More on Fever Crumb

Good news! Here's a link to an interview I did recently with Bad news! It features that horrible photograph of me smirking with flopsome hair. I believe it was the photographer Bill Brandt who said, "People look ridiculous when they're smiling", and how right he was...

Ireland Part 1: Dublin Rocks!

This is the first post for a while, because I've been Away. On Monday 12th I flew to Dublin, taking Sarah and Sam along with me, and they spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning looking around the city while I did my best to publicise A Web of Air (available now folks, in all good bookshops.) I don't like cities, but Dublin seems a nice one; broad streets, big parks, fine architecture, and more barbers' shops than I think I've ever seen in one place - clearly having a haircut is a very popular pastime in Ireland. And the sun shone, which I gather isn't typical Dublin weather.

Tuesday started early with an interview on breakfast television, which seemed to hurtle by but which I'm told lasted a good eight or ten minutes - if only British TV would give time like that to children's authors. Then off to Trinity College. Their annual Trinity Week was in progress, and as part of it Children's Books Ireland had some lucky school groups bussed in to hear me talk about my work along with two fellow authors, Oisin McGann and Conor Kostick. Oisin McGann seems to be the Irish Philip Reeve (or maybe I'm the English Oisin McGann) in that he's another illustrator turned steampunkish YA author (although he's written many books for younger readers too); Conor Kostick is a steely left-wing academic who also finds time to write popular and highly acclaimed sci-fi adventures for teens. It was a pleasure to meet both of them, and I'm greatly looking forward to reading their books.

I was back at Trinity in the early evening for an event with Robert Dunbar, the Merlin of Irish children's books, a fascinating man whose love and enthusiasm for children's literature is inspiring. We had a long conversation in front of a small audience, during which he (and they) asked many perceptive questions about my books and didn't mention any of their manifest flaws, which is always a relief. Then off to a posh upper room for a small reception at which A Web of Air was officially launched; I suppose I should have said a few words to mark the occasion, but as I'd been up since dawn and talking all day I left that to Marion, my editor, who of course did it very well.

On Wednesday morning Alex from Scholastic led me off on a brisk tour of Dublin's bookshops, where I signed lots of copies of my books, and then to lunch and an interview with Jane Carroll for Inis magazine; another perceptive questioner with a deep knowledge of children's books. Hopefully my answers were of interest, although I was feeling a bit tired by then so we'll have to see how it turns out...

And meanwhile Sam and Sarah toured Dublin by open topped bus, went round the Guinness factory, played on St Stephen's Green and shopped for folk music (Sarah) and T-shirts and shoelaces (Sam).

Ireland Part 2: Here My Power Was Born...

Once all my book-business in Dublin was done, Sarah collected a hire car and we took off south to the Wicklow Mountains. It seems that when Irish people aren't busy getting their hair cut they like to while away the time by building bungalows, and hundreds of these litter the landscape south of Dublin like Monopoly houses, spoiling some beautiful scenery. But once you leave them behind the country soon becomes magnificent; high, heather-covered summits, fast-flowing rivers, deep valleys filled with ancient oaks. It all felt very familiar, and not just because it reminded me of Dartmoor and the Lake District. Among these hills, back in the wet summer of 1980, John Boorman shot his film Excalibur, inadvertantly jump-starting my love of the Arthurian legends and setting me on the path that led to Here Lies Arthur.

I must have seen the film thirty times, yet it was hard to pin down any of the actual locations. I presume it was over the bleak peat-bogs of the Sally Gap that Paul Geoffrey's Perceval went questing for the grail, but was it on the upper lake at Glendalough or from the private, inacessible Lough Dan that Excalibur rose from the waters? I couldn't be sure; Mr Boorman chose his shots with care, stitching together a world of magic from fragments and glimpses of the everyday. But even he could not disguise the great Powerscourt Waterfall, and the pool at its foot where Nigel Terry and Nicholas Clay end their furious duel looks just as it did on screen. Arriving there, even thirty years too late, felt like stepping into the landscape of a well-remembered dream. (If I look a bit preoccupied in the photo it's because I took it myself; Sam and Sarah wisely left me to do my fan-boy pilgrimage bit alone while they went to the play area, which I don't believe was there in King Arthur's day.)

