Tuesday, February 24, 2009

city of the dead

B y title alone, you could easily get this book confused with “City of Death.” But fewer Doctor Who things could be more different! I complain (maybe too much) about lack of female involvement in official Doctor Who stuff, though the books contain the highest ratio of females. You wouldn’t know Lloyd Rose was a female, though, unless your friend Lori told you so. In any case, The City of the Dead is Rose’s first Doctor Who novel, followed by others, all of them highly acclaimed by Lori. So that’s why I decided to read this eight-year-old EDA. And that was a good move. This is a very strong book in an EDA world that is inconsistent.

Now, would you believe it? This author is female and American. It shows. The setting, the characters, are all authentically American though she can’t be shown to slack on Anji and Fitz, who are decidedly British. The setting is possibly the strongest element in the entire book. It’s New Orleans (pre-Katrina
[1]). The Doctor lands the TARDIS in one of New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries (the rather boring cover shows just that), the “city of the dead” (it seems to me that epithet works just as well in relation to Père-Lachaise, but . . .). It opens with a murder investigation in “Chic’s House o’ Bones,” one of the many occult-catering businesses in the French Quarter. Immediately, I gobble this stuff up. The devil’s in the details, and the details spell authentic, interesting, and a bit wicked.

Jonas Rust, the policeman in charge of the murder investigation, is the one who suggests that all the crazies seem to congregate in New Orleans. The book is full of them and pokes fun at nearly all. Jack Dupré is a vicious buffoon who gives New Orleans ghost tours not unlike the Ripper tours Steve Pemberton’s character gives in Whitechapel (though with considerably less accuracy). He ends up cutting pentagrams and spells on the chained Doctor’s torso in an attempt to raise some demons (the Doctor gets his shirt off a lot in this book and is also broken, beaten, burnt, drowned, etc; I hope Rose’s tendencies aren’t toward sadism!). Teddy Acree is truly mad and wants the Doctor to pose with his loopy wife Swan for necrophiliac sculptures in a haunted house described by the author in hilarious, loving detail. There’s a visit to wife-beating trailer-trash (when the wife in question is a water-sprite, but I digress). It’s all in search of a bone-charm, carved from a willing magician’s flesh, which (it gets complicated) was given to the Doctor and is now part of a “Nothingness” pursuing him. I know—like Anji and Fitz you may just want to sit back and enjoy the food as the Doctor goes through the adventure. I really wonder if Rose is quoting verbatim from some of these freaks!

It goes without saying, but Rose has the essence of McGann down: The goblin beauty resolved into a more conventional handsomeness. (Eight, by the way, is several books past his lost century that began with The Burning.) On page 22, we find out that the Doctor has been suffering from nightmares, screaming “No!” to Anji and Fitz’s discomfort (a similar thing happens to Ten and Martha, but really it seems to be a motif in my writing!). You could argue that all the later, angst-ridden Doctors could fit this pattern of behavior, but this seems to me pure Eight. (Unlike Nine, Eight doesn’t appear to shave. At least, Anji has never seen him do it.) Eight is, thankfully, also a cat person. Before he quite realized what he was doing, he had picked up the cat and carried it into the TARDIS, which then transported him to a farm in South Wales whose owners, though perplexed by this sudden visitor bearing the gift of a cat, welcomed the little animal. In the same moment, he does some timey-wimey stuff not strictly kosher (well, look at what Nine did in “Father’s Day”).

I enjoyed, perhaps more than I should have, the dreamy section of the narrative which is like a hundred Beauty-in-the-Beast’s-castle scenarios I dreamed up as a kid (though in this case the Doctor is Beauty!). When the Hades to his Persephone offers him chocolate chip ice cream, he declines and searches his pockets for digestive biscuits. This is the part where Eight gets down with a water-sprite, and I’m a bit grateful for the sake of my own synapses that Rose stopped the description with Once, in a fit of pique, she smashed a peach on his forehead and smeared it all over his mouth.

I have to say, with the exception of Grace and possibly Lucie, I’ve never had a warm fuzzy feeling for any of Eight’s companions. To my taste, Rose’s treatment of Fitz and Anji is perfect—their scenes, mostly together and independent of the Doctor, are brief, to the point, and never reek of overkill. Fitz has never crossed over from the merely likeable to loyalty-inspiring, though there are some enjoyable moments from him here. (He’s the one who starts grave-robbing in New England circa Halloween, hoisting a buried log at scared Anji—for some weird reason, that whole bit reminds me of bits of my book Superstition.) Anji, about whom I know very little, nevertheless gets entangled, very human-like, in a relationship doomed to go nowhere. (I think I can say, without giving anything away, that this book might be suited to a radio play as it would need only a finite number of actors.)

