Short Trips a lot. My first professionally published (i.e. paid for) work of fiction appeared in the very first volume and I got to contribute 16 more stories to the range – I think that’s more Doctor Who short stories than anyone else has had published. Woo me!

In an effort to get you to try the MASSIVE BIG SALE, here’s the ones I wrote plus some exciting top facts:

1. “The Switching” in 1. Zodiac (December 2002), edited by Jacqueline Rayner
  • An adventure of the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, with the Brigadier, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton and the Master
  • Body-swap stories are a bit of a cliché in sci-fi shows, but I stole this from the Buffy episode “Who are you” (February 2000), in which Buffy swaps bodies with bad, bad girl Faith, and none of Buffy’s friends notice
  • My other pitches included a first Doctor story where he met his evil son, and a third Doctor, aliens-invading-Earth story, because they’re cross the Beatles split up
  • I had a lot of help from writer Jonathan Morris – which I rewarded in my next story
2. “Curriculum Vitae” in 2. Companions (March 2003), ed. Jacqueline Rayner
  • An adventure of Polly, with a reference to the seventh Doctor and Ace, and a cameo from someone who might be Tegan
  • A story in Julian Barnes’ “The History of the World in 10½ Chapters” (1989) about a former astronaut made me wonder if the Doctor’s former companions had trouble with booze and religion and relationships
  • Music industry supremo John Eliot Maurice is a tribute to Jonny Morris, who used to work for Mute
  • Companions also features “A Long Night” by Alison Lawson, a lovely story about Barbara Wright’s mum Joan, who I borrowed for my first Doctor Who novel, The Time Travellers (November 2005)
3. “An Overture Too Early” in 4. The Muses (September 2003), ed. Jacqueline Rayner
  • An adventure of the third Doctor and Sarah-Jane Smith, with the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton and another of the Doctor’s companions but it is a surprise
  • This was a late replacement for someone else’s story falling through (no, I don’t know who)
  • I had just a week to think up, have approved and then write a 7,000 word story about the third Doctor and music
  • The idea came while shuttling between two freelance jobs on the Tube, and recognising a tune on another passenger’s Walkman, but not being able to place it
  • This story led to two further commissions: my writing of the Brigadier got me The Coup (December 2004); and the story itself led to editing 18. Time Signature (below)
4. “A Good Life” in 5. Steel Skies (December 2003), ed. John Binns
  • An adventure of the eighth Doctor and Charlotte Pollard
  • This reused elements of my first pitch to Big Finish when they invited unsolicited submissions, for a Doctor Who audio called “Killing Demons”
  • I wanted to show a side of Charley we wouldn’t glean from her audio adventures – hence she’s not nearly as chirpy as usual
5. “The Immortals” in 6. Past Tense (April 2004), ed. Ian Farrington
  • An adventure of the fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan
  • I originally pitched this as a first Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki story – and it would have included elements I later used in The Time Travellers
  • I came up with the story after reading “Longbow” by Robert Hardy – who, of course, played Peter Davison’s elder brother in All Creatures Great and Small
  • Mang is my favourite name from Kipling’s Jungle Book – it’s the name of the bat
6. “Categorical Imperative” in 9. Monsters (August 2004), ed. Ian Farrington
  • An adventure of the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, with the first Doctor and Susan Foreman, the second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon (we don’t see the second Doctor but I assume he’s there, too), the third Doctor and Jo Grant, the fifth Doctor and Tegan, the sixth Doctor and Peri, the seventh Doctor and Ace, and the eighth Doctor and Charlotte Pollard
  • This story was inspired by a line from the Doctor’s line in Genesis of the Daleks (March-April 1975): “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you it would grow up evil, to be a dictator who would destroy millions of lives – could you kill that child?”
  • The version I originally submitted included a brief cameo by the newly cast ninth Doctor. I took my cue from Jonny Morris, who snuck a glimpse of Christopher Eccleston into The Tomorrow Windows. But Big Finish aren’t allowed to make even oblique reference to the New Series, so my effort had to be cut. Here’s what I originally wrote:

    “Sarah sighed. He was being difficult again. Who else could she have meant, anyway? That little guy in the straw hat? Actually, she thought, he could be a Doctor too. She looked up and down the queue again. Quite a lot of them weren’t dressed like royalty. Every five or six places in the line was some dandy or eccentric. A young man in a beige coat, a sprig of greenery in the lapel. A Byronic sort with a flashy silver cravat. A wiry man with a gaunt, hawk-like face. They all had that same steely look about them, that righteous determination.”

