28 May 2013

Book Review | Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

If you’re one of the many who ‘got’ Trainspotting, as I did, then you probably laud it as one of the greatest works of fiction ever to come out of Great Britain. Irvine Welsh’s many offerings since have, for the most part, retained its raw and uncompromising style, and on occasion the great Scot has pushed the envelope even further, blurring the lines between contemporary urban tales and science fiction; even between his idiosyncratic Leith lingo and his hitherto seldom-seen RP prose. But despite the evident distinction of almost all his subsequent works, until Skagboys came along there wasn’t a single title in the Welsh canon that approached his first book in terms of significance. And I didn’t expect that there ever would be; after all, you can’t open Pandora’s box twice, can you?

Well, apparently you can.

A study in contrasts, Skagboys (or “The Junky and the Incest Victim”, as I’d love to have seen it subtitled) maintains every gram of Trainspotting’s sledgehammer squalor, but complements it with the thoughtful eloquence that has insidiously blossomed inside Welsh’s writing as the years have worn on. Rather than debase the piece, this articulacy only serves to heighten the unstoppable tragedy of it, as through its focal character’s notebook musings we truly appreciate just how far he is falling – and how fast. The aching abyss between the proud, politicised first-class university student seen in the events of “Concerning Orgreave” and the ubiquitously-dysfunctional collection tin-chorrier that bleeds into Trainspotting couldn’t possibly be any wider or deeper. For all Welsh’s even, honest and occasionally rapturous depiction of heroin, the image left lingering by Skagboys is that of two mute, humourless and Valium-fuelled orang-utans setting out into the night in search of a fix; not even ghosts of the flawed but vibrant inbetweeners of the novel’s start.

“Ah didnae ask tae live n ah’m no feart tae die. Aw that’ll happen is that it’ll be like before ah wis alive; it couldnae have been that great, but it wisnae that shite either, or ah’d have minded aboot it. Ah was just here tae get ma fuckin records.”

Though Welsh enlists many eyes and many voices in the telling of his terrible tale, as with Trainspotting, the one that’s heard the loudest is that of Mark Renton. When I first read of Rent Boy’s junk dilemmas in Trainspotting, I instantly identified with him as the deceptively smart one within his little tribe of misfits. I never quite appreciated though just how intellectually superior Rents was to his social peers until I launched into his piece of writing that opens Skagboys. Polished prose free of dialect vividly describes his experiences by his father’s side in the miners’ strikes, before quickly segueing into the blazing Edinburgh brogue that I’ve become worryingly adept at decoding. As the pages fly by, Welsh complements Renton’s already obvious love of music with a love of literature that shines through not only in his attitude to and performance in higher education, but his opposite and opposing pretend-loser life in Leith. Irrespective of his state or location, Renton continually turns to literature to inform his perception of life and even himself, affording him a pretentious quality that he consciously plays up to - save for when he’s playing the inverted snob at uni, that is. But underneath each of his carefully-constructed veneers lie all manner of torments, from the bizarre and grotesque memories stirred by his brother’s phantom menace to a betrayal that he will never forgive himself for. Welsh painfully adds thread after thread to the tapestry of Renton, each threatening to unravel him; each threatening to explain or justify his apathetic slide into “substance dependency”, but none making good on the threat.

When discussing the book, Welsh has explained how much of its material had originally been written for Trainspotting but for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut, such as the ‘Sick Boy and Renton in Hackney’ novella specifically mentioned in one interview. However, much of Skagboys’ material, particularly towards its end, is lifted from Renton’s sprawling rehab diaries – a “junky War and Peace” that, in my view, ranks amongst the author’s most powerful published material to date. Focused by its writer’s internment and fuelled by a genuine desire to “get the habit under control” (few of the characters in rehab want to stop using smack altogether, despite their desperate-to-avoid-jail protestations otherwise), Welsh hauls the reader of the bumpiest of terrain in search of something that, again, he doesn’t seem to believe exists.

