The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Twelve

I write this with Thomas asleep on my shoulder (he says snorf), while Caroline is asleep, still getting over what seems to be one of those horrible 24 hour viruses that are going around (if perhaps not the norovirus).  Thus I was summoned back from a festive comicker dinner in London last night.  A less formidable woman might not have said 'when you're ready', but I knew that for her to do that at all it must be serious, so hurried back.  This has made our holiday plans somewhat complicated.  We'll see later today how much travel she's capable of.  The main priority is making sure Tom doesn't catch it, hence my continual looking after of him today.

So, getting to the end of the Twelve Blogs this year has been a bit of an obstacle course.  I've always previously regarded the hard work of putting them together, just when I should be starting to relax, as a sort of deliberate journey, a way to exhaust myself before the grand moment of the year, the pivot about which the seasons turn.  But this year there's been no need for such artificial exhaustion, and my friends have stepped in to help out in a wonderful way.  I don't feel at all Christmassy at the moment, but that numinous sensation was all about ritual, and having Tom in the world both prevents such selfish summoning of feeling, and replaces it with the real meaning of Christmas.  I will at some point try to describe my love for him, the love all parents feel, but now I don't have the energy.  He makes me walk the walk.  Usually to the changing mat.  No Patrick Moore appreciation either, something else I'm sorry not to have fitted in.  The apocalypse which was only predicted by those desiring a world without all those awful people in it failed, of course, to happen.  In the midst of death we are in life.  We continue.

There are a handful of things to mention this morning. I've done a new interview about London Falling at Cultbox.

It was good to see the novel appear on Joanne Hall's 13 Must Reads for 2013.

And I was delighted by this crafter's downloadable patterns for making Doctor Who- themed paper Christmas snowflake decorations, available here and here.

Now, before we get to the main guest of today's blog, I'd like to give the floor to SF critic and author Graham Sleight.  Hello Graham...

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: commercial break.

'If this is appearing on Paul's site now, it means he's very kindly allowed me a little space in his Twelve Blogs of Christmas to offer a sort of uncommercial break.  This is not one of the Twelve Days proper: just think of this as the Valeyard of the verses.  Or something.

I wanted to take the opportunity to plug a favorite charity of mine – and one that's especially relevant at Christmas.  If after reading this you'd like to make a donation, that's great.  If not, no problem, and I hope you have a great holiday.

The charity is Crisis, a UK-based organisation that provides support for single homeless people.  They offer education and health check-ups for people who find themselves without a place to live, among many other services.  They also campaign on issues around homelessness, and provide data on the scope of the problem.  If you look through their website, you'll see that, for instance, last year more than 5,600 people slept rough in London alone.

At Christmas, Crisis do something special.  They open up a series of centres across the UK where homeless people can stay and, well, have a Christmas.  For several days, they provide shelter, warm meals, advice, and support for thousands of people.  The cost of doing this is £20.48 per place.  So, if you're able to, you might want to support part or all of the cost of a place – the donation link is here.  If you're a UK taxpayer, ticking the Gift Aid box will add 25% to the amount you give.

That's all. Happy holidays to one and all, and we now return you to your regularly-scheduled blogs.'

And thank you, Graham.  Crisis is a charity I also support.  Please give generously.

Now, for the last time, to our theme, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.  Today, we welcome author Maura McHugh to talk about... Twelve Drummers Drumming!  Hello, Maura...

'What image springs to mind when you read Twelve Drummers Drumming? Perhaps - considering the festive season - it's an image of twelve soldiers, dressed in military red, rattling out a rhythm for the antics of the lords, ladies, and assorted fowl?

It's likely that the default image that arises is of a male drummer.  For instance, if you check the Wikipedia entry on Drummer the photographs only depict men drumming.

Women have a long association with drumming, but that story isn't the everyday narrative we are told, or the images we are shown.  In 1997 Layne Redmond wrote a book called When Women Were Drummers, which details women's role as drummers in early civilisations, and how it changed.

Redmond reports that the first drummer named in ancient records is Lipushiau, a Mesopotamian priestess who lived in Ur in 2380 BC. She was the head of the most important temple in the city.  "Her emblem of office was the balag-di, a small round frame drum used to lead liturgical chanting."

The drum replicates the heartbeat of humanity, and it was one of the first instruments developed by people.  The First Nations of the southern plains of America tell that the drum was given as a gift to women from the Great Spirit.  In this tradition the heartbeat of Mother Earth can be heard in specific rhythms of the drum, and its sound connects women, men, and the planet together.

However, in many cultures there was a shift away from women participating in drumming activities.  Redmond notes that, 'The Catholic synod of 576 (commandments of the Fathers, Superiors and Masters) decreed: "Christians are not allowed to teach their daughters singing, the playing of instruments or similar things because, according to their religion, it is neither good nor becoming." '

Drummers stand out.  They play the backbone of music, set the beat, and send a resonance through our bodies that urges us to move and dance.  It's not surprising that this ability could be considered problematic when women's roles became restricted.

