Monday, 26 November 2012

My Novels: Lone Britannia

Lone Britannia

Word count:

October 2005 to April 2006

Here’s the basis of Lone Britannia as summed up in a letter I wrote to an agent back when I was submitting it...

The novel is basically a piece of speculative fiction-cum-dystopian future, the central idea of which is that sometime in the very near future, Britain wakes up one morning to find that it is completely alone in the world. No other islands or landmasses, no Ireland or other parts of the British Isles, just the one main island of Britain sitting alone in a globe of empty ocean, all other life and land completely vanished. I know that this sounds like a bit of a science-fiction idea, but the important thing is not why or how this happened – this is never explored in the book, above the speculations of those left behind in Britain as to what may possibly have caused it. It’s a way of isolating the country and finding out what might happen to it after that.

Lone Britannia does a similar thing to HG Wells in The War of the Worlds – uses an extraordinary event to turn life in Britain completely upside-down and examine what might happen to us as a country and a culture if everything that we knew was taken away and the country had an entirely new reality to cope with. It is, if you like, a sort of ‘Britain in a test tube’ story, the nation taken out of its place in the world and left to be self-contained and self-supporting – would it sink or swim? In my more pretentious moments I like to think of it as a kind of Lord of the Flies writ large, where instead of a planeload of boys trapped on a desert island, you expand it to sixty million people trapped on a slightly larger lump of rock, but still with the same sense of desperation and struggle for survival.

The dying embers of the November afternoon sun shone low through the tall bedroom window, a rectangle of deep orange light falling across the bed through the side of the glass not covered by the half-closed curtains. He watched her long, shapely legs shift slightly as she moved, the glow of the light playing on the skin where it fell across them, the top of the rectangle stopping just before it reached his own legs. They both lay there, naked, comfortable and happy on top of the blue bed sheets, the warmth of the central heating making it easy to do so even with the cold weather outside. The curtain covering the other half of the window was light red and not thick enough to prevent all light coming through, so it had the effect of creating a red filter, suffusing the room with a warmth and cosiness that matched that provided by the radiator.

He could have happily stayed there forever. He enjoyed the feeling of having Imogen there beside him, dozing happily, her head on his shoulder, long dark hair pressing softly against the skin of his neck and face. The feel of his arm around her shoulders, of the two of them snuggled up together, simply enjoying the feeling of being in one another’s presence and the pleasure of existing on a day such as this.

It was she who stirred first, stretching like a cat and then smiling up at him, planting a soft kiss on his cheek as she rose from the bed and walked casually over to the window, looking out into the road. He smiled at her, shaking his head as he did so.

“You’ll give somebody as coronary standing at the window like that.”

I first had the idea for Lone Britannia back in 2004, and wrote some bits of it – including what was probably a better opening section than the one above, featuring a ship ploughing through the Channel at night and not finding France where it was supposed to be, only an endless expanse of water.

For whatever reason, I don’t recall exactly why, I never got on with a proper draft of it then, but the following year – after I had finished writing 1963, and was submitting it to agents – I decided to have at go at my “Britain alone” idea.

I thought, and still think, it’s a decent idea for a story. Britain wakes up one morning to find it’s the only landmass left in a globe of water. A couple of the people I showed it to or explained the storyline to had problems with this, wanting to know the hows and whys of this coming about, but I never felt that was important – I hate to use the phrase “magical realism”, but I suppose it does verge on being in that realm of literature.

I referenced The War of the Worlds in the above summary of the story for agents. It’s long been one of my all-time favourite novels, and I would love to write something a tenth as good. I love that feel of... this sounds like a criticism, it’s not mean to be – almost a “cosy apocalypse”. Perhaps “claustrophobic apocalypse” would be better.

Lone Britannia is a lot longer than The War of the Worlds, and lacks any of Wells’s sense of focus. I think the beginning and some of the middle is all right, but the final third of the novel just falls apart really.

Looking back:
I wasn’t terribly happy with life while I was writing Lone Britannia. I’d finished university, and stayed in Norwich for want of anything else to do with life. In November 2005 I started a very boring job with Norfolk County Council, for whom I would work for the following two-and-a-bit years, and hadn’t yet started volunteering at the BBC, so I felt quite bleak about my future and what my life had in store. It was very much “Is this it? Refilling photocopiers on the sixth floor at County Hall forever more...?”

