Spinning Plates

I meant to write this entry six months ago and it would have begun “Yesterday (Friday), I was sent the finalised version of a chapter with a request for proofreading by the end of the weekend. I was annoyed, because I wanted to work on a book proposal.”

I’m always spinning plates. At any one time I could be:

  1. having an idea for a piece
  2. putting in a proposal
  3. drafting a piece
  4. rewriting a piece
  5. proofreading a piece.

Let’s see, at the moment I have various ideas for pieces and …

  • a paper to write for the Sideways in Time conference
  • a keynote to write for the SF postgrad conference
  • a book to read for review
  • a book proposal to finish
  • a conference paper to convert to an article
  • a secondary bibliography to annotate
  • two chapters to write for companions
  • an overdue biographical piece to write
  • an overdue survey chapter
  • an article that’s been bounced from a special issue but has been taken up and needs another thousand words adding
  • a book manuscript to rescue
  • a  submitted chapter that I’ve heard nothing back on
  • several reference book entries that are missing in action
  • a submitted chapter that may well need a proofread.

Meanwhile, there’s an edited collection due out with a chapter in it.

And none of that includes my research on brewing and drinking, that I’ve spent more time talking about in relation to KE and Impact than actually researching. I need to go away and read some Habermas, which incidentally is the thing I need to do for the book proposal although it’s not the same Habermas.

Looking at the list, that’s not much spinning plates as watching them crash. I have three lectures to deliver this week, only one of which has material to hand. My research day is tomorrow, but I fear the morning may have to be writing lectures.

I also have a stealth book I’m planning to assemble, but I’m not sure I’ve written any of the chapters yet. As conferences come up, I should be giving papers that would fit into that or the book proposal mentioned above — but the one for Sideways in Time is 1970s and something I missed from Solar Flares. Having looked at a call for papers for werewolves, I was thinking about something from entirely the wrong period for that proposal — although it wouldn’t fit on the face of it — nor in the stealth book. But it is on film, which I should be writing on.

At this point, I should really be saying no to projects, but then it’s an interesting venue or a cool editor or a sufficient cheque… A collection recently came out that I don’t have a chapter in, and it is clearly “my” thing, but any annoyance is balanced by the realisation that I in no way had time to write for it. I’m still open for business, but don’t be upset if I say no.

ETA: If you think I’m writing something for you and it’s not listed here — I am deliberately coy about the actual projects here for reasons of plausible deniability — email me. I may have entirely forgotten I said yes… Send me a message?

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The Incredible Hulke

Michael Herbert (2014) Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications), ISBN: 978-1910170090, 30 pages

I’d heard somewhere about the scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke being left of centre, although I’m not sure where from. I knew him through Doctor Who novelisations from the 1970s. Most were based on serials he’d written – although the titles were often changed from the television versions, none of which I’d seen. Some of them I had caught up with on TV or DVD over the years.

There was something about his aliens that was different. All too often, aliens stand in for difference, and thus a threat – within the Hollywood tradition as invaders, frequently to be read as the foreign threat of the age, typically the Communist. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), say, can be read as McCarthyite parable (or a satire of McCarthyism … or an attack on normalising America). Only rarely – The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), ET, The Extra-terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), say – do they come in peace. Hulke’s aliens tended not to be the villains of the piece, although humans often assumed they were at first. He often used reptilian characters – the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Draconians, the dinosaurs …. (well, duh). There’s an article in that to be written somewhere.

A week or so back an old comrade Mike Sanders drew my attention to a review of a pamphlet, Doctor Who and the Communist, in the Morning Star. This was published by Five Leaves Publications, a Nottingham-based radical small press who had published fascinating collections on Utopias and Map and appear to have opened a shop that is the natural successor to the much-missed Mushroom Bookshop.

The pamphlet, by socialist historian Michael Herbert, is thin. Well, obviously. Thirty pages. And what we seem to know about Hulke is thin. He was illegitimate at a point when it attracted much social stigma, he seemed to have gone to university, he joined and left the Communist Party at some point and worked for the Unity Theatre. I wonder how easy it would be to find out which university? I guess you’d need to go around each university? Has anyone asked Terrance Dicks? I suspect such information wouldn’t exist unless there was some letters or diaries. We don’t know when he joined the Communist Party or when he left – Herbert assumes 1956, with the invasion of Hungary, but that’s just a guess. Would there be a secret services file on him? I didn’t know where the Unity Theatre was and Herbert doesn’t tell us. It turns out it was in the King’s Cross area, now under housing, and home to a significant number of actors, writers and directors over the years.

