Friday, August 29, 2008

8820 minutes and counting ...

I have just heard from my editor that my book arrives in the warehouse from the printers a week today. In just seven days I will actually be able to hold a copy in my hands and say ... 'Damn it! I missed that typo on page 6!'

Ah but I jest! It's just too exciting for words. It's the final icing on a cake that's been many years in the making and baking.

To all you budding writers out there ... Never ever give up. No matter how long it takes, it's all worth it when you see your work finally published. Even the money pales into insignificance beside it.

These seven days are going to crawl by. I just know it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chimerae in my larder

As some of you know, I make a lot of preserves and pickles and stuff from the things I grow in my garden and greenhouse. What you may not know is that I create labels for said produce before distributing jars among friends, family and neighbours. And it's become a standing joke now for me to describe the contents with a graphic rather than words. So ... can you guess what these products were?
Answers in the comments. Don't peek until you've had a guess!

I am sooooo looking forward to this one

Can Seth and the boys and girls possibly top Blue Harvest? We'll find out next month! The poster looks good ... with a black Mort Goldman?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

He's a ring-a-ding-a-ling of a King

Right ... here we go ... Nostalgia Mode engaged ...

One of my fondest childhood memories is of a series called Arthur and his Square Knights of the Round Table. I managed to find the DVD of Arthur's complete adventures recently and watched it all the way through, and I was struck by just how much the cartoon must have affected me as a kid. I could spot all kinds of little details that I now include in my own artwork. My greatest influence (and personal hero) was wit, raconteur, actor and, above all else, cartoonist Willie Rushton and I owe much of my art style to copying his work when I was younger. But there are strong echoes of the Arthur cartoons in there too. I just didn't realise it until now. Here's a typical episode courtesy of Youtube:

The series was produced from 1966 to 1968 in Australia and directed by animator Zoran Janjic. It was written by, among others, Ozzie playwright Alex Buzo (Buzo's first play, the iconic Norm and Ahmed explored issues of racism and agism and hit the headlines when those involved in the production were charged with obscenity for use of the word 'fucking.' The charges were eventually quashed by the Australian Attorney General) and Rod Hull, a much-beloved British entertainer best known for his puppet act involving a life-sized, and dangerously psychotic emu.

The cartoons followed the adventures of the legendary King Arthur of Camelot - a mild-mannered little chap - and his tall, elegant wife Guinevere who, unusually for a 1960s children's cartoon, had a significant amount of cleavage permanently on show. Other characters involved the foppish Sir Lancelot, a doolally Merlin, a manic Jester, and the bad guys - the Black Knight and evil witch Morgan le Fay. The drawings were very stylised, much like its contemporaries Roger Ramjet and Tomfoolery, and the music is so hip it hurts, man.

The plots invariably centred around the bad guys trying to get one up on the King but between the main features there were also comic 'shorts' that would focus on one or more of the supporting characters. The British pantomime spirit is strong here (maybe that was Rod Hull's contribution) because there does seem to be an inordinate amount of cross-dressing with burly knights frequently crammed into dresses on the slightest pretext. And there's a generous dollop of discontinuity too; in the first ever episode, Arthur's magic sword is stolen by a female, anthropomorphic freshwater octopus and Merlin and Lancelot have to get it back using a submarine. Even Monty Python's take on Arthur made more sense!

Watching Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table again makes me feel all yummy and warm. It was a great little series that obviously left its mark on me. But I never seem to meet anyone else who remembers it? Do you?

My subconscious betrays me

I doodle a lot when I'm on the phone. Sometimes it's just lines, patterns and squiggles. But at other times, I find myself drawing all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Today I doodled a boy pirate and a teddy bear (see above). What does that say about my state of mind, eh? A desire to be a child again? A repressed wish to be free of the shackles of adulthood? I'm sure any good psychoanalyst would soon set me straight. But then, what would he or she say about these?
An ageing hippy proclaiming that he loves everyone ...
Three curious chums whose initials make up the word BED (maybe I was tired) ...

And two very different monsters that share a common goal; picking baked beans from a tin, one by one ...

Are doodles like dreams? Do they work with symbolism rather than literal interpretation (ie a dream about a caterpillar turning into a moth can mean a change in life circumstances rather than you being about to turn into a Kafka-esque bug in your sleep)?

Or is it just my unbearable oddness coming through?

Will you be my friend?

I went to make a cup of tea yesterday evening and noticed a small, irregularly-shaped piece of paper poking in through my front door letter box. It was a typewritten note and it said (suitably edited for anonymity's sake):

Several weeks ago a model engineer visited the track of XXXXX Model Engineering Club. He spoke to me about becoming a member of the club. Unfortunately I lost all the gentleman's details except that he lived in XXXXX. If you are the gentleman in question and are still interested in joining, please contact me.

... followed by the writer's contact details. Now, I may be reading more into this than I should, but I was struck by the poignancy of the note. Here was someone who'd found a connection with another human being that he'd then tragically lost (or is that too melodramatic?). I just wonder ... would I be so desperate to find that person again that I'd leaflet an entire area?

