Thursday, November 17, 2011

Royal Holloway Classics Day

A few months ago, the Principal of Royal Holloway came up with a wheeze for the Classics Department - amalgamate it with History and lose six of its posts. I was amazed. This was not some minor department with a few staff too busy concentrating on their own navels to produce decent work. This was one of the best-respected departments in the country. The department's success had been recognised in more benign days by the promotion of a number of its staff to chairs.

I was lucky enough to teach a few courses there for a year in 1998-99, and it was the best experience in my teaching life up to that point. At the end of the year one student listed me as one of the best teachers they'd had - I was tremendously honoured, because I knew how good the other staff were there, and to be so considered was extremely flattering.

The College management has since modified considerably their proposals (see http://supportclassicsatrhul.wordpress.com/). But they still need to be reminded how vital the subject is. Tomorrow, there's a Classics day at the college. It kicks off at 10, and has lectures, quizzes, and a version of Aristophanes' Clouds. Unfortunately, I'm off to Germany, so I can't go. But I'll be thinking of my friends and former colleagues.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World. A Science Fiction Foundation Conference in 2013

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World. A Science Fiction Foundation Conference

At The Foresight Centre, University of Liverpool

Guests of Honour/Plenary Speakers: Edith Hall, Nick Lowe, and Catherynne M. Valente

Website: http://www.sf-foundation.org/conference

Call for papers

The culture of the Classical world continues to shape that of the modern West. Those studying the Fantastika (science fiction, fantasy and horror) know that it has many of its roots in the literature of the Graeco-Roman world (Homer’s Odyssey, Lucian’s True History). At the same time, scholars of Classical Reception are increasingly investigating all aspects of popular culture, and have begun looking at science fiction. However, scholars of the one are not often enough in contact with scholars of the other. This conference aims to bridge the divide, and provide a forum in which SF and Classical Reception scholars can meet and exchange ideas.

We invite proposals for papers (20 minutes plus discussion) or themed panels of three or four papers from a wide range of disciplines (including Science Fiction, Classical Reception and Literature), from academics, students, fans, and anyone else interested, on any aspect of the interaction between the Classical world of Greece and Rome and science fiction, fantasy and horror. We are looking for papers on Classical elements in modern (post-1800) examples of the Fantastika, and on science fictional or fantastic elements in Classical literature. We are particularly interested in papers addressing literary science fiction or fantasy, where we feel investigations of the interaction with the ancient world are relatively rare. But we also welcome papers on film, television, radio, comics, games, or fan culture.

Please send proposals to conferences@sf-foundation.org, to arrive by 30 September 2012. Paper proposals should be no more than 300 words. Themed panels should also include an introduction to the panel, of no more than 300 words. Please include the name of the author/panel convener, and contact details.

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space is organised by the Science Fiction Foundation, with the co- operation of the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool.

Tony Keen
Chair, 2013 Science Fiction Foundation Conference

Monday, September 12, 2011

Relaunch of FA Online

One of the things that occupied what turned out to be the last months on Martin Skidmore's life was FA Online, a relaunch of a (or as Martin had it, the) critical comics magazine that Martin had edited in the 1980s. Martin didn't do this simply as a vanity project - he had enough outlets for his writing about comics through Freaky Trigger and his LiveJournal (and if they were Japanese, his Japanese Arts site). But Martin felt that there was a need for a good comics review site to exist, so set about creating it.

Martin could have done something wonderful with FA Online, had he been given the chance. His friends can never do the same, but at least we can stop the site ossifying, and keep it growing as a tribute to Martin's memory - and also because we think there's a need for a good comics review stuff. Which is how Will Morgan, Andrew Moreton and (very much in a junior role) myself have come together as the new editorial team. We've just done the relaunch this evening, with new reviews and features, including an article on Captain America and a review of the new Cap movie by me.

We're also keen to reproduce some of Martin's older comics journalism, back before most of this was done online, and the first of these is up, a treatment of the 'Viet Blues' story of Alack Sinner.

So go read, comment, and if you're so inclined, write for us.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A science fiction bibliography

I've recently been appointed as an external supervisor for a graduate student working on Greek mythology and science fiction novels. I'm very excited by the project, and having my first graduate student since 1998 (I'd long assumed I wouldn't get any more). As part of the initial work for my student, I prepared a core bibliography of sf academic/critical works, which I thought I would share with you all.

I wouldn't necessarily expect any serious sf academic to have read all of these books cover to cover - I certainly haven't. But I would expect any Ph.D. proposal to make reference to at least two or three of them, and I would hope that a book-length work would make reference to most of them.

