Saturday, 23 August 2014

A universe in self-discovery: LonCon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, 14-18 August 2014

I've come to science-fiction convention-going rather late, though this reflects the modern era of digital  communication where different strands of fan experiences overlap and cross-fertilise much more often and much more frequently than they once did. Consequently there's perhaps more for someone who has a fan background in television fantasy and science fiction, principally Doctor Who, and an academic background in history to find of interest in 'mainstream' science fiction fandom than there seemed to be twenty or thirty years ago. My main contact with literary fandom is through the many friends I have made in Tolkiendom. However, in recent years gates have been stormed, unlocked or been weathered away by unanticipated forces and gatekeepers left astounded. Though aware of its existence for over a year it was only within the last couple of months that I decided I'd regret not attending the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention - WorldCon - when this annual globetrotting event touched down in London for the first time since 1965, courtesy of a successful bid two years ago by the London in 2014 committee, here presenting LonCon 3. With teens of tracks running and seven thousand people attending it was difficult to select which parts of the convention to attend and there was a lot that I'd intended to see and missed. My review is probably more wide-eyed than others - I have few conventions in my past with which to compare it - but is nevertheless offered to the blog-reading public.

Day One: Thursday 14 August 2014

The week before LonCon 3 was a hectic one, including training down to London from my parents' in Northumberland in order to join a panel at Nine Worlds, spend the weekend commuting to the convention, then devote three days to work, only one of which saw me reaching the office. Consequently I'd given little thought to how busy registration might be, though travelling to ExCeL on Wednesday to register early had crossed my mind but was a complication too far. I consequently arrived at ExCeL to find a queue of people lined up before the top of a stairway, without it being quite clear what this was. I asked a volunteer in a high visibility jacket where the registration queue was; he explained that it was downstairs and I would have to join the queue for the queue first. Many instructions and being escorted down the stairs in a large group later, and after fifty minutes, I could leave with my lanyard, badge, souvenir book and programme schedule. 

I'd intended to follow the Tolkien Sociey's Tolkien track that day, but ended up only going to one of the Tolkien events. Suggestions from several of the people whom I met (including Sarah Groenewegen, whom I always seem to run into early at these things, and Richard and Chris Crawshaw, briefly returned from parts antipodean) led me to attend the opening ceremony; the sketches were far more suited to a smaller venue than the ExCeL auditorium but the initial playing about with props to create homespun versions of iconic SFF creatures and devices was successful even if the conceit following about the LonCon School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which had relocated from Hugowarts. was a bit laboured given that it also had to convey essential information about the convention.

I milled around a little after that but was ready to crowd into an aisle for 'The Changing Face of the Urban Fantastic' at 1.30pm; I wasn't keeping notes at this stage but vaguely remember battling with a sandwich while trying not to disturb other people and regretting, when the roots of urban fantasy were being discussed, not being able to remember as much as would have been ideal of my research into Sweeney Todd, undertaken back in 2002 for a very swiftly written Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article (freely avaiable to download as a podcast). Not being able to see faces matters in panels, I find, if one is used to doing so. 'Bagpuss vs Treguard' followed at 3pm. This panel, considering children's television programmes as a gateway to science fiction and fantasy, was not as well-informed as it might have been and it was left to members of the audience to provide much of the substance, for example a softly-spoken but authoritative fellow in a red shirt correcting the chair's apparent assertion that children's television didn't really get going in the UK until about 1974 with a reminder that the BBC Television children's department launched in 1948 (though its history is discontinuous). A potential for discussion of the influence of different generations of children's television - the Saturday morning cartoons in the US such as Space Ghost and indeed The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo, the Gerry Anderson series in the UK in the 1960s and their repeats over the next three decades, the children's fantasy series of the 1970s onwards - was I thought largely missed, though there was discussion of Moondial (not, the chair recalled, promoted as a genre series) and the 1980s Narnia adaptations as well as Helen Cresswell's version of Five Children and It, a dismissive mention of The Adventure Game, though thankfully a recognition that some do find that the first series of Rentaghost does have more going for it to adult eyes than its successors. Another panellist didn't recommend himself to me by making a dismissive remark about Terrance Dicks, a writer whose reputation has been redeemed somewhat in Doctor Who fandom once the framework in which he operated had become better understood, perhaps as a result of the large number of fan authors who are now themselves professionals.

I remember little about 'Doctor Who: Fandom for the Whole Family' other than that it zinged through the basis of Doctor Who's wide appeal and that Simon Guerrier managed to discuss the question of which regeneration the Peter Capaldi Doctor is without opening the pit of horta* that is The Brain of Morbius. For me, this was followed by my one visit to that day's Tolkien track, 'The Unpayable Debt', where the tale that stuck in my mind was how panellist Connie Willis's enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings distracted her from breaking up with her boyfriend to whom, nearly half a century later, she has long been married.

Afterwards it was back to keeping the kiosks of ExCeL in business before the Retro Hugo Awards 1939, a time-travelling interlude with the music of the Brideshead Ballroom Stompers, live reports from a commercial radio station presumably radiating from outside the United Kingdom given the laws of the time, adverts for a cold remedy, Orson Welles and a battle on the Thames as Martian invaders made their way towards Docklands while, of course, ignoring those adverts for a cold remedy. Mary Robinette Kowal and Rob Shearman were the hosts, Mary (we were told) arriving on time by DeLorean while Rob appeared late from behind a curtain, waving at an unseen person (as the TARDIS dematerialisation noise played) "Thanks for the lift! No, you're not too old! See you next Saturday!" The old Oxford Arthurian in me was glad that The Sword in the Stone won the best novel award, though I had some regrets for Out of the Silent Planet

After all this excitement I found I had a headache and retreated back across London to my usual abode when in the metropolis. Unwise eating led to my not sleeping for hours, which was not very helpful when there was again a city to cross the next morning.

