Monday, 22 January 2018

Main Range 106. The Dark Husband by David Quantick (March 2008)

I so wanted this to be good. It really ought to be: David Quantick is a writer with an excellent comic pedigree, from Spitting Image to Screenwipe, from On the Hour to The Day Today, from Brass Eye to Jam, from That Mitchell and Webb Sound to The Thick of It. That's more or less a list of most of the comedy I like. Anyone who's written alongside Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Charlie Brooker, Ian Hislop, Jo Brand, John O'Farrell, David Mitchell and Robert Webb is surely the kind of brilliantly witty mind who could pen a corker of a Doctor Who story, no? Not to mention it's a return to the team of the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Hex, who we haven't seen for a while (not since Nocturne, in fact). And then there's the fact that this has a cracking title and another lovely cover: that picture of McCoy is hauntingly alien and I like the eerie landscape of stones too. Taken together all these elements promise something rather special: twisted and otherworldly and wickedly funny.

It isn't.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Main Range 105. The Condemned by Eddie Robson (February 2008)

It's quite rare that we see the Sixth Doctor in the milieu of present-day Britain. There's Attack of the CybermenCatch-1782, and occasional scenes with Evelyn in The Marian Conspiracy and Doctor Who and the Pirates, but none of those really feel like a full-blooded modern-day setting, not least because a good chunk of each story is also set somewhere else (though I do enjoy the 80s bits in Attack; the jaunty Lytton tune really is something). There's The Reaping, but that feels like a period piece now. Okay, Project: Twilight and Project: Lazarus would count, but other than that there's very slim pickings. Which is a shame, really, because as Eddie Robson's The Condemned ably illustrates, there's all sorts of fun you can have with crashing a character as ostentatious and larger-than-life as the Sixth Doctor into a relatively normal setting, and that potential fun should be picked up on more than it is. This comes down chiefly to the canny move of pairing him with two particular characters, Charley Pollard and DI Menzies, and the effects this pairing produces.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Musings on 7 South African Short Stories

Es'kia Mphahlele
in memoriam Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012)

1. Coffee for the Road by Alex la Guma: in the 2012 German film Oh, Boy! it takes the lead character most of the film to try and buy an affordable coffee in Berlin. To an extent Alex La Guma's short story plays out in a similar way, only set against the much darker backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa, in which a parched mother-of-two is unable to get served the hot drink she and her children so badly want, and all because of her skin colour (she's of Indian, not African descent). You almost feel thirsty just reading it, such is the dust, sand, and heat of the landscape driven through ("the sun was a coppery smear in the flat blue sky, and the countryside, scorched yellow and brown, like an immense slice of toast, quivered and danced in the haze"). La Guma has an odd tendency to overstate information on occasion ("the little girl, Zaida," he informs us, as though we would have forgotten who Zaida is already), but for the most part this is a strong piece of fiction and a sobering look at petty, vindictive racism of the most depressingly commonplace kind.

Musings on 2 Kenyan Short Stories

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
in memoriam Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012)

1. A Meeting in the Dark by James Ngugi (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o): another of the greats in the field of African literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (whose birth name was James Ngugi and originally wrote in English, though since 1977 he has written in Kikuyu for his fiction) is best known for his seminal work of postcolonial literary criticism, Decolonising the Mind. Long before that, however, he focussed on fiction, and was, in 1964, the first writer from East Africa to have a novel published in English. His short story included here, A Meeting in the Dark, was written in 1974; it's perhaps the most explicitly about Christianity to appear in this collection, though it is far from as positive about it as David Oyowele's The Will of Allah was about Islam. The Christianity portrayed here - as often in Ngũgĩ's writings - is an oppressive force, a kind of moral torture that keeps beady eyes trained on people and acts as an instrument of power (in this instance, wielded by a local preacher and father, who forbids even the telling of stories to his son in favour of him hearing only about Jesus - a clearly immoral act in Ngũgĩ's eyes). Both son and mother fear him, and rightly so (there's a strong misogynist streak to him, too: "women were women, whether saved or not"). It's not just Christianity that Ngũgĩ is criticising here, though, but almost everything brought by whites to Kenya, including a way of thinking that has infected the minds of many Kenyans ("those coated with the white clay of the white man's ways are the worst," says one character); the son, John, who wants to marry his 3-month-pregnant beloved, lives in constant fear and self-loathing because of an artificially imposed Western morality. It will not, we feel, nor it cannot come to good. And of course it does not, though perhaps I was not expecting quite as tragic or as bleak an ending as the one I got. The last sentence is a particular kick in the guts: "soon everyone will know that he has created and then killed". In the end, and this is the glory and the tragedy of it, it is only human beings who can give life, only human beings who can take it away.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Musings on 5 Sierra Leonean Short Stories

