Sunday, January 31, 2010

Books finished, January 2010

I've nicked this from a chap called Roo Reynolds, whose own blog I stalk. Here are the books I've finished this month:

Books I finished in January 2010"The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart" by Jesse Bullington
Reviewed this for Vector, so I'll blog that later this year. But spectacularly not my cup of tea and I struggled to find anything nice to say. Sorry, Jesse. Amazon's reviewers clearly like it.

"The Story of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster" by John Field
A rather dry, worthy and partisan history of the buildings most people refer to as the "Houses of Parliament" - you can tell Field was a teacher. Some periods in history are lavished in detail, others barely get a mention. For example, Field abruptly jumps from the Second World War to the end of the 20th Century, with a rant about democracy now and our place within it.

Yet there's plenty of fascinating top facts and insights. There's the appalling comedy-of-errors as bureaucracy and petty politics, committees, inquiries and an ever-changing brief hamper the building of Pugin and Barry's new palace in the mid-Nineteenth Century - and killed off both those men. The frescoes of radiant British history famously came out too dark because of the inclement British weather, while the over-large statues of major British figures were quietly moved elsewhere. It leaves you amazed that we ever had an Empire. You can almost believe the old argument that we took Africa and India more by accident than design.

I was also fascinated by subtle changes wrought on the constitution during the brief reign of Edward VI. His dad, remember, had broken off from the Catholic church so as to get a new wife (which is why anyone from the Church of England who speaks against divorce and remarriage should be beheaded for Treason). During Edward's reign (with my emphasis in bold),
"The 1548 Parliament passed the First Act of Uniformity, which introduced an English prayer book, imposed penalties for non-observance, and ordered the suppression of both images and Latin primers. It was the first occasion when religious practice had been proscribed by a secular authority. The Second Act of Uniformity followed in the 1552 Parliament which required every subject to attend church on Sunday, at one of the rechristened services of morning prayer, evening prayer, or the Lord's supper. This Act was the beginning of 'keeping Sunday special'. It was accompanied, appropriately by an Act for the control of alehouses by Justices of the Peace, when liquor began for the first time to be licensed."

John Field, "The Story of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster", p. 79.

So "keeping Sunday special" was a specifically anti-Catholic measure, not our version of the Sabbath. It's also worth noting that Edward VI did not so much rule himself as governed through helpful "uncle" figures and Parliament - nearly a century before Oliver Cromwell, let alone the constitutional monarchy of William and Mary.

It's packed with stuff like this. Another favourite is in 1842, when the non-parliamentary Royal Fine Arts Commission held a competition for the interior decoration of the new palace, with two notable firsts:
"Cartoons were invited, either of subjects from British history, of of scenes from the works of Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. The exhibition [of these] was the occasion for Punch to appropriate the word 'cartoon' and apply it for the first time to comic subjects, the magazine's own spoof entries. It was the first time that state patronage had been offered to artists."

Ibid., p. 191.

Field is right that the palace today still feels like a gentleman's club, with arcane rules and traditions deliberately aimed at tripping up the newcomer. He's also good on Lords reform, and the value of individuals of experience and with ostensibly less party allegiance to the scrutiny of Bills. So plenty of valuable research and insight, but the phrasing and grammar could be better, and there are odd concentrations of focus which mean the book loses a few marks.

"Matilda" by Roald Dahl
"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful."

Roald Dahl, "Matilda", p.1.

I've long meant to remedy the Dr's ignorance of the works of Roald Dahl. This was a perfect place to start, with a small, bespectacled and earnest girl who was reading newspapers at the works of Charles Dickens at the age of five. She was quite enthralled.

It's odd for me reading it again how thrilling and vivid it is, with Dahl simply and elegantly drawing us in to the adventure. It struck not only how black and white his characters are - villains like Matilda's parents and Miss Trunchball are 100 per cent villainous - but that this reflects a child-like view of grown-ups. There's no sense of these adults having once been children themselves - Miss Trunchball denies that very thing - or of their characters and outlooks developing. What, I wondered, went so wrong to turn Miss Trunchball into such a monster?