This futile quest for personal motive is, in many ways, the central theme of the book. To my great surprise, even Franco Begbie comes dangerously close to having explanations, if not excuses, for his psychopathic behaviour, some of which are counterpointed by shockingly poignant moments of grace. Welsh’s depiction of the Generalissimo’s Hogmany singing is one of the most stirring and insightful passages that he’s ever written, effortlessly capturing the “pained, malevolent spirit”’s standing in the eyes of his peers and the obvious affection that he holds them in. Though Skagboys sees the young skinhead rub shoulders with gangsters and villains whose company you’d think would suit him better, even he concedes that they don’t “get” him or his (elusive) sense of humour like his  long-suffering mates do.

Armed with his “deadlier than a loaded revolver dictionary”, Shimon Williamson, aka Shick Boy, is afforded almost as much of the book’s many storylines as Renton, and on balance I think I enjoyed reading about his egregious (today’s an ‘E’ day, see) exploits every bit as much. I’d half-expected the Sick Boy of Skagboys to be a tamer, perhaps less assured, version of his more familiar future self, but if anything he’s even more outrageous than the Porno star that he’s destined to become. In no time at all he’s utterly ruined an entire family, opportunistically restyling himself as a toy boy for the widow and, a little later, pimp for the daughter, before packing his bags and heading down south to try and marry a toff or, failing that, smuggle a bit of brown over the high seas. This young man who would will a suicidal friend to jump off a tower block simply to cast himself as a sympathy-shag player in a short, tragic life; this shallow youth who would purposefully hook a minor on junk with the express intent of not only claiming her pussy for himself, but renting it out to fuel his habit when the need arises; this overdriven plot catalyst who would even take it up the Bendix if it helps him to get his leg over afterwards, is masochistically compelling throughout, never softening even when Welsh delves into the daddy issues that seem to have shaped the self-important misogynist.

But with nearly double the page count of the novel that it leads into, Skagboys’ canvas is inevitably much broader, and the book is all the richer for it. As well as Spud, Tommy, Matty, Second Prize, Swanney, Raymie, Keezbo and the rest of the usual suspects, a number of users who appeared as acquaintances in Trainspotting are presented as firm friends here, along with menacing characters previously known “by rep only” and a number of brand new players too. Of these, it was fierce feminist and damaged daughter Alison; cockney punk “farking” Nicksy; and the mirror lens-sporting, half-crippled Seeker (who’s introduced like a Doctor Who monster and reads like a drug-pushing cross between Edgar Davids and the biker-gimmick Undertaker) that really hooked me. Alison especially is a revelation; the “better than any cock in the world” junky of Trainspotting fame is presented here as a lively, poetic young woman whose mother’s illness and father’s inadequacy cast a pall over her Sick Boy-enamoured spirit, but even Seeker subverts expectation, turning from Bond villain to pseudo-saviour in the space of half a book, depending on your definition of salvation. The pained pasts and presents of the entire ensemble are brought into sharp focus by the author, who tears apart their respective histories like a clinical psychologist on speed, only to find an absence of answers therein. They are just people being people, all the way to Hell; the issue isn’t with them, it’s with a world of schemes that look like “graph-paper printouts”, where nothing works but works and the only angels of mercy are those “sent by skag” to break and enter.

And it is here that Skagboys really blazes. I’ve never read a book before that has such a spreading sense of sickness, be it the allegorical “Dutch Elm Disease” ravaging Edinburgh’s treescape; the cancer that robs at least two subsidiary characters of their breasts; the emergent HIV / AIDS epidemic; or the all-pervading ascent of Thatcher and death of the post-war dream. Welsh’s “Notes on a Epidemic” are littered throughout the text along with HIV infection reports which, in of themselves, become as moving as the narrative as the page count soars. The ill-fated Matty’s name in the final report, whilst expected by those of us who’ve read Trainspotting, is cripplingly effective, as is the otherwise-extraneous name of a child born with HIV antibodies, her mother infected when copping off with a junky.

