So, A. said half-joking last night that it was a shame I wasn’t going to be on the morning train that passed the Flying Scotsman, it’d be the one before. I considered it for a bit and thought, well, I can get up twenty minutes earlier, maybe, though it’s a silly and foolish whim (self, why are you such a nerd and such a multidimensional one at that).
Friends, it was a great decision. The 7.45am Cambridge > King’s Cross train is a lonesome creature. It’s usually silent save for snoring and the tapping of keys and it crams up with people and misery after Royston. I sat by the window watching it cross the frosted landscape and started seeing people on the trackside, in the station car parks, on the ridges in farmland which pass for elevation in Cambridgeshire. There were people standing with binoculars on bridges and people dotted like stars across the fields. I was following along with realtimetrains, which is a great resource that not a lot of people seem to know about, and that was fun in itself – watching the train I was on cross its passing points, and watching as the other train got closer. A little way along from Stevenage there was a whole family holding up their kids on the garden fence to see, and then the 7.45 crossed the Flying Scotsman at Welwyn.
I only had a glimpse of it – the faceplate, the billowing steam, the fresh paint – but that’s okay! It was beautiful regardless. The BBC described its departure from King’s Cross amid a cloud of mist as something out of a British Pathé newsreel; on the suburban commuter platforms at 7.30 in the morning it seemed like a dream.
Here’s the thing, though: so many people. People pressed against trackside fences. A man opposite me on the 7.45 who perked up from commuter somnambulism at the words “Flying Scotsman”! Some guys in Network Rail high-vis standing around the trackside, very ostentatiously not doing any work. Crowds crammed onto stations at the arse-end of the morning, happy and excited. It was freezing overnight and the wind was biting and people had been standing there since dawn to see it flash past at eighty miles an hour. I feel much better about the whole godforsaken world.
And now for something completely different! I don’t talk much about the music I listen to here, because I’m not at all cool, okay, I still like most of the music I liked when I was a teenager and a lot of that was nineties girl bands. At this advanced, tragically unhip age, the music I like divides into two neat categories: soulful queerish lady music (Vienna Teng; Dessa; Deb Talan; Dar Wiliams; Kris Delmhorst) and soulful, soft Americana: the Horrible Crowes; the Gaslight Anthem; the Oh Hellos; the Civil Wars… etc).
The Local Strangers are in the second category, an American two-piece a friend introduced me to last year when I was in Seattle for a con. Last weekend, I listened to their new track, “Gasoline“, about fifty times in two days, and I’ve spent the rest of the week listening to their new album, Take What You Can Carry, and… what to say, when you have no vocabulary for this sort of thing? Other people can talk about all the things I can’t articulate, the sweetness in the vocals, maybe, and the cutting simplicity of the instrumentals, maybe also; I like “Gasoline” because it seems to have so many layers, down and down, and the lyrics are deceptively simple, and more than that I can’t tell you.
Off the rest of the album, I particularly like “Red Dress”, which reminds me of Kim Addonizio, and “1947”, which is intimate, and again more a poem than anything else; and then there’s my hands-down favourite, which is “Pilot Light”, a love-song lullaby with simple, soaring lyrics (I will be your pilot light / I’ll burn for you through the night), that fall away into lamenting, wordless harmonies. And see above re: super uncool, okay, but I have never grown out of being seventeen in musical terms; I have never not listened to the same song over and over twenty, fifty, a hundred times, and over years, because it’s something you carry with you; when I was seventeen I still lived up on the Sefton coast and we used to hang out and drink on the pier head, watching the lights on the docks, the lights shining on the water, yearning for something. (Do people love music differently, people who don’t grow up in crappy seaside towns? Who even knows.) Anyway, that’s it, that’s the thing I’m reminded of: because I went to dinner with an old friend on Friday and we talked for a while about it, about how London isn’t easy – high rents and commuting, middle-class British woes par excellence – but we left the town we grew up in and I still listen to the same song over and over, still capable of being transported. It’s a lovely, varied, sweet album, and if I’d listened to it aged seventeen I would have come to it all in inarticulate emotion. And though I didn’t and haven’t, in its multiple sweetnesses, its simplicity, there’s still all that there: still all that falling into wordlessness, on the edge of something. I wish I had the wits to write about music: to write more than, it spoke to me, perhaps it will speak to you, but there you are. Take What You Can Carry is coming out on March 3rd, and my press copy was provided by Matt Hart of the Local Strangers – thank you.
