Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

The Terran Ague

Monday, 20 March 2023

This is a sunny courtyard with a tree growing in it. The wall facing us contains ornate carvings, and a step leads up to an arched doorway.
Vivaana Heritage Hotel

Everyone who’s been into deep space has had the Terran Ague, or the three-day sweats as it’s commonly known. It’s a sort of a mild infection, it slightly alters the body’s nucleic structure, it seems to be a metabolic reaction to space travel. — Doctor Bellfriar, Blake’s 7, Series B, Episode 7, Killer

I arrived in Delhi on Saturday morning.

The flights overnight from Rome were lovely, of course, but I lost 4½ hours travelling east and the final leg was only 3 hours long, so I had had only about an hour’s sleep. But, you know Calvin, it was straight to business. I had a quick shower and we were picked up from the hotel almost immediately by the tour guide, Aditya from Food Tour in Delhi.

Aditya was a funny and cheerful young man. He had been a chef, and so he was able to explain to us what we were eating and even to predict with accuracy how our taste buds would respond to different foods in different combinations. We started in Old Delhi, which is gloriously squalid and crowded, trying food from stalls and restauarants, and even a coffee house run by generations of a Jain family whose specialty was a kind of fruit sandwich with cheese, which taste like a light and delicate cake.

Six hours later, the tour had finished and we went back to our grimy hotel. I feel asleep immediately, but Calvin woke me up a couple of hours later for even more food.

You can probably tell where this is headed.

The next day, our proper tour started, which will take us from Delhi to Kolkata, via Rajasthan and the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Calvin has organised it all — every night’s hotel is booked, every day is accounted for, there’s none of my hippie fear of foreclosing possibilities. This tour is serious business.

We met our tour guide for the day and our driver for the next three-and-a-bit weeks, and we headed off into Delhi. Another less food-oriented tour of Old Delhi, the Jama Mosque, Humayan’s Tomb, the ruins of the Qutb Minar complex, and the Shri Laxmi Narayan Temple.

I had already had an unfortunate gastrointestinal incident before leaving the hotel that morning, and by the time the day’s sightseeing was nearing its end I was increasingly, urgently keen to return to the hotel. I’ll spare you any details, but I was unable to muster any enthusiasm about the Rajasthani restaurant we went to for a dinner consisting of tiny metal cups of delicious things on a giant metal tray full of even more delicious things. And by the time we got back to the hotel after that, the Terran Ague had hit me full force. I spent an unpleasantly acidic night, sweating and shivering in the bed and waking up dehydrated every couple of hours.

Naturally, Calvin had come prepared with as much gastro-stop as I could possibly want — certainly enough to get me through today’s six-hour drive without any horrifying incidents.

Tonight, we’re staying at the Vivaana Heritage Hotel, which is a restored nineteenth-century haveli, a merchant’s house lavishly decorated with frescoes and carvings. And if I make it through dinner, there’s an evening of traditional puppetry, storytelling and folk music, which I’m hoping will be tolerable. Before that, though, a nap, I think.

Closing Time

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Positano on a sunny day. It consists of buildings clustered on the impossibly steep hill of a rocky promontory jutting out into the sea. The water is blue-green.

Well, I was never going to be able to afford to stay in Positano, of course, so the best thing to do was a day trip. Really, I should have done this when I was staying in Sorrento — it’s a 50-minute bus ride from Sorrento to Positano — but I was still at the very beginning of four whole weeks of travel in Italy, and I didn’t want to fill those weeks up with day trips and activities, to impose any structure or foreclose any possibilities.

I’m nearing the other end of those four weeks now. And I’m pretty happy with the structure that ended up somehow being imposed on those four weeks. Sorrento, Ischia, Naples, Salerno, Matera and Pompei. Four or five nights each. Not spending too much time sitting on trains and buses, lugging the big suitcase around, checking in, checking out.

I decided to stay in Pompei because the bus back from Matera stopped there on the way to Naples. And because I thought it looked pretty when I accidentally caught the wrong train from Naples a couple of weeks ago and ended up at Pompei Santuario instead of Pompei Scavi. I had walked through the town for about a quarter of an hour and entered the archaeological park through the eastern gate near the amphitheatre. There’s a long stretch of road there leading from the main square to the ruins, full of stalls and bars and restaurants catering for tourists, but it has a kind of festival atmosphere, which I think is kind of fun. And, you know, I’m a tourist.