It also seems of its time, with Dahl sniffy about television and Matilda's dad a brash, conscience-less small businessman, reaping the boon of the Eighties. The plot is about a young girl taking charge of her life and reclaiming a stolen inheritance - just like the Victorian novels that Matilda reads. But it's also about the pernicious greed of its age.

It also seems odd now that Dahl recommends Hemmingway and, "Brighton Rock" to the children readers, and quotes from Dylan Thomas' haunting, "In Country Sleep". And I'm delighted this edition includes writing tips from Dahl, which includes his "constant unholy terror of boring the reader". We're already working our way through more of Dahl, so will blog some more on him soon.

"Family Britain 1951-57" by David Kynaston
I loved "Austerity Britain", which I read last year and singularly failed to blog. This picks up the story, a whopping, fat mash of diary extracts, political journals, news, sport and current affairs, building up an impression of the era. It's utterly compelling and covers such enormous ground. Kynaston's got an eye for details which inform or reflect the worries of our own age - the terror of "coshing" from teenage boys, the fury of the tabloid press, the floods and train disasters and the impact of invading - in this case, Suez - without a UN mandate. The truth is just starting to come out as the book closes, with Prime Minister Eden's explicit lie to the Commons about there having been no secret plot with Israel.

Kynaston's also good at explaining the effect of such moments, such as this quotation from the Daily Mirror on 5 November 1956, explaining why everyone must abide by international law if it's to have any meaning:
"'Once British bombs fell on Egypt the fate of Hungary was sealed,' asserted its leader. 'The last chance of asserting moral pressure on Russia was lost when Eden defied the United Nations over Suez.' Almost certainly Khruschev would have acted as he did anyway, sooner rather than later, but undeniably Suez provide opportune cover."

David Kynaston, "Family Britain 1951-57", p. 688.

The struggles of the British Communist Party to reconcile themselves to the fate of Budapest - and to revelations about all Stalin had been up to - seem another world, as are the worries about coal fires and rationing, or the assigned roles for men and women. It's the world we live in and another planet - something you can experience with this incredible, haunting slideshow of photographs of the 1950s.

Three choice moments from the book to whet your need to read it: in 1952 in Oxford,
"a thrusting Australian undergraduate had stood for secretary of the University Labour Club and, in defiance of the rule against open canvassing, had campaigned on the slogan, 'Rooting for Rupert'. Complaints were made to the club's chairman, Gerald Kaufman, who initiated a tribunal. The outcome was that young Rupert Murdoch was not allowed to stand for office."

Ibid., p.102.

That same year, the forthcoming White Paper about ending the BBC's monopoly on television - allowing the creation of ITV - led to "agitated correspondence" in the Times:
"'This is the age of the common man, whose influences towards the deterioration of standards of culture are formidable in all spheres,' warned Lord Brand. 'It is discouraging to find that it is in the Conservative Party which one would have thought would be by tradition the party pledged to maintain such standards, that many members in their desire to end anything like a monopoly, seem ready to support measures which will inevitably degrade them.' Violet Bonham Carter agreed: 'We are often told the B.B.C. should "give the people what they want". But who are "the people"? The people are all the people - including minorities. Broadcasting by the B.B.C. has no aim but good broadcasting. Broadcasting by sponsoring has no other motive but to sell goods."

Ibid., p. 106.

Just as today, hacking flesh from the BBC might let other people make money - some of them Tory grandees - but does it mean any improvement in telly? There's an argument now that ITV has suffered not because it's up against the BBC, but because commerical television can only flourish and not dilute the quality of its material while it has a monopoly, too.

