Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

Heavy metal: music on the sidelines

It hasn’t been universally welcomed, but like it or not you’re unlikely to have escaped the fact that Metallica were the first metal band to headline Glastonbury, last weekend. I’m not what you’d call a Metallica fan (I do still listen to the black album, and it’s still good) and I also have mixed feelings about their headlining status, though not for the same reason as the widely-reported row about it, but I definitely couldn’t help knowing that a) Glastonbury was on last weekend and b) Metallica were headlining on Saturday night. Yet I had to go look up the Sonisphere dates when I was trying to tell OneMonkey about Bruce Dickinson’s flying intro (it’s this coming weekend, the weekend of the Tour de France wondering what’s hit it in West Yorkshire, since you ask).

Consider these screenshots:

Over 2 million search results for Glastonbury on the BBCOver 400 search results for Sonisphere on the BBC

Even allowing for some of those 2 million and odd hits not actually being about the festival, doesn’t it tell you something that there’s only a few hundred about Sonisphere? (I would have used Donington as a comparator, but since it has the unhelpful name of Download these days, I didn’t bother)

There’s a concept on the BBC (for those of you reading this from outside Britain) called ‘undue prominence‘, which basically means the BBC can’t be seen to be promoting something, whether it’s a brand of soap powder or a particular band. Given the continual pushing of Glastonbury on 6Music for days (weeks? months? ‘tickets now available’, this singer rumoured, this band confirmed) leading up to the festival, and the re-playing of parts of Glastonbury sets for a couple of weeks afterwards, the BBC news website headlines about it, and indeed the BBC Glastonbury website, I have to wonder how far they’d have to go to fall foul of the guidelines. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there was only one music festival on at this time of year, and hadn’t heard that Download was 2 weekends before Glastonbury, or Sonisphere (as we now know) the weekend after.

Bruce Dickinson 2008

Scream for me Glastonbury? Maybe not…

So, is it a breakthrough that Metallica were one of the Glastonbury headline acts this year? Er, no. Surely we want greater diversity of music reporting, not a nod to ‘minority tastes’ on the all-but-state-sponsored festival du jour. Bruce Dickinson has been quoted as saying Iron Maiden wouldn’t play Glastonbury, and I would hope they’d stick to this if they ever were asked. There was a time when Radio 1 (in the days before 6Music) acknowledged that rock and metal existed and was popular; I listened to the whole of Donington 92 live, mainly because we always had Radio 1 on in our house (we even listened in the car as we embarked on a family holiday, the climax of Maiden’s set was a bit crackly as we ate fish and chips in a lay-by). The following morning I bought a second-hand tape of The Number of the Beast and the rest is history. How does the music-loving teenager come across any genre outside the mainstream these days? I end up listening to 6Music as the least worst option on my clock-radio (can’t get Planet Rock outside the kitchen for some reason) and I like Shaun Keaveny but the music choice leaves a lot to be desired.

We could of course learn to have properly diverse festivals. Germany apparently managed it with Rock am Ring at the start of June, where Maximo Park were on the same bill as Metallica, and a good mix of the Glastonbury, Download and Sonisphere line-ups seem to have coped with playing on the same day as each other, in the same venue. Until that happens, it would be nice if the mainstream media noticed that live music events do happen outside Somerset, even in June.

(Though not if they report them like this review in the Guardian from 1999 which has been bugging me for nearly 15 years. Maiden didn’t even play Moonchild  – the song he quotes the lyrics from – that night. I was there. And I can point to a set-list that says they didn’t, too. Either send someone with an affinity for the music on offer, or at least someone who’ll pay attention)

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

The North, the working class novel, the iplayer

For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.

The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.

Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.

If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…

Review of the week (it’s been an exciting one)

Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.

Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

Story a day update, Dirk Gently, and Peter Tinniswood

In the first 6 days of March I wrote just over 5000 words, spread among 5 different stories – not bad for an arbitrary self-assigned task, and the wordcount doesn’t include the copious notes I’ve made on what happens between the point I reached and the end of the tale. I’d been hoping for one or two completed flash pieces; all the topics I’ve tackled so far seem to warrant a longer work than that but I’ve still got over 3 weeks left.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC iplayer I’ve watched the first episode in the new Dirk Gently series. If you approach it not as a follow-up to the incomparable Douglas Adams novels but as a programme of the sort that a Douglas Adams reader may enjoy, it’s well worth a watch. Gently and MacDuff are well cast, the plot was suitably convoluted, silly, but with a twisted logic to it, and there were a few nods to the original. And I do love the fact that he’s still driving that Austin Princess (I actually have a story in my unpublished pile which features a car of that very type – many years ago my dad had an electric blue one).

