Archive for the ‘Unwelcome autobiographical rambling’ Category

Some people think that I am a ‘great traveller’, but this is really not the case: I have barely set foot in a dozen different countries, once you take out the ones where I just changed flights or sat in a plane on the tarmac. But I have lived abroad more than most people I have met: somewhere between three and four years, once you tot it all up (much closer to three, if we’re honest). And one of the questions which comes up most often when this topic arises is ‘Why on earth did you go to Kyrgyzstan?’

Perhaps I should elaborate a bit on that. Whoever I’m talking to will wrinkle their brow as if they have encountered something deeply mystifying, perhaps even not susceptible to reason (they will probably not look at me and just stare off into space, as if seeking cosmic wisdom). And then they will say, in a tone of voice that suggests that this is a question without an acceptable answer, ‘Why on earth did you go to Kyrgyzstan?’

The glib answer I sometimes give is that I enjoy playing Scrabble and how could I pass up the chance of seeing a country worth 30 points even without multipliers? The more measured answer is that – well, maybe it’s the fault of the Eurovision Song Contest. Permit me to explain.

In the first half of 2008 I was living in the city of Bari, in south-east Italy, and to be honest while the job was pleasant it had not turned out quite as planned and (contrary to the hopes of my employers) I was planning on moving on. Part of my weekly routine there was to stumble the mile or two to the nearest internet cafe every Saturday morning and catch up on the previous week’s episode of a popular BBC TV fantasy programme (yes, it may only have been ten years ago, but it feels like another world, doesn’t it). Except that this particular week, or to be exact the previous particular week, Eurovision had occurred, messing with the usual schedule, and my normal Saturday morning entertainment had not been available to upload to YouTube or whatever. This left a gap in the schedule and so it seemed like a good time to contemplate the next job, following the stint at a summer school in Oxford which I’d already lined up.

At this point I was still relatively fresh from fifteen very happy months in Chiba, just east of Tokyo, and was coming to the end of a six month stint in Italy. Whatever else you care to say about Japan and Italy, these are not nations with an image or branding problem – everyone knows sushi and pizza, Japanese movies and Italian opera. When you go to one of these places you know what to expect; you may indeed have very specific goals and expectations. And I fancied something a bit different, a leap off the edge of the map, as it were.

So, as was my SOP at the time, I went to a leading recruitment site for my industry and checked out the current options, discarding the ones which excluded someone at my level of experience and qualification, with a particular view to those which were slightly off the beaten track. And I ended up with five countries on my list. Now, time has passed and I have basically forgotten precisely what one of them was, but let’s skip over that and make something up. On the list were:

Mexico (17 points without multipliers) – Staff needed at the University of Oaxaca (15 points). Pros: get to be called ‘Professor’ at work. Cons: the university was apparently six hours from anywhere, and I would need to find my own accommodation, in Spanish. My interest quickly cooled, which was just as well as I seem to recall Bird Flu turning up in Oaxaca about the time I would have arrived there.

Sri Lanka (12 points) – Small private outfit on the south coast; not far from Arthur C Clarke’s first house, as it eventually turned out. This progressed quite a long way until, I later learned, a computer failure left them unable to contact me for quite a long while (this was the level of competency I would later come to associate with this company, but that, as they say, is another story), by which time I was otherwise engaged.

Indonesia (10 points) – these guys never got back to me about my application and I’ve forgotten all the details.

Thailand (12 points) – likewise, they never got back to me.

And, of course, there was Kyrgyzstan (30 points, as discussed). It’s easy to get misty-eyed about these things, but right from the start there was something rather enticing about the prospect of spending ten months in a country I couldn’t even find on the map. At the time it had been in existence as an independent nation for rather less than twenty years and was therefore somewhat younger than some of the atlases I checked for it. The money was not exactly going to change my life, but then in many ways the main reward you get for living in a place like Kyrgyzstan is the chance to live in a place Kyrgyzstan; I suppose you’d call it experiential compensation. The benefits offered by the job looked quite attractive too.

So, to cut a long story short, away I flew to a country which really occupies a blank spot in most people’s mental map of the world. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of an experience to live and work there for ten months. My memories of the first four months I was there are mostly genuinely happy, or at least in retrospect quite entertaining. Some moments were exasperating, others slightly hair-raising, but I made some good friends and came away feeling like I’d made a difference for the better.

The latter six months were – more complicated. I was a long way from home, and had been for over two years by this point, and ended up making some very questionable personal choices. All this inevitably colours my recollection of the end of my time in Kyrgyzstan, and – to be perfectly honest – kept me from seeing much of the countryside in the spring and early summer. I was stuck in the city being strangled by my own politeness and reluctance to cause offence (what can I say, it’s a British thing).