Ireland Part 3:The Grounded World

Returning to Dublin after our time in the mountains we discovered that we were in the opening chapter of a 1970's JG Ballard disaster novel, in which a spreading cloud of invisble volcano dust puts an end to civil aviation and thus to Civilisation As We Know It. "When Will This Nightmare End?' demanded the headline on Dublin's freebie newspaper (which might as well be the headline on all newspapers, every day). Sam was a bit dismayed to learn that we couldn't fly home on Saturday as planned, but rallied once we explained that you can pick up Dr Who on Irish tellies and that our dwindling funds would mean we'd have to eat at McDonalds, fulfilling one of his lifetime ambitions. Indeed, we were much better off than most of this week's stranded tourists, since we don't have 9-5 jobs to get back to, and could afford (just about) the costs of our extended stay in The Most Expensive Country In Europe*. Not only that, we had the redoubtable Alex at Scholastic to 'phone for advice, and our hotel, Staunton's on the Green, had the most friendly, helpful, good-humoured staff you could hope to meet - if you ever need to stay in Dublin, stay there.

Even so, by Sunday it was clear that we needed to plot a Daring Escape, so I went down to DĂșn Laoghaire and booked tickets on a ferry out of Rosslare on Tuesday morning, and with one (very slow) bound, we were free... The ferry crossing was pleasant and relaxing, the long train journey through Wales and Somerset rather less so. Finally, late yesterday evening, we arrived home, and very glad we were to see it.

So what have we learned from our stay in Ireland (apart from, NEVER GO ABROAD, YOU MIGHT GET TRAPPED BY A BIG OLD CLOUD OF INVISIBLE ASH)? Well, we learned that Ireland is very nice, which I'd never really doubted, but it was good to confirm it for myself. The people are friendly, the countryside is beautiful, and they have good biscuits. (The confectionary aisle in Tesco's at Wicklow was a veritable biscuit museum: Mikados, Jammy Dodgers, Iced Gems... we stood entranced for several minutes.) It was interesting to be in a place which had been ruled (or misruled) by Britain for so long before it won its independence; it made for a strange mixture of the familiar and the foreign, and it felt good. It made me think that if we dug a big trench from the eastern end of the Bristol Channel down to Weymouth, then Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset might make a nice little country of their own. If Labour ends up winning the elections* again we shall all have to get our shovels out.

*I have no idea if that's actually true, but coffee and buns were Very Expensive, and since coffee and buns are what I basically run on, that hurt.

*EDIT: They didn't, but we're no better off: West Country UDI now!

Five Questions

Here is a video interview which I recorded in Scholastic's New York offices back in January. Gosh, I look rough, and sound surprisingly posh. But I think my answers sort of make sense,for once...

Who's A Pretty Boy Then...

This seems to surprise some people, but I've never really been a fan of Dr Who. As a child I didn't much like being scared, so whenever Jon Pertwee's big stare-y face loomed up on the telly like a frightening owl I got the message that it was time to switch off.* I think I finally started watching about half way through the Tom Baker era, and then stopped when he retired. Even at the age of eleven or twelve I could tell that a lot of the stories were pretty poor, and there was a mismatch between the imagination of the scriptwriters and the budget of the special effects department that was often quite disconcerting, but actually I think it was this ropiness which was what I liked best about the programme; unlike Star Wars and Close Encounters, Dr Who didn't look a million miles beyond the sort of thing I could hope to achieve on my dad's clockwork cine camera.**

When the modern incarnation of the show began a few years ago I was intrigued, and watched most of the Christopher Ecclestone episodes. Some of them were very good indeed, but dismayingly the Doctor's DNA seemed to have become entwined with that of a rubbish soap opera. Producer Russell T Davies announced that he had done away with the Doctor's home planet and fellow time lords because he didn't like those epidsodes of long-running series where the hero 'goes home', but about every second week the Tardis was forced to materialise in London so that the Doctor's companion Rose could catch up with her unconvincing family and tedious love-life. When people pointed this out, Mr Davies said huffily that what he had done was add some human emotion to the show, and that sci-fi fans just didn't appreciate that sort of thing. Well, I'm a sci-fi fan and I don't mind emotion at all; what I object to is phoney, mawkish, by-the-numbers, sub-Hollywood, character-arc schmalz, which RTD slathered all over the new Dr Who like someone greasing up a celebrity for a cross-channel swim.

Consequently, I haven't watched the show in years. Sam has sometimes shown an interest, but although it's on at 6-ish on a Saturday evening it's wierdly inconsistent, bumbling along through happy, harmless, fun-for-all-the-family adventures week after week and then suddenly unleashing an image so genuinely nightmarish that you wouldn't want any child to see it. Remember that one with the gas masks? If I'd been exposed to that when I was little I'd still be having bad dreams.

