Posts Tagged With: books

The Curse of the Shoehorning Titles

timelordletters

I recently finished The Time Lord Letters. One of those tie-ins (this one by Justin Richards) that do quite well for a while and then end up in The Works at £5.99, it revisits a number of stories in the form of imagined correspondence – letters, memos, the occasional post-it – usually revisiting the events of the narrative after the fact. The Tenth Doctor, for example, writes to Harriet Jones after he has a hand in deposing her. His immediate predecessor writes to Charles Dickens just after they’ve fought off ghosts in Cardiff. And the Fourth Doctor writes to the survivors of Storm Mine 4 (not that there are many) just after ‘Robots of Death’, apologising for leaving without waking them (cross-reference under hashtag #sorrynotsorry).

Sometimes the letters anticipate stories rather than reflect upon them: the Eleventh Doctor, for example, writes to a shop in Colchester asking for a job. Others dip into them in the middle of a narrative: there is a nice one from the Second Doctor to the Time Lords asking for help with the War Games. Still others skate around the lake of randomness: there’s one from a very young First Doctor to Borusa complaining about his school report (this is funnier if you’ve actually read said report, which is in another book). And the Twelfth Doctor’s reference for Clara is quite amusing, and very Twelfth Doctor. The whole thing is nicely presented, a variety of different (and usually well-chosen) fonts to illustrate the different Doctors’ handwriting styles, and it contains (a rarity in a New Who book) a pleasing mixture of Classic and Modern.

But there were bits of it that set my teeth on edge.

It’s not that Richards gets the tone wrong. For the most part I could imagine the Doctors (and other characters that occasionally contribute) speaking the words listed with utter conviction. That, in itself, is a big part of the problem. Because – well look, let me give you an example, occurring as it does in the form of the First Doctor’s farewell note to Susan.

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At a guess: you read that and then halfway through thought “Hang on, this is what he said inside the TARDIS! Word for word!” And indeed, it is.

Exactly the same thing happens when Martha leaves, as you’ll see when you find yourself quoting her speech.

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The implication behind both entries (it’s there in the note at the top) is that this is something the Doctor / Martha wrote down in case they didn’t have time to say it out loud, but it’s fine because they did. Using their exact words. As the Tenth Doctor does in his letter to Sally Sparrow, in which he says “There was a sort of a thing happening. Four things in fact. And a lizard.” Which is amusing when it happens in ‘Blink’, because it’s precisely the sort of improvised, disjointed thing you’d expect him to say in the heat of the moment, and a deliciously open-ended non-sequiteur at the end of an episode bent on being as self-contained as possible. Are we really expected to believe that in the aftermath, when he’d had time to think, the Doctor would have written those exact words? Again?

Perhaps Richards had a deadline and ran out of mojo. Or perhaps it was an authorial decision: the inclusion of great chunks of published dialogue instantly familiarises the audience. Perhaps I’m in a minority but I simply can’t get comfortable with it. Is it really necessary to have the Fifth Doctor write down his precise parting words to the Cranleighs after he leaves the house at the end of ‘Black Orchid’? Even when it’s not full text, there are needless references thrown in. The words ‘Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ appear far more than they should. The Twelfth Doctor goes on about tangerines in his letter to Santa (which concludes, amusingly enough, with ‘P.S. – do I really stick this up a chimney now?’). And when writing to Dickens, the Ninth Doctor mentions The Signalman. Again.

It’s a problem that doesn’t dog The Secret History of Twin Peaks – something Emily bought me for Christmas and which I’m enjoying tremendously. The town of Twin Peaks, as it turns out, has a long history stemming back to Lewis and Clark, by way of displaced Native Americans, assorted encounters with the military, and two feuding families. There is rather too much UFO stuff (indeed, the book contains references to pretty much every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that weren’t) but perhaps this was inevitable after The X-Files, a show that arguably would not have happened without Twin Peaks. What’s interesting is that it explores the history of the town without making explicit references to anything the characters actually said, content instead to flesh it out with imagined press cuttings, meeting transcripts, and journal entries. And I think I’m just getting to the good bit.

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References to source material – cryptic or otherwise – are endemic in this age of digital television. It’s easier than ever to spot the small stuff (I should know; I made an entire series out of it). So when we’re told that there are Torchwood Easter Eggs in Sherlock, it’s not a great surprise. Indeed, the entire script is chock full of references to Conan Doyle’s characters, locations and other stories, whether it’s from a postcard on a fridge or the sign on a receptionist’s desk. It’s borderline saturation and is, in all likelihood, deliberately designed that way. If you spend every waking hour talking about obscure trivia, you barely have time to notice all the plot holes.

Nonetheless there’s a difference between subtle visual clues and the kind of shoehorning that happens in…look, I was going to give Lord of the Rings as an example, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk about, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room for a minute. Because while it’s one thing to have the Tenth Doctor awkwardly refer to himself as “James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory” at the beginning of ‘Tooth and Claw’, or mutter “Brave heart, Clara” as he’s leading her in the direction of a scream halfway through ‘The Crimson Horror’, these are minor transgressions compared to the stuff that happens under Peter Jackson’s watch.

Consider The Hobbit (we’re talking about the book, at least for the moment), and Bilbo’s despair when he and his Dwarvish companions are plunged into yet another bad situation. Tolkien picks up the thread:

“‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

And that, indeed, is the title of the chapter. And presumably Thorin has read the book, which is what prompts him to say “Out of the frying pan,” to which Gandalf adds “And into the fire!”. To be fair to him, Gandalf has form. He it was who languished by the fireside in Bag End, muttering “Riddles in the dark…”, although it is left to the Hobbits to awkwardly shoehorn another chapter title into an early scene (which, by the way, is nothing like it is in the book):

MERRY: That was just a detour. A shortcut.
SAM: A shortcut to what?
PIPPIN: Mushrooms!

Thankfully, that’s when the Nazgul turns up and they’re all too busy avoiding Morgul blades to think of jokes, at least until the Council of Elrond. “Nine companions?” says the sombre Elf. “So be it. You shall be…THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!”

