Book Review: Delete This at your Peril!

Delete-this-at-your-PerilEveryone with email has received them – messages in fractured English from corrupt officials in oil-rich nations, job offers that involve merely processing payments, love letters from stunningly beautiful Russian women who will happily overlook the fact that you are fat, balding and middle-aged. The common factor is a request for your bank details. Amused or irritated, you can’t really avoid them.

Allow me to introduce an unlikely White Knight who tilts at these internet trolls on your behalf. His name is Bob Servant, a native of Broughty Ferry, which is a suburb of Dundee – the spiritual home of Beautiful Railway Bridge. Ah, that shining city on the silvery Tay! Bob is a veteran and chief beneficiary of the Burger Van Wars (1988-9), once owner of the biggest window cleaning round in Western Europe, and consummate piss-artist.

Bob likes to unwind of an evening, after the pubs are closed, by leading scammers down the long and convoluted garden path of their own greed. He’s a sort of Scottish Siren, luring them onto the unforgiving rocks of Broughty Ferry. If they weren’t such amoral scumbags, you could almost feel sorry for the victims. His method is to distract attention from the point – their need for his bank details – with a bewildering array of side issues. He also puts forward counter-proposals that proliferate into surreal and bizarre scenarios in Bob’s mind, aided and abetted in these imaginations by his drinking pals, Frank the Plank, Tommy Peanuts and Chappy Williams. Invariably the scammers go along with these suggestions. At one point Bob is so disgusted at the lengths they’ll go to that he voluntarily ends the game.

Sadly, Bob Servant is the fictional creation of Scottish author, Neil Forsyth, based on his own experience with internet scammers. This does have its benefits. Bob is allowed the most outrageous libels against the worthy institutions of Broughty Ferry – the Post Office and Bowling Club get a lot of stick – and Forsyth can then ride to the rescue with a footnote saying this couldn’t possibly be true. Appropriately enough, each section is a sequence of emails, with all the necessary footnotes to defuse Bob’s cheerful defamations.

Delete This at your Peril! became a BBC Radio 4 series, and Bob Servant also reached television in BBC 4’s Bob Servant Independent, where he runs for election. I watched the first episode – you can see episode 2 in the video below – but it was so bloodless compared to the inspired profanity and deranged imagination of Delete This at your Peril! that I didn’t watch any more. The best thing about it is the Broughty Ferry location, the views of Dundee and the glorious Tay Bridge.

I urge you get the book and enjoy a vicarious revenge against internet scammers.

Television Review: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – The New Taste for Blood (1/3)

A Very British MurderBBC4 Website: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley’s Website

Huzzah! Dr Worsley has a new documentary on the British fascination with gory murders and the culture in which the fascination flourished. She gives us three real murder cases from the first half of the 19th century. The first are the 1811 Ratcliff Highway Murders in Wapping, London, with seven victims. Then in 1827, the Red Barn Murder in Polstead, Suffolk, where Maria Marten was foully done to death by her lover. Finally, in 1849, the splendidly named Bermondsey Horror, in which Maria Manning murdered her wealthy lover, double-crossed her complicit husband, and ran off with the stolen loot.

Other television presenters orate while striding across iconic landscapes, or strike thoughtful academic attitudes against the sky. You know they’re posing and it looks silly. Not Lucy Worsley. She dives into the material and gets involved in the nitty-gritty. And how. She visits the crime scenes, handles the artefacts (the skin off the back of a murderer’s head), investigates exactly how the murderers were executed, and makes you feel like a privileged fly on the wall of a morgue.

In this episode she also took the part of Maria Marten in a recreation of a contemporary melodrama, operated and voiced her killer in the marionette theatre version, sang a folk song about the dreadful crime, and acted out the trial of Maria Manning as the lawyers, judge, and of course, Maria Manning herself. Yes, all of them.

If that was all, it would be brilliant entertainment, but there’s much more. She explores the social context of the murders and the shock they created. In 1810 there were only 15 murder convictions, and no real police force. Public anger at the ineffectiveness of the authorities led to reform, so that by 1849 there were uniformed police and a handful of detectives. The police used the new-fangled telegraph to send descriptions of the Mannings to Edinburgh and Jersey, which led to their arrest.

But main story is the development of murder as a gripping morality tale for the edification and entertainment of an increasingly literate population. Thomas De Quincey was the first respectable observer (opium, indeed all drugs, were legal then) to notice the phenomenom and its effects. Villagers in Grasmere, where he lived at Dove Cottage, went to extraordinary lengths to safeguard their homes after hearing about the slaughter of the Marr family in Wapping. Despite the fact that it’s 300 miles away. De Quincey wrote a satire on the public’s fascination, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, in 1827.