They are:

Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York: Athenaeum, 1986)
Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)
John Clute, Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Harold Wood: Beccon Publications, 2011)
John Clute, David Langford and Graham Sleight (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (third online edition due soon - see http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/; the second edition, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, London: Orbit, 1993, corrected paperback 1999, is also worth consulting)
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008)
Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Roger Luckhurst, Science Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)
Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
David Seed, Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
David Seed (ed), A Companion to Science Fiction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)

The following works are not perhaps so essential - some of them are primarily about fantasy, but have useful insights for sf, others are on subsidiary areas of sf. But they do come highly recommended (and not just by me):

Michael Ashley, Out of this World: Science Fiction, but not as we know it (London: British Library, 2011)
John Clute and John Grant (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (London: Orbit, 1997)
Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011 [not yet published])
Paul Kincaid, A Very British Genre: A Short History of British Science Fiction and Fantasy (London: British Science Fiction Association, 1995)
Paul Kincaid, What it Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (Harold Wood: Beccon Publications, 2008)
Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007)
Farah Mendlesohn, The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009)

I'm open to comments here. Are there any obvious texts I've missed? I won't invite you to argue that there are works I've included that shouldn't be on this list, because I think they all should be.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Martin Skidmore

My friend Martin Skidmore died last night, at the ridiculously young age of 52. It wasn't unexpected - he'd been diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, and with each examination it became clearer and clearer how aggressive his cancer was. I saw him in hospital yesterday afternoon - he was asleep, and deep down I knew he wasn't going to wake up.

I'd known Martin, at first through correspondence, the best part of twenty-five years. We weren't best friends - we didn't move enough in the same circles for that - but we did like each other and respected each other's opinions. We didn't always agree - he loved the Monkees and didn't love the Beatles, and whilst I do love the Monkees, I love the Beatles more. But Martin's opinions were always backed up by a deep knowledge of whatever it was he was talking about. He was one of the best-read people I knew, but 'best read' doesn't cover it, as his breadth of experience covered music, art, film and television, as well as book and comics (and football and wrestling).

Martin loved pop culture in all its forms, but never uncritically. I knew him through his love of comics; I first became aware of him when he edited his fanzine Worlds Collide. He then became editor of Fantasy Advertiser, at the time the main comics fanzine in the UK. Over the years he was in charge, he transformed the magazine, applying new standards of professionalism in terms of production, hosting a letter column that was more than happy to wander off the subject of comics when it was warranted, and encourging reviews that cut deep below surface impressions. Of course, this met some resistance, and there were some who considered that FA (as Martin officially renamed it) had become too pretentious in leaving behind its former role as primarily a news 'zine and becoming more of a critical magazine. But the contributors (who often disagreed with each other spectacularly in the lettercol) seemed to me tho have been attempting to apply to comics the sort of critical approaches that were being used elsewhere, and why not? If they often seemed negative, that stemmed from a refusal to tolerate the drivel that so many comics publishers thought (and still think) acceptable for the readers. The result was a serious rival, at least in terms of writing quality, for The Comics Journal, with perhaps a better sense that, deep down, the writers did love comics.

Martin himself epitomised that. He was never shy of calling something rubbish if he thought it was rubbish, but his praise for work he liked was effusive. And behind this was the fact that he was basically a kind man, and also modest about his own abilities - the naming of his own column as 'So-Called Critic' illustrates this.

In the late 1980s Martin got what must have been a dream job for him; he got to edit his own line of comics. Trident published early work by such writers as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar (whose first published work was put out by Trident). I'm not going to say that these writers would not have made it without Martin, if only because he would himself scoff at such an extravagant claim. But he did provide opportunities for them to do work they might otherwise not have done, and Morrison's St Swithin's Day remains, in my view, one of the best things he ever wrote.

Sadly, financial issues with the parent company killed Trident in 1991. Martin went away and successfully reinvented himself as a Computer Scientist, and was a Senior Analyst at UCL when he was diagnosed and took medical retirement. But his love of pop culture and comics never left him, and in recent years he was a prolific contributor to Freaky Trigger and The Singles Jukebox. Last October, he restarted FA as an online presence.

I don't think I write much like Martin Skidmore. But I think he was an influence on my writing, above all in teaching me that writing must always have integrity if it is to be worth anything. Martin was incapable of anything less.

Goodbye, Martin.