And though I don't agree with the sentiment, I loved Churchill's masterful analogy for the political divide at the 1955 General Election:
"'Queuetopia remained Churchill's central metaphor for socialism in action - a term designed specifically to appeal to housewives. 'We are for the ladder,' he declared in his election broadcast. 'Let all try their best to climb. They are for the queue. Let each wait in his place till his turn comes.'"

Ibid., p. 33.

In all the book is a window into an age so much like and so different from our own - an expert piece of world-building, to use the science-fiction term. Interspersed with the names of films and performers, brands of cigarette and clothes, sportsmen and commentators and etc., the impression builds into a vivid portrait. It's a place of green smog that stings the throat like pepper and shrouds the stage from an opera-going audience, of "National butter", of the slow, slow end of rationing and the first shifts in public opinion on the medieval laws on homosexuality and on capital punishment. A glorious book and enthralling. I eagerly await the next volume.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The Doctor Who Restoration Team have announced the contents of the forthcoming DVD of 1965 stories The Space Museum and The Chase, which includes details of the extras, including:
"Last Stop White City (dur. 13' 15") - School teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton were the first people from Earth to travel with the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan in their time and space vehicle, the TARDIS. From their first step into the TARDIS in 'An Unearthly Child' to their departure at the end of 'The Chase', the duo were involved in sixteen thrilling adventures that captured the imagination of a generation. This documentary tells their story. With actors William Russell, director Richard Martin, studio vision mixer Clive Doig and writer Simon Guerrier."
The DVD is out in the UK in March. I've got a few more credits to come on Doctor Who DVDs - for example, as the boss Tweeted today:
"Noel Clarke (@NoelClarke) signed up to narrate challenging doc. Likely release date early 2011. Produced by Guerrier Bros."
I've also received my special edition DVD of Girl Number 9, featuring some particularly good not-walking-into-anything acting from me.

In the mean time, I'm pitching every which way, have a thing to finish by Sunday and got odd bits of work and training cropping up. Shower is still out - will post some pictures sometime - so I've been much better at going to the gym, since then at least I can wash. And I've also got a great long post to write about Something Important, but that will have to wait until next week.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The poseability of Isskar

Alex was off buying toys again when he spotted Play's splendid description of this Martian monstrosity:
"Reaching up to 7 feet tall, Ice Warriors were a large imposing race of reptilian humanoids from the planet Mars whose civilization was destroyed during The Doctor's search for a segment from the Key to Time."
Those last 15 words are wot I did. I matter and am important!
Isskar or one of his mates

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Will scrawl for food

Not dead, just busy with all manner of efforts to be gainfully employed. Freelancing involves a lot of pitching and begging and poking of feet into doors, but in the last few months my hit rate has been down.

Got plenty of work on, and am working every spare moment, but not all of it's very highly paid. Then there's the projects which get cancelled when I'm already well into them, or the fun discussions after delivery where it turns out the bosses can't pay all that they said.

This sort of thing has gone on since I went freelance back in 2002, but it seems to be happening a lot more in the Current Climate. There seem to be far more people gunning for the jobs, and that can even mean the applications process is all much more complicated so as to ward some of these people off.

But a desperate Tweet earlier this week has paid off rather nicely, and I've spent a busy few days pitching stuff every which way. Got some meetings and things coming up, too, so it's all looking a bit more hopeful.

In the meantime, I had a lovely afternoon at the NFT on Saturday, with Bernard Cribbins on fine form as he entertained a packed cinema mostly full of geeks. I think I must have known half the people there, and got to say "Wotcher" to most of them. Also chastely admired a pretty lady two rows in front, before realising it was Channel 4 News' Samira Ahmed.

On Sunday, the Dr dragged me from the typing to go see Sherlock Holmes. Must admit I dragged my feet a bit - I've avoided Guy Ritchie since Revolver [my review of which has vanished from the Internet; I shall look into that]. But it's a smart, exciting and funny film, packed with glorious details, from the works of Conan-Doyle himself and Victoriana. The House of Lords is too wide, and an insider would spot that it's got the wrong walls and ceiling. And Tower Bridge was built in 1894, so some years after Holmes' fateful adventure with the chap with chalk on his lapel. But that's me desperately trying to find fault with the thing. Go see; it's really good.