I found the whole incident a little bit sad. And I mean sad in an 'Awwww, bless' kind of way as opposed to the sarcastic 'sad' that people use to denote patheticness. Patheticity. Whatever the word is.

I do hope he finds his friend.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Deconstructing Thunderbirds

I experienced a little ripple of excitement recently when I saw that Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds was being re-run on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the UK. Thunderbirds was one of my favourite shows as a child. I had the toys and the books (no videos or DVDs back then) and I went to see the two Thunderbirds movies several times. I had several Viewmaster reels (remember them?) where I could see International Rescue at work in glorious 3D. I subscribed to TV21 and Countdown as both comics carried the Anderson shows plus other great stuff like Doctor Who, The Avengers and The Tomorrow People.

But it’s very different watching it through adult eyes. I’m still thoroughly enjoying the show but the magic has been stripped away by the logic and knowledge that comes with adulthood. Lift the soft and fluffy blanket of nostalgia that’s draped over the show and what remains is a seething cauldron of inconsistency and contradiction. I’ve been deconstructing Thunderbirds all week. It’s made me laugh doing so.

Frankly, I’m amazed I ever fell for any of it, even as a kid.

The trouble with working on TB5 was having to sleep outside on one of the two pole-mounted beds.

The show, as you doubtless know, follows the adventures of International Rescue; an entirely non profit-making, altruistic organisation with amazing technology at its disposal that flies around the world rescuing people from seemingly impossible-to-rescue-people-from situations.

In charge of International Rescue is grizzled, silver-haired, gruff-voiced Jeff Tracy. Well, he would be gruff wouldn’t he? He always has a fag on - the man practically chain-smokes. Even is radio is disguised as an ashtray. But I digress. Tracy, a retired US astronaut, has bought a small island in the South Pacific and has turned it into a family home … and a secret base. Quite how he did this is a complete mystery. Just look at the logistics involved. Firstly, there’s money.

Somehow, Jeff Tracy has funded the design, development, construction and continued operation of a fleet of amazingly futuristic aircraft, spaceships and highly specialised rescue vehicles. As we hear constantly, these machines are more technologically advanced than just about anything else on the planet. So just how rich is Jeff Tracy? Bear in mind, he’s also had to hollow out a South-Sea island to make the hangars and launch pads for his vehicles. And he’s built and equipped a space station. The real-life International Space Station is rumoured to have cost around $100 billion and that isn’t a patch on Thunderbird 5 which has gravity and everything. Just sending the twin exploration rovers to Mars cost the US taxpayer $800 million. Jeff Tracy must have more dosh than Bill Gates. And there must be ongoing costs too. Presumably, the Thunderbird craft drink fuel like it’s going out of fashion. Or they have atomic power. In which case, where is Jeff buying his Uranium? He must have invested wisely is all I can say. I don’t suppose Neil Armstrong is doing quite so well.

I notice that there’s no Mrs Tracy … I do know that she was called Lucille and allegedly died due to complications during the birth of Alan, their fifth child. Maybe she was some kind of heiress? Or maybe Jeff had a huge insurance policy set up in her name …

Gordon Tracy in TB4 attempts to make some pocket money by salvaging Megatron from the sea floor.

However it happens, the funds were, and continue to be, obtained from somewhere. Which is just as well as the Tracy Island project must have cost gazillions and taken years to finish. And that raises another issue … International Rescue is supposedly a top secret organisation. How they can be ‘top secret’ when the boys keep telling people their real names and wear no form of disguise? It’s beyond me. Presumably they went to school somewhere. Some fan sites even have full biographies for the lads and, if they are to be believed, the brothers all went to university and some even did a stint in the military. So how can they possibly remain secretive? And you can’t tell me that no one ever asked any questions about the massive amounts of earth-moving equipment, tons of steel, millions of gallons of concrete, electronic components, rocket engines etc. that needed to be built and shipped to a small island? The CIA would have latched onto that like a shot. There would have been hundreds of workers employed on construction … did none of the workers sell their story to the tabloids? Or did Jeff, like some ancient Pharaoh, have them all buried in the foundations of Thunderbird 1’s hangar, along with his wife?

Thunderbird 3. You entered it through its bottom. While sat on a sofa.

Turning to Brains – or Homer Newton III as he is properly named – we find the man who designed the incredible Thunderbird machines. The man is a genius; a world-class scientist. But he’s no superman. He couldn’t have built the vehicles all by himself, surely? He would have needed an army of technicians, engineers, electricians, metal workers, fabricators, mathematicians... and it’s not just the five Thunderbirds; there’s a multitude of specialist rescue vehicles like the Mole and the Firefly. And there are many others in Thunderbird 2’s enigmatic pods that seem to be purposely designed for single, unique rescue operations – such as the four platform cars that were used in one episode to help an ailing supersonic passenger plane –Fireflash - land safely.