I love the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and have done for many years. I only just watched through to the end of it, and as a result, have been inflicting my rage over it on many people, most of whom do not care. So here is why I am really angry about How I Met Your Mother, a show I love, with apologies yet again to those who do not care.
So here are the three things that are embedded into the premise of the show. Thing the first: future Ted, sitting on a couch with his two children in the year 2030, is telling them the story of how he met their mother. Thing the second: the reason – the in-universe reason – why it is such a long, ridiculous, meandering story is that he’s also telling them the story of how he came to be the person he was when he met their mother. And, thing the third: Robin is not the kids’ mother. (The first episode, which is all about how Ted saw Robin across a crowded bar and fell dippily in love with her, ends with: “And that, kids, is how I met your Aunt Robin.”)
So far so hoopy, right? And, you know, I’m fine with that as a premise. It gives the whole show an interesting twist from the beginning: because you know, right from the start, that a) Ted’s in love with Robin – ridiculous, love-at-first-sight, choirs-of-angels stole-a-blue-French-horn-for-her in love with her; but also b) even if they do get together, they’re not going to stay together. So even though Ted pursues her for a long time despite the fact she says she doesn’t want to date him, and actually acts very Nice-Guy-ish around her, the audience is meant to think it isn’t healthy, because they know it won’t work out! Again – I’m fine with that. That’s self-aware storytelling. And then when they do get together they can’t stay together – because Ted wants to get married and have kids and settle down, and that’s just what Robin doesn’t want: she wants to travel and see the world. It’s not that either of them want things that are wrong – and the writing is very good about emphasising that – and not that they aren’t very fond of each other, it’s just that they’re wrong for each other.
In the meantime – Barney! Barney, who is a womanising misogynist dick, becomes… less of one. When you put it like that it doesn’t sound like the miracle of character development that it is, but it is. And partly that’s because of Robin – because when he falls for her, he takes Lily’s and Tracy’s and Ted’s advice and becomes a better person. And still, the show does that carefully – it’s not redemption through love, but redemption through hard work and self-examination, so when Barney and Robin do get together, finally, it’s on an equal footing. They’re perfect together: irreverent, malevolent, loving, kind of dysfunctional but functional for them. They don’t want the settling-down-having-babies thing – Robin wants to carry on travelling the world as a journalist – and Barney supports that and loves her for it. It’s a lovely romance which I am not doing justice to here: it’s meaningful and rooted in character.
And here’s the thing: all the while Ted is still carrying a torch for Robin, and it’s not romantic. It’s not a grand love story. It’s miserable, and the writing makes it clear that it’s miserable, and about the saddest episode of the entire show is the one where Ted finally admits it, and finally admits he needs to let it go. At the very end, this is where we’ve got to: Barney and Robin are about to get married, and Ted – who is lost and sad and tired, and ready to leave New York for a new life in Chicago – has become the person he has to be to meet Tracy at Barney and Robin’s wedding.
And in a brief digression: I’ve seen people say that it’s depressing, this idea that real life is hard work and true love isn’t real. And sure, that is depressing, but that’s not what’s happening here: what’s happening here is that love is complicated. This is the show that tells you that love is Lily and Marshall, who after seventeen years together are still working stuff out, still communicating stuff, still loving each other as much as they did when they were lovestruck teenagers, but differently; love is Barney’s brother James and his husband Tom, whose peaceful relationship is what makes Barney think a happy marriage is possible; love is Lily, Marshall and Robin dropping everything to run across the city – covered in paint, barefoot, and in the middle of a live TV broadcast, respectively – because Ted has been in a car accident; love is Ted and Marshall driving 22 hours together listening to the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles on constant repeat; love is Marshall finding Robin a Canada-themed karaoke bar in New York City and love is Lily rescuing Ted from Staten Island on Christmas Eve and telling each other things they haven’t told anyone else and love is all of them never letting onto the fact that they know Bob Barker is not Barney’s father! Love is not only, though it can be, eyes meeting across a crowded room: there are a thousand types of love and it’s complicated and it’s everywhere and that right there is why I like this show so much. And so: Barney and Robin get married, and it’s beautiful. And Ted meets Tracy, and it’s beautiful.
