Today I'm finishing proof-reading the reprinted edition of my very first novel, 'Marked for Life', from way back in 1995. It's such a strange experience, revisiting that younger self! I first wrote this book about tattooed men, nudist lesbians and stolen children 23 years ago...! This new edition from Steve Berman's brilliant Lethe press has this fab new cover by Matt Bright, two bonus short stories from the same year, and a new intro in which I look back at being in my mid-twenties...
One purple morning the first snow began to
fall in the Valley of Lungbarrow. It fell noisily and discontinuously and in a few hours everything
was smudgy and overly complicated.
stood in the doorway and watched his whole world settle down to sleep out the
Wilderness Years, as they were to become known. ‘Tonight,’ he thought, ‘We will
sleep for a thousand years and we’ll have the most fabulous dreams.’
Bob Smith’s book of linked essays about
nature, love and living a good life, ‘Treehab’ is like a breath of fresh air.
It’s like spending a few days in wonderful company with a gentle, clever and
generously funny man who’ll point out interesting stuff about nature, tell
silly jokes, divert into an amazing anecdote about a friend and then suddenly
get furious about an issue dear to his heart.
He’s a gay stand-up comedian and a
novelist, a self-confessed ‘Nature Boy’, a father and a man suffering from a
life-threatening neurological disease. All of these factors pay into every one
of these essays – whether they’re about childhood fossil-collecting,
salmon-fishing, gay activism, comedy, family history or novel research. It’s a
lovely slim book of seemingly disparate parts that add up to a whole and
coherent life story.
I love his tales of stand-up comedians in
New York and their acidulously funny camaraderie, and I love his visits to
Alaska and cold nights with hotties and various new friends. He writes about
food and flowers and birds so beautifully and vividly. I love the way he seems
to have the whole thing sorted out, and he has a wonderful, challenging bravado
in calling out the assholes who’ve wrecked the world – the
anti-enviromentalists and greedy governmnents and industrialists. He tackles
asshole religions in a specially-dedicated chapter and it’s hilarious, but
well-argued and fair. No, we shouldn’t respect any religion that is vicious and
does wicked things to living beings – he’s quite right.
An elegant and witty book that combines the
sacred, profane, the funny and the mundane. My very favourite moments of this
volume celebrating nature are actually in the urban landscape. There’s an essay
that has Bob describing an average walk around Greenwich Village with his
boyfriend Michael and their beagle-basset, Bozzie. It’s homely, gorgeous and
And my other favourite moment comes early.
It’s to do with one of those times when you meet a great hero of yours, and no
one else in the room realizes how amazing this person is. The anecdote is about
a famed archeologist, Mary Leakey, whom Bob reveres, and met when he was
waiting tables at an academic dinner where she was being honoured, but mostly
ignored. She was a woman, he knew, responsible for finding fossilized
footprints from our oldest freestanding survivors. A family group’s footsteps,
preserved forever because of this distracted-looking woman at a glitzy dinner.
Bob describes the moment he got to tell her how much he appreciated her years
spent quietly-chipping-away at the truth, and their meeting and short exchange
is, I think, magically told.
Mary imparts a tiny bit of brilliant wisdom
– that by following her own instincts and inclinations always, she had enjoyed
a wonderful life. It’s clearly a turning point in the young writer’s life, and
thank goodness for that. After that he devoted himself to his art. (I love the
fact he always talks about comedy and comic writing as art with a big A.)
This book’s full of those kind of moments,
when you feel the shivery pleasure of having wise stuff imparted to you. Never
pompous or hectoring. But ribald, gossipy, and sometimes cross. This is like a
series of happy days and evenings spent with a friend (and several of their
friends. And their dogs.)
I feel like I'm rescuing books from oblivion all the time.
Look at this wonderful recent find, from a charity shop in Heaton Mersey. 'Folk Tales and Legends' retold by Michaela Tvrdikova, with wonderful illustrations by Vojtech Kubasta, published by Cathay Books in 1981. It's the kind of book I would have loved to have found when I was eleven. How wonderful it would have been to be immersed in tales from Greece, China, Turkey and Spain at that age, and to find them richly illustrated like this.
At eleven I was reading Doctor Who and Star Trek and all kinds of stuff. I wasn't reading children's books or fairy tales anymore. It would be a few long years before I felt grown-up enough to return to children's literature...
But these kinds of tales of ancient adventures are what underlie and influence all the great science fiction stories, of course. I'd read (perhaps rather dry?) versions of the old myths before I was eleven, of course. If I could go back in time for real, I think I'd go back with this wonderful volume to 1981 and present it to myself. You need to know these stories well, I'd say...
Last week all my reading was about the
wonderful world of tie-ins and side-steps. Both books grew out of a movie and a
TV show, but they did so in an unusual way. Neither were novelizations or comic
strip adaptations, and neither were simple, ‘original’ continuations of those
stories. They were new tales that grew out of the source material… stories
nestled within the original story, expanding and accreting new layers of detail
I don’t even know what to call them?
Interpolated tales? Further stories-within-stories? Arabesques?