A large church with a tall bell-tower to the left of it
The Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria del Santo Rosario di Pompei

By the time I decided to go to Positano, the four weeks had been completely planned, and my trip to Italy had ended up being four weeks hanging around the Bay of Naples and its immediate environs, punctuated by four nights in Matera. By then, the Amalfi Coast had joined the infinite list of foreclosed possibilities. (Mostly because I had checked out Positano on and had decided that it would be unreasonable to spend $400 a night on accommodation at any point during an eleven-week overseas holiday.) Still, I knew it would only take me about an hour and a half to get to Positano, and that would count as having visited the Amalfi Coast.

I literally knew nothing about the Amalfi Coast, apart from its location. I had seen some photos, I think, that made it look roughly like Sorrento, with big hotels perched on cliffs and things. But I had no idea that the towns were built on precipitous hillsides, in places where it would probably have been a lot easier to just take a quick look round and decide to build somewhere else.

I walked down from the bus stop to the beach and sat on a bench on the seafront surrounded by expensive restaurants. And then I climbed back up again. That night, I texted Calvin — “I went to Positano today, which is where we will be retiring to in just a few years” — and seconds later he sent me a link to a 9½ million dollar property that would be just perfect.

I left Pompei this morning, and now I’m in the Holiday Inn Roma — Eur Parco Dei Medici. Just a 15-minute drive from the airport. The day after tomorrow, I’m flying out to Delhi to meet Calvin. But before then, I have a whole day left, and I’m near Rome. I still haven’t decided what to do.

End of Part 1.

Purae Sunt Plateae

Thursday, 9 March 2023

The Sassi: rows and rows of yellow stone buildings cover the side of   a hill. There's a road below them, and below the road the scrubby hillside can be seen. It's a beautiful sunny day.
The Sassi

It’s my last full day in Matera. Gotta get up really early tomorrow morning — well okay, at 7 AM — to get the bus from the other side of town to take me back to the bay of Naples. So, an early night tonight.

Matera is not a big town: located in the arch of Italy’s foot, it’s got a population of about 60,000 people. And it takes about half an hour to drag a heavy suitcase from one side of the town to another, which is what I will be doing first thing tomorrow morning.

In 2014, Matera was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Also in 2019, Daniel Craig came here to shoot a car chase around the streets of the town and a confrontation with one of the three facially disfigured villains in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die. (They also shot scenes from the risible and horribly blasphemous Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ here, but I think we should all just agree as a species to forget about that film completely.)

Those aren’t the reasons I came here, obviously. The real reason — and Matera’s main claim to fame, is the Sassi — a cunningly hidden medieval city which clings to one side of a river valley on the eastern side of the town. All its buildings are constructed from large, soft, yellow blocks of limestone. But the interiors of those buildings — including some churches and monasteries — are limestone caves. Caves which may have had human inhabitants as early as 10,000 years ago.

In 1952, the Sassi were evacuated. They were malarial, and kind of unfit for human habitation. People had lived there for centuries, with no natural light and no ventilation, crowded into the caves with their families and their livestock. But over the last few decades, with the help of the EU and UNESCO, it’s been developed, and now it’s full of small businesses, bars and restaurants.

I arrived at Matera on Monday, after hanging around a bus stop with my suitcase for a few hours and travelling 3½ hours by bus south and east of Salerno. I checked into the hotel at about 7:30, went and grabbed something to eat and then went to bed.

The hotel is like the one in Salerno, only much, much cleaner. There are only four rooms here, and no one on site most of the time. There’s a four-digit code to get into the hotel and another one to get into the room. I think only one of the other rooms is currently occupied.

(This is a much better arrangement than the hotel in Salerno, which I got into using an app on my phone. One day I left my phone in the hotel room and spent an uncomfortable thirty minutes imagining myself sitting phonelessly outside the hotel for hours and hours, hoping someone nice might come by to let me in, only to remember that the keyring with my room key had two other keys on it whose purpose should have been immediately obvious.)

Each day I’ve been here, I’ve got up and wandered through the Sassi all morning, taking photos, searching for an affordable restaurant for dinner that night (unsuccessfully), and trying to find the locations where the Bond movie was shot (successfully, for the most part, although the graveyard isn’t real and that bridge Bond falls from is actually thirty kilometres away in a town called Gravina). I’ve mostly spent my afternoons reading or wandering around the rest of the town listening to podcasts. It’s been nice. Things are a bit expensive here, I think, but the streets are wide and clean and there’s nothing to hinder those who are deep in thought.