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Look, calling out chapter names is OK when it’s as bland as, I don’t know, ‘Helm’s Deep’. You wouldn’t have got very far without that. Theoden would have had to say “WE GO TO MY VALLEY CLUBHOUSE!”, which would have been rubbish. Similarly (and steering the conversation back towards Doctor Who), the whole concept of ‘Listen’ revolves around the act of listening – chiefly to oneself – and although it’s never really apparent why the Doctor comes out of his meditation bellowing that single word, except that it looks creepy on a blackboard, it more or less works. Less effective is having Rita say “That’s quite a God complex you have there” while the Doctor’s being all self-important, but if anything that’s because of the title of the episode, rather than anything in it. And yet the title works because of its multiple layers. Which is the chicken here, and which the egg?

Sometimes it does seem that Doctor Who is mocking the Jackson fetish for awkward insertions (and yes, I know he’s not the only culprit, but these films have been sycophantically fawned over for years and it really is time we talked about how rubbish they are in places). Having the Doctor bellow “Dinosaurs…ON A SPACESHIP!” is both self-indulgent and brilliant, and in an episode that was less ridiculous it would have stuck out like a sore thumb – in this case, it’s all just part of the fun. Having Mels shout “OK, LET’S KILL HITLER!” is somewhat less successful, but again the story gets away with it because of sheer silliness. (You will note that every episode I’ve mentioned here was broadcast within the last seven years – if there’s one thing Russell T Davies seldom had a problem with, it was titles.)

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There is, at least, one sin of which the Lord of the Rings films are not guilty, and that’s to end on a title. Their last words are generally fairly profound, or laced with hidden profundity as the characters gaze out at a beautiful / dismal / dazzling / foreboding skyline, wind machine optional. Ending on a title is just about the worst thing an author can do, apart from conclude a story with “…and then I woke up”. It’s the literary equivalent of concluding your drama class sketch with “That’s it”. It isn’t wrong, but we Just Don’t Do It. (Sue Townsend did, of course, and I still haven’t quite forgiven her.)

And yet authors do. It was endemic within the sort of dreadful novels my mother used to enjoy – the Domestic Sagas, light and easy to read, covers emblazoned with soft-focus pictures of impassioned romantic couples or resilient single parents. Examples that spring immediately to mind are Elizabeth Murphy’s A Nest of Singing Birds and a book called As The Crow Flies which could have been written by anyone, given the popularity of its title (and no, it was not the Damien Boyd one and it probably wasn’t the Jeffrey Archer one either). But the greats aren’t immune – Bill Bryson finished Neither Here Nor There, his great European travelling memoir, in exactly this fashion, and no, I don’t care that it’s a pun. It’s colossally lazy. If you must, just use a different title. Titles are easy. It’s endings that are hard.

Thank goodness Doctor Who never does this. Right?

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Love Means Never Having To Say You’re So, So Sorry

I was in publishing long enough to network, and used my contacts to bag a bit of an exclusive. And while this has been the subject of a press embargo until midnight, I can now reveal – before ANYONE ELSE – that Mills & Boon are going to be publishing a series of Doctor Who romantic novels later in the year.

For more details, head on over to the Doctor Who Companion, which has the full story, but here’s a little cover art to whet your appetite.

Mills_Composite

 

 

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Doctor Who and the…

Apparently, it was 32 years ago yesterday (yes, yes, I know I’m late to the party) that Macmillan published Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. It’s one I confess I haven’t read, although it set something of a precedent for academic analysis of the show, being (as far as I’m aware) the first of its kind. It’s a trend that’s continued through the decades that followed, perhaps reaching its zenith in Philip Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorum series.

But  something that struck me about the Manuel Alvarado book yesterday was that if you add a single word – ‘and’ – it sounds like a story. A slightly strange story, perhaps, but a story nonetheless. And I imagine it would look like this.

(Yes, yes, I know it ought to be Troughton, giving the obvious Mind Robber associations, but I couldn’t find an image that worked. Besides, Capaldi’s wearing his trousers, so not all is lost.)

Obviously, TV stories like this were few and far between – ‘…and the Silurians’ is about the only example I can think of before caffeine. But in the novelisations, it became something of a trend – sixty-eight of the first seventy were titled Doctor Who and the…, whether the TV story had done it or not. Only two – Death to the Daleks and The Three Doctors – were spared.

Why did they stop? It’s probably connected with Davison’s run in the TARDIS, in which credits began to list him as ‘The Doctor’, rather than ‘Doctor Who’. (There is a generally sneering attitude among many fans towards those supposedly inexperienced people who refer to the title character as “Doctor Who”, rather than “The Doctor”. The truth – as is usually the case in these things – is much murkier and more ambiguous.) In either event, subsequent stories were given the same titles as their TV adaptations, which in a way is something of a shame.

I’ve examined titles before, of course, but in any event I did a couple more in this line. Those of you wanting to know whether the Doctor ever went back for the book that he threw into a supernova (“Because I disagreed with it”) may examine this 2010 Steve Tribe volume:

And meanwhile, Marcus Hearn investigates sinister goings on at a London bank:

I think you get the point.

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The Time Wind in the Willows

Going through the archives for an article I’m writing for Kasterborous, I discovered an odd thing that I wrote back in December 2011. If I were being silly I might almost describe it as fan-fic. As it is we’ll go with pastiche.

Today, just for the hell of it, I’m reproducing it again, only this time you get added pictures.To fill you in, the story as I envisaged this version of Kenneth Grahame’s classic is that Toad has nicked the TARDIS, only he calls it the TOADIS. When I originally spun this to Gareth, he suggested that “Toad presumably follows clues that read ‘Badger Wolf’ to find the Tower of Rattylon, and there engages in some pun involving ‘mole’ that I can’t think of this early.” (He had been interviewing for three days straight, so all things considered…)

‘The three animals regarded the bright blue box once again, as it stood there in the middle of the drawing room. Eight feet high it stood, reaching almost to the ceiling, a dark blue it gleamed – gleamed, perhaps, not being the word; I should say instead it seemed almost to glow. For all its apparent grandness, it seemed somehow fraudulently manufactured, as if certain nuances and details had been falsely inserted to misguide the curious passer-by of its true purpose. Rat observed that the telephone in one corner appeared to be unconnected, and the windows seemed of unorthodox size compared to others he had seen.