Also thanks to the iplayer, on which I’ve caught various episodes of Uncle Mort’s South Country and Uncle Mort’s North Country (never in the order they were intended), I read a Peter Tinniswood novel a couple of weeks ago. A Touch of Daniel is the first of his novels featuring the Brandon family, of which Uncle Mort is a member by marriage. Written in the late 1960s and set among working class characters in a northern town, the novel could happily sit alongside better-known classics such as A Kind of Loving or Room at the Top. However, Tinniswood wrote comedy, and comic novels are hard to pull off though he manages it here brilliantly: this is understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best. There are running gags, the on-off-on engagement which put me in mind of Bob and Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a shotgun wedding featuring a most unlikely couple, bizarre deaths and apparent miracles. All wrapped up with a houseful of elderly (and slightly potty) relatives, a staunch mother, wayward father, and taciturn Carter Brandon the put-upon young man at the centre of it all. If you like Robert Rankin and the Likely Lads, you could do worse than read this book.


It’s November and there’s too much to do

Time ran away with me last week and I never made it to my blog. We had a friend to stay for a few days, then suddenly it was November and I had a novel to write. Another one. I haven’t even quite finished the last one yet (a couple of thousand words away from a complete first draft, I reckon) but it’s been put aside so I can participate in the madness that is NaNoWriMo. I’m already behind schedule and it’s only day 4.

However, as those of us who listened occasionally at school may remember, it’s not the winning it’s the taking part. NaNoWriMo is a good excuse to write furiously, without giving yourself enough time for the self-doubt to creep in. I’ll settle for 20,000 words I can work on later. A belated appreciative moment for the support crew of friends and family that make these intensive writing challenges possible – once again, I take my hat off to you all.

And while I’ve got my hat off, consider it also doffed to Chris Packham – anyone that can manage (with a straight face) to work so many Damned titles (but particularly Machine Gun Etiquette) into a BBC Wildlife Programme deserves recognition. Well done Chris, and I apologise for considering you a poor second to Terry Nutkins way back when.

At least someone’s been busy

I haven’t done anything much here for a while, you may have noticed (you may not, don’t feel bad if so – I won’t hold it against you). However, friend D has now given me details of the anthology I mentioned a while ago, which his story is in. It’s a book of magical stories for children, called A Pocketful of Moondust, and I do like the dragon on the cover.

Also being productive is the librarian I wrote about some time ago, who now has her own blog where she aims to review every book she’s marked as read on librarything (including, but hopefully not limited to, sci-fi and fantasy). We wish her well, and let’s hope she’s more organised than I am.

If you want to know what I’ve been doing for the last month (and I’m sure you do), I’ve been listening to more rockabilly Christmas songs than is healthy (where would I be without spotify?) and some Iron Maiden (including a Brazilian guy on youtube who does Maiden songs on the harp! Fantastic), watching DVDs (mainly Red Dwarf, and The Beiderbecke Connection), being unprepared for the festivities, failing to reply to friends’ emails, and saying ‘bah humbug’ a lot. And watching Dirk Gently on the iplayer (more bearable than I thought it would be, but as OneMonkey says, they’ve stripped it of all Douglas Adams-isms. Presumably to make it more palatable to a wider audience. Or maybe the BBC have forgotten how to make decent programmes and it was all a dreadful accident). And reading A History of Education in Great Britain. And some other stuff, but the key point I guess is I haven’t been writing. I’ll try and rectify that soon.


The North: a Cultural Wasteland

Finally read This Sporting Life by David Storey, and I quite enjoyed it, much more than I enjoyed his later novel Saville (see my earlier comments on that). Maybe one of the reasons was that it was about a third of the length of Saville, and kept its focus. There were a couple of places (as with Saville) that violence or arguments apparently erupted from nowhere, making me think the characters were over-reacting or just unhinged, but maybe it’s a product of its era and I just don’t appreciate quite how controversial some of the dialogue or circumstances would have been at the time.