(Another brief digression, about Tracy – I love her so, so much. What I love about her is that she’s not just a love interest for Ted: she’s a real person with a real story. I love that she’s a giant nerd, that she’s a musician, and most of all, I love that she’s quirky, but not a manic pixie dream girl; if anything, that’s what Ted is for her. She has her own tragic backstory of womanpain! Men are killed, fridged and rolled on and off stage to further Tracy’s character development, it’s amazing. Tracy puts her own life back together, she falls in love, she finds a passion for her work. In later life, she’s a well-respected economist and writer, because aged twenty-five she decided she wanted to work to end poverty. I love her.)And then in the last episode… Continue reading Yellow umbrellas everywhere; or, why I am really angry about How I Met Your Mother→
Positive Practice: Awesome portrayals of people with mental illnesses
(Friday, 3.15 – 4.30pm, Connaught B)
Those of us with mental illnesses aren’t just collections of symptoms — we’re at this con, we’re in these panels, we’re wearing awesome cosplay we spent the last three months cobbling together from scrap metal and geekery. This panel aims to (critically) celebrate fiction that knows this. We want to talk about the stories that don’t just get the illness right, but get the person right, too — especially those that strike a hopeful note about life containing, but not defined by, mental ill health.
Voices From Other Worlds
(Friday 5.00 – 6.15pm, Connaught B)
Readings from authors of colour on the theme of race and culture. Taran Matharu, Zen Cho and Adam Lowe will be reading excepts from their work, and I will be moderating.
This Will Always Be Your Home: Race, Culture, and Fannish Life
(Saturday 1.30-2.45pm, Connaught B)
Western media fandom, from zines to Tumblr, has been something special to so many people: a community and a home. We live here too – so what does it mean to be a fan of colour?
Generally, if you know me, come and say hi! I will be delighted. For recognition purposes, I am short, South Asian, wear hipster glasses and (for one weekend only!) have pointy ears. (Lazy Vulcan cosplay – the cosplay is lazy, not the Vulcans.) I plan to be around from at least Friday morning to Sunday night; not sure about Thursday evening just yet.
So if you have the misfortune of following me on Twitter you may know I am having a Star Trek renaissance. This happens every couple of years and mostly goes like this: show! Feelings! Oh show! Oh feelings! This time around I am having love for TNG, which is odd – I’ve never liked it as much as DS9 – but interesting, and having thoroughly abused the 140-character format I think I would like to be verbose as to why.
So I am for the most part not really interested in generalised discussions of race on Star Trek? I mean, spoilers, Trek isn’t very good on race! Most of the time – but what it is great at is ideas. And nothing mainstream, for me, has ever done anything like it on cultural assimilation. There’s this one episode of Voyager that gets this really well and I’ve always thought is underrated. In “Lineage”, pretty late on in the run, B’Elanna finds out she’s pregnant and it’s basically adorable.
Gossip travels at warp ten, everyone on the crew wants to be the baby’s godparent and/or namesake, and Tom realises the only person on the entire ship he knows who’s a father is Tuvok (!) and they have a sweet and genuinely poignant awkward conversation in a Jefferies tube. (Every time Star Trek does this conversation it’s amazing. Dax advising Sisko on fatherhood! O’Brien advising Worf on marriage! ….anyway.) So B’Elanna finds out that her baby, who will be one quarter Klingon to three quarters human, will nevertheless look Klingon because Klingon traits are dominant. And through a series of fights with Tom, fights with Janeway, and, eventually, an incredibly unethical application of her engineering ability to the Doctor’s programming, B’Elanna persuades him to alter the baby’s genetic make-up in utero so she’ll look human. Roxann Dawson, who plays B’Elanna, is Latina; Robert Duncan McNeill is white. A baby who looks more like him will look… oh, you get it. And I just cry and cry at it, because whether or not you agree with it, she’s making what she thinks is the best choice for her baby. Tom tries telling her that there are Vulcans on board, Talaxians, Bajorans – and B’Elanna turns around and snaps, “And one hundred and forty humans!”
