Friday, April 28, 2006

More "Tales from The Book Club"

As I mentioned previously, I'll be using this blog once ever couple of months to update the list of those books I've featured on The Book Club (and, those which I haven't been able to squeeze in but which are still highly recommended).

Show 5:- 3rd April
Raymond Khoury - The Last Templar (Orion)
Will Hodgkinson - Guitar Man: A Six-String Odyssey (Bloomsbury)
J Shaun Lyon - Doctor Who: Back to the Vortex (Telos Publishing)
Douglas Greenwood - Who's Buried Where in England? (Constable & Robinson)
Ken Emerson - Always Magic in the Air (Fourth Estate)
Simon Hughes - Morning Everyone (MacMillan)
Andrew Smith - Moondust* (Bloomsbury)

[* not Moonshot as both I and Jon Harle insisted on calling it on the show itself - many, many apologies to Andrew and to his publisher for getting the name of the book wrong ... But it's a wonderfully well-written book whatever it's called!]

Also received during March and April:
Robert Dimery - 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (Cassell Illustrated)
Ray Banks - Saturday's Child (Polygon Publishing)
Gary Rimmer - Number Freaking: The Surreal Sums Behind Everyday Life (Icon Books)
Ian Mortimer - The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III (Jonathan Cape)
Paul Du Noyer - We All Shine On: The Stories Behind Every John Lennon Song (Carlton)
John Kennedy O'Connor - The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History (Carlton)
Steve Watkins and Clare Jones - Unforgettable Journeys to Take Before You Die (BBC Books)
Gavin Pretor-Pinney - The Cloudspotter's Guide (Sceptre Books)
Matthew Parker - Monte Cassino (Headline Book Publishing)
Thomas Myler - Boxing's Hall of Shame (Mainstream Publishing)
Fred Eyre - Kicked Into Touch (Mainstream Publishing)
Robert and Isabella Tombs - That Sweetest Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (William Heinemann Publishing)
Karen Armstrong - The Great Transformation (Atlantic Publishing)
Harry Thompson - Penguins Stopped Play (John Murray Books)
Mandy Ambert - Geordie and the Spaceman (Author House)
David Nicholson-Lord - Planet Earth (BBC Books)
Nick Hornby - A Long Way Back (Penguin Books)

Several of these will feature in the next programme which is on 8th May (due to next Monday being a Bank Holiday). I'm still in the process of sorting out the script for this month as a couple of books that I wanted to feature haven't turned up yet(!)

I'd also like to pay a moment's tribute to one of my all-time literary heroines, Muriel Spark, who died last weekend. Most people will know her best as the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - quite possibly the greatest novel written in the English language in the last century. However, her work was always challenging and remarkably multi-layered, witty and humane. Check out The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Girls of Slender Means, Momento Mori, Reality and Dreams and the remarkable The Abbess of Crewe for other outstanding examples of her work. There's a fine website run by the National Library of Scotland at http://www.nls.uk/murielspark/index.html for further details on this quite remarkable writer and her, equally remarkable, life.

Monday, April 17, 2006

You Can't Say "Crap" on the Radio


Another one from the random cover jpeg generator...

I'm thoroughly delighted to report that BBC Radio Newcastle have - finally - got their shit together and added my monthly show, The Book Club, to their Listen Again feature.

So, anybody who missed the April 2006 show, if you want to listen to it, just go follow the link BBC Tyne RaW feature.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dig It!

This is yet another article - in somewhat extended form - which I wrote for the Intergalactic Enquirer magazine in the US. It was written around the spring of 2003 I believe (note the seemingly contemporary reference to Ten Years of Time Team). I've also included a couple of 2006 post-scripts.

I deeply love Time Team and the opportunity to celebrate the wonderful eccentricites of such a quintessentially British show to a completely fresh (US) audience proved too good an opportunity to miss. I'm told that the article itself was a popular one with some very positive feeback from readers.

I was pleased to discover a couple of weeks ago that one of my favourite British shows of the last decade has finally turned up on American TV (albeit, on a very obscure part of it). When asked, recently, what she watched for pleasure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer scribe Jane Espenson mentioned ‘an oddball English thing’ on the History International Channel called Time Team. A woman of great taste, clearly (then again, we knew that anyway). However, for ‘oddball’, that really should read ‘eccentric British genius.’

Time Team has done for archaeology what Michael Palin’s various travel series did for their subject; that is, to turn a potentially deadly dull television format into something genuinely watchable. The series began in 1993 and has produced over 100 shows in the decade since, all fronted by Blackadder’s Tony Robinson, himself a keen amateur archaeologist.