“Are you trying to tell us,” said Mole, slowly, as if only just grasping the facts, “that someone built a time machine out of a police telephone box? And, indeed, that you stole it?”

“Stole?” cried Toad. “Of course I didn’t steal it! To steal would imply that I’d had no mind to return it, and for all my adventurous spirit I am not a dishonest animal. I merely borrowed it. And when I am done with it, it shall indeed be returned, cleaned inside and out and polished like two new pins.”

“When you’re – done with it?” asked the Mole, hesitantly, uncertain as to whether he wanted his question answered.

“Oh, come now Moley!” was the good-natured response. “Surely even you can’t envisage me borrowing a device like this and not using it! Imagine!” Toad went on, leaping now on a sturdy writing desk to emphasise his point. “The vast expanse of the American wilderness set out before you, ripe with buffalo and bear! The glory of Rome, not in its present decayed majesty, but new, and white and shining and filled with gladiators and dignitaries! Picnicking outside the Coliseum! Taking tobacco with Wellington! Snuff with Shakespeare! Seeing Da Vinci paint and Michaelangelo chip away at stone! And then, when culture bores you, journeying to the bottom of the sea, to find the sharks and rays and angler fish and other such strange creatures that you normally only read about in books! Time travel, now, that’s the life! To go where you please and when you please…why, think of the adventures we’ll have!”

“We?” asked Rat, to which Mole added, under his breath, “Just what I was thinking.”

“Why, of course! You’ll all be coming with me. This beast is burdensome to control entirely by oneself – how its original owner, a solitary gentleman as far as I could make out, having no visible companion to speak of – ever managed it is quite beyond me. I had fair problems dashing around inside the thing pulling levers and twisting dials, and the juddering shake of the thing is quite something to behold, although of course you get used to it. And the layout! My word, Ratty, you’ve never seen the like of it! Passages here, tunnels there, sleeping compartments and cavernous walk-in wardrobes – and a library, of all things, inside the swimming pool! I shall want navigators and people willing to share the cooking duties, and some baggage carriers and general help. And you needn’t worry about leaving your homes unattended for any great length. This being a time machine, we can have it back in a jiffy – less than that, even – however long it’s in our possession. I can return it to its exact point of reference, right to the last second. The owner need never even know it was gone!”

“Now, see here, Toad – ” interjected the angry Rat.

“See here! See here! I should think so!” replied the excited Toad, hopping on one foot around the parlour. “I can see here, and there, and everywhere – anything, and any time! Here today, somewhere else last week!”

“Toad!” said the suddenly apoplectic Badger, very sternly, sitting up in his chair and leaning heavily on his walking cane, regarding the now quivering Toad with contempt and disdain and anger. “You miserable wretch! You worthless excuse for a civilised animal! Have you learned nothing of the dangers these machines possess? You could be flung anywhere – into a stampede of wildebeest, a pitched battle at sea, or even an active volcano! And that is to say nothing of the sheer folly of travelling through time, the lunacy of brazen interference! You might wipe out your own grandfather, destroy the Wild Wood, or even worse! In the hands of even the most sensible person such a vehicle would pose a tremendous risk. In the hands of an idiot and a lunatic, it’s a recipe for absolute calamity! The theft is bad enough. Your intention to actually use the thing is tenfold worse! Wicked, wicked Toad!”

So ferociously choleric was the Badger’s tone, and so potent and compelling the content of his speech, that Toad’s knees began at once to knock. In an instant his facial expression had changed from one of utter confidence in his abilities to handle the time machine to one of sudden and serious doubt. Could it be, he thought to himself, that he had thought himself more capable than he was? Had he become so excited in the possibilities that the pitfalls had evaded him? And then he saw, as if in a dream, but waking, a flash of hidden insight that rose to the surface like the bubbles in a mill pond, a world hideously altered by his meddling, a world of continents in upheaval, towns overrun with plants, old dictators given new life, and – oh, the horror! – the weasels lording themselves over his manor and estate, and indeed the whole of the surrounding countryside, while he, poor Toad, was reduced to nothing but a common servant, doomed to a life of servitude, misery and poverty.

The vision had shaken him. Removing a pristine handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket he mopped his brow, which had become bejewelled with sweat, and with shaking hands he moved to the fireside armchair, and gingerly sat down. When he had recovered sufficient composure, he said “Oh, Badger. You’re right, of course. I had thought my scheme well-intentioned, but I have been foolish. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”‘

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MacArthur Clarkson

Somebody give Jeremy Clarkson a steak. Quickly.

Clarkson_Hulk

 

The idea of producing a Hulk version was entirely Gareth’s idea, as was “You wouldn’t like him when he’s hungry”.

A few days later I was in a charity shop in Reading, and found myself playing around with the displays. I confess I am quite pleased with this.

Clarkson_Books

Hey, we don’t always have to talk about Doctor Who

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Tom Bombadil

Today’s post is a stroll down memory lane; something I wrote earlier in the year for another blog that’s now offline. I put it here because to be honest, The Hobbit‘s been more in my thoughts this last week than Doctor Who has. This is respectfully dedicated to she-knows-who.

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There is an apocryphal story about Tolkien. It takes place in the Eagle and Child, a tavern in the middle of Oxford, just a few miles away from my home. Tolkien had gone there to meet with members of his writers’ group, which included among its ranks author and Narnia creator C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit was doing decent business, and rumour had it that Tolkien had been working on a sequel. As he read aloud his contribution to that session – an early draft of what would eventually become ‘A Long Expected Party’ – Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.