If you asked me to plot diagram this book, though , I couldn’t do it. It was a good mystery, with a parade of characters, fabulous settings and situations, though I found the climax rather anti-, and full of the pseudo-magic that annoyed me at the end of “Last of the Time Lords.” Still, it’s hard not to feel good about the Doctor beating the odds: ‘I don’t think that’s helping, Anj.’
She leaned over and swatted at the time rotor. ‘Show us where he is!’
The door slid open and the Doctor, water running off him, came in from the lightning-shattered night.

Highly recommended.

[1] Though in an off-hand comment the Doctor appears to predict Katrina.

the eyeless

I know people who were really excited to read this book—Lance Parkin’s return to writing official BBC Doctor Who. It’s definitely different to any of the other BBC books—they occupy a different plane, and this one’s not only longer, it’s dark and complex. It doesn’t feel like an EDA, however—it feels almost like the Seventh Doctor should be at the center of it.

The Doctor doesn’t often travel alone. Even TV adventures that see him starting off alone seem to gather companions—like our last three Christmas Specials. The closest thing I can think of to The Eyeless is “The Deadly Assassin.” Even in that, the Doctor made people like Castellan Spandrell to explain to (or have things explained at)—The Eyeless is a novel and therefore it is not necessary for explanations to be verbalized in order to move the story along (though the Doctor does feel the absence of a companion—mostly in that fashion; Parkin doesn’t have him yearn for a friend!). Strangely, the whole set up of The Eyeless reminds me of Stephen Wyatt’s much-maligned story “Paradise Towers.” Its grotesqueness (a satire on the ‘80s) was too camped up to make quite the impact of the bleakness in The Eyeless, which includes a scene of the Doctor being attacked by pre-teens intent on killing him, in which—because he’s the Doctor—he can’t really fight back. The Fortress’ destructive capacity, once you forget the rather Mordor-like illustration on the cover, is chilling (reminiscent somehow of The Ancestor Cell or the Time War hinted at in The Gallifrey Chronicles).

Parkin seems to get Ten without a lot of fuss. There isn’t the flamboyant grasping for his hyperactive vocabulary (coughJustinRichardscough) nor tossing him off the edge of angst—the story itself does enough of that. The Doctor here is alien, cold, manipulative, a petty thief, and resembles nothing so much as when he tries (unsuccessfully) to get the passengers not to throw him out of the airlock in “Midnight.” The green-skied planet isn’t Earth, it’s far into the future, but the scenes of destruction and the eking out of a painful existence based on a society where women produce as many children as they can, people are vegetarians in scavenged clothes, and children aren’t taught to read feels a bit like Deep Space Nine meets 28 Days Later. The Doctor is allowed to get tired, beat up, outwitted by a teenage girl with few redeeming features, and lured into a trap unlike the one he, as Nine, falls into before Bad Wolf saves the day in “Parting of the Ways.” There’s a grim humor here, like when the narrator dryly tells us the sonic screwdriver isn’t “a magic wand.”

The Eyeless of the title are actually somewhat incidental to the wider story, a curious mercenary race perpetrating horror on the hapless Arcopolitans, and feel a bit Borg to me for some reason. The trip to the Fortress to get the Weapon may feel a little like the race to Rassillon’s Tower in “The Five Doctors,” but once inside, things get horrible. Surprisingly, Parkin manages to wring a happy ending out of the misery. Alsa, the Doctor’s teenage adversary, turns out to be a bit like Sister Carrie except given a second chance (with knowledge of obstetrics in the bargain!). Parkin’s intelligence and versatility certainly put the book intellectually above the rest, though I was really quite disappointed with the “ghosts.” If you’re prepared to accept the data ghosting in “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead,” the ghosts in The Eyeless may not bother you—the Doctor gets to communicate with them using psychic paper. But to be honest I thought they were a missed opportunity.

ghosts of india

The cover design team has done a fabulous job with this book. Some of the new BBC books’ covers are, in my opinion, a bit unimaginative. Back in the day, the EDAs and PDAs sometimes had drawing-ish covers, whereas now (for cost-effectiveness, according to Simon Guerrier), they have to feature photos. The photos here are perfect, though, because putting Donna in what she wore in “Fires of Pompeii” makes the cover all that more plausible (though strictly speaking Donna never dons Indian garb).

