Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ticket to writhe

Last week I got a notice of intended prosection for speeding in the post. Yup, a speeding ticket. I wasn't speeding in the post, you understand. I was on a road. And I was caught bang to rights by a mobile camera doing 38mph in a 30mph zone. Me, not the camera obviously. I have no excuses. And poor sentence construction.

Yes, I could plead that I thought it was a 40mph zone. And I wouldn't be lying. I've driven the stretch of road in question dozens of times and I really did think there was a 40mph limit. The fact that I was doing 38mph supports this; I'm a pretty law-abiding driver and most car speedometers are uncallibrated and usually show 2-4 mph higher than your actual speed (check it against your Satnav). But, again, no excuses. There's signage there and I didn't see it or, if I did, I didn't pay attention. None of that, however, is the galling part of this story.

Because of my good driving record and clean licence - clean since I was 17 in 1978 - Thames Valley Police have offered me the option to attend a Speed Awareness Training Course instead of paying a fine and having three points on my spotless licence. The course costs more than the £60 fine I'd otherwise have to pay but (a) it means no penalty points and (b) my car insurance will stay at its current comfortably affordable level. But that still isn't the galling part of this story. No, the thought that is currently keeping me awake at night is having to attend a 4-5 hour course that will explain in nauseating detail the dangers of speeding.

In January I retired from a 30 year career as a cop in which I drove fast cars on a daily basis, chased bad guys and attended every advanced driving course they ever offered me. I didn't once crash my police car and, I'm pleased to report, nor have I ever been involved in an accident in 31 years of owning a full licence. I've seen countless road traffic accidents. I've pulled injured people, bodies and parts of bodies from the wreckage of automobiles. I've had people die in my arms. I know first hand how dangerous driving can be and how that danger is exacerbated by speeding. I am therefore dreading the prospect of spending the better part of the day being lectured by someone who's probably been on this planet for fewer years than I wore the uniform.

Sigh.

Still, that's the price I have to pay to keep my clean licence and, I must reiterate again, I am the bad guy here. I broke the law. I have to pay for that mistake.

At least it may go some way to showing that, despite accusations in certain tabloids and some public perceptions, the police don't 'look after their own'. Cops run the same risks as everyone else if they break the law. Every police officer you see driving on blue lights and sirens to get to a call is doing so on their own driving licence - there is no 'police driving licence'. If you commit an offence - even in a marked police car - the points go on your personal licence. Now, police officers are allowed to break speed limits and other rules of the road when on an emergency call. But break those same laws when not on a 999 call, you're up shite creek as several of my ex-colleagues found out when they tripped a speed camera in their pandas. They got the fine and the points, not the police.

I should be thankful for my course I guess but, truth is, I can taste the sucked eggs already.

What every self-respecting WAG is sporting during this World Cup


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why I sound like an arse at times

I've now been 'retired' from the police for six months and am thoroughly enjoying my new career as an author and illustrator. My world has changed from one of regular commuting, public service budgets and police canteens, to working from home, posh business lunches and hanging around in green rooms. The people I mix with at work have changed too; I no longer rub shoulders with coppers, councillors, community advocates and civil servants. Now it's publishers, panel show pundits, producers and performers.

On Tuesday I bumped into an old work colleague and, after the usual pleasantries, we asked each other what we'd been up to. When it came to my turn, I found myself subjected to a barrage of sarcastic 'Oooo, get you' type comments. After a while, I got a bit miffed with it all and asked him why he was doing it. 'You've been name-dropping like it's going out of fashion', he said. Although his words stung a bit, I could see his point.

In my final year of being a police officer, I found myself straddling two worlds; by day I’d be walking around some sink estate in central London trying to get warring factions to work together to improve the area. By night I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Philip Pullman and Alan Davies. It all sounds glamorous and sexy but people are just people, regardless of their media profile, publicity blurb or outrageous riders. As a cop I often came into contact with celebrities and, believe me, they were usually more daunted by the meeting than I was. It's a terrible truth but even Angelina Jolie has to poo.

But here's the thing ... the protocols don’t exist for someone like me who isn’t famous to talk about being with famous people without sounding like a braggard, boaster, arse-licker or fan boy. How do you drop famous people's names into conversation without sounding like some desperate ligger? You see, it's okay for Neil Gaiman to talk about having a few beers with Jonathan Ross as they're both 'talent'. But if I say I've had a few beers with Bill Bailey, I just sound like someone seeking to feel important by proxy, or, at worst, some kind of weird stalker. Consequently, whenever I told my police colleages about things happening in the other half of my life, they gave me a hard time for name dropping.

Let me give you an example. How would you tell this story if you were me?

Last week I attended two recordings for the new 'H' series of QI, which will be screened in the Autumn. I got to meet people like Ross Noble, Ruby Wax and Sean Lock, which was great. The second of the two recordings was particualrly exciting for me as some of my artwork was being used on the show on the screens behind the panelists. Stephen Fry kindly told the audience and, presumably the millions of viewers who will watch it later this year (if it makes the edit), that the artwork was by me. I was thrilled. And I was already pretty thrilled as I was sitting next to Mark Carwardine, naturalist and co-author (with Douglas Adams) of my favourite book of all time, Last chance to see. Later, I joined the cast and crew (and elves) at the end of series wrap party where I enjoyed happy banter and lots of wine. Then, 12 hours later, I was at Television Centre to appear on an episode - also being shown later in the year - of Dave Gorman's BBC series Genius. Dave and his people had asked me to take part in a game within the show where I would be cross-examined by Tim Minchin and Alexei Sayle ...

You see what I mean? The vocabulary doesn't exist to allow me to tell these kinds of stories without sounding like ten types of twat. And while we're on the subject of vocabularies ...

What do you call a celebrity who isn't really famous? On Tuesday I was walking through Soho between meetings and passed by Olivia Coleman and Jason Flemyng. Can you place them? She’s the lady in all the Mitchell and Webb sketches. She was also the monster in Matt Smith’s debut episode of Doctor Who and was the nudist in the flm Confetti. Jason Flemyng, meanwhile, was in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and, most recently, took the lead action man role in ITV’s sci fi series Primeval. Both Olivia and Jason are, in the modern sense, celebrities. But is that a correct use of the word? What's the alternative?

There has been much written about the cult of celebrity and the debasing of the term. ‘Celebrity’ no longer means what it once did; these days it is defined by the number of column inches and/or minutes of media exposure. There was a time, not so long ago, when a celebrity needed to earn their status. They had to have a corpus of work against which to contrast their odd behaviour and outrageous antics (‘He’s a dickhead … but, by jingo, he’s written some corking songs’). Now all that’s needed is the antics.

For me, celebrity is being known and respected for what you have given to the world. Celebrity is being so famous that you can be identified by a single name: Pacino. Elton. Madonna, Britney. DeNiro. Bowie. The aforementioned Stephen Fry doesn’t even need that, just a loud nasal ‘Meh!’ sound. If you have to use both names and people still need reminding of who you are, that’s not really celebrity is it? Sorry Olivia and Jason but what do we call you? I don’t want to use the term 'minor celebrity’ as it’s derogatory. It’s not your fault that the bar has been reset so low in recent years. And you're not alone; there are endless hordes of people who fall into this category. They're the sort of people you know and like but can’t necessarily recall their names ... Her off that show. Him who played that bloke.

Maybe we should just stick to their main business; rock guitarist, comedian, actor, pop singer, although that doesn’t cover the various WAGS and wannabes out there who feature heavily in Heat and such rags but who actually haven’t done anything of any note or worth. Katie Price is a moderately attractive and surgically enhanced Barbie Doll who is as famous as famous can be. But what does she actually do? She did go the jungle and eat the parts of animals that other animals leave behind (No animal eats the kangaroo’s anus. The Outback is littered with the things). And she did appear in a home sex tape that 'leaked' onto the internet. But is that all that's needed to be a celebrity? And then there's poor old Jade Goody who had celebrity quite literally dumped into her pudgy uncomprehending hands simply for getting naked on Big Brother and for being as thick as a whale omelette.

Kids today, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, quite often say rich, or famous, or a celebrity. That's a substantial jump from being an 'unknown' that used to be bridged by talent, skill, intelligence, bravery and lots of hard work. Maybe if we ditch the celebrity tag and only apply it where it’s properly deserved, we’ll see kids return to wanting to be pop stars, football players or TV presenters.
And then, perhaps, I won't sound like such a name-dropping oik when I describe my otherwise unremarkable working life.

Monday, June 14, 2010

All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand ... but Dettol might

I saw an advert for this product (below) today. It was on between cartoons on a children's TV channel and was obviously aimed specifically at parents. Just in case it's not clear from the advert, it's an anti-bacterial handwash dispenser that you don't have to touch with your filthy, germ-laden hands. It's yet another step up the ladder of paranoia towards creating a nation of Obsessive Compulsives.
Now, I'll be the first to say that there's nothing wrong with a sensible hygiene regime. It can save lives. While researching my new book, I discovered that Hospital Acquired Infections (HAIs) account for a large number of deaths – 99,000 per year in the USA alone (making it the fourth most common cause of death nationally) – but, as many academic papers and research projects have shown, 30-50% of HAIs are entirely preventable and may be eliminated by applying tougher hygiene rules. The renowned Mayo Clinic recently published the results of a study in which they showed that ‘consistent daily cleaning of all high-touch surfaces with a spore-killing bleach disinfectant wipe’ substantially reduced the incidence of superbug Clostridium difficile infection at a hospital in Minnesota. ‘The goal was to reduce hospital-acquired C. difficile infection rates in two of our highest-incidence units by 30%,’ explains lead investigator Robert Orenstein. ‘Our data show we far exceeded that. When the study concluded near the end of last year, one unit had gone 137 days without a hospital-acquired C. difficile infection.’*

There's no denying that a possible 99,000 deaths per year in the USA could be prevented simply by using handwipes on 'high-touch surfaces' such as light switches, computer keyboards etc. However, we mustn't let these kinds of figures scare us too much. Remember that people in hospitals tend to be ill. They are often frail, recovering post-op and hugely prone to infection. From what I've read, C. difficile and other so-called 'superbugs' are rarely fatal or even terribly harmful to people in good health and with strong immune systems.

Which brings me to the point of this post really. There is already concern that our immune systems are not as effective as they once were. Some claim that the ease with which we can get prescription antibiotics is making our natural defences weaker. Other studies tend to indicate that because we don't always finish a full course of antibiotics (we stop when we feel better), the bugs are building up a resistance. Others claim that we don't give our systems a chance to build because we're always cleaning ourselves. When my generation, and those that came before, were kids we were not constantly followed by mums and dads with packets of handwipes. We got muddy, we ate sweets off the floor, drank from hosepipes and rivers and we handled stuff that was clearly nasty. Not one of my schoolfriends died from an infection despite endless grazes, cuts and bone breaks. People of my grandparents' generation pissed in a pot under the bed and bathed once a week. They survived a war on a restricted diet without topping up with 'friendly gut bacteria'. They wiped their arses and ate their fish and chips using newspapers (though, hopefully, not the same newspapers).

I brought my children up to understand the need to be clean. But I also let them enjoy their lives without the cloying restraints of constant germ-phobia. They're all happy, healthy adults now who are rarely ill. I realise that's hardly proof of my hypothesis but it's enough for me. My grandchildren are living with me temporarily and I've had them out rooting in the garden, planting vegetables and handling worms, snails, centipedes and woodlice. They love it. And that will be my gift to them; a future free of constant hand-washing, disinfecting and paranoia.

As a footnote, another TV advert has just informed me that there are more germs on my kitchen surfaces and cutting boards than on a toilet seat. Really? Even if it's true, I've not heard of many people getting ill from contact with toilet seats - something we all do several times a day - so maybe my kitchen isn't the death trap they claim it is?

Oh, and if Domestos kills 99% of all known germs dead ... how strong are the 1% of germs that survive? And what about the unknown germs?

Pass the handwipes when you've finished ...

*Mayo Research: Intervention drops hospital infection rate by a third. 19th March 2010. www.mayoclinic.org

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bone 37: The tale of a dinosaur's tail

I visited the Natural History Museum in London on Thursday. It was the first time I'd been there in ages. And as I walked up the steps and into the main hall, I found myself face to face with the toothy grin of the most famous dinosaur on Earth, Dippy the Diplodocus.

'Dippy', I should explain, is the nickname of one the museum's oldest and most impressive residents. It's the massive black skeleton of a Diplodocus that dominates the main hall. Dippy isn't actually a true fossil; he's a casting made from plaster, coal dust and paint and he's been at the NHM since May 12th 1905. He's also a bit of a jigsaw having been made from parts of five unrelated Diplodocus skeletons. The original, if you can call it that, is in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Other copies are displayed all over Europe and South America making Dippy probably the most visited dinosaur skeleton in history.


It's quite humbling to walk along the length of this creature - all 105 feet of it - and realise that it was not, by any measure, the largest of the dinosaurs. Some of its cousins, such as the extraordinary Amphicoelias, may have been close to twice as long. Just to give you some idea, the Diplodocus is the green dino in this diagram. Amphicoelias is the red. Compare the size of the 6 feet tall human at bottom left.

As I get to the tail I usually stop and look up and count the bones starting from the tip. The bones here are small, the size and shape of cocktail sausages, but they soon start to get bigger. By the time we pass Bone 30, they are the thickness of a grown man's arm. And then we reach Bone 37. It's a very special bone for me. And that's because I made it. Here it is:

For almost all of his afterlife, Dippy was displayed with his long tail dragging along the ground. Look in any dinosaur book published prior to around 1985 and that's what you'll see. When I was a kid, the dinosaur books told us that these huge sauropods couldn't even support their own body weight and lived in lakes. But that's the nature of studying dinosaurs; all the fossils we have represent just a tiny, tiny window on their world. Therefore each new discovery sheds some new light. In just the past couple of decades, we've seen them change from lumbering, cold-blooded beasts into dynamic predators and herders, and we've found enough evidence to state that modern birds are dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction event 65,000,000 years ago. We've also brought the sauropods out of the swamps and lakes and lifted their tails off the ground. Dippy needed to do the same.

And so, in 1993, the NHM decided to raise Dippy's tail; no mean feat considering how many plaster bones were involved. In fact, the weight of the tail made it impossible and so a very good friend of mine, model maker and film special effects expert John Coppinger (website here), was given the job of moulding and recasting every single one in lightweight fibreglass. John was, for many years, a model maker at the museum before moving into film. He was the man who sculpted Jabba the Hutt for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and most of the creatures in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and the Harry Potter films. This, however, was a massive undertaking. I'm not sure exactly how many bones there were involved but they all had to be moulded, cast, fettled, painted and 'weathered' to match the rest of the existing skeleton. The largest bones, nearest the hips, were as tall as me. John was happy to accept some help from friends and colleagues, myself included. And that's how Bone 37 came to be. Here's a picture of another helper, Will, with just some of the smaller bones.

This press clipping below shows John (right) and the late and much missed Roy Hale (Left) mounting the new bones onto a rod that, to this day still supports the tail along with specially designed stand and a cable suspended from the high roof.

It was a very special project to be involved in and I look back on it with nothing but fond memories despite the resin fumes and endless repetition. And to help me to remember I have this most precious thing:

Yes, it's the original 105 year old Bone 37. The originals were so old and so fragile that many didn't survive the moulding process. The museum staff were prepared for that; it was a price they knew they'd have to pay. But at least the new fibreglass bones would be exact replicas and the moulds would allow future castings to be taken. Bone 37 did lose a chunk off one of its processes but survived its ordeal pretty well. And to my delight, the museum staff said that I could keep it. It's one of my proudest, if dullest, possessions.

If I ever decide to do Mastermind, the closest thing I'll ever have to a specialist subject is dinosaurs. I love those beautiful great brutes, always have done and always will. As a kid I was stunned, shocked and captivated by Dippy the Diplodocus. He inspired a life long interest in me. So it's nice to think that, in some small, tiny, glass-reinforced plastic way, I've helped Dippy to go on inspiring people into the 21st century.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Was I or wasn't I?

Guess what TV show I appeared on last night? I'll make you wait until the Autumn to find out what my idea was and how it fared ... all I'll say is that Alexei Sayle asked me if I was an alcoholic and Tim Minchin asked if I was psychotic.

That should keep you guessing.

Oh, and we spotted this rather well known car at BBC TV Centre. I couldn't resist a pose with fellow ex-cop Chris Hale (Twitter: @ewarthale). I'm sad to admit that we're both old enough to have actually been pounding the beat during the years in which Ashes to Ashes was set.

We've both met a few Gene Hunts in our time.

Monday, June 07, 2010

'What do you think of it so far?' 'Average!'

So ... what do you think of the current season of Doctor Who then? As we're now nearing the end, I thought I'd take a quick gander back at what we've had so far and share my thoughts. Of course, please do feel free to disagree with every word I say and to call me a monstrous arse.

If I had to choose a single word to describe the series so far what would it be? I'm sorry to say that it would probably be bland. There hasn't been a single episode where I've walked away saying 'Wow!' Or even 'Goodness!' That happened quite a bit during Ecclestone's and Tennant's tenancies. Think of The Empty Child or Blink! or Fathers Day or Last of the Time Lords or Midnight. I delighted in the relationships between the Doctor, Rose, Martha and Donna, Mickey and Jackie, Captain Jack and Grandad Wilf. There was a sparkle to the show and Saturday nights without a dollop of Doctor were all the sadder for it. But this series hasn't quite done it for me. I don't know if it's the scripts, the direction or the editing but there hasn't been any one episode that's grabbed me by the nads. It's all been very samey and lacking in pace and excitement. When I finish watching an episode of Who, I want to punch the air and say 'Oh yeah!'. Instead, I've been finding myself saying 'So what?' far too often. The episodes merge into each other in my head.

That said, I've been really enjoying Matt Smith's take on the Doctor and there have been some stand-out episodes; Steven Moffat's pilot, The Eleventh Hour, was wonderfully scripted and I enjoyed the sparkling dialogue of Toby Whithouse's Vampires of Venice. I didn't mind Richard Curtis's Vincent and the Doctor either although, again, it suffered from that blandness that's plagued the series. But the high point so far was the two-parter that reunited the Doctor with River Song and the Angels. Two excellent episodes. I look forward to meeting Ms Song again in a few weeks when the Pandorica opens ...

Episode by episode, here's my humble opinion. I've already covered The Eleventh Hour so we'll skip that and go straight on to The Beast Below. I liked the overall dystopian view of future Britain although I couldn't quite figure out how it slotted into the same timeline as New Earth or Gridlock or even The Long Game. The nasty puppet heads were never really explained nor why there was at least one human hybrid but I enjoyed Queen Liz. Interesting hints that the Doctor has been a bit of a naughty boy in the past, at least with the first Queen Elizabeth. Odd that if knowledge of this has passed from monarch to monarch, Victoria knew nothing about him in Tooth and Claw. And didn't she also form Torchwood to keep the Doctor in check?

Victory of the Daleks was dire. I love Mark Gatiss' writing normally - his Lucifer Box books are hilarious - but this was not great. How in the name of Holy Hannah did the android manage to build and equip Spitfires with space flight capability in that time frame? How did the pilots navigate or even cope with zero gravity? How did propeller-driven aircraft fly in a vacuum? Shoddy, sloppy writing and a seriously disappointing episode. And it had those Daleks. Its only saving grace was the Dalek saying 'Would you care for some tea?' Hilarious.

The two-part Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels episodes were easily the best episodes so far and there were some fantastic moments in there. I was particularly impressed with the gravity-based escape at the end of episode one, the atmospheric and scary forest scenes and Octavian's death; great acting by Iain Glen and Matt Smith. It was obvious that this was the story Steven Moffat looked forward to writing and it shows throughout. I'm still a bit confused as to why the crack was closed by the angels falling in and in Amy's childhood bedroom but still appears elsewhere. If it's a crack stretching across all of time surely closing it in one place closes it everywhere else? And as for the seduction scene? The BBC really needs to make up its mind about who the show is aimed at. If it's proper drama, fine with me. Let's get some adult dialogue, intelligent plots and great drama. But the series seems so much more aimed at kids these days - hence the endless Blue Peter competition and toy franchise tie-ins - in which case the scene was completely wrong. This wasn't just a kiss remember; this was Amy Pond on a bed saying 'Come and probe me Mr Spaceman'.

I enjoyed Vampires of Venice although I was disappointed to see that Toby Whithouse plumped yet again for an 'aliens disguised as humans plot' as he did in School reunion and in his Torchwood episode Greeks bearing gifts. It might also have been nice to see the man behind Being Human moving away from vampires too. That said, beautifully shot, great script and nicely acted. Some dodgy CGI in the finale but I can excuse that. This isn't Hollywood.

Amy's Choice had some nice ideas and Simon Nye's script was corking at times. The overall plot - that the Doctor's darker side becomes personified because of psychic pollen - was neat and the episode was a nice break from mainstream fight the baddie alien stories.

Next came the two-part stinker that was The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. I really, really hated this. I throughly disliked the new Silurians, I thought the plot was cliche-ridden and uninteresting, Nia Roberts' Ambrose was the most hateful character imaginable and what a waste of a two-parter cliffhanger: 'Ooh look it's a city.' Yawn. The resolution was feeble and only Rory's tragic death - or erasure - provided any thrill at all. 3/10. Must try harder.

Richard Curtis' Vincent and the Doctor was, by all accounts, charming and enjoyable. It was the first episode where Amy seemed to come alive as a real character rather than a long-legged staring machine. Curtis knows how to write for female characters and he did it well. The pathos injected by the blind alien was handled well. I'll have to watch it again but I didn't quite get why Vincent could see the beast but the Doctor couldn't. I gather it was because of van Gogh's hinted-at synaesthesia. As I say, I'll watch it again. It was okay.

Overall, the series has been ... okay. And I'm judging it within the context of the entire canon. I've been a Doctor Who fan ever since Hartnell had his first cantakerous spat with Ian and Barbera. I can honestly say that I have seen every episode, even those that no longer exist because (a) I saw them at first broadcast or (b) I've read the books or watched the clever reconstructions. I love the show with a passion. I've been there through its highs and its lows. I even got within a gnat's todger of writing an episode back in the 1980s when John Nathan-Turner accepted one of my scripts. I was thrilled beyond measure when the series returned and it just seemed to get better and better. But this series should have been so much better. Tennant was always going to be a hard act to follow and Matt Smith needed big stories, great aliens and wonderful cliffhangers. Instead we've had stories that seem to peter out in the end, an assistant who tries to get him into bed after a couple of episodes, rubbish aliens and a lot of pointless celebrity cameos. Did the appearances of Meera Syal or Bill Nighy really add that much to their stories? Would we have had better Silurians if they'd spent the money on their costumes instead? There's been a general sense of cautious, nervous insecurity about the series. The fact that William Hartnell's photo has turned up in three episodes says to me that there's a quiet worry among the producers, as if they feel the need to remind us that we're watching Doctor Who. Come on Steven ... we'll know it's Doctor Who when it starts acting like it.

And then there's the design. I have some very real issues here. The new TARDIS interior simply doesn't do it for me. Yes I realise that, in part, it's based on an 11 year old Blue Peter competition winner's drawing but the whole thing looks like it was built for a school fete out of car boot purchases. The TARDIS interior from McGann onwards (actually, I guess from McCoy's last appearance onwards) had a grandeur to it. The new interior looks childish and glam and much more appropriate for a children's TV audience such as that for The Sarah Jane Adventures or the appalling new Disney K9 adventures. It's just too eclectic and some of the props are massively wanky including what looks like a pinball machine and a brake fluid bottle. But my real problem is with the aliens which have, almost without exception, been dreadful. The giant eyeballs and viper eel in episode one, the spacewhale in episode two, those awful humanoid Silurians ... there's a lack of originality and inspiration in all of them. I was particularly disappointed by the Silurians. Yes, the originals may have been men in bad rubber suits that could barely see where they were going and bumped into the scenery ... but they looked alien and they exuded emotionless menace. They didn't have the same morality or values as humans and that came across. But these new ones? All too human just like the Graske, Father Dougal the cat, the cactus people in The End of Time and that dwarfy bloke on the Titanic. At least Vincent van Gogh's alien was a little more adventurous. But my biggest scoop of ire is saved for those new Daleks. What the Hell were they thinking? I assume it's all about selling toys because I can't see why the redesign was needed otherwise. The Daleks have subtly changed over the years and the most recent incarnations have looked wonderful. But these new full-bodied (okay fat-arsed), multi-coloured death machines are just laughably awful. Someone on Twitter summed it up beautifully by saying that they were like VW Beetles; colourful, chunky, plastic-looking and nowhere near as classy as the old ones. I really truly fucking hate them. There, I've said it.

There are three episodes to go so perhaps I'm being unfair although the fact that James Corden is the main focus of the next one worries me greatly (I have nightmares about Peter Kay all over again). And next year promises much with Neil Gaiman, among others, putting in an episode. But Doctor Who is so much more than celebrity guest stars and superstar writers. It's about Saturday nights being glued to the telly, it's about what Douglas Adams called 'excitement and adventure and really wild things'. I know that the BBC is cutting budgets all over the shop but big budget doesn't equate to great story. Blink! was made on a shoestring compared to McGann's TV movie or Kylie's Titanic adventure.
The show has the ultimate format; you can go anywhere in time and space and you can change the lead actors - usually unknowns - whenever you want. So, please Mr Moffat, use it to give us great telly. The show is still head and shoulders above much TV drama but it can be, and has been, so much better. I still love the show but I want to love it more.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Odds and Sods

I heard the first cuckoo last weekend. I was up on top of a hill in a place caled Brill. Pardon the unintended bad poetry but there was also a windmill. On the hill. In Brill. It's a delightful little village and I had a delightful little pint or two in The Pheasant pub. Nice view of the windmill from the beer garden. Apparently you can see five counties too. What a thrill. On a hill etc.

It was the week that saw the final recording of The Museum of Curiosity too and what a great line-up to finish off the series. We had the brilliantly funny Sarah Millican, American neuroscientist and author David Eagleman (who wrote Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives, one of this year's most extraordinary books), and the legend that is Neil Gaiman.

Next week sees me at two recordings of QI - including the one in which my artwork is being used - and a recording of Dave Gorman's Genius at the BBC. Oh, and I've just received my pass to this event in London in October. TAM (The Amazing Meeting) is one of the most amazing events of the year for sceptics like me and this year the list of speakers is extraordinary. Just look ...


An astounding collection of the most brilliant people. I can't wait. Get in there quick ... tickets sell like hot cakes every year.

Meanwhile, it's back to writing the book whenever I can. Right. Where's that notepad ...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

My advice? Get a thick skin

The most common question I get asked - I don't do fiction much so am spared the 'Where do you get your ideas from?' conversations - is 'How did you get published?' I've had a glut of these recently and I'm happy to answer that question and share what I know, such as it is. So, here we go.

First things first ... you'll need an agent. I'm sorry but it's pretty much a necessity these days. Such is the instability within the industry that almost nothing gets looked at by publishers unless (a) you're a celeb, (b) you have an agent, or (c) you have some gimmick, such as a huge internet presence, or (d) excellent sales of a self-published title, or (d) you win a new writing competition. Therefore, your pitch should be aimed at getting an agent to look at it. That means using every underhand and imaginative trick at your disposal. How else to get them to read your submission?

What did I do? I cheekily sought out some celebrity endorsements for my first book. I sent synopses and sample chapters to people I respected and asked them to comment. Many didn't answer. Some did. That was enough to make my submission stand out from the pile (my agent gets in excess of 80-150 manuscripts per week). I also played the 'unusual spelling of a name' card and changed Stephen to the Cornish spelling of Stevyn. As I say, this is just to grab the agents' eye - you can always revert to your own name once you have a contract. A good title helps hugely too.

Your pitch should be solely aimed at getting an agent interested and not, at this time, to sell the book so you don't need to do a huge document. A synopsis and a couple of sample chapters should do. But accompanying it should be a letter explaining who you are, why you've written the book, why it should be on the bookshelves and why the agency should take you on. This is tough to do; you're selling yourself and you have to do it well. Singing our own praises is something most of us find uncomfortable. It can be hard finding a middle point between underselling ourselves and appearing cocky. The aim of your letter is intrigue them enough to invite you in for interview. Once you get that, you can hopefully win them over with your charm and knowledge. Remember, your book is likely to change a little as it goes through the editorial process. What you are selling to an agent is not your manuscript but its author - YOU. Think about it ... an agent earns a living by syphoning off 15% of what you earn; consequently they want you to have a suvccessful career and not to be some one book wonder. They hitch their wagons to people they believe in.

If an agent takes you on, the next thing is to write a good proposal for them to punt around potential publishers. Your agent will help with this. As my agent explained to me, proposals sell books and, in the case of non-fiction, 95% of books sell on a good proposal. The basic structure should be along the following lines:

1) THE BIG IDEA – (BANG – upbeat, general)

2-6 will overlap and you can play around with the order, so long as you face the questions head-on

2) WHY A BOOK ON SAID IDEA (you might say, who cares?), WHY NOW? WHY YOU (your passion for said subject)?

3) HOW WILL THE BOOK BE WRITTEN/BE TOLD/ITS ARCHITECTURE ?

4) WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE – other books etc?

5) CRIT OF SIMILAR BOOKS/BOOKS IN THE SAME AREA – WHAT THEY DO AND DON’T DO?

6) IS THERE A MARKET? WHO MIGHT THE READER BE AND WHAT WILL MAKE THEM PICK THIS UP?

7) WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT YOURS?

8) SAMPLE INTRO

9) CHAPTER BY CHAPTER BREAKDOWN

The proposal for my next book is a mind-buggering 36 pages long, almost a book in itself, but my agent likes it and is convinced it will sell the book to a publisher.

So that's it really. I hope that's of some help. Of course, you may have written the Next Big Thing and could bypass all of this rigmarole. That's the way life goes sometimes. But for most of you, be prepared for rejection. It hurts like a kick in the cods - especially when the rejection slip gives you no indication why. It will simply be that, for some reason, you didn't catch their eye. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, take a deep breath, review your submission and send it out again. Some old-fashioned agents say that it's 'bad form' to submit to more than one agent at a time. Arse to that. Take the scattergun approach and send it to as many as you like. I sent out 12 and got interest from three. I chose the agent who, I felt, was most in tune with me and what I want to write. If you do get a constructive and personalised rejection slip, take the advice where it's given, be prepared to be flexible and send it out again. Meanwhile, write the best that you possibly can, keep writing and keep hitting the agents. One will crack eventually. It took me a few years but I got there in the end.

You will too.