If you’re not a fan of fantasy novels – as I’m not – this sentiment is understandable. My father has always decried Lord of the Rings, on the grounds that “Magic seems a convenient get-out clause for whenever the characters are in an impossible situation”. That’s something of a generalisation, and not really true when applied to LOTR (although Gandalf’s deus ex machina appearances in The Hobbit do tend to grate after a while) but I can see his point. If you’re not willing to buy into the idea of magic – even a magic that has its own rules and limitations, such as that presented in Harry Potter – you’re not going to be enamoured with talking trees and wizards who can fight off a Balrog one minute and get felled by a shrouded ghost on a giant bat a couple of books later.

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten years old. It took me nine weeks and two library renewals, at which point my mother insisted I finish the thing. Lord of the Rings was a childhood non-starter – a novel (or three novels, depending on what edition you possess) that I tried only a couple of times, never going beyond chapter six. I was a mature reader, but looking back at it now I don’t think I was ready. If you’re a parent reading this, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes the virgin experiences of great art, literature or culture are wasted if they are given to people who aren’t old enough to know what they have. It’s a trap I’ve been anxious to avoid with my own children, with some success. I do wish I’d held off on Short Circuit.

But then in 2001 Peter Jackson strode forth from New Zealand, damaging the seats of several aircraft on his way, and produced a series of films that has become notorious for the best and the worst reasons. Because the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a heavily flawed but ultimately quite exciting version of a set of books I’d never really cared about. And it’s this layer of detachment that allowed me to be relatively objective, at least up to a point. The truth is I harbour no great love for Middle Earth. My parents never lulled me to sleep to ‘The Road Goes Ever On And On’. I don’t have maps of the Shire peeling off the study wall. There is only room for one fixation in our house, and Doctor Who is currently it. But we mustn’t get into that now because we will be here all day.

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I went back to the books. The first film had recently come out, which meant that Viggo Mortensen’s intense, earnest delivery punctuated every line of Aragorn’s dialogue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately I could also hear Orlando Bloom every time Legolas opened his mouth, and this practically sent me to sleep. Not that some of the prose wasn’t doing that already. A friend of mine – a writer himself, and a very good one – pointed out that you could summarise Fellowship of the Ring in one paragraph: “Trees! More trees! Big trees. Old trees.” He exaggerates only mildly.

The simple truth is that it’s very easy to knock Tolkien’s prose. His structure is all over the place, with climaxes and mini-climaxes and long, first-person flashback scenes in the manner of nineteenth century classics, which is not a problem except when it gets in the way. The opening hundred pages of Return of the King, for instance, are a disaster, consisting as they do largely of Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith while the air is filled with foreboding and dread – it’s almost a relief when the orcs turn up. At the end of the book, the ring is vanquished, before we’re given a further eighty pages (or thereabouts) of singing elves who drink more wine than a group of English teachers at an end-of-term gathering. He then drops in a colossal anti-climax in which the Hobbits chase away an elderly shell of a wizard, and yes I know it’s important thematically, but after the siege of the Black Gate it’s such a colossal let-down. The world that Tolkien creates is vast and wondrous, and his imagination is a thing of beauty and grandeur, but the way in which he chooses to write about this world is heavily inconsistent.

Things don’t get any better when we talk about the characters. Frodo spends most of ROTK whining about how heavy the ring has become, while Sam – arguably the book’s real hero – carries him all the way to Mount Doom. Amusing, also, is Tolkien’s tendency to have Aragorn, Gandalf or Elrond introduce the principals by their full names and genealogical history whenever another character is thrown into the mix. Or, as my friend Gareth puts it (to the tune of the Monty Python Lumberjack Song):

“D’you like my sword, it’s been reforged,
I mended it myself
With Gimli son of Gloin
And Legolas the Elf

We’re the Fellowship and we’re OK
There’s nine of us, oops, now there’s eight…”

“It’s not very good,” Gareth insists (of the song, I should emphasise, rather than the books). Well, neither was Lost, and they dragged that out for years.

But a curious thing happened: I became far more incensed with the second and third films, and the changes they’d made, than I could ever be with Fellowship. And of course, it’s because I’d read the books first, but this escaped me at the time – all I could think about in 2003 was the ownership I’d taken of the novels, and how the films were less than I’d imagined they would be. Gone was Gandalf’s subterranean battle with the Balrog, which became a ‘thing of slime’ in the depths, and who Gandalf pursued – or was it the other way round? – up an enormous flight of stairs. Gone too was the epic confrontation at the gates of Minas Tirith between Gandalf and the Witch King – my favourite passage in the entire trilogy and one that upset me greatly with its cinematic omission. (Those of you who’ve seen the extended editions will know that it did make the lengthier version of Return of the King, albeit in a greatly altered form. I hated it. It’s a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for.)

In its place, of course, is a lot of comic relief. Gimli becomes the short, funny one, in the same way that Strax would become a comedy Sontaran in Doctor Who (but again, we won’t go into that). Pippin has apparently developed dyspraxia. Christopher Lee falls off a tower. And don’t get me started on the drinking contest – a scene with so staggeringly obvious a punch line that even my four-year-old could have seen it coming.

But Legolas, of course – who takes centre stage in the battle of wines – is the master of the obvious. His role on screen, it seems, is to abandon the eloquence and intensity of his literary counterpart, and provide a sort of descriptive audio commentary for the deaf, preferably without making anything that we might label a facial expression. When Aragorn and his friends approach the Passage of the Dead, Legolas is heard to mutter “The horses are restless”. Well, we can see that. The whinnying and snorting gave it away. In the video game he’s no better, crying “The mists swirl here also!” when you’re knee deep in the stuff. When my other half and I emerged from the cinema we decided that Legolas was the equivalent of the Microsoft paperclip – another one-dimensional creation whose role was to state the obvious at the most inconvenient moment. “It looks like you’re being attacked by orcs. Would you like help?”.

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On the other hand, there was no Tom Bombadil.

