31 March 2004


At some point I'm going to give this page an overhaul, putting in links to the logs of various people I know up in the, er, masthead thing, and making its colours and layout rather more of a piece with my website. Unfortunately my semi-literacy in the HTML department means I have no idea how to do this, so for the moment allow me to commend to you the weblogs of the following individuals:

Is it bad form to give real names when talking about weblogs? I have no idea, quite honestly. If it is, read "vigornian", "Moosifer Jones", "Small Beds and Large Bears", "drcosmos" and "hatmandu" respectively. Personally, I think that sounds a little silly.


...Just for a laugh, though (and at the risk of sounding like Private Eye's Glenda Slagg), here are the actors I'd have wanted to cast as the Doctor if I were In Charge Of Everything. This probably shows you why Russell Davies is a highly respected TV dramatist, and I'm not.

  • Paterson Joseph: The Marquis de Carabas in Neverwhere was practically an audition for the part.
  • Art Malik: he's not as young as he used to be, but he could play the Doctor in Mad Professor mode with impressive gravitas.
  • Jack Davenport: he usually plays Everyman figures, but his turn as an obsessive upper-class gay in The Talented Mr Ripley showed a much greater range.
  • Helena Bonham-Carter: quirky, intelligent, vulnerable. Put her in a velvet frock-coat and she'd be fantastic.

The Passion of Chris

I would be lax in my duties if I failed to share with you the reasons why the casting of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor is a damn good thing. I warn you now, if you don't like Doctor Who -- or worse still don't know what it is on account of being American -- this entry isn't going to mean an awful lot to you. (If the latter, though, try here for starters.)

The announcement is the latest in a string of excellent signs about the BBC's revival of its most famous property. Perhaps the most exciting is that Russell T Davies, the TV writer-god responsible for Queer as Folk, is taking creative control of the project. Not only is Davies a huge Who fan, as anyone who's seen Queer as Folk will realise, but he's also an extremely gifted writer, whose work reeks of real life without losing any of its drama. The Second Coming, his miniseries about the, er, Second Coming, dealt sympathetically with Christianity and issues of faith even while concluding that the world would be better off without God; while Queer as Folk is quite simply one of the finest TV drama series ever made. He's also done comedy work (Bob and Rose) and work for children (Dark Season). He's even written a thoroughly good Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods -- now sadly out of print, and you're never going to pick it up cheaply now.

The writing team Davies has assembled to write the scripts with him are equally exciting: all of them have extensive TV experience, coupled with previous Doctor Who credits in one form or another. Paul Cornell has written two original science fiction novels for Victor Gollancz (Something More and British Summertime) and worked on diverse TV series including Casualty. Mark Gatiss is one of the main players in the disturbing horror-comedy series The League of Gentlemen (which I'm not personally a fan of, as it happens, but it demonstrates the quality of participant Davies is recruiting). Robert Shearman has a shedload of credits for radio and TV plays, while Steven Moffat wrote (and still writes) the excellent comedy series Coupling. All except Shearman and Moffatt have written Doctor Who novels; all except Moffat and Davies have written Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish; Moffatt created the charity Doctor Who skit for Comic Relief, The Curse of Fatal Death.

Apart from Davies, Cornell is the heaviest hitter of the lot, in the series' own terms if not more mainstream ones, having written eight Doctor Who or related novels, two audio dramas and the script for BBCi's animated Doctor Who webcast, The Scream of the Shalka. That starred Richard E Grant as the voice, and appearance, of the Doctor -- which brings me on to my reasons for appreciating the casting of Eccleston. Grant, you see, is an excellent actor, no question of it, with a range that takes in comedy, arrogance and pathos -- often all in the same performance, as in the classic Withnail and I. However, there was something terribly flat about the character of his Doctor. Grant was, in many ways, the obvious casting choice -- eccentric, aristocratic, tetchy -- and, perhaps as a consequence, the writing, the performance and even the animation of his central character came across in the webcast as rather trite and dull. Perhaps everyone except Grant himself was relying on his performance to buoy the whole thing up, and it just didn't stand up to the weight.