Oh, and the church down the road is now extolling that Jedward is a lot like the story of Jesus:

Jesus has the X Factor

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wet wet wet

A practical post today. Yesterday, my Daewoo DH-6100P HDD/DVD recorder would not eject a disc. It would try to play the thing but get caught up in a weird loop of cogitation. I tried restarting the machine but that only meant it came on again thinking, "Ooh, a disc" and hit the loop before getting to the stage where it would let me eject. What a clever bit of design.

Googling, Jimlad on AvForums had had the same problem, and I dared to follow his method of taking the bastard thing apart. A little to my amazement, that proved easy enough and the thing is now working. The Dr got to watch the end of Season One of Poldark and of Being Human before the latter's 2.1. Hooray!

I am always in frustrated awe of those who can actually make and fix things. And it's even more enraging when people who can do things don't.

Some 18 months ago, I spent about more than a month and a lot of money getting my bathroom fixed so it wouldn't leak on the people downstairs. It didn't work, and last September we were dribbling again. The Man - my sister's handy significant other - poked about a bit, muttered about cowboys and made a temporary fix.

Today he was back again to do things more finally. We thought we'd remove a couple of rows of tiles, let the dampness dry out over the next few days (we'll be using washing facilities at the gym and a mate's house), then reseal it all double-strength.

Only it never proves that simple. Anything we probe in this house reveals amazing corners cut - as we discovered weeks into living here with our boiler. The tiles round the shower turn out to have been fixed to a painted wall. The paint appears glossy and plastic, so water will run off it, but that also means its like the tiles have been fixed to glass. You put your finger under one tile, and the whole wall comes away.

The tiles falling from our shower
Water has wormed its way through to this slick patch, and leaked right through the plasterboard into the wall behind. This means an interior wall with damp, which is something of a bad thing. We'll set heaters on the wet bits and try and get it sorted. We'll also need more tiles.

Drying out the wall
And, just to add to the joys, on the adjacent wall, the bottom tiles came off to reveal a dark hole. The shower mechanism and pipes turns out to be hidden behind a false wall that loses us maybe four or five inches of bathroom - enough extra space to allow us to fit a bath, though we can't afford anything nearly so fancy. It's all tided up now - the Man is very good - but I find even sat here in the next room tapping away that the darkness is looming.

Darkness under the wall

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lost and found (alternative take)

To the NFT last night for the annual Missing Believed Wiped – an evening of odd bits of old telly that have found their way back to the archive. I missed the 2008 event due to commitments, but blogged the one before.

As I said then, it's always an odd collection – and the appeal lies in just than incongruity. Things you'd never see together, and things you'd never seek out, make for a tantalising window to the past.

First was a short film on the Bob Monkhouse Collection – as Jonny says, in large part it seemed a collection of Monkhouse's own appearances. The some 50,000 film cans and videos are of limited appeal to the NFT because much of the programmes already exist in some form. Kaleidoscope have stepped in to manage the collection, which is fascinating as an insight into Monkhouse himself. He used the tapes as research for jokes and people he might work with, but also the mentality behind the collection says a lot in itself. The history of the collection – Monkhouse was taken to court for giving a copy of Goldfinger to Terry Wogan – also reveals a lot about archives in themselves.

This was followed by a collection of comedic bits from the early days of satellite station BSB. As Ian Greaves explained, junking of archives was still going on as late as the 1990s. The material shown in itself wasn't particularly brilliant, but showed early material from Keith Allen and Armando Ianucci – the latter probably the best of the lot.