Bear with me. This has a happy ending But in my early twenties, I despised Bombadil and his incessant prancing and stupid Enid Blyton way of talking. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow / Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Fine. Don’t have him on your paintball team. Bombadil seemed to be a source of constant annoyance, a child in a world inhabited by men. I wanted to find out what would happen to Frodo and Sam and whether they would reach Mordor in one piece, and the interludes with Tom and his radiant wife were getting in the way. It came as a huge relief to discover that they’d dropped him from the films, although if he had been cast, I suspect Owen Wilson would have been an inspired choice.

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When I went back to the books a couple of years ago, I re-read the passages with Tom, and found myself chuckling. And then laughing. Tom didn’t just fit this time; the whole book somehow seemed to be about him. I lingered over the chapters he inhabits with a curious sense of belonging, reluctant – as I’m sure Frodo must have been – to leave the confines of Tom and Goldberry’s home and venture out into the great beyond. I still don’t miss his presence in the films: structurally he doesn’t fit, at least not so early in an already truncated narrative, and the tone is off. But I found him charming and mysterious and fascinating instead of a source of irritation, and when Emily found me a book of Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at a book amnesty last year, I was thrilled.

I’m sure that fatherhood has something to do with this. Tom represents security and solace in a dangerous world, and who would not wish this upon their children? By the time I re-read Lord of the Rings I had already introduced my eldest to The Hobbit, having read it to him over a number of evenings. It was the longest book we’d attempted and I managed by cheating, skimming over the geographical descriptions in the manner of William Goldman in The Princess Bride. But he was fascinated by Mirkwood, and the dragon that slept in his cave, and even before we’d finished the book he’d been busy with the crayons and Lego.

 

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Clockwise from left: wood elves feasting; a hobbit and his hole; Smaug’s cave (complete with spade so that he can bury the treasure he steals).

 

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“Daddy,” he’d said one afternoon, “What are ents?”

“Ents are basically trees that can walk and talk. They’re very very wise, and they’re very, very old.”
“Are they even older than you?”
“Yes, yes, all right, very funny.”
“And are they even fatter?”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

It took me years to realise that part of the appeal of The Hobbit is being able to experience it through the eyes of a child. I said earlier that as a child I wasn’t ready. Paradoxically I don’t think I was ready as a young adult either, having reached the age when you’re far too grown up for your own good – a sort of artificially mature Susan Pevensie, without the tits. I had to become a father myself before entering the second childhood that I now proudly inhabit, and my world is so much better for it.

But there are times when you have to stop empathising and start comforting, and I came unstuck one night towards the end. With The Hobbit, you see, it was the ending that stayed. Largely because my first exposure to it hadn’t been the book; it had been a staged adaptation in the school hall by a travelling theatre company. Fellow pupils were plucked from the classroom hours beforehand to take on supporting roles as accompanying dwarves or goblins. The dumbed-down approach the theatre group took was to dispense with the final quarter of the book and have Bilbo steal the treasure and dispatch the dragon with nary so much as a whisper of protest. Gone was the destruction of Esgaroth, the siege of Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies – and, crucially, the death of Thorin. Instead, the impetuous dwarf lives to shake Bilbo’s hand and then head off back to his home under the mountain. Reading the story some time later, and being unfamiliar with literary conceits, I was struck by the decision to dispense with such a major character, and it lingered for some time.

So when Joshua and I read the book, I became overtly theatrical. When it came to ‘Riddles in the Dark’ I adopted my best Andy Serkis impression and leaned in closer with each enunciated phrase, until he started to look uncomfortable. When it got to the spiders in Mirkwood, I would run my fingers up and down his arm in between paragraphs, in much the same way that Emily once did to me during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King. You have to have some fun.

But I remember that penultimate chapter. I remember the night we sat in the lounge, before all the official Lego licensing and commercial hype about the new trilogy, and the controversy over frame rates and the treatment of horses. I remember how he felt when Bilbo was ushered into the tent to reconcile with a dying dwarf king. I remember, because we took ownership of this ourselves, and I laid my own stamp upon this before showing him what others were achieved – I would much rather he built his own artistic vision rather than relying on that of someone else, as I now wish I had done with Lord of the Rings. And I remember because I’d wondered how he would react to the departure of Thorin, given that he sat through The Lion King without batting an eyelid.

english-hobbit-illustration-1984-44

So when the time came, I over-egged the pudding. In sombre tones, I showed him Michael Hague’s accompanying illustration, remarking “Look, there’s Thorin. He doesn’t look well, does he?”
“Yes,” came the response, “but maybe he’ll get better.”
“I don’t think so, Josh. I think this might be it for him.”
“Well,” he said, unsure, “he doesn’t look too ill.”
“Let’s find out.”

Alarm bells should have been ringing at this point. You could pick things up from his tone, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this death to mean something to him, to show him that it was important, to emphasise the death as a part of the story, to avoid desensitisation. I put on my best dying-on-a-slab voice and delivered Thorin’s ‘farewell, good thief’ monologue. Then I recounted the deaths of Fili and Kili, who had died defending their uncle. Then we reached the end and I said “That was kind of a sad one, wasn’t it?”

He burst into tears.

I felt like the worst father in the world, and I told Emily so, as she cuddled Joshua in the study, while giving me over-the-glasses looks that said You got yourself into this, now you can get yourself out of it. I reminded Josh that it was just a story.

“It’s still sad, though! Thorin’s dead!”
“Look, it’s fine. You’re very tired and I think that’s partly what’s making you so upset, and if you get some sleep you might not be quite so upset in the morning. It’s all right to be sad, but in a while I don’t think you’ll feel quite so sad. Honestly. Now, look, would you like to have Gandalf in with you tonight?”
“Is that Gandalf?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting down the figurine. “He normally sits on the piano, but how about we put him in your room next to your bed? Then he can cast some magic spells to make sure you have nice dreams.”
“Yes, but Daddy, he’s made of plastic.”

You live and learn.