(Not that there isn't much to recommend The Scream of the Shalka if you've an hour to spare, because there is. Derek Jacobi's turn as the Master is a great treat.)

Anyway. This is precisely why the casting of Eccleston impresses and excites me. Eccleston is a proficient and versatile actor, to be sure -- his turn as Steve, the Son of God, in The Second Coming was a tour de force, while his performances elsewhere (an American corporate speaker in eXistenZ, a war-ravaged soldier in The Others) demonstrate impressive range. However, he's a) utterly working class, b) Northern, and c) physically awkward and -- in the nicest possible way -- ugly. He is in no respect what one would consider classic Doctor material. It will be very interesting to see whether the directors allow him to speak naturally or ask him to affect an upper-class accent (which he can, of course, do) -- but, on a more fundamental level, his casting will allow nobody involved to be either lazy or complacent. The writers, the director, Eccleston himself: all will be forced to actively think their way through the nature of the Doctor -- his character, his role, his place in the drama -- without falling back on the cliches established during earlier incarnations. It's been obvious for a while that Davies and his team are taking this completely seriously as drama: Eccleston's casting (rather than that of someone terribly obvious, like, say, Anthony Stewart Head) confirms that utterly.

Doctor Who 2005 promises (as, really, it has all along) to be a thoughtful, genuinely creative and clever take on a classic science fiction universe and its hero. I honestly can't wait.

Er, when I said weekly...

I'm sorry, I do seem to have missed a week, don't I. Sorry about that -- busy as usual.

During the past fortnight a number of things have happened, some of them interesting:

1. The Guardian has hilariously appointed Ann Widdecombe as its new agony aunt.

2. I've sold a short story -- or, more accurately, persuaded someone to pay me for a short story I've not yet written.
It's still small-press sf, nothing too profoundly exciting. But still, I'm pleased.

3. And, excitingly, Christopher Eccleston has been appointed as the new Doctor Who.

17 March 2004

A Lucid Episode

The other night I experienced what I believed at the time was a lucid dream.

A lucid dream, for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, is a dream where the dreamer takes control. In effect it's a seamlessly realistic virtual reality with an unlimited budget, where the recipient is in constant command of the things they experience. Its proponents claim it's a difficult but liberating discipline, which can take years to learn. The first stage is, supposedly, to realise that you are dreaming without automatically waking up.

Anyway, the other night I was out in the street going to a wedding, or searching for my twin brother, or running away from some Nazis or something, when it suddenly came to me that I was, in fact, dreaming. I forget now what tipped me off -- some background absurdity, presumably. "I'm dreaming," I thought to myself, expecting therefore to wake up.

"Hang on a minute," I thought a moment later, "I'm still dreaming. Time for another experiment with lucid dreaming, then."

(This is something that happens to me roughly once every six months.)

The second stage, apparently, is to concentrate on something familiar -- your hands are often suggested. Personally I'm rarely aware of my hands in dreams, but what I did now was to raise them and look at them. They were distorted, and one of them only had four fingers, so I concentrated on bringing them back to normality until they did, indeed, look exactly like my waking hands.

"Fantastic," I thought, "I'm lucid-dreaming. I'm going to materialise Gillian Anderson."

(This, for some reason, is always my first thought under these circumstances. I say "for some reason", but in fact my reasons are predictably sordid and I won't bore you with them. Apologies to Ms Anderson, though, if she's reading.)

So, I concentrated, and -- rather impressively -- the pavement in front of me suddenly burst upwards in a shower of slabs, and a redheaded woman in a trenchcoat rose up from it and stood in front of me. On closer inspection she proved to be Nicole Kidman rather than Gillian Anderson, but I wasn't going to complain. (Apologies to Ms Kidman, too, if by some freak chance she happens to be reading over Ms Anderson's shoulder.)