After today, there are just over seven days left in this part of the trip. Next Friday, I’ll be flying out from Rome to Delhi, where I will catch up with Calvin, and where the second, much weirder phase of the journey will begin. I’ll catch up with you before then.

Picks of the Day

In Transit

Monday, 6 March 2023

Looking along a cobbled street in an Italian town. There are a few pedestrians walking along the street. On either side of the street are the usual Italian buildings; some of them have palm trees in front of them. At the end of the street, in the distance is a wooded hill,  with a motorway running across it, supported by arches.
The main street of Salerno

A brief update.

I’m just finishing a four-night stay in Salerno, just south of the Bay of Naples and north of the Amalfi Coast. It’s mostly been about walking, reading and food, to be honest. I’ll fill you in a bit more later.

I’m checking out of this grimy hotel in just under an hour. Then a walk across town to the bus stop where I’ll be catching a bus for the 3½ hour trip to Matera.

I first learned about Matera a couple of years ago, in a house meeting organised by my colleague Caterina Rupolo. It’s a town with a surprising history and a unique geography; almost as importantly, it was one of the locations used in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.

My phone, AirPods and Kindle are all charged, and I’m ready for a long day of looking out the window of the bus at the passing countryside. The worst thing about travelling is the actual going-from-place-to-place part, which I’ve tried to minimise on this trip as much as possible. It makes me cross. But I’ve paid for the ticket, I’ve located the inadequately signposted bus stop, and I’m ready to go.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Among the Ruins

Thursday, 2 March 2023

A tall stone pedestal in the middle of a roundabout. On top is a bronze statue: a figure on horseback in uniform with a massive plumed helmet. Text on the pedestal says A VITTORIO EMANUELE II MDCCCXCVI. Behind the statue are some grimy but glamorous buildings, just a few storeys high.
I would like a hat like that

The first time I came to Naples was in 2008. I didn’t stay there for long: I got off the train at Napoli Centrale, walked a few hundred metres to Napoli Piazza Garibaldi and caught a train from there straight to Sorrento. Maybe thirty minutes tops.

It was the height of the Neapolitan waste management crisis, which had started some time in the 1980s and would continue until about 2011. Pulling into Napoli Centrale, I could see hundreds of black plastic bags piled up beside the railway tracks. A beloved colleague in Grammar’s history department, David Patrick, knew that I wanted to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and had warned me to avoid Naples at all costs and had advised me to stay in Sorrento instead.

The second time in came here, it was just for a few hours. It was a rainy day in December 2017. I walked from Napoli Centrale to the National Archaeological Museum, spent a couple of hours in the museum, and then walked back again and caught the next train to Sorrento. I didn’t see any black plastic bags, but it was all a bit filthy and run down, and for some reason I never really noticed that even the shabbiest parts of the city have a kind of faded glamour.

I’m in my hotel room in Naples now: after five nights here I will be leaving. I think I said before that Calvin had booked it for me. “Apparently it is not a good and safe area at the holiday inn,” He warned me. I was dismissive: “I’ll be okay. I’ve been to Naples before.”

I really warmed to Naples the last time I came here. It was on the school’s 2019 Classics Tour — the last time I travelled abroad before the pandemic. We stayed in a nice hotel not far from the monument pictured above and a short work from the historic centre of Naples: a maze of cobbled streets full of churches and bookshops and bars and restaurants. It’s grimy and faded and a bit run down, but it’s beautiful as well.

Vastly unlike the historic centre of Naples is the windswept and largely deserted shopping precinct that surrounds this hotel, and the train station that services it. It’s got a real Chatswood-six-months-after-the-Apocalypse vibe. Take a look.

Anyway, I’m actually going to be sorry to leave. The hotel was nice. I did my professionally mandated trips to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to the National Archaeological Museum, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. And I got to wander the streets soaking up the grimy grandeur of the place. I’ll be back, deo volente.

The Week and Pizza

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Looking out across a small harbour in the evening.  There are some small yachts in the foreground and a wooded hill  in the background. The sky is dark with blue clouds,  and the sun has just set.

I’m writing this in the Holiday Inn in Naples, in a large hotel room, in a skyscraper, surrounded by graffiti and urban decay. Calvin booked the hotel for me — using points — after I decided that I would spend my time in Sorrento just relxing and that I would start my sightseeing the following week from Naples. And although this hotel is some distance from Naples’ beautiful centro storico, it’s very close to a train station that will take me wherever I need to go.

