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Archive for the ‘Idle musings’ Category

Out and About

Life is life, na na na na na. – Opus, ‘Live is Life’

It may just be the case that my visit here concludes rather sooner than anyone expected, for reasons that those pesky professional ethics preclude me from going into in any detail. Suffice to say that things are not going to plan and it is a struggle to keep the situation at work from colouring my whole perception of Bishkek and the trip. (What is it with me and this country?)

I am not seeing quite as much of the city as previously, as (as part of this week’s shenanigans) I have been required to move apartments. The good news is that the new place is closer to the city centre (about a block south of the Metro Bar, KR old hands – I will just mention that the closure of the US air base a few years ago has seemingly hit the place hard and it is a shadow of its former, never especially substantial self). The bad news is that it resembles the kind of place that recently-recanted still-under-surveillance political dissidents would be housed in: small, receiving virtually no natural light, and lacking in essential things like cutlery and anywhere comfortable to sit. Given the choice I would have taken the 35 minute walk and/or taxi fares willingly.

Walking around at least gives you a chance to get a sense of the city: mostly quite modern, laid out on a grid system, and sloping very gently away from the mountains to the south. I get the sense that most Kyrgyz with any money don’t tend to walk anywhere, as any time I ask colleagues how far away somewhere is the answer is wildly inaccurate – ‘it’s an hour’s walk to the office’ turned out to be only about half that, while ‘it’s only five minutes away’ in reality was more like a quarter of an hour.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which made the morning walk to work so pleasant.

In the morning, though, the streets are full of people going to work or school. If a dust storm has blown down from Kazakhstan (this is neither as interesting nor dramatic as it sounds) some of them will be out sweeping the pavement outside their shops with proper Harry Potter-style brooms. American-style sportswear is the preferred clothing option for younger people: older Kyrgyz men often wear the traditional Kyrgyz hat regardless of the rest of their wardrobe choice.

Walking around Bishkek is a decent option if you have the time and stamina for it, the only wrinkles coming from the poorly maintained pavements – you have to keep an eye on where you’re treading, doubly so after sundown, although people seem to have stopped nicking manhole covers to sell as scrap – and the constant adventure of negotiating the street crossings.

This is mainly because traffic signals appear only to be advisory here, unless a traffic cop is in attendance. One thing I suspect I will never get used to is a fully-loaded minibus screeching to a half about eight inches away from me while I am in mid-crossing with the green man still fully in effect. The people on board usually give hardeye to express their outrage that pedestrians should be on crossings, of all places. When possible I take my usual approach and try to make sure a local person is crossing at the same time as me, preferably between me and the oncoming traffic.

The other travel options vary. There are still buses and trolleybuses, wires zinging and twanging overhead, and while these are apparently cheap I have no idea of the schedule. Most people’s first choice is a marshrutka, which is the Russian name for one of those minibuses I mentioned earlier. There are swarms of these all over the city but I have always been very reluctant to use one – partly because (ten years ago at least) a foreigner boarding the vehicle unleashed every person’s inner pickpocket, but also because I can imagine getting on one of these things to go to work, making an elementary Russian mistake and ending up in Uzbekistan.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which makes walking home at night so challenging.

Then there are taxis. These are also ubiquitous. One of the big changes since 2009 is that everyone who wants one now carries a smartphone and as a result the taxi meter has now reached Bishkek. Back in ye old days, the price of a taxi was negotiated in advance and likely to triple if, for example, it was snowing. In my experience, Bishkek taxi drivers were matched in sheer piratical ruthlessness only by the tuk-tuk operators of Galle in Sri Lanka. Everything is much more civilised now.

And, like everywhere else, you can learn a lot from talking to a taxi driver. A decent percentage of these have English good enough to carry on a basic conversation. One guy all but shook his head in marvelment as he shared his opinion that virtually every American traveller of his experience was basically a hedonistic kidult (I paraphrase). Another cheerfully told me of his three children, aged 19, 17, and 2. When I commented that they were (to put it delicately) unevenly spaced, he explained why. ‘For many years no kids. Then doctor he say I have problems with my Testarossa so I get injection in my arm and my daughter is born.’ (He was driving a Nissan when he took me home. I suppose his other car must be a Testarossa.)

***

But what kind of city are these people driving around? Much of it is unchanged from 2008-9: the traffic is mostly the same, the pavements are still unkempt, the nicer avenues lined with trees, the derelict buildings crumbling away. Most street corners still have a woman under a garish umbrella selling drinks to passers-by – it looks more professional, even branded, but that’s the only difference.

Bishkek has changed though: there is a swagger and colour and energy about the place that feels new. Construction sites are everywhere as new buildings shoot up; it now has at least three big malls. One of these, the Asia Mall, even has its own branch of KFC in its food court. (The quintessence of Bishkek is embodied by the fact that, as far as pedestrians are concerned, this supermodern consumerist temple complex is approached via the creakiest, ricketiest old  footbridge imaginable.)

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It’s an impressive pile, and I understand it was built by a local tycoon who wanted to go into politics (‘Make Kyrgyzstan Great Again’), as a blatant attempt to buy the votes of local shoppers and lovers of fried chicken. Apparently, when his run for office ended in failure he was obliged to flee into Kazakhstan, pursued by allegations of corruption.