I’ve never seen the film despite its brief filming in my native village (Big Brother watched it for that reason earlier in the week, and suggested I should watch it sometime but warned me there’s a lot of grimness and rugby to sit through) but from what I gather it’s different from the book, even the main character’s name. In the book, Arthur Machin is a young factory worker who gets signed to the local rugby team for a fair sum. Though he could live on his rugby pay, he carries on working and remains in his cheap lodgings but buys a car and lives it up a bit, going to parties and greyhound races. He’s a bit full of himself, headstrong and self-centred, but not nearly as bad as some of those around him, or as bad as his parents seem to think. His love affair with his widowed landlady is hard to fathom but in many ways its successes and failures are what seems to drive him. Though his status as a rugby player is central to the novel, rugby itself isn’t, and if (like me) you neither understand nor care about rugby that shouldn’t take away from your appreciation of the book, which is a good example of the northern working class novel of the 60s.

This Sporting Life was first published in 1960, and Big Brother directed me to the iplayer when he’d watched the film, where I found a programme purporting to document the explosion of northern culture in 1960, including this novel. OneMonkey sometimes disputes (possibly in jest, though I’m never entirely sure) Yorkshire’s claim to be Northern. I guess if you’re a Geordie the only place more northern than you is Scotland, but at least we can both agree that Nottingham is not The North by any stretch of the imagination, unless perhaps you’re a BBC type who saw The North as an exotic country (starting around Watford) back in 1960. In other words, this was one of those ‘with friends like these…’ programmes where the BBC attempts to condemn patronising attitudes of the past, and in doing so patronises mightily. If I hadn’t have had a mouth full of omelette, I would have been shouting at the computer. It was as if they’d run out of examples early on, and brought in ‘northern writer’ DH Lawrence (from Nottinghamshire) to fill the gap (maybe they just wanted an excuse to bring up the trial, and use rude words on BBC4).

1960 also saw Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and of course Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. Both novels were mentioned, but mainly in terms of the slightly later film versions. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also featured (film 1960, novel 1958).

Robert Bolt (born just outside Manchester I think) had 2 new plays in 1960, one of which was A Man For All Seasons, and neither of which were mentioned. Tony Richardson (Shipley-born film director) was mentioned, but for A Taste of Honey which is a very good film but came out in 1961 (and the play debuted in 1958, so I’m not sure why they spent so much time on it in a programme about 1960). What they didn’t mention was The Entertainer, released in 1960, directed by Richardson, featuring Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird, Albert Finney, Joan Plowright – all born north of the northernmost point of the Welsh-English border as far as I know (and that’s a good start for deciding what to designate the north of England, I’ve always thought). The 1960 Stanley Baker film Hell Is A City was set and filmed in Manchester, based on a novel by a Lancashire man.

I could go on, but I’m in danger of spilling tea on the keyboard in ranting gesticulation, and that would never do. It’s a shame that such a promising programme lost focus, spending quite a bit of its hour (so it seemed) on non-1960 output, non-northern output, and Coronation Street. With courage and research it could have been an informative look at the wealth of northern culture of the time, and a response to the all too frequent sneers turned our way from The South. I’ll let Big Brother have the last word: “What does he mean he likes the scene on the slag heap in Billy Liar? Slag heap? That’s Bradford Moor!”

To adapt a mockingbird

Apparently, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published 50 years ago this year; the BBC showed a documentary this week connected with it, which I saw part of. The presenter mentioned that he’d never watched the classic film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as he was too fond of the book. Conversely I’ve never read the book (nor have I seen the film) but I saw a spell-binding stage version starring under-rated Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston as Atticus, and I wouldn’t want to read the book now in case it tainted my memories of the play.

As with many things, I’m quite inconsistent when it comes to sampling different versions of literary works. I mentioned recently seeking out novels of TV and radio detectives I’ve enjoyed, and if I’m not doing much else I’ll usually have a listen to a radio version of the Maigret or Poirot stories I read as an adolescent. Whereas with the novels of the TV or radio detectives I’m looking for something new to widen my knowledge of them, when I listen to Maigret, Poirot or Sherlock Holmes I’m looking for something familiar and comfortable, something I can happily miss a few minutes of to go make a cup of tea.