Apart from De Quincey, ballads and broadsides, puppet shows and melodramas, carried the news to avid ears, creating huge public interest in the trials and executions of the murderers. John Williams, suspect in the Ratcliff Highway murders, hanged himself in jail. Thwarted of a spectacle, the authorities carried his body by cart to the Marr’s house, where someone wrenched his head around so it was looking at the scene of his putative crime.

The executions of William Corder (Maria Marten’s killer) and the Mannings were both public, as was usual for the time. But they really pushed out the boat for the Mannings, carrying out the execution on the roof of the jail, so everyone could see. Charles Dickens booked a room with a view and held a party, while still lecturing the hoi polloi for their gloating enthusiasm.

The delicious frisson that earned the Mannings their 5 star execution may well have been due to Maria’s demonstration that a woman could be every bit as ruthless and devious as a man.

This episode was the groundwork, so to speak. The next one looks at how crime, science, and detection affected the culture of homicide in the Victorian Age. This is classic Worsley, and I am in Seventh Heaven.

The Life of Pi

The Life of Pi Poster

It seems almost churlish to quibble over Ang Lee’s beautiful, big-hearted new film, The Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, which I have not read. First impressions got off to a shaky start when I was charged £7.50 instead of the usual £5, because I hadn’t realised it was in 3D. My knee-jerk reaction to 3D is that it’s a gimmick, something no honest film needs. So I was a tad disgruntled as I sat down with the silly glasses and growled a bit, much like Richard Parker.

But The Life of Pi is stunning magical realism on 3D steroids, and I’m a sucker for magical realism. From Pi’s childhood in Pondicherry, as part of a family that owns a zoo, to his being washed up in Mexico, the birds, beasts, and fish erupt out of the screen. Not only that, the night sky is a velvet backdrop sown with stars, and the sea on which he floats sometimes disappears as a visual barrier, and we’re looking down into an ocean world. Eye candy of the highest order.

Pi is the thoroughly engaging narrator of this strange story, in which he survives a shipwreck while sharing a lifeboat with a splendid Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Their relationship becomes almost symbiotic after some initial unpleasantness, imbued with a sort of Edenic innocence.

Pi is an enthusiastic religious bigamist, starting out as Hindu and adding the major world religions one by one. He’s looking for God and doesn’t think God would want him to be  stand-offish when something new shows up. Pi also sees God in the eyes of Richard Parker, who keeps him alive during his ordeal by keeping him alert, resourceful, and aware.

The Life of Pi is a beautiful, visceral allegory about keeping your eyes and mind open. But the Japanese shipwreck investigators find his story impossible to believe. Their skepticism is a shock after living in Pi’s mind for most of the film. He has to give them a realistic and tragic account of his survival. And this account could well be the truth, with the animals on the lifeboat as allegorical representations of the original group of survivors.

It ties in with Pi’s search for God, which can be seen as a search for a better story. The film is quite explicit. He asks the writer to whom he’s telling the story which version he prefers. I’m not sure if this film is brilliantly subversive, or loading the dice in favour of the comforting story. It reminds me of something John Bunyan said in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Dost thou love picking meat, or wouldst thou see a man in the clouds and hear him speak to thee?

I think the film presents a false dichotomy. The world is a complex, beautiful place when seen through the eyes of rationality and science, as represented by Pi’s father. Hence my quibble. I will have to read the book to see if it’s more nuanced than the film.

That said, I highly recommend The Life of Pi.

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (7.2.8)

Doctor Who PosterBBC Doctor Who Website

The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered.

A stunning season finale that makes sense of this message, and explains the impossibility of Clara, wrapped up in a dark, complex, emotionally intelligent, and moving episode by Steven Moffat. It also features running glimpses of all the previous Doctors – William Hartnell in colour! – and some of their voices as part of the Doctor’s timeline. And if that’s not all you could wish for, it reveals another Doctor we’ve never seen before. This episode is about echoes in time, space, and the lives of these fascinating characters. Clara is the girl from Asylum of the Daleks, as we know when she tells Artie and Angie, “This time I will be souffle girl…a souffle is not a souffle, a souffle is the recipe.”

You know it’s going to get complicated when the opening scene is Gallifrey in the distant past, and William Hartnell’s Doctor is prevented from nicking a faulty Tardis by Clara. How did she get there? Well, it starts in 1893 London when Madame Vastra and Jenny receive the above message from a murderer. A dream conference call, with Trax, Clara, and River attending in spirit, literally in River’s case, is attacked by the white-faced,vampiric Whispermen, led by the Great Intelligence in the guise of Dr Simeon. They kill Jenny’s sleeping body, and take them to the Fields of Trenzalore, where Trax employs his medical skills to revive Jenny. River and Clara, lead the Doctor to them via a telepathic link with the Tardis.