Fireflash. A disaster waiting to happen. Several times.

How did International Rescue predict that vehicles like this would ever be needed or that such a disaster would occur? It’s almost as if they knew in advance. Come to think of it, Fireflash had a number of other near crashes that International Rescue prevented. But that would mean …

Thunderbird 2. Pod 5 contained the Tracy Island septic tank.

International Rescue causing disasters deliberately? Can it be true? I direct you back to the evidence before us … strangely unaccountable fortunes … a missing wife … and what happened to all of the workers who helped Brains bring his designs to life … it must have been carnage on project completion day.

That aside – who maintains, fuels, cleans and fixes the machines now? If it takes a small army to service a regular passenger jet, I don’t see how Brains could do it all alone. Perhaps the Tracy boys help? It would give them something to do.

Alcohol and hard drugs were often the Tracy boys' only available form of recreation. Thankfully, Jeff thought to label all of the launch bays for those confusing 'tired and emotional' mornings after.

Life can’t be easy for five strapping lads stuck on an island with their dad. Sorry, four; John Tracy seems to spend most of his life up in orbit on Thunderbird 5. The space station is International Rescue’s way of discovering who needs their help – its technology can monitor every frequency of radio and television transmission. Despite the series being set late in the 21st century, there’s never any mention of the internet but, presuming it exists, John would have access to every porn site on Earth. So at least he wouldn’t get bored.

But what of Scott, Virgil, Gordon and Alan? What do they do in their spare time? Yes, they have a pool – when it’s not folded away to let Thunderbird 1 take off – and there are sports facilities and a piano. But do they ever get out? Where do they meet ladies? Or men? The question must be asked. Alan seems to have a bit of a relationship with Tin Tin, daughter of the housekeeper Kyrano, but the other guys seem to be pretty celibate. I guess they could always pop over the mainland, wherever that is. I get the impression that it might be within striking distance of places like Bangkok and Hong Kong so maybe that’s where they get their kicks.

Who smells the nicest? Some estimates say that 1 in every 5 people is gay.

By the way, have you noticed how none of the Tracy boys look like each other? Was the late Lucille playing around? Or are they all actually adopted and have yet to find out? Now that would be a great episode. And how did Brains’ family react when he said that he was going to live on an island with five young single men?

I’m not sure that Brains is the genius he’s made out to be anyway. They say that genius and madness are kissing cousins but, in Brains’ case, I suspect that they’re full-on penetrative doggy position cousins. He’s gone the long way round with all of his designs. Why all this nonsense of sliding chutes, revolving doors and elevator platforms to get to the vehicles when all he needed to do was install a simple lift? Even my local municipal car park has managed that. And why have separate hangars for Thunderbirds 1 and 3? Why not launch both through the round house and save all the hassle of building hugely expensive and complex sliding swimming pools? Why didn’t he design Thunderbird 2 with a simple cargo bay and door like military transport aircraft? It would have been a lot simpler and certainly less time-consuming to simply load up a rescue vehicle and fly straight off instead of all of that tedious pod selection, loading, unloading and reloading business. This is the rescue business after all! Time is of the essence! Lives are at stake! And while we’re talking Thunderbird 2 … would it really have been so hard to make the runway wide enough for the plane to trundle down? I mean to say … folding palm trees? The man is a loony. I assume it’s meant to be some kind of cunning disguise to stop people thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s a wide runway … I wonder if they keep TB2 in there’? But, as we’ve said already, the whole International Rescue set up is so badly organised that everyone must know who they are anyway. You can’t tell me that no one has ever noticed the number of vehicles coming and going from Tracy Island. There is such a thing as radar you know. And air traffic control. Someone must have seen them from space? There are thousands of satellites up there in orbit. Hasn’t any of them spotted the huge clouds of toxic fumes generated by the Thunderbirds’ frequent launches? Isn’t Tracy Island on Google Earth?

If I had more time, I’d ask other questions such as where do they shop for food, clothing and cigarettes? Who made their ghastly uniforms? Why doesn’t The Hood – who has the ability to remotely control Kyrano by a form of hypnosis – simply get his half-brother to plant a bomb on the island? And why have an agent in England – the megaposh Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward – but none in any other countries? Particularly the dodgy ones? Why does everyone have enormous eyebrows and oddly non-expressive faces? And why can’t anyone walk through a doorway?

For sale: Small South Pacific Island. Riddled with underground chambers and tunnels. Would suit secret organisation or very large mole. Some rocket damage and radiation issues. Offers?

As I say, I was a huge fan of Thunderbirds as a child. And when my son was a kid in the early 1990s, he got hooked on the re-runs and I could enjoy the toys and comics all over again. But by then I’d lost the skill of seeing these programmes through a child’s eyes. And, in many ways, that was a huge shame.