After writing my last post, I spent a couple more nights in Sorrento, and then I caught a train to Naples and a ferry to Ischia, which I have wanted to visit for years now. (There are ferries that go directly from Sorrento to Ischia, but they don’t run during February.)

Ischia is a small volcanic island about 10 kilometres across, just off the coast of the Cape of Misenum, at the end of the northern arm of the Bay of Naples. The Romans called it Pithecusa or Pithecusae, a name that includes the nearby islands of Procida and Vivaria. In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid says that the island is named after the little yellow apes that were once its inhabitants — formerly a race of people, the Cercopes, whom Jupiter transformed into apes as punishment for their deceit and trickery. (Pliny the Elder says that the island is named after its clay deposits, but that is just the sort of thing that he might be expected to say.) Aeneas stopped on the island on the way to Cumae, according to Ovid, which is why it’s also called Aenaria, a name that it has passed down to a number of thermal spas and restaurants.

A hill juts out of the sea. There are walls built up the side facing us, and on top of those walls and the hill is a castle the same colour as the rock of the hill. A stone bridge leads from the bottom of the hill towards us.

It had become apparent during my stay in Sorrento that there’s nothing much open there during February. And so every night I would start wandering around at about half past five, hunting for somewhere to eat. This continued to be a problem when I arrived in Ischia. During my first hunt, I found the Castello Aragonese, pictured above, sitting atop a volcanic plug connected to Ischia by a stone bridge. When I came back to visit the castle the next day, it was closed. The thermal spas were also closed. And the restaurants were closed. The bars were open, for the locals I suppose, and so I was still able to eat bar snacks and burgers and toasted sandwiches, but I couldn’t find anywhere that served the sort of Italian food that was really my main reason for coming to Italy.

Last night, my hunt was successful. I realised a few days ago that I just needed to be more patient: restaurants here don’t really open for dinner until 7 PM, which is more than an hour after I usually eat dinner. So I held off, and was rewarded with the sort of food I had been imagining since I arrived on the island. It was at a restaurant by the port called Pane e Vino, whose owner told me that, while living in London as a young man, he had discovered that Australians are much more fun and relaxed than English people.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ve walked and read and relaxed and listened to podcasts, but I haven’t actually done any proper sightseeing. So tomorrow I’ll catch the train to Herculaneum, which isn’t closed on Sundays, and then I’ll work out what to do after that. But in the meantime, tonight, in the hotel restaurant, I will be eating pizza.

Raining in Sorrento

Sunday, 19 February 2023

A view of the marina from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. There's a long jetty jutting into the water with a ferry standing nearby. In the distance is a forested headland, closer are some large hotels perched on the top of the cliff.

I arrived in Sorrento the day before yesterday. This is my third time here. I first came here in 2008 and then again in 2017 (when I stayed for about ten days).

I like Sorrento. It’s a bit touristy, particularly on the weekends, but it’s very pretty and there’s lots of places to eat, to walk, and to sit quietly and read. And it’s close to other things, like Capri, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

This time I’m not going to any of those places. I’m here for two more nights, and I plan to take it very easy. This morning I had breakfast at the hotel, sat at a bar drinking coffee and reading, and then took a walk down the cliff to the marina, followed by more sitting and reading. But then it started raining, so now I’m back in the hotel writing this. If it doesn’t ease up soon, I might start doing some podcast or website things until I head off for drinks and dinner.

A few of the water from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. In the foreground are the red roofs of some buildings, further off in the background are some massive hotels perched on the top of a cliff.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far, in no particular order.

Picks of the day

I’m currently enjoying the podcast If Books Could Kill, in which Michael Hobbes critically revisits the dark side of some of the most famous airport non-fiction of the last few decades, including Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Freakonomics. Hobbes is really thoughtful and funny, and he gets extra points for pushing back on Twitter against centrist dunderhead Jonathan Chait’s credulous bullshit take on healthcare for trans children, which was published in The New York Times in the last week or so.

And while we’re on the subject of The New York Times’s appalling coverage of trans issues, here’s The Onion’s take on it — the most blistering satirical article I’ve seen from them in decades.

Hm. It’s stopped raining. Off for a walk. Chat soon.

Hello world!

Thursday, 16 February 2023

A big roundabout under an overcast sky. There are some halfhearted trees growing in the middle of the roundabout and a few nondescript cars are driving unenthusiastically through it.

I’m in Slough.

Well, not Slough exactly. The parish of Colnbrook with Poyle, Slough. The Holiday Inn Express London — Heathrow T5. A boring hotel near the airport.

