Sunday, May 27, 2012

After Adams


'I've read The Sirens of Titan six times now, and it gets better every time. He is an influence, I must own up. Sirens of Titan is just one of those books – you read it through the first time and you think it's very loosely, casually written. You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realise what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual.'

The above is from an interview that I read on the Darker Matter site. It's a surprisingly detailed interview with Douglas Adams which, I think, goes some way to justifying my last post about the ineptitude of One Last Thing, Eoin Colfer's very ill-advised attempt to expand the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe by penning a sixth volume himself.

I was happy to read (for the first time) that Adams had been so influenced by Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, as I always loved the book, with its big, dizzy ideas presented in 'casual' prose. I think it's the best of Vonnegut's books, uniting many wonderful scenarios, and I know its author comes close to agreeing with me, for he gives it an 'A' rating in Palm Sunday, his book of essays. According to one of his two recent biographies, Vonnegut wrote the book in very little time after pitching (unprepared) to a publisher at a party that he had an idea for a book about a man who has, for some cosmic reason, turned into a wave phenomenon, or a 'chronosynclastic infundibulum' which means he can journey throughout the solar system and arrive at fixed locations for a few moments, at points in time that proceed as normal time does. (Thus there may be two years between each of his manifestations.) That is a beautiful idea, and it's enough to keep the book powering along, much as Arthur Dent aboard the Heart of Gold spaceship with its 'infinite improbability drive ' powered the first two books of the HHGTTG series.

Even the most ardent fans concede that the quality of the series drops off after The Restaurant at The End of The Universe, though Life, The Universe and Everything is still a good book, despite it being a reworking of a Doctor Who script that was never produced. Actually, I don't know why that is supposed to be such a bad thing. God, I recycle whatever I can, and since the Doctor Who story never went to air, it was all new Adams to us, his grateful followers. I wonder if the story about Vonnegut blindly pitching the idea to a publisher, then finding himself in the situation of having to write it is true. It's a nice anecdote. Something similar happened to me with my book, The Clockwork Forest.

 It was originally presented as a play, and I was supposed to have been more advanced with the script than I was when the play's South Australian producers called me in St Kilda. They wanted to know what they should put on the poster and how big the cast was likely to be. Something possessed me. I started telling a tale with a Buddhist slant about a young man who loses some very beautiful treasures, endeavours to find them, then realises he doesn’t need them any more. The journey he makes in the recovery of the trinkets has given him some insight into what is important about life and what is not. I babbled on, mentioning that the beautiful treasures would be clockwork animals given to the boy by a monk. I think I might have been reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret at the time, which would certainly explain the fixation on clockwork toys. I had also just recently lost some 'treasures' of my own that I had considered to be valuable, though they really weren't. After a half-hour teleconference I had a storyline and six characters. Now, all I had to do was write it, which I did. It's the smoothest ride I have ever had with a book, and I'm very happy with the result. (The play, staged by Brink Theatre Company in Adelaide, was also excellent.)

It's yet to be staged in Melbourne, which is a pity. I think people are put off by going to a show that claims to be 'family theatre', meaning there are likely to be screaming kids in the audience. But it's really more a show for young adults.
Anyway, back to The Sirens of Titan, (and this paragraph contains massive spoilers, so jump over it unless you've already read The Sirens of Titan, which you should really do) I read this book when I was around fifteen, which is the perfect age for such a book, then I was dead keen to read more books like it so I swallowed greedily every book that Vonnegut ever wrote but never quite got the fix I wanted. Then, along came The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was absolutely the perfect book to read after The Sirens of Titan.  It certainly had a similar episodic feel, with major events in history being tied into a storyline about an alien, Salo, who is waiting on the delivery of a spare part for his disabled spaceship. The pyramids, the Great Wall of China and numerous other great monuments of earth's history are merely Salo's race influencing the ape-like beings on earth to create giant messages in Salo's own language, encouraging him not to despair, that the missing piece is on its way. Salo, you see, is on a very important mission. He has to deliver a message across the galaxy. That message is a small square of metal with one dot on it. The message is 'Welcome'.
But what do I read now? People tell me that Jasper Fforde is every bit as good as Adams and they are very wrong. He's ordinary, and I find it hard to believe that he was unaware of The Kugelmass Episode, one of the best known comedy short stories in the world (written by Woody Allen, no less), before plundering its core concept so shamelessly in his awful 'Tuesday Next' books. I may have the day wrong. I don't care, I'm not going to waste my time googling books I dislike. Jasper Fforde is no more the logical successor to Douglas Adams than I am. But I'm delighted that I found the Sirens of Titan/Adams link. I figured it was there somewhere.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chickening Out.

