Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Tiddler after Tiddler - Florence and Venice, 1999.

This is a new essay about the first time I went to Italy, in the summer of 1999. You can read the complete text on my patreon page - www.patreon.com/Paulmagrs

‘You have to watch out for the hornets here. Have you come across them yet? Oh, they’re malevolent. A full three inches long and they refuse to die. I’ll show you where we keep the shots in case you get stung. You have to inject yourself immediately with adrenalin. Which sounds rather pleasant, but actually you think the top of your head’s blowing off and it fills you with the most crushing anxiety. But then, so do most things, don’t they?’

We sat up late with Rupert telling us everything he knew about Boccaccio and Petrarch, and filling us in on the last twenty years of his and Lorna living in this apartment. They’re in a farmhouse beside the monastery and we were sitting on their veranda in the dark.

Insects went buzzing past, avoiding the clouds of lemon incense. At one point the lamp on the table broke of its own accord with a loud ‘ping!’ Lorna reached out and picked up a piece of hot, broken glass and burnt her hand. She cursed: ‘Why do I always do stupid things to myself?’ She was half laughing, half angry. Her fingers are bright red already. Very small, delicate fingers, but it’s as if they’re turning colour with the cold, even though this place is warm as hell.

We arrived here at their place at just about the same time as they were printing out an email from the hospital laboratory at home, telling them she had the same germ on her lungs as before.

It was lunchtime. We were in a kind of daze from the heat, pulling up in a taxi and dragging our bags on wheels up the gravel path. They gave us red wine straight away and we slept for part of the afternoon.

Our bedroom looks out on real lemon trees.

There are photos in the corridor that leads to our room. Lorna and Rupert on their terrace in the late Seventies and early Eighties. They look so young and they’re laughing so much. Lorna’s drinking vodka. The glass is so big, tipping over her face as though it could swallow her up. It was when they were both in good health and they could run around anywhere in this city. Now they’re stuck in the house mostly, with the air conditioning cranked right up so that she can breathe. Their living room is on the ground floor: it’s kept dim and chilly with the shutters drawn and this huge machine rolling out the cool air for her. She sits there in the night to read when she can’t sleep.

They sit together, telling stories and she cackles loudly and catches her breath. She yells at him to shut up when he goes rabbiting on too much. ‘You’re taking away my concentration!’ She’s so small, but she has a huge presence and a loud voice. Her hair’s like silver spun sugar, combed out and held back with a slide. Rupert is huge beside her, bumbling, red faced, with his tummy poking out of his shirt. He beams at the prospect of showing off and good company.

He was telling me about their long, late night phone calls with Angela Carter, all about nothing. ‘I can see her sitting where you’re sitting now.’ He’s writing a book about the beginnings of all cultures. He says the root of all world cultures can probably be traced back to a troupe of Turkish dancing girls. His conversation goes all over the place and then he’s back to Angela Carter, and how ‘her wit never got into her books. Rather like me, she was a subversive…’

Lorna rolls her eyes as he goes on about how Latin and Greek should be taught in all schools, and how what separates the Middle Ages from the Renaissance was the Plague. ‘It’s all about regeneration,’ he says.

I start telling them about something I read, about the werewolf myth stemming from Medieval folk in Europe going crazy when they ate bread tainted with a particular kind of mould…

‘I don’t know anything about that,’ he burbled. ‘I’ve got absolutely no interest in that.’ And then he was off again, about the churches we ought to be visiting, and more stuff about the source of all culture (there’s an island near Venice with only eleven people on it and a great many artichokes, and that’s the source of all civilization, too.)

I think Lorna’s more like me, preferring cultural stuff that comes from times closer to ours: things more recent and perhaps more ephemeral.

They both talk a lot and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Sometimes they pause and listen to something one of us has to say: Rupert red with impatience, and Lorna beaming at us both.

The following morning she feels much better and, as we head down to breakfast, we can hear her voice booming through the chilly stone house. She’s at the kitchen table with a huge pile of marked-up manuscripts, newsprint, novels and faxes.

Monday, 14 May 2018

New Doctor Who by me!

News from Big Finish this morning! Iris Wildthyme and Panda crash into Doctor Who in 1920s Paris!https://www.bigfinish.com/news/v/seventh-doctor-muse-of-fire

"Oooh la la! It's been a long time coming, but the Doctor is about to be reunited with Iris Wildthyme! They're both in 1920s Paris and everyone's flocking to Iris's salon. But wait...! What's that noise..? Thud thud thud...! It's the soft, approaching feet of a small and acerbic Art Critic Panda...! Hold onto your large, extravagant hats everyone, it's time for a not-quite-so Pure Historical from Paul Magrs."


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Million Love Songs - Carole Matthews

Million Love Songs – Carole Matthews

I’ve read Carole’s novels for about ten years now. Perhaps not every single one – she usually publishes two a year. I stop by and read the latest one when I feel like I want to visit old friends. Even when the characters are strangers, they still feel like old friends. There’s something about the world she conjures that seems at once welcoming and familiar. She likes to give us cosiness and friendship, but also excruciating embarrassment and a certain amount of calamity. All these things are a strong draw for me, in those times I want to read something soothingly funny and just a bit – but not too – soppily romantic.