Despite the subtle and not-so subtle pressure against drumming, women kept playing, and in greater numbers in the Western World during the twentieth century.  One prompt for this change was the popularity of all-women bands, which began in the 1920s (it's a central plot device in Some Like it Hot).

These swing/jazz groups had fabulous names, like The Ingenues, Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, The Bricktops (previously called The Parisian Redheads), Thelma White and Her All-Girl Orchestra, Sarah McLawler And The Syncoettes, and in the UK there was Edna Croudson's Rhythm Girls - their most famous player created her own group called Ivy Benson And Her All Girls Band.  They were hugely popular and most of the bands toured internationally to big crowds.

The popularity of jazz meant that several women found careers as drummers in mixed ensembles.  Dottie Dodgion jammed with legends Benny Goodman, Charlie Mingus, and Herbie Hancock, among others.

The advent of all-woman rock/pop bands in the second half of the twentieth century ensured women drummers got attention, such as Honey Lantree in The Honeycombs, Sandy West in The Runaways, Gina Schock in The Go-Go's, Paloma McLardy (Palmolive) in The Slits, Lori Barbero in Babes in Toyland, Tobi Vail in Bikini Kill, and Patty Schemel in Hole.  There are women drummers who have become famous in mixed groups or on their own right, like Cindy Blackman, Meg White, Samantha Maloney, and Terri Lyne Carrington, or they have created their own drumming band, such as the Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers.

But perhaps the 'face' of women drummers in 2012 is Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish, profoundly-deaf drummer, who was featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  Her TED talk about 'How to Truly Listen' is not only an insight into her sheer talent, but also how she has overcome prejudice and learned to use her deafness to open herself fully to sound in all its manifestations.

In 2013 I hope all the drummers of the world continue to sound the beat that inspires our hearts and moves our feet.'

Maura McHugh played recorder in her all-girl school band, loves drums, and is a writer who lives in Galway, Ireland.  Her collection, Twisted Fairy Tales, will be published in the USA in 2013.  She wrote a section of the anthology horror play, The Hallowe'en Sessions, which was performed in London in October this year, and she has written two comic book series for Atomic Diner in Ireland: Róisín Dubh and Jennifer Wilde. You can follow her at @splinister on Twitter.

Thank you, Maura, and again to everyone who contributed a blog this year.  I'll see you all in again in the New Year.  In the meantime, I hope you have a happy, and healthy, Christmas.  Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Eleven

I'm so sorry this is a day overdue!  My landline went down yesterday, making it impossible for me to blog.  It was very frustrating, especially since I'm trying to finish my working year today, and only have a couple more things to do.  Therefore, this year's Twelve Blogs will extend an extra day, with the final one posted tomorrow.  Oh well, it's not the end of the world!

First off, there's a new competition from those kind people at Comic Book Movie, where you can win a copy of London Falling.  Thought you might like to know.

Secondly, PS Publishing have announced publication of Harvey Horrors Collected Works: Witches Tales Vol. 2, which will be out in January, and for which I've provided the introduction.  These are fabulous pre-Comics Code horror comics from 1952, the sort of thing my Mum meant when she used that descriptor, with much raw talent on display.  (And yes, I do keep wanting to put (sic) after the title.)  As is the tradition with these editions, Jimmy Broxton has drawn me for my intro illustration, in a suitably macabre style.  The link is for the £29.99 book shop edition, but, this being PS Publishing, there are various other luxury versions available.  Do take a look.

Looking ahead, May 2013 sees the release of the second collected volume of Demon Knights, The Avalon Trap.

A new edition of The SF Squeecast is up, where the regulars are joined by Sarah Monette, and I gush about the current series of Merlin.

Okay, so here's the main feature of today's blog.  Continuing our theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', I invited the writers of the recent 'Trifecta' crossover in 2000AD, three strips in the world of Judge Dredd which turned out, a few episodes in, to all be telling the same story, Al Ewing, Rob Williams and Si Spurrier, to talk about Eleven Pipers Piping!  And they do, sort of.  Good morning Al...