Fortunately it wasn’t, but I think some of that sense of bleakness infuses Lone Britannia. It also suffers from the same problem as all of my novels up to about 2009 – a lack of patience, and a lack of appreciation of the wonders that can be worked in redrafting and rewriting. I tended to always finish first drafts and decide that was the best I could do, rather than go back and carefully try and proof-read and improve things.

The final third also suffers from a messy train crash of different ideas – including the beginnings of a still-unwritten novel I intend to sit down and do properly one day called Son of Albion, about a post-apocalyptic King of the United Kingdom. Who knows if that will end up being any good? If it is, perhaps something decent may have come out of Lone Britannia.

I don’t recall how many agents or publishers I tried Lone Britannia on. I definitely submitted it to Laura Morris, the agent who had engaged me in correspondence about 1963, although she turned it down. I am sure I must have submitted it to others, but my diaries of the time are curiously silent on the matter, and I can’t find any submission letters at all in my old document back-ups, although the synopsis and sample chapters are there.

Friday, 23 November 2012

"1963" - an anniversary excerpt

Today is the twenty-third of November – the anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who, back in 1963.

I’ve written on this blog before about my attempt in 2005 to write a novel about the creation of Doctor Who. So I thought I’d go back and fish out a short excerpt from it to post here. It’s not a great piece of writing – frankly it’s pretty average, at best. It’s too much an attempt to cram in people and events and anecdotes from all the real history, although the very end of the section – based on an apparently true story – isn’t bad, I suppose.

I know it could be dangerous to post bits of my writing here which I know not to be great, but what the hell? It is an anniversary, after all! I could do better these days, honest...

As we join it, one of my main characters – fictional production secretary Gillian – has been asked to attend what we might now call a “brainstorming” dinner of writers and executives to work on a new Saturday teatime project – an educational science-fiction serial for children…

She was a little late arriving at the restaurant, eventually getting there in something of a fluster at about ten past. Fortunately, she quite easily spotted Donald and the others at their table – she felt considerably nervous about being out with the Head of Drama, the Head of Serials and who-knew-what other important BBC ‘Head ofs’, but luckily for her there were a couple of others there who she at least knew by sight. As well as Mr Wilson and Mr Newman, there was a man she recognised at once as Bunny Webber, one of the staff writers, and another staffer Wilson introduced to her as ‘Tony’, who was somewhat nearer her age, and Australian.

She was seated next to another younger man, somewhere in his early thirties, who introduced himself as Richard. He was evidently a new director fresh from the training course who’d been earmarked to work on this new series they were plotting, whatever it turned out to be. Finally, at the other end of the table, arguing with Newman, was a man called Tucker, who was apparently supposed to be producing the thing, but didn’t look happy about it.

“He’s just supposed to be getting things rolling while they wait for Newman’s chosen one to arrive,” Richard joked to her, as she took a grateful swig of the wine she’d been offered.

“Who’s that then?” she asked quietly. “I mean, who does he want to produce it?”

“Some girl who worked for him at ABC apparently,” Richard said. “Lambert, she’s called. She was with him on Armchair Theatre and she’s been in the US working with Susskind. I can’t see the rest of the Drama Group standing for it personally, but then again it’s his department. Apparently he offered it to Taylor and Sutton, but they both turned it down.”

Gillian nodded, pretending to know exactly who he was talking about, and wondering if she was to be bored to death by Drama Group politicking all night. Still, she took out the pen and pad of paper she’d brought, ready to jot down anything she was asked to, or that seemed to be important.

There she remained, still awaiting something worth noting as dessert arrived.

Richard kept trying to engage her in conversation with tales of his work on the director’s course and other things she hardly found thrilling, and although Wilson was polite and asked after her, he was too involved in his discussions with Webber, Newman, Tucker and the Australian writer, Tony, to pay her much attention. She felt ignored, she was bored, but at least the wine was good. She had to be careful though – she was, after all, only supposed to be there to make sure any brilliant ideas were noted down and not forgotten by anybody else in a drunken haze, and getting tipsy in front of her boss and his colleagues would hardly enhance her career prospects.

The arguments had begun to arrive at roughly the same time the main course did. Newman was holding court at the end of the table, gesticulating dramatically and making his views very firmly known, his voice carrying more powerfully than the others partly because of his excitement, and partly because his Canadian accent made him more noticeable. Gillian began to become a little embarrassed as diners at other tables glanced their way, but nobody else seemed to mind much – they were presumably used to this sort of thing from their Head of Department.

