Monday, 27 November 2017

The Art of Flippancy

Last night we watched the Spielberg movie of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and crikey – how slow and portentous was that? Dahl was the zippiest and wittiest of writers. I could just imagine his impatience grinding at every scene of his that was being endlessly prolonged and distorted and stretched out of shape. His books always zoom along beautifully and if any boring interlude or explainy bits start swimming into view – he just skips. He hops over it. He never dwells and he never gets sentimental and he never bores us daft.
            Anyhow, one of the most unforgivably endless sequences involved Sophie and the BFG having breakfast with the Queen. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the Queen. She’s wonderful in everything. She’s someone whose every little quirk of reaction you’re waiting to see. But in this she’s pinioned into endless moments, standing regally by as Spielberg labours over each and every point…
            The point is, what I was reminded of was being eight years old and being at Junior School. This was 1979 and my teacher was the horrendous Mrs H – the woman who once called me a fat lump in a gym class, told my mam I wasn’t as clever as I thought, never washed her hair or wore a scrap of make-up (which was sacrilege to my mam) and told me that the root of all my problems was that I didn’t even try to fit in with all the ordinary boys. Anyhow, that was Mrs H, whose idea of teaching was copying out of a book onto the board huge screeds of text for us to copy out in turn into our exercise books.
            It was for Mrs H that I wrote some of my wildest and strangest stories when I was seven. When we were asked to fill three pages I would fill twenty. I would go to the end of the exercise book. I would take it home and staple further pages into the back of my book and keep my story going. How she must have hated getting stories from me.
            Once I wrote her some long adventure story and I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I myself was a lead character, and there were various talking animal companions, and I think my Big Nanna might have been involved, too. It was a big adventure and, at the very end of it, we were all invited to Buckingham Palace for a slap-up tea with the Queen, as a thank you for saving the world from whatever it was we had saved it from. Giant vampire bats who lived in the Lake District, possibly.
            And this episode must really have stayed with her, in fact, because when it came time for our report cards, she gave me a fairly average mark for English and wrote: ‘HE MUST LEARN THAT LIFE IS NOT A COMIC STRIP. HIS STORIES CAN BE VERY FLIPPANT AND SILLY.’
            Huh, I thought.
            Actually, I thought much more than that, because I was mortified. I was horrified. I’d put so much into the stories I’d written that year. Were they flippant? Were they silly? Perhaps I really did read too many comic strips. I read Dracula Lives,  The Broons, Planet of the Apes, TV Comic, Buster, the Beano, Spiderman, the Hulk, The Defenders, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Howard the Duck, Marvel Two-in-One…
            I read books as well, but when I thought about it, the ones I really loved could be pretty flippant and silly, too. I loved Doctor Who and I loved Roald Dahl…
            And I guess my stories stayed pretty flippant.
            I believe the BFG came out when I was about thirteen. I missed out on reading it until a few years later… and when I did I hooted with laughter.
            For ages I’d thought of Roald Dahl as my spirit animal. He was my guiding spirit of mischief. I’d watched that footage of him on Blue Peter, stomping off down his garden and sitting in the chair in his shed and getting ready to write. Sharpening his pencils and his wits and setting about doing battle with words and sense, and doing this every day. This seemed like a perfectly sensible and proper way to spend your life, and from a very early age it was the only thing I really wanted to do.
            So – he was always a hero.
            And there he was in 1982 – sending his heroes off to have a slap-up tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen. He didn’t give a flying fart if that was flippant or silly or impossible. It was a beautiful vindication of sorts, and I wish that book had been around in 1978 for me to show Mrs H and I could tell her where to shove it.
            And so, ever since, I’ve never really cared if people have thought of what I’ve written or said is flippant. I rather dread writing that’s too solemn or sententious. That kind of slow earnestness usually covers up deep stupidity: flippancy is a cover for the very opposite, I’ve found.
            I remember getting feedback from an editor of a very literary list, rejecting a book of mine, quite a few years ago: ‘How lovely to see what Paul is writing these days. But I found this rather flippant, as opposed to serious and meaningful.’ Although it was a rejection, it made me smile. I loved being called flippant, still. I’ve come to think of it as a badge of honour.
The book that particular editor (poor thing) had been offered was one that mediated its story through pastiches of fairly low class literary modes: Gothic horror, gay erotica and working class saga novels. And her assumption that literary fiction had to flag up its own deep seriousness above everything else had blinded her to the deeply serious silliness at play.
And I was left feeling a bit hollow, after the laughter – what a shame not to see the deep silliness in stories, and how they all have to play with pastiche and flippancy at times – relying on the readers’ knowledge of stories and acknowledging that we’ve all read stories before. For, if nothing else, speeding the process of story-telling up and not boring the reader’s tits off is a very, very important thing, I think.
Because there’s nothing worse and stodgier and duller than deeply earnest fiction, moving slowly and heavily with great meaningfulness… and the thing that so many people still fail to see is that it’s far harder to be funny and light as air, and to conceal your complexity and all your deep thoughts. That’s the bit that takes the skill, I think. (No one really wants to hear your deep thoughts. They’re usually awful.)
Being flippant with style – that’s still my aim.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Christmas-That-Wasn't