The simplistic way of describing Ghosts of India by Mark Morris is Donna Does India, which is great because as far as I know, there haven’t been any adventures actually set there (certainly none of the BBC books have come close, and it’s so nice when we leave the British Isles for America or further afield). The story is as simple as the Doctor and Donna meet Gandhi, which is such a good idea you wonder why no one did it before. The year is 1947, the British are about to pull out of India, and it’s a perfect place in which to introduce chaos and anarchy, which the Doctor is there to clean up. From just the Gandhi aspect, the book is exceedingly fun. The rest of the story, involving alien factions hunting each other for reward, has some scary images—the “half-made men” of the title remind uncannily of the 2001 sightings of the “Monkey Man” in New Dehli—but, like so many of the BBC books in my opinion, never kicks into highest gear. No matter, I still found the story quite enjoyable.

It is my first Donna book. It had been decided by the Powers That Be to do two series of Martha books, so that the writers of the books would have a chance to watch the “new” Donna in action on TV, or at least have some idea of her new character, before they started writing her. I agree with the decision for two reasons, because it obviously yields a more consistent Donna, and because I wanted more Martha books! For that reason, it’s a bit odd for me to admit that it took awhile for the gears to click into place that it was Donna saying certain lines. Strangely, I kept hearing her saying them with an Australian twang—that’s right, I was imagining Tegan saying the lines! (Which isn’t a stretch, really.) I think Mark Morris gets Donna basically right. He does a good job with Ten, as well, though he really pushes angsty!Tennant with about a thousand lines on how this Doctor is so unforgiving.

Getting the Doctor and Donna to Gandhi is a bit of a stretch. Donna wants a curry—in fact, she could ‘murder’ one—so they think they’re in 1937 Calcutta when the Doctor’s timed it a bit too late. Never mind, the way Donna gets separated from the Doctor—as all companions must!—is actually an exciting scene, nearly being trampled by a stampede of frightened villagers. Like in “Fires of Pompeii,” Donna encounters a nuclear family, though a bit more old-fashioned than James Moran’s hipsters. In fact, to my disappointment, the Campbells are caricatures of British imperialists, except for Cameron (who’s like the boy in Sting of the Zygons) and Adelaide, the daughter who does what she can by helping out in the refugee camp under the eye of Dr. Edward Morgan. I really wanted more from that relationship! Adelaide’s mother, however, is a total non-entity. Fair enough, I expect most of the British people left over from the Raj at this point were racist, nationalistic, Victorians (look at those presented in The Empire of Tea) but (as my research has shown; whistles innocently) at the time of the Mutiny in 1857, there were plenty of English people who weren’t like that. As usual, I flip to the acknowledgements page and wish Morris had left some sources.

If you thought Rose was a blunderer in history, Donna takes the cake. ‘We’re . . . er . . . hippies.’
‘You’re what?’ spluttered Sir Edgar.
Oops, thought Donna, wrong period.
But it’s Donna, so you accept it, especially when she gets in righteous lines like, ‘Coolies?’ said Donna. ‘What hole did you crawl out of? I’ll have you know that some of my best mates are from round here. My cousin Janice is married to a Sikh.’ I don’t know that Donna actually has that much to do, though, than mouth off. The Doctor spends a lot of the book telling the other characters he’s brilliant and only he can sort out of their problems.

Good thing, then, that Morris has captured Gandhi so perfectly. I have limited knowledge of Gandhi—we did study him for a short time in high school—but what Morris has written seems consistent with Gandhi’s pacifist beliefs, and it’s not that difficult to imagine Gandhi accepting aliens and the TARDIS with considerable aplomb. Here is a character who betters even the Doctor: ‘But what happens when you come up against an opponent who is incapable of respect? What happens when your opponent can only hate? What happens if by killing the one you can save the many?’
… ‘Then I suppose you must die in the knowledge that at least you have remained as merciful and pure as it possible for a flesh-and-blood creature to be.’
Donna’s reaction to Gandhi is so sweet and heartfelt, you realize this is what makes her a good companion. She resembles Rose’s “bleedin’ heart” mentality when she has a go at Lady Campbell for insisting on patronizing India and Indians.