One of the things I am obliged to do here is hang out with various NGO employees and I did comment on the amount of new construction taking place in the city. I asked them what had made this happen, expecting to hear that it was all about new inward investment. They had a different answer. ‘Political corruption,’ they said, matter-of-factly. It’s all a question of the right people getting the right kickbacks, apparently. The current government is attempting to tackle the problem but with only limited success, according to my informants.

And even if you view the regeneration of Bishkek as a good thing, albeit a compromised one, it’s still relative. My understanding is that the money flows into Bishkek and pools there, not benefiting the countryside much. And when I told some local colleagues how impressed I was with the changes in the city, even suggesting it was now a kind of boom town, the response was ambivalent at best. ‘I can see how you would think that, if you weren’t probably going to spend the rest of your life here.’ That gave me pause, and strikes me as fair comment. Right now I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but it certainly won’t be long enough to really understand a city like this one. It is what it is. Bishkek is Bishkek (na na na na na).

 

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Dependence Day

The last time I was hereabouts, a couple of waggish fellow expats started a magazine they called The Spektator, which covered all aspects of Kyrgyz life in a usually-sardonic fashion. One of the contributors was a guy who I briefly shared a bathroom with, whom old friends and family may recall was the one who stole the bathplug when he moved out and had the habit of washing his dishes using the shower (our kitchen arrangements were a bit basic). Bits of veg and potato were wont to linger: in our apartment, one did not so much take a bath as participate in a rather large ad hoc casserole.

Bathroom Man’s finest hour came when he delivered a sizzling and, to be fair, very funny expose of an NGO away-day held near Issyk-Kul under the auspices of the UN, for whom he worked. His descriptions of ice-breaker games with Kyrgyz tribal elders forced to have post-it notes stuck to their heads and his portrait of the UN agency chief as a man who spent most of the weekend either sunbathing or playing ping-pong were certainly vivid and imaginative. Unfortunately his imagination did not extend to working out just what would happen when his bosses at the UN read his little essay, which was more than likely to happen given that the foyer of the UN building in Bishkek was one of the places which had agreed to sell The Spektator and his piece was mentioned on the cover. I have no idea whether he took the plug with him as a souvenir when he left the country a short time later.

I mention all this because I am reluctant for the same thing to happen to me. I am here primarily on a working visit, and I would like to say a little something about what I’m up to, but, you know, I don’t want to get into trouble for being remorselessly flippant about colleagues or the company or otherwise bringing the firm into disrepute. So bear with me and forgive a little vagueness: I’d rather not come home ahead of schedule. [Kind of ironic as it eventually turned out – A]

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The kind of anonymous picture of a Bishkek park which will not show up in search engine results and as a result help me keep my job.

***

August the 31st is the official day of our office’s Grand Opening, so chosen because it is Kyrgyz Independence Day (the 28th of that ilk, if my maths is correct). Everyone has been working horribly hard since long before I arrived getting the place spick and span and ready for the big day. The official ribbon-cutting is not until early evening but even so I turn up around 8.30 a.m. expecting a hive of activity.

I do not find it. Instead I find one of the girls from the front office sitting on the steps down to the front door (our place is, for want of a better expression, in a basement) with an enormous bucket which turns out to be full of raspberries. She is hugely apologetic about our being locked out but generous with the raspberries, which are probably the best I’ve ever tasted. (Apparently the berries are destined for jam.)

It eventually turns out we are not locked out at all, but I never quite manage to get to the bottom of why we couldn’t get in. Within there is indeed all the hustle and bustle I anticipated as about a dozen various members of staff make final preparations. Balloons are being inflated by the dozen, discoloured ceiling tiles in high-traffic areas are being swapped with pristine ones from quiet corners, and someone who seems to be a professional beautician has set up in one room and is working her magic on the staff (she refuses to let me come anywhere near her). Someone with a frankly underpowered electric drill is putting up pictures and signs at a rate of knots: halfway through the morning the health and safety notice falls off the wall and nearly causes a nasty accident, while my own portrait later does its bit to try and preserve the eyesight of our clients by hurling itself onto the floor in the middle of the night.

But it’s all very good-natured given the stress everyone is under. This is no small deal: we have been promised that the Vice Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan will be attending, along with various other eminent local bods. The fact that it is also Independence Day, and the third World Nomad Games are due to open the next day (basically they’re like the Olympics, but with more goats), may have thinned out the really top-drawer VIPs, but I can still sense the nervousness. Frankly, I share it: my previous and only meeting with a senior Kyrgyz politician came in late 2008, when the Minister for Culture threw me out of the National Opera House (it’s a long story).

There’s not much to do in my particular area of responsibility and so I end up floating about taking the odd behind-the-scenes photo (none of which I can really share, just to be on the safe side). I ask the local director if there’s anything I can do to help and get a startling response: BBC Kyrgyzstan is coming to cover the opening, and would I be willing to do an interview with them? Me? And the BBC? Would I ever.

