Lovelace and Babbage

20 April 2015



If you’re not familiar with Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua‘s delight-filled webcomic, rejoice! It has now made the transition to print (US/UK). You can pick up a doorstop of brilliant Victoriana-flavoured geeky humour, historically painstaking footnoting, and lovely art – and you should do so IMMEDIATELY.


Let me just acknowledge right now that I’m not even trying to be objective: Sydney’s comic always hit the sweet spot of my sense of how the world ought to be. Her riff on the (factually rather grim) story of Lovelace and Babbage and their not-quite creation of the computer in the 1800s is brain jazz. It’s filled with digressions, anachronisms and sketch protrayals of famous Victorians, all riven through with an ebullient goofiness. This is history as I wish it was: bright, caring and full of zing. It’s also the modern world through a Padua prism, with jokes about Twitter and Venn diagrams sprinkled into the dialogue. That said, there’s also a truth here, as you can immediately see if you dip into Babbage’s own writing: Sydney’s portrayal of him as a Dickensian steam-age petrolhead with cranky uncle basenotes is spot on, and Lovelace – whose true historical upbringing was like something from a Warren Ellis comic about the Fascist precursors of the Superman concept – was every bit as quirky.


There’s something else going on, too, which is worth mentioning: this is a book about the creative process and the creative mind, with its fancies and magpie distractability, its excitements and sloughs of despond. I recognise the protagonists in myself and my friends and family, just as I do when I read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing or G H Hardy’s remarkable A Mathematician’s Apology. Creativity varies in its output according to any number of personality traits, but the process seems to be remarkably similar across disciplines: great artists, great activists, great poets, and great scientists share a veering perpendicular humour, and it’s alive here, in this book.


That’s why I ran around like a four year old yesterday after Sydney dropped in my copy: because this book is full of life. Go. Get it.

Passer by

22 January 2015

At lunchtime, as I was walking down the hill to a meeting, I saw a man coming the other way. He was in his late seventies, silver haired, and wearing a pretty snappy tan ensemble: brown tinted aviators, tan overcoat and cords, light brown brogues. They were clothes I might pick now for an autumn day, and in three or four decades they’d be even better suited to the person I will likely become. His shoulders were only a little rounded by age, and his walk was confident, if fractionally one-sided. He was familiar. At first, I thought he resembled my father, but he didn’t: he was lighter, and a little taller.

It wasn’t just his shape. It was the way he moved. There was something about that I thought I knew as well. I looked down at my shoes: blue brogues in roughly the same pattern. It was amusing to think we might be time twins, shadows of one another out of phase.

At a distance of about three metres, it abruptly wasn’t funny, it was uncanny. The familiarity I felt with his walk was because the rhythm and roll of it was very close to mine, especially if you assumed a slightly painful hip. We were the same height. We had the same sense of distance and personal space in a crowd, we were moving at the same pace – and more than that: something about our way of being in the world, our awareness of others and our sense of place, was identical. My playful idea of meeting myself across a gap of forty years became abruptly a certainty, self-evidently absurd and none the less solid for it, that I was doing exactly that.

I glanced at him directly, looking for the same recognition, and realised that I would not find it. His eyes were concealed behind the aviators – the same cheap brand I’d picked up at the tourist shop in London Zoo the other day, when the sun was blinding and low in the sky. His head faced straight past me. If his gaze took me in at all, I don’t know.

I assume it’s an artefact of vision and the brain, a bit of mad pattern recognition or a variant of déjà vu. The emotional power of it was enormous, even through an intellectual confidence that no magical time travel event was taking place. Genetics and environment made the two of us similar in that moment, and some part of me recognised that and was affected by it.

Just a weird moment, like seeing the face of a dead friend in the window of a shop, then turning and finding a stranger.

But still extraordinary, and intriguing.

VOLCANIC EVENT (Waterstones Hampstead Jan 22nd)

08 January 2015

glossy shiny lovely tigerman paperback

I proposed to my publicist and my editor that to celebrate the release of the Tigerman paperback we should print the pages of the book in latex Braille ON THE STOMACHS OF MALE AND FEMALE MODELS and invite a blindfolded audience to read the text with their hands. I also inquired about whether we could shave chapter four sequentially into the fur of HUNDREDS OF KITTENS. I suggested that we HIRE A PLANE to put “full of win” in the blue sky over Trafalgar Square. All these and other BRILLIANT IDEAS were COLDLY REJECTED on various SPURIOUS BASES, but I persevered, and finally I CAME UP WITH A MASTERPLAN which they also did not like. So instead of sitting on my authorial megathrone over an on-stage jacuzzi in which burlesque performers dressed as superheros fight other burlesque performers dressed as sexy marines while RICHARD E GRANT DRESSED AS A SEXY VOLCANO gouts suggestive clouds of white and silver glitter onto their insignia, I have to give you ACTUAL CONTENT. Do you see how my life is TRAGICALLY UNFAIR and the world would be infinitely better if I was appointed GODKING OF EVERYTHING?