Christmas 2015 was really awful. It was one of those years when everything goes wrong on Christmas Eve and suddenly you’re confronted with the realization that you’re not actually going to have a Christmas this year. After the build up, and the easy assumption that you’ll be able to kick back and enjoy yourself as usual… suddenly it all looks very different.
            And when I was in a quiet house on Christmas Day, completely alone, with no decorations or dinner or anything going on… it was a strange, still feeling. I almost felt that everyone should experience this… just once, perhaps. Looking out the back window at our misty street and gardens, and all the windows gently lit up… I was thinking how lovely it would be to be part of any of those family gatherings right now…
            If your Christmas is ruined one year it ensures that you’ll never take it for granted again.
            In 2015 Jeremy was whisked into hospital in the early hours of Christmas Eve. He’d had a suspected flare-up of the Crohn’s that was diagnosed nineteen years earlier. Suddenly he was in agony in the very early hours of the night, and I had to call an ambulance. Next thing I was sitting by his side as they zoomed us to Manchester Royal Infirmary. We stayed awake all night in numberless waiting rooms and consulting rooms and corridors. We were placed on ward after ward and the nightmare went on through the next morning and into the short afternoon. Everywhere we went people were wearing Christmas jumpers and trying to look cheery, and Jeremy was gasping in pain the whole time.
            And, as they tried to sort him out, it became clear he’d be stuck there for at least a week.
            And so our Christmas was off.
            Just as it got dark I walked home through the south of the city. I was popping home for a few hours to feed the cat, get a shower, and pack a bag for Jeremy. I walked through the traffic chugging home and through streets with glowing trees in every window. I remembered the running tally we always kept as kids, counting the trees we saw in windows.
            When I eventually got to our street it was dark and the lamps were on. The neighbours were starting up their Christmases. And Bernard Socks was racing towards me down the middle of the street. Our strange, psychic cat seemed to have had advance warning, and he came bounding up to me… I was delirious with lack of sleep and it seems to me that he came running up on his hind legs like Puss in Boots…
            In the hours I wasn’t visiting Jeremy in hospital during that Christmas-that-wasn’t, I sat on our settee with Socks on my lap and I turned for comfort-viewing to a certain box of DVDs I’d built up into a collection over the years. I’ve made a habit of curating my very favourite Christmas specials and episodes and movies into an impeccably tacky collection of discs.
            That Christmas our house was still a bit wrecked and half-decorated following a disaster we’d had with ceilings falling in, and being left at the mercy of awful insurance people and awful builders. The place was chilly and the bare boards were covered in blobs of dried plaster. I felt adrift on the settee with Socks… I didn’t touch any of the Christmas food I’d bought with Jeremy. Everything went into the freezer… I ate pies made by my friend Wendy, who had her own pie-making business (‘Life of Pie’) and had baked a batch with variously festive fillings…
            And I sought solace in old friends from the telly… Tom and Barbara Good, Doctor Who and Rose, Sarah and K9, Cagney and Lacey, Larry Grayson and Isla StClair, MR James and Michael Hordern… from low comedy to high drama, sci-fi to sentimental TV movies… Each single episode took me back to different Christmases past… from childhood, from years in Edinburgh and Norwich and here in Manchester.
            They filled an entire week, and were curiously comforting. They reminded me: there have been other Christmases. There will be other Christmases to come. It won’t always be like this one.
            That’s the feeling I wanted to get into my book about Christmas Telly. I wanted to dig down into the reason for my obsession with vintage shows like ‘The Box of Delights’, or my seemingly ridiculous devotion to, say, the Christmas 1979 edition of ‘Crossroads.’ All these things are festive, but they’re brimming with pathos, too: with a sense they represent a happiness that’s always only just, and only briefly, within reach…
            Our hellish Christmas of 2015 forms the over-arching story of my book about telly, ‘The Christmas Box’, and I hope it’ll be a fun reminder for readers of the joy of old telly. It might prompt them to go and find particular shows, it might trigger a few happy dormant memories. Also, I hope it’ll be a reminder never to take Christmas for granted.
            Here we are in 2017 and December is approaching fast. Unpacking boxes from the attic, a hale and hearty Jeremy unfurls a miniature pink Christmas tree. He fits new batteries and the lights glow brilliant white. He brings it up to my study and we put it pride of place. It’s the first bit of Christmas in our house this year.
I couldn’t give a fig if anyone thinks it’s too early. Jeremy puts on records, crackly and vinyl: records he’s kept preserved almost all his life. It’s early for Christmas but these days I just think if you feel even the tiniest bit festive… get a bloody tree up. Chuck some tinsel on. Who cares if it’s September or January or Christmas itself? Make the bloody most of it. Don’t wait for it to come to you. Because one year it might not turn up. So – get on with it. And happy holidays – whatever and whenever you wish to celebrate.