I used to make a point of not watching adaptations of Stephen King stories I’d already read (to this day I think the only exception is The Green Mile which wasn’t one of my favourite Stephen King books anyway; I watched the film about 10 years after I’d read the novel) because those stories were so important to me I didn’t want anything spoiling them. The other way round was somehow fine: I saw Stand By Me and Maximum Overdrive before I read their written roots, and I realised that at least with the short stories the divergence between the visual and the written was great enough to allow me to separate them in my mind.

A few years ago (actually 11, I just checked) there was a high-profile film adaptation of at least part of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Given that this is one of my absolute favourite books of all time (I say it’s a book, singular, but the edition I’ve got is 3 thick books and my dad’s edition is 12 slimmer volumes) I was curious as to how it was handled, but I knew I could never watch it as the novel itself means too much to me and no-one else’s vision could ever do it justice. Which is where more inconsistency comes in: Lord of the Rings, another of my all-time favourites (sometimes for the sake of my back I wish I carried thinner books around with me), and yet I was eager to see Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and came away from the first film with the unsettling feeling that he’d somehow seen inside my head. I didn’t feel the same about the remaining two films but I still enjoyed them because of the way the first one made me feel, and I’m looking forward to The Hobbit.

I’m not sure what the conclusion is from all this, if indeed there is one. Maybe it’s just that I’m a contrary soul, or that I’m missing out on interpretations that would make me enjoy my favourite books all the more (the BBC presenter finally watched the Gregory Peck film and thought Peck’s delivery brought to life part of the courtroom scene that he’d always found rather flat in the book). Maybe I should stick to only one format or the other, to maximise my time for discovering new wonders.

Adapted detectives: from novel to TV, and radio to novel

Having seen a George Gently detective drama on the iplayer recently and noticed it was based on an Alan Hunter novel, I was pleased to find one of the series in my local library. I’d already found out from a quick look at a blog post by Martin Edwards that the north-east setting of the TV version was a departure from the generally East Anglian settings of the books but I thought I’d give it a go. The novel I read was from the early 80s, quite late in the chronology of the series, and perhaps I’d have been better off reading an early one – this one’s put me off George Gently novels entirely, and it may be that I’m missing out on some gems.

The plot hinged on a man retrieving an unmarked envelope from the kitchen bin, opening it, believing his wife had written it (when everyone else who knew her and read it said it must be a forgery because it was so out of character) and this was after he’d seen his daughter throw it away, apparently casually asked her what it was and been told it was just a circular. Maybe I don’t know any truly paranoid domineering people, but I couldn’t understand at all why he’d retrieved the envelope instead of dismissing it as the junk mail his daughter claimed. Partly this might be due to the general lack of character – with one exception, I didn’t feel like I had any insight into the characters or could predict their behaviour. I’m still thoroughly puzzled at the complete lack of reaction when someone finds out that he was in fact the intended victim of a plot by his wife and stepson, and his friend had only been killed by accident due to a vague resemblance to him from behind and an identical coat.

The other BBC-inspired reading I’ve been doing this week is a couple of Inspector McLevy novels by David Ashton. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve enjoyed the McLevy radio series; the Victorian Edinburgh policeman is based on real memoirs of a Victorian Edinburgh policeman, and then just to add another layer of complication there are three (I think) novels based on the radio series. They say on the cover ‘based on the character from the BBC Radio 4 series’, which suggested to me that they were unrelated to the radio episodes, but Fall From Grace was largely identical to an episode I’ve heard; Shadow of the Serpent didn’t bring any to mind, but I haven’t heard them all so I wouldn’t like to swear that it’s not based on one.

On the whole I did enjoy both the McLevy novels, satisfying prose, reasonably paced, and bringing out a little more of the dark, brooding side of James McLevy as well as delving into his past. Both stories were interspersed with scenes from his childhood, the flashback chapters conveniently set in italics and headed with a date to make them stand out. Despite this, Fall From Grace (the second novel) did have me confused at times as there were two layers of flashback: the present day (the story from the radio episode, involving a suspicious fire at a warehouse and an insurance claim for a cargo of cigars) has a tenuous connection with a case from a year ago (involving the Tay Bridge disaster and its negligent designer) one of the principal participants of which was a figure from McLevy’s childhood, and while the childhood scenes were obviously separate, despite the italics and the dates I did keep losing track of the narrative as I failed to distinguish the Tay Bridge and warehouse fire strands sufficiently in my mind.