I’m flying off to Italy tomorrow morning, and I have to be at the airport before 5 AM. So Calvin — very thoughtfully — found this hotel and booked me a room for my last night in the UK. I’m excited about tomorrow’s flight, but I’ll be travelling by train for a few hours afterwards, and I won’t be arriving in Sorrento until the afternoon. So a boring hotel is just the sort of place I need to be to chill for a few hours. Gotta get into a state of mind where I won’t get cross tomorrow when I inevitably get lost at some point.

This is my first post, even though I arrived in the UK nearly two weeks ago. Normally I blog when I’m travelling alone, so that I have a record of the trip to read later. But the last two weeks (or so) I’ve just been too busy.

I don’t really want to write about it all yet. But I had the best time. I stayed with Joe and his partner Mark in Eastbourne: I’ve been chatting with Joe daily since October 2020, and I finally, finally got to meet him in person. We recorded 11 podcast episodes together — including the latest episode of Untitled Star Trek Project. And we just hung out — eating, wandering around, climbing up Beachy Head, watching telly, talking. And we did some touristy things too. A pilgrimage to Leeds Castle, where The Androids of Tara was filmed in 1978. A trip to the Fitzroy Tavern in London to catch up with some Who fans and podcasting friends. A hilarious last night where we went to the theatre to see the new production of Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn.

Joe wasn’t the only friend I met in person for the first time: there was also Si, Pete, and Conrad, who I’ve been podcasting and chatting with online for some time now. New people too: Steve, Chris, and Rob Valentine, who listens to FTE and who is very generous in his engagement with us on Twitter. And I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen for a long time: Colin, Angela, and Simon Catterall and his partner Majed (who I was also meeting for the first time).

Huh. I said I didn’t want to write about all this. I think that’s because I don’t think I can satisfactorily express how great it all was, and how grateful I am to everyone I got to see — but particularly Joe and Mark, who were so kind and warm and generous and so much fun to hang out with. I love you all. I can’t wait to see you again (except Colin, who will be here in a couple of hours because he’s flying to Copenhagen tomorrow and staying in this hotel tonight).

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

This essay was originally published in You on Target, an anthology of essays about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, released in 2020. In it, I talk about (among other things) Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of the Doctor Who story Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Thank you to Christopher Bryant for commissioning it.

66 million years ago

Somehow, the pterodactyl was glad to be back. It had been a very difficult day.

Just this morning, it had been sunning itself in this sandy clearing. It must have fallen asleep, for the next thing it knew was that it was somewhere else, in a giant underground cavern. There was some kind of mammal there, a mammal with a head covered with a shock of white fur. The mammal was holding a searing bright light, which had sent the pterodactyl off screeching to the roof of the cavern. But then mammal had gone away, and the pterodactyl had settled down to wait for sunrise.

Still, that’s all over now, it thought.

But this very thought was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched buzz. The pterodactyl looked up to see two more of the brown-coloured mammals, appearing out of nowhere in a swirling eddy of light.

It couldn’t understand the ugly noises coming from the mammals’ mouths, of course, and it couldn’t admire the highly polished fingernails of one or the expensively cut lounge suit of the other. But it knew that they would attract the attention of the Monster, who would soon be along to enjoy them as a between-meals snack.

So it flew off, the tip of one leathery wing grazing the cheek of one of the mammals as it went. The Monster was coming.

Silence. A sound of thunder.

12 January 1974

At teatime today, Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs is broadcast for the first time.

(I will turn five in three months, but I don’t appear in this chapter of the story.)

Part 1 is a pretty good episode. The Doctor and his new assistant Sarah Jane Smith are exploring a mysteriously bleak and deserted London. They are mistaken for looters, and are quickly arrested. No one will even listen to their story: they are apparently powerless to escape from a rigid and tiresome military bureaucracy.

And then, at the cliffhanger, they are menaced by a roaring puppet Tyrannosaurus.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs will not become an instant classic. Last year’s finale, The Green Death, featured simple rod-and-string puppet maggots, and psychologically scarred an entire generation of children. But no one will be scarred by Invasion’s puppet dinosaurs, because they are plangently, lamentably bad. They float in mid-air, amateurishly CSO’d onto poorly-directed location footage. They burst suddenly through cardboard walls. Instead of roaring, they actually seem to be saying the English word ROAR. One dinosaur retreats out of shot, pulled by the tail by an off-screen hand. Another two dinosaurs fight, menacing each other with bendy rubber teeth. (Or are they snogging? It’s honestly hard to tell.)