The heroines are always resourceful and practical – Ruby Brown is no exception. She’s unusual in Carole’s oeuvre in that she doesn’t have any particular talent or ambition that she discovers and hones through the course of the book. She isn’t a whizz at baking or making up business plans. Ruby is just a nice person with modest ambitions to be happily fulfilled. In a way her story is more old-fashioned than those of other Matthews heroines of recent years – it’s a tale of vacillating between two very different suitors and trying to figure out what kind of life might be best for her. Will she opt for the adventurous, spoiled playboy Mason or the domestic complications of divorced dad Joe.

I absolutely believe in all these characters, and it’s something to do with the way Ruby addresses us directly – begging our indulgence, confiding in us, whispering asides about her friend, Charlie. The tone is casual and guileless – we like Ruby because she tells us the unadorned truth. Even her most embarrassing moments don’t make us cringe too much because she never plays victim, even when she’s in the worst moments of being tangled up with ‘Shagger’ Mason. When he takes her away for a supposedly romantic weekend in Paris he shags the whole thing up big time, but Ruby can admit to herself (and us) when she’s made a daft mistake, and she simply walks out to do her sight-seeing alone.

Carole’s heroines are always keen to try out something new. Here, as well as threesomes it’s scuba-diving and there’s a lovely, gentle ruefulness about the kinds of situations you get into if you embrace new possibilities. There’s every chance that you’ll end up bobbing about at the bottom of a murky pool holding some fat bloke’s hand, or hanging around in a quarry while everyone else is snorkeling about. Ruby puts herself bravely out there – even when the results look as if they might be disappointing. She’s even willing to hang out in hotel foyers waiting for a glimpse of Take That. Throughout all of these things there’s an underlying belief in the idea of throwing yourself whole-heartedly into stuff, and in trusting that things will work out in the end.

Ruby is forthright and confident and, perhaps, a little more profane than the average Matthews heroine. I liked her cursing and swearing a lot – there was a breeziness to it. Also, her frankness about the sexual adventures Ruby occasionally gives herself up to – all of that seemed realistic to me, and about as silly, awkward and exciting as these things can be in real life. Ruby’s robust swearing and shagging was refreshing in a pop culture world that seems just a bit mimsy, mild and well-behaved these days.

When it was finished I felt very much like I’d spent time with old friends and heard all their latest, eyebrow-raising stories and then, all of a sudden, it was over. But that’s the good part of carefully leaving out one or two of Carole’s books now and then, and setting them aside for rainy weekends: you’ve always got one on stand-by, for when you want to return to her world.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Diamonds in the Rough: Reading in the First Third of 2018

Diamonds in the Rough

Reading in the first third of 2018

I began the year with the Armada Sci-Fi collections 2 and 3, edited by Richard Davis in the late Seventies, and these set the tone (and the bar) for the months to come. Reading these was a case of revisiting stories I’d partly forgotten, but it also involved discovering new and similar stuff, too.

I enjoyed reading some Judy Blume and some PG Wodehouse, I loved memoirs by Eddie Sarfaty and Dave Hill from Slade. Neil and Sue Perryman’s tomes eavesdropping on their Doctor Who-viewing marathon have been my constant companion through the year so far, and they’ve kept me laughing throughout the adventures of ‘The Scruffy Drunk’, ‘The Pompous Tory’ and ‘The Mad One.’            

I went back in time to reread a lot of Enid Blyton. This time I focused on her magical stories – her Faraway Trees and pixies and goblins, and I was reminded of just how strange she could get. Lucy Mangan backed me up with her memoir ‘Bookworm’ on the subject of rereading books you loved as a kid. Though I felt, in the end, that her choices were all about finding quality. She was hunting out books that were demonstrably good and discarding the trash, as her reading tastes matured. I’ve always been on an endless search to turn up the diamonds in the rough, and to find good pages in all the mountains of cast-off and over-looked tat.

And so I entered into a phase of reading Tie-in fiction. I went to one of the most under-valued and debased genres of all and I went back to examine my own early love of novelizations. In the early days of spring I spent time with lots of favourite characters – Flash Gordon and Dale Arden; Batman, Robin and the Joker; Cagney and Lacey; Doctor Who; Spiderman and Aunt May; Scooby-Doo; Planet of the Apes and the crew of the Starship Enterprise. In an over-busy and sometimes rocky start to the year, these old pals have been a very steadying influence. It’s a nice thing to remember: if you start to get sad, those familiar characters are always there waiting for you to pick up where you left off.

My top reads and recommendations from the first third of 2018:

Armada Sci-Fi (four volumes) – edited by Richard Davis
So Here it is – David Hill
Mental – Eddie Sarfaty
Dr Omega: The Strike of Midnite – John Peel
Star Trek Legacies: Captain to Captain – Greg Cox
Bookworm – Lucy Mangan
The Further Adventures of Batman – edited by Martin H. Greenberg
The Day of the Doctor – Steven Moffat
Cagney and Lacey – Serita Deborah Stevens
Spiderman – Peter David
Lost Mars – edited by Mike Ashley
The Wife in Space (all volumes) – Neil and Sue Perryman
Scooby-Doo Team-Up – Sholly Fisch