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Archive for September, 2009

The Alone to the Alone (1947)
Gwyn Thomas
Library of Wales, 184pp

The Dark Philosophers return.

Gwyn Thomas’s previous collection reviewed on this site introduced a group of men that sit on the wall in their village, discussing the day, their lives, their village. They were old men of the South Wales valleys, men whose voice is as distinctive as the landscape. The plot is simple: the people here are seeking employment, and when a local girl is given a chance she is granted new clothes and a make-up, and suddenly she draws the eye of a local boy, and throws it all away to be with him. The Dark Philosophers sense her stupidity and step into help, to put lives back on track, and to see all become right again in the world. Thomas’s voice, writing in a plural first person, is a eulogy to a lost world, a rhapsodising over love and lost love, lost lives, and is deeply darkly sardonic. It is as black as coal.

Those who read my review of The Dark Philosophers know how much I love Gwyn Thomas, and as with that book, it seems a shame to say much about it, for though its plot maybe simple, it is nuanced, and to know anything of it is to spoil it. Even Ian Rowlands in his introduction skirts around saying too much. Needless to say The Dark Philosophers are a wonderful creation, and the young lovers, Rollo and Eurona, foolishly naive – they are people we know, people we care about. Thomas’s view of South Wales, of The Terraces, are loving and scathing, and he has managed to create a whole world, a living breathing place. It is a testament to his powers that this slim volume contains more than many much longer works. His novels are ballads; they hold the songs of the valley.

“And we, for another interlude, went back to our wall, to trace the circular, intricate thoughts that came to us as the downsag of our half-baked being found comfort in the hard, shrewd upthrust of well-baked brick.”

As with The Dark Philosophers, The Alone to the Alone is published through The Library of Wales, and well worth your attention. A great novel from Wales’s greatest novelist.

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A Book of Silence (2008)
Sara Maitland
Granta, 287pp

Sara Maitland’s work has often been infused with a sense of faith, and a fascination with myth and religion. It seems only fitting that with these interests would come a need to explore ways of living – and Maitland has become interested in the eremitical. Silence and a lack of human contact appealed to her, and so, over a decade, she began to explore this state of being – in the desert in Sinai, on the Isle of Skye over a harsh winter, and finally through the building of her home in rural Galloway.

A Book of Silence – which is never silent, buzzing and full of ideas and discussions and digressions – is a memoir in which Maitland is at times absent. She explores the history of men and women drawn to solitary lifestyles, either for religious purpose or personal need, and ponders upon the nature of silence (if there is such a thing) in our increasingly noisy and noise-led world. These discussions often make A Book of Silence one to take slowly – I read it a few pages at a time, for at almost every juncture there is something new to contemplate, to read again. Her writing often reminded me of Annie Dillard, whom is referenced here a few times, particularly her book Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, whose infusion of memoir, philosophy, science and history must surely be a Maitland touchstone.

It is a book that, when released, draw many very positive reviews, all of them justified. A Book of Silence is a deep penetrating book, one that lingers on, needling away at the subconscious, forcing one to ask questions of one’s own world and the presence, or lack thereof, of silence in it. As someone very keen to live in a world similar to Maitland’s, it speaks even more clearly. As I have noted in some of my reviews on these pages, I walk long miles, often going a day or so without wanting to speak to others. I treasure silence, the rhythm of nature, the need for a space to breathe and live and work.

I have by no means digested everything in Maitland’s book, and am certain I will be dipping into it again – there are lessons to be learnt here. It is a seriously important book, and in our current culture, one whose lessons should not be ignored.

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Doctor Who: Seasons of Fear (2002)
Paul Cornell & Caroline Symcox
Starring: Paul McGann & India Fisher
Big Finish #30

When Charley Pollard boarded the R101 in Storm Warning, she was travelling to Singapore for a date – she was to meet her man at Raffles Hotel on New Year’s Eve 1930. Since travelling with The Doctor she has tried to keep that appointment, but the TARDIS keeps repelling them from Singapore and that time. Only now they have got through. As Charley goes to meet her date, The Doctor is approached by an immortal who tells him he rules the universe, and this Singapore, it is just a projection of reality; that in fact the world is dead, and he has already killed The Doctor. Sebastian Grayle must be stopped, and so begins a cross-world, cross-time adventure – from Roman Britain, to the court of Edward the Confesser, to the Hellfire Club and finally into the vortex itself, to face a deadly and ancient enemy.

