Posts Tagged ‘cheap gags’

My unpublished (and, let’s face it, unpublishable) NaNoWriMo novel from 2016 has repeatedly proven to be eerily prescient in a number of ways. So here are a couple more vaguely-topical extracts.

Chapter 29

The story so far: in the face of an insurrection by political folk-hero Nigel Brittain, hapless Prime Minister April Trace has finally been driven to resignation by the sinister forces of continental superstate, the Federation of 27…

Soon to be ex-Prime Minister April Trace closed the doors of her private flat above Number Ten Downing Street, and the panicky wailing of most the cabinet outside in the vestibule was blessedly silenced. That was a relief, but it meant that for the first time she was alone with her thoughts. Had she made the right decision? It had felt like it at the time. But now, of course, it was starting to sink in. She looked around the lovely flat with its lovely curtains in front of the lovely triple-thickness armoured glass. She was giving all of this up, and for what? A point of principle. A belief in the primacy of basic human decency and kindness.

‘Maybe I was never really cut out for politics after all,’ April Trace murmured to herself.

There would be time enough for soul-searching (by which she meant searching her soul, of course, not searching to see if she actually possessed a soul, which some of her less kindly critics had occasionally suggested might not in fact be the case) later. The Buckingham Palace tech support people had indicated Her Majesty the Queen would be ready to process her resignation in about an hour, so that was her top priority.

Well, almost her top priority. From out of the kitchen came the slender, reticent figure of Mr Trace, the soon to be ex-Prime Ministerial consort. He had his apron on and had clearly been doing something domestic in the Prime Ministerial kitchenette. As ever, his face broke into a beaming smile as he saw her, and she felt something inside thaw a little.

‘Prime Minister!’ he cried with obvious delight. ‘I didn’t expect you home so soon.’

She smiled at him. ‘I’ve told you so many times,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to be so formal when we’re at home together, Mr Trace.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. Something about her mien clearly registered with him. ‘Is everything all right, my dear?’

‘Oh, Mr Trace!’ She ran into his welcoming, if slightly confused arms. ‘It’s all over. I’ve resigned as Prime Minister. The Federation forced me into it.’

‘What!’ Mr Trace clearly couldn’t believe his ears. Bafflement danced about behind his big round glasses. ‘But the Federation needs you! Who’s going to run the country now?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Some compliant ovine, I expect,’ said April Trace. ‘Bronson, maybe. Or… the Blaine creature. He’d be the perfect choice for them.’

‘But the country would be up in arms! They’d never accept Toby Blaine as Prime Minister again – he’s not even an MP -‘

‘Another emergency decree,’ she shrugged. ‘And a major uprising now – it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, would it?’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ her husband said. He forced a smile onto his dear little face. ‘So, what’s the plan?’

‘I have to go to the palace and formally resign to Her Majesty the Queen,’ said April Trace. ‘Then I suppose we have to get the removals people in.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Mr Trace, with the expression unique to a man considering the problem of how to relocate three large roomfuls of unique and extravagant footwear at very short notice.

‘We’ll manage,’ April Trace assured him. ‘There’s always your business to fall back on if times get hard.’

‘Let’s hope the market for professional Charles Hawtrey lookalikes stays buoyant,’ said Mr Trace earnestly.

‘I need to change,’ April Trace said. ‘The car will be here soon -‘

‘Mrs Trace, open the door please.’ The voice boomed from out in the corridor. The Traces looked at each other in surprise, then she went to the door and unlatched it.

A squad of large men in dark jumpsuits and blue body armour and helmets stood there, the gold stars of the Federation prominent amongst their insignia. They were carrying an alarming range of weaponry and other gear.

‘April Trace? We’re here to take you into protective custody,’ said the squad leader.

‘I – I don’t need protective custody,’ said April Trace in alarm, glancing at her husband.

‘The Acting Prime Minister has decreed otherwise.’

‘Acting Prime Minister? But I haven’t even resigned yet -‘

‘We don’t have time for this. Get her, lads!’ the squad leader barked, hefting his pump-action shotgun threateningly in Mr Trace’s direction.

‘Stay strong, my dear! Take care of my shoes!’ cried the ex-Prime Minister as she was grabbed by the Federation enforcement squad and bundled out of the flat.

‘Mrs Trace! Mrs Trace!’ shouted the former Prime Ministerial consort forlornly, running to the door. But April Trace had already been swept away. He heard the front door of Number Ten Downing Street slam heavily, then there was only silence.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ Mr Trace murmured sadly, then went back into the flat to start packing up all the footwear.


From Chapter 40:

Nigel Brittain has triumphed and England is free again. Heroic young soldier Billy Sharples roams the streets as the celebrations continue…

Everyone seemed to be relaxing, finding warmth and fellowship. Well – almost everyone – he spied two stooped, thin figures, weighted down with heavy bags, keeping well away from the bonfires and the singing as they crept out of the city. Curious, he followed after them, until he was sure his first response to seeing them had been correct.

‘Mrs Trace,’ Billy said.

The former Prime Minister and her husband both started and looked at him, clearly on the verge of panic. Both were dressed in battered, shabby old clothes, and were carrying heavy suitcases and rucksacks. What appeared to be a tiger-striped kitten heel was poking out of one of the bags.

‘I thought it was you,’ Billy said.

A nervous glance between the couple. Then – ‘Please, we just want to get out of the city. Find a quiet place to live now,’ Mr Trace said. There was pleading in his eyes, behind the big round glasses.

‘I – I don’t know,’ Billy said. Surely these two were complicit in so many of the crimes inflicted on the English people? Didn’t justice need to be done?

‘I – I just meant it all for the best,’ April Trace said, tears starting to trickle down her cheeks, voice cracking and splintering. ‘I thought there was no other way…’

‘Well, you know better now,’ Billy said. In that moment he could no longer find any hatred in his heart for this pathetic couple. If they couldn’t find it in their hearts to be merciful in victory, Billy thought, then it was no victory worth mentioning. He nodded. ‘Go on, then. On your way.’