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How to get as many Doctor Who references into a camping holiday as possible

“Take Who with you!” urged Gareth when I said I was going on a two-week camping excursion to the coasts of Pembrokeshire. I’d got in touch to tell him my Big Finish listening would have to go on hold for a fortnight, along with the dips into old stories. As tempted as I was to put ‘The Axis of Insanity’ on the iPod, I really don’t think that two hours of vaguely metaphysical ramblings was really the kind of thing I wanted to inflict on my family, even if Peter Davison was involved.

But there are other ways that you can take a break without taking a break from the show. For example, here’s my reading list.

Pembs_3

 

The Science of Doctor Who, in particular, is very good, and suitably all-encompassing, published as it was in 2006 with only the Eccleston series to draw upon in any great detail; it thus avoids the post-revival tendency towards revisionism, in which anything that happened between 1963 and 1989 is viewed as an irrelevance. I can’t speak for the scientific validity of the text, but Parsons’ Who-related knowledge is pretty impressive, although he loses points for getting his facts wrong about ‘Doomsday’. Then again, perhaps he – like me – could only bear to watch the episode once without the influence of alcohol, and has flushed it from his memory. (That’s the episode, not the alcohol, which is still sloshing about in my brain somewhere.)

Harvest of Time is still half-read as I go to press, so more on that on another occasion. Earthworld is a fun (and occasionally highly amusing) romp through a futuristic theme park, but it seems a strange choice for the Past Doctor Adventure reissue series, relying heavily as it does on an ongoing backstory. I could just about cope with the fact that the Doctor is suffering from partial amnesia and has forgotten that he’s just blown up Gallifrey (for the first time), and that one of the companions had recently suffered a major loss. But then there was cloning and multiple timelines and Blinovitch-related stuff that’s just confusing if you’re encountering this story arc for the first time, having been unceremoniously plonked in the middle of it. It’s rather like watching the original VHS release of ‘The Invasion’, with Nicholas Courtney’s between-episode summaries, or watching ‘The Time of the Doctor’ with no knowledge of what’s been going on for the past eight years, as a great many people presumably did on Christmas Day last year.

But anyway. We hadn’t been in Pembrokeshire long when we found the box of bricks at the Roch village fete. The Roch fete is a treasure trove of random, but instantly essential items. It has a vaguely Needful Things-esque quality to it. Three years ago we found a tea set that matches our coffee set. I don’t care that we’ve never used it and the dust layer is now three inches deep; it looks fantastic on the sideboard and that’s all that counts. The bricks we bought were mostly generic building blocks, but there was this.

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Which instantly put me in mind of the halfway point of ‘Logopolis’, and the incredible shrinking TARDIS – or the ending of ‘Hunters of the Burning Stone‘, which I’ve recently read (and which reads, by the way, like an on-spec script for one of Moffat’s Doctor Who stories, being thoroughly ridiculous). It wasn’t the first time I’d seen the TARDIS that week; it really does seem to be making an appearance here.

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(Yes, i know it’s a grain silo.)

In any case, there was a creative aspect to this that got my juices buzzing, and it turns out that you can make a Dalek out of just about anything.

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I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with that first photograph of the sand Dalek. It looks warped. I think I had the wrong lens on the camera. The stick figure in the second one, as added by one of our travelling companions, at least adds a bit of perspective.

Back up in the field, my brother-in-law was assembling wood for the campfire. It may have been this that triggered Joshua’s memories of cub camp, and he proceeded to teach the entire family the songs he’d learned, none of which were filthy, unfortunately. Having never attended cub camp myself (I was a Boys’ Brigade man, and even then only for four years and never under canvas) I could remember learning most of them in the course of one evening when the hall in which we held our choir rehearsals experienced a power cut, rendering the reading of sheet music all but impossible. We passed the time singing part songs while we waited for them to fix the lights. There was one song I’d learned that night which Joshua evidently hadn’t, and I taught it to him now:

“To stop the train in cases of emergency
Pull on the chain
Pull on the chain
Penalty for improper use: fifty pounds.”

I think the original was ‘five pounds’, but our choirmaster was allowing for inflation.

It wasn’t long before we were adapting this:

“To stop the TARDIS in cases of emergency
Pull on the brake
Pull on the brake
Penalty for improper use: THE ENTIRE OBLITERATION OF THE UNIVERSE.”

One of my in-laws’ favourite family songs is called ‘Goodbye Horse’ (nothing to do with the Q Lazarus song), which goes “Goodbye horse / Goodbye horse / I was saying goodbye to my horse / And as I was saying goodbye to my horse, I was saying goodbye to my horse”. You then repeat the song in all manner of silly voices, including (on this occasion, and entirely for my benefit) an agitated Dalek. I then discovered that you can actually sing ‘Goodbye Horse’ to the Doctor Who theme. Go on, try it. What do you mean you’re reading this at work?

Having a campfire is all well and good when the weather’s fine, but when the wind comes in over Newgale it blows the tent quite fiercely, at least in that upper field – it’s the price we pay for the view. As the rain set in and Emily rushed round outside securing the guy ropes (which she usually does herself, not so much out of choice, but more because I’m really not very good at it) I was left inside with Edward, who was watching the tent billow and flap with wide eyes. Rain inside a tent is loud, and you sometimes have to shout to be heard. The more musically astute amongst you will recall the scene in The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews comforts the Von Trapp children during a particularly nasty thunderstorm by singing about brown paper packages and apple strudels. But if you’re going to sing ‘My Favourite Things’ on a camping trip three weeks before a new Doctor is set to take off in the TARDIS, you probably ought to change the words.

“Autons and Zygons and Drashigs and Mara
Zoe and Leela and Peri and Clara
Bubblewrap aliens tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things

Cliffhanger endings with crap resolutions
Violence and carnage and phallic protrusions
Not-dead companions married to kings
These are a few of my favourite things

Comic Sontarans, bisexual Harkness
Peter is taking us off into darkness
That sense of doom when the cloister bell rings
These are a few of my favourite things

When the Beeb strikes, when the fans whinge
When the scripts are bad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so sad!”

Artistic license, of course – I really don’t like Strax, and I daresay lots of people don’t like the ending of ‘The Ultimate Foe’, but at least it scans, just about.

