Welcome back to the tranquil walled garden where I chat with readers and writers, and occasionally sip imaginary cocoa in an imaginary dressing gown surrounded by imaginary cats - no problems with allergies there. Today I’m chatting with a friend I've known since I was ne’er but a teenager. Here's a blogger over here: loveandliberty.blogspot.co.uk But we’ve always talked about books, in the pub and elsewhere, by Malcolm Hulke and Alan Garner – oh, and his partner, Richard Flowers. And he’s always been supportive of this old Pile of Leaves.
Bed, mostly! I feel I ought to go to Greenwich Park more, or woods near Watford that sink into me from childhood visits to Grandparents, back when I was a Northerner, but on the rare occasions I get out it’s more of a quick walk over the hill and through the urban farm near us. But I tend not to be well, and more intend to go out than actually do. Watching the countryside on episodes of The Avengers is a special internal place, though. And I like your garden. It’s nice to be here at last.
Do you remember the pub roof garden in Kings Cross? That’s where we met, I think, discussing the pros and cons of Faction Paradox or Rolykins or something...
I do, and my first memory of you is excitedly wrangling over one of your favourite authors! Whether or not it was actually the first time we met, I remember you very vividly, and that we were getting on very well through both being able to talk nineteen to the dozen and laugh, even though we were disagreeing completely. Which is the essence of Who, really.
I’m not sure I have anything profoundly different to say about that; I think it was because it was the gay boy’s delight, with its consistent appeal to the outsider and its being all about standing up to bullies of every kind. I’m sure ‘How Doctor Who appealed to me even before I knew I was gay’ has a lot in common with How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal: the series hates prejudice and oppression, celebrates free will and non-conformity. It’s also frequently incredibly camp.
But I have a suspicion that beyond the individualist theme and intermittently camp veneer, it may just be that the Doctor has friends who are women and men, but ostentatiously doesn’t notice them sexually, let alone doesn’t shag them – not reading as ‘gay’ but being almost unique as a main character in hardly ever reading as ‘straight’. Both in being an individual rather than a ‘uniform’ and in being, seemingly, the only hero who doesn’t have a girl in every port, he was the opposite of Captain Kirk. Not that I didn’t enjoy Kirk sometimes, but I never identified with him.
You’re a blogger, of course, primarily with Love and
Liberty, but now with a
new, weekly celebration of Who. What blogs do you read yourself, and why?
Many, some daily, some as the fancy takes me. Here are a few I have open at the moment:
Politics, Doctor Who, incisive analysis and humour. And, obviously, written by the man I love.
Brilliant novelist, wildly inconsistent diarist. His best articles tend to be up for a couple of days and then vanish.
Jennie’s a friend and, as well as her own voluble politics and Who opinions, comes up with the best daily lists of things for me to read (and it’s less partisan than just plugging the Lib Dem blog aggregator http://www.libdemblogs.co.uk/).
Andrew’s another friend with voluble opinions on politics and Who, and am amazingly prolific writer and critic (buy his books!).
A UK-US political commentator, an independent gay conservative who’s the most readable source for US politics. I often disagree with him, but he’s compulsively readable (and virtually all
conservatives hate him, so that’s a recommendation).
Marxist Doctor Who analysis, for more politics from a different place to mine. Cracking reviews.
Scottie’s another friend who, unusually, tends not to write about politics or Who but about train journeys. But he writes jolly well, and takes photos, and he’s gorgeous, so…
Simon is, as you know, another friend with voluble opinions on politics and Who… There may be a theme here… The best for instant reviews on your actual current telly.
Many, many, obviously, and I still love a lot of them. I’m not sure I can narrow them down to one or two: it’s not that I was indiscriminate, merely voracious. But though I’m missing out masses of books that I’m sure I’ll think, ‘Oh! How could I!’ later, thinking back to when I was very small and in the first flush of reading, two things come to mind. The first, obviously, Doctor Who books. As I’ve written while reviewing Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, I had two sorts of early favourites: one sort had greater characterisation and background, with a message to them, and once I was a little older, I realised that these tended to be by Malcolm Hulke; the other sort, simpler, more stripped-down, might best be described as cracking good stories told at a cracking pace, with cracking dialogue (and plenty of horror for kids). Books like Pyramids of Mars, Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters. And I grew to realise that these, too, had something in common: they were written by Terrance Dicks, from stories by Robert Holmes (you can see a picture of tiny me back then on my Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons review).
You know about The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, so the other that I think of immediately today is André Maurois’ Fattypuffs and Thinifers, which obviously like Doctor Who has a why-can’t-we-all-get-along message and whimsy to it, as well as war and death (and a lovely ‘naming’ ending that gets away from all that). I always loved food, and thoroughly identified with the Fattypuffs’ laid-back attitude, so it was a wonder that I was, physically, a Thinifer for the first half of my life, gangly and thin rather than ‘slim’ and usually underweight. Obviously there was always a Fattypuff waiting to get out. He long since has.