I was one of the speakers at this year's Australian Children's Book Council Conference in South Australia. I had a great time banging on about comedy in 'YA literature'. In fact I enjoyed the experience so much that I crept back the next day to hear keynote speaker Eoin Colfer talk about Artemis Fowl. And he was good. It was a very funny presentation largely featuring very good stories about his two young sons. But watching from the audience,  I felt the need to ask him something. I've blogged elsewhere about my dislike of And Another Thing, Colfer's contribution to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I wanted to ask him how big the publisher's advance was to coerce him into doing such a terrible thing. But I don't have a loud voice so in order to be heard I crept from the audience and onto the stage to use a microphone (not Colfer's). From the stage I got a view of happy people in the audience , thoroughly enjoying Eoin's presentation. And Eoin looked like a nice guy too - a bit smaller than I'd imagined. So I 'rephrased' my question, hoping I would get around to 'How could you and for how much?' a bit later. Of course, Eoin is used to this question, usually posed by angry fanbois. And of course, an angry fanboi is exactly what I was and am. My 'rephrased' question was 'How did it feel when you were approached to write a new installment of The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy?H' and this, of course, is a question he had no difficulty answering. He didn't want to do it, neither did he think it should be done (it's all there on Twitter)...

... but he had been asked by Douglas Adams' widow to do it. Okay, now I just don't buy it.  To me it sounds like the sort of lie that a publisher would tell in order to get a writer to do something they were terribly reluctant to do. 'Oh, but Douglas Adams' widow wants you to do it. How could you say no?'

Eoin told a few stories about how silly it was to be worried about the huge legacy that Douglas Adams had left, and the audience laughed obligingly. He reported he was very nervous about writing a bit where lead character Zaphod Beeblebrox has his second head removed. But he reassured us that he ran the idea by his wife, who shrugged and told him that it really didn't matter. And I could tell from the looks of the audience that they agreed. 'It doesn't matter.' And that's really where I should have jumped in and said.'But it does bloody matter.' The reason is that, for many people, The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy became a sort of philosophy of life.  We know all the lines, and the reason we know them is because they were and are so very good. It's so rare to find clever, economical comedy writing about big ideas, that when we do find it we clutch it to our hearts. Adams' writing was always about something, not just people flying around the galaxy in a stolen ship called The Heart Of Gold. When Douglas died, we all felt his loss because we knew he had other stories to tell, after all, he was our prophet, even though his output was limited. In fact, I do wish that Colfer had written the book while Adams was alive, then Adams had come along and reworked it thoroughly to cast over it his own inimitable style. He was terrified of deadlines. Very bad 'blank page' syndrome.