*Yes, I know that's from The Face of Evil.

Day Two - Friday 15 August 2014

Following the calming of my tempestuous digestion, I slept later than planned and arrived at ExCel not long before midday, not helped by my leaping on a DLR train at Canning Town and only realising that it was for the Woolwich branch, not the Beckton one, once the doors closed and it started trundling away to West Silvertown. I didn't do four panels in a row on Friday, which probably helped avoid the headache of Thursday evening. I enjoyed a long acclimatisation instead, wandered around part of the exhibition stands and ended up buying three issues of Interzone and being invited to a Tolksocish sixteenth birthday party.

Panelwise, I enjoyed the three-headed panel about Ken Campbell's adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus, though one of the heads, Alan Moore, was only on video. John Higgs enthusiastically plugged his book on the KLF, who were brought together through working with Ken Campbell, but best were the personal reflections from Daisy Campbell about how Illuminatus has shaped her life from conception onwards, through her father's discouragement of her wish to read the book, through his death and her admission to a psychiatric hospital in Kent believing that she was the incarnation of Eris, goddess of chaos and international relations, wearing rainbow knickers on her head to stave off pronoia (everybody, she thought, wanted to help her). This eventually led to her forthcoming stage adaptation of Wilson's Cosmic Trigger as a way of coming to terms with the continued reach of her father in her life as well as doing something new of her own while coming as close as she wanted to restaging the eighteen-hour epic that was Illuminatus. I now know much more about where the cult of the Illuminati in popular culture comes from. There was then a mad dash upstairs to reach Dick Fiddy's Missing Believed Wiped panel, only to be turned away by kindly room steward Karen Baldwin with a regretful smile, as the room was full. I was persuaded to stay by fellow-Oxonian Katrin Thier. The queue for entry effectively captured Robert Shearman, who had also hoped to attend the talk, and forced him to opine on the subject of Doctor Who missing episodes; I was eventually elected to take a vacant place and caught a little of an Out of the Unknown clip as well as sequences from Moonbase 3 and Adam Adamant Lives, in addition to the BBC3 sketch commenting on the banning of The War Game by imagining how the Rank Organization's Look at Life series might deal with a post-nuclear scenario, which was just as disturbing as it was when I first saw it at last year's Missing Believed Wiped at the BFI. Dick Fiddy fielded questions about the current archive situation to an audience ranging from Missing Believed Wiped veterans to overseas visitors enthusiastic about but unfamiliar with British television history, who came away better informed about archive formats and the status of the ITV company archives.

A long coffee break followed, to which succeeded a trip to a panel on the city and fantasy writing of which I remember little, and then dinner with what Tolkienist MaddySeb dubbed 'the clique', though a large mass of Tolkien Society-connected folks we were, and not especially cliquey, I think. Off then to a short talk on fanzine and fandom history, which filled in some of the wider background to the antagonisms between different groups of fans in the late twentieth century, too; followed by demonstrations of a Gestetner machine, already superannuated when acquired for a fanzine but still capable of cranking out perfectly legible printed sheets at reasonable volume, and gelatine-tray printing. After a trip to the bar, I then went up to see a team of scientists defeat a team of authors in 'Universally Challenged' at 10pm, explaining the format too to an American sitting next to me. So long has it been since College Bowl ran in the USA, this American export has been naturalised and as University Challenge is now experienced as some some strange British phenomenon. I missed the concert, though, which was widely praised elsewhere; and also several panels which I'd flagged up earlier, though this became the theme of the convention. And so to the flat in West Kensington, and then to bed.

Day Three - Saturday 16 August 2014

Saturday felt like the third Saturday in a row, or perhaps the first Sunday of three. I managed a more thorough look at the art show; there were some beautiful images, including the TARDIS landing in the universe of The Magic Roundabout, with K9 meeting Dougal, and several paintings featuring adventures of the Clangers. My first panel was that on the Hugo award for best dramatic presentation (short form) ("We thought we'd see you here" said either or both of Richard and Chris Crawshaw), which the panel seemed sure Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor would win, with some debate between one panellist in particular and a member of the audience over whether the number of Doctor Who entries would effectively mean a split vote. The audience member might have been right, given the result announced on Sunday, though there was evidently unhappiness that Doctor Who was sucking up most of the nominations; however, I don't think that category nominations should necessarily be primarily recommendation lists for items you may not have read or seen. There was some support for a category revision which would allow whole seasons to be nominated; there was a sense that while Game of Thrones and especially Orphan Black had set precedents as series, the episodes nominated were insufficiently distinctive. I had sympathy with the idea that although Orphan Black had done tremendously in its depictions of female characters and different modes of femininity in modern society, it had not been as successful in stretching the conventions of the thriller genre. 