***

The official photographer turns up, which makes me feel like even more of a spare wheel, and also the tamada, or master of ceremonies for the occasion. (I was slightly alarmed that this might turn out to be another encounter with the tamada from my wedding, who did a nice line in impressions of Soviet leaders, but it was a younger, hipper guy who appeared, resplendent in designer glasses and a velvet jacket.)

The office is reaching peak balloon, with a whole wall of the things erected to block off one of the site’s less appealing corridors: this turns out to be less of a good idea when it’s remembered the kitchenette is down there which the caterers will need access to.

We are all dragged into one of the larger rooms for another round of official portraits with the photographer. It is decreed that the shorter members of staff must stand on a large paint pot in order to make best use of the painted backdrop. I am not one of the shorter members of staff and end up standing on a wooden pallet instead.

All this time the tamada is warming up and checking his sound system at the other end of the room. We pose for our photos while sounds of beatboxing and chicken noises float around the room. It seems strangely in character with the rest of the day so far.

Finally the MD of the company arrives, looking as bleary as you would expect of a man on a business-related day trip to Central Asia from the UK. He wanders about looking duly and genuinely impressed with everything.

His arrival is shortly followed by that of the BBC crew, led by a middle-aged man in a loud check jacket which is, to be perfectly honest, a couple of sizes too small. I am all set to talk to them but a wrinkle rapidly manifests. Not only are BBC Kyrgyzstan more interested in talking to the experienced and important MD than some doofus from the UK who’s only here because he was the only person who vaguely met the job spec, they turn out to be a Kyrgyz-only TV channel, with special dispensation made for Russian speakers if the situation demands it. As my Russian only really extends to ‘Give me cheeseburger and Sprite, please’, the interview is off. I retreat to my office and brood darkly about how my licence fee is spent.

More dignitaries turn up from various regional bodies and the deputy UK ambassador to the region. We were hoping that the bagpipe band the British Embassy is sending to the opening of the World Nomad Games could spare us a few minutes, but apparently they are too jetlagged to puff at the moment. There is a genial encounter between various worthies in the corridor, followed by an awkward interlude in which half a dozen people with multiple jobs all exchange business cards with each other in near silence.

Finally, with a couple of jobbing violinists from the Kyrgyz National Orchestra filling in for the bagpipes and providing some mood music, the Vice Prime Minister arrives. (I am slightly bemused to report that half an hour of intensive research on the internet has left me no wiser as to what her actual name is. It seems to be some kind of state secret.) The moment of crisis arrives as I actually have to meet her, but I mumble ‘Nice to meet you’ in Russian before she is ushered away to company more fitting of her great status.

And so it goes on. The MD is given the traditional (in more ways than one) kalpak as a gift (this is an ethnic Kyrgyz hat) and we have the actual ribbon cutting ceremony. There has clearly been some kind of debate over status and rather than risk upsetting anyone, a five-foot stretch of ribbon is to be cut by no fewer than four people simultaneously: the MD, the Vice Prime Minister, the Deputy Ambassador, and someone from an important regional agency. They tackle this slightly unusual task with about as much dignity as one could hope for. Then we are off to one of the big rooms for speeches, the tamada‘s spiel, and a quick quiz about the company with prizes for the winners.

Finally it is time for the buffet, which is rather good (though as we are in Kyrgyzstan, it is heavily meat-and-pastry based). I find myself talking to someone who is either an assistant chef at the German Embassy or the Deputy Ambassador; either way she has dressed down for the occasion. Only having had a couple of bread rolls, some raspberries, and some sushi all day I do eat rather a lot.

Finally the event seems to be winding down, with senior guests heading off to events for Independence Day and the Games. I am looking forward to getting home myself, before I am invited to a swanky restaurant by the senior management and the MD’s party. I always struggle to say no to this kind of invitation, and we head off into the dusk.

***

The swanky restaurant bears the name of Mikhail Frunze, a famous Red Army commander and hero of the revolution who was born in the city and whom Bishkek was for many years named after; this is the kind of odd historical quirk that is really common in these parts (Frunze also has a chain of supermarkets named after him).

What he would make of the restaurant I am not sure. For me, it is heading into Bond film territory as we find ourselves sitting outside in a small pavilion (it is a very mild evening), six of us sitting around a table intended for twice as many people. Beefy men drinking beer occupy the surrounding pavilions and from somewhere behind us comes the vague football-crowd roar of thousands of people celebrating together in the centre of the city.

As the table is slowly covered by dishes of meat and bread and vegetables – far too much for us to eat all of it – the conversation turns to the events of 1991 and memories of the dissolution of the USSR: the MD recalls catching a train from Kiev to Moscow and being turned back at the Ukraine-Russia border as the visa requirements had changed in the short time since he’d bought the ticket. Kyrgyz colleagues recall the fact that their country won independence without having to struggle for it at all.

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On the other hand, it occurs to me (and I keep this to myself) that many Kyrgyz people, especially the older ones, still seem a little ambivalent about the move away from the Soviet system. Statues of Lenin and Marx are still cheerfully standing in the parks of Bishkek. Bishkek itself seems to be on a roll currently, but I can’t help remembering the deprived state of the countryside and its villages last time I was over here; agriculture was left in a terrible state by the withdrawal of support. I think many people might welcome the chance to again be part of something larger.