‘Thank you. Thank you!’ The Traces scuttled on their way.

And let that last vestige of the old regime disappear, Billy thought. It was a time for new faces and new ideas – well, no, he corrected himself, old faces and old ideas. He allowed himself a thrill of excitement at the thought of the country making this unprecedented journey back to the way things had been forty or fifty years before.

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Normally I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my attempts at fiction on the internet at large, but given all the terribly interesting political developments currently going on, I couldn’t help but feel it appropriate to share a couple of brief extracts from my very-much-not forthcoming (if there’s any sanity left in the world) dystopian satire Nigel’s Kingdom, which I knocked out for NaNoWriMo at the end of 2016.

(From Chapter 12. The story so far: The oppressive European Federation, aka the Union of 27, has decreed that its vassal state the UK must abandon the pound and adopt the Federal Eurocredit. Bright young progressive BBC executive Rose has been assigned to prepare the ground for this unpopular move, and has just learned one of her first assignments is to meet the Foreign Secretary… ) 

‘Wow,’ Rose said, impressed almost despite herself. Like most people of her set, she knew she ought to instinctively dislike Alex Bronson, for he was self-evidently a smug, self-serving, lecherous, unprincipled borderline sociopath concerned only with his own advancement, but he was such a character! You couldn’t help but laugh and warm to him. That was his unique political gift, his ability to get people onside, even though his antics in service of his own career had earned him many enemies. It was not surprising Bronson had been brought in to help the Eurocredit project in some capacity.

They arrived outside impressive double doors in a corridor where virtually every square inch of wall was covered with distinguished old paintings. It had a certain musty beauty to it, Rose thought, but it was so old-fashioned and traditional, and the 18th and 19th century politicians showed such a lack of diversity it made her very uncomfortable to look at them. An aide was waiting for them and smiled. ‘The Foreign Secretary will see you now,’ he said.

Rose and Omar went into the room, which was high and airy, and had a leather-topped table surrounded by chairs at its centre. There was no sign of anyone else in the room, and there was only one other door, a small and modest looking one. Odd little clunks and thuds drifted out from behind it.

Omar looked at Rose uncertainly and went over to the door and opened it. Blinking characteristically, beneath the famous hair which resembled a freeze frame of a detonated haystack, Alex Bronson emerged from what appeared to be a stationery cupboard.

‘Ah. Hello,’ he said, peering back and forth between them. ‘No light switch in there. No light, either… well, stands to reason, I suppose. Ho ho.’

‘What were you doing in the cupboard, Foreign Secretary?’ Omar asked.

‘Trying to get out,’ Bronson said with a hopeful smirk. ‘No, actually I was looking for the bogs. Ended up in the cupboard. Oh well – errare humanum est, that’s what I always say.’

Omar and Rose both blinked as an acrid smell wafted out of the cupboard after the Foreign Secretary, who seemed completely oblivious to it. He shambled over to the table and lugged out one of the chairs, and Rose couldn’t help smiling. What a card he was! How charmingly human!

‘Now than,’ Bronson said, as they joined him around the table. ‘You’re the wallah from BBC news, aren’t you?’ Omar looked slightly pained by his choice of words but managed to nod. ‘And you are…?’ He looked inquisitively at Rose, and she thought she could detect a glitter of interest in the Foreign Secretarial eyes.

‘I’m Rose Lewis, Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Also on the Eurocredit introduction taskforce.’

‘Aha. Smashing. Smashing,’ said Bronson. ‘Looking forward to working with you. Both of you,’ he added quickly, glancing at Omar.

‘Thanks for giving us your time, sir,’ Omar said. ‘We know you must be busy.’

‘Actually, there’s a lot less to this Foreign Office lark than you might think,’ Bronson mused, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. ‘Mainly just sitting around the office and fairly regular foreign beanos. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some proper work for a change – that’s what the PM’s asked me to do, anyway.’

Word around the BBC was that the Foreign Office civil servants had been sending pleading emails to April Trace for many months, begging her to find some way of keeping Bronson occupied so their staff no longer needed to constantly monitor him and could go back to doing some actual proper diplomacy, but that was just the sort of funny story that made up the Foreign Secretary’s large and amusing hinterland, like the one about him getting stuck on the end of a bungee cord, or having a series of affairs with colleagues, or conspiring with friends to have journalists beaten up. Rose let an indulgent smile play around her mouth. He really wasn’t the sort of person one should like, but she couldn’t help herself.

(Later, from Chapter 17: hapless shoe-loving Prime Minister April Trace is in her command bunker monitoring reports of the reappearance of the dreaded arch-patriot and nemesis of the Federation, Nigel Brittain, and discussing this with the Union of 27’s representatives…) 

She was interrupted by the conference room doors clanking open and the entrance of Alex Bronson and Toby Blaine. Bronson was clearly disgruntled and she guessed that Blaine had insisted on sharing the ministerial ride over from the judicial sports centre. This was no time for their petty grievances.

‘Sorry we’re a bit late, April,’ Bronson said cheerily. ‘Stuck in a jam on the Embankment. Tempus fugit, and all that.’

‘Ah,’ the Prime Minister said. She looked at Blaine. ‘I trust Alex kept you entertained, Mr Blaine? A selection of his latest limericks, no doubt?’

Blaine’s face came close to losing its perma-smile as he nodded back to the PM. ‘Still, we’re here now,’ he said with brittle pleasantness. ‘What’s the situation?’

‘A suddenly upwelling of seditious activity, sparked by the resurfacing of this man Brittain,’ one of the Office of Political Correctness agents said, before April Trace could finish opening her mouth. She clicked the luminous perspex heel of her left shoe against the floor and pursed her lips. They weren’t even attempting to maintain the illusion that she was in charge any more.