The joys of the McLevy radio series are the well-realised characters and their interactions: the incorruptible but unconventional Inspector James McLevy, obstinate and with a dark sense of humour; his young Irish assistant, Constable Mulholland, forever quoting apt sayings of his Aunt Katie back on the farm, fast following in McLevy’s wily footsteps; their long-suffering superior, Lieutenant Roach, who would always rather be on a golf course; and of course Jean Brash, Edinburgh’s premier madam, long-standing friend (of sorts) of McLevy, and sure to be found wherever trouble appears. All of this is brought out even more in the novels, the dialogue works well and there’s a liberal scattering of humour to alleviate the darkness.

Perhaps the key to the different results of my cross-media forays is that whereas McLevy in both guises was written by the same man, George Gently was adapted for TV from the novels with no reference to the original author, and though some of the characters may share names, the outlook and setting have been imbued with a new author’s spirit. In the circumstances it might have been better to change the names as well.

A big hand for Mr Moffat

Where would I be without the iplayer? With only an hour’s delay I saw the final episode of this series of Doctor Who last night and was mightily impressed. Tense, silly, tightly-written, taking care of most (all?) of the loose ends and hinting at further excitement to come. Steven Moffat’s first series has lived up to my expectations, and even Amy Pond grew on me a bit (though she doesn’t deserve such a devoted husband as Rory, I’m sure). I’m not saying the series was perfect, there were a few weak points but on the whole well-written and well worth watching. Here’s to the next one.

Activity without productivity

This week’s been reasonably full of stuff: a handful of submissions, an acceptance (issue 14 of Short, Fast and Deadly – available next Sunday) and some rewriting of the early chapters of Wasted Years to bring them into line with changes in my style over the six years I was writing it. Unfortunately there’s also been a lot of distraction via the BBC iplayer (a documentary on heavy metal, heavy metal from the BBC archives, and Iron Maiden concert footage, as well as the return of The Now Show which I could have just listened to on the radio, and a couple of other radio comedies I’d missed), spotify (working through the genre they like to call ‘hair metal’), and the great outdoors (not a website but a large expanse of moorland with gloriously snowy hills in the distance). All very invigorating and soothing to the soul, but it’s not getting me any nearer to completing that 8th Doctor story for the Big Finish call.

Is there a Doctor Who fan in the house?

I’m not claiming to know an awful lot about Doctor Who, I’ve seen a tiny proportion of the TV episodes (a couple of the 1st and 2nd Doctors, a few 4th and 5th, the film of the 8th, all of the 9th and a fair few 10th), read a dozen or so novels and listened to most of the 8th Doctor audio adventures from Big Finish. So in the grand scheme of things I’m a latecomer, an amateur, and thus have no business sharing my opinions with the world. Sometimes, though, it’s easier to get a feel for something, or to spot discrepancies, by jumping in the middle and darting around than by following sequentially at a steady pace. I appreciate that it’s hard to take over a character from other writers, and with the Doctor there’s over forty years of TV, audio and written adventures to take on board, assimilate, and do your best not to contradict, but sometimes it seems like Russell T Davies doesn’t even try.

Since I was in a house with a TV over Christmas, I watched part one of the Doctor Who special as it was shown, but by about halfway through I was only persevering so I could discuss it with Big Brother on the phone later in the evening (and by the sound of it, so was he). Too much running, jumping and shouting, too many showy special effects and not enough plot, explanation or reflection. I know the nature of TV and TV audiences has changed over the years but we’re a far cry from Tom Baker’s moral quandary over the destruction of the daleks at their creation. He asked ‘Have I the right?’ and stood around agonising for a while; the way RTD writes the tenth Doctor, I can’t imagine that sort of moral question even occurring to him as he runs in at full tilt, brandishing his sonic screwdriver (which surely should be the sonic Swiss Army knife these days, given its ever-growing extra features. I don’t remember him actually using it to get a stone out of a horse’s hoof, but as I said, I haven’t seen all the episodes).