Though the style in which the aliens and their reason for being in the picture is a bit gauche in my opinion, I do think Morris has got a great imagination. He has created the gelem, They were like Daleks without the intelligence, efficient but expendable. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of all was that it took at least five members of a species to create each gelem warrior. There is something, therefore, very dark at the heart of this story, and when the Doctor, Cameron, and Gandhi are put into this gelem-machine . . . well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a memorable sequence and would surely be at home in any of the TV adventures. The ending is even a bit like “The Unquiet Dead.”

In terms of the basic gathering of characters and the setting, Ghosts of India was every bit as entertaining as I thought it would be. The rest, including the plot, was rather incidental!

jackie snogs the doctor!

I’ve loved stories from all the Panini volumes of collected DWM comics and remember the sunny days when I actually sent in an application to work in Tunbridge Wells as the assistant editor of DWM! How cool would that have been? Oh well, I’m sure I wasn’t qualified. Anyway, The Betrothal of Sontar covers 2006, David Tennant’s first year on the job and Billie Piper’s second. John Thomlinson and Nick Abadzis acknowledge that all they really knew of the Tenth Doctor when they wrote the title story were the Children in Need special of 2005 and the teeth line from “Parting of the Ways.” There is a sort of stiffness to this Doctor, but on the whole, I love the title story. Surely, only Ten would mention that losing a bet with Oliver Reed required him to swim the English Channel naked. That make me laugh. Ten and Four might equally bring up Stockholm Syndrome while being placed in the stocks in Sontaran base headquarters. Both writers love the Sontarans and saw fit to bring them back a good 2 years before the TV series attempted it. I like the insights their writing brings to the idea of clones bred for different functions. In setting, the title story presages the Shackleton story with Ten and Martha from 2007—all barren Hoth-like wasteland. There are Sontarans with facial hair (!), and the art from Mike Collins is lovely.

Betrothal of Sontar has two superb stories (so good they would go on my best Doctor Who comics of all time list), and they both involve Mickey! Considering Noel Clarke just won the Orange Rising Star Award, I find that very apt. Anyway, the first is “The Lodger” by the inimitable Gareth Roberts. In tone, it’s a bit like Winner Takes All by Jacqueline Rayner, set entirely on Catford Estate—er, Powell Estate. Unlike Winner Takes All, however, Ten manages to win at video games by not killing the other characters—whereas Rose had to lift an eyebrow when Nine mentioned he was good at video game violence. Sigh, I expect Ten is even good at Guitar Hero. Not only did Ten take Rose away, he’s so affable he even steals Mickey’s best mates—to top it all off, he convinces Gina, the girl Mickey is about to cheat on Rose with, that she needs to be doing stuff with her life. It’s comical and sweet, like all the best Mickey stories are.

“F.A.Q.” by Tony Lee and Mike Collins is big, bold, and true to the scope of the New Adventures—too much for TV. For some reason it reminds me of The Day After Tomorrow; perhaps a more apt corollary is “Silence in the Library.” On the same page the Doctor drives an ice cream truck/lorry and expresses a love of comics. It’s “The Invisible Enemy” meets Christmas Carol in one section where the Doctor shows the troubled young Craig—the same sort of character as the protagonist of Dalek, I Love You on BBC7—several different futures, one as a homeless drug addict, one as a geek stuck in a deadend corporate job, dead before 30, a rock star, as a family man, etc.

That Mike Collins is a talented bloke, as he contributes the wonderfully plotted “Futurists,” which sees a collision between 1930s pre-Fascist Italy and the Roman Empire in Britain (Caerlon, to be exact). (In fact, it seems, that every story in this collection presages series 4 somehow. Hmm.) Fun chance for Rose to wear flapper clothes, and Collins to draw and write the Silurians (as in a tribe of Britons) as a cross between King Arthur and Astérix and Obélix. Lovely stuff, and very funny. Rose enacts a slave rebellion of women with Somerset accents (no doubt) using the psychic paper. The alien bad guys look like the ones I had in mind for St Valentine’s Day. This is a fun one, and I love how smushing the two historical periods creates something entirely new. Collins did his research as well, so it’s not just a pastiche.

“Interstellar Overdrive” feels very Jonathan Morris somehow—it’s even got chronic hysterosis in it, so the deaths of band members get replayed several times, including the reanimated soul of a very dead guitarist (who saves Rose’s life). Also from Morris, this time drawn by the great Martin Geraghty, is “Opera of Doom.” This cute little tale reminds me of one of my favorite Sixth Doctor comics, I’m sure you remember, it was “The Gift,” for the part music plays in it.