‘Excuse me, we have a connection with a police command unit in the Thames Valley,’ one of the operators piped up. ‘They’ve got the two Standards Enforcement agents who were there when this all started happening.’

Sure enough, the two hollow-eyed, traumatised looking men appeared on the screen, still in their vests.

‘Report,’ said the lead OPC agent.

‘We were on patrol in Aylesbury town centre, in accordance with standard operating procedure,’ said one of them.

‘Seek out signs of non-metrication and subdue and humiliate with maximum prejudice,’ said the other.

‘And then he was there. Shouting and insulting and… and making people listen to him,’ said the enforcer plaintively. ‘Then all them were shouting at us. He took a crowd and turned it into an angry mob.’

‘Aylesbury town centre,’ said Alex Bronson, sagely. Beside him, Toby Blaine nodded automatically.

‘We had to run or they’d have torn us apart,’ the agent concluded his report. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! The man has some dark power, some rhetorical genius, like nothing our training prepared us for. I don’t know -‘

‘That’s enough. Keep your head,’ said the OPC man viciously. He nodded to the operator who ended the transmission. Behind them the doors opened, presaging the entry of the tea and refreshments trolley. There were standards to be maintained, after all.

‘What kind of demographic does this man Nigel Brittain appeal to?’ asked the OPC agent, seeming genuinely baffled.

‘English people,’ said the Prime Minister, coldly.

‘That’s not helpful, Mrs Trace.’

‘All right, a specific section of society, those predisposed towards this kind of extreme reaction. Many, including my predecessor, were inclined to dismiss them as -‘

‘Nuts!’ Alex Bronson’s eyes lit up and he descended on the refreshments trolley, happily grabbing for the pistachios.

‘Foreign Secretary, please. As I said, the knee-jerk reaction is simply to say they are -‘

‘Oooh, fruitcakes!’ Toby Blaine joined Bronson at the refreshments, and started carving himself a generous slice.

April Trace sighed. ‘I mean, you might think they’re just -‘

‘One slice short of a full Swiss Roll, I see,’ Bronson sighed, looking at the woman manning the trolley, who mumbled her apologies.

‘Gentlemen, we are dealing with a crisis,’ said the OPC man, even more frostily than before.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ muttered the Foreign Secretary, wiping crumbs from his waistcoat absently. April Trace noticed that Toby Blaine was surreptitiously eyeing up a cream horn, even so.

‘So what’s to be done?’ one of the OPC men said, slightly unexpectedly.

‘We need to know what Nigel Brittain is planning to do,’ Blaine said.

‘We need to stop him from doing it,’ Bronson nodded.

‘Oh, really!’ April Trace rolled her eyes. ‘We know what he’s planning – he’s going to come here and try to wreck everything, just like last time – when he nearly succeeded, if you hadn’t forgotten!’

‘That cannot be allowed to happen again,’ one of the OPC men hissed. They really were the Federation incarnate, April Trace thought.

(As I say, it was 2016. The rest of it will most likely never see the light of day. No need to thank me.)

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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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Dear Jane,

I have to say that I really do appear to have a blindspot where New BSG is concerned. People around me not much given to talking about SF go all fluttery when it is mentioned, ‘Oh, that’s awesome’ went my manager when I mentioned I was watching the series. The United Nations – the frickin’ United Nations – has hosted retrospectives on the series and learned discussions of its themes. And yet I am finding it really hard going. Rather than something I make a point of sitting down to watch every night, it’s just become the show that’s on in the background when I’m having my tea in my garret, which usually only happens two or three times a week. Not to say that I’m not giving it my full attention: you’ve got no chance of keeping up with this thing unless you stay on the ball.

Possibly this is because I am from a background where stories come in discrete chunks, for the most part. I don’t object to the odd bit of metaplot development going on between episodes, but I’m not terribly keen on series suddenly starting to turn into serials, which is what’s been happening with BSG over the course of the last season or so.

Also, and once again this is perhaps a personal thing, the general tone of the last few episodes is really just not to my taste, as it seems mainly to concern people undergoing moments of extreme personal angst and despair while no-one has a bloody clue what’s actually going on around them. Someone gets thrown out of an airlock. Someone else has their leg sawn off. The admiral appears to be having some sort of nervous breakdown.

I must confess to feeling particularly exercised on behalf of the minor characters, who I’ve always found rather more engaging, for the most part, than the programme’s leads, most of whom feel somewhat crushed by their own significance: apart from the two Adamas, both of whom are well-enough played to be sympathetic, the others don’t feel like real people, just mouthpieces for the writers. And yet its those minor characters, whose performers have had the latitude to bring a bit of humanity and depth to them, who are primarily being ravaged to generate that atmosphere of despair and struggle. Someone has to lose a leg? Ah, make it a minor character. A bunch of hidden Cylons required? Where’s that cast list? And, hey, let’s kill off a sympathetic character who’s been consistently presented as a bit of a loser, by having them murdered. Cally doesn’t qualify for an inexplicable resurrection, unfortunately, presumably because she’s not an insanely omni-competent Mary Sue with a Special Destiny.

I suppose I should probably point out my problem is with the Kara Thrace character and not with Katee Sackhoff as an individual. I know nothing of Katee Sackhoff as an individual, but she obviously has some sort of screen presence (not that it was especially noticeable during Riddick, but that’s by-the-by). I am sure that if I only saw Sackhoff in another part I would be able to give a much more objective assessment of her abilities.


Or possibly not.