I was a latecomer to working on the Doctor Who DVDs and in a capacity not connected to restoration, so the panel with the Doctor Who Restoration Team - Mark Ayres, Steve Roberts, Jonathan Wood and Peter Crocker - was the first time I'd actually met them. With the classic Doctor Who DVD range all but over (with only the part-reconstructed The Underwater Menace still to release) I was glad to find that the gentlemen have offered their services to the BFI's DVD releases and that the forthcoming Out of the Unknown box set will be released at a much higher standard than it might have been, even as a 'pragmatic restoration' within a limited budget, while by now there should be a new version of the 1978 Play for TodayRed Shift, recreated from the original film elements, to release later in the year, rather than a version sourced directly from the two inch transmission master. On another theme, one of the side effects of my dipping into more active streams of wider fandom in the last few years has been meeting people I might have met decades ago had other choices been made; thirty-one years ago my thirteen-year-old self had rashly placed an advert in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's newsletter expressing interest in setting up a local group in my area. One of the restoration team, a few years older than me, had written to me at the time and he greeted me that afternoon with the comment that I was a long way from Ponteland.

Conversations after the panel prevented my returning to any stream until 4.30, when it was back to the screening room. The planned showing of Nigel Kneale's The Crush, a play well-remembered by me from a Missing Believed Wiped event at the BFI a few years ago, was cancelled as the ITV Archive revealed two days ago that they only had a 16mm film print and not a digital transfer. In its place we saw a timecoded version of the aforementioned Red Shift, adapted by Alan Garner from his book and directed by The Long Good Friday's John Mackenzie. It's more accessible than the book, or so I find it, but loses some of the ambiguity in the process, particularly at the conclusion. 'From Page to (Small) Screen' was next, though I remember little of it perhaps because I was a long way back in a large room and microphones were as all too usual not at their best, though Mike Carey made some indirect references to writing the screenplay to The Girl with all the Gifts alongside the book, and Jonathan Clements restated the necessary reminder that not all animes are adapted from manga and vice versa. I think he said it was an anime version of Little Women which has twenty-two episodes before it reaches Louisa M. Alcott's book, finding it necessary to explain the American Civil War to their audience; this puts in the shade the actions of BBC adaptors extrapolating events, like Donald Wilson and his almost entirely non-Galsworthian first episode for The Forsyte Saga. I think it was during this panel that I sat by Anna Bowles who remarked that I was actually wearing a T-shirt (Titan's TARDIS illustrated from Doctor Who quotations) rather than something 'tweedy'. 

Next along was 'Researching Fans: Fan Studies and Fan History'. From memory (as I still wasn't taking notes) this tended towards the sociological and the psychological and the problems of collecting data across national cultures and jurisdictions rather than outlining findings about fan cultures and literatures, but discussion of experiences by academic fans and how this differs from Malaysia to Poland to the UK was useful and a necessary reminder that very many categories one might assume are uncontentious are in actuality open to questions arising from the cultural experiences of interrogator and subject.

In the evening I dipped into the Masquerade, which held sway in the Auditorium. There were many splendid costumes and it was difficult to distinguish between the work of the three classes, novices, journeymen and masters. Work included a dancing Ood, a haute couture Dalek, a gladiatrix and a minotaur, and a dancing couple in art deco gear representing the spirit of 1930s SF emerging from the Depression. The deserved winners, though, were a bevy of Silmarillionesque demi-deities designed by the grand mistress of Tolkien costuming, Maggie Percival. After a brief word with director of promotions Nicholas Whyte, I retired to the other side of the city via quiet trains.

Day Four - Sunday 17 August 2014

By Sunday I had managed to get the departure from West Kensington off to a good start, but I'd somehow missed the advance notice of the closure of the Jubilee Line between Waterloo and Finchley Road, necessitating my getting off and on a District Line train at Westminster and taing the more time-consuming sub-surface, surface and overhead routes of the District and the DLR to Prince Regent. At Custom House, a party of LonCon goers had to persuade someone who claimed to be a member of the committee that the correct stop for the convention, if he wanted to avoid a long walk, was Prince Regent rather than the better-promoted (and shortly to be CrossRailed) westerly station.

The first panel I attended - and the first in which I actually took notes - was in room 16 of the Capital Suite on level 3 which proved to be one of the worst rooms in which to have a panel discussion with a large audience. The subject, the depiction of the twentieth century as a historical period in twenty-first century SF, had captured the imagination of many and the authoritative panel - John Clute, Christopher Priest, Elizabeth Hand, Peter Higgins, moderated by Graham Sleight - one people wanted to hear. Unfortunately room 16 was next to room 17, being used by the film and television programme, and separated from it by a partition rather than a solid wall, leaving much of the soundtrack of the video next door audible. Added to this four of the microphones were only effective if held very close to the speaker's mouth, which many of the participants found constraining. Some of the audience made their objections known, loudly, and often in a way that seemed to unfairly blame the panellists rather than the shortcomings of the venue. John Clute took the lead in standing up when it was his turn to comment and separated the mic from its stand to give himself more freedom, but other panellists were less comfortable with performing in this way or found frequent standing up and sitting down physically stressful. It's a cliche and not necessarily all that meaningful an observation, but I feel London deserves better from ExCeL than these design flaws and the others experienced such as the escalator bottlenecks. 