(Incidentally, 2006 note: I have to say that I love the way many of my comedy heroes have managed to turn their hobbies into new careers over the last few years - Palin through his travel shows, Bill Oddie rapidly becoming the BBC's foremost wildlife expert, Eddie Izzard producing madcap social history programmes for the Discovery Channel, Stephen Fry's effortlessly affecting humanity turning an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? into a life-affirming statement on survival. Anyway, back to 2003...)

The ‘hook’ of the series is that the team - a variety of genuine archaeologists and expects in different historical fields - will be invited to dig a particularly site (often something as simple as somebody’s back garden) and discover all that they can about it, in just three days (the timescale was determined back at the beginning of the show simply by the fact that most of those involved beside Robinson have, you know, "proper jobs" to do elsewhere so they tended to film the shows over Bank Holiday weekends, etc.)

That, in and of itself, doesn’t sound especially radical, but it’s the glorious characters that populate the Time Team universe who make it all so enjoyable. These include the dry, seen-it-all Black Country professor Mick Aston, Roman expert Guy de la Bédoyère, droll field surveyor Stewart Ainsworth, John Gater and Chris Gaffney the frequently put-upon Geophys experts and a trio of drop-dead gorgeous site-archaeologists Carenza Lewis, Jenni Butterworth and Katie Hurst (think Lara Croft-crossed-with Bernice Summerfield and you're getting the general idea).

Best of all, however, there’s Phil Harding, a man whose absolutely infectious enthusiasm for his subject and for the task at hand is impossible not to be affected by.

Dear old Phil, he shovels his muck and he likes his beer (although, as Tony Robinson is keen to point out, his friend Harding is, also, a quite brilliant archaeologist - something often overlooked by the show's critics).

In this company, Robinson - a lovely, astute, humane and down-to-Earth guy anyway - acts as a kind-of voice for the viewer, regularly asking “what does that mean?” whenever the discussions start to get too technical or jargon-filled. And, of course, he’s always ready to throw in the odd Baldrick-ism when the situation calls for it.

Relaxing, and very easy on the eye, the series is shot over the summer mostly in the English (or Scottish, or occasionally Welsh) countryside - excavating anything from a Neolithic bone cave in the Cotswolds to a field in France where a Spitfire crashed just 60 years ago. They’ve done underwater digs on the wrecks of Spanish galleons, visited Hadrian’s Wall and Holy Island, dug numerous Roman villas in the West Country (those at Turkden and Dinnington were especially memorable), Iron Age round-houses on Salisbury Plain, Coventry’s lost Medieval cathedral and a Viking boat burial in the Outer Hebrides. They've also done a few overseas digs (in Maryland, in Nevis in the West Indies and in Spain).

The Roman sites are often the most visually interesting, as the viewer can actually see walls, floors and other structures emerging from the dirt - notably at digs at Cirencester in 1999, Greenwich Park in 2000, Ancaster in 2001 and Bath in 2003. On other occasions, it’s just the odd bone fragment or piece of pot that convinces the experts - and, via them, us - that something like 1500 years ago, someone actually lived on this ground beneath their feet. When that occurs - as it does in most episodes - it is, I have to confess, often quite a humbling moment. We are all of us transitory, we're for a very brief time (in relative terms) and, once we're gone, all that we will leave behind is, like the post holes and robbed out walls that the Time Team excavate, mere shadows in the dirt.

Wow, that was very profund and slightly disturbing. I digress...

The series has achieved a genuine cult popularity in Britain, with Sunday night audiences around the three million mark and celebrity fans who include the Prime Minister, Eddie Izzard and Bill Wyman, all of whom have appeared on the series.

Time Team is an example of the same kind of mad British consciousness that can produce something like Top Gear (another show which I've got a lot of time for. Largely, again, because of the enthusiasm with which Clarkson, Hammond and May present it). The two series may seem to be absolute polar opposites in many ways (one being, basically, a bunch of hippies digging in a field[*], the other about a trio of grinning petrolheads cheerfully destroying the environment) but there's no other country in the world than Britain that would produce two shows like these and give them equal prominence and which would both be tremendously popular. And, as an interesting sidebar, have many members of the same audience.

[*]As Tony Robinson himself noted in a revealing interview included on the DVD Time Team In Your Garden (2005) "It's a bunch of old hippies digging in a field, looking for 'Woodstock' under the ground in pottery! How could that possibly be a success? Only in Britain!"