(And I would like to mention Hazel and Sarah, who were troopers in looking after Martin in his last days.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Conference on "The Influence of Greek and Latin Antiquity in Contemporary Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works", Paris, June 2012

I've recently become aware of the following Call For Papers.

http://colloque.antiquite-sfff.over-blog.org/pages/Call_for_papers-4933306.html

I stress that I have no connection with this conference, and am merely posting it in case it has been missed by others.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen, 1946-2011

On Tuesday night I saw a rumour over the Internet that I hoped wasn’t true. It was that Elisabeth Sladen, famous for playing the role of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and spin-offs, on and off, for over thirty years, had died at the age of 65,* which frankly, is no age at all. A few hours later, it was obviously true. The first thing I could think of to say was “No!” It’s been a long time since a celebrity death upset me to this degree.

Sarah Jane Smith was for me, as she was for David Tennant when he was growing up, the Doctor Who girl. She has long been one of the most popular companions in the show’s history. Part of this is the result of timing; Sarah Jane was a companion in the Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, when the show’s popularity was at its height. Part of it is the length of time Sladen stayed with Who; she first appeared in December 1973, in the first story of Season Eleven (The Time Warrior), and left at the end of 1976, in the middle of Season Fourteen (The Hand of Fear). As a result, Sarah Jane was the companion for a longer time period than any other non-Doctor series regular apart from Tegan Jovanka, if one excludes the various UNIT personnel. (Tegan was companion from February 1981 to March 1984, but only appeared in 69 episodes, as opposed to Sarah’s 80; shifting transmission dates and the fact that Tegan arrived at the end of Season Eighteen and left in the middle of Season Twenty-One meant that her less than three seasons equivalent was stretched out over a longer period than Sarah’s three and a third seasons. Because the first six seasons broadcast almost all year round, Sladen does not have as many episodes to her name as Frazer Hines [113], in the role of Jamie McCrimmon, another popular companion who returned to the show some years after his original departure.) Sladen was even on the show, in terms of actual broadcast period and/or episodes made, longer than some Doctors (e.g. Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison).

And finally, between them producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks came up with an excellent character, an independent woman who, whilst clearly the junior partner in the Doctor’s adventures, was nevertheless a partner. And they then cast, in Sladen, an excellent actress who had obvious onscreen chemistry with Jon Pertwee, and later, even more so with Tom Baker.

Young girls looked to Sarah as a role model, but as Nicholas has said, it wasn’t just young girls. The following is partly a rewritten version of an article published this time last year, in Lilian Edwards’ fanzine The End of Time sorry Fanzines (Part 2), entitled “‘There’s nothing “only” about being a girl’: or, how Doctor Who made me a feminist”.

In one of life’s little ironies, I found myself writing the article the day after International Women’s Day. Actually, as it was early morning, I suppose in some places it still was International Women’s Day – Hawaii, for instance. But I wasn’t in Hawaii; I was in Kent.

I like to think of myself as a feminist. Some may say that, as a man, I can’t be. I don’t accept that. As someone wrote in a Guardian article a couple of years or so ago (and no, I can’t find it now), feminism is an ideological slant, not tied to any particular biological sex. I can be a feminist because I believe in the equality of women with men. This doesn’t mean that I am incapable of saying or doing sexist things. I was brought up as a male in a patriarchal society, so inevitably my ideals and my upbringing are in conflict with one another, and sometimes the latter will win. That isn’t an excuse, by the way – if you see me being a male chauvinist pig, then you have every right to call me on it. I’m just saying that I think it’s easier to deal with my inner sexist if I acknowledge that he’s there – the major thing I learnt from RaceFail ’09 (a massive row across the Internet about the representation of Persons of Colour and other minorities in science fiction) was that an awful lot of problems are caused by white liberals who deceive themselves into thinking that they have set aside their privilege, and get very upset when it’s pointed out that this isn’t so.

(Don’t worry, this will eventually have something to do with Sarah Jane Smith and Doctor Who. Pretty soon now.)

There are a number of factors that brought about my feminism. One is my general opposition to unfairness in all its forms (which I suspect derives ultimately from being bullied at school). One is that the girls were nicer to me at primary school than the boys (see above). One is that, after my father died in 1975, I was in a family environment that was dominated by strong women – my mother, my grandmother, and two aunts (my grandfather kept himself to himself mostly, and my uncle moved away, first to Morecambe and then to the United States). One is reading The Guardian at a very young age, and the “Naked Ape” section that then used to grace the women’s page, where egregious examples of sexism were exposed mercilessly (I wonder sometimes if the fact that The Guardian no longer has this feature is a contributory factor in the slow return of such egregiousness).