It was only whilst finding an image of the Fattipuffs' cover that I realised André Maurois is the same André Maurois who wrote Arial, the biography of Shelley which was the first ever Penguin...! Are you an e-book convert?
I’m not. I can’t rule out that I may become one; Richard is, and I may eventually become addicted. I can see the advantages. But in part it’s because I like the feel of a proper book, one that I can stick on a pile and lose, that I can put a bookmark into; in part it’s because I’m an appalling hoarder and collector, and collecting computer files just doesn’t cut it; but it’s also that I’m massively put off by the files not being yours in most of the formats for sale (and you can’t choose), by the way you can’t transfer them to different devices if you change your mind, and that the seller can delete your books if they change theirs. I find that wrong and offensive, and until the law changes to protect the buyer and make them a buyer and not an on-a-whim renter (I’ve made this point to MPs, unsurprisingly) I don’t want to be a part of it.
Growing up, I thought it was normal to have seventeen bookshelves, and was always mystified by houses that didn’t have books, but that wasn’t specifically because of the librarian-ness. I was very ill aged five and hospitalised for a few months, and learned to read in one go – boom! – on Doctor Who books, suddenly shooting up to a reading age of twelve and falling in love with books, so for fun Dad would take me round all the libraries in Stockport when his job was a ‘roving’ one at the time. I can still remember the thrill of sitting in all the private back rooms in all the different libraries, where no-one else was allowed to go.
The main perk, though, which lasted until perhaps the mid-’80s, and the one of which I was very conscious of and excited by as ‘a perk’, was getting Doctor Who books early “on approval”. That’s because they were released as hardbacks, mainly for libraries, three-to-six months before the paperbacks appeared in the shops, and it was the practice for suppliers to provide hardbacks to whoever was in charge of picking new books for libraries (happily, my Dad) for a couple of weeks to see if they wanted them. So one of the most thrilling things of my youth was my Dad coming home and telling me he had a new Doctor Who book “on approval”. These had to be strictly looked after, because they weren’t mine, or his – they couldn’t leave the house – but I was happy with that.
There were a handful of books in the mid-’80s that excited me so much that I read them in their entirety onto cassette, so that I could ‘give’ them to my friend Stephen, who otherwise couldn’t experience them until they turned up in the shops. I’m not sure how many: I remember being terribly excited by the novels of The Aztecs and The Dominators; I definitely read Inferno aloud, probably some others in between, and I think the last was The Invasion, for which I remember playing Malcolm Clarke’s March of the Cybermen on my Doctor Who – The Music LP in the background as incidental music and doing Cyber-voices by lowering my register and speaking into a tin.
Before you ask, none of those tapes survive – we’d just use the same C90s over and over to pass to each other with programmes we liked or messages to each other until they fell apart. That’s a little bit of a regret, but mostly a relief.
Alex, you must recreate them specially as illicit podcasts! It’s bloody cold out here these days. Would you like to borrow a scarf?
I know, I know – it’s really not the right season for naturism, is it? But it’s a nicely enclosed garden, so the neighbours probably haven’t issued a writ yet.
Cheeky! What are you reading at the moment – today, right this minute, now?
Usually several books, but… I’ve just started now-bestselling-author Ben Aaronovitch’s Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Transit all over again, because it was first published twenty years ago this month and I’m revisiting that marvellous series on its anniversaries. I’ve just completed the whole of TH White’s The Once and Future King, plus The Book of Merlyn, none of which I’d read since I was a boy and some of which I suspect I’d never read at all; I’d recommend the four together, and then Merlyn after a small break, as it has a very different flavour. I also cried at the end of The Candle in the Wind, and Merlyn deliberately spoils the mood!
As it’s almost as much a loving but critical commentary on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a quartet of novels in its own right, I wonder if I might ask your readers a question, should any have got this far? Can anyone recommend a good modern version of Malory that I might sink my teeth into?
Yes, please get in touch! The only one I can think of is John Steinbeck's version, but I've not read it myself... And when you read, do you have a particular place or position or chair?
Sprawled! Our armchair tends to be covered in stacks of things, while the sofa is Richard’s spot, so I prefer to be stretched full-length either on the bed or the floor.
There really is a nip in the air. Can you suggest a song that will warm the cockles of our hearts?
Old or new? Thinking of the new songs I’ve particularly gone for in the last few months, they’d be Chris Guard’s The Psychic Circus (you can find it on the Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD, and he also performs it with the Bloogs), the Pet Shop Boys’ A Certain ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ (the B-Side of Winner, and very James Bond) and Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What. Not modern bands, then.
But Christmastime is upon us, so just the other day I ambitiously tried to pick ten seasonal songs that didn’t make me gag. The one that most cheers my black heart is Tom Robinson and Peter Gabriel’s Merrily Up On High, a jolly tune about nuclear war at Christmas, but that may be a little too warming. So, seeing as it’s you, it really has to be Kate’s December Will Be Magic Again.
Ooh, thank you - that's perfect!
And thank you for having me in your magic garden.