“He is not,” Newman declared, and then paused to say it again. “He is not anti-science. I’m sorry Bunny, but that’s just rubbish. Well, no, I’ll tell you what it is, it’s bol…”

“I think what he means,” Wilson tactfully interrupted. “Is that if we’re going to have a programme which is to educate children about the benefits of science and explore the future in an interesting and imaginative way, we cannot do it with a central character who is opposed to science. Otherwise, why would he have a time machine, for a start? That’s a scientific device, is it not?”

“Exactly!” Newman declared. “He’s a scientist, an inventor… He embraces all that stuff. He’s a genius!”

“That’s the point though,” Tucker put in irritably. “Who is he?”

“He’s a refugee,” Webber explained. “He’s fleeing from a war in the forty-ninth century, he stole the time machine because it’s the first one he could get his hands on, and he left because he was afraid of the war. The idea being that he keeps moving from place to place or else the authorities will track him down.”

“So why does he have the girl with him?” Richard asked. “Sorry I’ve forgotten her name…”

“Biddy,” Tucker said.

“No, we changed it to Susan,” Tony corrected. Thus far he’d been casually sitting back eating and drinking, watching the exchanges between the others with a detached, slightly amused look, but now he leaned forward and became involved. “Well, I think it’s a better name anyway.”

“Susan then,” Richard said. “Why is she with him?”

“She’s a princess,” Webber said, much to Newman’s apparent disapproval, as he shook his head and muttered something to Wilson. “He rescued her from the forty-ninth century and he’s travelling with her, on the run, when they arrive on Earth in the present day. They stay for a short while, she enrols in the local school, and that’s when our two teachers become involved.”

“Ah yes,” Richard said, “Cliff and Miss McGovern…”

“No, Ian and Barbara,” Tony corrected again.

“My God, it changes every week,” Tucker despaired, taking the wine bottle and re-filling his glass. It was clear even to Gillian that he was not keen on this project.

She hadn’t really noted anything useful on her pad – she knew that a fair bit of this was already flying around in memos; she’d seen some of them while working for Wilson this past week. It sounded very confusing and muddled to her, and she couldn’t imagine it getting off the ground.

“What about the ship?” Newman himself asked. “Does anybody have any good ideas for that yet? I’m sorry Bunny, but I just don’t like the ‘nothing at the end of the lane’ idea. Light-reflective paint just seems a bit… Well I think it’s a pretty lazy concept.”

Webber didn’t look too offended, but Gillian had to stop herself from laughing. The more she heard about all this, the less able she was to take it seriously. She noted down ‘no light-reflective paint’, more to amuse herself than anything else. Various other suggestions came from those around the table.

“A night watchman’s shelter!”

“A sedan chair!”

“A Corinthian pillar!”

“A potting shed…”

Much laughter. Gillian was, however, a little confused, and despite the illustrious company she decided to speak up.

“Sorry, I don’t quite understand… There are four characters who are supposed to travel around in this thing, correct?”

Wilson nodded. The Australian, Tony, looked as if he was about to say something, but stopped himself.

“So,” she continued, “how are they all supposed to fit into something so small? Have I missed something?”

More laughter. She felt embarrassed, and began to wish she hadn’t come, but Tony finally spoke up.

“Of course you’ve missed something,” he joked, pretending it must have been obvious to everyone. “The ship is bigger on the inside than it is on the out.”

Now she knew they were making fun of her.

“There’s no need to tease!” she protested. Tony, however, held up his hands in a gesture of innocence, and then pointed at Newman.

“Just ask the boss,” he said. “His idea.”

Newman, to her surprise, nodded, and seemed interested in her opinion.

“What do you think?”

She thought it was a load of old nonsense.

“It’s certainly… Original.”

“Exactly! That’s what we want, originality!” he looked around the rest of the table. “Ideas! What does it look like? Come on! It has to be something so bland and ordinary nobody would ever guess what was hidden inside it. Something that fits in, here and now!”

“What happened to the idea of it changing to blend in wherever it landed?” Richard asked.

“Too expensive,” Wilson explained. “We’ll explain that the device which usually changes it is broken, and it’ll stay in whatever shape it’s in when it’s in London, nineteen sixty-three.”