And another factor was Doctor Who, and specifically, Sarah Jane Smith (told you).

My mother used to watch Doctor Who with me on her knee, so I can recall a couple of Patrick Troughton episodes (including episode seven of Evil of the Daleks [1968], long since missing from the BBC’s archives). With the Jon Pertwee colour episodes in 1970, Doctor Who became something I watched through my own volition. And in 1973, as my views of the world were starting to form in my nine-year-old head, Doctor Who gave us a new companion. Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen.

Sarah Jane Smith was conceived to reflect the strength of feminism in wider western culture in the 1970s. This was the time of “second-wave feminism”, when the terms “feminist” and “feminism” came into common usage. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970, and stories of bra burning (which later turned out to be apocryphal) permeated the news media. It’s not surprising that Doctor Who should reflect those cultural developments.

Despite what is sometimes suggested, early Doctor Who didn’t have that bad a record for presenting capable, independent women, at least in the general context of the times. Barbara Wright was a history teacher, Sara Kingdom a security agent, Zoe Herriot a brilliant mathematician and Liz Shaw a Cambridge Professor. But for every Sara, Zoe or Liz, there was a Susan or a Dodo or a Polly, a girl who stood around, screamed at monsters and didn’t do much useful (and yes, I know that is unfair on all three). Sarah’s immediate predecessor was Jo Grant, who was, frankly, a bit wet. She was a member of UNIT, and supposedly had been trained as an agent – yet she spent a lot of time knocking things over and being sent to make the tea. In fairness, she got better in later stories, producing skeleton keys when the Doctor needed them in Carnival of Monsters (1973), or resisting the Master’s hypnosis in Frontier in Space (1973). But producer Barry Letts recognised that the presentation of the female companions was open to charges of sexism, and took action in an attempt to rectify this.

That action was the creation of Sarah Jane Smith, a freelance investigative journalist, who was very much her own woman, and was not afraid of challenging the imposed gender limitations that she saw around her. Of course, she was a feminist created by men, and subsequently written exclusively by men, at least through the 1970s – so undoubtedly they got things wrong about her. And, as the years went on, she became less impressive, as her role was hemmed in by the essential restrictions of the companion (who has to be someone to whom the Doctor can explain the plot, and who can advance that plot by getting in positions of peril from which the Doctor can rescue her). SF and Fantasy author Kari Sperring has told me that she never liked Sarah.

I thought, and still think, she was brilliant. Take, for example, The Monster of Peladon, a story from Sarah’s first season, broadcast in 1974. This is not a story that has a particularly good reputation. It is generally seen as a poor retread of 1972’s Curse of Peladon, with added unsubtle allegory about the 1973 miners’ dispute, which by the time of broadcast had developed into a full-blown strike, and ridiculous badger wigs for the supporting cast. This is a view that overall I think is justified, but the story does have some wonderful stuff for Sarah. Not so much the lecture about feminism that she delivers to Queen Thalira of Peladon, from which I drew the title quote for the original article; what Sarah says here is rather hectoring and cringe-inducing, and obviously a male view of what a feminist ought to say. But in Part Five, the Doctor is believed killed. Sarah is upset about this, but doesn’t just wander around in a state of shock. There’s still a crisis going on, and Sarah essentially takes over in the Doctor’s absence, leading the good guys, and chivvying them along. It’s Sarah who comes up with a plan. When the Doctor reappears, he doesn’t say that she has done wrong, or make her look foolish. He just picks the reins back up, apparently safe in the knowledge that his deputy has looked after things in his absence. He doesn’t even patronise her. This is quite astonishing for the Pertwee Doctor, who patronises everybody (in one glorious moment in Day of the Daleks [1972], a temporary time loop allows him to patronise himself!). It is indicative of how the dynamic between Doctor and companion changed with Sarah’s arrival. Indeed, all through this story, which I’ve just watched again, Sarah makes it quite clear that she isn’t going to let the Doctor get away with his patriarchal nonsense, and gives as good as she gets.

In the Tom Baker period, Sarah continued to be a trusted partner of the Doctor. She was never in charge, of course (the show is called Doctor Who, after all). But it is, for instance, Sarah that fires the shot to detonate the explosives that should (and eventually do) blow up Sutekh’s rocket in Pyramids of Mars (1975). Pyramids of Mars is actually an excellent showcase for Sarah, for the way she and the Doctor work as a team, for Sladen’s performance and for her chemistry with Tom Baker; and it is, special effects aside, every bit as good as anything that has gone out under the Doctor Who brand since 2005.

