Saturday, February 23, 2013


Coming Soon: Three Things I’ve Written For Other People

Doctor Who! More Doctor Who! And the Liberal Democrats! Given how little I’m writing on here at the moment, it may come as a surprise that you’ll shortly be able to read three pieces of writing I’ve done for other people. It may be less of a surprise that they were all asked for last year (though all now completed, as far as I know). I’m not certain when each of them will be released, though soon, so it’s about time I give them each a plug and tell you where you’ll be able to read them. I’m quite excited.

How To Write Something: It Turns Out, Only By Getting Writing (nagging helps)

I love writing. Except when I don’t. In that, it’s rather like a lot of things in my life for which my health or my fears get in the way. And it’s a rather lovely ego-boost to be asked to contribute to something. But also sometimes terrifying. I write for many reasons: for pleasure (it’s certainly many years since any of it was for money); to make a point that needs saying; because I’m not able to get out much and want to feel like I’m connecting with the world… But I also tend to put things off, because I’m too ill much of the time and there are other things I want to do when I’m not. This means that anyone who is kind enough to ask me to write something does so at their peril, even if I do often really want to write for them. At the least, they’ll probably have to nag a bit. At worst, I may have to steel myself to get past the gnawing terror that sometimes irrationally substitutes itself for the ‘Whee!’ feeling that someone being nice about my writing ought to evoke. It’s embarrassing to admit (as some of the people involved may read this) that there’ve been times when, on receipt of an invitation to do some writing for something that sounds impressive from someone I respect, my immediate reaction was not to beam at the compliment but have a complete crash of self-esteem, worry that anything I wrote would never be as good as the other contributors, and pretend not to have seen the mail or any follow-ups (the online equivalent of keeping the door shut, the curtains closed, and never going out, as it happens pretty much my life offline). Which I suppose is just my life-long tendency towards seeking perfection as procrastination turned pathological.

I’m still putting off writing a lot of things I want to do for me, but happily somehow in the last year I managed to say yes to four interesting things for other people and have actually delivered three. Woo hoo! It may be significant that I warned three of them that I’m terrible with deadlines and would need nagging, while the other, for which I had several exciting ideas, took a while to reply, then I took longer to reply to them, then… Well, I’ve not heard any news of that particular book coming out, and I hope I’m wrong in suspecting it may not get round to. So, here are the three for which people gently prodded me, available soon…

Doctor Who Special Ad

The Doctor Who 8th Anniversary Special

Interviewing Martha Jones for Paul Smith at Wonderful Books

With the vacuity of the official modern Doctor Who Annual creating a gap in the market, in Summer 2010 the Doctor Who Magazine team (responsible for previous much more readable Doctor Who Annuals and similar books) joined with BBC Books to produce the far more interesting, text-intensive and generally creative The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011, first in a series which ran… Only two years, unfortunately. But it did inspire something even more creative, entertaining and beautiful – and not just because it was based in a Who period considerably more to my taste and the only Doctor definitely more to my taste than the present one.

The Wonderful Book of Dr Who 1965 was created by Paul Smith as an homage to The Brilliant Book, but packed with facts, interviews and images based not on Matt Smith’s first season in 2010 but on William Hartnell’s (and the series’) first in 1963-4. And not only did it look gorgeous and was immensely readable, but it was very funny. Because not all of the facts (and none of the interviews) were exactly factual, both deeply loving and taking the piss outrageously. And all available as a free pdf, the cheaper, prettier, faster version of the old fanzine (though he did a few print copies, too).

All this meant that I was especially delighted when Paul Smith contacted me out of the blue to see if I’d like to write something for his next project. I didn’t know him, but I’d thought his work was (obviously) wonderful. And that this was to be an homage to the legendary Radio Times 1973 Special for the fiftieth anniversary was the reason I had to go for it, if I could. I’ve previously enthused about the Radio Times 1973 Doctor Who 10th Anniversary Special as probably the most marvellous single Doctor Who magazine ever published. It wasn’t until more than a year after that that Doctor Who first captivated me, aged three, so when a family friend who’d kept his slightly battered copy gave it to me, it instantly became one of my most treasured possessions. Before websites or guidebooks, this was the unique source of thrilling photos and details of stories from before I started watching (that is, prehistory).