Order 'The Christmas Box' from Obverse Books here!


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Oh, Doctor Who

Oh, Doctor Who. So much of my life has been bound up with you.
Twenty years ago, when most of the world thought you were sleeping like King Arthur under a mountain somewhere, I was one of those strange people trying to keep you alive by still writing stories about you… It was the late 1990s and I was writing my first original Doctor Who novel.
I was doing – at the age of 28 – just the same thing I had been doing when I was twelve, and making up the loopiest adventures I could for you and writing them out in longhand.
            I’d been a very quiet Doctor Who fan. I know many people now who went to conventions and were involved in fandom-type things from a very early age. Will you understand when I say that was never my kind of thing? It was all happening Down South or Abroad, that kind of get-together type of thing. My fandom took the form of running as fast as I could up the carpeted stairs of WH Smiths, tearing into the book department and hunting out the last of your novelizations.
It involved waiting for the paperboy to deliver Doctor Who Monthly (always late, always dropped in a puddle). It involved cutting out articles from the Radio Times. It involved recording the soundtracks of your episodes with my cassette player jammed against the speaker of my portable telly.
And – that whole time – it involved a slightly surreptitious, slightly shameful feeling. You’re something I should have grown out of in about 1982. Perhaps just as they started talking about the coming Twentieth Anniversary. But my enthusiasm waxed when it should have waned…  and1983 was a bumper year of Special Books and Special Shows and Special Visits to the Exhibition in Blackpool.
            Everything to do with you was Special.
            When I went to college my post from home included cassette tapes of the 25th season’s episodes. My poor mother was recording them with the tape player in my absence and popping those tapes into envelopes for me. When I should have been reading Iris Murdoch and Tom Stoppard I was sitting in headphones trying to work out just what on earth was happening in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’
            And as my college years went on… my love for you dipped more than it ever did, before or since.
            It only came back with the end of you on TV and the start of your Wilderness Years. I threw myself whole-heartedly into your Virgin New Adventure novels. The very idea that each new story was portable and already a novelisation was wonderful to me.
            That enthusiasm lasted a couple of years… but I started to drift. I fondly imagined I was maturing. I drifted away… So much so that, by 1995, when I was having a pizza in Manchester with Russell T Davies and we were meeting about something not at all to do with you, he asked me: ‘Are you a Who fan?’ out of the blue. I denied that I was anymore, and so did he. We were both in a stage of horrid denial.
            I think I was cross because people I had known were part of the in-crowd writing for your book series. Out of sheer coincidence, people who I was at school with, or at college with, were part of that set. I wished that I’d pushed more, or joined in with fandom, or been part of the crowd. I longed to be writing my own Doctor Who stories…
            And so, eventually, I did.
            And, little by little, I found myself drawn into the real world of Doctor Who. And I have so much to be grateful for. Getting work, and doing good work – all that’s fantastic. But mostly, the biggest thing is to do with making friends. Making friends can be even better than writing. Who knew?