Trenzalore is not a place the Tardis wishes to visit, since it’s a huge graveyard, site of the Doctor’s last battle and his final death. No wonder she refuses to land, and the Doctor has to make her fall to earth instead. Neither is the Doctor chuffed at the prospect – for a time traveller, it’s a place to be avoided at all costs – but he must rescue his friends.

Pursued by the Whispermen, they enter his tomb – the huge, grotesque ruin of the Tardis in the future – through a secret door in River’s gravestone. It has no business being there, but River knows about it, as she seems to know about so much. She prompts Clara with the information, apparently invisible to the Doctor, though he knows she’s there all along.

They’re re-united with Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax outside the control room of the Tardis/Tomb, where they are captured by the Great Intelligence. He wants to open the door, the key to which is the Doctor’s name, and he echoes Dorian the Blue Bloke when he asks, “Doctor Who? Doctor Who?” He tells his Whispermen to stop the hearts of the Doctor’s friends unless he gets an answer. River says the word that opens the door, but we don’t hear it.

There’s no body inside, just a column of raw pulsing energy where the central column of the Tardis would be. Because time travel causes damage, this is “the scar tissue of my journey through the universe, my path through time and space.” It is the Doctor’s time stream, peopled by all his past and future regenerations, singing with their voices.

The supreme prize for the Great Intelligence, who walks into it so he can destroy the Doctor’s work and happiness. (Cue more Doctors). As Madame Vastra says, “Simeon is attacking his entire timeline. He’s dying all at once. Dear Goddess, the universe without the Doctor! There will be be consequences.” And there are: Jenny is once more dead, Strax has reverted to being her enemy, before dying himself, and the stars are going out in a nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s story, The Nine Billion Names of God.

Clara steps into the timeline to rescue the Doctor in all of time and space. This is where she becomes the impossible girl, fragmented into echoes of herself, each one unaware of her past lives. While Dr Simeon is destroyed by his experience within the time stream, Clara is left lost and alone when her job is done.

Time now for the Doctor to enter his own stream and call her back with the leaf that brought her parents together in her current existence. Clara and the Doctor are re-united, just in time for her to see a figure with his back turned to them, also the Doctor

Doctor: The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise. He is my secret.
His Secret: What I did, I did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity.
Doctor: But not in the name of the Doctor.

This opens up endless possibilities. Could he be from the Time War, when Gallifrey was destroyed along with the Daleks? Then he turns round, showing himself as a ravaged old man, and the legend unfurls, “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.”

Well wham, bang, thank you ma’am, the Moff knows how to end on a cliff-hanger.

I hope you don’t mind the plot summary. So much is happening that I needed to get the bare bones laid out to think about it properly. Part of the reason for writing these reviews is to get my own thoughts about the series in order. I loved the way it brought so many themes together.

I’m glad the relationship between the Doctor and River has been resolved. It was all a little unsatisfactory that she disappeared from the series after their marriage. The Doctor made a copy of her in the Library after her death, and didn’t say goodbye, because “he doesn’t like endings.” He admits he did not visit her because “I thought it would hurt me, and I was right.” River wanted a proper goodbye and she gets one here, along with a good snog, in the Doctor’s promise to “see you around, Professor River Song.” I don’t think her echo will fade away.

There were other touching moments between Madame Vastra and Jenny. Madame Vastra is distraught at Jenny’s two deaths. Her reply to Strax, when he heals her the first time, is telling.

Strax: The heart is a relatively simple thing.
Madame Vastra: I have not found it so.

As for Strax, I laughed out loud at his idea of a good weekend off – having a brawl in a Glasgow pub – and Madame Vastra’s thoughts on the matter: “I wish he’d never discovered that place.”

The Doctor and Clara are now bound by deep ties of gratitude. While she has saved his life in all of time and space, he has rescued her from fragmentation within the time stream. What’s next for them, and will Clara feel the same way about John Hurt if he shows up as the next Doctor?

It’s a long time to November 23rd.

This post has been powered by Irn-Bru, the beverage of champions. It gets you through.

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (7.2.6)

Doctor Who Poster - The Crison Horror

BBC Doctor Who Site

Mrs Gillyflower: Join us in this shining city on the ‘ill!