Paul’s concept was to recreate the Special as if celebrating not the fiftieth but the eighth anniversary of a Doctor Who series that started for the first time in 2005, with other fans providing some of the artwork and comment pieces. In the original, double-page spreads about past stories alternated with newly shot double-page photo spreads and interview columns for past companions with pull-out quote headlines like “THE NUTCASE PROFESSOR SWEPT ME OFF MY FEET”. For a column like that, I was only given 350 words to play with – imagine – and a couple of other rules which I contrived to bend subtly, and may explain when the publication appears. I was asked which companion I’d like to write about, and though several tempted me – Rose and Jack were terrific in 2005, and I loved Jackie and Wilf – I instantly thought of Martha Jones (or Martha Smith-Jones, as she is now).

From her first appearance in Smith and Jones, Martha was a breath of fresh air for me – not just Freema Agyeman’s performance and giving as good as she got to the Doctor (and him not being interested), not just that she was the Doctor’s first full-time TV companion who was black (after Sharon, Roz and others elsewhere), but that she wasn’t going off with the Doctor only because her life was a bit rubbish. Martha is the only companion since Sarah Jane Smith with a decent, fulfilling, even exciting career – and for all of us who are so utterly gripped by the Doctor and his adventures, that’s a more inspiring example than the implicit suggestion that travelling in the TARDIS is only slightly better than being in a dead-end job you’re bored by or hate, or than having your parents killed in front of you. If you’re an achiever with a lot to give up, but the TARDIS is still so exciting you’d go off in it without a second thought – well, you would, wouldn’t you? And, for me, she has by far the most satisfying (and self-chosen) exit from the new TARDIS, too, again after impressive achievements in her own right.

I understand that other contributors might have written critical assessments or celebrations of their picks, but with the Radio Times Special so deeply ingrained in me, I knew immediately that I wanted to write an ‘After the Doctor’ interview in that style, for the character rather than the actor, and that though I was going to be tongue-in-cheek in several ways (her earnestness, the Doctor) as well, I was going to set out first to say ‘She’s a strong, brilliant character’. And while it may have taken some time to think of all the other words, then edit them all back down again, my starting point leapt into my head fully-formed on reading Paul’s initial email:
You can already see a tiny preview of the Martha Jones pages on the Wonderful Books site, and I believe the new Specials are now at the printer’s.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2164

The Worldcon Guide To Doctor Who In London

Bigging up That London for Nicholas Whyte and the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention
“Of all the places the Doctor ever visits, which is the one he comes back to more than any other? Not ostensibly exotic locations such as Skaro, Peladon or New New Earth – even Cardiff – but London. And, paradoxically, since Doctor Who began recording in Cardiff, the Doctor has been drawn to London more than ever before. But then, when the Fifth Doctor exclaimed that he was being pulled towards the middle of the Universe, there was no way this was going to mean a thrilling return to Terminus. Inevitably in Doctor Who, the centre of the Universe is London.”
Diplomat and prolific science fiction (and Northern Irish and European politics) blogger Nicholas Whyte rang me last year to ask me if I’d like to write a guide to London locations in Doctor Who. He’s one of the organisers of Worldcon 2014, taking place in London next August, and thought this would make a great advertising hook to encourage people to come to London from all over the world.