These problems were an unwelcome distraction from the content of the panel itself, which began with John Clute revisiting his review of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and how it challenged both the genre audience, who may not have recognised it as a title within their usual pale, and mainstream literary reviewers viewed by Clute as lacking the interpretive framework which could have helped them make sense of it. Christopher Priest said he found Clute's assessment more interesting than the novel itself, where the domestic details of the protagonist's lives bore little relation to the point of interest, the character's life starting and restarting as she takes paths which enable her to survive in the twentieth century, though Atkinson's depiction of the Blitz was compared favourably with thatby Connie Willis. Peter Higgins's secondary worlds are inspired by the 'short twentieth century', drawing on his sense that the world in which he grew to awareness in the 1970s and 1980s is now 'completely gone'. 

Elizabeth Hand, my notes say, mentioned the gaps in the record of the late twentieth century which imagination fills, the loss of a generation of writers and artists to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. This took me aback slightly because she used the term 'the disappeared' which I was used to associating with the victims of South American dictatorships or Northern Irish paramilitaries, and I thought on to other groups in societies who were wiped out in the twentieth century and whose voices were heard less, perhaps, than the Mapplethorpes or other members of creative communities whose work was already current when they died, even if they what we have is a fraction of what they could have expressed with more time. Consequently I perhaps lost the thread of what Hand was saying. Other thoughts included the 'Medusa gaze' of Western European and American culture on the historical continuity of art and literature in other societies during the twentieth century, and Christopher Priest's somewhat hopeful claim that poets are the real legislators.

I then moved on to 'Seeing the Future, Knowing the Past', in which moderator Brad Hafford was joined by Sarah Ash, Liz Bourke, Karen Muller and Kari Sperring: three SF/fantasy writers who are also academics and two whose academic backgrounds are elsewhere but whose work shows them fascinated by history. The panel produced a lot of useful reminders about the instability of history and the impossibility of creating a single history - indeed, Kari Sperring tells her students that there are only histories, though I'd always assumed there was a plurality implicit in the singular anyway. Attention was drawn to the long pedigree of the compromise between the liminal radical and the conservative in fantasy writing, not only in terms of the farm boy who becomes king (by no means a modern concept) but in Malory's compromise between the Arthur who 'changed his life' in this world, and the one who travels to Avalon to offer his people deferred hope. There were occasional misfires in Sperring's remarkable memory - attributing the Prophecies of Merlin to "a professional hack called William of Malmesbury" rather than a professional hack called Geoffrey of Monmouth was a new one on me. I couldn't agree with the claim that the historical Arthur was invented by the Victorians, either.

I moved to the academic track at 1.30 for 'Different Views of London', with an examination from Andrew M. Butler at how a disfigured London in fantastic images represents the traducing of the national myth, Dale Pratt's consideration of time travel and alternate realities, and a patient Tony Keen's look at different authors' representations of addresses in London, including Doyle, Stoker, Nesbit, Wyndham, Gaiman and Cornell, and what this means for the depiction of the city. Hungry for lunch, I stole away before questions on this one.

Hurriedly eating, I returned upstairs to the screening track at 3pm for The Other Man, or rather, what is left of it. Giles Cooper's 1964 television play was the most ambitious mounted by Granada at the time, with a cast of more than 200 (over 50 speaking parts) and a mixture of studio and what looks like early outside broadcast video as well as film. Directed by Gordon Flemyng, it starred Michael Caine as Brigadier-General George Grant, introduced at a contemporary (1964) dinner where his fellow officers are celebrating his career. He remembers that the events of 1940 could have ended so differently - and we fade into an alternative past where Churchill was killed in the Blitz, the wartime coalition fractures and a rump government accepts a peace offer from Hitler which through a series of concessions and partnerships turns Britain into a puppet state. Jewish officers and soldiers are soon transferred to the Pioneer Corps at Dover, which proves to be something far more sinister, and anti-Semitic attitudes are soon the norm. Michael Caine is supported by John Thaw as his bunkmate Henry Potter, Sian Phillips as the widow (of a Jewish officer who commits suicide at the peace with Nazi Germany) whom Grant marries, and there's a memorable performance from Dennis Chinnery as Major David Lewin, last glimpsed after his Dover posting, a sickly, brutalised figure in concentration camp uniform bearing a Star of David working as slave labour on the Channel Tunnel. This was the first of three (so I read) shocks which tell Grant of the nature of the regime in which he is complicit, but if any more of the play survived (as we had been led to believe) it was not included on the digital transfer from the ITV Archive at the BFI, which had only arrived on Friday. Nick Cooper's 1990s old television fanzine 625 has an article with TV Times extracts at its website which helpfully conveys a sense of the play; as someone who grew up on Blue Peter (and who was bought the Seventh Book as a Christmas present when he was four weeks old) I was fascinated to see John Noakes in the play in the role of Grant's regiment's waiter.

Turned out early from The Other Man, I wandered around the con for a couple of hours, coffeeing, cakeing, chatting and inspecting the exhibition stands, art show and the dealers again before dipping into the music strand for the only time, in the form of a Talis Kimberley gig. I only knew of Talis from her 'Goodbye Sarah Jane' song written in response to the death of Elisabeth Sladen in 2011, and now saw some other extracts from her repertoire; she is worth looking at on YouTube.