'It's been a turbulent year for 2000AD, closing off with 'Trifecta', a multi-prog crossover between three of the comic's 'Dreddworld' strips - Judge Dredd, Low Life and The Simping Detective.  The crossover ran unannounced in the closing months of the year, surprising and galvanising the readership and finishing with an epic prog-length conclusion drawn by Carl Critchlow.
     Nobody had done it before.  That was how Si and Rob sold it to me.  It was a leap of faith.
     It was also a hell of a lot of hard work.  Meetings across the country, skype chats, long email coversations, endless revisions... we put in the hours.  Writing the Dredd bits felt like building one third of an intricate machine, trying to make sure every part fit together with what Rob and Si were doing – and 'Day Of Chaos', when that happened [a John Wagner-written Dredd epic that suddenly changed the shape of Dredd's world -Paul] - not knowing if the damn thing would blow up on the runway.
     (A few coughs and splutters here and there.  But by God it flew.)
     More importantly, it was a hell of a lot of fun.  Never underestimate the amount of fun you can have working with two of the smartest, funniest people in UK comics.  Here's a quick process anecdote: one of my abiding memories of 'Trifecta' is being on a plane with Rob, on the way to New York, more than a year ago now.  I’d just seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I remember telling Rob we should have a ‘Judge Smiley’.  He hated the pun, but by the end of the flight I’d won him over and he was gleefully talking about a secret room done up like a council house, and Alan Bennett... ideas bounced off one another, took root, took flight.  That initial booze/grub session in NYC with Si and Rob remains one of my favourite con memories.
      It took eleven people to make this happen.  Me, Si, Rob, Henry Flint, D’Israeli, Simon Coleby, Simon Bowland, Annie Parkhouse, Ellie DeVille, Carl Critchlow and – most of all – [editor] Matt Smith. ("Eleven people."  What a fib.  Chris Blythe did great colour work and we had invaluable cover and PR support from Cliff Robinson, Pye Parr and Mike Molcher... but there’s no 15th Day Of Christmas, so...)  For over a year, we poured our hearts and our souls and our blood into doing something 2000AD had never done before.  We made a leap into the unknown – and the readership, for the most part, made us feel like Lords.
     Thank you all. Merry Christmas.'

And hello Si...

'One of the most common questions I get asked these days, in a certain breed of interview, goes: “What do you most enjoy about writing?” 
     I’ve taken to hammering out an invective-packed screed in response – nothing!  It’s fucking horrible!  I hate everything!  Kill me!  Kill me with fire! – partly to punish the lazy interviewer; partly because it’s true. 
     But then, generally when I’m moaning like that it’s because I’m visualising my Other Life as a novelist… in which one can earnestly wax lyrical about the satisfaction and pride of having completed a book, but cannot in all honesty deny that the actual process is hard, slow and soul-shatteringly lonely. 
     Comics, by contrast, are a medium of instant and unpretentious collaboration.  You don’t get to be a pissy prima donna about your script when the artist holds its success or failure in their furry little pencil-monkey hands.  You don’t get to be an enigmatic hookah-smoking recluse when you’ve got an editor calling you every afternoon to demand pages, a letterer emailing to check you really did intend to use that dubious onomatopoeic sound (I got away with “klunnnnnge” earlier in the year – ha!) and several thousand X-Men readers direct-tweeting you to demand More Punching.  Like it or not, you get used to dealing with other people. 
     So: I wish I could say the idea of a fiddly secret Dreddworld crossover appealed because I wanted to keep Al and Rob busy enough that they couldn’t pitch for all the juicy gigs I had my eye on elsewhere.  Alas, the ghastly truth is that I really like those guys, I think they’re A-grade writers, and we needed an excuse to go boozing together more often.
     It was hard.  It was frustrating.  It was cortex-poppingly complicated, sporadically fractious and, yes, on one memorable occasion, a bit beer-pukey.  But it all came together like an omnisynchronous orgy, the artists did the work of their lives, the fans shat a lung in surprise, and – truly – it was the most Fun I’ve ever had doing the actual “writing” part of Writing. 
     It couldn’t have worked anywhere else except in the pages of 2000AD, and it wouldn’t have got beyond the idea stage with else anyone except our little team.  
     Comics are fucking brilliant, aren’t they?'

And hello Rob...