It would be rude to have said this to Colfer, but I very much doubt that Neil Gaiman would have accepted the offer to write a sixth HHGTTG book. This isn't because he has higher moral values than Colfer, it's just because he knows enough about the original work to leave it alone. Years ago, when he was just a journalist, Gaiman wrote a book called DON'T PANIC about the whole HHGGTG phenomenon. He would have interviewed a number of very devoted people in order to construct the book, which is very well written, as we would expect from Gaiman. He does not try to imitate Adams because he knows it's well nigh impossible and would upset a lot of people, notably the devoted people to whom he had spoken. If you want to know the strength of this devotion, read Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson. This was the first biography of Adams to appear, discounting the earlier Gaiman book about the series. It is not an easy book to read, because MJ crowds it with facts that could only possibly be of interest to rampant diehard fans. MJ later got into trouble when he covered the release of the HH movie via his website Magrathea. He stated, quite plainly, that the movie was a terrible disappointment after the book and had left out far too much. The review was four pages of bitterness and contempt, which he supported with well-chosen quotes from the book and the film. And MJ had a point. The movie was only just okay. It only just managed to score 'Fresh' on Rotten Tomatoes, and it really shouldn't have. The best thing they did was cast Martin Freeman and the thoroughly delightful Zooey Dscshanel as the slightly star-crossed couple Arthur Dent and Tricia Macmillan. The Jim Henson work with the Vogons was good too. But Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox were both terribly miscast, and the result was a movie that didn't really cover much of the stuff that was in the books. There was some very clever new stuff like the 'Point of View Gun' which is such a good sociological idea that it surely must save been one of Adams' own. We'll never know. He's dead, which is as inconvenient as it is sad. MJ's four-page review of the movie was so blistering that it caused a cyber-war. He was flamed practically to death by people I can only assume to be employees of Disney,who were behind the movie. I read the very last bit of The Restaurant at the end of The Universe last night, and the prose was just perfect. It's probably a shame that Adams didn't stop there, because everything that comes after isn't as good. 

To many people, HHGGTTG was so much like quasi-religion that the idea of someone continuing to write the series after Adams' death is a little like someone adding bits to the New Testament. "I decided to give Jesus an extra head. It made the last supper scene very funny. The left head says, 'Eat, for this is my body,' then the right head says 'Drink, for this is my blood.' After all, it's only a story. I mentioned the idea to my wife Fatima and she agreed."

But back at the conference I looked out at an audience of people who hadn't grown up with THHGTTG, who were pron=bably only familiar with it through the dire TV shiow and movie and who would have thought my reverence for Douglas Adams a little extreme. So I didn't ask the question about the publisher's advance, I just nodded as I heard all of the answers that Colfer had already given to the media.'I had no option.' 'I felt my hands were tied.' (I wish they had been.) And when Colfer was accused of avarice (not by me), he pointed out that he made plenty of money from the Artemis Fowl books and he would have written one of those if he needed the dough. Although, in 2011 I noted that And Another Thing was heavily promoted and certainly appeared to be selling by the truckload. And, I would opine, it would have made slightly more royalties for Colfer than the Artemis Fowl books.

Anyway, I didn't ask my money question, even though I had warned Colfer that I would and that he wouldn't like it. We were running out of time. I also didn't want to ruin what had been a perfectly enjoyable presentation by ending on some sourness. Anyway, Colfer has done the book, and history can't be undone. My own view of Colfer's HH book is that it isn't very good. I think he gets the characters about right. But where he screws up is where he segues into vast tracts from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 'guidebook' itself. He does this far too often. He's not good at it because these segments are never funny, but - more importantly - they never make a point or advance the story or get you to look at something in a different way. And that's what Adams was good at. He was notorious for his writer's block, hence the idea of Colfer writing a first draft then having Adams overwrite has merit, but that's all And Another Thing is; a first draft, and I sincerely hope we don't see any more of these. I also challenge Eoin Colfer to write a gag as good as this one from Adams:

Ford: You may not like the leap into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like bring drunk.
Arthur: What's so bad about being drunk?
Ford: Ask a glass of water. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


The brilliant Tracy Harvey, about to be surprised by an exploding cigar

One unanticipated aspect of my stroke recovery business is my inability to get the day and the time right. I'm usually out by two weeks, even though I write down everything in my diary. Incorrectly, as it happens.
My talented friend Tracy Harvey has been staging her latest musical about life in a hospital. She works as a clerk at The Alfred, so she has had plenty of experience from which to draw. She also writes seriously brilliant, catchy rock songs, and I was once lucky enough to work with her on a show called Call Girl, a musical set in a call centre. (Most of Tracy's show and song titles have double meanings.) The name of the new show is Prick.