Anyway, when it comes to not having a bloody clue what’s going on, I fear I should perhaps raise my own hand. Let’s try to sort out where we are at the midpoint of season four: Starbuck, who is apparently fated to destroy the human race, blew up but then got better and returned from the planet Earth with a mystic sense of how to get back there. Meanwhile four of the mysterious final five Cylons have been brought together by their shared feeling for Bob Dylan cover versions. They do not feel inclined to act any more like Cylons than they did before, they just know they are Cylons somehow (a peculiar epistemological point). Various minor characters are wheeled on to have visions and toss supposedly-profound theological points into the mix, while the carnival of despair goes on around them.

I really preferred it when it was just Ben Cartwright in a cape leading a parable about Mormonism, to be totally honest. Ho hum.

I actually sat down to do the usual episode-by-episode thing at this point, but they’re all blurring together in my head and I couldn’t find many genuinely positive things to say about any of them. I can still appreciate the skill and artistry that’s gone into the designs and special effects, and many of the actors are consistently doing very fine work. But as far as the actual story’s concerned, it’s really not my cup of tea. The last chunk of the show is going to have to do something spectacular to get me back on board, and striking as the last shot of Revelations is (it would even have been a good moment to close the entire series with) I get no real sense that this is on the cards.

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It is a truth I feel too little considered that, when it comes to hate, no-one hates Doctor Who more than Doctor Who fans themselves. It is true that normal people have an absolute mastery of casual disregard and easy contempt when it comes to the show, and are equally accomplished when it comes to criticising it in a way which completely misses the point, but when it comes to proper forensic dissection of any and every tiny flaw in production, narrative slip, poor creative choice, or financial shortcoming, it is the fans who will give the show the rawest deal imaginable. Sometimes this seems almost pathological, especially when the show is riding high in the affections of the public. ‘I don’t like David Tennant,’ was one voice heard a few years ago, ‘because of the way he said “Who ya gonna call?” in Army of Ghosts.’ Crikey, a year’s sterling work wiped out by one dodgy line reading: talk about a tough crowd.

Anyway, the looney vicious streak of Who fandom was on display again the other day with the proclamation of Jenna-Louise Coleman (henceforth JLC for sanity’s sake) as the New Girl. She’s from Blackpool, which is of course long-overdue, Moffy and the crew seem to think she’s up for the job, and if the promise that she will debut at the heart of one of the most complex mysteries in the show’s history makes it sound ominously like the days of balloon-animal plotting are not yet over then we should at least give them a chance to prove us wrong.

Moffat's clearly been following my style pointers again. I can take no credit for JLC either way, though.

Many sensible people made appropriate ‘Welcome aboard, have fun’ noises online when they heard the announcement. Many others did not, and instead gave vent to an interesting range of opinions to which my own response varied from amusement to bemusement to complete despair. Here are some of the commoner silly things said about the announcement in one well-known online venue, together with my own reaction to them (silly things have been paraphrased):

New Companion is Too Young: This is silly, unless you think that Pipes and Gillan (both cast at 21, and thus several years younger even than JLC) were also inappropriately juvenile. Age of character has yet to be announced.

New Companion is Stupid: IQ of character has yet to be announced, which leaves us with the rather sickly probability that people whining about ‘another empty headed pretty face’ are talking about JLC. This is, frankly, ugly talk, all the more so because it’s coming from people who purport to be Doctor Who fans. For a programme focussed on a character whose whole life is a testimonial for tolerance and fairness, standing up for the right thing, keeping an open mind and having a sense of humour about the trivial things in life, I have to say I’m ceaselessly amazed by the prejudice, intolerance, pedantic self-centredness and full-blown reactionism many fans of that character unfailingly display. Shameful.

New Companion is a Beautiful Young Woman YET AGAIN: Yes, what the show really needs is the Doctor to go on adventures with someone who looks like W.H. Auden in his latter years. Think of your favourite episode – Pyramids of Mars, Caves of Androzani, Blink, The God Complex, whatever – and just contemplate how it could have been even better had the second lead character been a craggy old man. Where were all these people during The End of Time (the show’s sole excursion into craggy-old-man-as-companion territory)? I didn’t hear a massed chorus of voices shouting ‘Finally we have seen the future!’ Hey ho.

New Companion ‘doesn’t look like a companion’: Sorry, this one frankly stumps me. It’s almost enough to make you believe there’s some sort of secret bible being passed around to which I (and, evidently, Moffat) can’t get access. When people make this kind of complaint can they make their terms of reference a bit more explicit, please?

New Companion is New: Clearly some people not getting the whole ‘announcement of a new companion’ concept. Possibly lonely souls still regretting the departure of Ian, Barbara, and Susan. I suppose if we could persuade William Russell to come back it would satisfy them and the ‘companion should be an elderly man’ lobby.

New Companion’s Face is Too Round: Well, it’s visibly not round, but… look, I know this is a personal thing, but this is the first girl since the revival where I got my first proper look at a shot of her face and genuinely went ‘Wow, she’s really beautiful.’ We can disagree about the degree of her pulchritude, of course, but don’t go telling me she’s a moose.

New Companion’s Breasts are Too Big: ….er, excuse me??? For what, exactly?

New Companion is not Captain Jack: Well, you know, Barrowman’s got his own career (there’s still a few TV shows left he hasn’t appeared on), although I fully understand that ‘Jack Harness’ (as one of his supporters calls him) is still a popular character, and people are of course entitled to have this sort of preference just as the makers of the show are entitled to want to move on…

New Companion is not Rose Tyler: … but I wish people would stop banging on about the Blessed Saint Rose as if she were someone unique and really, you know, special. Okay, maybe there was a time in the show’s life when it needed an overwritten and unlikeable Mary Sue as a lead character, but that time surely finished in 2006. Mutter, grumble.

New Companion is not Turlough: Dear God, get yourself some help.

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I took my uke into work this week – not a self-indulgent look-at-me gesture, but I was going up north to visit my family straight afterwards and didn’t want to miss five days practice – and the response from colleagues was gratifyingly positive (one comment from someone in the next room along the lines of ‘why can I hear a harp?’ excepted), although no-one asked the question I’d been sort of expecting, to wit:

‘Why did you pick the ukulele?’