Six weeks later, a man with polished fingernails and a man in an expensively cut lounge suit will vanish completely from a secret government base underneath an evacuated London.

19 February 1976

Malcolm Hulke’s fifth Doctor Who novelisation is published: a version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs called Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike the televised story, it’s a triumph. And not just because it doesn’t include a single puppet dinosaur.

Consider how it reveals the backstory — the evacuation of London and the mysterious appearance of the dinosaurs. In Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the Doctor and Sarah hear about these events in some fairly unremarkable expository dialogue. But in Chapter 1 of the novelisation (London Alert!), we see the same events through the eyes of Shughie McPherson. Shughie is a young unemployed man from Glasgow, who has come down (up?) to London with some mates to see the Cup Final. He misses the evacuation because he is too tired and hungover to leave with them.

He wakes up in a London that has been completely abandoned. There’s no electricty, so he decides to leave the house, only to discover that the entire street is deserted. Terrified by the sight of the broken body of a young milkman, he falls to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. And then he is attacked and killed by an unseen dinosaur.

In the televised version of the story, there is no one as interesting and skilfully characterised as Shughie McPherson. And no one like him has ever appeared in Doctor Who before.

Malcolm Hulke is brilliant at backstory and characterisation. There’s an entire chapter in Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters devoted to the odd, one-sided relationship between Dr Quinn and Miss Dawson. In Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, we learn all about Jane Leeson — a character who gets a couple of minutes of screen time on television — what her life was like on a miserable, overcrowded earth, how she met her husband, and why she left to colonise the planet in whose soil she will finally be buried. And in Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, we learn how Captain Trenchard aspires to be a hero, and how he is tragically killed by his own buffoonish incompetence.

21 June 1978

Here I am, appearing in the story at last. I’m ten years old, and tonight I will watch my first episode of Doctor Who.

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend at school showed me my first ever Target book. It was called The Doctor Who Monster Book. Somehow, Luke and I managed to spend hours of class time looking through it, when, presumably, we were meant to be doing mental arithmetic, or reading English books, or doing whatever the hell you do in Fourth Grade in primary school.

The Doctor Who Monster Book had a picture of Tom Baker on the front cover, apparently drawn by someone who had never actually seen him, even in photographs. There were sections on each of the Doctors, double-page spreads for all of the top-tier returning monsters, and even pages covering the the Zarbi, the Sensorites, and the Uxariean mining robot.

Because it was a Target book, many of the pages reproduced Chris Achilleos’s cover art for the novelisations. On pages 52 and 53, you could even see the classic cover of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, depicting Pertwee’s Doctor, his hand protecting his face, as a Tyrannosaurus rex advances on him from behind, and a pterodactyl snaps at him with an almighty Roy-Lichtenstein-inspired KKLAK!

But the star of the books was the Daleks. Five pages were devoted to them, chronicling their exploits in every Doctor Who story of the sixties and seventies, culminating in the Doctor’s attempt to avert their creation in Genesis of the Daleks.

Tonight’s episode, Luke tells me, is called Death to the Daleks. And so I will go home after school, and announce to my family that at half past six, on Channel 2, we will be watching Part 1 of my first ever Doctor Who story.

It will change my life.

Later in 1978

At ten years old, I am already a voracious reader. Summer is hot in Sydney, and we are lucky enough to have a swimming pool in the backyard. Sometimes I come home from school and sit on the top step of the pool and read. I’m often reading a Target novelisation.

By now, I’ve got quite a collection going. I get a couple of dollars a week in pocket money, in exchange for simple chores like wiping up the plates after dinner and not coming downstairs to annoy my parents after bedtime. I use that money to buy novelisations. David Jones at Warringah Mall has a bookshop, just near the butcher. We go there every week to buy meat, and after that I choose five or six novelisations and put them on lay-by until I can save up enough money to take them home with me. I write my name and phone number on the first page of each book.

Soon I have dozens of them. They’re almost always Pertwee or Baker stories, although I do have Doctor Who and the Cybermen, starring a strange old Doctor who I have never even seen. Some of them, like Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, Doctor Who and the Hand of Fear, Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom, I have seen on television. Others, Doctor Who and the Mutants, Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion have not been on television since I started watching Doctor Who.

April 1979

I’m in an airport, in the United States somewhere. My family are here on holiday: perhaps we’re travelling across the country, from LA to New York, I think. In my bag, there is an exercise book in which I use a biro to write an account of the trip; there are also a few Target novelisations from my collection.