'It's the season for giving and selflessness and so it's probably apt that we're talking about the most collaborative creative endeavour I've ever been a part of in 2000AD's 'Trifecta' or 'The Cold Deck' or whatever we're actually calling it (it says a lot about the project that, even now it's done, I'm still not entirely sure what it's called - this is something that, more than any story I've been involved with, seemed to have a life of its own). 
     At the risk of sounding trite and gooey - it's Christmas, what you going to do? - this was a project where giving was integral to it.  Three writers creating a very complex interwoven story from nothing with an eye on fairness to each of us - there were no leads here, despite Dredd's fame and obvious seniority - I think we trusted each other and looked out for each other throughout to ensure that each of the three story strands and our protagonists were equally important.  With each major story decision the best idea won, regardless of who suggested it, and the ideas of one would spark off the others.  Three brains, living in just one mind, as Phil Collins so famously sang.  Egos were to be kept on leashes if not completely thrown out the door, and even though we agreed a veto where, in times of disagreement, two yays won the day over any nay, it says a lot that we rarely had to use it. 
     It helps greatly that Si and Al are both friends along with being writers who I respect hugely (sincerity! It must be Christmas).  But everyone simply wanted this to be something GOOD and rare and unusual.  We discussed whether or not to publicise it ahead of time very early on and were unanimous in deciding no, wouldn't it be more fun if it were a complete surprise to the readers?  This wasn't about trying to make PR noise for us all and further our careers, it was about trying to make something as simple as a fun story.  And then, continuing the Yuletide theme, a lot of other very talented people joined in.
     Matt Smith agreed to it and made some integral additions of his own (I had an invasion fleet being built on the moon, Matt suggested it be a city - BETTER), Henry Flint, D'israeli, Si Coleby and Carl Critchlow all made it look otherworldly wonderful.  The letterers worked their arses off.  Chris Blythe.  Cover artists.  Pye Parr drew some fun mysterious promotional teasers.  Comics is always, ALWAYS a collaborative art from.  But this was something else again.  All concerned made it bigger and better than the sum of its parts.  I like to think we looked after each other a bit along the way and made something organic built from nothing but good intentions.  That all sounds very Chrismassy to me.  Gawd bless us every one.
     Oh, and at our initial story meeting in a Covent Garden pub Al rushed outside and threw up into a bin.  Which also sounds Christmassy.
     Have a Merry Christmas all.'

You have been watching...

Al Ewing is best known for his work on 2000AD, where, as well as working on flagship character Judge Dredd, he co-created Zombo, Damnation Station and The Zaucer Of Zilk (recently reprinted as a miniseries from IDW).  Other work includes the crime comic Jennifer Blood for Dynamite Entertainment, several pulp sci-fi novels for Abaddon Books, and the groundbreaking iphone comic Murderdrome - the first comic to be banned outright by the Apple corporation as being completely unsuitable for man, beast, fish or fowl.

Simon Spurrier was born in 1981.  Working as an art director for the BBC, he took an unscripted tangent into the murky depths of writing and has since become an award winning novelist and comicist.  His latest crime novel, A Serpent Uncoiled, was released to critical acclaim in 2011, while in comics he's currently writing X-Men Legacy for Marvel and the free weekly horror webcomic Crossed: Wish You Were Here for Avatar Press.  He hangs out on Twitter too much (@sispurrier), drinks more coffee than he should, and still thinks swearing is big, funny and clever.

Rob Williams’ credits for Marvel Comics include Ghost Rider, Daken: Dark Wolverine, Amazing Spider-Man, Wolverine, Punisher Max, The Iron Age, Fear Itself: Uncanny X-Force and Skaar: King of the Savage Land. he is also the writer of 2000AD's Low Life and The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azreal and National Comics: Madame Xanadu for DC Comics.  His other past credits include Indiana Jones and Star Wars for Dark Horse, Robocop and Terminator for Dynamite and Ghostbusters for IDW.  His first comic work was Cla$$war for com.x.

Thanks, you three.  We'll continue tomorrow with author Maura McHugh talking about... Twelve Drummers Drumming!  Until then, Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Ten

Just a single thing I'm incredibly proud of at the top of the blog today.  It's my new Christmas SF story, 'The Ghosts of Christmas', published by  I think it's cold and warm at the same time, that you can see what I was worried about as I wrote it this summer, and that it's very much in the tradition of the festive stories I used to do on here.  I'd like to thank Patrick Nielsen Hayden for commissioning it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Today's guest blogger, once again on the theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', is comedian Joseph Scrimshaw, who'll be talking about Ten Lords a Leaping!  Joe brings a story entitled...