Hulke doesn’t seem to have written for the Unity Theatre but wrote for radio and TV, including the Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960) Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961) serials, early children’s sf from Sydney Newman. When he was working on an episode of The Avengers, “The Mauritius Penny” (10 November 1962), he called on the aid of an advertising copywriter he was renting a room to, Terrance Dicks, as a cowriter. Hulke wrote scripts for early Doctor Who, which weren’t used, including a historical, so it wasn’t until “The Faceless Ones” (8 April-13 May 1967) that his byline appeared on the series – a story about aliens stealing human identity. (Ok, that doesn’t seem so typical. Co-writer David Ellis had worked on Dixon of Dock Green and was about to work on Z Cars). Less than two years later, Dicks turned to Hulke to help cowrite “The War Games” (19 April-22 June 1969) as the production team had run out of usuable scripts and time. Dicks, continuing as script editor commissioned him both to write “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (31 January-14 March 1970) and help rewrite David Whittaker’s “The Ambassadors of Death” (21 March-2 May 1970). Hulke’s work is clearly some of the most interesting of the era – an era that backed itself into a narrative corner by stranding the Doctor on Earth. Each week an alien had to invade or a scientific discovery had to go wrong; the series’s centring on a Britain defending itself from attack was clearly politically very interesting.in terms of its narrative of English postimperial melancholy. As I write in Solar Flares: “At a point when Britain had a relatively low military profile – and before the resurgence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – the UNIT narratives provide Britain with a role in world affairs without anyone having to go overseas (although occasionally they get to leave the planet).” (p. 117). Hulke seems to have been sceptical of the military, which introduces a tension in the UNIT stories.

Herbert spends about a paragraph on each of the serials, little more than brief summaries, noting significant actors, and so forth, before moving on to discuss those Target novelisations. (Dicks was series editor, unofficially I believe, but was both repaying a debt and giving work to a colleague who could produce the goods.) The political subtexts are noted, but not developed. Much of the Doctor Who materials appeared on a blog as a guest post. How does Hulke’s communism play out in his sympathetic aliens and his dangerous militias?

This pamphlet feels like a precursor to further work. Is there analysis to be written of Hulke’s sf or has it been done? I would imagine there are plenty of documents in the BBC’s archives, and I don’t know what criticism there is out there already, fannish or academic. I can’t see me doing any digging in the near future, so there it is, an idea parked.

I note, however, that coming soon is a biography, by John Williams, Mac: The Life and Work of Malcolm Hulke, which may answer such queries.

Bibliography

  • Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters (London: Target, 1974) [“Doctor Who and the Silurians”]:
  • Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon (London: Target, 1974) [“Colony in Space” 10 April-15 May 1971].
  • Doctor Who and the Sea Devils (London: Target, 1974) [26 February-1 April 1972]
  • Doctor Who and the Green Death (London: Target, 1975) [“The Green Death” (19 May 1973-23 June 1973), by Robert Sloman]
  • Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (12 January to 16 February 1974)]
  • Doctor Who and the Space War (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Frontier in Space” (24 February-31 March 1973)]
  • Doctor Who and the War Games (London: Target, 1979)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Faceless Ones (London: Target, 1986)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Ambassadors of Death (London: Target, 1987)

Doctor Who and the Communist is available from the publisher’s website, I would guess their bookshop and Housman’s Bookshop, Caledonian Road, London near King’s Cross.

Upon this Key, Time Will Slide

I don’t recall how it was I first got into Tangerine Dream in the early 1980s. With Neil and Paul I shared an interest of making music although I was always on the production side. I don’t recall whether we got into Tangerine Dream because Neil had a keyboard or whether Neil got a keyboard because we were into Tangerine Dream. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Genesis were hanging around, perhaps drifting from older brothers’ bedrooms and there were two drama teachers who were to be our gurus to alt.culture. Jean-Michelle Jarre had released three albums – Oxygene was too abstract for me, Magnetic Fields felt too commercial and Equinox was just about right.

We were considered to be old enough to be allowed to go into town with friends or even on our own without adult supervision, and not only were there two or even three HMVs, but Selectadisc had two branches, probably three shops, and WH Smiths still sold vinyl. Brothers in Arms was yet to convince us that plastic boxes were the way forward. There may have been an Our Price and an (ho hum) Andy’s Records, and a market stall and – a miraculous discovery – Good Vibrations, a secondhand music shop raising money for Greenham Common protestors with a psychic cat who sat on the precise stack of LPs you wanted to look through next.

Of course, we must have heard some – it was regularly used in documentaries and we watched Horizon most weeks – or got into it somehow because one day I went into town and went from shop to shop checking prices. The cheapest two available were Phaedra and Rubycon and I suspect that I just thought that the ghostly blues of the sleeve were more pleasing than the drop of water on Rubycon.