Which, of course, is really why I’m here. A long-established Kyrgyz company is going into partnership with one from Britain, giving up much of its autonomy to join the group. That is what today was all about, when you really dig down into it; although nobody was saying as much, of course. Still, maybe there’s something to be said for celebrating Dependence Day as well as Independence Day. Or it may just be that the local beer is going to my head.

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As the wisdom of the ancients tells us, a journey of 3500-ish miles begins with a short trip on the U1 BrookesBus. Having bidden a fond farewell to my landlord and landlady (‘I’m just popping out to Kyrgyzstan – back in a couple of months’), and spent the best part of an hour contemplating the importance of a close reading of the bus timetable, especially on a Bank Holiday weekend, I find myself on an almost-deserted Heathrow Express coach, contemplating an overcast evening and a trip which I would never have anticipated two months earlier. Was this how Sean Connery felt as he slipped the dinner jacket back on in 1982? It occurs to me that, actually,  I never said ‘never again’, but it certainly felt that way for a long time. And yet here I am, once more Bishkek bound.

***

Quite soon I am reminded that while I love to travel, the actual travelling is often not what it’s cracked up to be. The only really pleasant experience of air travel I’ve ever had was when I got bumped up to First Class flying home from Sri Lanka  in 2010, and you can’t rely on an exploding volcano every time you go anywhere. Quite apart from the grim food and the lack of sleep and legroom and all the hanging about in departure lounges, I always find airports to be rather dispiriting places.

In theory it should not be this way. Airports should be the closest thing to a crowd scene from a Star Wars or Star Trek movie that you’re ever likely to encounter in real life, as individuals from all ethnicities and cultures mingle indifferently with one another. And there is indeed an element of this. But it inevitably gets eclipsed by the Gucciness of everything: any sense that you are entering a global realm of infinite possibilities is branded into oblivion long before you get on the flight.

***

The evening wears on and shortly before 11 we pile aboard the good ship (well, Airbus) Boris Pasternak, a proud aircraft operated by (according to our captain) ‘the legendary Aeroflot’.

Well, maybe, for a given value of ‘legendary’. When I was a young man and had no ambitions to even learn where Kyrgyzstan was, let alone go there and play a role in shaping the future of this proud nation (hey, it could happen), I was still aware of the eye-opening reputation that Aeroflot had acquired in the early years of the post-Soviet era. Many jolly tales of people with crossbows in their carry-on luggage and flights being diverted after the discovery that the plane’s hydraulic fluid had been topped up with lemonade were in circulation, all good fun until you actually have to trust them to get you somewhere in one piece.

To be fair, Aeroflot seem to have got their act together in the nine years since I last travelled with them, and the experience is generally speaking much less character-building this time round. The flight is less than half full, giving everyone plenty of space to stretch out and relax during the short flight to Moscow; I am even able to ignore the person in front of me watching A Quiet Place on their seat-back screen and get it well out of my eye-line.

It’s still hard to ignore the fact that the airline feels a lot more slick and corporate than it did even ten years ago. Adverts for the ‘Aeroflot Bonus Scheme’ regularly flash up on the seat-backs while we are waiting to fly, and just below in the pocket is a hefty catalogue proudly entitled ‘Sky Shop’. They have learned to play this game rather well. Even the polystyrene cups that the water and fruit juice come in features the Aeroflot logo in conjunction with that of the Coca-Cola company. Globalisation at its most thrusting.

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On the other hand, it is still broadly speaking true that Aeroflot’s female cabin crew fall into two camps: those who look like they just failed to make the cut at supermodel school, and those who resemble niche-market dominatrices coming up to retirement age. The airline appears to have changed its uniforms since the last time I was in these parts, investing in lurid red-orange outfits for the flight attendants. All this, added to the fact the company logo still incorporates a discreet hammer-and-sickle motif, makes it hard to shake the impression that I am somehow appearing in a dodgy Brezhnev-era Gerry Anderson knock-off.

Partway through the flight they come round with the food and the attendant looks earnestly at me as he asks what I would like to eat: ‘chicken or lamp?’ I play it safe and go for the chicken; I’m 90% sure I know what he means, but this is still Aeroflot, after all.

***

It was Douglas Adams who wisely observed that no language on Earth contains the saying ‘it was as beautiful as an airport’. Ten years ago, Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow was particularly offensive to the eye, resembling a recession-struck shopping centre in the grim north of England, but these days it is borderline appealing. In addition to various places selling ethnic food from the former SSRs, ten metres from my departure gate there is even a branch of Burger King (or ВУРГЕР КИНГ, as the logo reads in Cyrillic). It seems this is to be the theme of my journey: the deafening sound of big brand music.

And it makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose. Airports and the like are the only truly international spaces, after all, so of course visiting them will reveal what it really is that holds international society together. And at the moment it seems to be fast food, big-name soft drinks, and fashion labels. The young Russian tourists waiting for their flights are often indistinguishable from their American counterparts, all of them in baseball caps and ripped jeans and other bits of designer clothing. They queue for the toilets (which seem to have temporarily packed up) with the greatest of equanimity, apparently united by their membership of this particular global fraternity.