So, fine. FINE. I’m having a more ordinary event at Waterstones in Hampstead on the 22nd, where I will read from Tigerman and answer questions. I will do all this IN A REALLY COOL OUTFIT. Since I’m not even allowed a single scantily clad dancer, I’ll also be reading a little taster of the new book. That would be the book I have not finished, which my editor (WHO WILL NOT LET ME HAVE SKYWRITERS OR SEXUALLY CHARGED VOLCANOES) has not yet seen. It will only be a small bit of what is a rather large and complex story, so it won’t give anything away, except of course the frantic awesome that is my next novel. I am very sorry that it will not be handwritten in caramel  by Michelle Dockery on the thighs of Benedict Cumberbatch AS WAS ORIGINALLY PLANNED, but you evidently CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING. I will instead give it life with my breath.


So now you know all the might-have-beens, you should still come along, for fun.








Should we call this Marmaladepunk? 

18 December 2014

(Paddington – a review, with very mild spoilers)


How good does Paddington have to be to avoid parents hiring ruthless Peruvian mercenaries to track the makers through the streets of London and cut them into narrow strips?


Pretty damn good, is how good.


How good is it?


Pretty damn good. With some odd, unlikely caveats of which you should probably be made aware. Let’s do the easy stuff first:


It’s cinematically gorgeous. Occasionally it’s so gorgeous it’s almost painful; Caro-and-Jeunet gorgeous, with unexpected moments of surreality to gloss emotions so that the film’s world becomes its own microcosm. It takes the very best of recent imagemaking – like the visualisation of Sherlock Holmes’s process from both the big and small screen – and reworks it in the rich style of the best children’s illustration. It’s as if Aaron Becker’s fabulous Journey had a lovechild with Scrubs, and then someone threw steampunk and marmalade over the whole thing and added some ground up Tim Burton sprinkles.


Paddington himself is sweet, stern, and innocently destructive on a formidable scale. Given three pieces of celery, a rubber band and a gas oven, this bear could level a major metropolis – mysteriously without actually hurting anyone. If the CGI is a bit palpable at times, it’s still amazing, and the little stowaway brings rejuvenating chaos into the heart of a British family who are spiralling into a life of quiet desperation. He’s easy to love, even when he’s doing appalling things with toothbrushes. Sally Hawkins is magical, Hugh Bonneville is so persuasive that I had to ask Mrs H repeatedly whether I’d gotten dull since we married. She says not, but I may take her motorbiking across Tuscany with some pansexual communist art historians just to make sure.


The movie is clever. The kids’ plot works fine, has moments of high drama (my four year old was seriously alarmed at times; your mileage may vary) and slapstick (with bannisters). Occasionally thrown in are some fairly chancy bits of adult-grade humour, some of which are very funny, a few of which miss the target and clunk to the floor. The parental backstory is heart-wrenching. Nicole Kidman, for whom I have in general a pretty limited tolerance – for all the reasons everyone else seems to love her – is great: chilly, genuinely terrifying, and perhaps somewhat inappropriately smokin’ hot as the film’s elegantly dressed (Fifth Element/medical bondage/Puppini Sisters) villain. Yet another woman who’d be great as Doctor Who. (Yes, I have a list.)


So what’s not to like?


Subtext, baby. The place where it gets weird is the subtext. It’s constant, a bit inevitable and a bit unnecessary, and it flaps around like one of those unmoored ropes in shipwreck flicks that eventually take someone’s arm off.


The subtext is immigration, and it is not incidental. It’s right there, in your face, quite a lot of the time. From the moment the makers of the film decided to kick the action off with a colonial explorer making first contact with a tribe of intelligent bears in the jungle, there was going to be a queasy vibe to the whole thing to the grownups in the audience, and even the basic loveliness of the film doesn’t make it go away. Paddington finds himself in a London that was supposed to be friendly, but which – like Mr Brown – has lost touch with its loving self and become cold and unwelcoming. He’s “not like other people” because he’s a bear from Peru. Peter Capaldi as the nasty neighbour wants to send him back where he belongs – because otherwise there’ll be loads of them, taking over the street. People keep talking about whether Paddington should be handed over to The Authorities, and while the nightmare image that accompanies the word is an orphanage that looks a lot like Arkham Asylum or the Overlook, it could just as easily be an Immigration Removal Centre. The soundtrack points up the parable: everywhere he goes, Paddington is serenaded by a calypso band, and his anthem “London is the Place For Me” was actually performed by Aldwyn Roberts (aka Lord Kitchener) as he disembarked the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948.


So what you have here is a cute kids’ movie about a bear in a duffel coat which for whatever reason has a deliberate but not terrifically nuanced immigration narrative in the background. There’s also a post-colonial whisper in the form of a noble savage inadvertantly revitalising a dimming marriage with an emotional truthfulness we civilised people have forgotten, while the daughter of the original explorer longs to undo her father’s compassionate disgrace – he went native, you see, finding humanity in the Peruvian bear tribe – and fulfil his neglected destructive duty by stuffing Paddington and putting him in a case in the Natural History Museum. The hilarious cross-dressing gag that got so much play in the papers is really not the most serious problem you’re going to come up against, though it’s drab man-in-a-dress humour that really belongs in 1989.


All in all, this is a classic children’s film: a flawed, beautiful thing fraught with the appalling sins of adults concealed behind a hefty façade of candy floss; ridgid with sexuality and lust; steeped in murder, emotional trauma and (implicit) death. In other words, very traditional fare, and exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to take your family to at Christmas.

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Cheers, NH





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