Roger Langridge’s drawing style hasn’t always been my favorite, but it’s perfect for the absolutely hilarious “Green-Eyed Monster” by Nev Fountain. We laugh and poke fun at Ten, Rose, Jackie, Mickey, Jeremy Kyle, etc, but as Fountain makes clear, he’s also poking fun at critics of the first and second series who were offended by Rose’s family’s “chav-ness,” and possibly were just offended by Rose’s family in general! It probably also pokes fun at Rose/Doctor shippers and more specifically readers who might fancy Ten anyway (me on both counts, then). If you can’t take some good-natured elbow jabs, you’re not a real fan as far as I’m considered, and Rose has the mickey taken out of her here—as the Doctor snogs Jackie, Rose prevents a bunch of Amazons from taking the Doctor into the TARDIS sauna room, and one of the Amazons getting great pleasure out of licking Mickey’s ear!

Geraghty back at the helm, with Alan Barnes, for the so-good “Warkeeper’s Crown,” which sees the return of the Brigadier quite a bit before his adventures with Sarah Jane. The highly Tolkien-esque backdrop of Harpies and constant war pales before the glory of the Brig and Ten working together; the Brig, having bypassed Nine altogether, sees in Ten the effect of the Time War, and it’s a bit of common ground for them. There’s the very funny appearance of Mike Yates (not that Mike Yates!), and the Brig gets some wonderful moments, like when hundreds of his clones take on the evil forces and save the Doctor (“Splendid chaps, all of him!” comments the Doctor).

A really excellent volume, and in color too!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

on the tube 2009.1

Boy, the first few weeks of 2009 were slow TV-wise, even in Britain. It’s only now that things are starting to pick up speed, and I finally have enough shows to talk about! This will be roughly chronological.

I’d caught bits and pieces of Jonathan Creek on TV over the years, but had never watched an entire episode. This changed on New Year’s Day, and despite the fact I was still finishing up a game of Who-no, I did manage to catch most of it. Yes, foofy Alan Davies hair for all. I was actually somewhat interested because I’d been hearing Sheridan Smith as the Eighth Doctor’s audio companion Lucie on Big Finish all autumn, and she played roughly the same character in JC. (And got entirely nekkid! Ye gods!) I liked the story—it involved magicians, ectoplasm, and a really diabolical plot to kill perfectly innocent people—but at the end, it felt a bit slight. Jonathan himself seemed a bit clueless, and as Radio Times averred, the subplot with his seedy mentor was yawn-inducing and crass. Still, someday I will go back and watch the first series of this Verity Lambert-produced series with the title theme by Sans-Saëns . . .

I gave Demons a great, big, whopping chance, seeing as how the folks at Staggering Stories were much more positive than I expected them to be. Maybe because I never followed Buffy, I was the only person not to make Buffy allusions. I never watched Life on Mars, either (except for one episode), so I don’t know what I was expecting out of Philip Glenister, other than something good. I have no idea why they kept the character American—the accent is not his forte. He talks about “smiting” a lot and tells the hero, the last surviving Van Helsing, that there’s no life in demon-hunting but he’s required to do it anyway. The entire show was a long collage of someone’s favorite iTunes. Luke Van Helsing is a bobble-head and his friend Ruby pretty annoying. On the other hand, I kept watching for some reason. Perhaps some vestige of me liked seeing m’hearties Mackenzie Crook and Kevin McNally camping it up as villains, and Mina Harker (yes, the same one from Dracula) was vaguely interesting. Mostly it was Dracula 2000 without Gerard Butler. Indeed, worse than Primeval but better than Merlin, hahahaha.

I should like Lark Rise to Candleford more than I do. I think I avoided it because of the title, and the reviews in Radio Times are always so full of sugar and simpering. Which is basically what the show is full of. Nevertheless, it exudes a strange kind of charm. It’s difficult for me to think of England possessing any kind of Wild West town like the one depicted here (they’re perpetually stuck in the mid-1890s, as the show’s creator avowed) but the characters are funny and decently likeable, and we go into the suitably bourgeois postmistress’ house as often as we do into the cottages of the working folk with Somerset accents (curiously the guy who played Higgins in North and South plays a very similar character here). Perhaps it appeals to me because I watched so much Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Above Suspicion was a two-part drama on ITV written by Lynda LaPlante (based on one of her books) starring a new female detective who wasn’t exactly the antithesis of DCI Jane Tennison (the formidable Dame Helen Mirren), but she was young and inexperienced, a pen-pusher at her first autopsy (see Whitechapel); Ciarán Hinds was her slightly lecherous boss. I found the acting and writing to be above average, the story gruesome, but strangely absorbing.