Adelaide Casely-Hayford
in memoriam Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012)

1. Mista Courifer by Adelaide Casely-Hayford: with a title reminiscent of Joyce Cary's famously problematic tragicomic novel Mister Johnson (1939), but the important distinction of the phonetic spelling of "Mista" added to it, Mista Courifer is an enjoyable read. It has a great opening line ("not a sound was heard in the coffin-maker's workshop, that is to say no human sound"), and develops into a well-told little story of generational conflict between a father who is set in his ways and a son who wishes to break free of them (making the story rather like Flannery O'Connor's in that respect). In most respects Mista Courifer, an Anglophile, wants his son to be a traditional Englishman, and so inevitably is disappointed when his son turns back to his Wolof roots (the only "English custom" he does borrow is more respect for his wife than Courifer is happy with). Clearly, we are meant to side with the son; Adelaide Casely-Hayford was famous for her pride in her Sierra Leonean heritage and, in 1925, for wearing traditional dress to a reception in honour of the Prince of Wales. If this story has a flaw, it's the quaint old-fashionedness of Courifer's phonetic speech, which reads just a little uncomfortably these days, but for the most part this is a strong which, as with so much else in Casely-Hayford's life, attempts to illustrate life in Africa for the edification of non-Africans.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Musings on 6 Nigerian Short Stories

Achebe, the father of English-language African literature.
in memoriam Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012)

1. Death of a Boy by Chinua Achebe: well, it's Achebe, so of course it's good - but this specific extract is especially moving. It's actually not a short story at all, but rather taken from his ground-breaking 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which revolutionised African literature in English (I've read it, once, but several years ago now). First there is the intriguing backdrop of men's v. women's stories in the tribe - Okonkwo's are full of violence and battle, while the mother's are soaked in awe-inspiring mythology (a vulture brings rain down to the world wrapped in leaves of coco-yam!). But it is not as though Achebe is endorsing gender essentialism: the whole point is that the two boys listening to the tales much prefer their mother's storytelling but are forced to grow up pretending that they enjoy their father's, as they have 'womanly' stories beaten out of them. Macho qualities, the backdrop to toxic masculinity, is insisted upon. Toward the end of this short extract, as it reaches its tragic climax, Okonkwo cuts down his foster-son (who apparently needs must be sacrificed) with a machete so as to prove his strength in front of the other males of the tribe. There's one single line at the very end which splits your heart in two: "he was afraid of being thought weak". It's a heartrending and still far-too-relevant indictment of how societies are broken.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Musings on 5 Ghanaian Short Stories

in memoriam Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012)

1. Cut Me a Drink by Christiana A. Aidoo: an informally told story with a great lightness of touch the appeal of which mostly arises from its conversational quality (all "Oh, my Uncles..."). Yet contained within the Ghanaian slang is a story of terribly sad details, showing the huge gulf and disconnect between rural and urban life in the 20th century. A hunt for a sister takes a young man from his village to Accra where he finds the values and priorities of the people who live there are utterly unlike those back home ("she is as beautiful as the sunrise," the narrator says of a friend's wife, "but she is not of our tribe"). Eventually he is met with the crushing disappointment of an answer from her own lips that "any kind of work is work".

2. Ding Dong Bell by Kwabena Annan: a wry, witty tale of "development" being forced upon a small Ghanaian village, a change that is met with doubt, derision and eventually an amusing conclusion. There is a cheeky and enjoyable strain running through the story which sees enormous deference and respect accorded to the local government agents, surveyors, and the Regional Officer ("whom most of us knew to be next in power and glory to the Governor, if not to God himself"), and the subsequent farcical treatment to which the story subjects them. The plot revolves around the banning of strong homemade liquor, akpeteshie, and the construction of a new water well. You can probably guess the humorous scenario with which the story ends.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

