Friday, June 27, 2008

who i want to be when i grow up

Evan always says I should want to be myself when I grow up, and I agree with her. But having finished another O’Brian novel that just filled with me with joy, I decided I wanted to pay a tribute to the four (so far) people I most want to emulate in life and art. (I wanted to do a much longer entry about all the people through the history of the world who I admire—whether they deserve it or not—but someday when I’ve got more time I’ll do it.)

Patrick O’Brian, OBE (1914—2000)
Patrick O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ (changing his name in 1945) in Buckinghamshire to parents of Irish and German descent. He wrote his first book at age 12 (!) which was published in 1930 and a slew of young adult novels published through the 1950s. He moved in 1949 to the village of Colliuore in the Catalan region of Southern France with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, where he lived for the remainder of his life (and is buried there). There he met Pablo Picasso about whom he wrote a comprehensive biography (he also wrote the biography of Sir Joseph Banks). He was an accomplished translator, translating Simone de Beauvoir and a biography of Charles DeGaulle from the French.

O’Brian began writing the Aubrey/Maturin novels in 1970, beginning with Master and Commander; he was working on #21 at the time of his death. His wife Mary was his editor and typist (he handwrote all of his manuscripts). Her death in 1998 was a severe blow. His books have sold over 300 million copies in the US alone. He once said, “Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.” Of the many interesting and instructive links I could give you about POB, here is the most charming: a species of weevil named after him (for the joke this refers to, see the Peter Weir film of Master and Commander).

I came to Patrick O’Brian through my mom, of course, who was already a fan, and I’m not ashamed to admit it was the Peter Weir film that inspired me to start reading. (And it’s a very good film and launched my desperate passion for Dr. Stephen Maturin.) I’ve absolutely adored every single thing I’ve read of his, now totaling four books, and savor every chapter in the Aubrey/Maturin saga as a treat once per year. I honestly think he is the best historical writer who has ever lived, and only in my wildest dreams could I come close to his unparalleled skill.

Verity Lambert, OBE (1935—2007)
Verity Lambert did very well in school but was told by her headmistress that she was “not university material.” Her parents sent her to the Sorbonne before she got a secretarial degree. She tried to break into television at Granada Studios before going to the ABC and the BBC and New York. In 1963 she became the successful producer of Doctor Who, which she produced for 19 stories. At 27, she was one of the youngest producers in the history of the BBC.

Further success followed, as through the ‘60s and ‘70s she produced Adam Adamant Lives!, W. Somerset Maugham, Rumpole of the Bailey, The Naked Civil Servant, (which won the Prix Italia and an Emmy) Quatermass, Danger UXB, and The Flame Trees of Thika. She launched the career of writer Linda LaPlante in Widows. Her marriage to Colin Buckley in 1976 had dissolved by 1984, and her years at Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment were frustrating. She started her own company, Verity Cinema, and recruited a largely female staff. She had great success with A Cry in the Dark, but ultimately abandoned film work for TV. The massive soap Eldorado flopped, but she produced four seasons of Jonathan Creek. She received an Alan Clarke Award before she died, at age 71, from cancer.

I must have first read Verity Lambert’s name as a producer for Doctor Who around 2001, and it excited and intrigued me, as I thought it was fantastic that a woman should have been the show’s producer in 1963. Women involved in the show in any capacity other than acting are rare indeed, and I did vaguely wonder what sort of woman she was. Sadly, I didn’t get the full picture on Verity until she died, but then I realized she was a person of boundless energy who didn’t let anyone get her down. As the only non-writer in this bunch, I recognize her superior skills in making things work. She also really believed in herself and kept working despite setbacks. She was a woman of remarkable courage whose legacy lives on in British TV to this day.

Bill Bryson, OBE (1951--)
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and pursued his degree at Drake University before dropping out in 1972 to go backpacking around Europe. He got a job at a sanatorium in England in 1973 and met his future wife, Cynthia. The couple returned to the US so Bryson could complete his degree in 1977, then settled in Yorkshire until 1985. He worked for The Times and The Independent until 1995, when his first child was three years old. He then moved the family back to the US, to Hanover, New Hampshire. As an independent writer he returned to Norfolk in the UK in 2003, where he continues to live.

His first major book was Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, followed by The Mother Tongue and English and How it Got That Way (on English etymology). He wrote further travel books such as Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and In a Sunburned Country and authored a popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, (for which he won the Aventis Prize), as well as a memoir and a biography of Shakespeare in 2007. He was appointed Chancellor of Durham University and given honorary degrees from a host of universities. In 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted by UK participants in World Book Day as the book that best sums up British identity.

Again, my mom was the fan. I read A Walk in the Woods right before I left for the UK and laughed all the way through it. I was surprised to hear Bryson delivering audio commentary at the Roman Baths in Bath. I thought it was the best audio commentary I’d heard! I recently read and utterly loved Notes from a Small Island, and A Short History of Nearly Everything was recommended to me by Simon Guerrier as one of his favorite books. Not only is he critically acclaimed, hugely successful, and consistently hilarious, he’s an American Anglophile who somehow manages to be funny and heartfelt to both nations. I’d like to be all of these things someday.

Jacqueline Rayner [future OBE recipient?] (1971?--)
There isn’t a lot of biographical information available on Jacqueline Rayner, though apparently she was married in 2002. She also seems to love chocolate cake, and I will reprint (unless the BBC or Ms. Rayner herself tells me not to) her quasi-Evelyn Smythe chocolate cake recipe. Her first Doctor Who work was an audio adaptation of Paul Cornell’s Oh No It Isn’t! featuring Benny Summerfield and Big Finish’s first play, in 2000. She went on to write two more Benny audio plays and two Benny novels. She wrote two novels for the BBC EDA (Eighth Doctor Adventure) range, EarthWorld and Wolfsbane.

As executive producer at Big Finish for a number of years, she also wrote two Doctor Who plays, The Marian Conspiracy and Doctor Who and the Pirates. She edited and contributed to several of Big Finish’s Short Trips anthologies before being tapped to write a Ninth Doctor book (Winner Takes All) and two Tenth Doctor books (The Stone Rose and The Last Dodo). She is also part of the Time Team for Doctor Who Magazine.

Jacqueline Rayner is probably my favorite Who writer of all time (yes, above Moffat, Holmes, and the rest) and, cor, she’s also a woman, so in some ways she’s my inspiration. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read of hers, including Wolfsbane (to date, my favorite EDA), Winner Takes All, The Stone Rose (which I’d have loved to have seen in place of “Fires of Pompeii,” no offense), several short stories, and The Last Dodo. Jamie’s the one who recommended The Marian Conspiracy as my first Big Finish play, and it was absolutely wonderful. Even better, and, tying with Southland by D.J. Britton as the best radio play of all time, is Doctor Who and the Pirates.

Sources: Blue at the Mizzen: W.W. Norton Mourns Patrick O’Brian, on their US website
Jacqueline Rayner interviewed on
Tise Vahimagi, “Verity Lambert.”
“Tough at the Top,” Doctor Who Magazine #391.
Wikipedia entries on Bill Bryson, Patrick O’Brian, and Jacqueline Rayner.

And the cake recipe:
6oz marg (melted) 6oz caster sugar 6oz self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 2 free range eggs
• 2 heaped tablespoons cocoa, mixed with 2 tablespoons hot water. Mix everything up together. Put in two tins and cook for 25-35 mins at 170 deg C. After they've cooled, sandwich together with vanilla or chocolate butter icing.

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