The whole thing is very silly, but it’s become something of a family joke. I’m relatively easy to buy gifts for: if you stick a Doctor Who logo on it, I’ll be happy. And yes, it is an obsession these days, and chances are if you wandered in here not knowing much about the show, having Googled for the ‘My Favourite Things’ lyrics, you’ll probably wonder what on earth my wife thinks about all this. The answer is she tolerates it, because she loves me, and because it’s the one thing I can actually profess to know a fair bit about without having to bluff. I’ve spent years as a jack of many trades and master of none, and if my writing topics these days have streamlined quite a bit, I do at least get to write about something I enjoy and can actually deconstruct without inadvertently toppling the tower and getting in a complete muddle. And if you can avoid keeping everything in-universe, you stay healthy. Doctor Who is often at its best when it’s an allegory for something, and it’s always fun to see how it relates to the real world, which sometimes isn’t so different.

I was reflecting on all this one evening, and called to mind a passage in Earthworld, which I’d just finished.

‘Even sky-blue pink?’ Anji asked. The Doctor looked quizzical. ‘It’s a sort of joke. A thing kids say. A mythical colour, because it can’t exist. If something’s pink, it can’t be sky-blue.’

The Doctor smiled. ‘But sometimes the blue sky can be flushed with pink. It can be quite beautiful. Maybe that’s what it means. Not everything’s black and white, you know. Although the sky can be black or white, of course.’

And of course, it can.

Pembs_6

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The Doctor Who / Three Little Pigs Connection

Reasons why Richard Scarry’s third little pig is quite obviously the Doctor…

 

1. He has a thing for hats, jackets and bow ties.

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2. He has an encounter with the Bad Wolf.

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3. His mother is clearly the second Romana.

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4. He escapes from the aforementioned Bad Wolf by hiding inside a large, roughly conical object.

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5. Finally, he lives in a house that is apparently much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

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Godel, Escher, Dalek

Thirteen years ago, an old friend – a programmer, musician and one of the smartest people I know – introduced me to the fabulous romp through logic that was Gödel, Escher, Bach.

I don’t pretend to understand any of what I read of it. Jon once told me that he couldn’t function in a world where he wasn’t allowed to express logic, and I, conversely, couldn’t function in a world where I am forced to do so. Logic works for me as a concept, but I have a lot of difficulty engaging with it. I have a copy of the book on my shelf these days, having finally bought it a couple of years ago, but it’s still in immaculate condition because I’ve only dipped into it a few times since then, attempting a serious read once or twice but never making it past the introduction. Nonetheless, it is on my list of desert island books, along with Ulysses and Don DeLillo’s Underworld – all books that I’d be happy to take to a desert island because there, bereft of social media and old Doctor Who, I’d have no excuse not to finish them

Back in a landlocked county, I fear it may be a while before I get through the damned thing. Still, I’ve toyed with it, and some parts resonate, and I have carried them with me for years. This is down to a marriage of form and content: Hofstadter’s turn of phrase is wonderful, and the ideas he generates are mindbending. The works of Lewis Carroll are a recurring theme, and in one sequence, he includes a translation of Jabberwocky in French and German. (Hofstadter wasn’t the first to do this, of course, but the verse-by-verse layout allows for an in-depth comparison.) Perhaps it’s because of the poem’s suspected origin, or perhaps it’s because of some of the language in the original, but it works much better in German. Consider these three opening verses:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

“Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
Et le mômerade horsgrave.”

“Es brillig war. Die schlichten Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.”

You see what I mean.

But it was the crab canon that always got me: the concept of a conversation that plays forwards and then backwards, where each line of dialogue acquires new meaning when then preceded by a line that initially followed it. This all sounds rather complicated, so here’s how Hofstadter does it.

[Achilles and the Tortoise happen upon each other in the park one day while strolling.]

Tortoise: Good day, Mr. A.
Achilles: Why, same to you.
Tortoise: So nice to run into you.
Achilles: That echoes my thoughts.
Tortoise: And it’s a perfect day for a walk. I think I’ll be walking home soon.
Achilles: Oh, really? I guess there’s nothing better for you than walking.
Tortoise: Incidentally, you’re looking in fine fettle these days, I must say.
Achilles: Thank you very much.
Tortoise: Not at all. Here, care for one of my cigars?
Achilles: Oh, you are such a philistine. In this area, the Dutch contributions are of markedly inferior taste, don’t you think?
Tortoise: I disagree, in this case. But speaking of taste, I finally saw that Crab Canon by your favorite artist, M.C. Escher, in a gallery the other day, and I fully appreciate the beauty and ingenuity with which he made one single theme mesh with itself going both backwards and forwards. But I am afraid I will always feel Bach is superior to Escher.
Achilles: I don’t know. But one thing for certain is that I don’t worry about arguments of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum.
Tortoise: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Achilles: To be precise one has no frets.
Tortoise: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Achilles: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Tortoise: Say, don’t you play the guitar?
Achilles: That’s my good friend. He often plays, the fool. But I myself wouldn’t touch a guitar with a ten-foot pole.

[Suddenly the Crab, appearing from out of nowhere, wanders up excitedly, pointing to a rather prominent black eye.]

Crab: Hallo! Hullo! What’s up? What’s new? You see this bump, this from Warsaw – a collosal bear of a man – playing a lute. He was three meters tall, if I’m a day. I mosey on up to the chap, reach skyward and manage to tap him on the knee, saying, “Pardon me, sir, but you are Pole-luting our park with your mazurkas.” But WOW! he had no sense of humor – not a bit, not a wit – and POW! – he lets loose and belts me one, smack in the eye! Were it in my nature, I would crab up a storm, but in the time-honored tradition of my species, I backed off. After all, when we walk forwards, we move backwards. It’s in our genes, you know, turning round and round. That reminds me – I’ve always wondered, “which came first – the Crab or the Gene?” That is to say, “Which came last – the Gene, or the Crab?” I’m always turning things round and round, you know. It’s in our genes, after all. When we walk backwards we move forwards. Ah me, oh my! I must lope along on my merry way – so off I go on such a fine day. Sing “ho!” for the life of a Crab! TATA! Ole!