There is no doubt that Time Team has substantially - significantly - raised public awareness and understanding about archaeology. Time Team contributor and Bronze Age expert Francis Pryor has written: "Before the first series in 1993, it was hard work starting an excavation. I can remember arriving at a building site in Fengate, where I was to cut some exploratory trial trenches. When I announced that I was an archaeologist, some wit in a JCB quipped that I had lost my way to Egypt. After Time Team that same chap would be asking when I was planning to bring in the geophysics."

A documentary on Time Team's tenth anniversary (Time Team: The First Ten Years - broadcast in April 2003) nakedly revealed that the archaeological establishment is somewhat split over whether Time Team, which has increased archaeology’s profile tenfold in the UK, is beneficial or not. Like similar debates in the music world and other fields over previous decades, there is a suspicion over something new, populist, down to earth and fun amongst the cognoscenti. Something that lets the great unwashed public into the hallowed world of esoteric and mysterious knowledge. How dare they explain something to "normal people" that had previously been the province of a select few academics. (Aside from some clear professional jealousies such criticisms are, sad to report, often seemingly class-based. Yes, I know it's the Twenty First Century but, seemingly, in parts of the archaeological community, we're still stuck knee-deepin the Dark Ages.)

Ultimately, however, I think it's just great some of the establishment are scared of Time Team. Like punk rock and independent movies, Time Team thumbs a metaphorical provocative nose at something dusty and ancient and says ‘fuck you - this is for everyone.’ Long may it, and other maverick examples of such delightful eccentricity, continue and prosper.

Six Great Time Team Moments:

6. In the middle of a - very entertaining - Iron Age and Medieval dig at Waddon, quite unexpectedly Stewart gets them to explore a bump in a field which turns out to be a previously undocumented henge site.

5. Phil, Margaret Cox and Guy discovering the carved "Viridios" inscription inside a Kist sarcophagus at Ancaster.

4. Mick Aston losing his temper and swearing his head off when discovering that they'd all been digging in the wrong place for two days in a site at Templecombe in 1995.

3. Tony's sheer joy at Carenza's uncovering a Roman mosaic floor in a garden in Cirencester ("Yes! First one in fifty programmes!")

2. The remarkable episode at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall in 1999 and the discovery of an completely in-tact Roman cremation ern.

1. One of TV's finest ever 50 minutes, the 'Celtic Spring' episode at Llygadwy (filmed in 2000 and broadcast in early 2001) which saw the team using their expertise to expose an elaborate achaeological hoax. There are any number of great moments in this - Phil and Francis proving that a Neolithic standing stone is nothing of the sort; Guy, Mick the Dig and Richard Reece sorting through the numerous Roman finds that the landowner claimed to have discovered in the 'spring' and establishing, via the lack of any pottery on the site, that all the coins had been deposited there and quite recently too; Barney Sloane's casual reply to Mick Aston's question about whether a structure is Norman: "Uncle Norman, possibly!" But, the bit that will always be remembered by viewers is the discovery of an Iron Age sword in a shallow ditch. Carenza is genuinely excited by the artefact itself but Mick and Jenni are clearly bothered about the context of where it was found, so close to the surface yet, apparently, completely undamaged. And, they're ultimately proved to be correct when a little later, they discover that the sword is lying on top of a piece of - very 20th Century - barbed-wired. "That is BLOODY CRIMINAL!" shouts Carenza, almost incandescent with rage. Proof, if any were needed, that despite what the more bug-up-their-own-arse traditionalist end of the archaeological community might like to believe, these people are not only very skilled at their jobs, but they really care about what they're doing too.

2006 postscript: Time Team recently completed its thirteenth season - filming is currently underway of a further thirteen episodes - plus a couple of specials - to be shown in 2007. Carenza and Guy have now left the show for other challenges (Guy has something in development with the Discovery Channel apparently) and Mick Aston only does about half of the digs these days (his place as site supervisor occasionally being taken by either Francis, Jonathan Foyle or Neil Holbrook). Carenza's replacement is Helen Geake. The faces change (except for Tony and Phil, of course!) but the series', delightfully, just roles on and on.

Keith Topping
Merrie Albion

Sunday, April 09, 2006

My Gaff (Slight Return), or When I Paint My Masterpiece

The saga of the work going on in and around My Gaff over the last few months has been a frustrating, stressful (if, occasionally, amusing) one. It started in February when, just ten days before I was due to fly to LA for the Gally convention, the builders decided THAT was when they were going to start rennovation work which had been off-and-on-and-off-and-on-again for the last six months. Champion.
I, inevitably, expected some kind of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet-style shenanigans of cowboy builders, botched jobs and general sloppiness. However, I have to say that, apart from some decidedly slapdash plastering (the only bit done whilst I wasn't actaully there to supervise them) the firm - Frank Haslman Ltd - have been pretty decent, sympathetic to my needs and professional in their approach.