She was holding, in an arresting sort of posture, a teenage boy, who was struggling. He took advantage of their sudden emergence from the bowels of the earth to wriggle free.

"Phil!" shouted Nicole Kidman. "My suspect's getting away!" I dived to stop him, anticipating what my reward might be.

And at this point, the dream crashed.

Everything froze -- Nicole, the teenager, a few still-airborne paving slabs -- and hung there ominously motionless. When I tried to touch them, or concentrate my mind on altering them, all that happened was that little "chink" noise by which Microsoft Windows tells you it's far too busy failing catastrophically to pay any attention to you clicking your mouse, thank you so much. My dream had undergone an unrecoverable error.

"Bugger," I thought, "the dream's crashed. Now I'm going to have to reboot and start again." At which point I woke up.

Two alternative conclusions are possible from this. Either I'm being too ambitious, and when I find myself lucid-dreaming I should try having the self-discipline to materialise something rather easier, such as a chair or a cheese sandwich, instead of diving straight for erotic simulacra of screen icons.

Or else that I've never actually had a lucid dream, as opposed to dreaming that I'm having one.

10 March 2004

Eco Tourism

I've been reading Baudolino by Umberto Eco, the ridiculously (but deservedly) famous and respected author not only of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, but also of a pop-linguistics book which I'm very fond of, The Quest for the Perfect Language.

Baudolino is what we literature specialists call Bloody Long, and I've been reading it for a couple of weeks now. (I've found the rate at which I get through books has dipped shockingly in recent years, although I still diligently read all the time that's available to me. I guess that's what marriage, full-time jobs, spare-time writing and so on, do to a once-bibliomanic lifestyle.) Impressively, it hasn't palled a bit during that time, remaining fresh and entertaining. Admittedly it is keeping me from reading my current backlog of science fiction books.

Like The Name of the Rose, it's the kind of book only a seriously committed Medieval scholar could ever have even considered embarking on. The first two-thirds of the novel are concerned mainly with twelfth-century politics and court life in the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I or Barbarossa. It succeeds in making the various intrigues, sieges and conspiracies fascinating for two reasons: firstly the central character, Baudolino of Alessandria, a disreputable and bawdy liar who despite his deviousness acts at all times from high, almost naively idealistic motives; and secondly a deep immersion in Medieval thinking, which manifests itself in discussions of all kinds of metaphysical topics, from the topography of the Earth to the putative existence of vacuum.

The first half of the book establishes firmly the theme that, by lying with enough conviction to inspire belief, Baudolino can make things come to pass or exist which would otherwise not have. The last third of the book (which, bear in mind, I've not actually finished) takes this to absurd extremes, which remove the novel altogether from the realm of the historical novel and into that of the traveller's tale; although, in the seriousness with which it treats its mythical and/or pseudo-scientific subject matter, the last third might equally be considered in modern terms as fantasy or magic realism. I believe (although I can't find a citation) that the author has elsewhere referred to this process in literature as "transworld migration".

Early on, Baudolino and his friends have developed an obsession with the lands to the East, inhabited by monsters and by strange societies of humanity, and ruled over by the fabled Christian king and keeper of the Holy Grasal, Prester John. (Indeed, Baudolino ends up inventing many of the familiar myths about these things during the course of the novel.) In the last segment of the novel, they go there -- and find, to the east of the lands of the Turks, not Persia or India or China, but fabled lands like Abcasia, where perpetual darkness rules, and Pndapetzim, the threshold of Prester John's kingdom. Here they find various species of monstrous men, such as the one-legged skiapods and headless blemmyae described by Pliny, who -- in a bizarre but hilarious twist -- all follow various discredited Christian heresies, such as Messalianism and Patripassianism. The pairing of mutant humans with aberrant Trinitarian doctrines is the kind of stroke of genius only someone steeped in the Medieval mindset could possibly have come up with.