I thought a lot more of His Lordship Entertains than Jonny did – and more readily saw the debt owed it by Fawlty Towers. The jokes came thick and fast, and there were also all kinds of jokes: word-play, slapstick, farce and character stuff. I loved the two old ladies telling filthy stories (a vacuum cleaner stops us hearing the most saucy bits), and was impressed by how many aged actors were involved. I think it was pushing beyond Up Pompeii, but I'm not sure what it was pushing towards.

Till Death Do Us Part was pretty ropey, with – as Jonny says – the best bits all Dandy Nichols as Else, who tellingly took no part in the topical bits. It was a surprisingly cheap show – all set in Alf's living room but for two brief scenes in front of blown-up photos, and with lines only for the regular cast of four. It was an uncomfortable episode too, not because of the words “coon” and “wog” so much as how much of the programme was given over to Alf's ranting. The cool kids might roll their eyes at his prejudice, but there was little in the way of counter-argument, and the last joke depends on Alf being clumsy rather than being wrong. The viewing notes expressed surprise that “some viewers actually agreed with Alf”, but the episode is all about him having his say.

Both these episodes seemed to be about the loss of the old Empire – Ronnie Barker's Lord Rustless having to open up his stately home as a hotel rather than flog it to the National Trust, Alf horrified by Britain losing it's place as a first-rate nation. But there were also lots of odd little details I loved: Rita (Una Stubbs) laquering her handbag, or having to boil a kettle to do the washing up. And Else, who lives in Wapping, has apparently never before been to Downing Street or Buckingham Palace.

(The ever-wise T. also pointed out that Mr Quill himself, Bill Burridge, is one of the non-speaking crowd at Downing Street. Frank Gatliff – Badger, butler to Barker – was obviously Ortron in The Monster of Peladon.)

Jonny didn't sit through part two of the event, which was all music from the 60s and 70s. The only extant episode of Time for Blackburn from 1968 had a very quick-edited performance by The Who of “The Magic Bus”, that made the women sat next to me dizzy. There was an odd interview with Jonathan King at a record industry do, and a plug for a “psychedelic pantomime”. But mostly it seemed a sub-Top of the Pops, with Blackburn barely bumbling along through the links, at one point explaining that he was always up himself.

We next had a selection of clips from Look! Hear!, a regional youth programme from the 1970s. The Dr almost exploded when a young, jumper-wearing “Mike” Wood introduced Black Sabbath, years before he followed in the footsteps of Alexander (mostly with his top off). There was also a glorious live performance by The Selecter, when the kids in the audience took over the stage. Somehow, a camera was ready up in the lights to look down on the action.

There were then two episodes of Top of the Pops. The first, from 1976, reminded us how old the presenters used to be, and how hokey the sets. Pans People managed to be sexist and yet not quite sexy, and we cheered at a bit of E.L.O. But mostly the music was pretty execrable – as Dick Fiddy said in between episodes, that's why we needed punk. I thought the Dr might tear her ears off during a performance by R and J Stone of “We Do It”. But the episode also ended with the Bohemian Rhapsody video. How odd to see something so familiar in context, and see just why it blew all competition from the water.

I'd forgotten how awkward the audiences always were in these things, nervously watching the cameras for their cues. But it also surprised me how multi-racial the music programmes were compared to so much other telly of the time – something I've been researching recently for a work thing.

The second episode was from 1967, in ropey black-and-white that kept coming to pieces. Fluff Freeman introduced “See Emily Play”, Pink Floyd fronted by Syd Barrett (who I thought looked a lot like Benjamin Cook). The picture flickered and snowed, the sound dropping out and then dropping back in. I'd love to see a reconstructed version, but this warped and warping effort took me right back to all those nth generation videos of old Doctor Who that made up a lot of my teenage life.

There was then a bit more warped footage from later in the episode – Ray Davies (introduced as “Dave” by Fluff), and Procul Harem's “Whiter Shade of Pale” with a lead singer dressed for no reason at all as a stereotypical Chinaman. It was sometimes a job to tell what were original video effects and what was the tape going weird, and Fluff seemed to commentate from another glacial age. How strange for a programme – and a time – to be so cool and so square all at once.