After a supper of baked potato with vegetable korma came the Hugos, where I realigned several old friends to see the Hugo awards. The awards have been widely viewed as a watershed for women in SF, applause for winners such as Anne Leckie and Kameron Hurley being deafening; but I confess to having been fixated on the Doctor Who productions and related works. It was not their night, split votes and (as argued extensively by others on a status update I made on my Facebook at the time) the relative deficiencies of the Doctor Who episode meant that a notoriously bloody Game of Thrones episode won the best dramatic presentation (short form) and the related works nominees were outvoted by bigger hitters. Still, it was good to see them nominated at all in a world which twenty or thirty years ago was felt to be hostile towards fans of television and film concepts; and as someone who didn't get around to voting himself I have even more incentive to return to my long reading and viewing list. The event was superbly hosted by Geoff Ryman and Justina Robson, the former repeating Mary Robinette Kowal's 'speak into my chest' solution for a microphone problem during the 1939 Retro Hugos on the first night. In an early draft of this piece I'd continued and the latter shutting up an idiotic and bigoted though happily small section of the audience who thought that someone being described as the leader of a feminist reading group in the 1970s was worthy of deep laughter but have since learned that the laughter was a response to Jeanne Gomoll's head appearing briefly from a gap in the curtain. I was perhaps already on edge having heard of some expressions of prejudice in other panels and fears that there might be some people determined to cause trouble. Happily this was not the case in this instance. 

Conversation afterwards with friends led towards our making our way to our respective abodes rather than whether or not to linger at the party; whether I would have stayed to risk the night bus had I known Peter Davison and David Tennant were in the building, albeit mingling in more reserved company, is another matter. As it was, we caught the second or third from last train from Prince Regent, with two of us catching the last northbound Northern Line train from London Bridge at one point, and my arriving at West Kensington towards 12.20am knowing that the awards party was still in full swing but with the knowledge that I had a better chance this way of attending the last day of the convention, at least before lunch.

Day Five - Monday 18 August 2014

Once the Hugos had been awarded, the clock was definitely ticking on LonCon 3. Monday morning was still thronged and it was difficult to imagine at first that we were about to lose our city by the Royal Victoria Dock. However, a tour round the exhibition and dealers' room revealed emptying tables and dismantling stands, and books tied up into discounted bundles, last-minute deals to save vendors from lugging them home. We attendees held on to what we could of the event.

The panels continued energetically in the morning, with the academic track including a really informative two-header from Derek Johnston and Katharine Woods. The first detailed the several plays and serials with science fiction content and themes broadcast by BBC Television before The Quatermass Experiment was screened in 1953, which (to Derek's evident frustration) Kim Newman had apparently hailed earlier in the weekend as the start of science fiction on British television. As Derek showed, many of the themes of the Quatermass serials were developed from adaptations Kneale had made of other people's work in previous years. Among the other titles worthy of attention was the 1949 adaptation of The Time Machine, with its use of vertical climbing sequences anticipating those Russell T Davies was proud of in 2000s Doctor Who, and the two Stranger from Space serials, shown as part of the children's magazine Whirligig, co-written by Hazel Adair (later the co-creator of Compactand Crossroads with Peter Ling) and (I think) a young Anthony Marriott (best remembered for No Sex Please We're British). Katharine Woods meanwhile provided a useful feminist analysis which acted as a corrective to those who view Steven Moffat's development of Amy Pond as the sexist nurturing of a cypher; in contrast, Amy is the author of her own story, and also of the Doctor's.

It was always a problem deciding what to choose to attend, and for the 1.30pm slot I decided at the last moment not to attend the discussion of LGBTQ+ reactions to latterday Doctor Who and Star Trek and went to Karen Hellekson's commentary and screenings of Doctor Who fanvids. Karen has provided links to the material which she showed here; I said afterwards that I'd direct her to the YouTube copies of some of the late 1980s satirical fanvids made in the UK which straddle the affirmational and transformational border in the model outlined in 2009 by [personal profile] obsession_inc, but have not yet done so. I have a communication promised at Nine Worlds the previous weekend still to make too. One point of debate was provided by an actor who wanted to know whether performers whose work was being repurposed were being paid, and exactly how closely Billy Henshaw had been involved in the reimagining of his YouTube video for the new Doctor Who title sequence.

Turned away from the very full 'The Ruling Party' at 3pm, I meandered down to the closing ceremony, where we got to sing happy eighty-ninth birthday to Brian Aldiss, the only person present who had been at the first LonCon in 1957 and guest of honour at LonCon 2 in 1965, goodbye to the guests of honour (of whom I'd seen very little during the convention itself) and the chairs as they all departed in the TARDIS (which remained physically present, no doubt through timey-wimeyness, the passage of those it contained through the time vortex represented by their silent manifestation as figures walking up the side aisle), and hello to next year's WorldCon, Sasquan, at Spokane in Washington state. I think I will be waiting for a return to Europe - Helsinki 2017, or Dublin 2019, should either of those bids be successful - but was happy to try one of the huckleberry sweets distributed by the Sasquan team.

So, it was almost over; the exhibition hall was dismantling itself and while the remaining events unwound some of us meandered around the Fan Village, mourned the thoroughly picked-over library (I'd already annexed a Keith Roberts compilation from Gollancz's Gateway range for myself) and settled into conversations, in my case involving outsourcing and logistics, before saying goodbyes. Rather than linger until the shutters came down at midnight I thought I'd enjoy the evening sun and took the DLR to Tower Gateway, walking through the City as far as Blackfriars until the black cloud which had been hovering slightly self-consciously in the otherwise sunny sky decided enough sun was enough, even if sunset was a few hours away, and closed in precipitously; as the miniature monsoon began, I resorted to the subterranean embrace of the District, which bore me back to West Ken and the beckoning return to work the next day.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Goodbye to the Gothic at the Morpeth Herald

A brief post between work on late seventeenth-century bishops... but given my earlier posts on Northumberland newspapers, I couldn't overlook the relaunch of the Morpeth Herald today. The compromise between the paper's traditional look and the Johnston Press house templates introduced when the paper went tabloid last year has been moved past and from this week the Morpeth Herald is much more recognisably a Johnston Press weekly, adopting the same headline and text fonts as its northerly neighbours the Northumberland Gazette, Berwick Advertiser, Berwickshire News and Southern Reporter and I think the News Guardian in Whitley Bay to its south-east too.