[And he disappears as suddenly as he arrived.]

Tortoise: That’s my good friend. He often plays, the fool. But I myself wouldn’t touch a ten-foot Pole with a guitar.
Achilles: Say, don’t you play the guitar?
Tortoise: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Achilles: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Tortoise: To be precise one has no frets.
Achilles: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Tortoise: I don’t know. But one thing for certain is that I don’t worry about arguments of taste. Disputandum non est de gustibus.
Achilles: I disagree, in this case. But speaking of taste, I finally heard that Crab Canon by your favorite composer, J.S. Bach, in a concert the other day, and I fully appreciate the beauty and ingenuity with which he made one single theme mesh with itself going both backwards and forwards. But I am afraid I will always feel Escher is superior to Bach.
Tortoise: Oh, you are such a philistine. In this area, the Dutch contributions are of markedly inferior taste, don’t you think?
Achilles: Not at all. Here, care for one of my cigars?
Tortoise: Thank you very much.
Achilles: Incidentally, you’re looking in fine fettle these days, I must say.
Tortoise: Oh, really? I guess there’s nothing better for you than walking.
Achilles: And it’s a perfect day for a walk. I think I’ll be walking home soon.
Tortoise: That echoes my thoughts.
Achilles: So nice to run into you.
Tortoise: Why, same to you.
Achilles: Good day, Mr. A.

The bit with the crab reads like Beckett, presumably on purpose, but the whole thing is brilliantly written, and I marvel upon it today just as I did over a decade ago.

“What does this have to do with anything?” you’re asking. Well, in the first instance, yesterday morning I stuck this on my Facebook wall timeline.

The end of top posting!

> What do we want?

Now!

> When do we want it?

Some among you will recognise this, of course, as an adaptation of an old joke:

A. Top posters.

Q. What’s the most annoying thing about usenet forums?

Later that morning, Gareth said “I wonder what Douglas Hofstadter thinks of top-posting, and what he could do with it.”

I replied:

“Curiously I had similar thoughts, although they mostly ran along the lines of ‘This reminds me of a passage in underground classic Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I really should read again.’

Or, to put it another way:

A book I really should read again: Gödel, Escher, Bach, in a classic underground passage. Although they mostly ran along the lines. Curiously, I had similar thoughts.”

(Which works, up to a point, if by ‘underground’ you mean this.)

I then wondered about Doctor Who – a show which, in its most recent form, has become as obsessed with time travel as a form of narrative as, for example, certain episodes of Red Dwarf. Loops and holes and time-lagged conversations are all part-and-parcel of Moffat’s array of tricks and techniques. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. The across-the-years conversation in ‘Blink’, for example, as Sally fills in the gaps in the Doctor’s transcript, is absolutely breathtaking. His overuse of ‘Run, you clever boy, and remember’, on the other hand, is a disaster (not least because it’s a recurring phrase that’s different every time we hear it). You have to know when to stop, and Moffat seemingly doesn’t. But that’s OK, because he’s going to bring back the [spoiler] and then the [spoiler], and then [spoiler] will visit [spoiler] and [spoiler]. And that’s just the yellow ones.

But is there a way, perhaps, of making some Doctor Who scenes palindromic? In other words, could we tell them forwards and then backwards and have them make sense? One sequence in particular, from ‘Utopia’ (an episode I’ve watched recently) stood out, largely because the greeting between the Doctor and Jack Harkness could be interpreted as a greeting or a parting. For example, here’s how the scene reads forwards:

JACK: Doctor.

DOCTOR: Captain.

JACK: Good to see you.

DOCTOR: And you. Same as ever. Although, have you had work done?

JACK: You can talk.

DOCTOR: Oh yes, the face. Regeneration. How did you know this was me?

JACK: The police box kind of gives it away. I’ve been following you for a long time. You abandoned me.

DOCTOR: Did I? Busy life. Moving on.

JACK: Just got to ask. The Battle of Canary Wharf. I saw the list of the dead. It said Rose Tyler.

DOCTOR: Oh, no! Sorry, she’s alive.

JACK: You’re kidding.

DOCTOR: Parallel world, safe and sound. And Mickey, and her mother.

JACK: Oh, yes!

MARTHA: Good old Rose.

And backwards:

MARTHA: Good old Rose.

JACK: Oh, yes!

DOCTOR: Parallel world, safe and sound. And Mickey, and her mother.

JACK: You’re kidding.

DOCTOR: Oh, no! Sorry, she’s alive.

JACK: Just got to ask. The Battle of Canary Wharf. I saw the list of the dead. It said Rose Tyler.

DOCTOR: Did I? Busy life. Moving on.

JACK: The police box kind of gives it away. I’ve been following you for a long time. You abandoned me.

DOCTOR: Oh yes, the face. Regeneration. How did you know this was me?

JACK: You can talk.

DOCTOR: And you. Same as ever. Although, have you had work done?

JACK: Good to see you.

DOCTOR: Captain.

JACK: Doctor.

Which works surprisingly well. And, of course, it means that Martha is a crab, which I don’t think anyone would necessarily dispute.

“That’s all very well, James,” I can hear you not really asking. “But it would be better still if we could actually see it.”

Oh, go on then.

It’s as near-as-dammit a recreation as I could manage. Part of the problem is that certain lines of dialogue end on a shot of someone’s head, and it is to that same head that we cut when I paste in the previous line – resulting in an unfortunate twitch as the expression or position of their face changes from one frame to the next. I got round this by interposing shots of Martha, whose role is to stand there silently and look doe-eyed at the Doctor, but there are only so many times you can do that.

Still. The idea has potential. This could feasibly be the first in a series. There are other scenes that will work. Probably. I’ll find them, if I read through every transcript. Which I’ll probably do. But at some point I really should finish reading the Hofstadter.

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Doctor Who and the Dead Horse

A friend of mine is having a book clearout. Anyone want anything?

Who_Books

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