There’s trouble ‘t mill in this splendid romp, written by that aficionado of cinematic horror, Mark Gatiss. Tough as old boots, Mrs Gillyflower is played by Diana Rigg, clearly loving the role of this completely over the top villain. In a stroke of genius her long-suffering daughter, Ada, is played by her own own daughter, Rachael Stirling. In addition, three of of my favourite characters show up to help the Doctor out of his pickle – Madame Vastra and her partner, Jenny, and the still bloodthirsty but well-trained Sontaran warrior, Strax. (“You’re over-excited. Have you been eating those jelly sherbert fancies again?”)

The episode is full of the sort of theatrical northernness you might find in the Fosdyke Saga, mated with cliches from cinematic horror movies, and tempered by a Whovian sensibility. I particularly enjoyed Mrs Gillyflower’s organ, which revolves to reveal the launch panel for her rocket. Touch of the Dr.Phibes there, which would have been even more perfect if Mrs Gillyflower had played something. And special mention for the engaging Thomas Thomas, who gives such perfect directions to Strax, just as he’s about to shoot his fourth horse in a week.

We don’t see the Doctor or Clara until well into the episode, except in the last image captured in a dead man’s eyes – a dead, red man, seeing a red Doctor. Madame Vastra and Jenny travel to 1893 Yorkshire, where Jenny infiltrates Mrs Gillyflower’s chilling cult of moral purity. Only the most perfect survive being dipped into a vat of red Jurassic leech venom. These lucky, petrified people get to live under glass domes in perfect little houses in Sweetville, Victorian values at their most explicit. Clara makes the grade, while the Doctor’s rejected, but doesn’t die like all the other rejects who get dumped in the canal. Blind, scarred Ada takes a fancy to him and locks up her “monster” in a cell.

Until he’s rescued by Jenny, and they rescue Clara, and the whole gang takes on the  evil Mrs Gillyflower and her “silent partner,” Mr Sweet. As well as being the modified descendant of Jurassic leeches, Mr Sweet has thriven on the polluted waters of the canal. Together, he and Mrs Gillyflower are producing industrial quantities of his red venom to purify the world.

Unmasked by the Doctor and his companions, Mrs Gillyflower tries to spread her red venom around the world, in the the form of a rocket (what else) hidden in a factory chimney. Foiled by Clara’s chair-in-the-control-panel ploy, she takes Ada hostage and triggers the secondary firing mechanism in the chimney. Too late! Madame Vastra and Jenny have the vat of red venom that’s the rocket’s payload. Strax shoots the pistol from her hand, she falls to her death, and Mr Sweet crawls off but can’t escape getting pulverized by an irate Ada. Huzzah!

Lots of questions from Madame Vastra and Jenny about Clara. The Doctor appears to be sticking to his conclusion from last week, that Clara is just Clara. But Madame Vastra is having none of it: “I was right then. You and Clara have unfinished business.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the photo of Clara in Victorian London (not Yorkshire), which is among the photos her charges have discovered on the internet. Come to think of it, the Doctor was extremely keen to get Clara to 1893 London, but by then she’d had enough of Victorian values. In any case, now the kids know their nanny’s a time traveller, they want a go in the time machine as well.

Perhaps this was the perfect episode, I don’t know. But aye, it were reet grand.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Smut - Two Unseemly StoriesMrs Donaldson is a youngish 55, not unhappily widowed after an underwhelming marriage, though burdened by a strict daughter who idolized her father. When Mrs Donaldson’s pension proves inadequate, she’s forced to get a part-time job and take in lodgers. The job is acting out symptoms for medical students as part of their training in diagnostic and patient-care skills. (Who knew such a profession existed? Reading fiction is truly an education in itself.) Mrs Donaldson is a star in this particular firmament, and she’s lusted after from afar by the doctor in charge of the training. Her lodgers are drawn from that same pool of students. Despite vague yearnings for a more fulfilling widowhood, all is quite seemly until Andy and Laura find themselves unable to pay the rent. Their suggestion of a creative way to pay it off in lieu is the seed for The Greening of Mrs Donaldson.

In the second story, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, her in-the-closet son, Graham, breaks his mother’s heart by leaving home and marrying a woman he’s much too good for. But plain Betty does have a lot of money. And a lot of sense, which she’s far too clever to make known to her husband. It’s about secrets, lies, blackmail, and how an apparently dysfunctional family is perfectly sustainable when everyone else has their own secrets, and aren’t particularly bothered by Graham’s.