***

And so to leg two of the trip, aboard the Adolph Joffe (no, me neither). Possibly because Mr Joffe is less famous, his plane is much smaller, and packed out with people heading to Bishkek. I am, to be honest, flagging by this point: my head thinks it’s 6am and I have only managed a few short naps in the preceding 24 hours. It’s not the fault of anyone, but this particular journey is air travel at its worst, for me – I can’t stretch my legs, which starts my knees aching, and every time I nod off I am snapped back awake by the lack of any real neck support. A long haul flight like this would be up there with waterboarding on my list of things to avoid.

Thankfully, however, this flight only lasts three or four hours and we arrive at sunny Manas Airport (27 degrees) in the middle of the afternoon (spending this last summer in the UK has at least prepared me for this kind of unreasonably warm weather).

I am collected from the airport and very soon we are heading into Bishkek itself, across the plains north of the city. Road signs with messages like ‘TASHKENT 536 miles’ flash by – only in Central Asia. And I have a very Bishkeky experience for the first time in years – looking out of the car window, I find my attention drawn to some unusual and distinctive clouds, only to realise a moment later they are actually the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains, looming over the city from the south, most of their bulk rendered almost invisible by the distance. I begin to remember just why I have come back here.

And, to be honest, even though there are countless adverts for Coca-Cola and KFC lining the road into Bishkek, I realise I don’t really have any justification for taking the moral high ground. It may indeed be that the consumerist element of globalisation consists of big brand names persuading people that they are, somehow, objectively better and more desirable than local alternatives, but then I am arguably in the same game myself, a footsoldier (or maybe now an NCO) in the battle to homogenise the world.

Do I really think this? Only really in my more self-doubting moments. I think that communication can help the world in a way which is largely denied to KFC, Burger King, and even Coca-Cola, and that is what I am here for. I find the prospect just as enticing as that of a chicken burger. The great brute of a city swallows me up: here we go again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Current issue of DWM, the ‘Ask Steven Moffat’ column. A reader (who may not want their name appearing on my sordid and increasingly monomaniacal blog, so I won’t repeat it) asks:

Do Time Lords have a pronoun to refer to [someone] who has changed gender…?

Which is a reasonable if slightly fannish question, and indeed the whole issue of gender pronouns has been addressed in the past by proper SF writers (Ursula le Guin being the most obvious example) who have dealt seriously with societies which exhibit a degree of gender-mutability.

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Of course, Moffat is not a proper SF writer but a comedy writer, and so the answer we get is as follows:

Oh, gender pronouns. To hell with gender pronouns, can somebody make them illegal. What are they for? What do they add? Every time I have a conversation about [the Michelle Gomez character supposedly sharing identity with a classic character from the series] I fall to my knees, sobbing from the pronoun effort… She/he, him/her, his/hers, I’ve developed a hand slash reflex for the forward diagonal. It’s like Kung Fu round the office. I’ve injured two people and destroyed a water cooler.

Ho ho ho. Yes, quite funny, but failing to answer the question in any meaningful sense – and note, if you will, the curious spectacle of one of the UK’s best-remunerated, highest-profile writers, complaining about a part of speech which serves to add clarity and elegance to the language he primarily works in.

Yes, failing to take the subject seriously and opting to go for a laugh instead. Do I even need to add anything? Oh, go on, I will.

Reading between the lines, I don’t think Mr M even wants to talk or even think particularly seriously about this particular area, for all that he is the prime architect of giving it whatever spurious legitimacy it currently enjoys. Hidden in his answer seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement of all the difficulties and absurdities implicit in this concept he has now dumped on Doctor Who. Gender pronouns – it may not seem like a big deal, especially if you’re a native speaker of one of those languages which doesn’t have gender pronouns, but for me it’s long been one of the main reasons I violently recoil from the idea of changing character genders.

We’re talking about fictional characters in stories, and they only really work, only really connect with viewers and readers, if they are in some way capable of being identified with. Note the way in other pieces of SF that robot and computer characters are routinely referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ regardless of appearance or behaviour (R2-D2 being a great example). Only animals and monsters get referred to using the gender-free it. It’s how English works and (more importantly) how people’s minds work, I think.

It’s perfectly fine to talk about an abstract, indefinite person using the ‘he/she’ formula – ‘the successful candidate will use his/her skills to try and arrest the ratings decline’, for instance, from a job advert perhaps. But you can’t use ‘he/she’ to talk about a specific individual, because it goes against all the usages of English and our understanding of how the world works. On some deep level it doesn’t feel like it makes any sense.

This doesn’t mean you couldn’t tell a very thoughtful, most likely literary SF story about aliens who routinely exhibit gender mutability and the difficulty humans have in coming to terms with their society and language. But in that case the gender-mutability of the aliens – their very alienness – would be the point of the story.