I realise I’ve been talking about Sarah Jane Smith here, not Elisabeth Sladen. But then I didn’t know Lis Sladen; I knew Sarah. Of course, Sarah would be nothing without Lis Sladen’s performance. In a very real sense, at least to the viewers, Sladen was Sarah Jane, so much so that it was jarring to see her in anything else, such as playing a shopkeeper in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, as Michael Crawford unfunnily demolished the shop around her. For me, it probably also helped that she was a northerner; under her received pronunciation tones there flowed a foundation of pure Scouse.

Through three and a half years, I found Sarah inspirational. I wanted to know feisty, intelligent, capable women like that. Despite what some friends have assumed, I’ve never, as far as I can recall, had overt romantic or sexual feelings about Sarah Jane Smith (or Lis Sladen). Sex wasn’t part of Sarah’s appeal – the one time she wore a (very modest and proper) two-piece swimsuit, at the beginning of Death to the Daleks, it actually seemed rather incongruous. Sarah was more of a big sister type to me. But I suppose that she has something to do with my attraction in adulthood to intelligent, capable, independent women, one of whom I have since married. (And probably my inclination towards short brunettes - though actually I always thought of Sarah as taller than she was, perhaps because she acted taller, i.e with authority.)

The other thing about Sarah is that her relationship with the Doctor showed me that men and women could be friends, without there having to be Unspoken Sexual Tension. The sort of close, but non-romantic, relationship that the Doctor and Sarah had is rarely seen on television. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman decided that Steed and Cathy Gale would have a non-romantic relationship in The Avengers (though that didn’t stop viewers wondering if there was anything going on, and later relations between Steed and his female associates had more obvious romantic undertones). Apart from that I can think of few examples, and they are even fewer today. I thought the new Battlestar Galactica missed a trick when, having made Starbuck a woman, the creators then didn’t leave the Starbuck/Apollo relationship as just the same sort of friendship it had been in the first series; they had to introduce a sexual element. I think this is a shame, and doesn’t reflect reality, or at least my reality, where some of my closest friendships have been platonic ones with women. I’ve never been much of one for hanging out with the lads.

I didn’t much care for Leela, Sarah Jane’s replacement. Oh yes, two of her stories, Robots of Death (1977) and Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), are amongst the very best that the show has ever broadcast. But Leela herself annoyed me. Of course, part of the problem was that she wasn’t Sarah. But beyond that, whilst she was another capable strong woman, she seemed to need to express that strength through exposing lots of cleavage and thigh. She always struck me as more of a Red Sonja-style male fantasy character.

Given everything I’ve written above, you can imagine how pleased I was that Sarah was returning to Doctor Who in 2006, in “School Reunion”. And you might have some notion of how disappointed I was when Russell T Davies, who feels that placing a man and a woman on screen together automatically signals a love story, chose to construe the relationship between Sarah and the Doctor in those terms, and to portray her as a woman lessened by the lack of a man and children in her life. Lilian Edwards may be right that this hits an emotional truth about 40-something women who have lived life to the full and then find themselves single and childless, and this does seem to have been what attracted Sladen back to the role, though others would say this is Davies, as he often does, constructing middle-aged women through soap opera cliché. What it certainly wasn’t, as I’ve argued in “Whatever happened to Sarah Jane?”, my chapter in The Unsilent Library, was the Sarah we remembered. That Sarah wouldn’t have moped for thirty years about being abandoned by the one man that was ever good enough for her. It wasn’t that she was averse to emotional attachments; she was quite capable of flirtatious banter with a rugged (if slightly dim) naval officer, or a dashing renaissance nobleman. But that wasn’t the centre of her existence. She was all about the adventures, and she would have carried on having adventures. I know people like that, so I don’t think that’s any less valid an emotional characterisation than the one RTD seems to have fixed upon. (And though “School Reunion” establishes in dialogue that Sarah’s life has been put on hold since the Doctor left her, one has to ask, if that was the case, what was she doing investigating odd goings on at a school in the first place?) Matthew Kilburn has drawn attention to a line Sarah has when she comes back in “Journey’s End”: “I’ve learned how to fight.” As Matthew says, our Sarah always knew, right from the first moment she faced up to a Sontaran. Racheline Maltese writes (http://lettersfromtitan.com/2011/04/19/elisabeth-sladen-1948-2011) about how Sarah embodies the Who theme of being about loss and love after loss. That’s certainly a valid response, but again I think it is more about the post-“School Reunion” Sarah than the one from the 1970s.

