Thursday, November 12, 2009

the angel of scutari

Unfortunately my experience with Big Finish has been spotty; like most people I can’t afford to buy a subscription. Jamie bought me Angel of Scutari, which I’d been eyeing anyway, as it relates to one of our projects. I hadn’t gotten around to listening to it until now, not due to disinterest, but due to lack of time and wanting to listen to it on a long coach journey. I just had a long coach journey so I managed to listen to it! In the past I haven’t done very good Big Finish reviews because I haven’t taken good notes. Ta-da—good notes!

I have to admit that the very first scenes did not impress me, which is a shame as I really liked the play by the end. Reflecting on it, I don’t see how Paul Sutton could have written the first few scenes any other way—they were necessary for the way the story panned out—yet I wonder if another writer would have handled it differently. The introduction sets the scene: it’s 1853 and William Russell (not the one who played Ian!), the London Times’ correspondent, writes about the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimea. Back in London, General Kitchen (Alex Lowe) gives a rather heavy-handed appearance of desperation and cynicism: “Sebastopol should never have happened.” Also in London is “Miss Nightingale,” demanding from her friend Sir Sidney Herbert “when are you sending me to the Scutari?” The whole interaction between the two is kind of clunky; Florence wants to go nurse, her friend wants her to get married, “I can live without love—I cannot live without my work.” Intriguingly, she will be joining Thomas Hector Schofield—the “angel of Scutari.” Cue theme music!

Audio conventions are found in abundance, though they can be forgiven. “This is it, then?” asks Ace, giving the Doctor the chance to tell us where they are (the Crimea). “This is a ship,” Ace tells us, too. Unfortunately they seem to have landed in the middle of action on a Russian ship. Poor Ace keeps getting badly injured, and the Russian soldier who first threatens to shoot her, then helps to save Ace (as the “blue box” goes over the side), is almost annoying. Until we find out that he’s a young Lev Tolstoy (John Albasiny). The Doctor is separated from Ace, who ends up in hospital with the amusing, bet-making writer. “Are you trying to chat me up, Lev?”
This is when the time travel comes in, and while it takes a lot of concentration to keep up, it is worth it. A few months earlier (in the Crimean timeline) Hex, the Doctor, and Ace land in the British army barracks. The Doctor lets Hex wander—“he knows exactly where he is and when.” However, in the later timeline, the Doctor gets attacked by William Russell who wants to shoot him—even though from the Doctor’s perspective they’ve never met. End part 1.

Part two consists of Hex wanting to muck in and help the soldiers in the Crimea, before Florence (Jenny Spark) gets there—Ace lets him use her spare key to get supplies from the TARDIS. In the other timeline, Russell has the Doctor, Ace is still with Tolstoy, and we don’t know where Hex is. The Doctor debates with Russell over the ethics of the war. In the earlier timeline, Ace is flabbergasted Hex has turned into “St Francis of Assisi .” In the later timeline, Hex sees the TARDIS chopped up for firewood! He’s tongue-tied when at last he meets his idol Florrie. “Your implication is lascivious,” she retorts to William Russell, who has insinuating that she and her traveling companion, Kitchen, who was meant to have killed the Doctor as a collaborator way back in the first few minutes of the play, is her sugar daddy. (“You are pretty hot,” Hex says.) There’s another slightly anti-climactic cliffhanger.

In part three, in the earlier timeline, the Doctor is imprisoned in a Russian dungeon and meets a thoroughly grey Nicholas I. Meanwhile Ace is still with Tolstoy and overjoyed that the TARDIS hasn’t been destroyed because she can still read Russian. In the later timeline Hex escapes from Russell by giving him tea that “tastes like the inside of a Muscovite’s britches.” He finds Nightingale and confesses his doubts about traveling with the Doctor and Ace—confesses his feelings for Ace but “I’m not so sure anymore.” “You kiss her . . . a lot?” “She’d break my arm if I tried!” Ace is also being a bit romantic with Tolstoy, too, helping him win his bet with a kiss—before she knocks him out and tries to make a getaway.

Part four sees Tolstoy and Ace as an impressive double act, the Doctor escaping with the help of a golden spoon, a hug that saves the day, a shameful secret revealed, and the phrase “I’ll explain later” used! Ace is also charmingly jealous of Nightingale—“if you stay out of my face, mush”—rather like the fact she and Rose didn’t get along in “The Ten Doctors” comic.