And so, ever since I came back in the summer of 2009 (with some strange combination of stress and food-poisoning that left me horribly prone to migraines and presenting symptoms that led one doctor to suspect I had contracted malaria), my memories of Kyrgyzstan have been very fond, but also inescapably tinged with regret. I felt like I had missed the chance to see so much of what makes this country special, simply because my own personal issues got out of control. Yet, at the same time, I never seriously thought I would see the place again.

And then my company announced they were setting up a branch in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and were looking for someone to oversee the launch and the first month or two. The ideal candidate would ideally have: a) a certain level of qualification and experience, b) a good track-record with the company and knowledge of its principles and ethos, and c) significant experience of working in Kyrgyzstan.

Together those things made up a Venn diagram in which I was pretty much the sole occupant of the central region. Sometimes it just feels like the universe is calling you by name, and it would churlish to ignore the call. Twenty-four hours later I had accepted the job.

I am looking forward to seeing the place again – especially Bishkek, that crumbling, weirdly-proportioned sprawl in the lap of the mountains – much more than I would have expected. Hopefully this time will be different. If in other way, my life will certainly change in one respect: in future, I expect that people will now be asking me, ‘Why on earth did you go back to Kyrgyzstan?’ And the answer is that in a strange way, it really would have felt weird not to.

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How quickly something can go from being unthinkable and absurd to seeming inevitable. And here we are, finally. Ah, my only friend, through teenage night – and every other kind of night, if we’re honest. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, but it has sometimes felt that way.

(Let us try to keep things in perspective here. Someone whom I care about learned of the death of a sibling this weekend, and compared to that, regrettable decisions in the casting of TV comedy-drama series are pretty small potatoes. As I say, perspective required.)

I am naturally bracing myself for the deluge of criticism from triumphant young voices informing me of the exact degree of my bigotry and intolerance. Knock yourselves out. Enjoy your show. For myself I will say that I don’t think Jodie Whittaker will be a bad Doctor Who. This is because my brain refuses to recognise the fact that she will be playing Doctor Who at all – not the same character. This is not a choice on my part. The data refuses to compute. At best, it’s just gibberish – at worst, a rather tired joke.

I suppose that in an odd way I am actually grateful for the decline of Doctor Who over the past four or five years. Seeing the show slowly dissolve into sentimental incoherence under the curatorship of Steven Moffat, it has been fairly easy to see which way things were going for quite some time now, so I have figuratively been tightening the metaphorical tourniquet and sharpening my metaphorical axe for at least six months. If the show had been going from strength to strength and the news of the new casting had descended like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, I’ve no idea how I would have reacted.

One strikingly thoughtful and compassionate comment (NB: irony present) on this topic which crossed my path ran along the lines of ‘if you can’t accept a woman, you have never really understood the character of the Doctor’. Well, I don’t know about that – actually, that’s a lie, I have very strong and definite thoughts about that kind of attitude – but I do think that if you’re going to come out with that sort of thing, it just proves you don’t understand love.

Love is not rational. Love is not susceptible to political agenda, or the tides of fashion, or popular demand. Especially not child-love, the kind you carry with you from your earliest years. You lose the capacity to commit yourself so completely to a movie or a TV show or a particular character as you grow older. The best you can hope for is to keep that movie or TV show or character in your life in some way. Yet here we are, in a world of post-Disney Star Wars, post-Abrams Star Trek, and post-Moffat Doctor Who. I offered my opinion about the last Star Trek movie and rewrote Kipling to the effect of ‘Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware/Of giving your heart to a science fiction and/or fantasy franchise to tear.’ But the advice is a little redundant in my case. I have never loved anything else quite as much and in quite the same way that I love Doctor Who. It’s just that this is now a heritage love, rather than a going concern. So it goes. So it goes, so it goes. One more step into the cold.

*Unless I am offered substantial amounts of money.


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You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.


This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.


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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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I had a slightly odd experience a few weeks ago. One of my students approached me – one of the pleasant, engaged ones, but a guy who always looked slightly fragile, somehow – and asked if he could ask me a personal question.

I have a stock answer for this situation (along with most others). ‘You can always ask,’ I said pleasantly.

‘What advice can you give about coping with depression?’ he said.

Well, for what it’s worth, I told him that the most important thing is to try not to just sit and wallow in it, but keep yourself busy as far as you can – but more importantly, to remember that depression isn’t you any more than flu is you or athlete’s foot is you when you’re suffering from one of those: just because your brain chemistry gets messed up, that’s not your fault any more than you’re to blame for copping a virus or (spirits forbid) a cancer. He seemed to take it on board, but I felt compelled to ask him something in return.

‘Why are you asking me, this, in particular?’ There are over a dozen teaching staff members where I work, after all, some of who knew him better than me, to say nothing of a top-notch student welfare team.