Still, “School Reunion” did lead to The Sarah Jane Adventures, the spin-off series that Sarah had always deserved. Indeed, she was the first companion that one could imagine sustaining their own series, and there have been precious few since. This was recognised by John Nathan-Turner in 1981, and I still think that K-9 and Company might have had a better chance had it been promoted as “Sarah Jane Investigates”.

The more I think about it, the more I think that Sarah, and Lis Sladen, changed the role of the companion. The elimination of UNIT furthered the intensification of the one-to-one relationship between the companion and the Doctor that had begun with Jo Grant – but Sarah made it hard for the companion to be a wallflower again (though a few were). Companions such as Leela and Romana are variations on the Sarah Jane Smith theme. The same is true of more recent companions, especially Donna Noble, who seemed consciously modelled in some respects upon Sarah. Amy Pond is a natural descendant of Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah’s influence spread further. I had a student who had been named after her. (I deny suggestions that I took an interest in this student’s career simply to have someone to whom I could say “Come along, Sarah Jane!”) In an episode of The Archers, Lizzie Archer claimed to have been influenced by Sarah (a line which, for complicated reasons I won’t go into here, I suspect was a nod towards something I had written). And I can’t imagine there being any other regular Who actor, apart from a Doctor, whose death would get this sort of coverage in the news media – certainly Jacqueline Hill and Michael Craze didn’t. (Okay, Catherine Tate probably would, but that would be for her non-Who work; similarly I reckon when Peter Purves goes.)

As Russell T Davies said (sometimes he got it right!), the world was lucky to have Elisabeth Sladen, and is poorer for her loss.


* Obituaries originally gave her date of birth as 1948, but it turns out that this was not in fact the case. This is interesting, as it means she is the only Doctor Who female companion demonstrably over thirty in her time on the show since Jacqueline Hill and until Catherine Tate came along (Caroline John may have been, but as no-one seems to know exactly when her birthday was in 1970, it's not certain; and Janet Fielding definitely was, if the birth year given in Wikipedia is correct, but definitely not if that given by the IMDb is right). This also means that if we ever go to a second edition of The Unsilent Library, we’ll have to make some corrections.

Five lies told about AV

1. "It's too confusing."

No it isn't. It's no more confusing than going into a restaurant, asking for steak pie, being told it's off, and choosing something else from the menu. Eating out would collapse if the British people couldn't handle this level of complexity.

2. "It's ridiculous that the person who came second could win."

The sporting analogies deployed to support this argument are rather simplistic, and take no account of qualifying rounds. What essentially this argument is saying is that it is ridiculous that Lewis Hamilton won the Chinese Grand Prix at the weekend, because Sebastian Vettel had won pole position in the Qualifying.

In any case, it is rank hypocrisy for this argument to be deployed by a man who became leader of the Conservative Party after coming second in the intial round of the leadership election.

3. "Nobody uses AV."

Many more people use AV in some form or other than those against admit, including, as noted, the Conservative Party in its leadership elections.

4. "A vote for a mainstream party gets counted only once, but one for a minority party like the BNP could be counted two or three times."

Nonsense. All individuals' votes are counted an equal number of times, until a result is achieved. If anything, the opposite is true - a vote for the Conservative Party will be counted two or three times, whilst a vote for the BNP may be counted only once, before they are eliminated from the contest.

Minority parties like the BNP in fact have a much better chance of getting in under FPTP than under AV. Under FPTP, an MP could be elected with 20% of the vote, if no-one else polled more. But if that 20% were the only people who would vote for this party under AV, then the MP would be elected on the basis of second place votes.

5. "It breaks the link between MP and consituency."

No it doesn't. If anything, it strengthens that, as an MP has to be responsive to more of their consituency than just the 30% who voted for them as first preference, and constituencies end up with MPs who are at least acceptable to more than 50% of the electorate, as opposed to being preferred by 30% and despised by 70%, as can happen under FPTP.