To which the only acceptable answer is surely:

‘You don’t pick the ukulele. You pick the mandolin. You strum a ukulele.

Ah, the joys of uke humour. Just another reason to go with the four-stringed wonder I suppose.

So, anyway, at the end of our last gripping entirely traction-free episode, we left our intrepid uke newbie (i.e. me) coming to grips for the first time with a shiny new MK-SC ukulele, and had established the following tips to ensure a pain-free introduction to the instrument:

  •  Invest in an electronic tuner.
  • Be right-handed.  (Not terribly helpful, that one, I concede. I suppose if you contacted a store in advance and told them you were of the sinister persuasion they might set-up a left-handed uke for you specially.)

Anyway, the three sources I pay most attention to – Woodshed, in Uke for Dummies, Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground, and Pineapple Pete of Uke School – all agree that the place you absolutely must start with the uke is with the strumming. This is the left hand (don’t start) which goes up and down across the strings and actually generates noise from the instrument.

No plectrum is involved, nor usually – as I had to point out to a guitarist colleague at work the other day – most of the fingers of the hand. Index finger only, hand moving solely from the wrist.


Another righty. Grrr.


As you may imagine, the mechanics of this are not especially taxing, although as a new uker there was an initial degree of physical discomfort until the side of the finger got used to bashing against the strings.

That said – well, one of the things about the uke is that much of the time you are hitting the strings on both the downstroke and the upstroke, usually in rapid succession – if you imagine the beat of the music as being ‘one-and-two-and-three etc’, you’ll be strumming down on the numbers and up on the ‘and’s.

Strumming down is not generally a problem for me. Strumming up is occasionally troublesome, however:  my finger frequently gets tangled in the bottom string or ricochets off at a strange angle, producing a strange noise rather than a strummed chord. Possibly I have the bottom string tuned too slack. Is that even possible? I don’t know.

I suspect the problem may be a) a simple lack of practice and b) trying to go too fast too soon. The former is not an acceptable excuse but as for the latter… well, it was bound to come up sooner or later, but nevertheless – the time has come to drop the F-bomb.

For anyone in the UK, the moment you start talking about ukuleles, one name comes up with the speed of Jake Shimabukuro’s strumming hand. That name is, of course, George Formby (usual qualification that Formby more commonly played the banjolele than the uke goes here). As I mentioned last time, I’ve enjoyed George Formby’s music for decades and the aspiration to do the same is probably a reason why I took up the uke in the first place.

Formby seems to be a polarising influence on the uke community – has his work dated? Is he a limited player of the uke? And so on. But no-one seems to deny what a tremendous strumming hand the man possessed. I mean, good grief, he’s a blur from the wrist down – split strokes, triplet strums, and lots of other tricks that I can name but don’t really understand.

The point I’m trying to make is that ‘sounding like Formby’ is not a realistic prospect for the starting uker. You’re not even going to get remotely close and attempting to do so will only be depressing and demotivating. So there.

Anyway, back to strumming the uke at a realistic level for the beginner. Fretting (i.e. using the other end of the ukulele to actually make chords) I am going to look at in detail in a future instalment, but suffice to say the beginner sources all tend to zero in on C and F, which are one- or two-finger chords and easy to transition between.

Having demonstrated how to do these, both Woodshed and Pineapple Pete announce it is ‘first song time’ – although there’s no actual melody involved, you’re just strumming along with the chords. In both cases, unless you know the song in advance (melody and tempo, etc), you’re not going to be able to produce something recognisable, probably because the chords involved are so basic.

However, it is not all bad news. Pineapple Pete’s website offers a strum-a-long option which allows you to play along with a backing track and get used to the mechanical action and the rhythm and so on.  This isn’t perfect, mainly because the track’s on an imperfect loop, but it does mean you can be involved in a piece of music and getting used to playing to a beat without simply strumming along to a metronome (which is a bit dull).

I must also mention a fourth source I am making use of – ‘A Practical Method for Self-Instruction on the Ukulele and the Banjo Ukulele’ by N.B. Bailey, published in 1914 in San Francisco, available at theuke.com. Not the hippest and funkiest volume for a modern audience, I admit, but it seems to me to contain some really useful material, particularly the strumming exercises with basic chord progressions (the I-IV-V progression in the key of C, etc).

There isn’t actually a tune involved but the chords involved are pleasing to the ear and changing the frets is, I would imagine, good practice for my ugly sausage fingers.

We seem to be on the verge of leaving the arena of strumming for the less comforting terrain of fretwork, and so I shall draw this to a close with the following summary of points which I personally have found useful:

  • Get your physical relationship with the ukulele right (oh, stop it: I mean, hold it in the right way and strum from the wrist with a single finger).
  • Don’t go mad trying to be George Formby: you won’t manage it.
  • Get your guidance from as many different sources as possible (well, present company excepted, if that’s even a coherent thing to say), and especially don’t just stick to a single book or website.
  • At really low levels of uke-ability (i.e., mine), learning to play basic chord progressions is probably more aesthetically pleasing and useful than laboriously strumming your way through ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or whatever.

Until next time…

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(Before we get started: funnily enough, over twenty years ago I wrote a Doctor Who story called Trouble in Store. At the time I had just started working for a major UK chain and was feeling somewhat raw at the contempt with which they treated their staff. So I vented my spleen with a story in which the Doctor arrived in a thinly-disguised version of one of my employer’s shops to discover a workforce being horribly mistreated. Perhaps more interestingly, and to make the thing actually interesting for the target audience of Who Nutters, I stuck the Cybermen in it, lurking around in the capacious shadows of the store and using Cybermats to bring about the disappearance of anyone they found wandering the aisles after dark. I don’t have a copy any more but I do recall I got very good notices from the Who Nutters who read it – rather better, I recall, than the guy who’s now writing CD scripts for Tom Baker’s Doctor – we appeared in the same publications together back in those days. As I say, the original Trouble in Store was back in 1990. Wow, right? Isn’t that freaky? But it’s true: my instinct for a really dreadful pun was well-developed even back then.)

