Friday, 3 April 2015

What I've Caught Up On in March

Regular readers will know the drill by now... things I've been partaking of during March in no particular order:

Top of the Pops 1980
Doctor Who - Series One (for pedants: The Eccleston Year)
Shoot This One - Javier Grillo-Marxauch
Russell T Davies T is for Televison - Mark Aldridge and Andy Murray
The Blizzard Issue 16 - edited by Jonathan Wilson
Howard the Duck - Steve Gerber et al
The Avengers: The Children's Crusade -Allan Heinburg et al
The Monster Show - J R Southall
The Waste Books - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
In The Club - Kenickie
All Over the Place - The Bangles
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
The Race for Space - Public Service Broadcasting

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Embuggerance of Mortality

It’s funny, but even if you think you’re braced for someone dying, it’s no easier than if it comes out of the blue.  The difference is only in the initial shock, the process of adapting to the hole left in our lives remains one of life’s harsh realities for those left behind.  This applies whether it’s close family or idols we’ve never met.  I remember spending much of  the afternoon of 26th October 2004 reading the BBC announcement of John Peel’s death, closing it and reloading it as if to make sure it was true, as if there’d be a big ‘MERKED!’ there instead, that it’d be a dark joke.  Of course it wasn’t. Of course it was true. And we had to readjust to a world without Peel, without the man who’d somehow managed to last 37 years on an explicitly youth focused radio station.  Radio One paid tribute and adjusted, we who’d known him paid tribute and adjusted, perhaps even noting real life lacked a notion of dramatic subtlety by having him die at a point when arguably his primary role of introducing new music to a wide audience was being made redundant by the rise of the internet.  Or maybe it robbed us of the ideal curator for all these opportunities at exactly the wrong time.  It was the same when Douglas Adams went, when (at a younger age) Kurt Cobain died. On a grander scale the same was true of Princess Diana’s death, the country at large seemingly being dazed and confused and not knowing quite how to react.

I had the same reaction last Thursday, when I came back from lunch to find out that Terry Pratchett had died.  Pratchett’s death wasn’t as sudden or unexpected as those already mentioned, his early onset Alzheimers had rendered him increasingly and ever more noticeably frail. Death is, of course, an inevitability of the human condition but it’s a very different thing to know of your own mortality and being confronted with it, knowing that your personal end is near. For many that’d be an excuse to turn in on yourself, become maudlin and turn away from the world.  It’s a natural reaction.  Pratchett’s reaction was phenomenal.  In keeping with his books it was a reaction born of a peculiarly British strain of rage, one which eschews tantrums about the unfairness of life for keeping buggering on.  Pratchett dismissed the degenerative brain disease as an ‘embuggerance’ and went about raising the debate of the profile about assisted dying, making a memorable BBC documentary about it. Typically for Pratchett it confronted awkward questions about the subject, about the general societal belief in life imposing a painful, undignified existence on some.  It’s the sort of question his novels asked so well, the ones no-one really wants to confront.* Pratchett confronted it and refused any attempt at comfort or sugar coating. Like the best of his work it led us to a dark place, the evil witch’s cottage at the heart of the forest, but unlike the fiction it didn’t see the need to lead us out again.  It was a one-sided argument, a dark polemic. Unlike his books it didn’t lead us out again, it simply confronted the arguments about quality of life and the reality of assisted death head on.  As with his books, it left us wiser for hearing the argument.  Neil Gaiman pointed out, in a Guardian article about a collection of hisnon-fiction, that for all the imagery of Pratchett being a grandfatherly looking old chap writing fantasy the reality is he’s a tremendously angry writer. And he quite happily lets us know why he’s angry.  The difference with his anger and the venting that fills much of the internet is that Pratchett could weave this anger and darkness into beautifully told stories with wit to spare.  There was no incoherent ranting, more a calmly angry facing up to the realities and how they might be dealt with.  This ranged from how the most trivial ‘embuggerances’ are the ones we pay most attention to even though, in the long run, they don’t matter to a practical philosophy of how to cope with what we do doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  It’s the act that separates the great storytellers from the merely good ones, the willingness to push a question beyond logical limits, no matter how absurd.