Most radical is the decision to finally drop the gothic masthead which is a simplified but never wholly redrawn version of that adopted on Saturday 5 March 1892, as seen in the image left (which belongs to and is best explored at The British Newspaper Archive). What newspaper would put a semi-colon in its logo now? For a logo to endure 122 years from the hot metal era well into the digital age, as can be seen from the screengrab from the Herald website this morning, is an achievement, though in its final print form it was looking a little well-worn. Still, I'm not sure that the somewhat anonymous serif heading, very much from the modern Johnston Press repertoire of typefaces, is an improvement, being insufficiently distinct from some of its neighbours. It's good to see that the fashion for emphasising the name of the locality at the expense of the paper's full name has not spread to the Morpeth Herald, which is as well given that it seemed to misunderstand the weight of local newspaper brand identities and has already been beaten back in West Yorkshire where the Harrogate Advertiser and its close siblings have improvised more traditional looks within the Johnston templates, including amended mastheads, since they were part of the first wave of group relaunches in 2012.

I'm away from Northumberland at the moment so can't review the whole paper. The lead story, about the possibility that County Hall in Morpeth will close, is a strong one though the headline a little ambiguous. On a final note of continuity, the redesigned masthead still includes the words 'Incorporating the Ponteland Observer', two months short of thirty years since the two papers began to be brought together.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

The Grand Budapest Hotel seemed to promise acerbic whimsy to amuse a world facing hard and unwelcome truths, and Wes Anderson's film delivers satisfactorily. It might be surprisingly bloodthirsty for those beguiled by its world of courtesan au chocolat pastries, who don't anticipate the hammers and chisels within. Ralph Fiennes carries the focal role of M. Gustave without succumbing (as other actors one might imagine wielding his parfum would have done) to an excess of manner; Gustave is vain but his pettinesses serve the great narrative which is the ideal of civilisation he projects through the eponymous hotel. Anderson's pink and purple imagined pre-war (but which war?) Mitteleuropa (but which and whose Europa?) might irritate some with its denial of naturalism, but these are characters who dress in clothes the colours of exotic inks and speak within inverted commas or speech bubbles.  The 1930s of folklore is here, not far removed from the non-specific military manoeuvres of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes; and the 1985 of the second layer of framing device (for this is a mutant garlic clove of a story, with three outer membranes and five captioned segments within) derives its browns and oranges from The Lives of Others. The paranoia about immigrants, a war in the East, the rich determined to stay rich at the expense of the culture they supposedly guaranteed, and a small country being annexed by its neighbour demonstrate that the pink-icing heaven (and the hotel is just that, staff and guests ascending from the grey streets of the town below through a 'magic door' and ornate funicular railway) whose destruction F. Murray Abraham's M. Moustafa relates to Jude Law's Young Writer is as much a fable of early twenty-first century anxieties as it is a lament for the rich and varied central Europe destroyed by Hitler, Stalin and their accomplices. There are enjoyable cameos from several familiar actors, especially Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton; a brutal enforcer from Willem Dafoe whose black comic excess is a harbinger of things to come in the film's beleaguered Republic of Zubrowka; and while it took me a little while to recognise Tony Revolori's Zero as the strong link in the chain that he is, Saoirse Ronan's Agatha is both recognisable as a remembered adolescent ideal of love and of an innocence preserved in memory despite the compromises of maturity.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Libraries and Dictionaries of National Biography, old and new

In connection with my current post, I've been in and out of several libraries recently in both Oxford and London, tracking down references relating to the projects I've taken over. This is an Oxford week, and I've been reacquainting myself with several Oxford libraries and getting to know the new configurations of some of them. Accessibility demands mean that the Taylor Institution is now approached from a larger door a little further up St Giles and relying less on steep stone stairs, though it still needs to remind people that it is not the Ashmolean, a determination reinforced by a sign that it is not a public building. The enquiry desk has moved, though thankfully Celtic periodicals were still in their old basement haunt. One never knows when one will need to refer to the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, after all, as there is usually something useful about Welsh people, places and institutions within its covers.

The Oxford History Faculty Library has been through a period of dislocation in the past few years. First, it left its long-established home on the upper floors of the Old Indian Institute Building, and was relocated to part of the Lower Radcliffe Camera and to the Gladstone Link beneath Radcliffe Square, itself a recent creation from the old underground bookstacks. The form the collections have taken in their new homes, how they have been classified and located, seems to have gone through several reevaluations. Construction work to create a new entrance on the ground floor, facing St Mary's Church, has had an effect. After a few visits I'm getting used to the new entrance and the need to swipe in twice to get through the doors and entrance gate, and the oddness, for someone who has been in and around academic Oxford for most of the last quarter-century, of actually borrowing books from and taking them out of somewhere which was once a strictly non-lending reading room. Old associations, learned in younger days, fade slowly: I still expect English and Theology collections to be on the Lower Camera shelves somewhere, hiding from view; just as part of me suspects that if one enters what is now the Oxford Martin School at the right time, perhaps after walking widdershins round the Catte/Broad/Holywell Streets/Parks Road crossroads, one can climb the spiral stairs and found oneself in the old History Faculty Library again, and borrow books using pink-tinted carbon paper slips just as one did when I was an undergraduate.