It’s often said that modern child audiences are more sophisticated than we were. They don’t accept things at face value quite like my generation did back in 1960s and 70s. Kids are better informed these days, more worldly … and they can spot a plot-hole like it was painted day-glo pink. So while my childhood peers were happy to watch programmes like Stingray, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds into our mid-teens, these days the same shows appeal to a much younger audience; the 5-10 year olds who haven’t yet figured out just how daft it all is.

Watching Thunderbirds as an adult is a disappointment … in the same way that seeing Star Wars Episodes 1-3 was a disappointment. I was one of the first people in Cornwall to see the original Star Wars back in 1977. By sheer fluke, myself and my mates Huw Williams and Phil Gendall had travelled up to London for a week’s holiday staying with Huw’s big brother (a DJ). The trip was based around us visiting the Knebworth Festival to see bands like Brand X, Devo, Jefferson Starship, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and headlining act Genesis on their And then there were three tour. But for the rest of the week we had London to explore and, wandering into Leicester Square one fateful afternoon, we found Star Wars in its opening week and went to see it because it looked by far the most interesting film on offer. We were blown away. Completely gobsmacked. We went back home to Cornwall raving about this amazing film we’d seen called Space Battles or something like that. In those days, films didn’t immediately go on general country-wide release so our schoolfriends didn’t see it for at least a month after we did. It was a magical time. Yet, when I went to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the magic had all gone. There was no excitement (though I’ll admit that the pod race was damned good). The adults sat there stony-faced and hugely disappointed. The kids, meanwhile, loved it. They cheered and laughed and booed. They even loved Jar Jar Binks. In fact, for many kids, Jar Jar was their favourite character.

The Tracy family pay a visit to Lady Penelope at her stately pile in Kent. L to R - Parker, Penny, Alan, Scott, Jeff, Tin Tin, Gordon, Brains, Virgil, John. John! Who's manning the space station?! Ah, must be Kyrano. He never got to go anywhere. Or maybe Lady Creighton-Ward didn't care much for Johnny Foriegner in the house.

Sadly, as we get older, the things we loved as children stay with us purely for sentimental reasons. We love the shows we grew up with because they take us back to our childhoods in a way that re-makes and sequels never can. George Lucas made three Star Wars films for kids. Twenty years on, those kids had grown up and took their kids along to the cinema expecting Mr Lucas to thrill them all over again. But he didn’t. Lucas thrilled their kids. My kids absolutely loved Episodes 1, 2 and 3.

So, yes, I still love Thunderbirds despite the fact that it’s a load of old toot really. It made me happy and excited as a kid. It bolstered my interest in science and, just maybe, the positive role-models provided by the Tracy boys helped to make me a generally law-abiding and caring chap. It may even have pushed me into writing as, just a few years ago, I ended up working for Gerry Anderson himself … but that’s another story.

Watch Thunderbirds and enjoy it as I do. Yes, you need to suspend your disbelief and cynicism - this whole blog post is just a gentle, affectionate tease* – but it’s worth it because you’ll once again see it as you saw it years ago; a show designed for kids that has a strong moral message and some fantastic – if incredibly silly – machines.

Oop. Must rush. There’s another episode on in five minutes. I think it’s the one with the lost pyramid of Khamandides …

*For a not quite so gentle tease, see Team America: World Police. The whole thing is based on Thunderbirds and is a brilliant satire on 21st century politics. I love it. It's worth watching for the sex scene alone.

All images (c) copyright Gerry Anderson and TV21 Productions.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I second that devotion …

Following the content of my last post, I've been doing some digging around ... and it does seem that Star Wars fans don’t seem to be able to agree on a single collective noun. There are Jedi, Rebellion and Imperial Stormtrooper fangroups. And there’s a Star Wars Chicks website for female fans. It appears the Star Wars universe is just too big to contain within a single pronoun, although suggestions online include Skywalkers, Lucasites, Starwarsians, Jedians or Starwoids. Thank you too for your own excellent suggestions.

Fans and fandom. What a fascinating subject this is. What makes a person latch on to a particular team, band, film or TV show? At what point does a passing interest become a fixation and then an obsession? And there are obsessives out there, from the mildly eccentric who will pay a fortune to complete a set of trading cards, to the bonkers stalker who feels that they and the object of their obsession should 'be together'. Eek. I personally suspect it's a tribal thing. The world may be becoming a global village but we're still hard-wired to be small collectives of hunter-gatherers. We need to be in a gang to feel whole. It's no coincidence that, as society becomes more fragmented, kids are finding solace in banding together. It may also explain why - even though there are many female fans - collecting, hobbies and fandom do seem to be male dominated.