After, there was just time for a beer and to say hello to the many, many like-minded chums, but we ducked out of festivities in favour of just getting home while there were still some trains.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Beyond the sea

To see Darker Shores last night, a Victorian ghost story by Michael Punter. After a spooky night in a guesthouse by the sea, Professor Stokes (Tom Goodman-Hill) calls in spiritualist Tom Beauregard (Julian Rhind-Tutt). The house seems to be haunted by its dead master, but both men are haunted too...

It's an effective, spooky drama with plenty of clever effects. Like "The Woman in Black", it conjures a compelling atmosphere through some very nifty stagecraft. The performances were also excellent - though I worried at first about Rhind-Tutt's American accent. The Dr loved the frock coats and the all-black Victorian set.

It's a richer story than "The Woman in Black", the characters vivid and well-drawn, and each with a credible history that blends into the story. It's also a lot funnier than "The Woman in Black", and had Things To Say. It seems nothing Victorian can get away these days without a mention of Darwin, though the play pressed the fallacy (as discussed on QI just last week) that Victorian churchmen hated Darwin for linking us to monkeys. The church had long-accepted that the Bible was metaphorically not literally true, but holy folk were troubled by the essential cruelty of evolution.

I also felt the play cheated in its final revelation, introducing something in its last scene that explained the mystery. How much better to have placed all the pieces before us well in advance, and then still delivered the surprise.

But still, a splendid night out. Sadly, it's closing in just a couple of days. I hope it is put on again.

Afterwards, we stalled in the bar for another beer, surrounded by Famous Actors. One of them, at least, I'd met before (and signed an autograph for his son), and another I sort of know through other people. But I never know the etiquette of these things and so kept timidly out of their way. Also, I was too busy discussing the career of K9 with Psychonomy.

For the second night running there were no trains home from Victoria, so we took a circuitous route via Balham and Babylon and bus, getting in about midnight for a crumpet and some tea.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Being cold

Being Human: The Road by Simon GuerrierThe first copy of my Being Human book, The Road, arrived yesterday, in all its lovely paperback glory. The book is set for release on 4 February, but will probably be seen in shops before then.

By a nice coincidence, in the evening it was Being Human Live at the Curzon in Mayfair, where we got to see the first episode of the new series - on Sunday on BBC 3 at 9.30 for you ordinary mortals.

Me at Being Human LiveNo spoilers here, but cor that was exciting. The event also had cosplaying vampires and stalkers tumbling about as we waited, and the shiny famous actors up on the balcony, waving at the mob. After, there was a drinkie with the lovely BBC Books lot and then a long trek home.

This morning, the Man came to look at our leaky roof and concluded that it's not leaking. Instead, the snow on the concrete tiles has conjured condensation, which is collecting in pockets of the felt, and then dribbling out. So we've put plenty of cardboard down and will monitor the situation. I bet you're thrilled by this, but it's been quite the drama here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Who. Am. Iiiiii?

Had an appointment at that hot-bed of terrorism University College London this afternoon. Got taken for lunch in the Senior Common Room - by someone both senior and common - and admired the paintings.

Joseph Lister, plaque at UCLAs we left, I noticed this plaque in honour of a local celebrity, but can only assume it was researched on Wikipedia. Where is the mention of "The Rapture", or those four episodes of Sarah Jane's Adventures?

Thence with Nimbos to the Wellcome Collection for a nose round their free Identity show, which runs until 6 April. In eight rooms - with doors which are hiding - we learn of nine lives that illuminate what makes us who we are.