In its tangible form without the realms of faerie, the Bodleian History Faculty Library (as it is now styled, but hereafter HFL) has been rationalising its collection, and there is a small book sale behind the new Radcliffe Camera entrance, much as there often was behind the main doors on the first floor of the Old Indian Institute. Yesterday I picked up the second edition of The Memoirs of Sir John Reresby with the idea that it would be useful in my current job, but it's also full of entertaining gossip informative about late-seventeeth century social norms. There were also a few volumes from the former HFL set of The Dictionary of National Biography. Today, there were more, but still not a full set; I decided to resist the temptation to ask if the missing volumes were in a cupboard somewhere (carrying them all back on the bus was one deterrent, and where to put them in my flat another) and acquired for £2 a bound volume labelled '7 - 8 / FINCH - HARRIOTT'.

This volume had some particular significance for me. I worked as a research editor for seven years at what was first referred to as the New Dictionary of National Biography, and which was eventually published as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I'd also been a contributor, first on the 'ten-pound factchecks' and then on full honorarium articles, since 1997, and since leaving the staff in 2006 have been an associate research editor with irregular involvement as a consultant, editor and writer. (This post, I should add, is written in a personal capacity.) I have three articles in hand for the tenth anniversary release this September. Of those articles written or revised by me published in the 2004 sixty-volume set of the new dictionary, six fall within this volume's range, including the longest article contributed by me, Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales. Since 2004 I've added a few more articles to the online edition, and two of those - Anne Fitzpatrick and William Gibbs - would have been included in this volume's alphabetical sequence.

The set of the DNB now being sold by the HFL is unusual in that at some stage its twenty-two volumes were rebound into eleven, with two India paper-printed books in one set of rust-brown covers, rather than Oxford University Press's usual blue. The spines display the HFL shelfmark. The two volumes thus united which I acquired, at least, are from the 1921-2 reprint, the first to be published by Oxford University Press after it acquired the DNB from Smith, Elder and Co. (the more commercial parts of the Smith, Elder list were bought by John Murray). This in turn was derived from the revised 1908-9 edition of the DNB, which reduced the original sixty-three volumes and three-volume supplement of the 1885-1900 serial run to the twenty-two which is still often found on library shelves. A short history of old and new dictionaries, to the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in 2004, was published in the first volume of the new dictionary and can be found at the Oxford DNB website. The subjects in this HFL volume are spread through seven volumes of the 2004 dictionary, though they can be found more quickly as part of the online collection.

Revisiting the late-nineteenth century articles which I replaced for the ODNB, I'm inclined to look more favourably on them than I might have done when I was ensconced in the new dictionary's former office of 37A St Giles. Most of the old dictionary's writers were on staff, expected to research at the British Museum Library in the morning and write up at the DNB's office in Waterloo Place in the afternoon. They were largely reliant on published sources which were much more scarce than they were a century later. Thomas Finlayson Henderson's entry on Frederick, prince of Wales, is much shorter than mine and dependent on the dismissive though entertaining memoirs of catty political opponents of the prince like Horace Walpole and Lord Hervey, or would-be mentors such as Sarah, duchess of Marlborough. My piece on Frederick might lack Henderson's elegance, but unlike Henderson didn't set out to disparage the prince as the worthless product of a degenerate age, a minor literary character rather than a person. We did have in common the wish to represent recent scholarship, in my case requiring many hours original research in the British Library and the Bodleian to help fill gaps, and my Frederick is someone whose actions had lasting consequences - the strengthening of the conventions of parliamentary opposition, the character of the monarchy under his son George III - even if they took on a theoretical and ideological shape which were beyond his intentions.

Other old DNB articles whose subjects I inherited were constructed on similar if less partial lines. 'His life was uneventful,' wrote James McMullen Rigg of Charles FitzRoy, second duke of Cleveland and first duke of Southampton; but there was enough to fill a column, and enough to ask the question (to which I sought to fashion an answer from sources to hand, much as my DNB predecessors did) as to why this son of Charles II and Barbara Villiers didn't play the leading part in English politics and society for which his parents (or at least his mother) had wanted to prepare him. Rigg spotted that George FitzRoy, Cleveland's brother, was recognised by John Evelyn as the 'most accomplished' of Charles II's children, but missed what I thought his most dramatic role, his attendance on his uncle James II on the night of 10 December 1688, when he probably looked the other way while James II fled the country. With other subjects, like Samuel Green the organ-builder, Lydia Miller Middleton in the DNB had had nothing much more than Grove's Dictionary of Music to work with; since then enough work has been done on Green, for successive Groves and New Groves as well by authors of  scholarly works on the organ, for a slightly more informative piece to be fashioned. One of the shorter pieces which I was able to replace with a longer entry was that on John Geddes, coadjutor vicar apostolic of the lowland district of Scotland, a Catholic bishop serving a Catholic community whose practice and existence was proscribed. Again, this was the beneficiary of twentieth-century scholarship which provided me with a better guide to Geddes's career than was available to Thompson Cooper, the veteran journalist and DNB staffer who shouldered the burden of more DNB articles in the 1880s and 1890s than any ODNB contributor in the 1990s and 2000s. The range of secondary sources was much broader and as a whole the published ODNB included more original research than may have been envisaged when the project started; my impression is that this trend has increased in the updates published online three times a year since January 2005.