And so, despite having grown out of trimmed fat, Skagboys is actually the pure china white to Trainspotting’s brown. A refined, and in many ways superior, product, Skagboys retains the great hits and gallows humour of the game-changing novel that begat it, but presents them with the benefit of a further two decades’ hindsight and the poise that only comes with having a dozen bestsellers under your belt. For anyone who has yet to read any Irvine Welsh, Skagboys is a perfect jumping on point, but I’d urge them to make sure that they’ve got the hireys for the rest of his back catalogue before leaping, ’cos the chances are they’ll be well into it before the month’s out. Those that loved Trainspotting, meanwhile, can put away their cold soup and melted ice cream, ’cos the drought is finally over - their fix is here.

Skagboys is now available in paperback (best price online today: £3.85 on Amazon) and digital formats (£3.66 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £3.99 from iTunes). The hardback is still available too from a few retailers (best price online today: £8.96 on Amazon).

23 May 2013

Doctor Who: Secret Hurt | Preliminary Musings on the Fourth Ninth Doctor

The Doctor has a secret that he will take to his grave. And it is discovered...

For most of the second half of Series 7, I’ve been glad that I’m no longer duty-bound to review every single episode of Doctor Who for The History of the Doctor – largely because I’ve little favourable to say and I hate giving bad reviews. Whilst I’m duly enamoured with Jenna-Louise Coleman’s impossible Clara Oswald in all her iterations, and Matt Smith is still as good as ever he was, the stories just didn’t set me alight, particularly the first four. The Bells of Saint John was good and no more, which is pretty much what I’d say about Hide too; The Rings of Akhaten will have its fans, but I didn’t enjoy a single minute of it; and the Ice Warrior X-File homage, Cold War, was inspired in principle but sluggish in practice. Fortunately Stephen Thompson’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS seemed to stem the tide, and Mark Gatiss’s Crimson Horror proved to be an absolute classic, with Neil Gaiman’s clever Nightmare in Silver not a million miles behind it, shamelessly exhibiting a mercurial Matt Smith at the height of his powers. But then came The Name of the Doctor, an episode that seemed destined to disappoint, either by failing to make good on its preposterous promise or by utterly destroying the mystery of the Doctor. There are things that we must never know, fifty years old or otherwise. As the man himself says, “It’s not the point”.

In fact though, The Name of the Doctor was so relentlessly tense; so offensively emotional; so absurdly fannish and commemorative and murky and enthralling that were it the only on-screen celebration of the series’ fiftieth birthday, I would have been more than happy.

Like many of the revived series’ finest and most monumental episodes, Steven Moffat’s series finale borrows much from the media that kept Doctor Who alive in the 1990s and early 2000s, taking ideas from seminal novels such as Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow and particularly Lawrence Miles’ Alien Bodies, trimming their fat and eschewing their impenetrability. Moffat’s skill for taking incredible, mind-boggling concepts – be they scientific or emotional – and boiling them down to sentences that a child will understand (“The name you choose, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one that broke the promise…”) is never more evident than it is here. Don’t get me wrong, as proven by my wife’s “I don’t get it” reaction to its final scene, The Name of the Doctor is not aimed at a one-off watcher or even a seen-a-few channel-hopper (what episodic drama is these days, post-24?), but those that have watched the show consistently for the last eight years, who should understand every single beat.