‘I recognise the look on your face sometimes,’ he said. This came as a shock, as I hadn’t really felt I’d had a particular incident so far this year. Still, it only goes to show. I just wish he’d paid that much attention to consonant clusters.

black dog

I was, I suppose, about 15 when I really became aware of the fact that every now and then I just felt… low. Flat. ‘Sad’ never really feels like the right word, which is one of the reasons why I shied away from the D-word for a long time. I suppose I first started to notice little interludes where I just felt hollowed-out and listless much earlier than that, but it was a few years before it started to dawn on me that, perhaps, there was perhaps a little bit more to it than just feeling down at the end of bad days.

I don’t know, though. I’m always reluctant to make a fuss about this stuff, as I’m aware I suffer from this much, much less than other people. I mean, it’s not nice, and it’s to some extent debilitating in terms of my being able to, you know, do productive stuff in my free time, but actually getting up and going to work has never been difficult. I am perhaps somewhat lucky in that the OCD-tendency which is also an element of my personality to some extent counteracts the blues and keeps me active.

I’m not even completely sure why I’m writing this, other than because I find writing about the world helps me to make sense of it, and, as I said in an interview many years ago, writing regularly makes me happy. I’m not posting this as a cry for help or in the expectation of a groundswell of support, because, to be honest, neither is required – managing this condition is something I’ve got used to. This is only out in public because I have come to the conclusion that writing something that no-one is ever going to read is a foolish waste of time and energy (this, by the way, is why I’ve more or less given up writing fiction).

Perhaps it is also the case that my shadowy companion has been visiting me more regularly in recent years than has sometimes been the case. Possibly there are sound real-world reasons for this: after having firm short- and medium-term goals for many years, in 2012 I found myself having achieved them all and at a bit of a loss for anything to do. Inactivity doesn’t suit me well – I need to keep the engines of my mind revved up – and there are possibly also personal issues to consider (but, hey, there’s a limit to how confessional I’m prepared to get).

This is how it feels. I was going to say it feels like being behind a sheet of glass, not quite able to properly engage with the world. But it’s more like being made entirely of glass: thick, cloudy, heavy glass. You don’t feel sad all the time. You don’t actually feel anything at all. You feel, as I said, flat, hollowed-out. You don’t really want to talk or interact with other people on anything other than a professional level. You find it very hard to settle down and focus on anything other than the most passive and undemanding pursuits. Work days are usually okay until you get home. Weekends are more awkward: you spend the day idly going back and forth between different computer games and websites, occasionally toying with doing something more productive but finding no enthusiasm for it, no value in it, whatsoever. And you wonder: is there something genuinely wrong with me, or am I just being appallingly lazy?

But you remember the upside to this as well, for all that it seems much rarer than the bad days: the times when your passions consume you and the work itself, whatever it may be, is reward enough in itself. At these times my productivity is phenomenal: once upon a time it was writing of various kinds, these days it’s more likely to be painting or model-making. When you’re up the danger is that you think it’s going to last forever – it won’t, of course. But the two modes of this are alien to each other, mutually exclusive in a very real sense. You can’t think yourself into the up headspace when you’re down, nor vice versa. You just have to negotiate your path between the two states and remember that nothing lasts forever.

I am down at the moment, as you may be able to tell. No, hush, it’s not necessary. It’s too early to say how long this particular bout will last, but I think I am dealing with it pretty well. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve written this, as I said, but this year has – so far – largely been about getting a more honest sense of myself as a person, and there’s not much point to that unless you share that with the wider world one way or another. Relax, there’ll be another cynical film review along in a minute.


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It seems to me that now, before we get too bogged down in 2014, would be a good time to carry out the threatened review of my list of resolutions from this time last year. Anyone expecting a similar list this time round is probably going to be in for a disappointment, by the way. Why should this be? Well…


Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, 2013 proved to be a bit of a big year for me in some respects, and I’ve no expectation that this year can match it, certainly not in terms of major events. Anyone anticipating a brave declaration that this year I’m going to buy my own place, start my own business, learn to drive, or become emotionally intimate with someone new is going to be disappointed. Sorry.

I think consolidation is the word I’m looking for; consolidation and balance (in terms of the different elements of my life). The only thing that did occur to me happened back in April, or whenever it was that Margaret Thatcher finally departed this world. It seemed to me that it’s all very well to make big noises about the state of society and poisonous political legacies, but unless you actually pull up your boots and wade into actual political activism all you’re doing is just mouthing off and indulging yourself. God knows there are enough things wrong in the world today, and enough ways of getting involved should you so wish. But can I actually see myself making that kind of serious, probably thankless commitment? In all honesty, no.

Anyway, moving on to last year’s resolutions and how they worked out:

1. Move Career On. This actually happened, which was probably inevitable, but what’s slightly surprising is that it’s happened in a very positive way. At one point this year I was seriously considering going off to Chile or Argentina and the life of a peripatetic TEFL grunt, but I found I could generate very little enthusiasm for this. That I eventually wound up – more by luck than anything else – working at the very place I would have chosen to, given the option, is obviously a real bonus.