I'm looking forward to finishing this novel, and finding out (among other things) the solution to the locked-room mystery which Eco interpolates at the point of Barbarossa's death. But so far, it's really good fun. Indeed, in its intellectual exuberance, its insistence on dealing logially with even the most absurd of found concepts, and its relentless syncretsm, Baudolino is reminding me of nothing so much as Alan Moore's mould-breaking graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those who have read the latter will probably agree that this is praise indeed.

Last Weekend...

...was rather fine, with prospective Beer Festival guests straggling to our flat from the Friday evening and leaving in some cases on Sunday afternoon. We had ten people staying over on Saturday night, which was lovely obviously, but which I think the cats found rather traumatic.

Our pub visit on Friday night was very nice, and got us into the correct mood for the next day. After the (afternoon) Beer Festival session ended on Saturday, we divided into two parties. Bea took one to a chocolate cafe in Clifton, which must have been very nice for them. My decision to take the rest on a tour of all the really good beer and cider pubs in Bristol was... perhaps unwise. Everyone had been drinking since 11:30, everyone was tired, and the whole thing petered out rather pathetically by eight o'clock.

Sunday being Bea's birthday, though, we went out for a very splendid meal at a very splendid restaurant, where I had the warm asparagus salad and the goat's cheese pizza. I also had the most marvellous sticky toffee pudding I have had in my entire life, very fudgy with chocolate and butterscotch sauces. I have since started dieting again.

As for the Beer Festival itself...

Beer: a Retrospective

Well, the Beer Festival itself was thoroughly excellent. By the session we were booked in for, the Champion Ale of Britain, Harviestoun's Bitter & Twisted, was all gone, but that still left 119 or so beers that were available. I started with light beers and ended up with dark, as is recommended to appreciate the flavours properly. Going by the notes I was making on the programme (and bearing in mind that these may, for obvious inebriation-related reasons, be incomplete), I appear to have sampled the following:

Fernandes' Empress of India. A deceptively pale but flavoursome ale. A good one to start off with, a reminder to the taste buds that yes, this is what real beer tastes like.
RCH's Pitchfork. Er. Quite fruity, I seem to remember.
Orkney's Red MacGregor. A very nice, mellow red ale, which I ended up voting for as the Beer of the Festival. It didn't win.
Stonehenge's Sign of Spring. A constrast to the Red MacGregor, in that it was a quite distinct green in colour. What they put in it, I don't know -- it would be nice to think it was wheatgrass or something authentic, but it may have just been food colouring. It wasn't just a gimmick, as the beer itself was rather nice, but I'm sure I saw more people drinking it than its rather niceness justified.
Smiles' Old Tosser. A darker, tasty beer from a local brewery.
Bath Ales' Rare Hare. Another seasonal special from one of our locals -- Smiles and Bath are my favourite brewers, so I did want a half of each of these before moving on to the stouts.
Young's Chocolate Stout. OK, I'm a complete tart for trying this one, as you can get it bottled all over the place. But mm, chocolate.
Wickwar's Mr Perrett's Stout. You know, I used to drink Guinness. I must have been barking mad.
Daleside's Morrocco Ale. A really worthwhile one, brewed (according to the Festival programme) "to an old Elizabethan recipe including a 'secret spice'". It tasted appropriately archaic, like a library full of old leatherbound books where someone's been smoking a pipeful of something aromatic. I voted for this second as the Beer of the Festival, and that's where it came. Hurrah.
Hambleton's Nightmare Porter. I'm sure this was very nice, but since all of the above were half-pints (and I do have the strong feeling I consumed a couple I didn't make a note of), I don't recall all that much about it.

Obviously I had many many sips of other people's beers as well (including one called Lemon and Ginger which damn near ruined my palate for the rest of the day). I was disappointed that two stouts I particularly wanted to try -- Robinson's Old Tom and Hobden's Russian Imperial Stoat [sic] -- were gone by the time I got to them. But never mind. Otherwise, the Festival was fantastic, with abundant pasties for sale (no chips, sadly, but pasties are pretty much the perfect beer-drinking food), pub games (Bea won a pint glass knocking skittles over with a miniature demolition ball) and the hilarious sight of a huge queue for the Gents' toilets, while the occasional woman flitted happily in and out of the almost empty Ladies'.