So many of my really good friends came into my life because of you, Doctor Who.
            And so many of my life’s more surreal moments have come about because of you, as well.
            I once sat in a studio in Soho overlooking autumnal skies and rooftops and Tom Baker was saying to me: ‘Well, Paul. You might choose to use your TARDIS to go and look at real historical events and to solve great mysteries of the past. But, these days, I’m happiest taking my TARDIS off to look at animals in the wild. Parrots, and things like that. That’s what I like.’
            We were having coffee, first thing in the morning, and talking, quite naturally, as if our TARDISes were entirely real.
            I sat in a science fiction bookshop in Norwich once with Elisabeth Sladen and K9, interviewing her in front of an audience. She said, ‘I must go and see what I’ve still got in the attic. I gave away such a lot of momentos over the years. You must keep everything, you see… because you never know when your glory years will end. You know when it is they’re happening, but you never know when they’ll end…’
            And I’ve sat in many places with Katy Manning, but right now I’m thinking about being on a plane with her and arguing like mad about feminism and politics. She’s got three chocolate mousses that the air stewardess has saved up for her and I’ve got a bottle of red wine. Then we talk about the time we did an event at a convention aboard an actual double decker bus that was hired for us. Chaos seems to erupt whenever we appear at an event together.
            And I’m thinking of seeing Terrance Dicks in a Manchester pub and saying: ‘Just about all the best stuff in Who… you and your lot invented on the hoof, didn’t you? You just kept on making up one amazing thing after another, week after week…’ And he twinkled at me over his pie and chips, saying: ‘Oh, yes. We made it all up! Everything!’ And there was something strangely benign and godlike about the way he said that.
            I’m thinking tonight about all kinds of silly, surreal encounters and fun moments – things that never would have happened without your being on TV.  
Even when I was a kid and you were just a TV show and maybe a jigsaw and an occasional comic… I thought you were so wonderful and real that I felt I was a part of your stories even then.
You invite us to take part.
You’re about everyone taking part.
So many people writing stories, acting them out, making the scenery, building monsters, constructing story arcs, sewing sequins, gluing bubble wrap, painting pictures, doing photoshop, taping soundtracks, making lists, figuring out continuity, getting up on stage and somehow taking part in it all… all this fabulous activity, going on all the time.
            Thank you, on your 54th birthday, Doctor Who. I say it every year and it’s worth saying again – you’ve made my life better than it would have been without you.
You’re an endless compendium of stories branching off all over time and space. And you’re a good friend.
How many times – faced with an awful quandary – have I thought: ‘What would the Doctor do..?’
It just makes me happy to think of you.
You make me want to put on a long coat, wrap a scarf round my neck and
jam a shapeless hat upon my head.
You make me want to go stomping off on a long autumnal walk in search of mystery, thinking up new adventures for us to share.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Christmas Box - Coming Soon!