On "Schöne Frauen lesen" (2007) by Ulrike Draesner

You can buy this book here.
The highly acclaimed German writer Ulrike Draesner (1962-) has published, alongside volumes of poetry, a number of successful novels, including Lichtpause (1988), Mitgift (2002), Spiele (2005), Vorliebe (2010) and Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt (2014) - and in weeks and months to come I'm hoping to post on several of these, probably the three most recent. But she's also written various collections of essays and critical works (including a dissertation on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, which I enjoyed studying at university and on which I presented a paper at the Oxford-Bonn Medieval Colloquium). One of these is 2013's Heimliche Helden, which looks at Heinrich von Kleist, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Gottfried Benn, among others. But several years earlier Draesner put out a collection called Schöne Frauen lesen, the title of which could, in Draesner's typically wordplay-loving style, be read as either "to read beautiful women" or "beautiful women read" (with beauty referring as much to the texts here analysed as to the minds of the people who wrote them). It's essentially a study of women in literature, predominantly through the prism of women authors (the German 'Autorinnen' is so much less clumsy than any alternative in English, so I'm just going to write that), with an essay on each Autorin. There is one Autor in the collection, Gustave Flaubert, who's included for a quite interesting reason to which I will return. Draesner's different chapters and essays are not always explicitly connected - the material has all appeared elsewhere in previous forms in one way or another - but each is very interesting in its own right, and she succeeds in linking quite a few of them together if only through what are clearly her recurring interests when discussing fiction. She touches on themes of mirror images, consciousness, seeing vs. being seen, self and not self, truth and not truth, appearance and deception, playfulness with language, women as being on the receiving end of literature yet here in the driving seat, the importance of books as a space (here discussed as rooms and vessels), and finally literature and consciousness as waves and the fragmentary quality of self-hood and identity. Enough to be getting on with for now.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 7 (1 July 1967)

This is arguably the first time in its history that Doctor Who has self-consciously pitched a 'finale', a great big epic note on which to end a season (in this instance, Season 4). The Reign of Terror, The Time Meddler and The War Machines don't quite live up to the star billing of taking a season by storm, blowing lots of things up, and bringing lots of plot strands to a head. But here the Doctor is going up against the Daleks on Skaro and it's, apparently, the 'final end': Evil is deliberately crafted as an epic. The Daleks versus the Doctor. At stake: all of humanity itself. The Daleks have joined in on the alchemical fun, isolating the Human Factor in order to learn more about its opposite, the Dalek Factor - symbols with power. They strip away the former to be able to see the latter. This isn't just a nice bit of alchemical symbolism - it also suggests that if you subtract humanity from humans, you get Daleks. Metal into gold. Humans into Daleks. At odds with what the Cybermen represent, perhaps, though it could be argued that that's subtracting humanity in a different way and in any event it's a fascinating reading of the show's most famous villains: both of David Whitaker's Dalek stories examine this Dalek/human dichotomy.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 6 (24 June 1967)

Just as it looks it like he has been running out of ideas or that The Evil of the Daleks is starting to run on empty, David Whitaker ensures his story takes a turn for the even weirder. If anyone thought the cliff-hanger to Episode 5 was bizarre ("they're playing a game!") the way that this idea is developed in Episode 6 is absolutely off the scale. Daleks playing trains, and screeching "trains!" in a happy, childish manner. Daleks spinning around in circles and getting themselves and the Doctor dizzy ("dizzy, dizzy, dizzy Doctor", they chant). These are Daleks with a sense of humour. It's unlike anything we've seen on Doctor Who before, though perhaps The Chase with its completely bonkers tonal shifts comes closest to treating the Daleks in this manner. It's also beautifully suited to Troughton's whimsical, game-playing Doctor, naturally; not to say that Hartnell couldn't be naughty and mischievous, because he could, but there's something about Troughton's portrayal which fits with, and more importantly sells, this most unusual of concepts. The way he speaks to the childlike Dalek trio (which he christens Alpha, Beta and Omega) sounds so perfectly like the Doctor speaking reassuringly to children that its very cosy familiarity feels quite, quite off-putting. A Dalek that tells you it is your servant and later betrays you is one thing; a Dalek that genuinely believes you are allies and addresses you with "hello, friend" is more disturbing still. There's honestly nothing quite like hearing the word "friends" spoken in that fearsome metallic drawl.