Two hundred years later… You can look at Closing Time in a couple of different ways. There’s the episode as a fairly standy-aloney piece of good-natured rompy Doctor Who (I don’t care what the writer says, this didn’t feel like a dark story to me), and then there’s the episode as something building up to the conclusion of the season with all that implies (which, this year, feels like masses more than usual).

The first thing I am inclined to say is that this story does naught but add to my ongoing thesis that The Cybermen Are A Bit Rubbish (full thesis to the end of Season 31 can be found here). Not only do we see from the beginning of A Good Man Goes To War that the Doctor appears to barely even consider them sentient (compare the extraordinary lengths he goes to to avoid bloodshed amongst the Silents at Demon’s Run with the nonchalant way he blows away an entire Legion as part of what’s essentially a data retrieval request), we now see that while the Cybermen have revised the scale of their ambitions downwards, it’s still not nearly enough. Some races struggle to conquer the galaxy, which seems fair enough. Others have a battle on their hands subjugating a single solar system, which is almost understandable. Conquering a planet? There may be mitigating circumstances to this kind of failure. But being unable to establish dominion over C&A? Come on, guys, you’re not really trying.

I think part of the problem the latterday Cybermen are having can be traced back to their recruitment strategy. The old school Cybes, you may recall, were at least keen on bringing on-side successful Captains of Industry, hulking bodyguards, elite space mercenaries and other persons of that ilk. Recent targets for Cyber-headhunting are slightly less impressive, consisting of fat blokes from call centres, pissed-off ex-prostitutes and someone who looks suspiciously like Trigger off Only Fools and Horses. It wouldn’t be quite so bad but all three were in the frame for senior management jobs.

Even before the episode aired I cracked wise online to the effect that the Cybermen would need a damned big conversion chamber if they wanted to fit James Corden in it. But they went ahead and tried anyway. I thought for a moment this would be not only a brave downer ending, but also an audacious retcon to explain the size of the Controller’s gut in Attack of the Cybermen, but no. Instead we got a rather predictable climax with the power of paternal feelings routing the advanced technology of a terrifying alien menace: now there’s a metaphor earning its keep.

Let’s face it, this story was never really about the Cybermen but another chance to have scenes with Matt Smith and James Corden being amusing together. As such it worked rather well, although the fun was inevitably tainted by the mournful atmosphere of misery and doom pervading the show these days (mustn’t complain too much: Strictly Come Dancing‘s probably taking over the same slot so they need some kind of continuity of tone). In the wake of Moffat burps like Day of the Moon and arguably the Christmas show last year, Old Roberts is quite possibly the most consistently accomplished writer currently working on the show so there is a limit to how much I feel I can stick the boot into him. So I won’t.

Nevertheless, a few oddities – I’m so used to expanded materials saying otherwise that actually hearing it said that Time Lords can’t be converted into Cybermen was a bit of a shock (one CD story even reveals that the basic Cyberman systems design is derived from an examination of the Doctor’s own nervous system). And the origin and background of the Cybermen really does seem to have come totally unravelled – what was a Cybership doing crashing into southern England hundreds (possibly more like thousands) of years ago? Did they get lost on the way to the Pandoricum? (Wouldn’t put it past them.) Hmmm, my geek buffers are glowing a nice cherry red, so we’d best move on…

The whole (apparent) two hundred year jump is part of my problem with this current storyline – that’s a huge (though not wholly unprecedented) gap in the Doctor’s personal history and on this occasion it’s kind of being waved in our face. Did nothing interesting whatsoever happen in those two hundred years? Plus, it’s such an arbitrary figure – why not fifty years? Or six hundred? Nevertheless, the ongoing story-arc must have its way…

Naturally, I impatiently await the end of the series, partly because I want to see what happens but mostly because I really, really want this River Song/Silence/death of the Doctor storyline to finish and go away. It seems to have been dragging on forever and sucking other, much more innocent stories into the range of its fun-draining aura.

So how’s it going to play out? As some of us figured out very early on (I mean, last season early), it looks very much as if River’s going to top (or appear to top) the Doctor and do time for it. Given that one of the threads of this series has been the Doctor’s increasing discomfort with the size of his profile currently, faking his own death does not seem completely unlikely. There is also the prospect of a Ganger Doctor in circulation who could potentially take the bullet for him.

The big unaddressed issue for me is from right at the beginning of the year, with Pond commenting that the Doctor seemed to be waving out of history at her. This has yet to be addressed on-screen (though Old Roberts has stated he thinks the Doctor does it prior to this story). Why should he be trying to draw attention to himself this way? I suspect that a tale lies in the answering of this question.

As to the Question the Silence are so interested in and the true circumstances of Dr Song’s wedding, I have no idea and look forward to discovering the answers. I just hope there are definite answers come Saturday night and that next year Doctor Who can return to resembling its standard modus operandi a little more closely.

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‘Dear Mr So-Called TV Executive,

I am writing to complain about the fact you killed off Vera in episode five of Miracle Day. She was my favourite character! She was so funny and brave and I wanted her and Rex to be happy together.

My friends and I have set up a shrine to her outside a kiln in California and until you bring her back we are going to send you a big box of prescription pain killers every month (as that was her job on the series). Torchwood is dead for me now and will stay that way until Vera makes her triumphant return.


Angry Former Torchwood fan

Hmmm. As I write we’re half-way through the UK broadcast of Miracle Day and yet I haven’t said anything about it here yet. This is obviously an oversight which I feel obliged to fix – not just because this is still (putatively) a Who-world show, but also because it seems to me to be a genuinely interesting and accomplished piece of SF drama.