According to my diary, the last performance of the show was on 4th May, so I fronted up at The Caravan Club (an RSL hall with a rehearsal space on that very day). But no one there seemed to know what I was talking about even though I spoke as clearly as I could the word 'Prick'. Someone finally realised what I was referring to, that I wasn't suffering from Tourette's syndrome, and advised me that the show Prick would not be playing till two weeks' hence on 20 May. So I enjoyed Oakley as best I could for the afternoon (and you'll be surprised how much fun you can have at Chadstone shopping centre) then returned to St Kilda. I revisited The Caravan Club last Sunday and caught a top-notch performance of Tracy's show, complete with a live band and a warm-up by the affable Dave O'Neil. And they were all brilliant, especially Tracy and Bryce Ives, the smart young director who also took on one of the roles, that of a sleazy doctor.

The frustrating thing about a local show as good as this is that it really deserves to build a bigger audience and enjoy some commercial success. It isn't going to happen. We'll fork out a small fortune for tickets to Billy Elliot, but Prick, with its rocky songs and gags, will be completely overlooked, short of a miracle. One of our local productions encountered just such a miracle, when Casey Bennetto's Keating: The Musical, ended up being staged in The Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. I don't know if Prick will ever make it to such a hallowed venue, but I do hope we haven't heard the last of this quirky and cheeky hospital musical.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Monty Python's Flying Circus and Me

I was twelve the first time I saw Monty Python's Flying Circus on TV. They were doing a very silly sketch about a world where everyone is dressed as Superman, going about menial activities such as catching the bus, visiting the laundrette, etc. Then one of the Supermen fairly uneventfully falls off his bike, but the bike is damaged. And there is instant consternation in the world of Supermen. The word spreads quickly. 'There's been a bicycle accident!' 'Oh no!' 'If only Bicycle-Repair-Man were here.' WE cut to a closeup of one of the Supermen sitting in the laundrette. It is the handsome-looking young MIchael Palin and we hear him ponder:.'But how can I turn into Bicycle-Repair-Man without revealing my secret cover?' Then: 'Look!' he cries, cunningly,  'I think he's over there!' He points out of the laundrette window and all the other supermen obligingly look in the direction in which he points. There is a very fast costume change. The Michael Palin Superman changes from his tight outfit into a set of tatty overalls with BICYCLE REPAIR MAN written across his chest. The other  Supermen turn and raise their heads in amazement. 'Bicycle Repair Man - but how?

Bicycle Repair Man takes small steps but manages to move very quickly, thanks to the wonders of undercranked film. On the way to the 'disaster' he passes three other Supermen digging up the road. 'Oh look - is it a stockbroker?' says one. 'Is it a quantity surveyor?'asks another. 'Is it a church warden?' opines the third. Then they all seem to sigh lovingly, happy that the world is in good hands. 'No, it's Bicycle-Repair Man!'

Our bike accident victim Superman clasps his red-gloved hands in joy when he sees Bicycle Repair Man hobbling hastily down the street. 'Bicycle Repair Man! Thank Goodness you've come!' Not to be distracted, for BRM knows his stuff, he gently shifts the bike accident Superman to one side then has a hasty examination of the bicycle frame and wheels, nods knowingly, having made the miraculous calculations in his head, then takes out a little pouch of spanners and so forth that he rests beside the bike. The film is again undercranked and he proceeds to repair the bicycle, watched by a growing audience of Supermen who cannot believe the miracle they see. As BRM repairs the bicycle, various appropriate splash panels fill the screen.
One of the observing Supermen gasps, 'Why! He's mending it with his own hands. Another gasps, 'See how he uses the spanner to tighten that nut!'
It is all over quickly, A humble BRM hands over the repaired bike to its owner, who naturally asks, 'Oh! Oh bicycle repair man how can I ever repay you?
And BRM, true hero that he is, says, ''Oh, you don't need to, Guv. It's all in a day's work for Bicycle Repair man!'

And that was when I fell in love with the show. Actually, it was after seeing some of Terry Gilliam's beautiful animations that I truly fell in love with the show. Dad had pretended not to like it, but he consulted the TV guide to inform us that this peculiar show was called Monty Python's Flying Circus and that it would be on again next week. How on earth would I be able to wait for a whole week to see these brilliant people again?