Do I need to say that the Doctor is not a very alien alien? His origins are alien but he himself behaves in a very human way – with the sole exception of his regenerative powers, which are ultimately just a postmodern plot device, the main differences between him and his human friends are ones of degree rather than kind. He is stronger, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, but for the most part (excluding the odd plot device power) he still acts and reacts in a very human way (it was seven years into the series before he was definitively identified as non-human, which should tell you something). He is arguably rather less alien than a character like Mr Spock, whose origins are probably not as otherworldly (Spock is definitely half-human, whereas the Doctor…), but whose personality and behaviour are definitely more alien.

It’s not the Doctor’s narrative role to be that kind of Alien, but to saddle him with the whole ‘his/her’ baggage and the implied concepts of inhuman weirdness are at odds with the way the character has been presented and developed for over fifty years. Furthermore, it would transform him from a concrete, identifiable character into a sort of abstract narrative blob which I suspect audiences will find it considerably harder to connect with and respond to.

(Then again, in the same column, Moffat acknowledges the power of headcanon. Whether he would be quite so keen on it if he knew I was using it to ignore every episode he’s exec produced since December 2013 is another question.)

 

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Stay in School, Kids

Education is very important, and so I have decided to take a moment to briefly pause in going on about old movies and instead talk about a colleague. She is one of the most dedicated teachers I know, works much harder than I could ever dream of doing, and I am proud to be one of her many friends. She is one of the most universally well-loved people in the office, which is no mean feat considering the very high standard of people on the desks around me. I suspect she will be very embarrassed by this, which is why I am not revealing her name but instead just putting a big photo of her here:

tabI feel I should also point out that she is teaching a lesson about blogging very soon and wants to use this site as an example, and it does rather appeal to my mischievous side to make her teach with an enormous photo of her own face projected onto the wall behind her. What can I say, I’m a bad person.

But all the things I said at the top of the page are still true….

 

 

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For quite a while now, I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen (a low-ish number, as you can probably imagine) that any proficiency I have as an English language teacher is partly due to having spent a good few years Games Mastering various role-playing games, and I’ve gone so far as to suggest that GMing (or DMing, or Storytelling, or whatever) is the best way of building up a TEFL teacher’s skill set short of actually being in a classroom.

The slightly odd thing is that, to all intents and purposes, it looked like I’d stopped playing RPGs for good in 2004, a couple of years before I even considered going into teaching. Now I’m teaching for a living in the week and running a game session at weekends for pleasure, the parallels are even more weirdly apparent. Permit me to share a few of them with you.

I’m not sure there is any practical value in this, by the way: becoming a Dungeon Master would be an odd way of going about your CPD if you were a teacher, and I wouldn’t advise basing your career choice on the fact it’s vaguely like something you enjoy doing in your spare time. Nor am I suggesting a language lesson and a game session are functionally the same activity, because they’re clearly not.

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

All Right, The Obvious Differences

1. Money.

Language teaching is a professional transaction, obviously: the students are (indirectly or otherwise) paying you to provide a service to them. Gaming is a social activity for which nobody gets paid (apart from that guy with the beard who’s being employed to run Apocalypse World on Roll20, of course).

That said, I’d say a more relaxed lesson is always better than an up-tight one, and a too-relaxed game session has problems of its own. I suppose what I’m saying is that gaming is a social transaction with an implied social contract of its own, which I’ve heard argued is something too often left implicit or unexamined. I agree with this.

2. Numbers.

Nearly every game I’ve ever run has had two to four players; I’ve never had a positive experience (or indeed a prolonged one) GMing for six or more people, nor have I ever played in one (unless you include a mass Masquerade LARP event I attended in Huddersfield in 1996). Three’s very much on the low side for a group class, and I’ve taught as many as sixteen people with no major problems. Conventional GMing of any quality becomes impossible, I would argue, once you hit about eight players.

That Said, Those Similarities

1. Many Different Flavours

In the same way I wouldn’t prep for a Vocab class in the same way I would a Grammar class, or indeed conduct the lessons in exactly the same way, I wouldn’t prep for a session of D&D in the same way I’d get ready to run Numenera. There’s a spectrum in TEFL lessons of accuracy as opposed to fluency – correctness as opposed to communication, to simplify just a bit – as well as a wide variety of different types of activity you could conceivably include: games, controlled exercises, free conversation, and so on.

In the same way, there’s a spectrum in RPGs, this time with the almost-pure-tactical wargame (complete with maps and tokens) at one end, running through to the almost-pure-storytelling rules-light type of game at the other. I could also go on about different GMing and game styles, like Sandboxing, Railroading and Illusionism, but that’s a substantial topic that probably deserves an in-depth look of its own.

In short, what you mean by both ‘a lesson’ and ‘a session’ can include a variety of different things, depending on exactly what you’re doing.

2. Differing Expectations

‘I want to learn about prepositions, not just practice conversation,’ says the language student.

‘I want to break heads and steal treasure, not talk about my character’s background,’ says the gamer.

In both cases it can be a serious problem if different group members have very different ideas as to what constitutes decent use of their time, or if they have an idea of what the teacher/GM’s role should be that the teacher/GM doesn’t actually share: if they think the teacher is just there to deliver language clarification which they passively absorb, or the GM is just there to procedurally implement an inviolable ruleset, there will be trouble. They will object to a communicative task-based teaching style, they will equally object to a more actively-GMed scenario. In both cases the trust relationship is very important.