I've got a small book of essays about Christmas coming out just in time for the festive season this year! You can pre-order it right now from the Obverse Books website...

It's called 'The Christmas Box' and it's a book I've wanted to write for years. It's a very personal reminiscence of favourite Christmas television shows - and contains essays that are hopefully both touching and funny and nostalgic. It covers everything from 'The Snowman' to 'K9 and Company' to 'The Generation Game.'

‘I just finished The Christmas Box and loved it! God, I want to see that episode of Crossroads *right now*! The book is full of laugh-out-loud moments and I remember almost all of the programmes you cover (I've never seen Box of Delights - can you believe it?). But more than that, it's crammed full of TRUTH! Also, poor Jeremy! Anyway, it's fabulous - I wish it could have been longer. It made me feel ridiculously nostalgic.’  - Neil Perryman

"A loving celebration of the potency of festive ephemera. Warm, studied, poignant and assured - a blissful read any time of year." - Steve Cole 

"Be it a cheap and cheerful variety show, a heart-warming drama or a creepy festive ghost story, the best examples of Christmas TV evoke a sense of magic that sustain us through life, providing us with touchstones of comfort and solidity in what can seem an often alarmingly uncertain world. In The Christmas Box Paul Magrs perfectly captures that egg-nog-infused flavour of nostalgia. His recollections are charming, poignant, affectionate and (even in instances where *our* Christmas memories are not the same as *his* Christmas memories) instantly identifiable. This is a gem of a book, every bit as comforting and luxurious as warm mince pies and mulled wine in front of a roaring log fire on Christmas Eve." - Mark Morris 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dreaming Jamila Gavin

Very odd experience last night, of falling asleep as I was reading… which I quite often do… but last night I was in the middle of Jamila Gavin’s potent and heady fairy tale collection, ‘Blackberry Blue’ which I’d been sent as a present by Nick just yesterday…  I was fading out just before the end of the story called ‘The Purple Lady’… and the first I knew of it I had the characters in the story actually telling me what was going on… that they were on a mission to save the hero’s sister… by collecting up the fragments of her skeleton, and then her disembodied eyes… and then, looking for her soul, they were crossing the lake where it’s fatal for your reflection to be caught… and this is the thing – I was there with Bernard Socks, who had fallen asleep on top of my legs… and we were both on this boat, heading towards the end of the story and the characters were telling us – really clearly – ‘We have ran out of story, you fool! You’ve gone and fallen asleep and now we can’t get to the end and find out what happens to us…!’  It was the strangest, most wonderful dream – in which the characters were trying to wake me up, so I could carry on reading for them.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Birthday Presents Past

I’m not someone who enjoys a big fuss on his birthday. In recent years some of the nicest have been spent in very simple ways. When our house was hideously damaged by people working on next door’s roof, our ceilings were smashed in and all our belongings were coated with ancient, greasy soot. That year we went into town and had tea at Marks and Spencers’ cafĂ©. Everything was clean and white in there and it felt like such a respite and a treat to sit somewhere like that. Home was hellish and we were caught up in endless clean-ups and insurance wrangles. To sit somewhere tidy, sipping tea and not having to face our predicament seemed enough of a treat that year.

Others were busy and filled with people. Nights on Canal Street in my thirties: booking a table at Velvet or Taurus or in Chinatown. A table for twenty and lots of fuss and surprises. All good fun, but exhausting, really. Others, I was in Norwich, and we’d fill half a restaurant with faculty and students and visiting writers. (Remember Colleen, the quietest of the secretaries being tipsy and pretending to do a pole dance as everyone waited for taxis?) Then, right back when I was twenty: my first birthday away from home. It was the term we moved into our first student house and we all went for a Chinese. My first banquet! We dressed up smart. It was the day Waterstones had opened in Lancaster and I spent my book vouchers on ‘The Naked Lunch’ and ‘To the Lighthouse.’