I didn’t have a lot to do my first week back, so I happened to catch Daleks—Invasion Earth 2150 AD. I had never seen any of the Peter Cushing Doctor Whos, so this was certainly an interesting experience. The companions were really strange—a Wonderbra-clad woman of indefinite age, a prepubescent Susan, and—easily the most entertaining element—Bernard Cribbins as a policeman. I loved that the movie opened with the policeman trying to get into the TARDIS for legitimate police business! Other than that, it was basically a replay of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Peter Cushing was surprisingly good as “Dr Who” but couldn’t hold a candle to William Hartnell. It’s just as well we don’t consider this canon!

What the Victorians Did For Us is not new, it was made in 2001 but is being reshown on BBC2. But it’s great to find someone with the same sense of enjoyment and excitement over all things Victorian as Adam Hart-Davis. The programme is divided into several segments; unfortunately I missed one or two. Current highlights include Hart-Davis reproducing the famous photographic experiment of whether a horse’s legs ever all leave the ground; putting up a scale-size copy of a corner of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park where it originally stood; trying to figure out humidity from a bunch of leeches in glass tubes. Like Matthew Sweet, he’s quick to point out in what ways we benefited from the Victorians. I was quite impressed when Hart-Davis got on a tricycle/shower for some good clean fun. Thank you, Victorians, for inventing the shower!

QI is something I’ve watched a bit of before, but I was really trying to follow it this season (‘cause, obviously, Alan Davies rawks my world). Unfortunately the TV decides to malfunction on Friday nights so I miss a lot of the best jokes. I wouldn’t say this is as funny as Mock the Week but funnier than Have I Got News for You?

It was followed in the lineup by classic Vicar of Dibley (still almost unwatcheable because of the TV hiccups). I never really watched Vicar of Dibley in the US even when it was on; I’m not really sure why. To be honest, I didn’t get to be a fan until I watched the 2006 Christmas Special (in quick succession on YouTube; Armitage-obsession at its worst) and thought it was the funniest, most heart-warming thing I had seen in a really long time. I was a bit deceived, though; one of my US friends told me ages ago that Alice got married in a wedding dress that had pictures of each of the Doctors in hearts on it. That wasn’t so. She threatened to.

I guess because of Victorian Farm (which I somehow seem to miss every week!) there’s a ton of Victorian stuff on TV right now (or maybe there always is). I found Queen Victoria’s Men, while slightly sensational, to be fascinating. Several years ago I wrote an article on history’s sexiest women, and I dared to put Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria on the list. Victoria was a passionate princess, and no one can claim she didn’t love Albert. Albert, of course, took up the bulk of the screentime (partially it was interviews with historians, writers, etc, but partially reenactments. Victoria didn’t look particularly like Victoria, but she and Albert could speak impassioned German!). All of the interviewees contended that the young Victoria liked sex, and who can argue, really, considering some of the letters they read aloud, as well as all the kids she and Albert had? She also had hero-worship romances with her early Prime Ministers, such as Gladstone and Melbourne, to less of an extent with Disraeli, though she found him charming. I had forgotten what a real scandal her relationship with loyal John Brown was, and I found out she befriended a young Indian in her later years to the extent she scandalized again. To my surprise, I find young Victoria will be a film soon, with lovely Paul Bettany as Melbourne.

Almost Famous 2 showed a glimpse of a young Sheryl Cole and proved beyond all doubt that David Tennant’s freckles were more pronounced when he was younger. Wales This Week really disappointed me. They were interviewing Matthew Rhys
[1] in his new home in LA, I assumed because of his role as Dylan Thomas, but it wasn’t about that, and he came off sounding really quite stupid. Oh well.

I keep missing Being Human, with Russell T Davies’ biggest crush Russell Tovey in it, and written by Who luminary Toby Whithouse. Once I’ve been able to catch up on iPlayer properly, I’ll get back to you.