In TEFL it’s standard to talk to a class if there seem to be potential problems and manage expectations – I think this is partly because there is money involved and there is an understanding on everyone’s part that the class will take place, no matter what. In gaming the same types of discussions only ever usually happen on the most superficial level, even when it comes to fundamental things like game duration and attendance.

3. Latecomers and No-shows

My workplace has various policies for handling people who don’t turn up to class, or who turn up late. Given the choice I marginally have less of a problem with people who don’t turn up at all, as this is less disruptive to the people who’ve come in than having to integrate someone who appears half-way through the lesson.

It’s kind of the same with games: I have less of an issue with players who don’t appear than ones who turn up an hour late expecting to be integrated into the ongoing story. One difference, however, is that players with spotty attendance make it incredibly hard to run longer scenarios that span multiple sessions: you have to build in natural ‘pause points’ where people could conceivably wander off and stop then, rather than ending on a cliffhanger (my natural preference).

The lesson has to happen for contractual reasons, even if most of the class are no-shows: everyone wants the game to happen, if at all possible, because they’ve likely been looking forward to it. But in either situation you have to manage people not showing up.

4. Spotlight Time

You have loud students and quiet students; you also have loud players and quiet players. They’ve all come for the same reasons and they all deserve to go away feeling satisfied. This is one of the situations where GMing can feel eerily like TEFL teaching: you find yourself almost subconsciously aware of how long it’s been since you spoke to each other person, and how long it’s been since they spoke at all. In most language lessons, if a person isn’t speaking they’re probably not benefiting as much as they could, and in most of the games I’ve played (which have primarily been done verbally), if someone’s not speaking much it’s a sign they may not be having a good time.

It’s basically the same skill, implemented for the same reasons. The smaller group size in gaming tends to make the task a little easier, though; this may be why I prefer a group of three or four myself.

Small game sizes also permits you to tailor things a little more to your individual gamers, something a teacher is ideally at least conscious of with regard to his or her students. Making sure a student has a chance to practise their pronunciation or a tense they struggle with isn’t quite the same thing as ensuring Dominic the vampire has the opportunity to use his hypnotic powers at some point during a game, but, again, it’s not entirely dissimilar.

5. The Full-brain Workout

This may be why I find both teaching and GMing to be such hugely satisfying activities, because both of them can be very challenging, but commensurately rewarding when things go well.

In both cases, your brain is operating in a number of different modes, switching between them rapidly to suit the demands of the lesson/game. In teaching, you’re variously monitoring the students, thinking about the pace of the lesson and how much time you’ve got left, adapting your plans on the fly to accommodate how things have gone and the time factor, improvising new activities as necessary, responding to unexpected student queries, framing a technical grammar or vocabulary explanation, running a skills activity or game, and so on. Some of these jobs are managerial, some are technical, some are knowledge-based, some are creative. You are never bored.

In a game, you could again be listening to the group discuss strategy or a mystery they’re trying to solve, implementing a complex rule involving numerous dice-rolls by yourself and different players, playing through a complicated combat requiring you to track things like initiative and the health and abilities of multiple antagonists, figuring out how to get the story to a convenient break point around the same time as the session is due to close, inventing a new encounter on the fly to nudge the players in a more interesting direction, role-playing the leader of the mutant tribe the players are trying to trade with, and so on. Again, there is a huge variety of different task-types, and again,  you are never bored.

I could go on to talk about different prep styles used by different flavours of teaching and role-playing, but I think this is the key thing that resonates for me. When I did my first teaching practices nearly ten years ago, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of variables I had to keep track of: ‘it’s like spinning plates,’ I would say. But gradually I mastered it, and I was eventually able to identify the strange similarity to GMing I think I’d sensed all along – because there’s a lot of plate spinning down the dungeon, too.

There is one more thing, too.

6. The C Word.

You can go to your lesson carrying a detailed lesson plan written out on paper, the rules for the third conditional freshly revised in your head, a sheaf of handouts six inches thick and every modern teaching app known to man on your phone or tablet.

In the same way, you can turn up to your game with every rulebook in the game, beautiful handouts, maps and miniatures for every encounter, the greatest dungeon ever designed, and beautiful crystal-effect dice of every size from d4 up to d20.

You can have all these things, and the most positive and accommodating group of players and/or students imaginable, but both your lesson and your session are not going to fly unless you have one other thing. Players and students always know when you’re without it, and don’t like it when you don’t. All the other stuff is just there to make sure you have it when you most need it.

And that thing is confidence in your ability, either as a GM or a teacher. It’s hard to acquire and easy to lose, but in the final analysis it’s the only thing that counts. I suspect this is something which is true much more widely than just in teaching or gaming, but in both these arenas you’re really confronted with that fact. And that’s probably a useful thing to know, whether it comes from conjugating infinitives or confronting infernals.