My favourite birthday of all is still 1982 and my thirteenth.

Mam kept a brilliant surprise. A tape recorder. Something I longed for and dreamed about owning. The thing I wanted to do most in the world was to make my own audiobooks. I wanted to record stories I was writing with sound effects and music. I wanted to record shows off my portable TV and play them back in my headphones. Victoria Wood, The Two Ronnies, Doctor Who. With a tape recorder I would put my new tape player right up to the TV’s speakers and whizz the sound up. I’d create my own cassette covers and I’d keep them all in the plastic cassette cases I’d coveted in Boots. I would have a collection of soundtracks on cassette. All the old Universal horror movies they showed late at night: I’d record all them as well. I’d focus on the words and listen again and again, learning the tune of their reams of dialogue, wearing my headphones and walking round our estate doing my teatime paper round, or hurrying off to school and blocking out the world.

Mam was excited about giving presents, too. Things weren’t easy and she had to save or put down money each week in the catalogue. I think she was really excited about the tape recorder because she knew it was something I wanted so badly. And, the night before my birthday, she decided to try it out. She unwound the flex and opened the sample cassette tape. It was rainbow-coloured and just a few minutes long.

‘Hello, Paul! Happy birthday! It’s your thirteenth and now you’re a teenager! And here’s a nice surprise for you!’

She sang ‘happy birthday’ and her voice sounded so young and high, like a kid herself. I can still hear it now if I think about it. The tape went missing many years ago. We moved house again and again and belongings went astray. There are loads of books and drawings books and things I would love to have salvaged. But first among them is that sample tape with Mam’s message on. Not because of the daft stories and sound effects I tried out on the rest of it over the next couple of days (I made a short play about Dan Dare and the Mekon using sound effects from household implements and music from Geoff Love’s superhero album) but for Mam’s short message at the start.

Everything about that tape recorder was wonderful. I loved the little spools going round, and the grinding noise of fast-forwarding, and the fact you could fill it with batteries and take it out on location outside. Even when, a couple of years later, it started going wrong, and the Play button tended to malfunction, I blamed myself rather than the machine. It couldn’t be going wrong and failing, it had to last forever, didn’t it? It must be me using it wrong, somehow. It was my favourite thing in the world.

Mam’s always loved giving presents, so much. Even when – especially when – she couldn’t afford them. A couple of years ago I visited just before Christmas and for a variety of reasons it was a tense time. When I left I was catching the train and couldn’t carry the bag of presents she left out on the top landing. She was ill and the night before she’d flipped out for some reason and yelled at me and took to her bed, and I, of course, was horrified and upset and couldn’t deal with it at all. And the presents were put out on the landing in the morning and she never came to say goodbye. The presents seemed an aggressive offering, somehow.

There was no way, either, I could carry them with all the bags I already had. I tried saying it was too early to do Christmas things and we’d come back through and swap all our gifts in person. But it didn’t work out that way. It turned into an ugly fight, somehow, by phone and email and all those other, silly modern ways we have of sending and preserving and distorting our voices. I should have just taken that bag, even though I couldn’t actually manage with the luggage I already had on that ridiculously busy train.

Accepting gifts is so often about trying not to give offence and seeming delighted for their givers’ sake, not your own. Usually I rather like that. It’s lovely to see the pleasure someone else has in giving you something. It feels as good, sometimes, as being the one handing over the perfect, well-chosen gift and watching the recipient’s face.

Presents can be tender, treacherous things, though. All you’re wanting, really, is the affirmation that someone you love has spent a little time thinking about you. Devoting time to you, for just a little bit.

That’s the bit that always catches in my heart, and it’s why that cassette tape with Mam’s message is still the most wonderful present I ever got. It was a splinter of recorded time. A perfect moment that should have been there forever, and I wish it still was.