by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

But How Do You Work That Into The Narrative?

Posted 20 March 2009 in by Catriona

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am actually really enjoying what I’ve read (some three chapters) of P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which I’ve never read before, despite the fact that it was published in 1972 and I’m a big fan of certain sorts of detective fiction.

(I’ll be honest: I think part of what I like about it is that Cordelia dislikes Adam Dalgliesh as much as I do. Of course, she hasn’t met him, so that might change, but I do hope not.)

But what really fascinated me about the character so far is that when Cordelia is asked what her father did, she replies, “He was an itinerant Marxist poet and an amateur revolutionary.”

Really? Because that’s a complicated back story for a character who is dead before the book starts. It’s not that implausible: Cordelia’s twenty-two in 1971, so while her father may be too young to remember the rise to influence of the Fabian Society in the Edwardian period, he is certainly old enough to have been permanently inspired by the participation of some English left-wing sympathisers in the Spanish Civil War.

Or, you know, he could just have strong left-wing sympathies because he read Das Kapital at an impressionable age.

There’s just something about this that made me think, “Well, what a complex back story for a character who, as far as I can tell, is never going to appear in the book.” (If this is P. D. James’s foray into zombie fiction, don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.)

So, just in case I ever write a novel, I’ve come up with some pick-and-mix sentences that I can drop in to the narrative when someone asks my protagonist what her father does for a living.

  • He was a chiropodist, but it was really just a way for him to get paid for being a foot fetishist.
  • He provided freelance flower illustrations for amateur gardening magazines and on weekends scoured antique shops to try and improve his collection of Victorian apostle spoons.
  • He tried working as a waiter once, but apparently he had some kind of phobic response to damask.
  • He was a turtle fancier by inclination, but my mother talked him into becoming a chartered accountant on the grounds that the work was less seasonal.
  • He mostly subsisted on the loose change he found down the back of friends’ sofa cushions.
  • He shouted at the managers of struggling suburban theatre companies until they agreed to stage one of his series of five-act tragedies about Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.
  • He had a shoe-shine stand near the station until he developed an unshakeable conviction that it was possible to buff suede. Actually, we don’t really like to talk about it.
  • He’s actually a highly paid mercenary in a war as old as time itself, fought across the dimensions and in the shadows of planets, bringing humanity and every other species in the universe to the brink of destruction without their knowledge or understanding—but we used to tell people that he managed a strip-club so they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
  • He claims he’s a steward on the Titanic, so we’re not actually quite sure what he’s been doing for a living since 1912. Really? It’s never seemed that implausible to us.

Bracebridge Hemyng Was A Doctor Who Villain

Posted 4 March 2009 in by Catriona

Apparently.

I was rummaging through Wikipedia earlier this afternoon, as you do.

Actually, I was looking for the name of the actor who played John Lumic, so that I could appear omniscient in a comment thread. As you do.

And I found that Lumic is one of many in a list of minor Doctor Who villains. Some way below him is this man:

The Master of the Land of Fiction was a human writer from the year 1926 who was drawn to the Land of Fiction and forced to continuously write stories which were enacted within that realm. The Master’s name was never revealed, but he did identify himself as the writer of “The Adventures of Captain Jack Harkaway” in The Ensign, a magazine for boys. He was freed by the Second Doctor, and returned to his own time.

I don’t know about “Captain” Jack Harkaway, but Jack Harkaway—schoolboy adventurer, all-round sterling example of the late-nineteenth-century pioneering (and occasionally violent, especially if you’re foreign or you make a pass at Jack’s girlfriend) English spirit, and proposed member of an early League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—was the most successful creation of hack writer Bracebridge Hemyng. Of course, Bracebridge Hemyng died in 1901, but then Doctor Who is a show about time travel.

Hemyng doesn’t get his own Wikipedia page, which is a kind of cultural oblivion compared to which the journey to that bourne from whence no traveller returns is a walk in the park.

He does turn up on the Wikipedia page for Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, for which he undertook some of the interviews.

But he does have his own page on the truly fabulous Albert Johannsen’s truly fabulous The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of A Vanished Literature. (And if you ever need to know anything about American dime-novel writers or—given the networks of exchange between and the piratical publishing practices of the two countries—English penny-weekly writers, go straight to Northern Illinois University Libraries’ excellent online version of Johannsen’s book.)

And he also wrote some serials for Bow Bells, which is how I came across his name originally, when I was indexing the contents of that journal.

And he once “tried to lure the Second Doctor into becoming his replacement as the controller for the “Master Brain Computer”, the controlling force behind the Land of Fiction.”

Now that is something that he should add to his curriculum vitae.

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