I was lucky. Not all the Python sketches were as cheerfully silly as Bicycle Repair Man and I suspect that if I had tuned in halfway through 'Communist Quiz' I probably wouldn't have watched the show again. I had to find other people who liked this show, so we could discuss it. And Father continued to refuse to admitting like it. He even did that mean thing of asking me, 'What's funny about that?' after a Gilliam animation which was probably about a bowler-hatted gentleman bouncing around on a big tit or something. Finding like-minded python fans was a difficult task as I was young and living in the Latrobe Valley and attending the undeniably shithouse (at the time) secondary school called Maryvale High. There was so much bullying there that teachers walked around the schoolgrounds back to back. Windows, originally glass and spectacular, were rapidly replaced with nasty plastic, because so many kids had been thrown through the glass ones; after several near-drownings, the elegant school fountain was drained. There were thuggish gangs. And Latrobe Valley kids were big from breathing all that poisonous air that Australian Paper Manufacturers were happily pumping into the atmosphere. Everyone who has been to the Latrobe Valley in the sixties and seventies will remember the reek of the valley, thanks to APM's 'Neutral Suplhide Semi-Chemical Pulp Process'. The whole place smelt like one gigantic fart, or for the more delicate among us, 'rotten cabbage.' But if there was no wind to move the mix of sulphur smell and fog away, the valley smelt of pigshit. Simple as that. There was an enormous piggery near Traralgon and they never really worried about the noxious smell they were making, since most of the time APM's fart smell would mask it. Still days were the ones to worry about. Back in those days, the Environmental Protection Authority was not very strong, rather like The Salvation Army only without tambourines,  and I think that 2000 dollars was the maximum fine you had to pay if caught doing something especially un-environmental, like wiping out a species. I suspect the fine didn't bother APM all that much. It was like paying protection money. The EPA were probably viewed by APM management as a slightly daft and irritating mafia. 'Look at this!' the EPA would grumble once a month, 'You've killed all the animals with your deadly fart smells. That's a two thousand dollar fine right off!'Dad used to come home from work reeking of fart, but we all grew used to it, as indeed you can get used to anything disgusting after a while. Look at Saturday mornings on Channel Nine. And my father was always fiercely loyal to APM, because they were good employers, he reassured us. They weren't psychopathic, like banks, and the people who worked there were generally a very good type of person.

Though I do remember Dad telling me one story about a slight oversight on the part of one of the workers there. APM decided it was time for a good clean-up, so they arranged for vast quantities of filthy leftover poison to be taken somewhere (possibly a nearby asteroid) and dumped, so at last it would wipe the superior looks off the faces of the EPA men and prevent the constant fines. Dad told me he was, of course, part of this operation and that a friend of his had  found a container with a label that was something like this:
I asked Dad what had happened to this dreadful bottle of poison and Dad said that his well-meaning mate had tipped it down a toilet. And not one of those self-enclosed pan toilets,  but one that was connected to thousands of pipes, then to the surprisingly lovely Dutson Downs sewage processing farm (you think I'm lying but there really is/was such a place as Dutson Downs which had, I recall unreliably, an elegant well-trimmed garden with elegant streams of odouress brown running through it, for all the world like something from Willy Wonka. (My parents don't recall this place, so it might well be a figment of my dangerous imagination.) Back to the poison business, I don't know how many animals died, when that bottle was flushed down the lavvy, but  myth records that one of the three-legged oil-drilling platforms off the coast near Sale, turned over.
Despite the attractive art deco cooling towers or Hazelwood power station, the other thing one couldn’t help but notice on the Latrobe Valley skyline was the forests of TV antennas. In Traralgon where I lived, our TV antenna was twice the size of the house, because people were desperate to pick up some of the Melbourne stations and possibly watch something entertaining. (I remember trying to watch The Avengers through a snowstorm of static because Channel Seven in Melbourne was the broadcaster.) We had the regional ABC of course (thank goodness) and a local broadcaster caller GLV10, though their modus operandi seemed to be to force people to watch the ABC.

