“But Why Will You Say That I Am Mad?”

London lunatic asylum 1864 -1889..jpg

This is all rather worrying: a list of the reasons patients were confined to a lunatic asylum in London during the period 1864-89. I never realised reading a novel could be so hazardous, although there are a few authors I can think of whose success is quite mindboggling.

Edit: I’ve just noticed the spelling of “rumor” in that list, which seems a little odd for a London hospital, although this could have been taken from a US book on the subject.

Heavy On the Cheese


A rather leftfield thought struck me about the choice of actress Brie Larson to play Captain Marvel in the latest MCU cgi-fest, a move which has not escaped controversy. Might the casting team have confused her character with the original Captain Marvel, now billed (for convoluted legal reasons) as Shazam and long nicknamed “the big red cheese” by comics fans. After all, if you’re looking for a dairy product, why not a Brie? In any case, all these corporations really care about is the cheddar.

Hey, I didn’t claim it was a good theory…

Separated at birth?

I’m currently watching Odeon Entertainment’s excellent Blu-ray release of The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)*, wherein Linda Hayden’s demonic possession manifests itself in her sprouting bizarre bushy eyebrows. Hold on, I thought, could that mean model / actress Cara Delevingne has struck a similar deal with the Great Beast?


*(Odeon is currently offering a triple-disc deal for The Blood On Satan’s Skin, Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968), all three on Blu-ray for £30. Word to the wise: availability is extremely limited.)

Come the Revolution

The Sharp End

[Published in Omega, 1999]


Harold Wilson once claimed a week was a long time in politics; had he spent an hour on the stump with Baldrick, he’d have narrowed his timeline considerably.

VoteIt’s not as if the bugger doesn’t enjoy a walk. Fifteen-plus years old by our reckoning (pulled from beneath a passing car in November 1988, he was at least four then) and selectively deaf as a post, Baldrick (aka “The Fossil”) bursts into a hairy flamenco whenever he spots his lead looming into view. Trouble is, it lasts as long as a Mayfly’s teabreak.

This, mind you, is now irreparably intertwined with my current political sidebar. Once a member of the Ecology Party before it mutated into the Greens (no sniggering at the back, puh-lease), then (and still) a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (so sidelined, it seems, by the Reagan/Gorbachov circus that one – somewhat younger – fellow worker recently claimed never to have heard of CND), I finally took the party plunge a year or two back and became a card-carrying Liberal. (Yes, I do realise it’s officially the Liberal Democrats these days, but no one in Olton – a Lib stronghold even pre-1974, when councilors didn’t have to publicly declare their affiliations – was ever that convinced by Roy Jenkins and his Gang of Four).

The main drawback is that I let myself be talked into taking over one of the local newsletter routes (the previous volunteer having become too crumbly for the task). This wouldn’t be so onerous if I were a Conservative or Labour supporter, but Liberals publish almost as regularly as Ansible editor Dave Langford – more so in the run-up to an election – and I frequently find myself lumbered with an issue fresh off the press before I’ve actually had a chance to drop off the one previous.

Baldrick, on the other hand, thinks these door-to-door distributions are the best invention since the bark. The moment he sees me reach for my trainers, he springs into semi-action, lethargically dragging himself across the carpet towards me, cleverly combining a purposefully nebulous sign of interest with the casual indifference of continental drift. After all, if Baldrick chooses to let me take him out for a walk, he wants to underline the fact that he’s doing me the favour.

If only. Just before the May local government elections, I ended up with a bundle of leaflets to stuff into my neighbours’ letterboxes. (At this point, I’ll spare you all a lengthy discourse on the cretins who install said slots about three inches off the ground and compound this by fitting a wire brush immediately behind it tough enough to snare a cruise missile, let alone a humble duplicated flyer.)

Come Saturday night, shoulderbag stuffed and beer can packed (one of the boons of a semi-pro camera bag is the abundance of pockets), we hit the pavement. Baldrick does his customary war dance and I resign myself to his terrierist demands, much to the amusement of our next-door neighbours David and Chris (who, coincidentally, do the Liberal leaflet drop in our own road). Hey, it’s only 150 or so houses, I tell myself.