The plot in Angel of Scutari is necessarily complicated because of the timeline issue, and though I can’t explain it in a way that makes sense, it does. Make sense. As this is a radio play, the entire Crimean War has to be distilled into a handful of recurring characters. This is easy with Tolstoy and Nightingale since they’re in the action all the time, and particularly with Tolstoy, are charmingly written and a lot of fun—they hold our attention. Nightingale as written is a bit of a wet noodle, but probably true to life. I think the last audio play I heard with Sophie Aldred in it was The Settling, similar to this in several ways, including it being about a brutal war, the fact it was all historical and no aliens, and the way the Doctor and the companions got separated along the way. The play, though dark, was not quite as hard-hitting as The Settling. On the plus side, however, the Ace here seemed much brighter, younger, and I could see her uttering each line. Sylvester McCoy is a wonderful radio actor and, as in The Settling, he was often in situations where he didn’t know whether his companions would live or die.

There is no romanticism of war in The Angel of Scutari, with the trivialities of the Crimea presented solidly against the desperate conditions of the hospitals, which Hex tries so hard to ameliorate. Nevertheless it is quite funny in parts and contains many a witty line. As ever there are fantastic soundscapes and editing, and hearing this particular theme tune really takes me back to my childhood.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Desolation Island

‘You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,’ said Jack quickly, before the chance should be lost forever. ‘Ha, ha, Stephen, what do you say to that?’
‘I might say something about pearls before swine—the pearls being these priceless eggs, if you follow me—were I to attempt a repartee in the same order of magnitude.’
‘I did not fag all the way up here to be insulted about my wit, which, I may tell you, is more generally appreciated in the service than you may suppose,’ said Jack.

As you know if you’ve read me, I read a Patrick O’Brian book in the Master and Commander series every year. Just one, every year. 2009 was the fifth book, Desolation Island. The reason I measure out my exposure to these books is that I am convinced they are the best historical fiction ever written, and every time I read one of the books it makes me immeasurably happy and intellectually fulfilled. Even though the last book, The Mauritius Command, was incrementally lesser than its predecessors (particularly HMS Surprise, my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far) Desolation Island is certainly back up in the stratosphere. So good—I have no words.

Well, me being me, I actually do. Here’s the review .

Like the two previous books, Desolation Island starts on land with Captain Jack Aubrey, his wife Sophie and their three children, her mother Mrs Williams, Dr Stephen Maturin, Barret Bonden (ship’s coxswain), and Preserved Killick (steward)—one big happy family in Ashgrove Cottage. O’Brian has always written Sophie extremely well, and though she gets comparatively little disclosure in this book, O’Brian conveys Sophie’s complex feelings toward her husband (who she loves deeply, who she has to govern to a certain extent on land, and who she worries about while he is at sea), and toward one of her best friends, Stephen. Despite their domestic bliss, Jack’s get-rich-quick schemes are dubious and almost draw him into a duel. Meanwhile, Mrs Williams must never be forgotten:
Most of the servants in Ashgrove Cottage were sailors, partly because of the extreme difficulty of inducing maids to stay within reach of Mrs Williams’ tongue; upon seamen, however, long inured to the admonition of the bosun and his mates, its lash fell unregarded; and in any case its virulence was much diminished, since they were men, and since in fact they kept the place as trim as a royal yacht.

There is an outrageous aside where Killick buys a wife before we return to Stephen’s secrets. (‘But if you had heard him speak of wombats—oh, just in passing, and not with any sense of ill-usage—it would have brought tears to your eyes. Oh, Jack, he is so very low.’)

The reason Stephen is so low continues to be Diana Villiers, Sophie’s cousin and a selfish, high-flying woman Stephen has loved for the better part of three novels. She has continuously rejected him, (In a brief flare of rebellion, anger, and frustration he thought of his enormous expense of spirit these last few weeks, of the mounting hope that he had indulged and fostered in spite of his judgement and their frequently violent disagreements; but the flame died, leaving not so much an active sorrow as a black and wordless desolation) but this book proves he is still desperately in love. Her spectre is invoked when Stephen is summoned on his avocation: spying. It seems Diana has been caught up in spying for the Americans and has just avoided being arrested by the Bow Street Runners. She is implicated with a Mrs Wogan, an American, who is being transported for her undercover crimes. According to Stephen’s superior, Mrs Wogan ‘writes like a cat, with every third word underlined, and cannot spell. Speaks excellent French, however, and sits a horse to admiration: no other education that can be detected.’ Due to his obsession over Diana, Stephen appears to be losing his mojo as an intelligence agent, and his superiors want him to reassert his usefulness by spying on Mrs Wogan as she is transported to the colonies—on the Leopard, a ship given to Jack to sail to New South Wales. The book wickedly tempts us with a portrait of William Bligh and never delivers!