And of course he tries to argue and she tells him he doesn’t understand: “When the people around you are all one way and you’re not, you can’t help feeling like there’s something wrong with you” – and I cry.
And it’s not just about race, of course, but culture; not just how you look, though of course that matters, but what you are. (B’Elanna’s Klingon fighting instincts! How hard her human father found her to live with!) And how else can you articulate that? That feeling of being four or sixteen or twenty-seven, and you’re in someone’s house or at a party or at your desk surrounded by your colleagues, and someone says something and you’re just – at the precipice of your lack of understanding. When the people around you are all one way, and you’re not.
And it’s kind of odd and counter-intuitive, but this time around I’ve realised the application of this same narrative to, of all people, Data. Not all the time: I think the show sometimes misfires on this, and sometimes does it really well – it seems to depend on the particular episode and set of writers? But, okay, so: Data is an android, and because this is Star Trek, operations officer on the Enterprise. I adore Data and always have – I was saying to someone recently that my Star Trek feelings are getting on for twenty years’ standing, owwww – and I’ve always mostly thought that I love Data and Spock for the same reasons. In different ways, they both serve as a moral compass for their respective captains. I mean, with Spock it’s usually an outright, Jim, don’t do this, this is a terrible no-good idea, and with Data it’s more often from the mouths of babes, truth – but I love that. (And, the other side of the trope which I also love: the few occasions when it’s reversed. When it’s Kirk reining in Spock from murdering Stonn, or from complicity in horrors in “Mirror, Mirror”; when Picard tries to pull Data back from the brink with Lore – I love that narrative arc.)
But… okay, with Data. In “The Measure of a Man”, which by the way is my favourite courtroom drama ever and probably one of my favourite episodes of anything, some dude shows up and gives Data transfer orders: he’s being sent to the lab to be dismantled so they can figure out how to make more of him. Data’s answer is, huh, what if you can’t put me back together again? Rather than do this, I will resign – and then they tell him, you can’t resign, you’re property of Starfleet. And Picard is forced to argue in court for the position that Data has rights over his own body. It’s a story about humanity, and sentience, and life. It’s a story about transformation. And it’s a story that allows Guinan to say this to Picard, when no one else will (for those playing along at home: Guinan is the Enterprise’s venerable bartender, played by Whoopi Goldberg): “Consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures.”
That gives me chills. That if Data is property, then property obscures sin. In the history of many worlds, there have been those whose bodies were marked. I’m sorry, Riker whispers into Data’s ear, and reaches in to remove his hand.
And then, the ruling, when it comes, is very narrow. It is not that Data is human, or even sentient, or that he has a soul; it is that he might, as we all might, and that while he occupies his own body, he has the right to discover that in his own time. I think that not only is it excellent TV, it’s excellent jurisprudence. Picard notes that the fact Data was created doesn’t mean he’s not a person; children are all created by their parents – and what is established here is that he is, at least, a potential person. It doesn’t say anything about humanity.
But after that, they do lots of episodes where Data wants to be human? Which I’ve been thinking, misses the point that that episode makes so succinctly. Sometimes it’s understandable – at one point Data tells Geordi that he’s afraid of outliving everyone he’s ever known – and sometimes less so. Spock, of all people, tells him: “There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.” And Data can’t defend why he would rather be human, though he does point out that it’s a choice – like Spock’s choice to be Vulcan through and through, despite his human mother. Spock’s father, Sarek, made that choice for him when he was young; and that choice and what follows from it are arguably the first story Star Trek ever tells.
So I’ve found myself thinking, isn’t that kind of… colonialist, if that’s even the word? Data wanting to be a person is a very different thing from his wanting to be human, especially if the narrative embraces the latter as though it were unproblematic. And the show gestures at this distinction quite a lot without ever quite making it: Picard comments at one stage that Data might be a culture of one, but it’s no less valid than a culture of billions; when he’s dying, Noonien Soong tells Data that he will grieve, “in your own way”; and there’s also the spot-on sweetness of the way the show never questions Data’s right to refer to his two human creators as his parents. His mother describes him as “the child of two people who loved him and each other” – which is lovely, but they never take the additional leap and say, Data’s is a form of human life. If that has value, then why should he aspire to a different kind?