Last of the Leaping Lords

The dark figure crouched.  His tattered leather jacket fluttered in the cold night wind.  He narrowed his eyes as he stared out at the city he had sworn to protect.
     “London,” he growled out loud.  No one could hear him.  He was perched on top of Lord Nelson’s head in the middle of Trafalgar Square.
     Most of the shoppers and tourists had gone home.  Only a few tipsy Londoners wandered the streets.  “Like cattle waiting to be attacked by wolves.  The wolves of crime,” he said out loud.
     He wasn’t very good at analogies.  He shook his head.  He was having a hard time getting into a good brooding groove.
     “Oi!” a voice echoed out.  There was a man across the street from the square.  Two punks appeared to be pulling on his shopping bag.
     At least that’s what it kind of looked and sounded like from far away in the dark.  The crouched figure’s vision and hearing were, like his skills with analogies, average to poor.
     There was only one thing the dark avenger was truly good at: LEAPING.
     “Not on my watch!” he spat between gritted teeth and leapt off the statue with a mighty BOING!
     He flew through the air and landed with a horrible crunch on the shoulders of one of the punks.  The man with the shopping bag screamed in terror.
     The other punk stuttered in shock.  “What the - did you just jump on Dave?”
     The dark figure grabbed the punk by his shirt.  “I jump on all who mean to do evil.  Are you doing evil?”
     “Well, we were trying to steal this guy’s iPad Mini, but I don’t know if that’s technically evil, I mean, when a piece of technology depreciates that fast, it’s like the Apple Store already stole from him, so-“
     “Not on my watch!” the dark avenger cried repetitively as he pulled the punk into a tight embrace and leapt straight into the air.
     “Ahhhh!” the punk screamed as they rocketed upward.
     “AHHHHHH!” the punk screamed even louder as the dark avenger released him and he fell flailing to the ground.
     The punk landed on the pavement with a sickening thud.  The dark avenger landed nimbly seconds later.
     The man who still owned a recently purchased iPad Mini clutched it to his chest and whispered, “Who—what the hell are you?”
     The dark avenger tried to smile a smile that was cold and ironic because obviously dark avengers shouldn’t be smiling.  He wasn’t very good at that either.  He looked like a gassy baby.
     “Who am I?” he repeated as he stuck a heroic pose, “I am the Leaping Lord.”
     The man stared. “Okay,” he said.  “What’s your deal?  You just go around jumping on people and dropping them from high places?
     “Yes.  Crime is a disease and I treat the symptoms.  With a scalpel of leaping.”
     The man cocked his head.  “I don’t know what that means.”
     “I am the last of ten mighty lords gifted with the supernatural ability to jump really quite high.”  The Leaping Lord cracked his knuckles for emphasis.
      “Ten leaping lords?  Like in that 'Twelve Days of Christmas' song?”
     “Yes,' the Leaping Lord said.  He tried to smile with his eyes, but just looked a little drunk.   “That song is much older than anyone knows.  It was originally a chant created by the druids to bestow various powers on mortals.”
     The man was intrigued now.  “So every verse in that song refers to a weird cult of super beings?”
     “Yes.  You were lucky I spotted you before the Milking Maid.  Or the Laying Geese.”
     The man’s eyes bulged.  “There’s a super powered goose wandering around London?”
     “Don’t be ridiculous.  The Laying Geese are men who can shoot geese out of their- you know what?  I’ve said too much.”
     “No, no, I’m interested,” said iPad Mini man.  “What happened to the other Leaping Lords?”
     “They’re all gone.  Killed before they could pass the power on to their heir.”  The Leaping Lord stared off into the distance.  “You see, each Leaping Lord must pass on his power by taking his chosen replacement to a specific circle of stones in Yorkshire at midnight on December 21st.  The power is transferred after they leg wrestle and sing the ancient chant.”
     “The 'Twelve Days of Christmas' chant?”
     “Precisely,” the Leaping Lord smiled genuinely.  “I see you are a most intelligent mortal.  Perhaps you would be a good heir.  I will have to keep my eye on you.”
     “Really?  Now that you’ve saved me from a half-ass mugging attempt you’ll have the power to know when I’m in danger or something?”
     “So, your power is really just leaping?”
     “No super speed or strength or anything?”
     “I have pretty solid abs.  But that’s mostly from the exercises I do with yoga balls.”
     The man with the iPad Mini laughed.  The Leaping Lord did not.  “Oh.  Oh, you’re serious.”
     “Being a Leaping Lord is like all traditions.  It’s only as serious as you take it.”  The Leaping Lord suddenly reached out and put a hand on his new friend’s shoulder.  “I must go.  The night is alive with danger and I need to kill it.  The danger.  Not the night.  The night dies on its own.  But like a phoenix the night rises again to shine.”
     The man stared.
     “I’m not very good with like metaphors and stuff,” the Leaping Lord growled.  “But as long as I have legs, I will be watching you, my friend.”
     The Leaping Lord crouched low and once more shattered the silence with a deafening BOING as he leapt really quite high and disappeared into the night sky.
     The man with the iPad Mini stared off into the distance.  He looked down at the grievously injured muggers.  He blinked several times.
     Then, he said out loud to no one:  “I’m going to have nightmares about The Laying Geese.”

The End.

Joseph Scrimshaw is a comedian and writer who was once described by a fan on Twitter as “slightly geek-flavored.”  His first book Comedy of Doom is a collection of essays, stories, and jokes covering every major topic in geek culture.  Joseph has brought his “geek flavored” comedy to Dragon*Con, CONvergence, w00tstock, San Francisco SketchFest, Jonathan Coulton’s JoCoCruiseCrazy and more.  He’s written for John Kovalic’s Dork Storm Press, RiffTrax, and the national public radio show Wits.  His hit plays Adventures in Mating, The Worst Show in the Fringe, and My Monster (written with Bill Corbett) have performed all over the world. Joseph also hosts a podcast called Obsessed that has been named a “Staff Favorite” in comedy by iTunes.  (Check out the episode in which Mr Cornell shares his love of Kate Bush and his affinity with the Slow Loris.)  In his free time, Joseph kills all his free time tweeting jokes at @JosephScrimshaw.  Joseph’s spirit animal is the North American tree squirrel.