I merely give you all this background information to forewarn you of how difficult it would be to find someone in The Latrobe Valley who might have been as impressed by Monty Python's Flying Circus - especially the cartoons - as I was. Then it occurred to me that the quest was probably simple enough. I merely had to associate with the other kids at Maryvale High who were getting bashed up as often as I was (two or three times a month) In an effort to avoid being bashed up (by groups of boys who were a lot bigger than I was - APM sulphuric mutation had already set in) I tried to work out if there was any similarity between these groups of victims that I perhaps shared and could self-eradicate. The similarity seemed to be that they were all just a bit different from everyone else. They spoke with funny accents or had long hair or were shithouse at sport or were aboriginal. I wish I could remember the name of the first of these kids who did indeed watch and love Monty Python's Flying Circus. He was a smart English kid with long straight blond hair (a hanging offence back then) and we formed our own little Monty Python Fan Club. Now, what you know as a Monty Python fan is probably a hellish bore who bails you up at parties and does the words from all the sketches until you walk away. I do remember the name of the worst bully. It was David Dundon and I presume he is still going through life being an aggressive, mean-spirited prick. There's a good chance he's dead or in prison. Either would suit me, and probably be better for the world in general.

There's an ill-considered scene in the movie, Sliding Doors, where we are expected to believe that the only-just-good-looking John Hannan has a table in fits of laughter by quoting word-perfectly the 'Spanish Inquisition' sketch from series 2 of Monty Python. Now, had this movie even the ghost of versimilitude (which I guess is  lot to expect from a movie that features Gwynneth Paltrow twice) people would be looking away in embarassment or pouring bottles of deadly, really deadly-no-honestly poison over him. Because Python bores really were and still are quite horrible. But with the blond boy and me (I'll call him Ken, since it wasn't a sexual relationship even though he was handsome, and Ken is about the least sexual name I can think of) it was salvation. It was permission to believe that the world really was a terribly silly place, and thugs were likely to turn out to be mincing nancy-boys, or vice versa. So, I spent two whole years in The Latrobe Valley with only one person with whom I could share Monty Python. Then I won a scholarship and ended up here, and of course I found so many boys with whom to share Monty Python that I rapidly became intensely unpopular, but at least I wasn't bashed up for it. Monty Python also seemed to make it okay to be smart. Half the time we didn’t know the references but would encounter them later in life. I actually tried to read Either/Or by Kierkegaard because his name turned up in a python sketch. I was horrible company.
But in 1973 I survived a year at Maryvale High School, triple-time winner of the worst, most relentlessly violent school in the Southern Hemisphere award, thanks to Monty Python. If it weren't for that show, I'd be dead. So of course I was desperately keen to see the movies borne of the show. My favourite by far is the first 'best of' one, because it gave me the chance to see Terry Gilliam's animations in full colour on the big screen for the firs time. My very least favourite is The Meaning of Life, of which the pirate short is the only thing I enjoy, I'm indifferent to Monty Python and The Holy Grail, even though it was lauded by my Carey schoolmates at the time, so much so that by the time I got to see it, I was pretty much familiar with every joke, which had been acted out by the initiated. But I saw another movie at about this time and it really did make me laugh out loud. I didn't know it was possible to be so funny in ninety minutes. The movie was called Sleeper and its inventor was Woody Allen. So my affections were turned elsewhere. The Python show did make me want to be an artist, and for a few years I was doing Gilliam-style pictures (though I could never work the airbrush properly) and Max Ernst style collages. There's a touch of Gilliam in the pictures I did for my first book. And it was via Python that I got to learn about some of the more obscure yet no less brilliant artists, poets and comedians of England in the sixties. I met superpoet Roger McGough, thanks to the fact that Gilliam illustrated one of his books. It was Sporting Relations and it was but a mild foretaste of the wonderful world of McGough. (My proudest moment is during the Humourists read Humourists event at the first Melbourne Comedy Festival. Roger came on and read some of my stuff. We hasn't yet met and he didn't know I was in the audience at The Atheneum in the front row. And through McGough I met Charles Causley and so on and so forth.)

I've met all of the original Pythons except for GIlliam and Idle. I suspect I'd have more to talk about with the former than the latter, largely because the former has actually been doing interesting and original new things with his life, not just riffing on Python for the last fifty years.

The point of this story? My friend John Clarke dislikes Monty Python (the movies more than the TV series I think) and I found it hard to argue cogently with him. So this is my riposte, as it were.
It is now an ex-riposte.
It has ceased to be.