They don't stand around posing like this in the show so why does it seem compulsory for the publicity photos? Sigh.

For those who have not been keeping up – well, you’re leaving it a bit late, but never mind. Some unexplained agency has wrought a peculiar change upon the entire human race, removing our ability to die. It may sound strange to describe immortality in this way, but one of the things the show makes clear is that our current society is really a death-dependent one in all sorts of ways. As the series goes on we see hospitals filled to overflowing, severe strains on infrastructure, and gloomy predictions as to the long-term viability of civilisation as we know it.

Plopped into the middle of all this (and somehow connected to it, though everyone seems to have forgotten about that for the time being) are the redoubtable members of team Torchwood – randy old Captain Jack, dedicated old Mary-Sue Gwen, and a couple of new American guys.

For yes, Torchwood has properly gone international, with the bulk of this series being shot in the States. One of the big surprises for me was how little this seemed to have affected the show, but a little thought revealed to me why this should be. One of the things about… how should we refer to it? Old Torchwood? Original Torchwood? Welsh Torchwood? Well, you know what I mean… one of the things about it, that made such an excruciating programme to watch occasionally, was the way it so often tried to ape the style of glossy big-budget American genre series on all sorts of levels but with no thought as to whether this was a good idea for a clearly low-budget programme set in Cardiff.

Much of the criticism I’ve seen of Miracle Day has come from fans of the old show (more specifically, as you could’ve guessed, people still in mourning over Coffee Boy) complaining that it’s become too Americanised. Too Americanised? It was always an Americanised series! The real difference is that it now has the setting and resources to be as American as it wants without that seeming incongruous or forced.

That said, Miracle Day is much more like Children of Earth than the first two series – and indeed as Miracle Day has gone on it’s developed a very cynical, almost despairing tone much like the later episodes of the third series. I’m curious to see how dark they can go, to be honest. On the whole so far the writing and performances have been very strong, although there have been a few instances where the premise of the series doesn’t gibe with routine plotting, leading to some awkward workarounds (the old saw of ‘someone is shot dead before he can reveal vital information’ clearly can’t be used in Miracle Day so it’s clumsily retooled as ‘someone is shot in the larynx…’).

And there have also been some of those old school moments of utter embarrassing cheesiness that long-term Torchwood viewers will be all too familiar with. ‘Gwen Cooper, fighting for Earth with a gun in one hand and a baby in the other!’ That’s the sort of proclamation Rusty Davies likes to make, and it’s okay as a capsule description of the character, but putting it actually on screen (as happened in the first episode)? It’s fine as an idea but in reality it just looks ridiculous.

Fair dos, though, I must confess that Rusty’s take on the last couple of series of Torchwood has been rather more to my taste than his later work on Doctor Who. This may be because Torchwood appears to have a license to be angry and political in a way that the parent show doesn’t. There have been times during Miracle Day when it seems like Rusty and the rest of the writing team have been working their way down a tick list of people and things they’ve got grief with – American foreign policy, big pharmaceutical companies, the Christian right (there’s probably quite a nice discussion to be had about who the Mare Winningham character – the one who, er, experienced such crushing disappointment – is based on), the private health care system. Luckily our political prejudices seem to mesh – others may have more of a problem with this aspect of the show.

One disappointing but predictable element of the new show is that Starz seem quite keen to distance it from, ahem, any other programmes currently in production. I always enjoyed the little cross-references between the Upper Boat series, but so far in Miracle Day there’s been – I think – one mention of UNIT and a ‘bigger on the inside than the outside’ gag and that’s all. The nature of current Doctor Who – which seems to have an ever-more-tenuous grip on reality – means I really doubt we’ll get the bit where Amy pops home and her mum in passing says ‘You’ll never guess what happened to Mrs Angelo from across the way, she caught very bad flu so they stuck her in an oven…’ As I say, a shame but not really surprising.

With the series only halfway through I now have the exciting opportunity to do some speculating as to how it’s going to continue. Is it really the case that the miracle has been enacted by a big corporation solely to maximise profits by necessitating the privatisation of death? Nothing so far really suggests otherwise, with the exception of the fact that old enemies of Jack’s are involved. The fact that Jack’s own immortality has been rescinded for the duration of the series initially made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t directed against him personally, but as usual I was way off the mark there. The fact remains (geeky meltdown detector starts to bleep ominously) that Jack’s immortality was bestowed upon him through the focussed power of the time vortex itself, which you would think meant that it would take something equally spectacular to turn it off even temporarily. That would necessitate an odd tonal shift for the end of Miracle Day, which hasn’t even hinted at alien or otherworldly involvement so far. No doubt it will all be explained – right now I have no idea who sent the ‘Torchwood’ email that kickstarted the whole plot, but I’m looking forward to discovering who it was.

There are very few TV programmes that consistently improve series-on-series, certainly not past their second season. And yet Torchwood is shaping to be just such a show. In terms of actual SF storytelling it may prove to be Rusty Davies’ greatest achievement.

* title may be changed to ‘Death Takes A Vacation’ if our American co-production deal goes through.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published, under a different and less honest title, on September 11th 2003:

  As you may have noticed, there have been an inordinately large number of sequels, three-quels, prequels and sundry franchise entries bursting onto the world’s cinema screens over the course of the last four months: X2, Matrix Reloaded, Legally Blonde 2, Dumb and Dumberer, American Wedding, Terminator 3, Freddy Vs Jason, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and many more. It isn’t even as if the trend shows any sign of winding up – still to come this year we have the final instalments of three popular trilogies.

Traditionally sequels have tended to be inferior cash-ins on the original movie, but of late there has been a welcome trend for them to improve upon or at least come close to equalling their progenitors in quality. And this continues, sort of, with Jan de Bont’s latest offering, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. (This may be due to the fact that, with one of the summer’s best movies being based on a theme park ride, the stigma of being a video game adaptation is mostly dispelled.)