Thank you, Joseph.  We'll continue tomorrow with Al Ewing, Si Spurrier and Rob Williams, the three writers behind 2000AD's recent 'Trifecta' crossover, talking about... Eleven Pipers Piping!  Until then, Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Nine

I should have mentioned The Newsroom in yesterday's round up of television I liked this year.  And as Adam Christopher pointed out, Person of Interest, with its predictive tech, is actually rather more telefantasy than Arrow is.  In this spirit of correction, I should also add that Thomas' soft toy scarecrow was actually made by Sarah Pink (@SarahPink1000 on Twitter).  Thank you, Sarah.

Today's guest blog is by the chap that suggested the theme in the first place.  When I was rather desperately casting around on Twitter for a solution to my seasonal blog problem, Bill Willingham appeared, saying that he 'wanted nine'.  When I asked him what he meant, he told me I was going to get in twelve guest bloggers and have them write about 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', and he was going to do the ninth one.  So I did, and it worked, and he has.  I think perhaps he's some kind of Fairy Godfather.

Fables, is, of course, the best comic in the world, and I'm privileged to have as friends both its creators.  The following sums up, I think, why Bill continue's to be one of comics', and the genre in general's great storytellers.  He's talking, in theory, about Nine Ladies Dancing!  Take it away, Bill...

Nine Drabbles of Christmas

By Bill Willingham

'See, here’s the thing. The ninth day of Christmas is the Nine Ladies Dancing one, except it isn’t, for a number of reasons.
     Reason number one: I won’t dance.  Don’t ask me.  I have ever only danced a few times in my entire life, only when I have been so massively drunk that I’d lost my ability to refuse such carryings-on.  On one such occasion I was escorted (very politely) from the dance floor, by DC Comics honcho, Paul Levitz, who carefully explained to me I was banned from the dance floor for being far too drunk and stepping all over the DC Comics President and Publisher at the time, Jeanette Khan.  Other dancing times were undertaken with similar disastrous results.
     Reason number two: tangentially related to reason number one, is that I’m not qualified to speak of nine ladies dancing, since in all of my dancing life, I haven’t reached that number of dancing partners.  As near as I can reconstruct faulty memory, I can put the number no higher than five.
     Reason number three (and this is the real one underpinning what we’re about to do here): Nine Ladies Dancing don’t have to be nine ladies dancing.  The traditional "Twelve Days of Christmas" song has traditionally had many different items in each of the daily slots (with the exception of Five Golden Rings, which seems to always be five gold rings, no matter what the iteration), nine ladies dancing being only the current vogue in the number nine slot.  In the past it has been nine lords a leaping, nine drummers drumming, nine ships a sailing, nine pipers playing, nine bears a beating, and so many others, including my favorite, nine badgers baiting.
     Since the real tradition is that just about anything can be in any given slot, and since we’ve established I don’t actually know nine ladies dancing, and I won’t dance myself, I’m going to uphold the tradition by doing my own thing in the nine slot.  The only thing I can possibly be trusted to do nine of these days is tell nine stories.
     On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, nine drabbles a drabbling.
     Here then is my gift to you, my true love: nine Christmas drabbles, for your reading pleasure.  The rules are simple: to qualify as a true drabble, the story must be no more and no less than exactly one hundred words.  Titles don’t count against the total, and hyphenated words count as single words.
     Got it?
     Then let us begin.'

Flying High

He was Spritzer, one of the original team, when they were nine, rather than the more famous eight, but few remember him, since considerable effort was made to erase any mention of him from official records and the larger legend beyond.
     “Not everyone can handle the level of fame this job brings,” the fat man said.
     “Nonsense, I’m fine.”
     “Not even close.  You’re high as a kite.”
     “Flying is our thing.”
     “And now this,” Santa said.  He set a videotape in front of the deer.  “Porn?  Seriously?”
     “My chance to break into movies.”
     “Disgusting!”  And with that, Spritzer was out.

Black Christmas

This was Bindelbob’s first year working the black gang, the elite team of elves responsible for filling the coal hopper on Santa’s sleigh.
     “What are all these deductions from my paycheck?” he asked Senior Elf Crumplehat.  “Reform for Troubled Teens?  Solutions Dot Net?  The Rehab and Reentry Project?”
     “Some of the charities we underwrite,” Crumplehat said.
     “But how can deductions be mandatory here?  Back in Toy Production I was free to pick my own causes.”
     “In this case it’s a legitimate work expense,” Crumplehat said.  “When we support what turns the naughty into nice, we have less coal to load.”