It would be ten years or more before I was to read Walter Benjamin but already I got aura. A gatefold is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The twelve inch of cardboard already gives a fantastic canvas, but a gatefold gives you a landscape. In time it gives you Roger Dean (and you end up with Avatar) and a whole new world. (Triple albums on the other hand I was in two minds about. Maybe they were a little … decadent? Pretentious?) The album held a magic that CDs never did – they were regressive in design terms, mere functional – and I cannot embrace to download, as a child of objects rather than services. I scoured the sleep for information – dates, personnel, who played what and noted a child’s face (a boy? a girl?) hidden in plain sight in the artwork.

And having got the bus home and the not then so Aged Ps being out at work, I could listen to Phaedra on the stereo in the living room. There is that moment of anticipation when you buy a record you know nothing about – if I could remember church services I might compare to the vicar raising the host or something – the moment of not knowing what sound is going to emerge or whether the stylus will not just scrape across that disk.

I can’t write about music and I can’t dance about architecture, but then you knew that. A seventeen minute thirty nine seconds instrumental using moogs, mellotrons, organs and sequencers – the flob flob flob running water/fan of the VCS3 – and somewhere in the mix guitars and bass and flute. It felt – at an age too young for drugs – like I’d been taken on a trip. Certainly I was already hooked.

Meanwhile Neil had gone out and bought Rubycon. He played it to me and I liked it but obviously it wasn’t quite as good as Phaedra, although it had that secret head hidden on it. We had a kind of unspoken agreement – home taping was killing music and so we would each buy a Tangerine Dream album and allow the other to record it. We went into town and – trust a thirty year memory – we bought Stratosfear and Tangram. (Might it have been Exit with its sell-out five minute tracks or Ricochet?) I can’t remember if Neil’s version of Tangram had an inner sleeve design or an insert, but some versions had them. We researched tangrams. We looked up the strange words from the track titles in dictionaries and thesauri. We went out and bought Force Majeure and Hyperborea and I liked both them rather more than Neil did who wasn’t sure if that had been a fiver well spent.

At some point Paul joined in – I think we let him buy Cyclone (oh poor pretentious children) and I think he bought White Eagle and I had this sense that was risking the pact because we weren’t keeping up in buying them all together (really? What was I thinking?). Over the next two years we collected all the Virgin studio albums and two live albums. The local library had – why I have no idea but someone must have ordered it – the OST for Sorcerer and one of us must have bought Thief and Le Parc. The double live album Poland came out and was maybe a little meh. The Virgin years were behind us. TD wise.

And we saw them live at Nottingham Concert Hall, sat in the front row and then we had everything they’d released (or we assumed) and the new stuff was too electronica my tastes. I saw them live again and again too much BPM. By then we were at uni and I listened to taped copies and the albums gathered dust – I bought some of Paul’s cast offs and filled in my gaps. Vinyl was over though.

How did we know what the gaps were? I suspect we scoured microfiche in the library and maybe there was a reference book. I’d borrowed Atem, Alpha Centauri and Zeit (“Shite”) from the library, but a boxset scored me copies along with Electronic meditation. Klaus Schulze had gone solo and I think I was the only one to really like him – although the fake strings of X (“Heinrich von Kleist”?) nearly swayed Neil’s classical loving Dad. Peter Baumann released two albums – poppy technoish – and so did Steve Joliffe – one about extra bodily experiences the other butterflies. Edgar Froese released solo work – but that was pretty well Tangerine Dream anyway, although I was less of a fan. I tried atonal music and Bach and dipped into Eloi, but never quite went the krautrock route. I collected Bo Hansson’s four albums and some of Gong and… the pretentious progrock of Yes.

Vinyl was dead. My brother bought me CD compilations and when I saw the other CDs in Fopp for a fiver I picked them up. I put some on my hard drive. My brother burnt me later albums onto CDs, I found bits on Spotify and YouTube but it lost the aura.

And now Edgar Froese is dead. Chris Franke aside, he was for me Tangerine Dream.

I’d only just played one of their CDs but don’t blame me.

It’s a whole chunk of my teen years – my eighties as uncanny echo of the then hated (by others) seventies, the decade that taste forgot. Did I write about them in Solar Flares? (I dance on the inside.) It was technology and culture and internationalism; it was Saturday mornings; it was friendships and altruism and rivalries; it was teenage bedrooms and joss sticks and a row of trainers by the front door; it was playing with keyboards and home made multitrack; it was a pile of TDK D90s. It was a way into baroque and to minimalism, although for me it wasn’t the diddly diddly diddly music our parents scorned but the minimalism that would change, the abstract that shifted into tune – the unexpected melody of a piano, the screech of electric guitar disguised. It was analogue fucking with digital. It was the thrill of the hunt, it was that pile of record sleeves. It felt real and it would last forever.

It didn’t. It probably wasn’t.