This lack of a clear moral dimension is one aspect of the humanising of the Doctor. ‘Human interest’ is a useful hook to bring in or keep an audience and that’s always been there, usually with the (mainly human) companions; however, the Doctor himself is not human, and that is (or should be) one of the keys to his character. That potential for stepping back with cold detachment to do what he has to do, never allowing himself to get too attached to anyone, even deliberately distancing himself so that he can always move on when necessary, and a constant awareness of his great age and responsibilities. With the ninth Doctor the new era barely got going but with the tenth, RTD has really got into his stride – and apart from the heartbreak of losing Rose, we’ve had a love affair in pre-revolutionary France, a woman he tells his true name to (the implication being that he’s in love with her), and a marriage to Queen Elizabeth (complete with crass joke about her virginal nickname). All (or mostly) good drama, but hardly in character for the universe’s favourite eccentric scientist.

Every writer for Doctor Who, be it the TV, audio or written adventures, will put his or her own stamp on the episode, but at the same time they need to fit in, however tempting it may be to go off on a tangent. The main character is not yours to do with as you see fit, if you’re writing a novel or audio episode you might have to channel the spirit of Jon Pertwee, but even for the current Doctor, unless you want to explain all the womanising with some kind of midlife crisis or bang on the head, you need to follow the character’s natural arc.

As a complete contrast this Christmas I also read Lungbarrow, a seventh Doctor novel by Marc Platt which I recommend (rather brilliantly available as a free e-book from the BBC these days; second-hand copies of the original are hard to come by). I’d heard that this novel hinted that the Doctor might in fact be the Other, a reincarnation of a legendary powerful figure from Gallifreyan history. It didn’t so much hint as write it in 10-foot high letters decorated with fairy lights and underline it in blood, but it could be that I missed some hint of ambiguity, possibly due to references I didn’t pick up on because of my patchy knowledge. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable read, with next to no ‘action’ but plenty of pathos, human interest and intrigue. I wonder if RTD ever read it?

Educational evenings in West Yorkshire

Now it’s the weekend and I’m marginally more alert, time to explore my Doctor Who authors evening further.  All four authors (Robert Shearman, Mark Michalowski, Mark Morris and Simon Guerrier) were pleasant chaps, though I guess if you’re not, you don’t get invited (or allowed?) to do these kind of events. They all came across as long-standing fans, genuine enthusiasts, and in fact when I asked how they got their Doctor Who opportunities, the common theme was that people knew they were big fans, liked their existing novels/plays/TV scripts and asked if they’d like to join in. Joining in does seem the right phrase; they made it sound like all the current writers, be it for the BBC TV series, Big Finish audio releases or either company’s novels, knew each other and regularly met up for publicity events or just for an evening in the pub. That’s probably not a wholly accurate representation but I can imagine that if they’re mainly fans then any who do meet will at least have some common ground.

Believe it or not, it was quite an educational experience. For instance I found out that Doctor Who authors sometimes have to go into schools to do what in some circles would be known as outreach events – not an occupational hazard I’d considered when I started daydreaming about being one someday. They also get told which monsters they can or can’t use and, however loosely, when and where to set the story. I can see how some people would find that frustrating, but that would focus my efforts – if I have complete free rein my mind runs in too many directions at once. Which is where OneMonkey comes in; he’s good at narrowing my vision by suggesting a particular direction (I might then go in the opposite direction, but at least he’s helped me get there).

If you want to see a photo of the evening (sadly not including much of Morley Town Hall’s overblown Victorian interior, all dark wood and stained glass) try this blog. Looks like it was taken by the guy across the aisle from me, and yes he did ask a good question, but I won’t spoil his fun by telling you what it was.

Out of character

I went, I saw, I spoke to not one but two Doctor Who writers in person at the Morley Literature Festival tonight. I surprised myself and shocked OneMonkey by asking a question from the audience, speaking almost entirely coherently into the microphone brandished by the roving host. I embarrassed myself by blurting out my connection with the previous Chain Gang as Rob Shearman signed an 8th Doctor CD inlay for me, but that did get me a handshake and a brief chat about the new Chain Gang series. And finally I spoke to Mark Michalowski, but all I managed to say was that I didn’t have anything for him to sign because I’d only borrowed one of his books from the library (I have only read one of his Doctor Who novels, I did borrow it from the library, and I really enjoyed it, but I’m guessing it’s not the greatest thing to have someone say to you at a book-signing). I’m quite pathetically excited about my evening, but also slightly cringing and it’s reminded me why I’m usually antisocial. Time for bed…

