Saturday, 29 April 2017

Wonderful, life-affirming 'Treehab' by Bob Smith

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 profound.

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.)

Thursday, 27 April 2017

'Folk Tales and Legends' from 1981

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...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Manchester Rally for Chechnya

We've just been at the rally in the Gay Village for the Chechnya concentration camps. Jeremy gave an amazing impromptu speech!

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Sequels Within

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 and meaning.

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 hidden layers.

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 Doctors  in 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.