    Later, it’s Rose who offers Ann a top-up of coffee.
  • The Doctor Who – the complete adventures website makes a bold stab at identifying where the different Doctors are in their lives in this story
  • If I’d been clever, I’d have had the eighth Doctor and Charley’s bit lead directly into “A Good Life” (above), but I only thought of that after the story was published
7. “Last Christmas” in 11. A Christmas Treasury (December 2004), ed. Paul Cornell
  • An adventure of the seventh Doctor
  • I pitched three stories to Paul for this anthology – this one, one that I wrote up a year later as “Christmas on the Moon” (below) and one about a cleaner in a hospital on Christmas Eve, who helps the seventh Doctor and Ace
  • All three ideas, I think, aimed to emulate the New Adventures Doctor Who books of the 1990s – the first time I’d try to write in that style since my teens
  • In my head, it takes place in the Richard I on Royal Hill, Greenwich – my favourite pub when I lived round the corner
8. “How You Get There” in 13. A Day in the Life (June 2005), ed. Ian Farrington
  • An adventure of the seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield
  • I used to get the 185 bus which features in this story; It goes through Camberwell, near the housing estate which doubled as Rose Tyler’s home
  • Endwell is named after the road that the Big Finish production office used to be on
  • The climax takes place in the tower at Millbank, also used as Tobias Vaughn’s base in The Invasion (November-December 1968)
  • Excitingly, Ian Farrington chose this as his favourite of the book for Re:Collections
9. “Christmas on the Moon” in 15. History of Christmas (December 2005), ed. me
  • An adventure of the sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe
  • I originally pitched the idea for this story to Paul Cornell for A Christmas Treasury (above)
  • I didn’t pay myself for this story, but I liked the idea so much I wrote it as a free bonus
  • Astronauts Gire and Jackson are named after mates from university
  • This is the first Doctor Who I wrote after seeing the New Series (I was already well into The Time Travellers when the series began, and had to deliver it before the broadcast of Dalek)
  • Hoping the book might be picked up by new fans who only knew the ninth Doctor, I wrote the back-flap biog of the previous Doctors – which was then used on all the other Short Trips books (Gary Russell added it to the previous Short Trips book, 14. Solar System, and came up with the “An Adventure of…” tag under each story title)
10. “Incongruous Details” in 17. Centenarian (July 2006), ed. Ian Farrington
  • An adventure of the sixth Doctor with Emily Chaudry and Will Hoffman
  • Ian Farrington asked me to write this story, picking up from the cliffhanger at the end of Joe Lidster’s story in 13. A Day in the Life; it features two of the characters we created for the UNIT series
  • This story is set in May 1940, though the blitzing of London didn’t happen until much later (this was a set-up for the third instalment of the story)
  • It also sees the debut of the Mim, the sponge-like shape-changing creatures I created for the Bernice Summerfield range (and which were inspired by a thing on QI about how you can liquidise a living sponge and it will put itself back together)
11. “DS al Fine” in 18. Time Signature (October 2006), ed. me
  • An adventure of the eighth Doctor with the sixth Doctor and Sergeant Benton
  • This story ties up all the threads running through Time Signature – which are all a follow-up to “An Overture Too Early” (above)
  • Inspired by Russell T Davies’ brief for the first series of the new Doctor Who, I provided all the authors with a one-paragraph brief which they could then build their stories around
  • The story changed at the last minute when one of the other authors dropped out of writing a fourth Doctor story; I brought back the character Eddie Robson created for his story to bridge the gap
  • The one-paragraph brief for the missing story was:

    “The fourth Doctor hears the tune again, and runs in to Black Rose and White Tulip. He still doesn't know who they are, or what the tune is that they're after. But for them, this is before they've recovered the tune, so in effect the Doctor has told them where to find Isaac.”
12. “The Best Joke I Ever Told” in 19. Dalek Empire (December 2006), ed. Nicholas Briggs with me
  • An adventure of the sixth Doctor with Melanie Bush
  • This story features the planet Guria, created by Nick Briggs for his Dalek Empire series – he says the name is a coincidence
  • It was inspired after I nattered to Nev Fountain about his putting Doctor Who in-jokes into his scripts for Dead Ringers
13. “The Eighth Wonder of the World” – available as a free PDF – in 19. Dalek Empire (December 2006), ed. Nicholas Briggs with me
  • An adventure of the sixth Doctor with Evelyn Smythe
  • This story is full of classical references and in-jokes nicked from the Dr’s research; I’ve done the same thing with The Slitheen Excursion
  • The book Evelyn has just read about the discovery of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is probably From The Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus
14. “There’s Something About Mary” in 21. Snapshots (June 2007) ed. Joseph Lidster
  • An adventure of the fifth Doctor, the sixth Doctor and the seventh Doctor, with UNIT
  • This story is set in Preston and Reading – I was a student at both
  • The music video Mary is entranced by as a child is Little Wonder by David Bowie; the fantasto-brilliant bass player with the horns and hoof-boots is Gail Ann Dorsey
15. “The Great Escapes” in 23. Defining Patterns (March 2008), ed. Ian Farrington
  • An adventure of Lucie Miller (with the eighth Doctor somewhere in the wings)
  • The original idea for this was a way of doing a two-hander Bernice Summerfield play; I almost used the same idea as the opening bit of The Pirate Loop
  • Joe Lidster’s comment on the first draft: “Not much to say really - it's lovely. I was hoping Dr Who was going to be hiding inside one of the robots!”
(I briefly considered trying to abide by my own rules for 26. How the Doctor Changed my Life (September 2008), ed. me, but decided instead to include the original competition rules and my feedback to entrants.)

16. “Do You Smell Carrots?” in 27. Christmas Around the World (December 2008), ed. Xanna Eve Chown
  • An adventure of the first Doctor and Steven Taylor and the fifth Doctor
  • This story is set in Reading, and follows much of my route into town when I lived there
  • I originally pitched it as being set in late 1999 – when I left to move to London
  • Originally, the snowmen would have sheltered in the almost finished Oracle shopping centre; being set in 1982 I had to ask a couple of Reading residents for their memories of what was different
  • Steven Taylor’s piloting skills also get a mention in The Drowned World
17. “Pass It On” in 28. Indefinable Magic (March 2009), ed. Neil Corry
  • An adventure of the second Doctor and the sixth Doctor
  • I sent Neil four ideas, and he asked for either this one or “the son of Doctor Who” – which I originally pitched for 1. Zodiac (above)
  • I also didn’t specify which Doctor it was in the pitch; Neil chose the second Doctor, who I’d always avoided before because I find him difficult (this is something I discuss in my introductions for Re:Collections)
I also pitched for 7. Life Science and 25. Transmissions, but not well enough to get in. You can learn a whole devil more about the Short Trips range on Wikipedia. And get bargains galore in the MASSIVE BIG SALE.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

“I'm asleep half the time in history...”

To the Young Vic last night for You Can See The Hills (running until 9 May). Written and directed by Matthew Dunster, it's just over two hours watching William Ash (from the capsule with Martha Jones in 42) sit in a chair, telling tales of his school days in Oldham. There's the time he got hit by a teacher, the time his ex claimed she was pregnant, and love and death and drugs and torture...

Ash is outstanding. It's awe-inspiring enough that he he can remember the script (see Ken Levine's blogs on how to memorise scripts: part one; part two; part three).

But it's not like it could work if Ash'd read from an autocue – this is more than just telling a story. The script itself is rich and vivid, putting us right at the heart of the action and feeling. It keeps turning about, one moment rude and funny, the next appalling and tragic. Ash tells the story, impersonating the friends and girls and parents when they need to speak. The lighting and occasional moments of music also add to the spell. It's a conjuring trick: a memoir so simply, so effectively brought to life.

It's interesting to compare the similarly confessional and rude New Boy. This is a much more violent story, but it's also much less about the actions of the narrator. Some of the most effective, telling moments in You Can See The Hills are things happening to other people, with Ash on the periphery. There's the girl doing heroin, the boy with the violent dad and the time Ash doesn't intervene when two boys bully a girl in front of a jeering crowd.

Both plays are narrated by boys who are scared and selfish and horny. But New Boy is about the things Nicholas Hoult's character does; You Can See The Hills seems more about Ash's lack of achievements.

(This is my 800th post on this blog.)