In praise of Mitchell and Webb

What with not having a TV, and usually remembering at five to seven that there’s comedy on Radio 4 at 6.30, it took me a while to encounter Mitchell and Webb. Having seen some of their last TV sketch series on the iplayer, I’ve been (mainly) remembering to listen to the current Radio 4 series, and I’m very glad I have. Intelligent comedy that isn’t just political satire! Who could ask for more? If you haven’t heard the Old Lady Job Justification sketches then you’re missing a treat. And probably a good opportunity to re-examine your life.

Coincidence and Robert Shearman

I’ve reappeared on the BBC7 website: the BBC7 Chain Gang pages are back. My alternative ending to Picture This is there for all the world to see again. Having mentioned Robert Shearman in this and other contexts earlier this evening, it was quite pleasing to go to his episode 13 and see the link to my small effort at the bottom of the page. The reason for this reappearance seems to be a new Chain Gang series starting next weekend, this time entirely Shearman-written, with episode outlines supplied by BBC7 listeners. No doubt I’ll be giving it a go.

Detecting personal preference

When I’m not reading SF, or Anthony Trollope, I usually turn to a detective novel for literary comfort. Started off by my dad at a young age on the Sherlock Holmes stories and then Agatha Christie (terribly quaint and old-fashioned when I look back on them now), I finally landed at Raymond Chandler at the age of 18. In my opinion Chandler is unsurpassed and indeed unsurpassable, and I would give my finest fountain pen for a style as spare yet full as his. The richly described Californian landscape and archetypal private detectives (notably Marlowe, of course) leave me open-mouthed in silent wonder.

Police-based detective stories can be quite enjoyable; I’ve mentioned before that (rendering of dialect aside) I like what I’ve seen of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe output, and I’ve enjoyed McLevy (police inspector in Victorian Edinburgh) on BBC7. On the whole, though, they don’t have the freedom a private detective has; Tony Hillerman’s series of Navajo Tribal Police novels work particularly well once Joe Leaphorn has retired and can poke his nose in anywhere, while his erstwhile colleague Jim Chee is constrained by his official business. If you’re going for detection, the private eye is king.

However, now that the romance of 1930s California is gone and the harmless British (or British-based, in Poirot’s case) dilettante has no place in the world, where does that leave us? Gritty realism is all very well, and I’d be the first to admit that Lord Peter Wimsey can get a bit cloying sometimes but the relentless depressing nastiness of many modern crime writers puts me off. In its own way, that doesn’t seem very realistic either, it’s as far removed from anything I’ve encountered in real life as Conan Doyle’s London, only not as interesting. What I find I enjoy in detective fiction with a contemporary setting is humour, homeliness, some quality that makes me smile with recognition even as it’s presenting some tense and thrilling scenario or a satisfying sequence of logical deductions. By humour I don’t mean spoof (though Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels are well worth a read, particularly when he forgets to try so hard), I mean realistic touches; people in tense situations crack bad jokes to make themselves feel better, nervous people create their own slapstick scenes, everyday life is rarely without some lighter moment, however bleak the day.

BBC7 aired a well-written series called The Blackburn Files a while ago, in which redundant miner Stephen J Blackburn becomes a private detective in the small town where he grew up. It’s billed as a comedy drama but to me it just seemed Northern (think of the difference between Coronation Street and Eastenders. Unless you’ve never heard of either, in which case you can’t). You can’t get much further South than Adam Death’s serial novel Lapland, set in Cornwall, but it grabbed me for similar reasons (I admit I’ve slacked off recently at about a dozen chapters in, but it was good up to that point and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the rest when I get there). Our hero’s office is above a fish and chip shop and he lives in a caravan; refreshingly different from the po-faced, relentlessly cool and serious American detectives I’ve read in the last few years.

So to sum up, I like effortless cool and I like effortless uncool; British, and British-viewed Californian; spare and lyrical. I like down-to-earth and upper-class. I like the twists I feel clever for spotting and the ones that come at me from nowhere. I like a good detective story, and someday I’d quite like to write one.