That seems, you might think, quite a long lead-up time, and it did to me, so pity poor Nicholas a few weeks ago when I’d not yet turned my notes into a proper guide and, it turned out, not this year’s Worldcon in San Antonio but the biggest US Doctor Who convention – Gallifrey One, in Los Angeles, which took place last weekend – was looming upon him and he needed leaflets to hand out. Which led to me finally getting down to the drafting over the course of about four days solid, and discovering that I had oodles of notes for some Doctors and rather fewer than others. My intention had always been to select one location for each Doctor, all across Greater London, to give a range of time and space. So imagine my hilarity when, thinking all I had to do was whittle down several possibilities for each, I found that for two of the less Londoner Doctors I’d pencilled in the same location and didn’t have a back-up. I won’t tell you what, or how I ended up finding an alternative for one of them – though I did for a wild moment consider making a point of it and choosing that same location for four different Doctors, if that’s a clue…

I’d been told to write for a word count in the low thousands and, being me, ended up at what might be considered the upper end of that – about 3,400 words. Nicholas was very complimentary about it all, and is going to put the lot up on the convention website – but it was never going to fit on a leaflet. So the last of my four days was spent cutting it down by more than half, to 1,600 words, at the same time substantially rewriting it to make it still work at that length and trying to keep in at least some of the jokes, on the grounds that while I found such other guides as Richard Bignell’s book Doctor Who On Location and the website Doctor Who – The Locations Guide invaluable research aids and recommend each, they’re best to dip into and not easy to read through as enticements. And, in an attempt to forestall Nicholas and the Worldcon London team from making it less readable, at about two in the morning I stuck the text into some text boxes, inserted a few photos and clicked “Save as pdf” to prove that it would all fit on a leaflet as was. I expected they’d find someone with any graphic design ability to turn the text into leaflets…

So my apologies to people who picked up the leaflets in Los Angeles last weekend and saw something scruffy from Word without any links on it, but at least I reckon the text was pretty good. If you’d like a copy of the pdf, email me (look at the sidebar), and at some point the extended version, which is a more entertaining read, will be up on the Worldcon 2014 website. In the meantime, here’s one of Nicholas’ reports from Gallifrey One, complete with the huge maps they hung up to make sense of my references. I won’t tell you all of my choices here, but the first is obvious:
“Daleks looming before the Palace of Westminster and St Stephen’s Tower – the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben – are the very image of democracy overthrown by fascism. Before crossing the Westminster Bridge toward the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, look left along the Albert Embankment; if you see zeppelins and signs for Newport, you’re in the wrong London. Best get that settled before you set out. Pass Big Ben into Parliament Square, turn right into Parliament Street / Whitehall to follow in Barbara’s fast footsteps, and like her you’ll reach Trafalgar Square at the end. That in itself is a much-used Doctor Who landmark: Ian and Barbara return there for an exuberant homecoming in The Chase; a New Year rings in in The Daleks’ Master Plan; Nelson gets a redesign in No Future and has long since toppled by The Sontaran Experiment; Rose has lunch there with Mickey before meeting the Doctor; it’s conquered by the Daleks again in the game City of the Daleks; but Londoners can feel secure that in a thousand years’ time, Trafflegarr Square will still be there in Spaceport Five Undertown.”

The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2013

What Do the Lib Dems Believe?

Liberal Philosophy for a Mark Pack Infographic

While I don’t know if I’ve ever met Paul, and I know Nicholas a bit, Mark has known me more than twenty years. That means he knows my relationship with whooshing deadlines, so he’s the one who wisely met up with me for a couple of hours and prodded my brain for ideas rather than necessarily waiting for me to do the actual writing. Last year, Mark produced an Infographic on “Liberal Democrat Achievements In Government” free for any Lib Dem or reader to get across at a glance some of the influence we’ve had through the Coalition. His next Infographic is to get across what we stand for.

Mark and I have worked on and off together on a simple crystallisation of what the Liberal Democrats believe for decades, first inspired by the ’90s “core message” under Paddy Ashdown and Matthew Taylor (for which I was back in a senior enough position to get hold of much of the briefings). In recent months, there’s been work on a new one under Nick Clegg and Ryan Coetzee, and while Mark will no doubt be including that as part of his Infographic, we both wanted to come up with something a bit deeper: a mixture of history, philosophy, controversy and current priorities, the story of the Party and its soul, if you like, hopefully showing how they all fit together and giving something that all Lib Dems can nod at, whether for information or for inspiration. My intention, at least, is something that Lib Dem members can look at and think, ‘Yes, that’s some of why we bother’.