Anyway, this kicks off when a low-budget earthquake in the Med uncovers the hidden treasure-trove of Alexander the Great. Quickly on the scene to ransack this priceless historical discovery is our heroine/one woman argument for the violent overthrow of the aristocracy, Lara Croft (amply embodied, as before, by Angelina ‘Howling Mad’ Jolie). Crofty quickly grabs the most valuable-looking object on show, a big orange marble, but is rapidly relieved of it by some dodgy Oriental coves. It transpires that the big orange marble is a map showing the location of Pandora’s Box, which contains the most lethal virus in the world, and keen to get his sweaty hands on it is bio weapons tycoon Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), for whom said Oriental fellows work. Obviously too busy with the Hutton inquiry to do anything about this themselves, the bright boys at MI6 recruit Crofty to stop Reiss. And, pausing only to spring old boyfriend Terry (Gerard Butler) from prison to help her, Crofty bounces into action…

The first Tomb Raider movie certainly had its knockers, but I thought most of these critics were basically justified: it was terrible, poorly paced, numbly written, with thin characterisation and no attempt to make the Lara Croft character appeal to a wider audience. This is better: better directed, better written, better acted and with better cinematography.

However, the qualifier ‘Not that that’s saying much’ should be lavishly applied to all the above judgements, because whoever was responsible for the creative decisions on this movie has made a skip load of horrible mistakes. The main one is that, for a film with the main character’s name in the title, it gives us no reason whatsoever to care about her. Jolie admittedly looks very eye-catching in her bikini/rubber suit/jodhpurs, but this is very nearly it as far as her characterisation goes, and what broad personality traits the script gives her are nearly all negative. Probably intended to be a feisty and independent woman, Lara comes across as a smug and snotty cow: humourless, arrogant, and mercenary most of the time… but conveniently compassionate, idealistic and heroic when the script demands it. She’s a cartoon character, whom Jolie fails to imbue with any charm or wit, and the result is a visually striking but otherwise completely empty dead zone at the heart of the film. (And, incidentally, she’s about as convincingly British as a yodelling sumo wrestler crossing the Atacama desert on a yak: Hollywood’s idea of representing how a posh English person talks is to make them say ‘Bugger’ and ‘Piss orf’ a lot.)

Jolie’s non-acting is particularly disappointing as, for most of the movie, both Hinds and Butler are significantly better than the script deserves. Gerard Butler’s character is rather more likeable than Crofty: a major problem, given the way the story plays out. But no matter how well acted her arch-nemesis or bosom companion are, Crofty herself is such a cypher it’s hard to care either way. Butler’s been giving quality supporting turns in trashy movies for years now, and hopefully his landing the extremely plum title role in the forthcoming movie version of the musical Phantom of the Opera will see him break through into proper stardom. Red Dwarf‘s Chris Barrie reprises his role as Crofty’s butler agreeably enough, but neither he nor the geeky chap (Noah Taylor) get much to do this time round.

This isn’t really an actor’s movie, though: it’s more a string of stunts and action set pieces and scenes that just propel the plot along rather than worry about things like character, motivation, or sense. I suspect you could sit down with a clipboard and go through the film, writing down where each scene originally appeared: the first act alone references Jaws, Never Say Never Again, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bond and the Indiana Jones movies are the main donors throughout, although one of the film’s best moments is nicked from the second Mission: Impossible flick, and there’s a long sequence near the end which looks like a Lord of the Rings out-take. It looks quite polished, and careful casting means there’s an attractive pair at the heart of the action. But for all his efforts to inject jugs of energy and pace into the film, de Bont can’t quite raise this film above the pedestrian. He’s not helped by the fact that Jolie rarely looks anything other than uncomfortable in her action sequences, and still can’t throw a decent-looking punch to save her life. The lack of any depth meant that throughout the chases, stunts, etc, I was constantly thinking ‘For God’s sake stop and have a conversation‘ – and the terrible, clunking dialogue and Jolie’s grisly acting meant that whenever they did, I found myself thinking ‘For God’s sake let’s have another overblown stunt‘.

What really finishes Cradle of Life off is a fatal lack of clarity about who it’s aimed at. There’s a clear and peculiar cleavage between superficial and cartoony elements like those usually found in children’s films, and other things (in particular, some graphic and bloody violence) which seem meant for an adult audience. Addle-brained thirteen-year-olds will probably love it, but everyone else should think twice before watching.

Bad. Not quite as bad as the first one. But still bad.

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People across America and the world were shocked last night when they realised they were actually able to make out the words in a Christina Aguilera vocal performance.

‘We were completely amazed at first, then that just gave way to outrage,’ said Mr Hank J. Madeupname, a viewer from Winkensotavania. ‘At first we were just enjoying all the hooting and shrieking like you’d expect from her when she’s trying to sing. But then my wife said she could actually understand what she was saying – and after a moment I realised I could, too.’

Other viewers expressed similar opinions, saying this was highly disrespectful and not at all what they’ve come to expect from a performance by Miss Aguilera.

Since her rise to fame in the late 20th century, Christina Aguilera’s career has been based around unintelligible yodelling-styled hits such as ‘Waah-aahh-ooohh-ooohhh-eeeee-aaaaahhhh’ and ‘Eyyyy-ahhhhh-eeeee-ooohhh-waaargh’, and also dressing up like a hooker from Star Wars.

Miss Aguilera has been attempting to keep a low profile since the scandal erupted.

When reached for a comment last night, a distraught-sounding Miss Aguilera said ‘I’ve no idea what went wrong. Sorry everyone. Eeee-aaaaaa-whoooo-waaaaah!’ (although it may just have been someone pretending to be her, in case her lawyers are reading this).

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