Had I more time on my hands, I would wax lyrical about the Doctor and River’s heartbreak of a final dance; the poignancy of the first ten Doctors’ full colour, convincing cameos (marred only by the chasm of a plot hole that is the absence of the Doctor’s future incarnations from his time stream. If it isn’t a glorious gaffe, things are looking very bleak indeed for the Oncoming Storm!); Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax, who would no doubt be the stars of their own audio spin-off series by now, if only Big Finish’s Doctor Who licence extended as far as the current series; the powerful imagery conjured on Trenzalore, epitomised by the dimensionally-inverted TARDIS wreck / headstone; the irony of the villain of the piece being played by an alternative ninth Doctor, whose Shalka existence is sort of explained by his final malevolent act; even the perfect payoff to the season’s obligatory companion arc, “Impossible Girl” (though right now I’d kill for a ordinary, straight-off-the-peg companion whose meeting with the Doctor hadn’t been predetermined). Chronic parental fatigue and overwork prevent me from so doing, however, and so I’ll cut straight to the chase – for once, the rumours were true!

The reveal of the Doctor’s “secret” incarnation was so well done that I couldn’t sleep after watching it; for the first time since The Stolen Earth, if not The Parting of the Ways, the series had worked me into such a frenzy that I must have looked like I was on drugs, my mind whirring away into the early hours of the morning, my body fidgeting like a madman’s. All those years that we squandered speculating whether it was Paul McGann’s or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor that fought in the Last Great Time War, and now it looks like it was neither of them, for it seems that the Doctor had a body in between – a ninth incarnation who, as Moffat so succinctly frames it, “broke the promise” of his name. That Other-like silhouette. That gravelly, anguished voice. Those words; those perfect words so painstakingly chosen:

What I did, I did without choice…

I know…

In the name of peace, and sanity.

But not in the name of the Doctor!

Cue global spleen-venting.

Some despair that it’s thrown the numbering out; many object on the basis that an incarnation has been “wasted” (as if the Beeb will be bound by Gallifreyan lore already flouted by the Master). Others will just ruddy bloody love the sheer earthshock of it – at least for now.

If things are as they seem, I’m not sure how I’ll feel in the long term. On the one hand, I love the idea of the Doctor having a secret incarnation whose actions were so extreme that his subsequent selves stripped him of his carefully-chosen soubriquet (appeasing, at least to a certain extent, those who still want to call Smith the “Eleventh Doctor” and so on. To those fans though, I’d say that he’s just the Doctor – eleventh is no more than a fleeting adjective, like hobo or dandy); on the other hand, I’m not at all comfortable with divorcing the new series’ Doctors from the presumably-time warrior (but possibly pre-Hartnell or even quasi-Valeyard) Doctor’s implied genocide - the guilt that they carry is a fundamental part of them; the so-called “Ninth Doctor” and “Tenth Doctor” particularly so. Ultimately my views will turn on the content of the next celebratory episode, but however this angle plays out, at least we may now have an inkling as to why the Aliens of London Doctor claimed to have got younger since the classic series – locking secret incarnations away in the farthest recesses of your time stream is bound to throw your age out a bit.

The Name of the Doctor will be available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for just £2.49 shortly. The second half of Series 7 can be purchased for £18.99.

Doctor Who, and indeed David Tennant, will return to BBC One for its fiftieth anniversary special on 23rd November 2013.

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21 May 2013

Beyond History’s End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 4 of 12 | The Foe from the Future by Robert Banks Stewart and John Dorney

After his initially-dramatic snubbing of their scripts and subsequent disinterest, I was both surprised and elated to see the online announcement that Tom Baker would be reprising his Doctor for Big Finish Productions. I was just plain surprised, though, to find that his first release would be a Lost Story, as opposed to one of the undoubtedly countless original ideas that must have been kicking around the office since the company acquired its game-changing Doctor Who licence in the late 1990s. Having now listened to The Fourth Doctor Box Set’s centrepiece six-parter, however, it all makes perfect sense.