The word ‘fan’, when used in the sense of an ardent follower or devotee, is around 100 years old and has its origin in the word ‘fanatic’ which was originally the term for an orgiastic temple maniac or frenzied religious devotee. It's not a new phenomenon by any means. We tend to mostly associate the term - and the resulting derivative terms like fanclub, fansite, fanzine etc. - mostly with followers of cult TV and films. These are people who so enjoy a particular show or film that they watch the episodes over and over again, collect the merchandise and attend conventions. And yes, some of them like to dress up. I've never got to the dressing-up stage (although I wouldn't rule it out) because I've never been fixated to any degree on any one show or film. I suppose Doctor Who comes closest ... and my mum did once knit me a very long scarf. But that was a long time ago and I never wore it anywhere in public. But I do enjoy conventions. It's great to meet the stars and the people behind your favourite shows. And most of the people at conventions feel the same. It's that tribal business again; the feeling that you're with people who understand you. If you want to know what these conventions are like but are afraid to go in case to catch a dose of nerd flu, check out Bob Fischer's excellent new book Wiffle lever to full! Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy-Eyed Nostalgia at the Strangest Sci-Fi Conventions. It's a very funny, affectionate look at these events. I highly recommend it.

If nothing else, the book points out that not all fans are as odd as my rather cruel stereotyped cartoon (at the head of this post) suggests. Fandom is a broad church. Devoted fans of sports, rock stars, plays, hobbies and books also have their own rituals and rules ... and some of them dress up too. However, wearing your team colours to show your support for a particular football team is still seen is slightly less weird than dressing up as Plastic Man. I can't imagine why.

Fans sport a bewildering range of collective names, which is the proper subject of this post. I went looking for them and found hundreds. I started with rock and pop. Back in the 1980s, fans of neo-punk New Romantics Adam and the Ants were called Antpeople. ‘Sex music for Ant people!’ was their rallying cry. Aerosmith’s fan base are known as the Blue Army due to them usually dressing in denim. Kiss meanwhile has the Kiss Army. Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads and are immortalised in the lyrics of Don Henley's ‘Boys of Summer’ in which he sees a ‘Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac’.

But it is in the worlds of cult TV and film that we find the very best and most inventive names. Here are some of the ones that I've found:

Babylonians or Fivers or Lurkers (Babylon 5)
Batfans (Batman)
(Beauty and the Beast)
or Flans (Firefly and Serenity)
Buffistas or Scoobies or Watchers (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Digifans (Digimon)
Dwarfers or Smegheads (Red Dwarf)
Fang Gang or Team Angel (Angel)
Gateheads (Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis)
Holmesians/Sherlockians (Sherlock Holmes)
Leapers (Quantum Leap)
Lostralians, Lostaways, Losties (Lost)
Potterites or Potheads (Harry Potter)
Scapers (Farscape)
Fargaters (Farscape fans who've followed Ben Browder and Claudia Black over to Stargate SG 1)
Peak Freaks (Twin Peaks)
Questarians (Galaxy Quest)
Ringers (Lord of the Rings)
or Springfielders (The Simpsons)
(The Sarah Jane Adventures)
Superfans (Superman)
Transfans (Transformers)
Webheads (Spiderman)
(The West Wing)
Whosers (Whose Line Is It Anyway?)
Woodies or Jack-Offs(!) (Torchwood)
X-Philes (The X Files)
Xenites (Xena: Warrior Princess)

Star Trek fans are often called Trekkies (and if you ever get the chance to see the documentary film of the same name, do so. It's brilliant), but the true Trek fan calls him/her/itself a Trekker. One fan told me ‘Trekkies are just older Shatner groupies’.

Doctor Who fans are Whovians and have a magazine called the Whovian Times. Back in the 1970s and early 80s I was a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) and met Peter Davison on the set of Time Flight, and John Nathan-Turner - the then producer - on many occasions. No one called us Whovians back then so it must be a new-ish title.

But the award for best name goes to fans of 1960s cult series The Avengers. They’re apparently called Steedophiles. Their website is called Steedophilia. Oh dear.

Friday, August 22, 2008

They're fans Jim but not as we know it

Okay. So Star Trek fans are Trekkers (apparently, they prefer this to Trekkies) and Doctor Who fans are Whovians. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans are Scoobies, Firefly fans are Browncoats, Red Dwarf fans are Smegheads or Dwarfers and X-Files fans are X-Philes.

But is there any kind of collective term for Star Wars fans? I've not heard any one single answer. Yes, there are Jedi and Stormtroopers and Droids ... but considering that this is the biggest sci-fi franchise of them all, why doesn't there appear to be a cuddly, catchy, catchall nickname for the gazillions of Star Wars fans?

Ideas anyone? I mean sensible, non-derogatory or obscene ideas.

Anyone can say 'Sad bastards'.


Tsk. A couple of days ago, my blog was 500 posts old. And I was so busy that I didn't even notice. I didn't even send a card. 500! That's some kind of a pointless landmark surely?