Anyway, most of that is sorted now - there's still the front door to do (Big job, apparently) and some external bashing about with scaffolding and bricks and roof tiles and cavaty wall insulation and the like, apparently, but all of the inside is now sorted. Apart, of course, from a little bit of redecoration that I've got to do.

This here is My Gaff.

Now, I know it might look like shit but, actually, I'm quite proud of it.

Here's a couple of photos of the front room that will, in all likelihood, scare the living bejesus out of you.




Now that 90% of the work on it is completed, I'm in the process of doing a spot of - very gradual - redocoration.

I'm currently painting the kitchen (or, "the scullery" for you older English people out there).

I've never been a huge fan of painting but I must say I'm quite enjoying this - just doing a little bit more each day and gradually shifting stuff around as each bit gets completed. Here, for instance, is a section in the corner. With much of my glasswork put back in place after the paint had dried.



The colour, incidentally, is called "warm yellow". It looked a bit yucky when I first saw it in the shop but now I rather like it. I imagine in summer the light streaming through the window will reflect off it and blind me.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Memories Are Made of This

Here's another one from the IE fanzine files - this one's specifically for Ian:

We always believe that the summers were better when we were young, don’t we? Hotter, longer. Actually, they weren’t. I know, cos I was there.

A favourite game that myself and some of my friends used to indulge in, when we got together for dinner, or for a beer, was “Do You Remember…?” This was where we all got to show-off evidence of our misspent youth by dredging up the most arcane and dust-covered memories of telly and movies of the distant past. And asking if anybody else knew what the hell we were talking about.

We still do it sometimes. Of course, in the days before the Internet, it used to be much more fun. We’d vaguely remember something, nod sagely, say “yeah, that does ring a bell,’ but be completely unable to provide a title. These days… Want to know, as my mate Abie did recently, the name of a TV movie starring Bill Shatner concerning a plane crash? Visit the Internet Movie Database. Sole Survivor. We found it in about three minutes.

In t'days gone by, it was so different.

‘Do you remember’, somebody said at the Fitzroy Tavern one Thursday in about 1986, ‘a children’s TV show about a skull…?’ And, yes, I did. Really vividly. Most of my friends did too, but nobody could remember the title. It was a BBC serial about a girl and her little brother who had been evacuated to Wales during World War II. It was an evocative and rather charming story about the mystery of childhood. There was an alleged curse involved in the story and, at the end, the girl removed the skull from the house where she had been billeted, deliberately daring the mystic powers to bring down a terrible vengeance on the family with whom she had lived. Then she watched in horror at the house, ablaze, from the train taking her back to London. There was a coda, as she returned, a grown woman with children of her own, to find that she had not, as she’d always imagined, been responsible for deaths.

I remembered it so well. It was from the same period as Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Changes, The Phoenix and the Carpet and all those other brilliant early '70s BBC literary adaptations. I thought, for a while, it might have been called Escape Into Night, but that turned out to be a completely different (and also very memorable) ATV series about a girl’s lucid dreams.

Then, by pure chance, sometime in the late 80s, somebody (I think it was Helen Lane, actually) told us what it was called. Carrie’s War.

Thanks to UK Gold a few years later, I even have a video copy of it now. I can tell you, for instance, that it was five episodes long, directed by Paul Stone and based on a quite beautiful book, which I recently read, written by Nina Bawden. The cast was headed by 14 year old Juliet Waley as the eponymous Carrie Willow. It also featured such well-known character actors as Aubrey Richards, Rosalie Crutchley and Patsy Smart.

Waley’s subsequent career, as with other teenage starlets of the 70s like Vicky Williams (The Changes), was somewhat stillborn. She turned up in another schoolgirl role in The Duchess of Duke Street followed by five years of growing up in private before she starred in Angels and The History Man.

Carrie’s War, tragically, isn’t publicly available. But, for thirtysomethings like me and my mates, it brings back many memories (not always happy) of the short wet summer of 1974. Of clackers, Chelsea pants, chopper bikes, The Goodies, kung-fu, Hai-Karate aftershave, Slade, Look-In and star jumpers.

There are some things, you never forget!

Keith Topping
Merrie Albion