The Foe from the Future is the quintessence of a Big Finish Lost Story; I’d even go so far as to describe it as the apotheosis of the range. Until relatively recently, when 2 | entertain put out a special edition of The Talons of Weng-Chiang on DVD, there was little known about Robert Banks Stewart’s planned finale for Season 14 beyond that it fell through fairly late in the day, leaving script editor Robert Holmes in the position of having to write a replacement serial almost from scratch. But the Revisitations DVD feature expounded up the planned narrative, even delving into the writer’s surviving synopses, which alluded to a tale that, save for its eponymous time-travelling terror, bore no resemblance to the frequently poll-topping Talons. Lost Stories producer David Richardson was thus presented with the irresistible opportunity of not only resurrecting a script that most Big Finish listeners had recently become aware of, and were becoming increasingly interested in, but, in the style of Farewell, Great Macedon, offering them an insight into a parallel world where one of Doctor Who’s most acclaimed serials never came into existence – but one of near-equal eminence did. 

Whereas The Talons of Weng-Chiang was a dark and often grotesque foray into Victorian horror, its “foe from the future” a temporally-displaced Phantom of the Opera, The Foe from the Future is a bucolic but invariably chilling science fiction caper that flits between a quaint little village in the 1970s and an ultramodern dome in the 4000s, its central villain a mad professor with a spirit addled by love and a body metamorphosed beyond all recognition. Both stories are emblematic of the lauded Philip Hinchcliffe / Robert Holmes ‘gothic horror’ style, and both are carried by stellar characterisation and dazzling performances, the amusing banter of Jago and Litefoot challenged here by all the poetry and puns of Devon’s finest. 

Written by John Dorney from the original synopses, The Foe from the Future is as close to an authentic fourth Doctor adventure as I think it’s possible to get today. Particularly in the earlygoing, where I understand that Dorney had detailed scene breakdowns to work from, the production feels so much like a television serial from 1997 it’s almost like listening to a cleaned-up off-air soundtrack; only the slightly more seasoned vocals of Louise Jameson and slightly more measured performance of Tom Baker betray the fact that this is actually an audio drama produced decades after the event. 

As the narrative progresses, and the story becomes more Dorney and less Banks Stewart, it does take on a few slightly more modern sensibilities – some deliberate, such as the number of female characters featured; some probably not so, like the tragic depth afforded to Jalnik, which, whilst not unprecedented, was seldom seen in classic Who – but these are so insidious that they only lend to the story’s appeal, rather than detract from it. The production is further buoyed, again a little atypically, by its impressive visuals, which in this medium rely upon the listener’s imagination instead of an end-of-season BBC budget. Compare Leela having her leg chobbled by a fairly unpersuasive giant rat in Talons to her triumphantly emerging from the Time Vortex straddling a flying monstrosity in Foe, and note the difference.  

What really sells The Foe from the Future through is its star-studded cast, which encompasses the imperious Paul Freeman – a powerhouse of a performer, bombastic enough to hold his own against the usually-dominant Baker – as the titular tormenter, as well as Sherlock starlet Louise Brealey as makeshift companion Charlotte, whose equable West Country tones make her every bit as adorable as the bashful boffin who lusts after Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on the telly. The biggest stars of all though are, of course, the returning Tom Baker and the actress who finally convinced him to embrace the big finish that his illustrious career demanded, Louise Jameson. The latter is particularly extraordinary here, well-served as she is by Dorney’s script, and whilst it took me a little while to get used to the Big Finish fourth Doctor, who seems a little calmer somehow in this production (but every bit as witty, inventive and scathingly authoritative), before too long I was lost in his Bohemian rhapsody once more, ruing the lost years and lost chances while slavering over the many, many remaining possibilities. 

With hindsight, then, the decision to induct Tom Baker into the world of Big Finish with a Lost Story the calibre of this one was not only defensible, but inspired. How better to sate more than a decade’s worth of Baker hunger than with a full-cast dramatisation of a script that was originally slated to crown arguably his finest season as the Doctor; a script that pushes every Hinchcliffe / Holmes / horror button, and plenty more besides? Make no mistake, I’m a huge fan of Paul Magrs’ various audio book series featuring Baker’s Doctor, but there is a world of difference between highly-stylised stories told through lyrical prose and occasional interaction, and something that was intended to emulate Doctor Who as it once was, and does so with such effortless poise. Those debating whether it’s worth paying the higher-than-usual price for what is essentially a two-story box set have their answer: remortgage if you have to, it’s worth every last penny. 