My edition of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion doesn’t have the cover with the pterodactyl saying KKLAK! It’s a later edition with a T. rex on the cover, based on a painting by Charles R. Knight, standing in front of a building I will later learn to identify as St Paul’s cathedral.

This is my first vivid memory of reading a Target novelisation: Sir Charles Grover, with his expensively cut lounge suit and delusions of grandeur, tells the Doctor that he is “in time to be present at the most important moment in the world’s history.” The Doctor, unimpressed as ever by the most important moments in the world’s history, replies, "On the contrary. I am in time to prevent a crime.”

I think I might be in love.

Interlude: Nathan meets Tom Baker

It’s March 1980, the last year of primary school. I’m still friends with Luke. He has told me that Tom Baker is visiting Australia, that he’s coming to Warringah Mall, and he’s making an appearance in the Grace Brothers car park.

My father has agreed to let me go. The night before, in preparation, I watch a new Doctor Who episode, Part Something of The Creature From The Pit. I also go through my collection to find a novelisation for Tom to sign. I settle on Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang: it has the best likeness of Tom on the cover. He is dressed like Sherlock Holmes, staring grimly out of the picture with his piercing brown eyes.

My mother is in hospital for the first time. Over the next ten years, she will often be in hospital. Now, in the distant future, I still remember going to see her years later, reading Doctor Who Magazine on the bus, clutching it in my hand as I go to visit her in the room where she will eventually succumb to the cancer that kills her.

That’s still ten years in the future. Right now, I’m in a long queue at the rooftop car park. Luke and his sister Rachel are with me. Immediately behind me in the queue is a boy who I will actually meet and befriend many years later: one of my co-hosts from the podcast Flight Through Entirety — Richard Stone. He has just about forgiven me for what happens next.

Many more people have turned up than the organisers expected. But we’re not very far from the front. Behind us, the queue snakes off into the distance. Ahead, I can seen Tom in the distance, wearing his costume from last night’s episode.

While we wait, I talk to Luke about my mother’s trip to hospital. I am overheard by a kindly old lady who is walking up and down the queue to keep everything running smoothly.

It takes an hour, I guess, but now we’re just about standing in front of Tom himself. An announcement is made. Tom needs to leave now, and so the people in front of us will be the last people to get to speak to him.

But the kindly lady intervenes. “This boy’s mother is in hospital,” she says, and I’m allowed to go up and speak to Tom. No one behind me in the queue will get that opportunity.

I can’t remember what I said. But I do remember Tom signing my Target novelisation and saying, “Your mother’s in hospital? Well, you know, if you ever need help, let me know. I’m a Doctor.”

His eyes are piercing and blue.

5 November 1984

In Sydney, in the late seventies, Channel 2 shows repeat after repeat of Doctor Who, four or five nights a week, at 6:30 PM, just before the news. They start at Spearhead from Space, and go up to the most recent episode with Tom Baker, and then back to Spearhead from Space again. Weirdly, they leave out anything scary, anything only available in black and white, and anything with the Master.

But tonight, they’re showing Invasion of the Dinosaurs for the first time. Part 1 is still only available in black and white — the colour version was deliberately incinerated — and so they’re renumbering the episodes to make it a five-part story. Watching Part 2, now re-branded as Part 1, is the first time I ever see the televised story, and it opens with the Doctor and Sarah inexplicably menaced by an unconvincing puppet Tyrannosaurus.

26 June 2010

I’m all grown up now. Crazily, I got rid of my whole collection of Target novelisations years ago. There were dozens and dozens of them, but I only kept one. Now the books are available in a completely new format — audiobooks. And so I start my collection up again, buying a copy of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike my previous copy, this has the orange cover with the pterodactyl going KKLAK! It’s read by Martin Jarvis, who played Butler in the episode.

Martin Jarvis is, of course, superb. He does great accents for poor old Shughie McPherson and his mates, and great voices for the Doctor, Sarah and the Brigadier. More impressive, of course, is his note-perfect Martin Jarvis impersonation. Butler is much kinder and more working class here than the posh and distant character he was in the televised version. Hulke has given him a livid facial scar, to help us to recognise him when other characters don’t know who he is. When Sarah taunts him about that scar, she is embarrassed to learn that he got it saving a terrified child trapped on the ledge of a high building.

Hulke has a genius for backstory and characterisation.