The old dictionary text survives as part of the online ODNB (behind a link on the left-hand panel called 'DNB archive') and (proceeding on the assumption that the original DNB is out of copyright) as a Wikisource project. The impact of volunteer-led projects such as those curated by Wikimedia on conventional publisher-led research and reference works such as the ODNB has yet to be fully assessed, but demand still exists for peer-reviewed professionally-published reference such as the ODNB. For now, and at this moment, I am happy with my much-thumbed, sometimes crumpled, ninety-two-year-old impressions from stereotyped plates furnished to Oxford University Press by Messrs. Spottiswoode and Co., while celebrating too the merits of the work of myself and colleagues on the new dictionary in the past two decades.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Dramatic Spaces at the BFI: Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968) and Miss Julie (1965)

Since I last wrote about employment I've become a full-time staff member of an historical research project again; but earlier today I left early eighteenth-century bishops behind at my Bloomsbury office, and travelled to the South Bank and 1960s by bus, to see a couple of 1960s television plays in the BFI's Dramatic Spaces season, which ties in with the recent AHRC-funded project Spaces of Television, based at the University of Reading. The two plays were Let's Murder Vivaldi by David Mercer (1968) and Miss Julie (1965) by August Strindberg, translated by Elizabeth Sprigge. Both plays were directed (and in the case of Miss Julie adapted) by Alan Bridges, who died in December. There's an accessibly educated and informed post about the choice of these plays on the Spaces of Television blog, which also confirms the suspicion I had that at least one had suffered cuts at some point. Miss Julie suffers from the abrupt realisation of a sex scene which seems an all-too-brief excursion into the surreal, but was intended to be much longer and better integrated into the play as a whole.

Let's Murder Vivaldi was up first, perhaps because it was part of the most well-known strand of the single television play on the BBC, The Wednesday Play, or because it contained the most familiar faces among its cast, with Glenda Jackson as young civil servant Julie, and Denholm Elliot as her boss, Gerald, with whom, at the start of the play, she is on the verge of an affair. Paul Sumner as Ben, Julie's draughtsman lover, a frustrated violinist, was perhaps the weakest link in the cast, but Gwen Watford was calmly authoritative, patronising, manipulative but honest as Gerald's wife Monica. The play is one of those where the characters' dialogue comes across as shared inner monologue, but is of interest when what is revealed is an emptiness. The play even has a touch of horror-comedy in what its knife fixation builds up to - the slicing of Julie's face by the misarticulate Ben is in part misdirection. In the end, those who learn to accept their 'peculiarities' and stop trying to conform to other people's ideas of what they should be are the happiest. Denholm Elliot is a uniquely soluble actor, often looking as if he has consumed gallons of water and is having trouble keeping which is perhaps appropriate given one of Julie's 'peculiarities', which also works as a comment on television censorship. It's a powerful piece of 1960s rage against sexual, social and workplace conformity, though noticeably the voice of a simpler time.

Miss Julie - produced for BBC2's Theatre 625 strand - was a contrast in that it included some sequences filmed on location rather than being entirely in studio. Where Let's Murder Vivaldi is a series of two-handers (Ben/Julie, Monica/Gerald, Gerald/Julie, Monica/Gerald, Ben/Julie), the 1965 Miss Julie is a play with three speaking characters and in this version several non-speaking ones, all appearing on film. Bridges's Miss Julie reminded me of another television play of this era, Philip Savile's version of Huis Clos, with its largely location-filmed scene-setting. The use of a foreign-accented Gunnel Lindblom as Julie alongside a very English Ian Hendry as Jean and Stephanie Bidmead as Christine seemed odd at first, but perhaps it works as an indicator of class divisions, Jean and Christine being presented as audience identification figures while Julie is exotic and remote. Expectations are teased and confounded several times as sex brings complication rather than a gateway to permanent happiness and class and gender confine by education and expectation. It's mostly Hendry's and Bidmead's play, though, Hendry showing a range as Jean works through his many facets, and Stephanie Bidmead looks on, quietly confident that Christine is one of God's elect.

The BFI notes suggested that camera and performance in Let's Murder Vivaldi turned rooms into cells; this is too blatant an analogy for the way the play used the television camera, often stalking character by character, portrait shot by portrait shot, perhaps suggesting the characters are prisoners of their preconceptions. There are many ways out, all the same - characters go through doors in bedsitland or country hotels, or negotiate fashionable partitions. Gerald chooses to actualise his imprisonment, but blames only one of his jailers; for Julie and Ben, it's a question of coming to terms with who they are, not what they ought to be.

An Alan Bridges camera script must have kept the camera operators of Television Centre going up and down on their platforms. The many changes of tight angle in Let's Murder Vivaldi were noticeable, providing a fluidity which emphasised the brittleness of the harsh alternation of conversation partners in the penultimate Monica/Gerald scene. Miss Julie used yet lower angles on a staircase set, suggestive of moral hazard as well as the space's geographical location; but compared to Let's Murder Vivaldi and its parallel use of the domestic, especially the kitchen, Miss Julie's set and the way it was captured were more suggestive of space, and so perhaps of choices which could be made in the world outside Julie's father's estate, but in the end were not.