What's more, with 26 or so friends in attendance (and around a thousand other people, obviously) the company was fantastic as well. Lots of people we hadn't seen for ages, several local friends as well, and lots of increasingly incoherent conversation going on. Fantastic.

03 March 2004


I've come to the conclusion that I'm never going to have the time to update this weblog more than once a week, on average. So, this is now officially a weekly weblog. Enjoy.

I've been told Of the City of the Saved... has been laid out -- a complicated process, certainly, as I admit I've been rather more experimental with the format than one would strictly expect of an inexperienced first-time novelist. Or maybe a first-time novelist is precisely who you'd expect that from, and more experienced writers would know better. I wouldn't know, obviously.

Anyway, much kudos to Mad Norwegian for being so accommodating, although (as you'd probably expect) I'll be going through the finished product with a fine toothpick in search of errors. With luck I'll get the opportunity to do that before it's published, even. The main point, though, is that everything's on course so far. Publication in April is looking perfectly splendid.

I'm sorry that the promised blow-by-blow account of my "next writing project", rashly offered back in January, hasn't materialised. This is partly because I was being premature: although there is a specific project I had in mind (honestly), it's currently far from finalised. Oops. I was obviously letting my post-completion confidence get the better of me there.

When anything is at all definite, details will be provided here, I promise. At the moment, though, I can't swear as to when that's liable to be.

Beer Actually

This weekend is CAMRA Bristol Beer Festival, an annual event for the discriminating consumption of a vast variety of real ales. It's usually held at the Council House, but this year it's happening instead in a huge shed next to Temple Meads Station. There are usually chips and other appropriately beer-absorbent foodstuffs on offer, along with around a hundred beers, plus ciders and perries. Some of them are regularly excellent, although in the nature of things a number of them will taste like fermented hay. There are commemorative beer glasses, T-shirts and a raffle. There are generally nothing like enough seats.

On Saturday Bea and I are taking somewhere in the region of thirty people (half of whom will be staying with us) to sample its delights. I shall report back.

Scooters and the Weather (again)

Last week it snowed -- suddenly, violently and protractedly -- at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon while I was at work. Trying to get home on the scooter, with the roads increasingly deep in snow, snow blowing in my face and building up on my dashboard and headlights, my moped continually stalling because of the cold which generally accompanies snow, and all the other traffic gridlocked because of the snow, was so entirely Not Fun that I gave up after three hundred yards and went back to work.

Storing the bike in a ground-floor classroom, I made my way home (6 or 7 urban miles) via a combination of a colleague's car (which had the benefit of being warm, and contained a radio which continually relayed details of accidents other people were having on mopeds in Bristol, but wasn't actually moving to speak of), walking on ice-covered snowbound pavements, and a train which mercifully was still running. I got in three hours after I left work (having collected from a pub my beloved, who had intelligently left her keys at work).

The next morning I had to get up at 6:15, to get into work via a combination of Very Early Train and bus (the buses were running again by then, and the gridlock had dissipated overnight). It had snowed even more in the night, and everything was smothered with the stuff. Pavements especially had a thick carpet of white, concealing an underlay of frozen teflon.

That afternoon the snow melted. Seriously, just like that. By the time I left work that day, about 90% of it was gone without a trace. Most of the meltwater had evaporated, even. I've never seen such vicious, dirty weather give up so easily. By the weekend, all that was left were occasional tiny piles which human beings had turned into more enduring structures (snowmen, mainly) and hidden in persistent shade. Today it rained, and now all those constructions are gone, too.

It's interesting (although not very) how large a percentage of any given snow sculpture appears to consist of unmeltable mud.