The downside is that, one way or another, I am going to have knock my association with summer schools on the head. This is a cause of some sadness, as I always enjoyed the challenge of the work and it realistically means losing a few good friends who I never see at any other time. But I need to start thinking longer term.

2. Play Some WFB. Er, well. I don’t think half a demo game really qualifies. Partly this is because I went through a real period of engagement with my Blood Angel army near the beginning of the year, and partly because I took six months out of the hobby after having my Eldar army effortlessly tabled by some Space Marines in June. My misgivings with the current 40K metagame are considerable, but on the other hand no-one seems to be playing WFB at the venue I go to. Then again, we are surely due a new edition this year, which may stir things up a bit. Anyway – I would like to play some proper WFB, but a competitive 40K army I am happy with would also be satisfactory.

3. Write More and with More Variety. This didn’t really happen. I blew NaNo again this year, but then again i suppose this is like someone who never goes jogging entering a marathon and complaining they couldn’t finish it.

In the year to come I think I will revise this to ‘Be More Creatively Productive’, whether this means through writing, painting, or practising musically (someone gave me a guitar in November, rather to my surprise).

4. Waste Less Time Playing Computer Games. An indubitably spectacular fail here, given the epic sessions of Civilisation, Total War, and The Sims I have been clocking up of late. But are games as intricate and engrossing as these honestly a waste of time, any more than going to the cinema or reading a book, passive activities I indulge in without feeling the slightest regret? Perhaps the key is to make my sessions a bit less epic – balance, like I say.

5. More Radio and Less TV in the Background: Well, this was never really a big deal, though things have got to the point where I can join in with the voice-over on certain repeats of Top Gear.

6. Sleep More: Marginal. The new job means I don’t have to go to bed quite so ridiculously early, but the effort of will involved in stopping whatever I’m doing and going to bed is sometimes demanding. I am, as ever, reminded of Somerset Maugham’s declaration that he did two things against his will every day: getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

7. Write About Different Old Films: Does gorging on Toho monster movies qualify? I suspect not. I find it hard to feel too guilty about this one, as all the films I write about are ones I enjoy (on some level). I think one can be too aspirational when setting resolutions.

8. Write Proper Doctor Who Reviews: Well, this one definitely happened, and will continue to happen, I think. I predict a touch of seventh Doctor bias in the early part of the year, as McCoy was the guy who I hardly saw anything of this year.

This would be an opportune moment to mention again that 2013 was the year I got my name on the back of a book, Outside In (a collection of Doctor Who reviews, inevitably) – my own contribution being one of least accomplished pieces in it. 2014 promises Outside In 2, featuring a piece written specifically for publication (not to mention, I understand, the second pressing of Who’s 50 with my acknowledgement added). A third similar volume is also on the cards but I am reluctant to say more ahead of the official announcement.

Not too bad a year, then, as I look back on it – certainly not too many regrets. Hopefully 2014 will be more or less the same, but we will inevitably see.

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Once again November has come and gone and I find myself not having written a novel in any real sense of the expression. So what, you may say, this is no different to the previous ten months of 2013 in which novel-writing did not really feature on the list of things I did. This is a fair point, and yet…


As you may or may not know, November is the time of NaNoWriMo, the popular – if, it must be said, very badly named – international creative writing event. National Novel Writing Month is an annual event where people from all over the world sit down and undertake to produce 50,000 words of continuous fiction over a thirty day period. This is the fourth year in which I have set my sights on the NaNo prize, and the second in a row in which I haven’t actually come anywhere close to achieving it.

I say ‘fourth’, but the first year I sort of did NaNo without even being aware of it, sitting down to write a novel in the space of about a month and only later becoming aware of the fact that thousands of other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless I knocked out 116,000 words of a story which had been kicking about my head for over sixteen years.

Finding myself at a loose end I did NaNo properly in 2010, this time turning up 115,000 words (needless to say I had no other real commitments). It seems rather incredible to me now, but I had genuine hopes that one or other of these productions had enough merit to potentially be publishable in some form, given a bit of rewriting and polishing. My experience of a ‘re-edit your MS’ course from a pro author showed me otherwise, mainly because the first one would have been unmarketable and didn’t have a proper ending, while the second was essentially the beginning and end of two different genre novels (both favourites of mine) inelegantly welded together: the structure was irretrievably busted in both cases.

I was doing a Diploma course in 2011 and so skipped doing NaNo, but decided to have another crack last year: getting the structure right was my main concern. After getting 5,000 words into a post-apocalyptic quest story which I never felt completely happy writing, I made the elementary NaNo aspirant’s mistake and switched to new story: a fantastical sex-comedy-satire with a contemporary setting – I got 12,000 words into that, but then illness and a real-life emotional situation got in the way of my finishing it (or so I told myself, anyway).