However, Sam's reached the ripe old age of eight now, and he and his friends have been subjected to a ruthless full-spectrum BBC propaganda campaign*** about the arrival of the new Doctor, so we relented and let him watch last night's episode.

More of an advert than an adventure, it was basically an excuse for Matt Smith to sort out his schtick and find a new assistant before setting off on the promising-looking capers which featured in a teaser trailer at the end. It was set in an English village so unlikely that I assumed at first it was meant to be a parallel world, but no mention was ever made of it so maybe that's what TV people think rural England is really like. As for the story, it was The Usual One, in which an escaped space-convict hides out on Earth, his pursuers announce that they are going to destroy the planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass, no, sorry, that they're going to destroy the planet for no reason whatsoever, and the Doctor has twenty minutes to save the day by running around being loveably eccentric. Every thirty seconds or so he said "Trust me, I'm a Doctor," or, "The Doctor will see you now," which I suppose will make useful soundbites in the ongoing marketing campaign. Matt Smith himself is so young that I can only assume the Doctor is meant to be ageing backwards, like TH White's Merlin, and that his next incarnation will be a toddler. But he's a fine actor; edgy, intense and a bit mad looking, very attractive without being classically handsome, and clearly an excellent choice for the part. Sam seemed to enjoy the story (he wasn't bothered by the monster, and he liked the bit at the start that was borrowed from Winnie The Pooh) while Sarah and I enjoyed the jokes, which were frequent, snappy and well-timed.

But hang on, what's all this? When I was a lad the Doctor was a dry, asexual, Sherlock Holmes type of figure and his relationship with his companions was purely platonic. But modern TV producers do love their Unresolved Sexual Tension, and so the Doctor has been forced to become a romantic lead, whisking pretty women off with him aboard the Tardis like some leering jack-the-lad inviting young girls for a ride in his van. In last night's episode, new companion Amy gets to watch appreciatively as he strips just off-camera, and finally scampers off into time and space with him on the night before her wedding, leaving her white bridal gown hanging in her bedroom like a big old Symbolic Thing out of Angela Carter. The fact that, for time-travell-y reasons, their relationship begins when she's still a child struck a weirdly dodgy (and indeed Dodgson-y) note, which surely can't have been deliberate - can it?

Ominously, one of Amy's friends in the village was played by the wonderful Annette Crosbie. You don't hire a twinkly acting power-house like her just to do four or five lines, so we can assume that the Tardis will be appearing on her lawn week after week in order that Amy can revisit her home and decide between her two boring suitors there. Russell T Davies is gone, but the Doctor still can't escape the deadly gravitational pull of his soap-opera plotting. On the other hand, to judge by the trailer at the episode's end, there are going to be Cybermen, and Daleks, and Spitfires in low-earth orbit, and Romans, and Bill Nighy, and at least a few episodes set on alien worlds instead of in Cardiff, so I suppose it will be worth enduring a bit of off-the-peg character-arc garbage.

Despite everything, I find I'm rather looking forward to the new Who.

*The great Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass serials more or less invented sci-fi telly in Britain, refused to write for Dr Who, saying he didn't want to work on a show whose chief purpose was to terrify young children. Mind you, he might just have been annoyed that Dr Who kept nicking his ideas and turning them into panto.

**In Blake's 7, the other great rubbish sci-fi show of the seventies, there was once an episode where the heroes had to attack the Federation's Galactic Communications HQ (or something). When they got there it was a perfectly ordinary cement works, with a piece of paper tied to the chain link gates outside on which someone had stencilled, using a stencil exactly like the one in my school pencil-case, the words 'Galactic Communications HQ'. Try doing that with your fancy CGI, James Cameron...

***Supporters of the BBC like to brag that one of the things which makes it unique among broadcasters is that it doesn't run adverts. In reality, of course, it's absolutely plastered with adverts, but they are all adverts for the BBC.

A New Fever Website

Fever Crumb was officially published in the USA yesterday, and Scholastic have developed a very nice Fever Crumb web-page. But don't take my word for it: click on the link in the sidebar and see for yourself. There, among other things, you can view a short trailer (which kicks off with images of the Houses of Parliament for some unknown reason, but is rather good apart from that) and also footage of an interview/reading I did whilst I was in New York earlier in the year.

Happy Easter Everyone. Don't eat
too many eggs.