Trouble is, my shaggy companion enjoys the chase far more than the catch. No sooner have we left our own road, Baldrick operates with as much enthusiasm as a tram which has taken a wrong turning and slipped the overhead wires. A block on, and I’m forced to unclip the lead and let him amble along in the background whilst I walk up folks’ front paths. Eventually, even that’s too much bother for the old scrote and he begins to catch up on the installment plan; the overall effect is like running full-motion video on a 286.

There’s a danger of this changing, however, when I spot a couple of labradors being escorted into view. In common with all small dogs, Baldrick exhibits a frothy-mouthed desire to assert his authority upon any four-legged beast with a head bigger than his entire body; it’s genetic, almost Glaswegian. Eager to avoid bloody conflict and UN troops having to walk the streets of Olton, I scoop the hirsute horror up with my one free arm and head down the next path out of peril.

The woman in the house is watching me through her bay windows, particularly the juggling act I perform in order to prevent Baldrick plummeting Earthwards whilst simultaneously extracting the latest mailing from my bag to drop it into her porch.

Suddenly it struck me. For years, the Liberals’ small membership size relative to the Tories and New Labour resulted in our being ridiculed as the party of “one man and his dog”. And there was I, on the stump, hound underarm, the living embodiment of the joke. No wonder she viewed the entire operation with an expression of bemused condescension.

I wonder if the Monster Raving Loonies have any vacancies…

Dangerous When Wet


[From Zoo Nation, 2006]


I have to confess I haven’t bothered to check via Google which came first, but the indoor shower remains one of the greatest boons to horror movies.

Hot TubIt’s not just that vertical ablutions mean scream queens can’t shield their cleavage under thirteen layers of bathfoam, but the incessant hiss of the showerhead also ensures no endangered damsel can detect the approaching footfall of the generic maniac with an absurdly heavy knife. (For further reference, check out the extensively-researched instruction video Hollywood Scream Queen Hot Tub Party and the rather gorgeous Brinke Stevens’ demonstration of maximising breast exposure by soap avoidance and minimising pubic flashes with careful positioning of the outermost leg.)

Meantime, mid-December, I hear some guy explaining on BBC Radio 4 that a Belgian scientist has invented a shower which offloads into the neighbouring toilet cistern, dramatically reducing water usage; apparently, he’s already having discussions with hotels in Saudi Arabia.

My first thought, should all British bathrooms get one of these devices, is that should you feel the need, piss in the shower. Goes the same direction in the end, you’re cutting out the middleman and – multiplied by, say, twenty million thirty-second micturations per day – the thousands of hours saved would probably propel the UK back into the top ten of global productivity.

Needless to say, this is not recommended for those who prefer to take a bath. Nor should this idea be extended to more solid bodily functions – at least not without a full time and motion study.

Millennial Blues


[From Tortoise, 2001]


He was already leaning against the bar as I pushed open the doors of the Twilight Café and stepped inside – but given that this particular watering hole resides within a spacetime pocket tucked down the back of the cosmic sofa, punctuality is pretty relative. Nice suit, I thought: a bit Ed Straker, perhaps, but maybe silver’s going to be all the rage in 2010. Still, good to see I stuck with the beard.

“Hey,” he said as our eyes met. “What kept you?”

“You don’t recall?” He pushed a pint of our usual across the counter towards me. “Don’t tell I’m about to succumb to Alzheimer’s.”

“Well, they do say the first sign of senility is talking to yourself. Anyway, let’s cut to the chase: I have.. other commitments tonight.”

We grinned simultaneously: café rules officially prohibit crosstime contamination, but the occasional teasing was par for the course. “I just needed to touch base for a piece I’m writing for Tortoise on the inevitable death of hope and the onslaught of grim destiny. Nothing too heavy.”

My doppelgänger swigged from his half-empty glass. “I could dictate it from memory if you like, but that would definitely be cheating.” Another swallow. “So, how can I help?”

“I’m trying to rekindle my – our – feelings as each decade slipped away. How, for instance, a 10 year-old’s view of his future was inherently doomed to failure.”

“Especially one raised on science fiction. From 1970, a time when you could actually look up into the night sky and know there were men walking upon the surface of the moon, 1980 held so many promises. Remember those Brooke Bond picture cards with an artist’s impression of the first Mars expedition?”