Rupert Everett seemed a curious choice to present on Sir Richard Francis Burton, Victorian Sex Explorer (see! constantly with the sex and the Victorians!). Nevertheless I suppose there was some logic, considering Burton may or may not have joined in homosexual orgies while he was reporting on them for the British Army (as Casanova may or may not have done in Constantinople). Mostly I was grateful to this programme for shedding some light on Burton, a fascinating character and an anomaly for his anti-Imperialist attitudes. I remember seeing first editions of Burton’s translations of The Arabic Nights when I worked in the Center for Southwest Research, and Joseph Fiennes played him in the wonderful radio play Prayer Mask (which explored his egress into the Hajj). For sensational purposes, Everett highlighted Burton’s sexual experiences in India, meeting with prostitutes, and getting a questionable massage in Egypt.

Bill Bryson is one of my heroes, as you know, and I always love to tell people I’ve met Mark Lawson, so you get to hear it again as I describe Mark Lawson Talks to Bill Bryson. This could have been on radio; it was basically an interview, plain and simple. But it was wonderful to hear the naturally funny, but totally unassuming Bryson (as Lawson pointed out, the cantankerous persona Bryson puts on in his books is rather unlike his gentle personality in real life).

I had to make a choice on the biggest Monday, TV-wise, of the year so far. Whitechapel, on ITV, Moses Jones on BBC2, or a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? I chose Whitechapel, even though Matt Smith was making his first post-Doctor-announcement appearance in Moses Jones, because I suppose I am a Ripperologist at heart. Rupert Penry-Jones, Steve Pemberton, and Phil Davis are all making smashing starts, and the writers have certainly done their research (they’d have to, or get thrown to the dogs). The programme is managing to convey the horror and the mystery of a killer re-enacting the Ripper murders (though the newbie seeing his first autopsy seemed eerily similar to the scene in Above Suspicion). We’ll see how it goes, and I will report to you on the others.

I just heard a wonderful radio play based on one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (in which David Tennant plays a blind rat!), and it’s made me wonder why I never got into Discworld before. I wondered that again when watching Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimers. I found out that this famous author has one keyboard and six screens (which would rather bedevil me!) and can’t tie his own tie now. It’s an interesting and sad programme.

That’s all for now, more to come.

[1] Whose parents I met at the Dylan Thomas Centre.

roses and cognac

The most peculiar things seem to grow out of my throwaway lines. “1896” from “1996,” “1900” from “1896,” and now “An Evening with Edgar” from “The 1969 Diaries.” From my experience studying and teaching Poe in Gothic Horror, I thought I knew his story pretty well (plus I listened to all the Radio 3 Essays on Loving the Raven during Poe’s birthday week—bicentenary—in January). I read The Portable Edgar Allan Poe edited by J. Gerald Kennedy to prepare for writing “An Evening with Edgar” and thought I got him pretty well for the purposes of that short story. Reading it now, having listened to Peter Ackroyd’s unabridged Poe: A Life Cut Short (on 6 discs), I think I did a good job distilling him at that point in his life. However, the sad part is that in reality Poe probably would not have given Martha the time of day, as he was a southern slave-owner and no proponent of abolitionism. This facet of his character, along with many others that were uncovered by the Ackroyd book, have somewhat diminished him in my opinion. Nevertheless, what I had always known—and what the biography made achingly clear—was the intense and unrelenting sadness of his life.

How would Poe’s life have been different if his mother hadn’t died of consumption when he was very young? She was an English actress abandoned by his father; Poe’s sister may have only been his half-sister. One wonders how much of Poe’s life of desperation and deprivation might have been prevented by nurture; his mother was married very young to his father, a real waster (and a drunk). And yet perhaps the decisive pull of drink (his “ashes” as Poe called it in later life) was imbedded in his DNA. It’s impossible to tell. Ackroyd suggests that Poe may have encountered “malnourishment in the womb” because of his mother’s emaciation (a motif he returned to so many times in his fiction, it almost makes even this fan weary of it!). And I can’t squarely place the blame of Poe’s rupture with his foster family, the Allans, either with Mr Allan, a Scottish merchant and his indulgent wife Fanny, or with Poe himself.