Concerning Our New Rules of Conduct for This Year’s Christmas Party, After the Unfortunate Events That Occurred as a Result of Incidents (Alleged) Which May or May Not Have Taken Place at Last Year’s Office Christmas Party…

She had a fancy frock and dangerous shoes,
Strong enough to kill the Christmas blues,
At the office party up on floor thirteen.
She arrived in soft resplendence,
Displaying but a small hint of dependence,
On the pint or three she’d had in the canteen.
“You’re Betty from Receivables, isn’t that right?”
Said the exec named Mr. White.
“Right as rain,” said Betty with her fortified smile.
“And I know you. You’re the man,
“Who bedded my best friend Anne,
“Then denied it at the wrongful termination trial.”
That’s when Betty pulled the gun.
And now, alas, our story’s done.

A Small Part of the Legend

It was a humble thing, the last candle off the line, when the paraffin was running low, not worth restocking so late on Christmas Eve, since all would be shut down the next day.  In a production of four-hour candles, it was good for ninety minutes at best.
     “Can’t honestly sell it,” the candle-maker said.  “We’ll keep it.”
     They placed it in the window, where it spent its flame quickly, shedding small light, not accomplishing much.
     Before it expired, its tiny flicker attracted one ragged, weary traveler to their door.
     “A shelter against the night?” asked the king disguised.

Behind the Scenes

Santa was weary (hardly news there), but at least he was nearly done.  Sixty thousand more deliveries and he could rewind The Watch, starting time again on its normal pace.
     The Great Powers That Oversee didn’t mind him fiddling with the catholic timeflow, since his mission was benign.  He brought free stuff.  Everyone likes free stuff.
      But those Powers didn’t realize Santa was just a front.  A gaudy, colorful distraction.  Elder things, dark, remote and resolute, took action whenever time halted.  Soon they’d make their move into our bright and lovely world, pre-corrupted by all the free stuff, magically delivered.

Marching to the Beat

The son of God and Lord of Hosts seemed a restless sort, constantly traveling from town to town, never staying in one place for long.
     “It’s his mission,” one of his followers explained.  “The life of an itinerant preacher.”
     And that much was true, but he was also a man searching.  One day he’d find him, that shepherd boy, grown up now.  The drummer who wouldn’t stop, beating, beating, beating, while he lay helpless in his cradle, already terribly aware, but unable to act.
     “Now that I’m in my power, I can finally thank him properly for his Christmas gift.”

Under the Tree

And finally all the presents were opened, save one.
     “I don’t remember wrapping that one,” Father said.
     “It’s not addressed to any of us,” Mother said.  “Wait, here’s a tag on the back.”
     “What does it say?” Bobby said, hoping it would be another gift for him.
     “It says, ‘The last gift for the last Christmas,’” Mother read.
     “Don’t open it!”  Father nearly screamed.  “That’s some end of the world type language.”
     “I’m not a moron,” Mother said.  “We’ll put it away and never touch it.”
     And that’s how the Andersons became the guardians of all mankind.  Except Bobby, who really, really wanted to know.

A Man in Full

He received such delightful things.  A Scotty Cameron golf putter.  An Atomic Aquatic Cobalt nitrox-integrated dive computer with digital compass.  Handmade Italian leather driving gloves.  A case of Shafer Vineyards Relentless 2008.
     Everything was perfect, exactly what He wanted, because it was on his list, which is how efficient Christmas giving should be done.
     His gifts to others weren’t so carefully targeted.  They were also on a list of what he wanted – what he knew they should want, if only they had the education and character to realize it.
     “Master your life,” he oft opined.
     Elsewhere flames were efficiently stoked.


She’d no money to buy a tree, so she drew one on her apartment wall with colored chalk.  Over the next days she sketched packages underneath, bright and bedecked.
     On Christmas morning no miracle had occurred.  The tree and gifts were still lines and pigments on a wall.  No one called, because her phone had been turned off months ago for non-payment.  No one arrived.  No spontaneous gathering of old friends and loves bringing good food and spirits, despite hopeful daydreams that they might.
     Then again…
     The way the morning sunlight fell across the snow outside.
     “Blessings enough,” she said.

Among a long list of comics stories and series, Bill Willingham is the creator and writer of the long running Vertigo comic book series Fables.  His novels include Peter and Max, Down the Mysterly River, and Tom O’ Harrow (forthcoming).  You can find him online here or via Twitter @billwillingham.  He’s a proponent of the Mythic Fiction movement in comic books, which includes hosting a convention early next year celebrating those sorts of books.  You can learn more about that here.

Thank you so much, Bill.  We'll continue tomorrow with comedian Joseph Scrimshaw talking about... Ten Lords a Leaping!  (Hmm, is that right?)  Until then, Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Eight

I've got a new blog up at the Tor website, and I'd rather proud of this one.  I think it's apt it comes out at Christmas.  It's about the journey my work has taken to get me from school to London Falling.  Doctor Who fans who follow my work may get a frisson from the final line.  You can find it here.