So I'm having a day of belated smug self-congratulation. So much waffle has passed under the bridge since I started this monster in 2006. So many rants. So many bad puns. It's a day to celebrate and you are all hereby invited to my blog's virtual birthday party. Bring virtual hats and virtual beer. Oh, and here's a joke to set the mood.
Sorry. This is about as funny as I get. So if you're not laughing, it may turn out to be a crappy party. Please seek solace in spirits. The virtual beer is in the virtual kitchen. There's a pretend bottle opener in the imaginary second drawer down. Please don't stand on ceremony. Help yourselves.
Happy birthday blog!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Sharon by any other name would smell as sweet

Inventing the name of a character for your novel or script is always problematic. Names, whether we like it or not, conjure up images in our heads; choose the wrong name and you invite confusion in the minds of the readers. I realise that this is fundamentally wrong; that we should not assign attributes and character traits to certain names. Let's face it, it's verging on stereotyping of the kind that we've outlawed in the areas of race, colour, sex, faith, disability and sexual preference. But it's there, whether we like it or not. Kevin-ism and Tracey-ism is rife. Part of me - the anti-establishment, smash the system part of me - wants to buck the trend. I want a heroic figure called Colin or Dierdre or Gilbert or Doris who isn't a 'nerd who does well'. I want to create pathetic, cringeworthy characters called Jack, Jane, Harry and Raquel. I wonder what a prospective publisher would say if I submitted a book where all the names were 'wrong'?

When outgoing Dr Who producer Russell T Davies wanted to revive the series, he needed a new companion for the eponymous Time Lord. He cast Billie Piper and he called her Rose. Pretty. English. Colourful. Romantic. He didn't call her Sharon or Colleen or Vicky. They're all perfectly respectable, nice names. But they didn't foster the image that Davies wanted for the character. And when he created his omnisexual time agent - later to make John Barrowman a star in his own right - did he ever once consider calling him Captain Derek? No. It was Captain Jack Harkness, a good solid heroic name. Jack conjures up visions of lantern-jawed airmen and brave sea captains. The name Harkness is perfect too. It has a mix of sharp and jagged back-of-the-throat voiceless velar plosives with a soft and sexy sibilant flourish at the end. In saying his name, Jack is always left pouting.

Flint. Clay. Black. Stark. Fox. Kane. All good, solid, monosyllabic heroic names. Snape. Fowl. Hyde. Glore. Grimes. Coward. All baddies or weasels. D'arcy. Quentin. Fanshaw (sometimes extraordinarily spelled 'Featherstonehaugh'). Giles. Percy. Ffolkes. Fops to a man. Piggins. Bunter. Flashman. Wooster. Waddle. Bender. The comic relief.

J K Rowling didn't call her boy wizard Nigel Philpotts. No, it was Harry Potter. His slightly less-brave comedy sidekick was Ron Weasley (with the brilliant middle name of Bilius). Harry's posh, clever female chum is Hermione Granger. The names are perfect. And look how Rowling sums up the characteristics of each Hogwarts' school house just by their names: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. You'd know, without ever reading the books, which is the 'evil' house, which is the strong, which is the brave and which is the house for the bumbling and mediocre.

And how many times have you heard the name Carter used for heroic figures? Is it some race-memory thing of hardy men driving wildly about the country in charge of big, powerful horses? It's almost become a cliche now. There was Michael Caine's character in the seminal 1971 Britflick Get Carter. There's Samantha Carter in Stargate SG1. There was John Carter of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs' sword-wielding, maiden-snogging star of the Barsoom Chronicles. Alan Carter was the beefy Australian space pilot in Gerry Anderson's Space 1999. Edison Carter was the intrepid reporter who became computer-generated TV star Max Headroom. There was even an indie band called Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. And for us Brits, there will always be Dennis Waterman's put-upon detective sergeant in 1970s hard-hitting cop show The Sweeney. How many times did we hear his boss, Jack Regan (another great hero name) shout 'Carter!!' A few years ago, there was a one-off Channel 4 comedy special highlighting the comic talents of the brilliant Jane Horrocks. The predictably named Never mind the Horrocks never made it to a series, but there was a fantastic sketch starring the lady herself, Martin Clunes and David Haig about a roadside recovery company a bit like the AA, RAC or Green Flag. The sketch was all high drama as if we were watching a top cop show and I distinctly remember that Clunes' character - a 'maverick who didn't play by the book but got results' - was always summoned with a cry of 'Carter!'

So, like it or not, we do have to think about names when we write. And it will be a brave man or woman who calls their hero Gaye Bumbershoot or Farquhar Piles.*

How about you all out there? What are your favourite names?

Oh, and if you ever need inventive or bizarre names, just check your email junk folders. Spammers obviously use some kind of random name generator to send out their shite and this week I've had mail (mostly about increasing the size of my member) from such characters as Zvonimir Hobbs, Boot Ho-Ming, Pedro F Spencer, Boniface Helmke, Gay Gildersleeve (excellent name!), Tomislav Hartwiger, Kort Nina, Lincoln Spud and the inspired Biff Geronimo. I must write a story involving Biff Geronimo.

I'll leave you with a clip from Never mind the Horrocks in which Jane plays a 1950s BBC children's TV host. I laughed so hard a little bit of wee came out.