The Fourth Doctor’s Lost Stories Box Set is available to download from Big Finish for £45.00. The CD version (which also comes with a free download) is ten pounds extra.

The universe is falling apart. A demon from another universe has left a hole in time and space. The Doctor teams up with Sir Justin to prevent the demon from destroying the entire universe. But first, they must battle creatures of nightmares to find the lost matrix.... 

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09 May 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 3 of 12 | The Scorchies by James Goss

With a recently-released Katy Manning Companion Chronicle still sizzling on the shelf, I didn’t have to think too hard about which previously-uncharted third Doctor adventure I’d be tackling for Beyond History’s End – particularly as it sported one of the most outlandish and irresistible covers that I recall ever seeing on a Big Finish title. A pink velvety cat, a foul professor, a chilling baby doll, a purple-bearded puppet with a ray gun and three blind drunk mice encircle an evidently-irked Jo Grant. It’s not your customary Who recipe, I’ll grant you, but lost amongst the CSO showiness of the series’ early days in colour, James Goss’s semi-satire on light entertainment feels oddly at home.
Despite having produced more hours of Doctor Who than even the BBC, The Scorchies is positive proof that Big Finish Productions are every bit as innovative and as intrepid as ever they were. The two episodes that comprise this story may each be bookended by a familiar Delia Derbyshire ditty, but what lies in between is another show altogether – The Scorchies Show – on which this week’s guest just happens to be the Doctor’s captured assistant. 
Listening to the production, it’s immediately apparent how much fun its writer had using just about every trashy telly trope employed in the 1970s to tell his story, and even more so how the cast and crew revelled in making his wacky vision an acoustic reality. From Jo being forced to “make a thing” out of bog roll to the series’ first-ever musical cliffhanger, The Scorchies delights in eschewing the structure and staples of not only Doctor Who, but drama full stop.

As the first episode opens, the listener almost feels as if they’re joining a Season 8 serial’s third or fourth episode, as the events that have led Jo to her prime time terror have all passed, and all that remains is for the Doctor and UNIT to mount their rescue and put paid to the bizarre alien threat. Events seem to take place in real time, as if they’re being broadcast live as part of The Scorchies Show – even the deliberately-artificial flashbacks that bring the listener up to speed and, later, explore the “sad story” of the telly-mad species that would eventually become the Scorchies. There isn’t a moment in this production that feels like an audio book; there isn’t even a moment that feels like two-hand audio drama. From its first moment to its last, The Scorchies is the soundtrack to a Saturday night variety show, somehow all of its many colourful characters coming out of the mouths of versatile voice artists Melvyn Hayes and Katy Manning (and equally-versatile Blacklight Studio songsters Richard Fox and Lauren Yason).

If this story has a flaw, it’s that it’s too effective a send-up of the shows that it spoofs. It’s so incessantly shrill and so offensively jaunty that I found my brow permanently furrowed all the way through it, as if in actual pain. I didn’t that Big Finish would ever outdo the crippling Cuddlesome, but it seems we have a new champ.

The Scorchies is available to download from Big Finish for just £7.99. The CD version (which also comes with a free download) is just a pound extra.

The Grange is haunted, so they say. This stately home in the depths of Devon has been the site of many an apparition. And now people are turning up dead. The ghosts are wild in the forest. But the Doctor doesn’t believe in ghosts.

 The TARDIS follows a twist in the vortex to the village of Staffham in 1977 and discovers something is very wrong with time. But spectral highwaymen and cavaliers are the least of the Doctor’s worries.

For the Grange is owned by the sinister Jalnik, and Jalnik has a scheme two thousand years in the making. Only the Doctor and Leela stand between him and the destruction of history itself. It’s the biggest adventure of their lives – but do they have the time?

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