Though Liberalism provides a far more coherent and consistent philosophy for the Lib Dems than whatever shifting melanges animate the Labour and Tory Parties, it’s not without its problems in summing it up in brief – nor do I envy Mark in having to find images to illustrate concepts for his Infographic. I’m also grateful for him for pulling it together, not least because my series of ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ posts on this blog has mostly gone unwritten or in fits and starts, and I’ve not even finished republishing my original 1999 Love and Liberty pamphlet on here. So, Mark’s project is less ambitious, but it’s happening (hooray).

My best guess is that Mark is likely to publish the Infographic for Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in a fortnight, and I’m intrigued to see how it turns out. He did send me his rough notes last month, which I didn’t get round to helping with; he’s since sent me the first draft of the Infographic itself, to which I helpfully replied (having failed to do it at the more amorphous stage) with a close-to-complete redraft. Being me, and more a words than a graphics sort of person, that also raised the suggested word count from about 600 words to about 800, which I expect Mark to slash even if he wishes to take all my points on board. I know he’s circulated it to several other people, too, so I have excitingly no idea what the final version will look like – but I hope I’ll agree with it, and so will many of you.

At the risk of picking out elements that don’t make it through, here are a few teasers:

I’ve suggested the Infographic start with What the Liberal Democrats Believe in six words. But which six?

Mark is, amongst many other things, an historian, and one of the key staging posts for him in the Party’s history was the mid-Twentieth Century development of both Community Politics and Europeanism as important to our predecessor Liberals and Social Democrats. People often think these are contradictory, but they’re not – so here’s one of the lines I suggested to get across as briefly as possible why they’re part of the same thing:
“both challenged centralised power, saying decisions should be at the lowest practical level, from your local community for local issues to international co-operation on issues like trade and climate change.”
And when many are trying very hard to say the Party’s split today between Economic and Social Liberals, for me this is greatly overstated. The extremes make a lot of noise, but most Lib Dems see themselves comfortably as both, or simply as Liberals. So here was my suggestion on how briefly to sum up the consensus, not just the differences, between members of the Liberal family:
“All Liberals believe in liberty, and that any sort of power (government, business, other people) can both protect and threaten liberty.
“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on which sources of power are the best defences or the biggest bullies, and on whether freedom or fairness is the biggest priority.”
Some may recognise my paraphrasing of my old friend and mentor Conrad Russell. And before long, you can see if any of this made it into the final draft!

Something Mark’s prodding brought me back to look at again was my own shortish ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ statement, which I first drafted in the ’90s and had slightly updated several times since to incorporate a flavour of whatever the Party’s key priorities happened to be at the time. As each version was limited to between 140-150 words, in the years that I was Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee and would deliver its report to Party Conference, I even used to read it out as part of my speeches, on the basis that if any Party body should be concerned with what we stand for and communicate it to people, it should be the one that’s responsible for the Manifesto.

It’s some years since I last wrote a new draft of this, and I had a go, incorporating some of the new Ryan Coetzee messaging. It was the largest change (still kept below 150 words) I’d made since I first came up with it, and I’m not printing it here today because, after an appropriate pause for thought (and after Richard shaking his head), it seems too much of an ugly mash-up. Should I manage to get it to flow soon, I might publish it when the Infographic appears. In the meantime, if you’d like to chip in or just to see what the Lib Dems stand for for me, email me (again, link in the sidebar) and I’ll send you both the previous 2000s version and my latest attempt-in-progress.

And that’s it, at last. I hope you enjoyed the trailers, and that you’ll soon be able to see the main features. And just a couple of days ago, I was asked if I’d like to write something for another fan magazine I adore… But as I volunteered to do what’s probably the most popular bit, they may not say yes!

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