What it does weaken (and why I think some in the political establishment are so hostile to it) is the link between MP and party. More and more MPs would have to put their constituency's interests ahead of their party's (q.v. Boris Johnson, who regularly puts what he perceives of as Londoners' interests ahead of what the government wants him to do). I'm all for that.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Notes from the world of me

It's been quite a good month for me, what with one thing or another. First, the Doctor Who story The Ark was released on DVD. Back in November 2008, I was interviewed for one of the the special features, "All's Wells that ends Wells". A lot of other people were interviewed for it, so there isn't much of me, but I'm happy to say that I haven't been misrepresented, though I'm pretty sure my comment about Brian Aldiss was linked to my saying that his novel Non-Stop was a major influence on The Ark, rather than to Aldiss' being consulted when Doctor Who was being devised. And I'm sorry that there wasn't space for my argument that isn't as firmly in the Wells via Wyndham and Quatermass tradition as it is sometimes thought - more Wells via Asimov and Aldiss. (Though Matthew Sweet does rightly say that it takes a long time for the Quatermass influence to assert itself in Who - I'd argue that there is in the early stages of conception a deliberate distancing from Quatermass). And irritatingly, 2Entertain have misspelt my name ('Antony', not 'Anthony'), though it's only a minor complaint.

The end of February saw publication of the volume I've co-edited, The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the new Doctor Who. I'm very proud of this - it's about a year later than originally planned (but only six months later than what our original plan ought, in retrospect, to have been), but there's a lot of work went in at the editing stage, and there are some good articles, in particular those by Graham Sleight and Clare Parody. One of the better Who collections to have come out in the last couple of years, though I says so as shouldn't.

Then a week ago Vector 265 came out. This is Niall Harrison's last issue as editor, and is a special on Stephen Baxter. I've contributed "Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence". There is also an edited version of my review of Ian McDonald's The Dervish House. And I also contributed a short introduction to an interview with Robert Holdstock that is in the tribute booklet to Holdstock that was sent out to BSFA members.

Coming up, I have my talk at Eight Years In Babylon. I also have a chapter I'm writing for a volume on cinematic receptions of ancient Egypt, a chapter in a volume on Neil Gaiman, and a paper at the Cinema and Antiquity conference in July. So I'll be busy for the next few months! And someone wants to use a photo of mine as the cover of a book.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Make cakes, not war

I've been remiss in blogging the annual UCL and King's Classics Plays this year. Both were enjoyable.

UCL put on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, for the third time in twelve years. Well, it's a good play, with much to laugh at. I saw it on the first performance, and there was clearly a degree of nervousness in the cast. This was particularly apparent in the actress playing Lysistrata (admittedly, a big, tough role to play). But it clearly was just nerves, and the cast was noticeably more confident after the interval. I'm sure they got better as the run progressed. The Cinesias/Myrrhine scene was well done, always a touchstone of the quality of a production. Setting the whole thing in the Peninsular War was interesting, though the idea wasn't taken much further than as a source for costume design. And whilst I am in principle against retaining the references to Aristophanes' contemporaries that mean nothing to a modern audience, this cast did at least manage to convey the impression that such references meant something to them.

I've been quite lukewarm about recent King's productions, feeling that they often looked under-rehearsed. Last year, I was picked up on this, with a commenter arguing that I was expecting too much of the productions. Well, there's probably some truth, but I do think it's important to say when one thought things could have been better. And they can, as this year's play showed. Because it was clear in the performance I saw that King's have considerably upped their game. Georgia Crick Collins as Helen, Ben Donaldson as Menelaus and Anna Perfitt as Theonoe were particularly good, all managing to act rather than just recite. Donaldson in particular gave the audience a Menelaus who retains his nobility, and is not just an idiot, as can sometimes be the case in this play. And the idea of using the Chorus to enact scenes being recounted, tried out last year in Persians, worked really well this year. The best King's Play I've seen since Rhesus in 2005.

But this isn't the production I want to praise most in this entry. Last night I went to see a production of Lysistrata, given by students of Kidbrooke School. I confess that I hadn't gone expecting much, but it was stunningly good, and I laughed more than I have at an Aristophanes production for a few years; it's certainly the best of the three Lysistratas I've seen in the last twelve months (the other being an Actors of Dionysus production). The whole thing was done as a cross-dressing romp, with most of the female parts played by boys, and the male ones by girls. It's actually quite encouraging that a bunch of teenage boys are willing to dress up in women's clothing and camp it up in front of their mates.

The text used was Laurence Houseman's 1911 version (Houseman was the brother of A.E. Houseman, a gay man when that was very illegal, and a supporter of the Suffragette movement). That might not seem to be the best idea to get the humour of the original out, and indeed, there are few actual laughs in the text, which, unsurprisingly, eliminates a lot of the filth from Aristophanes's text. But the humour and some of the filth are put back by the production, costumes and performances of the cast, as well as a fair bit of political engagement.