“If we ever agree on a shape,” Tucker pointed out.

And so it went on. And on. And on. Gillian wondered if people ever imagined this sort of thing went on when they thought of the BBC… Certainly she never had when before she’d gone to work there.

In the end, she didn’t write anything else down until later, when they were all getting up to leave. After having moved on from the new show in particular to the BBC and then life in general, Newman had suddenly decided that one important attribute the programme they were planning was lacking was a title.

The Time Travellers!”

The Time Machine… Oh no, hang on, that one’s been done hasn’t it…”

The Doctor and Friends…”

We Don’t Have the Budget for This But We’re Going to Try Our Best Anyway?”

Gillian had put her note pad away, and was just pocketing her pen when either Newman or Tucker – she didn’t quite hear who – suggested a title that stuck in her mind and made her jot the name down quickly on a paper napkin, which she stuffed into her handbag. It wasn’t until the following morning when she found it that she remembered even taking note of the suggestion. However, she made sure she copied it down and added it to the other notes she had written, to take into work on Monday just in case it ended up being useful at all.

Two words, quickly scrawled on the white napkin.

Doctor Who. Question mark.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Tuke Spirit

"Our Jack" (1886), by Henry Scott Tuke

I don’t often find myself watching the Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday evening. Of course, like most other people in the country I know what it is and what happens on it, and its theme tune echoes in the memory along with the others of the trinity of Sunday evening television that you never watched but somehow were always aware of – Songs of Praise and Last of the Summer Wine.

It’s not generally for me, although it’s always rather nice to catch a few minutes of it every few years and be comforted to know that it’s still there. It still exists.

However, this past weekend I was back home in Sussex, for the wedding of my friend Lauren at St Nicholas Church in Brighton on Saturday. A good time was had by all, I caught up with several old friends and – as always, when I visit Sussex – I ended up with the nagging, gnawing feeling that I really ought to be living there. I often arrive back in Norwich feeling melancholy about life, until I remember that I am lucky enough to have one of the best jobs in the world. I intend to cling on to my work at the BBC for as long as I can, and there’s no point in moving down to Brighton or Worthing to spend every weekday doing a job I hate, clock-watching my life away for evenings and weekends.

There will be time enough to return to Sussex in the years and decades to come – when the BBC has had enough of me, perhaps.

Anyway, the Antiques Roadshow. I ended up watching a few minutes of it on Sunday evening while staying at mum and dad’s house (hard not to think of it still as “home”). They watch and enjoy the programme every week, and I joined them briefly while scoffing some apple pie and cream. This week’s had been recorded in Falmouth, and someone from the local university campus brought along three paintings the institution owns by locally-renowned artist Henry Scott Tuke.

I’d never previously heard of Tuke, but this is hardly surprising as I know next to nothing about art. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that an academic institution would almost certainly already know how much these paintings were worth given they would have had them valued for insurance purposes, and also leaving aside what suspicions we might have about a grown man doing so many paintings of naked teenagers, I was struck by one particular thing when they showed a close-up of Tuke’s painting “Our Jack”.

Do you think he knew it was good?

It seems a strange question. I have long been jealous of painters, and to a certain degree musicians too, because you know pretty much immediately how good they are. You can look at a picture, or hear a snatch of a song, and be struck by it – “wow”. It’s much more difficult to get any kind of immediate impression from a piece of prose. Nobody’s going to hang up a novel on a wall and expect others to be dazzled by it. With a painting, you create an immediate reaction, one easily shared – with a novel, it takes time to seep into someone’s soul.

If you can achieve it at all.

But did Tuke know when he’d painted something and it was great? Was he proud and pleased? You or I may look at a painting and be struck by the sheer marvel of someone being able to capture the human form with oil and canvas, but Tuke may have gazed on his paintings and seen only the ruination of an idea. Just as I can never write the novels I had in my head, are painters wracked with frustration at never being able to get out the perfect picture they imagined? Do songwriters despair of ever being able to release the inner melody?

Did Tuke look at this picture and curse himself for being a poor, inadequate painter, when you or I would have told him he was a fool to do so?

I don’t know. But in a way, I hope he did. I have a suspicion anybody who writes, or paints, or makes music or films, or engages in any attempt at a creative endeavour, is like this. And only the greatest – among whom I do not, of course, count myself – overcome it and keep on producing fine work again and again, by which they are forever destined to be always disappointed.