But then – here it is. Data, who is different from everyone else around him, even more so than half-human half-Klingon B’Elanna and half-human half-Vulcan Spock – and there’s nothing wrong with him, but, well. Well, wouldn’t you wish to be white? You would lose what you were, but without your soul in doubt. What it is, is this: Data doesn’t want to be human, he wants to be normal, unmarked. Like B’Elanna wants for her daughter; like Sarek wanted for Spock. What gives me the feelings is that the show for all its failings, engages with that desire so closely and gives it to these characters who are gifted and loved and flawed, and gives them the consequences of that desire, Data’s loss and B’Elanna’s desperation and Sarek and Spock not talking to each other for thirty years, because it’s okay to want to assimilate into the majority culture; to not just be yourself. It’s okay to wish for whiteness; it’s saying, sometimes, not all the time, we all do.
So I adore the Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure, written by John Finnemore and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole and Roger Allam. And today I got up in the morning so so so very early and got the first fast train to London. Because hi, guess who had tickets to the season 4 recordings of Cabin Pressure! THIS GIRL. I later found out that there were around 200 seats available, and there had been 17,000 applicants for them, and was very grateful I hadn’t listened to my initial irrational urge to stay in bed.
It actually all went very smoothly – we got the train with plenty of time, were able to walk to RADA from King’s Cross, and it was sunny and bright and so warm you could do without gloves. When we got there around tennish (for a half twelve start), a couple of nice stewards stamped our tickets and said, why don’t you go away and come back at twelve, now your tickets have been stamped you’re definitely getting in. If that’s so, I said, what are all these people queueing for? I don’t know, he said: they never usually do!
I never did figure out what they were queueing for. My friend and I went to Pret and had coffee and chatted in the warm, and got back just in time to go in and sit in the bar that had been advertised as “absolutely packed” and wasn’t at all. Because some people get tickets and then don’t turn up, they give away more than they have room so all seats are filled up in the audience, but it means some people with tickets get turned away. I actually like the casual aspect of it all – the tickets are free, you’re advised upfront not to travel long distances for them, and we did see some people come up to the door, hear it was full, go “eh, breakfast time then” and wander off.
Of course the studio audience are put on their honour not to write about the episodes on the internet before broadcast! But given that – ah, Cabin Pressure, it is wonderful, and the recordings were wonderful, the actors and the audience were wonderful. It was a back-to-back recording of episodes 3 and 4 of season 4 (V and W), and they ran through them in one go and then did retakes of anything that needed retakes, and from my perspective the most impressive part was that John Finnemore, who does, y’know, act in the series, added a few lines by hand to each episode script and they were done at the end.
And it was delightful! So quiet and casual and hilarious and delightful! I guess if Radio 4 is about anything it’s creating total brilliance out of nothing but talent and intelligence and bad puns. The whole audience was in stitches. The two episodes were rather different from the first three series episodes, but that is all I can say about it, I think. They were very good, and will make people other than me very happy.
And the thing is I am not an actor, I’ve never acted and I don’t know much about acting as a craft, but I do know that if you’re just wearing street clothes in a small space at a mic, with no scenery or colour and you have your script still in one hand and you’re in front of a studio audience who have been primed to laugh by an hour of situation comedy, and you still stand up and bring the audience to a tense pin-drop silence with your few lines of dialogue – yeah. The cast were spectacular. I still have a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch when he’s ginger and giggly and couldn’t look less like Sherlock if he tried, it turns out – it’s the charisma of the man. And Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole and ah, the guest stars, whom I can’t talk about either! But they were uniformly excellent and I am very much looking forward to the broadcast.
The last thing before the recordings finished was the presentation to John Finnemore of the Lemons and Landmarks book, a collective project run by fans who all went out and took pictures of lemons alongside the world’s monuments. (Some of them were apparently in North Korea, although that may just have been Finnemore being overcome by emotion.) I thought it might be a bit of a cringey-fan project, and didn’t want to be involved at all – but in the event it was lovely, and it was clear the cast were delighted. A thoroughly nice day out, all told.