There were plenty of top facts and things to ruminate on. One caption explained that the publishers of the first version of Pepys' diary (Latham and Matthews, 1983),
"took advice on whether they were likely to be prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act by printing for the first time Pepy's reference to his wife's menstruation."
Pepys' contemporary Robert Hooke, meanwhile, kept a diary from 1672-80 that was limited to "terse observations of fact" - though he did helpfully use a "Pisces" symbol to mark days on which he ejaculated. On the wall behind these extracts played diary extracts from Big Brother.

The exhibition deftly mixes up the lives as lived by people, and the pioneers and theorists transforming how we (think we) live our lives. There's the impact of IVF has on a family of twins, and people who've campaigned and had surgery to change the gender-labels affixed at birth.

I was also impressed by the room shared by Sirs Francis Galton (inventor of eugenics and the fingerprint) and Alec Jeffreys (pioneer of DNA profiling), and the wealth of detail about phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall - including how much he was mocked in his own time.

A set of stairs also leads up to the permanent exhibition on Wellcome himself, packed with the odd things he collected. I loved the caption on Hiram-Maxim's Pipe of Peace:
"Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) invented the machine gun and also a patent inhaler (his Pipe of Peace), which he devised to treat his bouts of bronchitis. His friends worried that this invention could damage his reputation. As he said: "It is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering."

Pipe of Peace and Maxim Inhaler by Sir Hiram Maxim
English, acquired before 1936
Medicine Man exhibition, Wellcome Collection, London.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Saturday, January 02, 2010

But you shouldn't be here at the same time, with him

How splendid that Doctor Who Confidential caught the moment that Matt Smith met Russell T Davies – the latter trying not to be in the way. Naw.

But it occurred to me after a Spitfire or two that there was no sign of Tennant and Smith being there at the same time. And that films of more than one Doctor are rare. Excluding Doctor Who itself, this is what m'colleague Will Howells reckons is the definitive list of multiple Doctors in film and TV:

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sex and the City

To Wilton's Music Hall last night to see Fiona Shaw perform TS Eliot's The Wasteland single-handed and without a blindfold.

The venue was extraordinary – a 150 year-old music hall round the corner from the Royal Mint (and a stone's throw from where I worked 10 years ago). Stripped back to the brick and in desperate need of funding, it was a treat just to get through the door. Try the splendid virtual tour.

Shaw was extraordinary, nimbly skipping her way through Eliot's mash of tangled voices. The lighting was also exceptional, with sudden darkness or eerie shadows cast in perfect time. Brilliantly simple, brilliantly effective.

It's an odd poem, all odd, jangly bits of imagery and overheard snippets of speech. The Dr argued it's mostly about shagging and life in London (the title of this post is from her). As we schlepped our way back across Tower Bridge afterwards, she wondered whether her tastes in poems have been shaped by the ancient Greek stuff she's read, where it's all about the metre. I nodded along as if I understood.

I'm never sure with this sort of poetry whether it's very, very clever or not clever at all. There's bits I really like. The simplicity of the “Death by Water” section, for example, in which tall and handsome Phlebas has drowned offers no comfort or meaning. It's haunting because he's so bluntly gone.

There's also probably something clever going on since he'd died both recently (he is “a fortnight dead”) and in antiquity (he is called “the Phoenician”). I suspect there's also a very clever reason why Iain M Banks got the titles of two books from this section. But I've never understood what that was.

Having seen Stephen Fry talk on poetry back in 2005, I dared speak of poetry as “nuggets of meaning that can’t be said in any fewer words”, and I guess that's what The Wasteland is. But Codename Moose also recently referred me to a phrase in John le Carre's review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher:
“written with great lucidity and respect for the reader, and with immaculate restraint”.
It's the lucid, restrained bits of The Wasteland – and of writing generally – that really prick my brain. The density of meaning, though, is a swirling fug around that.

Speaking of immaculate restraint, it's Russell T Davies' last Doctor Who tonight. What an extraordinary, glorious, mad-as-badgers joy these 60 episodes have been – a golden age of telly. The range and depth and balls of it all. Thank you, Russell.