Of course, with his chosen settings tending toward the fantastic, Pratchett had plenty of latitude to be absurd and get away with it.  The main gift Pratchett gave to literature was a rediscovery of the principles of Jonathan Swift, of what could be slipped past the reader’s conscious mind if they’re laughing about daft tales of witches, wizards and sentient luggage. The reader has already bought into the inherent absurdity of the world so it’s quite simple to make the apparently sane seem equally as absurd by introducing it here.  It’s a trick that science-fiction had been using for decades, one prevalent around the time of the early Discworld books (the best relevant examples of the British strain of this tend to come in the long running comic 2000AD). Many writers have followed the template of absurd ideas in an absurd world, the trick most of them missed was grounding the characters as well as Pratchett did.  No matter what their exterior – male, female, orang-utang, troll, dog, god, anthropomorphic personality – they were all recognisable to us in their reactions.  Human is simultaneously the right and the wrong word for it.  Characters we could believe in, whose reactions weren’t illogical in any way but the very human way we’re all illogical, were what kept the Discworld spinning. Characters were more than a simple set of reactions – Rincewind more than a coward, Granny Weatherwax more than the hardened wise woman, Sam Vimes more than the cynical old cop. They were more complicated than that whilst actually being that simple.

After a random encounter with Equal Rites in the local library I eagerly devoured Pratchett for the next twenty years or so, snapping the books up as they came out.  Naturally I even met him once, popping into the Worcester branch of Waterstones after watching the 1995 FA Cup final.  I’m sure he’d heard it a million times but I still got to say thank you, which perhaps matters as much to the fan as to the writer. My wife could go one better, having run the Concussion convention in Cardiff with Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and having plenty of anecdotes about it (minor one: that convention apparently inspired Soul Music, certainly one of my wife’s very good friends is the inspiration for Death’s daughter Susan).  In the social media age the death of the author** has become a mass wake, the modern equivalent of sitting round the campfire and retelling our stories and I spent much of Friday reading through and listening to tributes.  And virtually all of them had some little nugget of truth in, some insight what made Pratchett so popular.  My favourite was a simple one, and one in the relatively quiet corner of the internet that’s my Facebook page.  It came from an old schoolmate of mine, who reminded me that decades ago I’d  pressed a copy of The Colour of Magic on him and insisted he read it.  On the Friday he said that this was what had properly got him into reading, something he hadn’t enjoyed doing before.  Obviously this was a grand and glorious compliment to my good taste, equally obviously it was also a bigger compliment to the quality of Pratchett’s books. By opening up the vistas of literature, a gateway to stories, he made my friend a little wiser and more joyful.  And ultimately that’s his finest legacy.  No-one’s ever been made stupider by reading a Pratchett book and Pratchett never lied to his readers, even when it might have been of comfort. 
Ultimately he knew that life always went on, even when individual lives didn’t.  And in this case his books will always be there, sentient missives from Pratchett’s mind, as alive and dangerous as any in the Unseen University library.  They’ll always be there ready to take the unwary mind through the deep dark forest, but crucially always ready to lead them out again, to remind us that if you know what it looks like, and you look hard enough, you can find light.*** Somewhere, in the corner of millions of mind, there’s a little Pratchett amused at our failing and railing against our stupidity.

And for that little Pratchett in the corner of my mind, I’m profoundly grateful.

* This is where he differs from fellow Wodehousian descendant Douglas Adams.  Adams provides the same sort of absurd angles as Pratchett but, until Last Chance To See converts him to the cause of conservationism, restricts himself to pointing out humanity’s foolishness.  Pratchett tells you why foolishness, stupidity and ignorance are bad and dangerous things and why they need stamping out.

** Actual death rather than amusing conceptual corner of postmodernism   

*** Assuming you’re not stuck down a mine without a lamp.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

D'yer wanna come with me?

It's a decade ago tonight that this aired...

It's not the episode itself, it's the trailer.  We all knew the show was coming back and roughly when, but we hadn't seen a frame yet (unless you'd been impatient enough to download the early copy leaked on those naughty torrent sites).

This made it all real.