17,000 words is only about a third of the way there. At least, I’m telling myself, this year I got to 23,000, which is a slightly better showing: and given I dropped out after less than three weeks it’s fairly respectable. Why, you may be wondering, did I stop so early? Well, to be honest, once again I wasn’t exactly feeling the story, and it had also become apparent than even if by some miracle I hit 50,000 before the month’s end I still wouldn’t be anywhere close to the end of the story – at 23,000 I was still some way from the point I had pegged as the end of the first act of the story. (See? Thinking about the structure.) Without the pressure of the NaNo deadline I knew the thing was never going to get properly finished.

(Just to put this in perspective: an acquaintance who was also doing NaNo suffered a close family bereavement, gave birth, and still managed to hit the 50,000 words mark. Given my own main distractions were conquering ancient France in lengthy games of Rome: Total War and enjoying the golden anniversary celebrations of my favourite TV show, I really have no excuse.)

A fairly sad chronicle of failure, I think you’ll agree (I haven’t even mentioned this year’s Camp NaNo fiasco, or ScriptFrenzy in 2011). Why am I going on about it? Why not just forget about the idea and spare everyone the stress and the breast-beating?

A fair question. While I have one (very, very minor) published credit to my name, with a couple more hopefully on the way, I have no serious ambitions to become a professional writer. I have a career which I find very fulfilling – and which, truth be told, is probably healthier when it comes to my mental state than just beating my head against a blank page for hours every day. Yet the compulsion remains, at NaNo time, during similar events, whenever: unless I’m much mistaken ‘write more fiction’ was on my New Year list last January. Has it happened? Nope.

Given I clearly feel some desire to write more fiction, and I’m not lumbered with any of those things which eat the time of most people – full-time jobs, dependent family members, especially active social lives – why this litany of failure? I’m horribly afraid I may just be lazy. Writing fiction is hard work if you want to do it properly – I believe Ray Bradbury said the first half-million words he wrote were all rubbish, but a necessary apprenticeship in the craft. Beating up the Gauls or reflecting on the positive social impact of Doctor Who are both much easier.

Writing a film review is a piece of cake compared to producing a piece of fiction of comparable length – your topic is pre-selected for you, and the structure is usually fairly standardised. You know what you’re going to say, too. Fiction is tough – I was going to say everything comes from within, but of course that’s not true. Let’s just say a much higher proportion of it does.

Okay, so it’s difficult, you may be saying. Nobody’s forcing you. Either do it or don’t, but don’t waste our time going on about how hard it is, and how useless you are. Don’t you realise that what you’re doing is displacement activity? You could actually be doing some writing now instead of bleating about how you’re not doing any writing.

You know, that hadn’t actually occurred to me until I sat down and typed it. Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps I am just attempting to name and shame myself in the hope that this may motivate me to actually produce something. I don’t know. The itch remains, but it seems that I’m not sure whether I genuinely want to scratch it. It’s a little confusing.

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I expect that there are some people who are either utterly bemused or actively irritated by the sheer amount of attention Doctor Who has been attracting over the last ten days or so. It is, after all, just a TV show, an occasionally silly, sometimes unpopular and unfashionable one, originally made for children and in not especially well-financed style.

And you would have a point, were it not for the fact that this is, after all, the fiftieth anniversary of the programme’s first appearance. Fifty years! For a TV series to still be on the air fifty years after its first broadcast is, surely, of some historical significance. When it is a genre series, that significance is surely greater. Greater still, when the series is arguably enjoying an unprecedented peak of global popular success.


So it’s a significant day. But why should anyone outside the Doctor Who village really care? For those of us who have been on board for the long haul, this is of course a wonderful occasion for taking stock and recalling the legions of unsung heroes who have made such remarkable contributions to this most rich and varied of cultural artefacts, people whose names are never usually mentioned in the mainstream media – not just the famous, celebrated people like Verity Lambert or Douglas Adams, but Waris Hussein, David Whitaker, Raymond Cusick. Innes Lloyd. Derrick Sherwin. Douglas Camfield. Malcolm Hulke. Robert Holmes. Barry Letts. Terrance Dicks. Dudley Simpson. Philip Hinchcliffe. John Friedlander. Graham Williams. David Fisher. Graeme Harper. Christopher Bidmead. Eric Saward. Andrew Cartmel. Ben Aaronovitch. Philip Segal. Phil Collinson. Joe Ahearne. Paul Cornell. Gareth Roberts. And many others.

But why should anyone else care, let alone feel the need to celebrate in any way? Is today a good day for more than just the fans of the programme? I think so, and permit me to explain why. Doctor Who may be my favourite TV show – although those words seem madly inadequate – so I am inevitably going to be biased, but I honestly think it has had an effect on our culture and society over the past five decades which has been wholly positive, and is wholly to be celebrated.