*I apologise if you are called Gaye Bumbershoot or Farquhar Piles. I'm sure that you are, in fact, very very brave. You must be to live with names like that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Devil is in the detail

At last! The long embargo is over. I can finally talk about Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

As you know, back in June I met director Guillermo del Toro and saw some early footage of the film. Then I went to see a press screening of the whole film about a month ago and loved pretty much every minute of it. So it's been hugely frustrating not to be able to talk about it until now. In fact, it's still frustrating. I saw the film so long ago that I'm not sure I can remember it well enough to review it. I'll have to go and see it again. But that will be no chore, I assure you.

Joel Meadows, who I saw it with, has written a pretty good review on his Walls and Bridges blog and I agree with pretty much everything he says. So, rather than repeat his words, I'd advise you to go and read his take on things. I will, however, say that the difference between this sequel and the first Hellboy film is the difference between Star Wars 5: The Empire strikes back and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace. One is mediocre, the other delicious (you know which is which ... bloody Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians ...). Hellboy was us watching del Toro with the Hollywood yoke around his neck. It meant the introduction of a pointless 'normal' character - Agent Myers (just in case we thickie cinema goers couldn't relate to all of the main characters being freaks), dull traditional monsters, and Abe Sapien's voice being provided by an uncredited 'celebrity' i.e. David Hyde Pierce, which meant that Abe never quite worked as a main character. Hellboy II, by comparison, is del Toro unchained and has all of the humour and inventiveness of his earlier work like Blade II, Mimic, and, most obviously, the Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth. Which brings me to what I will talk about - the design; the extraordinary design that lifts this film above the swamp of your everyday, traditional monster movie.

As I reported in an earlier post, del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola have got together an amazing coterie of some of the world's brightest and most original visionaries to create Hellboy's world. Chief among them is Wayne Barlowe whose several books about the denizens of Hell seem to have come to 3D life in this film. I've been a huge fan of his work for over 20 years. The production team have done an amazing job bringing his creations to the screen as you can see from the various pictures peppering this post.
There was also exceptional concept work by Francisco Ruiz Velasco, TyRuben Ellingson, Stephen Scott, Sergio Sandoval and others that must not be ignored. Thankfully then, there are two excellent art books that have come out to accompany the release of the film: The monsters of Hellboy II and Hellboy II: Art of the movie and both are stuffed full of their designs and sketches - and Barlowe's of course. The behind-the-scenes design is often of more interest to me than the finished film, so I love books like this and have a pretty good collection of them.

This Summer has seen some waddling turkeys (Indiana Jones 4, Clone Wars, Hulk) but some soaring eagles too. Iron Man was excellent, Hancock showed promise and The Dark Knight, of course, has simply ridden roughshod over everything else. But do give Hellboy II: The Golden Army a chance. Visually, it's stunning and by far the most inventive film you'll see this year. It has its faults, as most films do, but they are more than overshadowed by some great performances from Luke Goss, Doug Jones and Family Guy's Seth McFarlane as the voice of gaseous entity Dr Johan Krauss. And the Golden Army of the title is brilliantly brought to life with some stunning CG work.

Go and see it. You'll laugh. You'll gasp. You'll say 'What the Hell was that??!!'


Sorting through my photographs from the weekend I found a few more extraordinary vegetable animals made by primary school children from St Ewe. Aren't they brilliant?

More good news!

More good news indeed! Arran Gavin, son of my good friend Dinosaur Dave (creator of the Dinocafe), and his missus have just had a boucing baby boy called William. Well done! Dave's now a grandad like me. Ha ha ha ha!

And John Soanes and his lovely much better half Jules got married on Saturday. I wish them every joy. Sadly, Dawn and I couldn't be there as we couldn't get dog sitters ... so we took the dogs to Cornwall instead. I'm sure we missed a wonderful event but our best wishes go to them nonetheless. Mwah.

And haven't we done well at the Olympics? Third in the medal ratings after China and the USA! Not bad for a tiny little country like GB eh? Mind you, it does seem to me that we've been winning medals for hobbies rather than sports. Rowing. Yachting. Cycling. Swimming. Horse riding. Not pole vaulting or hurdles or gymnastics. It's a shame there wasn't a stamp collecting event. Or huge vegetable growing. We'd have won the Gold easily I reckon.

But I jest ... Well done everyone! You make me proud to be British.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tempting Fete

Well hello all! I'm back from the wilds of Cornwall ... although 'back' is probably my least favourite word at the moment as I've really put mine out. It happens periodically, the result of a serious injury I sustained 10 years ago. I was simply clearing the car of rubbish after carrying our bags etc. into the house this evening and [click!] it just went. I'm now in quite a bit of pain but luckily my office chair is pretty comfortable with good lumbar support so I thought I'd bung up a few pics. First off, I had to show that since my last visit, the 'welcome to Cornwall' signs have become bilingual. The signs now say Kernow a'gas dynnergh as well as the more familiar English greeting. How great is that? It's another boost for the return of the language.

It was an odd schizophrenic sort of weekend. The main reason for going was to spend a bit of time with my daughter and two granchildren and other members of my family. But we were also going to meet a lady who runs a small business making organic bath products as Dawn is interested in selling them. I shan't bore you with all the family shenanigans; suffice to say it was lovely to see everyone as always and my two grandnippers are as gorgeous as ever. Well, they would be wouldn't they?

The 'business' meeting took place at St Ewe, a tiny little village nestling among the china clay hills near St Austell. It's set in a lovely rolling landscape dominated by 'the Cornish alps', the huge piles of chalky-white waste that were dug out of the landscape at the height of the china clay industry's heyday. Throughout my childhood, these enormous hills were stark and white but clever management using alkaline-loving shrubs and a breed of hardy mountain goats to crop and dung the area has made the hills grow green. They've sprouted plantlife and have become a part of the landscape - possibly the first man-made range of hills in the UK. One of the pits from which all of this waste was dug now houses the multi-faceted geodesic domes of the world-famous Eden Project.

St Ewe was hosting its annual Village Fete and it was, in microscosm, everything that's wonderful, homespun, wildly eccentric and fabulously dotty about being British; even more so than the Steam Fair at Evesham I went to last weekend as it was so much smaller and wholly organised by the villagers. Upon entering the showgrounds, we were met by a man in a scary home-made white rabbit suit who reminded me of that evil creature in Donnie Darko. He made children cry just by looking at them. I think it was the tiny, black, expressionless eyes ...

Then began a series of events that included Celtic dancing, a display of falconry, sheepdogs at work, a parade of beautiful Shire Horses and the most hilarious Wild West Show I've ever witnessed. It would be wrong to take the Mickey too much because the actors obviously cared deeply about their product and did their utmost to put on a great show. But starting it off by telling us that their guns, though only chambered with blanks, could still 'shoot our faces off' was inspired. They then demonstrated this by setting up a balloon and firing at it. And missing. It popped on the second shot and the narrator then told us, 'Now imagine if that had been your face'. Brilliant. The show itself was a wonderfully amateurish but spirited drama that ended in multiple shootings, tragedy and death. I loved it.

I then cruelly amused myself by watching a one-legged seagull trying to eat a potato crisp (I think it was a prawn cocktail flavoured Skip if that helps to set the scene). It was a real example of triumph over adversity and I applaud the animal's patience and balance. I then left Dawn to her dealings and took a stroll around to look at the exhibits and sports on offer:

The dog show (including the waggliest tail category) ...

Hoisting the haybale - not as easy as it looks apparently ...

Pointing at chickens (although that may not have been an actual event), a coconut shy, Bending it like Beckham ... and yes! Tractors! Hoorah! You can never see enough tractors. Sadly we missed the Duck Race. I would have enjoyed that I know.

But no country show is complete without a vegetable competition and there were some mighty legumes on display. However, the most entertaining category was the children's section where they'd been asked to make animals. I saw turnip octopuses, butternut squash lions and tomato spiders. But I particularly loved the vegetable rabbit and courgette mole. I'm not sure if it's the mole that's aged three or the artist. All I do know is that it looked a bit reptilian for a mole. But good effort and excellent creativity!

I love village fetes like this. I can't resist them, hence the atrocious pun at the head of this post. Everyone was so warm and friendly and so much effort had been put into it. I'd rather visit a hundred of these shows than visit one corporately-owned theme park. If I am going to be fleeced of money, I'd much rather it goes into the village hall fund than some fat cat's pockets. It was a lovely morning and the views across the village to the countryside beyond just made it all the more enjoyable.

Leaving St Ewe, and as we were near the south coast, we dropped down past Carlyon Bay, Pentewan Sands and Porthpean. The coast road there offers some fantastic views that I uttery failed to record as it was by now raining and I was driving. Eventually the sun came out and we stopped off at Charlestown. It's a tiny little port, still operating as a working fishing village, but its main attraction is the Shipwreck and Heritage Museum. It's a living museum with several moored tall ships that you can wander around. We didn't do the tourist thing - mainly because it was packed and we have seen it all before - so we headed down to the beach and around the headland to a little cove where dogs are allowed. Most beaches are closed to dogs in the Summer time, for good reasons I guess, but it is a shame as they love the sea. Certainly once Buster and Willow got in there, we couldn't get them out.

The last month has seen some extraordinary weekends for me. I've camped and partied among the Brecon Beacons in Wales, I've seen more tractors than I care to think about in Worcestershire and I've chatted to Imperial Stormtroopers and more Wonder Women than you can shake a stick at in San Diego. So it was nice to enjoy a few relaxed and unhurried days in one of my favourite parts of the world (Note: Bias) and to catch up with family.

I came back home to the news that a major independent book trade catalogue for Christmas 2008 has been promoting my book so it looks as though it will definitely be front of store around the UK in a couple of months' time.

Hoorah to that!