Seasons of Fear is a true romp. It reminded me of some old Doctor Who serials – those stories where The Doctor and his companion hurried about time and space trying to solve some dreadful mystery, and like those stories, this one lives and dies by its settings. Roman Britain – for my money – wasn’t as well conceived as it should have been, but the sudden and fleeting (and background) appearance of a Dalek remaining unexplained is a wonderful red herring and has me excited to hear McGann’s imminent encounter with them. The scenes in the court of Edward held the most laughs, and revealed more about Grayle’s dastardly plot, but again something was missing – the necessary length needed to sell this time. It almost could have been anywhere. This is not all bad, however. Grayle is an interesting aberration, an immortal who, unlike The Doctor, does not age or change appearance, and who is still susceptible to human emotion: how can you live when those you love will die? The solution to all of this is both neat and sad. It does what few Who serials do: it makes you feel sorry for the villain.

Then the serial delivers one final twist. It is perhaps the most shocking moment yet in this series… I have said before there is something wrong with Charley Pollard – well I say it again, there is something very wrong with Charley Pollard… and death is close behind…

Big Finish cannot be applauded enough for their treatment of Doctor Who. This season with Paul McGann has been a treat so far, and I suspect the remainder of it will be as good. I feel I want to say, some of it is even better than anything we’ve seen in nu-Who (though Seasons of Fear is not one). Big Finish are respecting the intelligence of their fans and allowing stories to develop at their own pace – exactly what we want. Bravo!

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Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight (2002)
Robert Shearman
Starring: Paul McGann & India Fisher
Big Finish #29

Robert Shearman first impressed me with his script for The Holy Terror, previously reviewed on this blog, and he impresses again with this, the second story in the second season of The Eighth Doctor. Charley and The Doctor arrive at an Edwardian home at Christmas. Their wandering through the house is mirrored with events occurring in the house; very quickly it appears both series of events are occurring at the same time, but The Doctor and Charley cannot break through to reality – when they do they discover a body, and an Edwardian murder mystery soon begins. Shearman has a lot of fun playing with the conventions, and there are in-jokes and mysteries, further hints (or are they?) that Charley is effecting time badly, and then everything changes – those who were dead are living again, and time has returned to the beginning of their time in the house – can they change the future? Does the maid have to die?

The Chimes of Midnight is a superb story – the atmosphere and sense of menace are sustained and thrilling, and the central mystery provokes many questions. In the end it twists, like Shearman’s previous story did, into something much darker. Both stories are undoubtedly similar, playing as they do with themes of guilt, responsibility and faith. There is much morbid humour that works well. What is particularly impressive is Big Finish’s willingness to allow a narrative arc to build over the series – there are references to previous audio adventures and in particular to the R101 disaster from Storm Warning. The subtle clues to things forthcoming makes one think of the new TV series again – and makes me wonder how much of these Russell T. Davies had listened to when he envisaged nu-Who.

Paul McGann and India Fisher have settled into their roles with aplomb, and I find myself looking forward to their adventures more and more – something that this story heightened so much I went straight into the next adventure without a break!

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Nicholas Nickleby (1838 – 1839)
Charles Dickens
Penguin, 811pp

Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, is a lengthy and picaresque novel detailing the exploits of the Nickleby family – notably Nicholas, his sister Kate, dear Mama, and Uncle Ralph. It is more interesting that the villain of the piece is Ralph Nickleby, and made clear from the start.

For reasons that need not explaining, it took me over a month to finish this novel, and the delays in reading it dissipated some of its tensions, but did not overly affect my reading of it – for as a picaresque novel it is subject to shifts in focus, in obsessions and in plot. Not one character hangs around for very long. But what characters! There is Wackford Squeers, the infamous headmaster of Dotheboys Hall where Nicholas is employed as master and from where he deserts with Smike the maltreated schoolboy (and revealed, near the end of the novel, to be Nicholas’s cousin). Squeers is a monstrous creation, and apparently real enough for several readers to threaten legal action against Dickens for defamation of character: as he notes in the preface: “It has afforded the Author great amusement and satisfaction, during the progress of this work, to learn from country friends and from a variety of ludicrous statements concerning himself in provincial newspapers, that more than one Yorkshire schoolmaster lays claim to being the original of Mr. Squeers… [I] suggest that these contentions may arise from the fact, that Mr. Squeers is the representative of a class, and not of an individual.” It is a sign of Dickens’s increasing popularity in Victorian England that he is subject to attack, but also a clear sign of his concern of the treatment of the young and vulnerable in the country: In his second preface, to the 1848 Cheap Edition, he notes that such schools as Dotheboys were common in Yorkshire at the time of writing but are now disappearing.