I’ve never read “William Wilson,” the autobiographical tale of Poe’s school years as a boy in 1820s London (and treated well and expenses paid for), but at least two modern-day authors were inspired by it. Another series of fascinating what-ifs: what if Mr Allan’s fortunes hadn’t changed, and Poe had stayed in England longer acquiring an education? He was neither extremely happy nor distraught during those years. In later adolescence, egged on a bit perhaps by Allan’s refusal to have Poe’s childhood poems published, Poe did what all teenagers do—he rebelled. He was snarky. Unfortunately, and not without reason, Allan was really ticked off that this orphan into whom he had pumped so much of his money and time was acting ungrateful. Poe went to university, slacked off, begged for money, beginning the unfortunate pattern of the rest of his life. You have to wonder, after this happens a million times in the course of A Life Cut Short, whether he had some kind of diagnosable problem, and yet I’ve seen this self-destructive attitude in a lot of my fellow writers.

Poe joined the Army, and the regiment of discipline really suited him. Eventually he tired of this, too, though he never tired of telling his fellow cadets tall tales and satires, “changing his birth year on a whim,” as Ackroyd reports. Out of the Army, he decided (and with all apparent seriousness) to attend West Point, the US premiere military academy. Allan even helped him to get accepted. Unfortunately, following the usual pattern, he was court-martialed for dereliction of duty and lost his place in Allan’s affections forever. Next followed years and years of drifting from Richmond, VA, to New York, to Boston (the city of his birth), to Providence, RI, and back again, seeking work, whether it was in publishing stories or editing literary journals. At first I found his letters seeking monetary help extremely affecting. Then, after five hours of hearing them, I realized he must have been hell to live with. No wonder he wrecked his own relationships and drove away his friends. He had a wild, melodramatic streak infected with pathos (“he seemed to believe everything he wrote somehow became true”) and was a bitter, raging drunk. When sober, people found him gentlemanly, intellectual, and interesting, but a true satirist and a sarcastic wit. Ackroyd doesn’t believe he was an alcoholic, because he could stop drinking for long periods. He did, however, go on binges that lasted days.

About the only people who could put up with him were his aunt Maria Clemm (“Muddy”) and his cousin Virginia, later his wife (he married her when she was 15, not strictly illegal, but they did lie about her age to the officiating pastor). Muddy managed to keep the three of them fed, it seems, and somehow stayed loyal to “poor Eddy” to the end. They were desperately, utterly poor most of the time. “They were forced to live on bread and molasses for weeks on end” (yet never seemed to run out of writing materials). Virginia was consumptive from basically the beginning, and Poe spent most of their married life agonizing over her. When she finally died, he seems to have lost all self-control and tottered to the grave not long after. Yet, if you look at his correspondence and his writing, I think all he wanted of women was their protection and to be able to use them as muses. Even the preternatural Ligeia is no vampire in the sensual sense of Stoker or LeFanu. Basically, then, I don’t think anything improper went on between him and Virginia at all. It would have been interesting to hear her side of the story, though perhaps that would have been too completely miserable to contemplate.

Though Poe’s life is a map of near-misses in the literary world and shooting himself in the foot with critics and potential friends alike, he wasn’t completely ignored in his lifetime. His first big hit, “M.S. in a Bottle,” won a short story prize competition head and shoulders above the rest. By the mid-1840s, literary critics in most major US cities singled him out for praise for such short stories as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Masque of the Red Death.” He became a celebrity because of “The Raven,” though Ackroyd suggests he wrote the poem with a calculated audience appeal. This is yet another contradiction of Poe’s, whose personal life was such a shambles, whose writing rambled on full of the phantasmagoric, and yet his writing process was precise and exacting. Unfortunately, when he should have been using his fame to establish a foothold, he lashed out and had “spells” of drunken behavior. “His disappointment with the world was his disappointment with himself.” And don’t get me started on the four or five women with whom he had correspondences and literary amours before, after, and during his marriage!

I have trouble understanding why I can be such a champion for someone who certainly deserves pity, but fascination? Yet I suppose I have been exposed to the genius of his writing for so long, noted its uniqueness, and felt a certain resonance not unlike the French Romantics a few years after his death. Johanna once quoted his poem “Alone” to me on a decorated envelope, and it’s stayed with me since. There is still a mystique in Poe, not least because of the confused circumstances of his death, the mysterious identity of the Poe Toaster, and somewhere (in me at least) an appeal for a “defiantly southern writer.” I’ll never forget the day I photographed a black cat on the rue Edgar Allan Poe in Paris (I was staying in the street parallel to it, rue Rémy-Gourmont, another writer). Unfortunately, all of Poe’s misery at this present stage has made me a bit miserable, too, and the weather, and my circumstances, aren’t helping.