There was the new Doctor - Christopher Eccleston.  Christopher. Bloody. Eccleston, a proper heavyweight actor.  The new TARDIS.  The new companion.  And an irresistible invitation.  It's still pretty much as excited as anything on TV has ever got me.  This was Doctor Who, my favourite show since childhood, back with the budget to make it look as magnificent as it had always deserved to, back as a proper flagship show.  I could even forget that I knew the tunnel where Eccleston was filmed running from a fireball so well and lose myself in the excitement.  

Everything about this trailer is long gone.  Eccleston only lasted a year, the TARDIS set departed with David Tennant.  Billie Piper's performance was so good no-one mentioned that brief pop career by the end of the first season, she's matured into a fine award winning actor but happy to return to celebrate special occasions for the show.  The show's moved studios twice, the one I used to walk past on the way to work having been a warehouse and now offices.  Even the underpass is long gone, blocked up and filled in as part of a redevelopment of the area around the station. Only the show is still here, and that's as it should be.  Change and development's always been part of Doctor Who's DNA and ten years on we're five Doctors (yes the War Doctor counts!), two showrunners, three TARDIS sets and a daft number of title sequences and rearrangements of the theme down.  Only Murray Gold's music remains after ten years.  Younger generations have their Doctors, their memories and all the monsters they can handle.  It's the natural reference point for when anyone in Britain talks about SF and it's bigger around the world than it's ever been.  And all thanks to Russell T Davies, Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.  Back then we were grateful beyond words, delighted that we'd have one last season to reward our patience over a decade and a half with just one new episode (but shitloads of books and audios).  Despite the talent we weren't sure whether it'd be any good.  The trailer was the first sign that not only would it be good, it'd be good beyond our wildest dreams.  Did I want to go with him? More than ever.  I still do.  And when they promised the trip of a lifetime?It's been all that and more.

2005? Tell you what.  I bet we're going to have a really great year.

Oh, and spoilers... we got all this next...

Sunday, 1 March 2015


Got a couple of episodes behind on Cucumber thanks to the telly failing to record one episode.  I've now caught up on last Thursday's episode, the sixth of the season.

What an absolutely astonishing hour of telly.  If I see gameshow hosts reaching through the TV to give everyone free money this will still be the most extraordinary thing on the box this year.  Bravo Cyril Nri.  Bravo James Murray.  Bravo Alice Troughton.  Bravo Russell T Davies. And bravo everyone else involved in the episode and that quarter hour or so in particular.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

On living long and prospering

It's given to very few of us to become genuinely iconic.  I'm not sure the conditions exist to do that in cultural terms these days; there's no real centre ground any more which attracts families and social classes of all stripes.  TV viewers are offered their own niche channels and the only real communal events are live.  Even then it's largely sport and there exist large swathes of the population who don't enjoy that.  Everything's fractured and it's all too easy to exist in your own niche.  Cutting across demographics, media and cultures is now somewhere between difficult and impossible.

That wasn't the case in the 1960s of course.  There were infinitely less channels, less diversity in less combinations.  In the UK you had three TV channels at best, in the US the situation was practically little different.  Radio had equally little choice, despite the late 60s advent of Radio 1.  So there was almost a forced homogenity to culture where everything had to be shared and the channels had to try to appeal to as many people as possible (for the BBC this was actually embedded in their charter). Therefore the times before the pro-infinite choice 1980s created these genuine icons.  Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson were probably the last great heyday before the final one-off flare of the Spice Girls in the 1990s.  Many of the these icons came from the the 1970s (the likes of Bowie, Led Zeppelin and dubious TV personalities) but most came from the 1960s, the cultural founding point of post-war culture (prize exception: Elvis, obviously).  The Beatles and the Stones bestrode the music scene, the Daleks, Hancock and the Steptoes bestrode TV along with Coronation Street.  But across the shared culture of the UK and US?  Over time, one series mutated to assume an iconic status in both, one in which it also became a shorthand for science-fiction: Star Trek (yes I know Doctor Who's getting there now but it's really just catching up).