January 2016

And now, in the distant future, my iPhone contains dozens of audio versions of Target novelisations, even ones that I have never owned before, like Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, tantalisingly referred to in a footnote in Chapter 3 of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

My favourites are always the novelisations by Malcolm Hulke. I have all of them now, except for Doctor Who and the War Games. (Why don’t I have that? Wait here a second while I go and put it on my Audible wishlist.)

And my favourite audiobook is still the first one I ever bought.

5 billion years from now

The sun expands, and the Earth is destroyed, but nobody watches it happen. The Doctor is there, with his new best friend Rose. Later, or earlier, they will go out to get chips.

Blake’s 7: The SevenFold Crown

Thursday, 1 April 2021

This review of a very early Blake’s 7 audio drama was published in TV Zone issue 99 (February 1998). I can only barely remember writing it, and I didn’t actually have a copy of it anywhere until recently, when Peter Griffiths, who had commissioned me to write it, sent me a copy of it he found a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to Peter for giving me the chance to write it and for unearthing it and sending it to me after so many years.

AVON: Are you going give it to me?
SERVALAN: How can I stop you taking it?

The SevenFold Crown is a new Blake’s 7 radio drama serial written by Barry Letts, who produced Doctor Who in the Seventies and wrote the Doctor Who radio dramas The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space. The SevenFold Crown has just been released as a two-tape set by BBC Worldwide and will be broadcast on Radio 4 later this month, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Blake’s 7 in 1978.

When Avon’s sleep is disturbed by a fabulously silly dream in which he is being flogged and menaced by Servalan, he decides that the lady herself is responsible, and heads off to the planet Ferno to confront her. Down on Ferno, Avon and Vila discover that Servalan has one of three parts of the SevenFold Crown, an ancient alien artifact that (as usual) confers incredible Mind Powers on its wearer. Our heroes’ quest for the remaining parts takes them to the planet Torella (which has a thriving tourist trade despite its medieval
justice system and high rates of random capital punishment) and the mysterious planet of the ancient Devani.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary.

But why go into it in any more detail? The teleport keeps malfunctioning, Orac refuses to give the crew crucial information, Avon tries to abandon a crewmember, Servalan tricks the crew into teleporting the wrong person up… Honestly, everything you would expect from a Blake’s 7 anniversary special and more. Even the sound effects and the teleport music sound authentic.

All the male principals from Blake’s 7’s final year are back: Paul Darrow as Avon, Michael Keating as Vila and Steven Pacey as Tarrant. And (thank God!) so is Jacqueline Pearce as the sequinned psychopath, Servalan. Josette Simon and Glynis Barber were (ahem) unavailable, and so the remaining female crew members have both been recast. Angela Bruce (Brigadier Bambera in Doctor Who’s Battlefield) plays a reasonabiy convincing Dayna, while Paula Wilcox’s Soolin is disappointingly girly and cheerful — not at all like the laid-back hardfaced bitch Glynis Barber played in the TV series.

And, of course, everyone sounds much older. Steven Pacey has particular trouble recreating Tarrant’s growly character voice, while Servalan sounds a little huskier and a little more formidable. Paul Darrow is the same as ever, although he delivers his lines in such a macho and deadpan way he must often be in danger of dislocating his jaw.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary. For example, Avon: “I have torn out the throat of a tiger with this very hand” or Servalan, discussing Vila’s imminent execution: “Your friend’s head would make a simply ducky little souvenir for somebody, wouldn’t you agree?” (Not really.)

In fact, the script is this serial’s big weakness. The SevenFold Crown is full of stupid technobabble and laborious dialogue where characters describe to each other in detail all the exciting events unfolding before their very eyes. There is also a tendency for Letts to try to end each scene with a punchline. Unfortunately, he is not much of a comedy writer, and the lines are just not funny. “If I get shot with a hallucinatory blaster,” wonders Vila, “do I really die, or shall I just pretend?”

If you make it that far, at the end of the tape there are a few short interviews with the principal cast members. You won’t hear much here that hasn’t been said before in fanzines and programme guides, but it’s nice hearing it said in the actors’ voices. A special award for sneaky disparagement goes to Steven Pacey, who expresses “amazement” and “astonishment” at Blake’s 7’s success. And when he’s asked about Tarrant’s personality, he replies “What personality was that, then?”

Nice one. Steven. Well spotted.

Airing 17 Jan 1998. BBC Radio 4.

Written by Barry Letts
BBC Audio, ISBN 0 56338200 7
Price: £8.99
Out now

Image of this review as it appeared in Starburst Magazine