Aboard ship, Jack is faced with a not very enjoyable task of transporting convicts (among them three women including Mrs Wogan), insubordination, and a possible Jonah. Stephen likewise must question if his heart is in spying when he starts to fall for Mrs Wogan, who physically resembles Diana, and equally he feels kinship for Michael Herapath, the American who dotes on Mrs Wogan the way Stephen dotes on Diana. Stephen, despite his misgivings, sees himself as a much superior spy: Not the slightest flicker of awareness. Either the woman was the most consummate actress or she had never heard his name. Diana, he reflected bitterly, might not have been so proud of mentioning it. SPOILERS: I spent the whole book in mortal terror that Wogan and Herapath were much more artful than they seemed, and she was going to poison Stephen or betray him or something. I was wrong! /SPOILERS

Midway through the passage, the convicts and then the crew are afflicted with gaol-fever (no idea what kind of contagious virus this would now be called) which thins out the crew and makes every man precious. Jack’s lieutenant, Grant, proves a thorn in his side, though Jack (in letters to Sophie) and Stephen (in his cipher journal) are quick to admit he has his good points : maintaining his mother and two unmarried sisters on his pay, his strong seamanship and chastity. Though “Lucky” Jack Aubrey never backs down from a fight, he does not seek out the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. Instead, the mighty ship pursues and nearly destroys the Leopard in some of the most exciting sea battles yet described in the series. From them Jack nearly does not return alive, though the wonderful thing about Jack Aubrey is his humanity. While contemplating the Dutch captain dressed in black, ‘I wonder,’ thought Jack, ‘whether it is just an odd chance, or whether we killed some relative of his? His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’ He is gracious and compassionate to his enemy: [destruction of the Waakzaamheid] filled him with a kind of sorrow, a strange abiding grief.

Jack has a virtuoso role to play in this book, as the rest of the story shows him commanding his ship out of sea-fields of icebergs (some of the most startling imagery the books have yet produced), near-mutiny, Desolation Island, a confrontation with an American whaler, and ultimately he keeps his conviction, his cool head, his faith in Stephen, his love for Sophie, and his mastery of the sea.

Despite this, I found the book spending a lot more time in Stephen’s head than it did Jack’s, which is somewhat unusual as both characters have been given equal attention in the past. I have no complaints as I love Stephen deeply and would suffer no hesitancy if he ever asked me to marry him! Anyone who has ever loved without that love being returned will recognize themselves in Stephen, and my heart aches for him through most of the book. His frustration with the walls of falseness he has to put up in order to pursue his espionage is combated by his opium habit. Despite all this cynicism, the book ended on a much more romantic, compassionate, humane, and even sentimental note that I expected; it was really a pleasant surprise and a joy to behold.

I think resolution to Stephen’s Diana problem will at last be achieved in the next book.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Poetry on Tap

“A Wild Gush from Poetry on Tap”

CARDIFF, WALES – Poets PETER FINCH and LESLIE MCMURTRY will read their latest work at the new Poetry on Tap reading series on Sunday, 15 November, upstairs at the Promised Land, Windsor Place (off Queen St), from 2pm.

PETER FINCH is the author of several collections of poetry and local history, including The Welsh Poems and Real Cardiff. He will be reading new and previously unread poems from his forthcoming Seren collection ZEN CYMRU. Swansea-based upcoming poet LESLIE MCMURTRY, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico and recently announced the winner of Rev. Eli Jenkins' Five and Country Senses Poetry Competition, will also read.

The evening also includes an open mic section. Entry £4, and £2 for open mic readers.

Poetry on Tap is a monthly poetry and spoken word series co-curated by Ivy Alvarez and Mab Jones, providing a showcase for electric experimentation and lively risk-taking through poetry, with exciting and uncommon pairings between poets and spoken word artists. Supported by Academi.
In brief:
What: Poetry on Tap, a monthly poetry/spoken word series
Where: The Promised Land, Windsor Place (off Queen St)
When: Sunday, 15 November 2009, start 2pm
How much: £4 / £2 open mic readers

Notes for Editors:
Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). Her poetry is featured in anthologies, journals and new media in many countries, including Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc), Brilliant Coroners (Laupe House) and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press).

Mab Jones is a poet, comic, writer, performer and spoken word artist. Winner of the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Audience Award and semi-finalist in the Funny Women and Radio 4 National Poetry Slam competitions, her first poetry book is forthcoming in 2010.

Poetry on Tap Blog: