Sunday, 31 January 2010

Fantasmagoriana



It is alchemy that is Victor Frankenstein's first passion. He stumbles upon a book by the famous German alchemist Cornelius Agrippa and is hooked. From there he goes on to read Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. There is no doubt at all that he was fascinated by the occult.

The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought. . .

At university his professors dismiss these alchemists and he turns his attention towards 'natural philosophy' or the study of the natural world. But even though he uses physics and chemistry and mathematics, his urges is the same. He wants to discover the secret of life and to defeat death. The search for an elixir of life was another mainstay of alchemical research.

Victor does make reference to studying anatomy, but this seems to be only because he needs to understand the human form as a part of his work. Even then, he says that he thought about making a lower life form but a kind of arrogance made him go all out for creating a human. Interestingly in James Whale's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein's mentor, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), shows off some homuncili he's created.

Although the Shelleys were very interested in science - Mary had been taken by her father William Godwin to lectures by Humphrey Davy when she was fourteen and Percy Shelley had experimented with electricity while at university - they were also fascinated by the Gothic and the macabre.

The ghost story-writing competition in the summer of 1816 that gave birth to Frankenstein took place in Lord Byron's rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva - the Villa Diodati. Byron, Shelley and John Polidori (Byron's travelling companion and doctor) held forth whilst Mary and her step-sister sister Claire sat apart listening. Electrical storms encouraged talk of galvanism but it also added to a charged atmosphere in which they read German ghost stories (collected under the title Fantasmagoriana) and frightened the wits out of each other. The Gothic novelist 'Monk' Lewis also visited that summer.

They were all very young, with mad, bad and dangerous to know Byron the oldest at twenty-eight. Shelley was twenty-four, Polidori twenty-one, Claire (who was pregnant with Byron's child) eighteen and Mary nineteen.

When Byron read an extract from Coleridge's Christabel, Percy Shelley had a fit and ran from the room screaming and had to be calmed by Polidori. That rainy summer of 1816 is also depicted at the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein, with Elsa Lanchester who plays the creature's mate, also playing Mary in conversation with Shelley and Byron.


Part science-fiction (a genre that arguably had never exited before) and part Gothic horror, Frankenstein also has a lot of Mary Shelley's life in it. The settings are almost all places that Mary herself visited. The novel was begun near Geneva where Victor's family lives. There is a fateful meeting with the creature on the Mer de Glace glacier at Chamonix - a place Mary visited that July. When Shelley had eloped to Europe with the then sixteen year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (and fifteen year-old Claire) in 1814, they had sailed back down the Rhine - a journey that Victor and Henry Clerval take on their way to England. As they floated down the Rhine, Mary and Shelley passed underneath Castle Frankenstein. The location is not used in the book, but the name seems to have caught Mary's ear. Castle Frankenstein actually accommodated an alchemist - Johann Conrad Dippel - but stories of his playing with cadavers seem to be a case of fiction influencing fact. Victor's character seems to have been superimposed onto Dippel's.

Death plays a big part in the book and in Mary's life. The nineteen year-old author also had more than her fair share of tragedy in her life. Mary's first child was premature and died shortly after. Between writing Frankenstein in 1816 and publication in January 1818, Percy's first wife Harriet and Mary's half-sister Fanny, both committed suicide. And things only got worse. Between the first publication and the second in 1831, Percy drowned at sea and Mary suffered the deaths of her baby daughter Clara and her young son William.

Authors never choose character names by accident - Victor is nicely ironic - and it seems strange that Mary chose the name William for the baby brother of Victor Frankenstein whom the monster murders. It certainly seemed a cruel twist of fate that her own son would subsequently die. It was also her father's name.

What would Freud have to say about all that I wonder?

Friday, 29 January 2010

Could you say that again?

One of the things that I find most interesting about blogging, is the idea that what I write might connect with someone on the other side of the planet.

Unfortunately, being a lazy Englishman, I speak no other language fluently and have only a fleeting understanding of a couple of European languages.

A few of you have left comments in other languages, and though they may be complimentary or fascinating, they may for all I know be horribly offensive. I'm afraid that I cannot accept comments that are not in English.

Sorry.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The dissection room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials


So how did Victor Frankenstein make his monster? It is not at all clear from the novel. For although Victor speaks a great deal about charnel houses and dissection rooms, it seems more that Victor is using these places to study the effects of decay. He is trying to understand life by studying death.

Victor discovers how to impart life - or at least animation - but he needed 'frame for the reception of it'. He wants to build something that will be a receptacle for the life-force he will create and he decides that it will be easier to work on a giant. He makes his creature eight feet tall.

It is true that Victor talks of the challenge involved in all those 'fibres, muscles and veins' but again it is not clear whether he is sewing these together or starting from scratch. Mary actually says, Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured. . .

Manufacturing component parts? That sounds very twenty-first century. Growing organs is a very recent development, but Mary Shelley seems to foresee it. Of course it might be possible that he was stitching these 'manufactured' parts together, but there is no mention of stitches in her description of the creature.

Interestingly enough, Frankenstein was filmed as early as 1910, by the Edison company. In this version - and it's on YouTube - the monster is seen to grow from nothing. Considering its age, it is actually a pretty creepy special effect (achieved, so it appears, by burning an effigy and running the film backwards). What is more, this process seems to be a magical one.


The fact is, it was alchemy that was Victor Frankenstein's first passion when he went to university. Later he becomes fascinated with mathematics and particularly chemistry - perhaps what we might now call biochemistry. He was not a surgeon or a doctor.

One of the works said to preoccupy some alchemists was the production of an homunculus: a human grown in the laboratory. But homunculi means 'little human' and Frankenstein's creature was anything but small. But is this what he was up to? Was he creating a human from scratch?

Certainly when he comes to work on the creature's mate, he appears to have no access to graveyards or charnel houses at all. Why?

Because he is in the wilds or Orkney.





Tuesday, 26 January 2010

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life


Tales of Terror from the Black Ship up for Salford Children's Book Award and the awards ceremony is on Friday at the Lowry Centre in Salford. Sadly I'm not going to be able to be there to applaud the winner. I'm head to head with Sally Nicholls again, as I was with the North-East Book Award. The other shortlisted authors are Michelle Magorian, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Emma Clayton and Elizabeth laird.

So - back to Frankenstein. Everybody knows how the creature was brought to life don't they. Frankenstein uses electricity. That's what those bolts in the monster's neck are for. Well - perhaps. . .

Except that Mary Shelley does not say how the creature was brought to life. She neatly sidesteps this issue by explaining - as Victor Frankenstein - that this knowledge is too dangerous to pass on. We all assume it must be electricity because of the great 'It's alive!' scene in James Whale's movie. Mary's monster does not look like Karloff's monster - there are no bolts.

Whales did not completely invent this notion. Although the novel does not mention electricity, the introduction to the 1831 edition does. Perhaps, writes Mary, a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

A little later, when she is talking about the nightmare that triggered the novel, she says that in her dream she saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.

So there is some foundation for Whales' lightning bolt and strange machinery. Luigi Galvani had made a dead frog's leg jump as though alive. In 1805, Giovanni Aldini wowed London with 're-animation' experiments as public performances, running electricity through the corpses or hanged men until they twitched and jerked and grimaced.

But Whales also had the example of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent movie, Metropolis. The scene where Maria is transformed into the robot is very similar to the scene in Frankenstein. Although there had always been a fear of science, the twentieth century is when the idea of the 'mad scientist' really seems to strike a chord.

But what about the business of how the creature is made - before it is 'endued with vital warmth'. Again ask almost anyone and they will tell you that it was made from pieces of corpses stitched together.

But was he?

Sunday, 24 January 2010

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils


I was interested to read today - or was it yesterday - that Danny Boyle is to return to the theatre. Not only that, but he is to direct an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I have spoken at length about my fascination with Frankenstein, but I'm going to go on about it some more. Hey - it's my blog and you can't stop me.

As I have said before, I did not become aware of Frankenstein through Mary Shelley's book. Frankenstein - or more properly Frankenstein's 'monster' - is now a firmly established myth and the image of the creature is as readily identifiable as Santa Claus or Batman.

But of course, that image has little or nothing to do with Mary Shelley's book. The image of Frankenstein we all know so well, is all down to the 1931 movie by James Whale, the performance of Boris Karloff and the skill of the great Universal make-up artist, Jack Pierce.


That image became even more fixed in the public consciousness than Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Before I ever saw James Whale's wonderful movie, I had see Fred Gwynne hamming it up as Herman Munster. The infinitely superior Addam's Family featured Lurch, the enormous growling butler who owed a large dept to Karloff.


The sequels to Frankenstein all kept the brand going, although by the time he was meeting Abbott and Costello, he had filled out a little and was now being played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Comedy spoofs, cartoons, comics - they all embraced this new ogre until he has become one of the cast of favourite Halloween characters and nothing more.


But as undeniably powerful as the Whale/Karloff creature was, it had almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley's vision of the monster:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they are set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

I think Karloff does have a beautiful face (but that might just be me) and his creature does have straight black lips, but Mary's description is of a classicly proportioned Byronic giant who should have been handsome if it wasn't for the fact the he does not look alive. The description is of an animated corpse and arguably much more chilling and disturbing.

But of course there is an even bigger difference. Mary Shelley's creature can talk. The shuffling mute of the movies is the biggest departure from the book, because it robs the creature of the opportunity to describe his feelings and attempt to explain his actions. Although Karloff does give a sympathetic performance, the creature of the book is an altogether different being.

So, Shelley's monster creature doesn't look or behave like the monster of the movies. But at least we all clear about how he was made and brought to life. . .

Or are we?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Handwriting

I had a meeting with Lisa Kirkham today - or my design guru, as I will now call her. We had a chat in the upstairs of Cafe Nero in town. I say chat - it actually lasted for hours. My fault, I suspect.

I was after some advice from Lisa concerning fonts and font creation. She brought along her laptop and showed me the lovely font she has designed and ran me through the process. It did not sound simple.

After a long discussion we both concluded that it may actually be safer and more straightforward to hand draw the lettering for my graphic novel, at least in the sort term. More about this when I have something to show.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The dead of winter

Yet more news of foreign editions today as Bloomsbury got in touch to tell me that Taiwan is to publish Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. They have already published Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

And I found this when I was doing a Google trawl to see if I could come up with any new foreign edition cover artwork. It is the Bloomsbury Children's Book catalogue for the Frankfurt book fair last year.

This is the image that I did for the cover of my new novel The Dead of Winter (out in October).

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Spanish ships


I had some more good news today on the foreign editions front. Uli Rushby-Smith at the rights department is obviously working overtime. There is to be a Spanish edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, published by Ediciones SM (who also published Uncle Montague in Spain).

I should also have said that the Czech publisher for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is Argo.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Font


Leaving to one side the business of what the drawings are going to look like, the next thing I need to think about in my graphic novel sample is the text and what it will look like.

It is a surprisingly rigid tradition in comics, that the text is handwritten - and even if it is not actually handwritten, it has the appearance of handwriting. The advent of computers has meant that there is software (Fontlab for instance) that allows handwritten fonts to be designed and typed using a keyboard, saving time and increasing consistency. This consistency of course is what some people don't like about such fonts. But when either technique is used well, it is difficult to tell them apart.

Personally, I am all for anything that is going to make the process easier to control. I'm not a typographer or a calligrapher. I am hoping that my friend Lisa Kirkham is going to come to my assistance here, by taking me on a tour of the relevant programs. I may have to invest in Adobe Illustrator for example.

Of course I still - most importantly of all - have to produce a compelling story or stories.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

He shoots, he scores


My son's team won 9-0 today and, more importantly, my son scored. I particularly liked the way he wrong-footed everyone by slicing the ball at the last minute and sending it over the goalie's head into the top corner.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Onkel Montagues schauer geschichten


I heard yesterday that there is to be a Czech edition of Uncle Montague, which is great news. I also discovered that this German edition is out next month, published by Bloomsbury in Germany.

Friday, 15 January 2010

3X3 or 2X3?


I had a long and very useful conversation with Paul Nash at Bloomsbury about the format of my graphic novel proposal for Bloomsbury. As I have already mentioned, we are all agreed that the book should be standard B format paperback or slightly larger, so that it can sit alongside my other books if and when it is published.

A black and white, paperback-sized graphic novel is hardly a new idea. The Japanese produce copious amounts of such books. Horror, to my mind, is what they do best with books like Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom series and Junji Ito's bizarre and disturbing Uzumaki. Nobody does creepy schoolgirls like the Japanese.

But this is only part of the formatting issue with a graphic novel. The next thing is the layout of the panels on the page. There is no set rule to this and some graphic novels have a very loose structure in terms of the panels. In the best of these, the design of the pages plays a vital part in the pacing and atmosphere of the story.

Having said that, some of my favourite graphic novels of recent years have employed a rigid grid of panels which harks back to the old days of comics. What you lose in visual fireworks, you gain in readability and a kind of neutral film strip feel.

Alan Moore's classic Watchmen is one of these. Dave Gibbons' drawings are quite conventional (though very accomplished in their way) and this solid approach suits the complexity of Moore's story. There is a lot of story to get through.


Watchmen has a basic nine panel template - three across by three down. Sometimes panels are joined together to form wider, taller or just plain bigger, frames. But behind them all is that 3X3 grid.


This 3X3 grid is also employed to great effect in David Muzzucchelli's and Paul Karasik's brilliant adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass. The film strip idea is used more overtly here, with passages that do read as sequences of stills from a movie.


Frederik Peeters' Blue Pills is another beautifully drawn graphic novel, and, like City of Glass, is black and white. Peeters uses a six panel grid of two across and three down. This allows the individual panels to be larger on the page, which is useful not just for the drawings, but also for allowing vital room for the text.

I think I shall probably try a similar 2X3 panel grid myself.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Short and pithy

My new book proposal is off to the acquisition meeting at Bloomsbury today. As usual I have produced a synopsis and a couple of chapters. I've shared them with my agent, Philippa, who made a couple of excellent suggestions for changes. Philippa also supplied a lot of enthusiasm, which at this stage is vital.

I understand the need for a synopsis. And not just because editors need something tangible to take to acquisitions meetings. I've had a couple of ideas that have died at this stage as I realised that I could not actually make the story work, or if I could, that it was turning into a book I did not want to write. But I still don't like doing them.

I try to make them as short (and hopefully pithy) as I can: one side of A4 is my goal and it would never be more than two. I once listened to a radio programme about a museum of writers' manuscripts. There was an outline from Henry James for one of his novels that was in itself the length of a novella. And what's more it was rejected.

A synopsis is a wire framework. It gives an idea of the shape and the size and subject, but does not cut off avenues for development as the book progresses. You have to stay engaged as a writer. You need to surprise yourself from time to time. Or at least I do.

Having said that, a good synopsis will also act a little like the blurb on the back of a book (although it should never be just that). It needs to help the editor excite interest in the marketing and publicity people. Every good book has it's own USP, whether or not you chose to think in those commercial terms. The synopsis needs to nail it.

It also needs, ideally, to carry a flavour of the book with it. Tony Ross, who taught me illustration, told me once that you should always try and do roughs that give a clear idea of how you would do the finished piece. It is obvious that they need to show what you intend to draw, but less obvious perhaps that doing a feathery pencil rough, when you actually intend to deliver a stark lino cut is a bit confusing.

It was good advice for illustration, and it makes sense for writers too.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Give me some space

I went to the studio for the first time in ages yesterday. I have never really developed a satisfactory working routine since I moved to Cambridge. Everything was much more simple in our house in Norfolk. I walked my son to school and then I retired to my large well-lit studio which had an area for drawing and an area for writing.

Now I have a small office at home which also doubles as the house office when my son needs to do computer-based homework and the computer itself doubles as a family computer now. My unreliable laptop was bought with the idea of the studio becoming a writing base as well, but that too has its problems.

Whilst sharing a studio for art purposes is OK (though I have to say I'm not a person who needs people around to work well), trying to write with other people talking on the phone or to each other is near impossible. Writers do need a space of their own, wherever that may be. Sometimes that space has to be just a kind of personal, internalised space with an imaginary force field (or headphones) to block the world out.

In any case, I was on my own in the studio and concentration was not a problem - though the cold certainly was. Having said that I wasn't in the studio to write. I was trying to decide on the format for the comic book/graphic novel sample I intend to do.

I am starting from the base of the book being black and white and standard paperback-sized or a little larger. One of the problems with graphic novels in this country is that booksellers don't really know what to do with them and so it depends on the enthusiasms of individual managers or specialist bookshops. Either way it is hard to sell in big numbers.

I would love to do a full colour graphic novel, but I think a novel-sized, black and white, well-priced book will stand a better chance of finding its way onto the shelves in the main part of the bookshop (if we have any bookshops by then).

More about this later. . .

Monday, 11 January 2010

Fans

There has been a fairly forthright debate among some of the writers I know on Facebook about the etiquette of inviting other writers to join your fan page. I should point out at this point that I do not have a fan page. I'm too scared that I would set one up and no one would join. But the rules of this new form of social interaction are still in a state of flux.

I saw Mark Walden at the Bloomsbury party just before Christmas and he was making the very good point that he has friends (real friends) and family as friends on his Facebook page and he has a fan page for, well, fans.

Some of the writers today were making the point that they need to promote themselves. Publishers and agents expect it of us. Ironically, the more in need of publicity and marketing you are, the less budget will usually be allocated to you. New writers and those yet to make a name for themselves need to find ways of building a following. It's hard. There are a lot of books out there and few are reviewed.

But I wonder whether Facebook really works in that way. I think it is a very good tool for networking (something I am not very good at). I've 'met' some interesting people there and I've been able to contact some people I admire. It has been very useful in my attempts to gather together authors and illustrators for my Cumbria appeal.

But I can't see it as much use - for me - anyway, as a tool for gaining publicity or readers.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Road movie


I've been reading good things about movie of The Road. Can it really be as good as the critics say? I hope so.

I had a look at the trailer on YouTube ages ago after having a chat with Tony Bradman who - like me - is a big fan of the book. The trailer seemed wrong to me in so many ways. It seemed to be making a thriller out of a book that was so much deeper than that. All of the events the trailer showed were in the book, but they just did not read like that - or not to me anyway.

The music was a big problem. The road describes an ash-covered lifeless world where the few remaining humans provide the only sound and movement. Incidental music seemed weirdly inappropriate.

I am also a little troubled by the idea of having a narrator. A narrator in a movie is almost an admission that the story cannot effectively be told in film alone. There must be good movies with narrators - though I can't think of one right now - but surely the actors and action should speak for themselves. I think I read that Viggo Mortensen was against the idea.

Cormac McCarthy approved it, but maybe that was simply a writer's ego getting in the way. After all, it allows more of his words through.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Chick lit

It is good to sit down and have a proper look at what I'm hoping to achieve in the next few months. I have a love/hate relationship with this time of the year. I love it because it feels like a bit of a rebirth: there is that lovely feeling of setting out on a journey full of hope and goodwill. I hate it because I always wake up one day in June thinking, what - where the hell did the first half of the year go and who is that creepy old man in the mirror?

So - what am I up to? Well - I am at the synopsis and first few chapter stage of a new book. New books are a little like new years in that they are bursting with possibilities. Unlike new years, I don't think I ever lose excitement with a book. If I did, I would probably stop and write something else.

That's not to say that I don't ever get exasperated or frustrated or overcome with despair. It is just that I feel committed to a book and to the struggle of writing it. I rather like the struggle to be honest.

Regulars to my blog - you know who you are bless you - may remember that I planned to write a contemporary horror novel with an urban setting. Well, that plan went a little bit off piste and the book I am now hoping to place with Bloomsbury is a in fact set in the Regency period - 1818 to be precise. I was worried that having promised Bloomsbury a contemporary novel they might be a bit troubled by the change. But of course publishers want the best book you have, regardless of what you might have said six months before.

The fact is you have to go with the thing that begs to be written and this particular chick was the one that cheeped the loudest (albeit in a rather hoarse and scary voice). I want to write this book more than I have wanted to write anything for quite some time.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Cumbria update

I must apologise for not blogging about the Cumbria Book Appeal project for a while. There really did not seem to be much to say after I had announced the postponement, but I do want to impress on everyone that a) it is still very much on, and b) we still want as many people as possible to get on board.

Several authors and illustrators have joined since I last did a list and some people have been in touch, eager to send the books they have. Can I ask everyone to continue to be patient and hang on to those books. They are definitely wanted and they will get to Cumbria, I promise. But not quite yet.

I have not been in touch with anyone from the council yet as the snow has simply added to everyone's problems and there seems no point in even trying to discuss logistics yet. When the snow has gone and everything has calmed down, we will begin to talk about a date and so on.

In the meantime I am getting together a small number of people that I can run ideas past. I have never wanted this to be about me and a small committee will hopefully mean that we come up with the best possible solutions. The important thing here is that the books everyone donates are delivered in the most effective way.

More news when I have it.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Feedback


The snow that has been falling all over Britain has finally arrived in Cambridge, though so far there hasn't been very much. There is enough to make my son's return bike ride from school a little treacherous. He only went back today and already I can see that we may have more snow overnight and the school may close. My wife is worried that all the textile designs she has been doing over Christmas may amount to nothing if her agents can't make it to the Heimtex trade fair in Frankfurt.

I have been having a clear out in my office ahead of getting down to work properly, now that my son is back at school. My desk had become covered in all kinds of junk - ditto the floor and chairs and shelves. I am slowly working my way through whilst importing some more music into my iTunes library now that I have twice the memory on my lovely new blue iPod nano. I have just been enjoying the massive wall of feedback that opens Anthrax by the Gang of Four. Excellent.

Very sorry to read Martin Salisbury's obituary for Susan Einzig in the Guardian. I have raved many times about Philippa Pearce's wonderful Tom's Midnight Garden. It is a brilliant book and it was blessed with an illustrator who caught the mood of the novel perfectly.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

But you're an absolute idiot, Ginger

There was another very sharp frost this morning. The house has been fairly warm over the Christmas break, but the heating does not seem to be able to quite cope with this fall in temperature.

We have been working our way through the DVD collection of Jeeves and Wooster - the old series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. It holds up pretty well. My son loves it. The thing that hits one straight away is that it should not have been a surprise that Hugh Laurie went on to be a very successful actor (he's very good). Stephen Fry on the other hand - though practically perfect in every way - seems to think that all there is to playing Jeeves is arching an eyebrow, pursing his lips and saying, 'Indeeeeeed, sir.'

We watched the last one and it was hilarious. Bertie Wooster's old chum Ginger announces that he is to stand as Conservative candidate in the upcoming by-election.

Bertie: 'No!'
Ginger: 'I am!'
Bertie: 'But you're an absolute idiot, Ginger,'
Ginger: 'I know!'

Priceless.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Cortez the killer


My son and I went to see the Moctezuma - yes, Moctezuma - exhibition at the British Museum today. It was fascinating. It still seems utterly incredible that Cortes and 500 men could take over a whole country and destroy the Aztec culture but they did. A display comparing the Aztec weapon of choice - what looks like a wooden chopping board with flint teeth - and Spanish armour and weapons (which included muskets) did not really explain it. It's a sad and complicated story and the exhibition left us both wanting to know more.

The artifacts are amazing. The exhibition was not too busy so we were able to have a good clear, long look at things. The bas relief carving was great. I've always loved the Aztec sense of design - the way they fill the space. The look of the Eagle and Jaguar warriors is amazing too.

Of course, I have also always - like all boys - been fascinated by the human sacrifice aspect of Aztec culture: the ripping out of human hearts to feed the sun. Death is a massive presence throughout, with stone skulls at every turn. The exhibition was full of reference to this act - drawings and sculptures, knives for removing hearts, elaborately carved stone vessels for holding hearts.

Turquoise and gold are the overwhelming colours of the show - but blood red is the colour that really dominates.

After the exhibition we had lunch and then wandered down to Soho for a haircut and then to Covent Garden. We went in the Tintin shop in Floral street and my son ogled the lovely but horribly expensive collection of cars and figures. Then we went a couple of doors down and I ogled the clothes in Paul Smith. We agreed that if he could not spend £50 on a a model of Tintin and Captain Haddock riding camels, then I could not really justify spending £30 on some stripy socks for my iPod.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Must be Santa

My son and I watched a Top of the Pops Christmas special on BBC iPlayer. It was a collection of Christmas song ranging from the sublime (A Fairy Tale of New York) to the rest. Actually that's unfair. Slade and Wizzard's Christmas songs have almost taken on the mantle of secular carols, as much part of the British Christmas as turkey and the winter vomiting bug.

The other gem was mad old Robert Zimmerman's video for Must Be Santa from his rather surprising Christmas album. As Mark Radcliffe pointed out in the commentary, the famously tangle-haired Bob seems to have received hair-straighteners for Christmas.

I am an unashamed fan of Dylan and I love the fact that he is determined not to be his own tribute band. If you see him as a dour and humourless old curmudgeon - then this is the video for you.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

A lukewarm chiller

I was looking forward to the BBC's adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. After all, costume drama is a strength of the BBC. But I was disappointed. And I can't have been the only one. It apparently gathered 4.8 million viewers eager for a chill at Christmas.

I had been a little concerned when I read that the setting for the book had been moved from the 1890s to the 1920s. The story seemed so fixed in that buttoned-up world of Victorian England, that the shift seemed counter-productive. Most of the atmosphere of the book rests on that claustrophobic, repressed, straight-laced backdrop.

The reason for the move seemed to be about giving a kind of spurious added dimension to Quint's behaviour - that the house was devoid of men (because of the war), and to allow for the addition on a wholly unnecessary madhouse scene at the beginning and end. The subtlety of James was obviously considered to confusing for the likes of us. Much better for the governess to be unequivocally sex-starved and for Quint to be a serial rapist. It's clearer innit?

But I would have forgiven them such clunky devices if they provided us with even one single solitary scary moment. But no. They had clearly watched The Others but learned nothing about how to induce a chill. It's like they expended all their effort on the additions and forgot it was meant to be creepy. The ghosts even had a ghostly glow around them like something from a 1960s children's TV programme - so that we knew they were ghosts. And inevitably we had to see Quint having sex. We have to be shown everything now because we are too stupid to have things alluded to.

It made me quite cross. Not just because I write chillers myself and am naturally a bit of ghost story geek, but because the BBC used to do so much better with so much less. The production values of The Turn of the Screw were far higher than their adaptation of Dickens' The Signalman, say, from the 70s and yet The Signalman was far, far better. 4.8 million viewers hungry for a good-old fashioned ghost story at Christmas. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, get yourself a copy of The Innocents directed by Jack Clayton and see Deborah Kerr showing how it's done.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year


Happy New Year everyone. I hope it's a happy, healthy and successful year for us all (however you personally define 'happiness', 'health' and 'success', of course). It would be nice if people could stop trying to kill anyone who doesn't agree with their world view, but I suppose that would be too much to ask.

We took a walk round Wandlebury Ring in the Gog Magog hills just outside Cambridge. The car park was packed but it was still nice to get out in the fresh air for a while. It was very cold and clear with a low sun that barely reached inside the woods.

We watched the second part of Doctor Who and the rather confused and mawkish farewell from David Tennant. Russel T Davies (who is also leaving) is credited with reviving the fortunes of Doctor Who, and that must be true to a large extent, but it is surely David Tennant who must have played the biggest part (so to speak). I actually think it is the writing (and this last one was a case in point) that most often lets the programme down. The plots bear very little analysis and are often unintentionally hilarious - I loved the idea that The Doctor and The Master seemed to have had these names since birth. We never got to hear what the other Time Lords were called: The Plumber, The Dimwit etc?

It is the acting that saves it. David Tennant managed to add both gravitas and humour to a role that was often very thinly written. The even more cartoonish role of The Master was brought to life by John Simm. He was superb and clearly had a great time making it.