What I think makes this production work is an understanding that Lysistrata is not a play about sex, or women's rights, but about war. This is underlined at the beginning, in the introduction of a bloodied figure of Peace (in place of Reconciliation), and in an end which ought to be hackneyed, but is in fact astonishing.

As far as I know, this production has not come out of Classical outreach initiatives, and it is extremely heartening that people still turn unprompted to Greek drama. I would be pleased by this production just for that reason. The bonus on the cake is how good it is. I often find myself feeling that I have become an old cynic, and am far too difficult to impress these days. And then something like this comes along, and just blows me away with what can be achieved.

It's still on this evening and tomorrow. If you have a chance, I urge you to see it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burns night and Martial

The 25th of January is the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. Since the early nineteenth century this has been celebrated by Burns suppers, at which Haggis is eaten (which is almost certainly much nicer than you imagine), whisky is drunk, and Burns' poetry is read. I am taking students through an older poet tonight, Ovid, so I shan't be partaking of haggis (though a single malt in the pub afterwards will be had). But I went to a Burns supper hosted by friends on Saturday night, and took to read the poems discussed in the following.

In 1782, James Elphinstone, described in the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen of 1856 as "a miscellaneous writer", published a poetic translation of the Roman epigrammatist and satirist Marcus Valerius Martialis, better-known in English as "Martial". Five years later, Burns published his response to The Epigrams of M. Val. Martial in Twelve Volumes. It's safe to say that he wasn't impressed.

On Elphinstone’s Translation of Martial’s Epigrams (1787)

O Thou whom Poetry abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors,
Heard’st thou yon groan? – proceed no further,
’Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther.
(The last word may have more impact if you pronounce it after the fashion of STV's long-running crime drama series, Taggart.)

Not many people were impressed by Elphinstone. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, the work was widely ridiculed. Fortunately, through the magic of Google Books, the work is available online, so we can find out what the fuss was about.

Elphinstone has messed around with his materials. His arrangement of Martial into twelve books doesn't match that commonly employed today, which has fifteen books plus On the Spectacles, Martial's collection of epigrams on the opening of the Colosseum. It appears as if Elphinstone has rearranged Martial's work on thematic grounds. This, of course, makes it hard to find the epigram one is looking for, as Elphinstone has only provided a one-way concordance. But it is possible to find what one is looking for with patience.

And so (partly because I'm familiar with it as it gets used for teaching), I lit on Epigram 3.51 (Elphinstone's 6.38) as a means of looking at what Elphinstone did. First, here is the Latin.

Cum faciem laudo, cum miror crura manusque,
dicere, Galla, soles "Nuda placebo magis",
et semper uitas communia balnea nobis.
Numquid, Galla, times ne tibi non placeam?

Galla is a name Martial uses a lot - she appears as an object of desire, as someone who is going through a string of intellectual husbands who turn out to be latent homosexuals and crap in bed, and as a prostitute. But the likelihood is that this is a generic name, and the various Gallas are not meant to be the same person.

And now, Elphinstone:

When, Galla, thy face, hands and legs I admire,
Thou say’st; I, when naked, more pleasing shall be.
Yet, one common bath, I full vainly require:
Dost fear that I shall not be pleasing to thee?

This is about as racy as Elphinstone gets. (Martial gets racier, but Elphinstone sanitizes him.) And, reading this aloud, I can understand why everyone objected so much to Elphinstone's translation.

Here, for something more prosaic (in the literal sense, but perhaps also taking some of the fun out of Martial), is D.R. Shackleton Bailey's 1993 Loeb translation):

When I praise your face and admire your legs and hands, Galla, you are apt to say: "You’ll like me better naked." And yet you always avoid taking a bath with me. Can it be, Galla, that you are afraid you may not like me?

And finally, here is a translation of it by me. Inspired by Roz Kaveney's recent translations of Catullus as Shakespearian sonnets (a few of which I published in the latest issue of CA News), I thought I would see if Martial could be adapted into limericks. I think it works quite well. It's a bit more vulgar than martial is in this poem, but given how vulgar he is elsewhere, I think he'd approve. (Since the etymological derivation of 'Galla' is 'a female Gaul', I have changed the addressee accordingly.)

To Frenchie

When I praise all your visible parts
You say "Nude, I’m a real work of art".
Share a bath to unwind?
That you always decline.
Are you scared that you won’t like my arse?


I have more Martialian limericks. You have been warned.