 

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It has been a fairly joyless few weeks, what with the demise of Top Gear (genuinely one of the very few current TV shows to make me laugh out loud), the passings of Leonard and Sir Terry, and the still-looming spectre of a possible Tory-UKIP government in a few weeks time, with the incalculable damage that might inflict on this green and pleasant land. So it was nice to get some good news on Tuesday with the promised return, even if only for a few weeks, of The X Files.

The X Files

I’d been expecting this for ages but I was still surprised – not by the news, but by the strength of my own response when it was confirmed, and also by the fact that a lot of other people were equally delighted. Some of these were folk who I would never have pegged as being the type to spend time in the cult ghetto, and I suppose it all goes to show the extne to which The X Files broke out to become a mainstream phenomenon.

For a while, in fact, I was almost transported back to those heady days of twenty years ago, when the series was receiving its first terrestrial broadcast on BBC2 and rapidly acquiring a buzz. I seem to recall being rather dubious about the first episode, probably because I was under the mistaken impression that this was intended to be some kind of drama-documentary in which the characters would investigate real-life paranormal cases every week. But the second episode, which is still a favourite, won me over completely, while the third…

Well, the thing about the third is that – if you have been living in the cult ghetto since the age of about 7, as I have – it doesn’t try very hard to hide its roots. Squeeze is the story of a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so. The resemblance to the second Kolchak TV movie, The Night Strangler – which concerns a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so – is, to say the least, striking. Of course, chief X-honcho Chris Carter soon went on the record admitting that Kolchak was the inspiration for The X Files, and all this had the added bonus of allowing those of us who were already into Kolchak to feel rather smug and ahead of the game (I say ‘us’, but it’s probably just ‘me’, let’s face it).

Needless to say I bought the T-shirt and a number of posters, eventually winding up with all nine series on VHS (mostly second-hand). I also ended up with a copy of the magazine containing Gillian Anderson’s legendary first photo-shoot, which at one point was changing hands for insanely high prices – I think I’ve probably missed the peak of the market when it comes to selling my own, but fingers crossed the new series will see a bit of a resurgence in interest.

My favourite extended run of X Files episodes is still probably the first series, which is less constrained by its own mythology and more interested in tackling classic horror and SF archetypes – it does the ghost story, the werewolf story, the killer AI story, and so on – but it would be foolish to deny that for most of its run this was a show which managed to sustain a very high level of quality, the production values looking good even when some of the actual scripts were either dodgy or impenetrable. And when the episodes were good there was no cleverer programme on TV.

Nevertheless, I think it would be foolish to deny that the series did outstay its welcome just a bit: the final two largely Duchovny-less seasons often felt like they were reducing the show to a feeble shadow of its former self, and the ongoing meta-plot with the alien oil and the Syndicate and the alien super-soldiers just seemed to be getting more and more involved, rather than actually progressing at all. And it was quite sad to see the series, having achieved a rare move to BBC1 prime time, slowly being relegated back to the small hours on BBC2 as audiences fell off.

This should not detract from the cultural impact of the show, of course. Mulder and Scully went on The Simpsons. Catatonia sang a song about them. You only have to look at the sheer volume of knock-off series which came out in the mid-to-late nineties – you can perhaps even detect a dash of the influence in the 1996 Doctor Who movie, which teams up a rational, intelligent female medic with a flamboyantly eccentric man – or the fact the series was held to be strong enough to support a slew of spin-offs.

I went to see the second X Files movie when it came out in 2008, despite the tepid reviews it received, and my memories are mainly of head transplants, Billy Connolly acting badly, and a dubious subplot about a sick child. And yet I still distinctly recall my strong emotional response to seeing Mulder and Scully again. It was like bumping into two old friends after a long break – obviously they had changed a bit, but it was nice to see them looking well and getting on with their lives, after a fashion.

I’m expecting the same kind of feeling when the new X Files eventually appears. Inevitably one has to wonder what the new episodes have in store, other than the return of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner: virtually every other recurring character had been killed off by the final episode of the TV series, if I recall correctly, so the new episodes may not be able to take the easy route of being a simple nostalgia festival. I’d be wary of an attempt to pretend the last 15 years haven’t happened and just do standalone monster of the week episodes, too, for all that these were some of my favourites. I really hope they don’t attempt to do any kind of ‘passing of the torch’ shenanigans by introducing young, hip, replacements for the two leads – if the final series showed anything, it’s that the magic of the show is in the chemistry between those two characters and performers.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but I’d really like to see an attempt at resolving the ongoing mythology and actually finishing the story off. According to X Files mythology, we were due an alien invasion in 2012, and there’s surely a story to be told about that? I can only imagine how hellishly difficult it would be to recap the existing mythos, in all its insane complexity, while still telling an accessible story for new viewers, but even a failed attempt would be interesting. I suppose we shall see. I am happy to wait; it will give me a chance to consider another great unexplained phenomenon, namely why I don’t have any episodes of this, one of my very favourite TV shows, on DVD. That one at least will be easy to resolve.

(I wonder if it isn’t somehow significant that on this, the tenth anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who, I should find myself writing about the return of another series entirely. What price a proper Doctor Who revival now? Beyond diamonds, I suspect…)

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idelba007pic

…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

idelba007cartoon

I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

apple
‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’

‘Mmm-hmmm?’

‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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