You can probably catch my drift on what this post's about now.  Yesterday I got home from work and checked Facebook to discover Leonard Nimoy had passed away.  Yes, he'd been Paris in Mission: Impossible and had a frankly daftly wide ranging career covering all sorts of other artistic pursuits (photography, poetry, music and far more).  But he was known primarily as Spock, the half-human half-Vulcan green blooded first officer of the Starship Enterprise.  Together with William Shatner and DeForest Kelley they drove the original series of Trek, expertly finding the line between drama and high camp which gives the series a charm it still retains.  This isn't to downplay the likes of James Doohan , Nichelle Nicholls, George Takei and Walter Koenig, who all contribute to the show's success, but Kirk, Bones and Spock are clearly the main characters and accordingly get more screen time.  And of those Kirk and Spock are the iconic ones, the main guys you pick on if you're parodying the show.  Shatner and Nimoy, Cultural icons who've been instantly recognisable for three generations, inspired convention, novels, cosplay, fanfic, songs... properly iconic.

At some level we thought they'd live forever.  But they don't, they're as mortal as the rest of us, human.  Shatner's flaws of ego are well documented but culturally he remains a joyous, self-aware presence.  Nimoy was perhaps not the showman Shatner still is, he was too cerebral a presence but he was an always engaging presence on Twitter, offering to be everyone's grandfather and dispensing wisdom in 140 or so tweets.  That he ended every tweet with LLAP - the Trek farewell, Live long and prosper - was endearing.  Nimoy seemed to have a genuine belief that humanity could better itself, practising what Trek preached.  By all accounts - and there are plenty this weekend from friends, fans and casual acquaintances alike - he was every bit as wise and friendly in real life.  It's always wonderful to know that heroes are actually worthy of adoration.

It's hard not to read his last few tweets and not believe he knew the end was nigh.  Without having known him it was tough to tell whether it was accumulated wisdom and the humanity acquired over a lifetime being dispensed or a message.  In retrospect they were the same messages my granddad was giving us when accumulated decades of smoking caught up with him. Life's shorter than we think and they were in the departure lounge even if they didn't quite know when their flight was leaving.  Four days before he died, his last public words came via Twitter, a ready made epitaph:

And on Friday he was gone.  It didn't seem right, the surreal feeling when you hear a friend you haven't seen for a while  is gone.  For me it kind of felt like it did when John Peel died, a cornerstone of growing up vanished and gone.

Social media gets much maligned these days, how it's about spreading half-truths, misunderstandings, falsehoods and people simply venting their spleen.  It can be all of that but it can also be the biggest community we've got.  And when an icon passes away we don't have to retreat into our own incomprehension, poking at a fresh absence the way we poke the gap left by a newly removed tooth with our tongue instinctively.  We can share our memories, our joy and sadness.  And what our icons meant to us.  At times like this social media comes into its own, a seriously beautiful thing, a kind of group hug across the world.  I spent much of Friday evening looking at random tributes, retweets and Facebook statuses. From people who knew him, from strangers who'd just watched the odd episode of Trek.  And in some way Nimoy's life and/or work had touched them, given them some degree of joy or comfort.  Really, if any of us have such a global impact, one that can even lead Barack Obama to pay tribute when we pass, can we ask to have done more with our lives?  Whatever Nimoy's human failings (and he will have had some, like any of us), his presence has benefited a lot of people as a whole.  A geek character who became a geek icon, who helped a lot of outsiders.  Who blessed a lot of childhoods with good memories.  And maybe that way a kind of immortality lies.  Positive effects which ripple outwards.  We've no way of knowing how long the  legacy of Star Trek will last - currently 49 years and still a cultural touchstone - but perhaps that's not the point.  Perhaps Nimoy's immortality lies in his actions and his positive use of his fame to make the world better in a lot of ways.  Perhaps in that way icons can live forever.

In the meantime, as Nathan Fillion tweeted in tribute - 'I have been, and always will be, your fan.'  And there's only one appropriate clip to attach here.

RIP.  And thank you.

What I've Caught Up On In February

Part 2 in a probable monthly series.  It's a tad shorter than the first one as a) I've been in work and not had time off and b) been writing; my free time's been a tad more limited.  And there's overlap with the first one due to being parts of ongoing series. So, without comment what's been passing through my eyes and ears to my brain this month...

Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe
Bitter Lake
Wolf Hall
The Casual Vacancy
The War Lords (AJP Taylor history series)
Tropic Thunder
Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures Season 2
Ultimate Spider-Man: The Death of Spider-Man
Thor: Tales of Asgard
Lady Stardust (edited by Art Critic Panda)