This isn’t just because Doctor Who is a brilliant vehicle for telling a certain style of story, though it is: Doctor Who, at its best, has always been unbeatable when it comes to a particular type of fantasy adventure. Nor is it because of the undoubted wit and craft of the storytellers, although the history of the series sometimes looks like one brilliant coup after another, particularly in the early years when their ability to turn limitations into triumphs (the spaceship has to look like a phone box, they have to recast the lead character, and so on) seemed almost supernatural.

These just mean it is a great TV series. What I think makes it such an honestly wonderful institution is the fundamental ethos of the thing: it is about creativity, and imagination, and beyond that it is about tolerance, kindness, politeness – freedom of thought, freedom to be silly. The importance of reason, the importance of compassion, and the importance of fighting for what you believe in.

And if that’s all a bit abstract and airy-fairy for you, look beyond the actual substance of the series: friendships made through a shared love of the series, marriages brought about, children born. Imaginations sparked into life – whole generations had their appreciation of the joy of reading kindled by the 13 million Doctor Who novelisations published between the 1970s and the 1990s – and careers in publishing and TV forged as a result.

So that is why I will personally be enjoying today, regardless of exactly how the actual anniversary episode turns out (hey, I’m on such a golden cloud of positivity at the moment that I’m fully expecting it to be wonderful). Today is not just a good day for Doctor Who and its fans: it is a great day for British culture and everyone who would like to believe in a better world.

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Another year gone by, and (as has become a bit of a tradition) another look at the last twelve months on the blog. Hey, if nothing else it helps to break up the endless flow of film reviews and Doctor Who-related cobblers, right?

Speaking personally, this has been a slightly odd year – the diploma course which really defined the first half of the year for me concluded moderately well, though not quite as well as I’d hoped, and as for the second half… My summer job felt like a bit of a slog for the first time since I started doing it, while throughout this Autumn I’ve felt my relationship with my rest-of-the-year employer growing increasingly strained. Added to this, since the diploma finished I’ve been without a medium-to-long-term goal for the first time since 2006, and it feels like I’ve been drifting and lacking in focus ever since. I’m increasingly realising that I need to keep pushing and challenging myself if I’m not going to lapse into self-absorption and melancholia. As I lead a fairly solitary life, something which I’ve realised is unlikely ever to change, this sort of thing is a constant concern anyway. It’s good to stay self-aware, I suppose.


Anyway, there were just under 10,000 views of this blog in 2012, which sounds nice but I’ve no idea how it compares to anyone else’s. Naive old fool, I thought I was doing okay with 35 followers after two years, before a friend chirpily informed me that her company’s blog had picked up 250 followers after a week. Over a thousand of those visits all came on the same day, mainly as a result of the Mail on Sunday‘s website publicising my piece on Peter Hitchens and Howard Marks’ debate on drugs laws (oh, the shame, the shame). Obviously I need to write more positive things about Hitchens so he links to me again, and just hope people stick around for the Hammer horror reviews. Well, I’m sure a worse plan is conceivable.


The Hitchens thing was the biggest draw of the year by far, with the bulk of the rest of the top five being bankers from 2011 – the final instalment of the original run of Natural History of Evil continues to pack ’em in, along with that silly piece about Lacey Banghard and her two great assets (her Christian name and surname, of course). The only 2012 piece to make the list was… the review of 2011 (sigh), mainly, I suspect, because it also talks about Miss Banghard. I suspect a pattern has been established.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

Bringing up the rear was another hardy perennial, the review of The Viking Queen. I am completely stumped as to why this keeps pulling in the readers week after week after week – there isn’t, so far as I can tell, anything accidentally suggestive in there that could confuse a search engine, nor is this a notable cult film. Why are so many people reading this one post and ignoring much better-written material completely? I must confess I’m starting to get mildly irritated by it.


The bulk of what I’ve written this year has been film reviews, as usual. I thought the overall quality was higher than in 2011, but with fewer really outstanding individual films – the best things I saw at the cinema this year were Lawrence of Arabia (from 1962), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (from 1943) and RoboCop (from 1987). Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as there were still some great movies being released – Chronicle, The Cabin in the Woods, The Raid and The Imposter all turned out to be off-the-radar hits, while there were some quality blockbusters too – The Avengers was better than it really had any right to be, while The Dark Knight Rises, though not Christopher Nolan at the absolute top of his game, was still hugely impressive and deeply satisfying. Despite all that, if I had to name my favourite film from 2012 it would probably be Searching for Sugar Man. An extremely difficult call though.


I think I’ve gone on in quite enough detail about my issues with the Autumn’s crop of Doctor Who, especially as the Christmas show has given me hope that a new and much more impressive approach may be in the offing. Obviously 2013 will be a massive year for all of us who love Doctor Who – expectations are enormous, and it’s difficult to imagine quite how the custodians of the show and the BBC will be able to meet them all.