Nicholas Nickleby is, for me, Dickens’s first genuine masterpiece. Oliver Twist may have mass popularity, even now, but it is a flawed novel whose focus is badly lacking in the middle half – Nicholas Nickleby’s focus is also lacking, but the adventures and scrapes Nicholas and his family become embroiled in advance their characters and their fortunes – there is a trajectory to their life, and their decisions affect themselves and others. Nicholas may have always been a good man, but he must undergo all that he does, and learn all that he does about humanity, before he can woo Madeline Bray. It is this subplot that gives Nicholas Nickleby its depth – this is the first of Dickens’s romances, and it is handled with good humour and honesty and only the occasional splashing of sentimentality. The same is true of Kate Nickleby; she must endure the violence and threat of Sir Mulberry Hawk and see her family almost destitute before she can find happiness. This is what Nicholas Nickleby does best; Dickens has created a living breathing city in this novel. London, in its myriad layers, comes alive; the poor rub against the rich, the crooks plot against the innocent, ordinary men rise up to extraordinary challenges, and even the good men are not safe from Death’s scythe.

It is sometimes noted that Nicholas Nickleby is famed as one of the great comic novels of the nineteenth century – a statement I agree with – but that it lacks character development: everything I have just stated to me seems to disprove this claim. Yet: the villains almost wholly remain villains. Squeers and family remain as cruel as when the novel begins, Sir Mulberry Hawk remains as misogynist as when we first meet him, but Dickens’s treatment of Ralph Nickleby is curious: here is a man who sees no wrong in his action, and yet by the end is reformed but unforgiven, and chooses an action that would seem to be at odds with how he first appears: Ralph Nickleby has changed. Characters in this world do change, they make bad decisions and good ones, they are subject to fate and to their own choices – they are, indeed, the most human of characters Dickens has created so far.

Nicholas Nickleby, then, is a good book. My favourite, so far, of his oeuvre, and at times very very funny, and at times movingly sad.

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Doctor Who: The Ratings War (2002)
Steve Lyons
Starring: Colin Baker
Big Finish

Given away with the first part of Invaders from Mars by Doctor Who Monthly, The Ratings War is a standalone Sixth Doctor story that sees him stopping wholesale slaughter being committed by a creature known as Beep The Meep (not heard of him before, but he has apparently been in the cartoon strip in DWM). Beep’s slaughter is to be conducted through television, for the world is addicted to the drivel that is on it – Big Brother clones etc.

Much of The Ratings War seems to be a direct insult to modern television programming and its vacuous presenters, and indeed ends with a statement from the Doctor that seems to be saying: I may no longer be seen on TV, but you can still hear me and that’s alright. All this, it must be said, was before the series was relaunched on TV in 2005.

Most of this story consists of exposition and argument conducted in one room and never truly extends beyond it. Weaker than the last standalone story, Her Final Flight, this never really gets moving. Beep The Meep is a weak villain – he is first mistaken as a cuddly toy – and his scheme seems ridiculous and convulted. A disappointment, then, but it is good to see Big Finish not wholly dependent upon the four part story formula.

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Doctor Who: Invaders from Mars (2002)
Mark Gatiss
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher
Big Finish #28

So the second season of stories featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor begin, and he and Charley are in Manhattan, 1938, and a certain Orson Welles is about to broadcast his infamous War of the Worlds adaptation on national radio. There are spies in New York, though, fifth columnists, gangsters and some aliens, just for good measure. Mark Gatiss really goes for it, and the sparks, and the comedy, fly….

I just read the Wikipedia page for this story, and I am glad I did – I won’t appear a fool now. I was about to criticise this story for a few factual errors – 49 states in America? In 1938 there were only 48. Don Chaney owns a Lamborghini that belonged to Al Capone? I don’t think so. They didn’t appear until the 1960s. And Orson Welles not recognising a Shakespeare quote? I really don’t think so. I ended my review of the last Paul McGann story by saying “There is something very wrong with Charley Pollard…” Well now we know there is: only we are not supposed to know we do just yet. In this story Gatiss begins what I now know is a series long list of deliberate errors which will reveal that Charley is an aberration, that she should not exist. I am reminded here of the Bad Wolf theme from Series 1 of the reimaging Doctor Who, and of that season’s Father’s Day where Rose stops her father from being hit by a car and the Reapers try to correct the error – what fate is to befall Charley Pollard?

Paul McGann’s second series as The Doctor gets off to a brilliant start here. There is a lot of fun to be had, and they are ably supported by a strong cast: Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, Mark Benton, Paul Putner, and David Benson – all comedians, all up for the challenge. Mark Gatiss, whose scriptwriting abilities are excellent, mixes the historical with the fantastical in his own charming way, and at least one twist – at the end of the second episode, was very well done. I do, however, think the script needed one last run through – some parts of this story drag and Orson Welles is woefully underused. Minor gripes in an otherwise entertaining tale.

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