I read ‘Doctor Who – Supremacy of the
Cybermen’ by George Mann and Cavan Scott – a graphic novel collected up in one
handsome, colourful volume by Titan. And I also read ‘Beauty and the Beast –
Lost in a Book’ by Jennifer Donnelly. Both books are absolutely set within the
canonical continuity of both franchises, but both are about what we might call
The Sequels Within. They are stories that happen within a tiny glitch of a
moment within the original story – and, rather wittily and paradoxically – the
story secreted inside the original is made to seem epic and colossal. It’s like
Athena sprouting fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. Or Pandora’s Box
opening. It’s the reassuringly infinite nature of story-telling – reminding us
that even something as nailed-down as a multi-million pound franchise can have
Jennifer Donnelly’s novel takes place
within the fairy tale / the cartoon / the live action movie / the novelisation
of such. It hinges upon Belle’s exploring the Beast’s library and finding a
certain book, ‘Nevermore’, which has been placed there by Death in order to
lure her away from her destiny. A whole sub-plot and secondary fantasy world is
beautifully evoked – with duplicitous gentlewomen, clockwork people and talking
insects. Belle is drawn into a trap, but she keeps on interacting with the
major plot beats of the film she was originally starring in, while being
literally dragged into a different book. It’s all written very lusciously and
sparklingly. While it’s a pleasure to venture back into the Beast’s castle and
spend more time with his familiar staff, there’s a definite thrill to the
slightly macabre shadow-story that Donnelly presents.
Doctor Who is always about time travel and
other dimensions and so hidden stories and missing tales have always been part
of its fabric. Going back to 1973, when Doctor Two gets plucked from 1967 to
co-star in a new adventure in the present day, the show has always reveled in
mucking about in these side-steps and arabesques. This latest saga from Titan
really goes for it on that score – with an anchor narrative continuing the
confusing on-screen climax of season nine to do with Gallifrey (Rassillon
survives and starts fraternizing with Cybermen) but also drawing in previous
Doctorsin a bewildering and
generous array of sub-plots.
All of them are grounded and real and
‘happening’ in their own private time streams: and it’s lovely to have a tale
of Nine and Jackie Tyler zooming about in an alternate London (another one!)
circa 2005, battling Cybermen. Even though, if we stop to think about it, the
actual crystallizing of this storyline into ‘fact’ within the fiction would
destabilize other parts of the bigger story (playing havoc with various bits of
continuity.) However, of course, it’s in the nature of comic strips to be,
well… comic strippy. We are allowed to ditch the continuity qualms in favour of
the zippy and outrageous fun of it all – Captain Jack and Rose getting
converted and explosions going off and everything seeming so desperate. And,
elsewhere in the galaxy, the Tenth Doctor finds himself appointed king of the
Sontarans, and the Eleventh tangles (that very comic strippy word!) with Cyber-converted
Silurians. It’s reckless, breathless and highly-organised fun.
And, of course, by the ending of it all,
the toys are put back into their boxes and the timelines are shoogled back into
place quite neatly, due to some apocalyptic and cosmic shenanigans courtesy of
the current day Doctor. It’s fitting that all the Gallifrey and Rassillon stuff
at the climax feels so much like Bronze Age Marvel Comics – those
eternity-shattering adventures in the Forbidden Zone with Galactus and the
Silver Surfer. A very Jack Kirby and Stan Lee sort of galaxy. What a great
place for Dr Who to be having adventures in. On TV when they conjured cosmic
beings we tended to get an old character actor sipping a cocktail at a
wickerwork table, and we had to take it on trust that he was the Guardian of
Light in Time. In comics we can get the whole cosmic hullaballoo, with spinning
vortices and lightning bolts and multi-coloured knobs on. And, of course, it
was Marvel Comics and DC comics that taught me, back when I was a kid, that
franchises could be rewritten and rebooted in a flash. Remember The Secret
Wars, back in the early 80s? When Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were dragged off for
just a flicker of an instant in the plodding chonology of Earth? But in their
own subjective superhero time they were kidnapped for months – for a whole
fabulous mini-series of pulse-pounding new adventures in space…
That’s what the Sequels Within should
always feel like. You thought the story was over and you find that – not only
does it continue… there are still stories to be unpacked from within the heart
of the original. And I love it when the new stories become extravagant and
grand, as do both these books I read last week.
I’m back home now from a weekend in the US,
at the Baltimore-based Dr Who convention, Regen Who. What a delightfully
well-organised show it was! I had a fabulous time… beginning with our journey
out there, through a myriad of chatty panels and readings and talks… and
hilarious conversations in the bar and over dinner and in conference rooms… to the
very highpoint of the con for me – which has to be my panel with Katy Manning,
in which we talked about Iris Wildthyme and she performed a small, new scene
which I had written especially for that day. What a thrill to hear it brought
to life on stage beside me, in front of all those lovely fans!
There were many brilliant moments in this
Con – orchestrated so well by Oni Hartstein, James Harknell and Craig W. Matthews
and their army of helpers – including my chair and the Mistress of Chat, Kara
Dennison. I spent much of my time with my mate George Mann, and we had a great
many laughs – and some brilliant book-shopping, too – in the gigantic Barnes
and Noble on the bay, and in a perfect used-book store we discovered called
Book Escape… where Kara and George scored about a dozen 1990s New Adventures
novels. (How serendipitous is that..?!)
It was my first US Dr Who Con. I’ve done
one or two UK ones in the past, and it’s so nice to be invited and to realise
that people really want to hear about the things you’ve done and written. Not
just Dr Who, either – people want to know about ‘Baker’s End’ and all the other
things I’ve worked on. The big surprise for me of the weekend was just how many
people came up and said how much they loved books I wrote almost twenty years
ago – ‘The Scarlet Empress’ and ‘The Blue Angel’ – books that were actually
pretty difficult to get hold of in America.
The weekend was filled with happy new
encounters and reunions and also, meeting with people I already knew very well
from social media. Friends like Bret and Syd, who I’ve known for so long via
Facebook and a number of collaborative projects – but who I’ve never actually
been in the same room as. How magical to sit drinking beer in a bar in
Baltimore as if we’ve always been friends. There were also marvelous times and
conversations with people I’ve always thought I might enjoy meeting.
Anyway – happy times and places! And some
very happy memories. It was the kind of weekend that, though tiring, sends you
back to your normal, rather quiet working days in your study, with renewed
vigour and glee.