In the end surprisingly little wargaming or serious uke-playing happened this year, mainly because for a large chunk of the Autumn I was either on holiday abroad or in the grip of one of those emotional entanglements which has occasionally complicated my life prior to this point. A shame, because the wargaming and uke-playing would at least have given me material for a worthwhile post or four.

 Expectations for 2013 are guarded, currently: if I can work solidly and feel like I am making some sort of professional progress, and continue to be a good friend and family member to those around me, I will be happy, regardless of whether I can afford a holiday, or World War Z is any good. Although it would be nice to finally get a WFB army painted before 9th Edition appears on the horizon. We shall see.

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I don’t generally sit down and give myself a stern talking to (my friends and family would probably suggest I should). One of the few occasions when I do recall something like this happening was in very early 1999, just after Buffy the Vampire Slayer had started its BBC transmission. A show which enjoyed a massively dedicated following ten years ago, and critically acclaimed as well.

Anyway, I remember saying to myself, No, you’re not going to tape all the episodes of this series to keep – too much hassle, too much space! You’re never doing that again. And, unusually, I pretty much stuck to that.

In the mid to late 90s I was a bit of fiend for VHS archiving when it came to off-air copies of my favourite TV shows. A few years later it was exactly the same when it came to buying box sets. Now, of course, I consider the enormous stack of tapes (two series of West Wing, two series of Angel, the complete run of The X Files, every surviving original series Doctor Who episode prior to 2004, large numbers of Avengers episodes, to name but a few) and realise that I’m probably never going to watch most of them ever again, and this makes me inexplicably sad. All that time and effort and money and stress over nothing.

The world has moved on, and the nine seasons of X Files that filled a large trunk on VHS fit into a carrier bag on DVD – and if you pick your moment, they won’t cost the earth either. I don’t own them myself, nor the run of Buffy, come to that, but I do have every episode of The Avengers and The New Avengers (oh, boy, that latter one is a show which is really variable), also Hammer House of Horror, the revived Doctor Who

And this weekend, pretty much on impulse, I bought the complete Babylon 5 as a box set. This pretty spiffy collection includes all 110 episodes of the main TV show, the ill-fated spin-off, pilot movies for both of them, and a bunch of other TV movies based on the series (the only spoo in the breakfast buffet is the absence of the re-edited pilot, which apparently is much better than the broadcast version). I couldn’t really tell you where the impulse involved really originated, but I found very little reason to resist it.

Babylon 5 is another show which was massive in SF circles 15 or 16 years ago but which has slipped almost completely into obscurity nowadays – apparently it hasn’t been shown on TV in over a decade, there haven’t been any tie-ins published in a similar period, and the last attempt at a spin-off quietly foundered back around 2005. And yet I genuinely think that this is probably the single most influential TV show of the last two decades.

They’ve only got one chair, so only the commander gets to sit down.

Cast your mind back to American TV around 1992 or 1993 and it was all very much story-of-the-week territory more or less as far as the eye could see. If you mentioned the words ‘arc plot’ people would assume you were talking about zoo animals and a big boat. The storytelling prime directive was that every episode had to be standalone and accessible to a complete newbie.

There are still shows around these days which are like that, most notably in the forensics-procedural subgenre, but look at things like Homeland, look at Dexter, look at Desperate Housewives – there’s a story of the week, but they always have an eye on the story of the year as well. Partly this shift in emphasis is down to the way we consume TV now (the possibility of sitting down with a box set for a whole weekend), but I think some credit has to go to B5 for pioneering this kind of storytelling.

Does the show stand up at all as a piece of drama, nearly twenty years on? I’ve barely watched an episode since 2003, when I revisited all of the first two series, and so I am curious to find out. Regular readers coming here for movie guidance/ukulele testimonials/complaints about losing at wargames may be turning pale and starting to choke at the prospect of a series of detailed Babylon 5 reviews: relax, friends. Only selected, exceptional episodes will (possibly) get this sort of treatment. But I will be checking in occasionally as I progress through the series and its peripherals.

So far I’ve seen off the original pilot and the first four weekly episodes. Before we go further, brief guidance on how B5 came to the UK: the BBC didn’t want the show, presumably as they already had the rights to the Trek franchise at that point, and it ended up being bought by Channel 4: this was good news, as had ITV picked it up it would likely never have received a proper broadcast. C4 showed it on Mondays at tea-time (this was long before The Simpsons even had a terrestrial broadcast, and nor was Hollyoaks on the air), but due to the hour-long slot they opted to skip the pilot and launched straight into the weekly show.

I watched it with a friend and he was broadly dismissive of it as being a low-budget Trek knock-off with dubious CGI (not similar to Seaquest DSV, which reached the UK around the same time), and I don’t recall him watching it again. But there was something there that rather appealed to me – possibly it was the insane ambition of the show, having so many extraordinary characters and trying to cram them all into a 40-minute story, in addition to a fictional universe that seemed easily as complex as Trek‘s, despite the fact it was new-minted and not 30 years old.