Alan BennettAlan Bennett’s voice is unique. He has captured a blend of English, middle class respectability that is completely aware of the throbbing veins of desire lurking beneath the skin. And perfectly capable of accommodating those desires in a way that doesn’t disturb the status quo. His sex scenes are exemplary – discreetly explicit, without descending to the vulgarity of a naming of parts, and yet you know exactly what’s going on. And often very funny. We’ve all heard of the Bad Sex Award, where writers of literary fiction are raked over the coals for their purple passages. Alan Bennett would win hands down if there was a Good Sex Award.

I also like his humanity. While some of his characters are veritable monsters, he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re human monsters. Speaking of the dreadful Mrs Forbes, for example:

Monstrous as she was, a tyrant and a snob, Graham’s mother was an ogre of such long-standing that her feelings (though they could often only be guessed at) nevertheless merited respect. Not yet an ancient monument she was a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armour-plated ignorance merited preservation.

As you can see from this passage, Bennett is tough-minded as he is humane.

These thoroughly smutty tales are a delight. I highly recommend Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.

A History Maker

James Hogg Statue and St Mary’s Loch, Scottish Borders

A History Maker, by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 1994)

This is a Scottish science fiction novel about a flawed utopia and a misfit who unwittingly brings about necessary change.  As the title suggests, it’s also about the role history plays in how we think about the present, particularly the tendency to think in terms of historical epochs.  And about how disastrously wrong we can be.  You might remember Francis Fukuyama and all that nonsense about The End of History when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

Gray opens with a quote that sets the tone for the whole novel:

Economics: Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need.  In historical times this word was used by British governments and their advisers to mean political housekeeping – the art of keeping their bankers, brokers and rich supporters well supplied with money, often by impoverishing other householders.  They used the Greek instead of the English word because it mystified folk who had not been taught at wealthy schools.  The rhetoric of plutocratic governors needed economics as the sermons of religious governments needed the Will of God.  (From The Intelligence Archive of Historical Jargon.)

Alasdair Gray

Spot on.  Can’t say fairer than that.  Set in the early 23rd century, the world has changed beyond recognition.  Biogeneticists have created powerplants that tower into the sky, their roots tapping into geothermal energy, to provide households with all their food and everything but the bulkiest of household goods.  They even extrude the living quarters where extended families raise their children communally and monogamy is a thing of the past.

As a result, there is now a domestic economy with no need for money or government, and people no longer have to live in cities.  Women are literally instrumental in supplying the necessities of life, through their ability to play them into existence on the keyboard of the powerplant. It’s an intuitive art akin to music, though Gray doesn’t say why men could not do the same.

Men no longer have any crucial role to play in their communities, apart from those who leave Earth for the Moon and Solar System to prepare those places for human expansion, or go into science and the entertainment industry.  Their new role is to become warriors in televised battles, based on a region’s history.  The battles are real, brutal, lethal, and while medical science can regrow hacked-off limbs, people still die.  It’s all strictly regulated by a future version of the Geneva Convention to ensure that the domestic economy is not harmed.  Young girls stick posters of their favourite warriors on their walls and, since a warrior’s function between battles is to maintain the population, have a good prospect of bearing their children.

Not everyone is happy.  Wat Dryhope is a misfit – he’s been to the Moon and returned because he can’t bear the loss of Earth and the past it represents.  As a warrior, he’s still discontent because there are no real consequences (apart from his death) of the battles fought for television audiences.  At heart, he wants monogamy and something to fight for that really matters.

I said this is Scottish science fiction, and it is deeply rooted in that country’s history, but it’s also set in a very specific place – St Mary’s Loch in the Scottish Borders.  So the historically appropriate form of warfare is a recreation of the battles between the Borders and Northumbria that occurred for centuries during the Middle Ages and beyond.  There’s also a touch of the football teams about them in the way they’re presented on television – Borders United v. Northumbria United.

Dryhope Tower, where Wat’s mum lives

Wat Dryhope is the catalyst for change in this very civilized, but somewhat smug, matriarchy.  He pulls off an audacious, only just within the rules, draw for Clan Ettrick against overwhelming odds, becoming a world-wide celebrity.  Unknown to him, a few other misfits in the entertainment industry are pumping up the publicity to destabilize society.  It begins to work as pressure builds for bigger and better battles, creating a new appetite for militarism.  And there’s worse to come – he’s about to meet the love of his life.

I’ll not say more.  This is a stunning, complex novel, with roots deep in Scottish history and culture.  The story is told by the characters, first Wat’s mother, representing the matriarchy, and then Wat’s account of the 7 days encompassed by the novel.  At the end, she adds a section called Notes & Glossary Explaining the Obscurities, an essential coda to the story.  And there are some splendid illustrations and maps by the author, which work together with the text to bring out the ethos of this society.

I can’t recommend A History Maker too highly.

St Mary’s Loch