I nodded. “Late 1970s, they reckoned. Mankind should have been taking its first steps into space, and instead we made do with a US president who claimed to have seen a flying saucer.” I signalled to the barman for another round. “Still, at least by the age of 20 I was following the career path I’d planned in my teens.”

“I always considered journalism more a condition than a vocation. And we only ever saw it as a stepping stone, surely?”

“Of course. What sf fan doesn’t secretly fantasise about becoming a fulltime author by the time they hit 30? And how few even come close? Like Eliot wrote, ‘Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow’. The bigger the dream, the bigger the shadow.”

“Yeah, all those early Novacons, listening to the guests of honour and thinking that with a little commitment and hard work, I could be up there with Priest, Holdstock, Aldiss and the rest. I’d kind of chosen to forget.” He seemed to drift off for a moment, then turned back. “But that seems a bit harsh on us both – we had just got married and quit newspapers.”

For a moment, a seriously off-limits question hung in the air, then a split-second glance caught the ring on his left hand and I left the query unspoken. “Thing is, by 30, you expect domestic stability and a more balanced view of the future. I ended up going broke in some misguided belief that I could make a living from freelancing.”

“You did get to meet Stan Lee.”

“True. What more can a fanboy ask from life?” Still, he had a point: getting to interview a childhood hero was pretty cool.

“Look, there’s something I want to point out before I have to go.” He put his empty glass back on the bar. “The future is just today, only more so. Extrapolating the present never works, especially on the personal level, because the real changes creep up on you when you least expect them. We didn’t get the spaceships from 2001 – as you’ll have realised, if you’ve kept your eyes open in the last couple of weeks – but we got computers that fit under your fingernail. You can fly to the Moon in three days, but no one can be bothered because it would take eighteen hours to get a train home from the spaceport. It’s all amazing, and it’s all crap.”

As he reached down and grabbed his case, I chanced it: “C’mon, give us something to go back with, even if it’s not next week’s National Lottery numbers.”

He smiled again. “Okay. Make sure you order Elvis’ comeback album early – it sold out in less than an hour. Keep away from the real ale at Novacon 34 – Tony Berry was in a coma for three days before anyone noticed. And finally, make sure you catch President Schwarzenegger’s inauguration speech – it’s a killer.”

We shook hands, he headed for the door and I turned to put my own glass back on the counter. As my gaze rose to take in the mirror behind the bar, I caught him again in its reflection, stepping through the doorway and greeting another, reassuringly familiar, figure standing nearby. White as it was, I still recognised the beard.

“Time, gentlemen, please!” called the barmaid as I headed out in the same direction.

Now that, I thought, is a matter of opinion.

Zombie Heat-Death

The Legions of Entropy

[Published in Procrastinations #6, 2008]

T-shirt - zombies small

What exactly is the appeal of the zombie in contemporary cinema? Be they the brain-famished cannibals of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the shambling lost souls of Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie or the crazed killing machines of Boyle’s 28 Days Later, there seems no end to the march of the resurrected across our cinema screens.


After all, it’s not as if they’re embued with either the tragic alienation of the Frankenstein monster (English literature’s first and greatest reanimated cadaver) or the shadowy eroticism of the vampire. Even the mummified adulterer Kharis solicits more sympathy from audiences than these personality-depleted icons of the horror genre.

But that, of course, lies at the unbeating heart of the zombie’s mystique. Almost alone in our shared mythology, these creatures are totally devoid of self; they are without motivation or masterplan, the senseless personification of our own mortality. As fast as you run, whatever obstacles you place in their path, you can escape neither their frantic grasp nor the inevitability of your own demise.


The attraction for film-makers is rather more obvious. The restless undead offer a tabula rasa upon which virtually any theme can be explored, from a satirical broadside against American consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) to quasi-Marxist condemnation of corporate genocide (Zombie Creeping Flesh).

In the hands of a gifted writer-director, they can illuminate the darkest recesses of the human mechanism and the social shells we build around ourselves; in a hack’s, satiate our animalistic thirst for cheap thrills.


Zombies are the footsoldiers of chaos, the walking embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. With time, their contagion will spread throughout the globe, whereupon the twisted hunger which drives the corpse army will prove its own undoing. Only then will the dead rest again, and forever.

At the close, all is entropy.

Illustration by the author