(It’s an inescapable fact that it’s quite difficult to talk about Babylon 5 without comparing it to Star Trek, given they both essentially use space opera trappings and many of the regulars are military or paramilitary personnel. Watching B5 again now brought it home to me that there isn’t currently, as far as I’m aware, a programme of that description being made anywhere in the world (or is some offshoot of Stargate still plodding along somewhere?) Massive gap in the market there for the right product, I would have thought.)

The thing is that Babylon 5 reached the UK without much in the way of pre-publicity or attention and the very thing that made it not just different to Trek, but unique amongst TV shows – the fact that the five projected series would tell a single epic story – was never mentioned at all. So it arrived as just another imported SF series – I didn’t fully cotton on to what the show was doing until the start of the second season in 1995.

So obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, these early episodes look quite different to how they seemed at the time – they’re setting things up and establishing character rather than indulging in telling peculiar stories of the week. As I mentioned, I watched all these episodes back in 2003 and found my responses this time to be broadly similar in most cases – the CGI in the pilot is shockingly primitive, and it has an enormous storytelling problem in that it has to establish the whole universe, its politics, and about nine major characters and their relationships all in about 90 minutes. No wonder it feels like the actual plot (someone tries to kill the enigmatic Vorlon ambassador within moments of his arrival on the eponymous space station) is a dinghy weaving its way between icebergs. Given what we later learn of the true nature of the Vorlons (electric squid of vast and mysterious potency) how the assassination plotline works out doesn’t quite ring true either, but there you go.

The first episode has another go at introducing everyone, together with a reasonably basic galactic-politics storyline, by the end of which it’s becoming clear that while Trek is a show which uses SF trappings to explore basic moral issues and its characters, B5 is more interested in painting a bigger picture and going into some slightly grittier places. More specifically, while Trek aliens tend to exemplify particular human preoccupations (Klingons fixate on honour, Vulcans on logic, Ferengi on money, Cardassians on… er… big necks), most of the races of B5 are fairly clearly emblematic of real-world geopolitical states. Earth is, obviously, America (‘Earth can’t be the galaxy’s policeman,’ someone growls early on, just to make the point), Minbar is Japan (we even meet the Minbari ambassador while she’s sitting in a Japanese zen garden, for heaven’s sake), Centauri stands for the fading Old World powers (it’s kind of amusing that all of Europe and Russia gets lumped in together), and Narn, judging from their habit of launching unprovoked invasions and putting prisoners-of-war on TV, is very much like Iraq (possibly ironic given how real-world history worked out).

You can’t fault Babylon 5′s ambition, but at this point, if you’re not aware that the big story exists and that all this is setting it up, all a lot of this boils down to is fat men in fright-wigs shouting at each other in mittel-European accents. I understand now why Londo, the Centauri ambassador, has such ridiculous hair – he’s being sold to you as a likeable, slightly pathetic clown of a man, so there’s scope for a real transformation later on as he becomes… well, we’ll come to that, I expect. But part of me is slightly amazed I stuck with this show long enough to get hooked.

At this point, the hair is much more apparent than the heir…

So why did I stick around? Well, like I said, there is the ambition of the thing, plus the fact it has a slightly darker, grittier, crunchier flavour to it than that other franchise I keep comparing it to – although then again it’s not afraid to get into peculiar metaphysical waters as early as the second episode, about a race of soul-stealing aliens. And then there are a batch of consistently striking and memorable performances from the actors playing the alien ambassadors – Peter Jurasik possibly has to work with the broadest brush and is limited as a result, but there’s clearly something interesting going on with Mira Furlan’s performance as Delenn. Best of all, though, is Andreas Katsulas’ very theatrical turn as G’Kar – he’s the character you’re always hoping to see in a given episode.

Certainly, of the initial four, the episode without any of the ambassadors in it is the drabbest and the most Trek-ish. It could conceivably be rewritten as Trek fairly easily, much moreso than any of the others – that said, it retains the series’ writer’s fondness for awkwardly on-the-nose dialogue and scenes where characters unload enormous wodges of exposition at each other.

Staking a claim to be the star of the show right from the very beginning…

It occurs to me I’ve got this far without writing the name Straczynski once. J Michael of that ilk was the creator of Babylon 5 and wrote the vast majority of episodes, including four of the five under discussion here. For conceiving the thing in the first place and getting it made in any form whatsoever, JMS deserves considerable praise – but it has also got to be said that, whatever his strengths in terms of shaping the enormous scope of the narrative, the complexity of the backstory, and the development of the characters, problems with iffy dialogue are never far away. Perhaps the main problem with early Babylon 5 is that the former are still so far in the background that the latter are that bit more noticeable in comparison.

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