A lot more photos from my interview with Ben Aaronovitch are now up on Tor's flickr stream.

And if you're in the USA, you can now pre-order the hardback US edition of London Falling for 41% off the cover price.  That's very precise, as well as generous, I think.

After yesterday's photo of Tom with his soft toy scarecrow from 'Human Nature', I got sent the following from my old friend Julia Houghton:

'Soft scarecrow,

Warm scarecrow,
Little ball of straw.
Happy scarecrow,
Sleepy scarecrow,
Roar, roar, roar.'

Honestly, I don't see why people think that photo is somehow sinister.

I've just had a meeting on Friday cancelled.  I hope that's not because of the apocalypse.  Actually, it's been rather a joy in these last few days to wonder how the pro-apocalypse people are getting on, as the world delivers only its usual version of misery to those who continue aboard it.  I find those End of the World people to be dispiriting and dismal, and look forward to hearing their confused awkwardness on Saturday.  Or Monday.  Or whenever it is they'll have given up by this time.  I maintain that gleefully anticipating exciting death for everyone not like oneself isn't the way civilised people behave.  At least, I suppose, they're not anticipating taking part in said slaughter.  Except every now and then one of them does.

Anyhow, I thought it was about time that I started talking about a few of my favourite things of the year here on the blog, even if the heavy lifting of this festive series is being done by other people.

Favourite telefantasy of the year (and remember that I don't deal with Doctor Who like it's a mere television programme, but keep it over here in a category all its own): I very much enjoyed Arrow, which continually surprises in how it's using the selling points of The Dark Knight Rises and the corpse of Smallville to create something brand new for television, a show that feels like modern comics do.  (Person of Interest does the same and I like it almost as much, but is, I think, definitively out of genre.)  In doing so, it incidentally provides an Oliver Queen who's true to his comics original, with a lead actor capable of great subtlety and precision who nevertheless, as my wife noted admiringly, might be capable of winning Ninja Warrior.  Warehouse 13 entertained while being somewhat less coherent and interesting than previous seasons.  Fringe disappointed hugely with a season that, thus far, hasn't shown us any reason for its existence and feels like it could have been played out in a single telemovie.  Haven chugs along and prompts hope with the occasional high quality episode.  Grimm could produce one of those at any point, but hasn't.  The winner for me, however, is Merlin, which has now transcended its origins completely to provide a final stretch of episodes that look to be enacting a great and painful tragedy, worthy of the legend.  'The Drawing of the Dark' by series creator Julian Jones was an exercise in terrific plotting, almost perfect in its execution, as Mordred was turned, purely by the best intentions of good people, from a genuinely heroic character into a terrific, real, motivated villain.  In other words, to go with the metaphor the show has demonstrated a genuine political and personal understanding of, he was 'radicalised'.  The dolorous stroke of this fall of Camelot seems to be our hero's own lack of mercy where one of his own kind is concerned.  The oppressed should always most fear their fellows.  I anticipate a brilliant ending, and I hope the full tragedy is enacted.  But whether or not that happens, that one amazing episode should win awards.

As to favourite movie and books, as someone who was first preparing for parenthood, then experiencing it, I haven't been to a movie for months, and my reading is now done in tiny gaps.  I'd hesitate to name a work of long form fiction I finished and enjoyed that was published in the last year.  I did keep up with my reading of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine up until November, and I'd like to mention with fondness the following stories of quality from that publication:

Short: 'The War is Over and Everyone Wins' by Zachary Jernigan; 'The People of Pele' by Ken Liu; 'Beautiful Boys' by Theodora Goss; 'Star Soup' by Chris Willrich.

Novelette: 'The Pass' by Benjamin Crowell; 'Missionaries' by Mercurio D. Rivera; 'Old Paint' by Megan Lindholm; 'The Bernoulli War' by Gord Sellar; 'The Ghost Factory' by Will Ludwigsen.

Novella: 'Murder Born' by Robert Reed.  (One of the best pieces of genre short fiction I've ever read, concerning the mass return to life of murder victims.)

And my comics reading has also been so all over the place this year that I'd only be mentioning the usual suspects.  Many of my friends have done great things, but their names would be no surprise to you, and they know how I feel about them.

In the next few days, of course, I'll be adding to those with everything I forgot to mention.  Hopefully.

So, on to the main feature of today's blog, and how lovely it is too.  We continue our theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' as explored by guest bloggers.  Today it's the turn of writer, Doctor Who novelist and girls' comics enthusiast Jacqueline Rayner, talking about Eight Maids a Milking!  She brings a new Sherlock Holmes story entitled...

The Adventure of the Dead Parrot

It was early on the morning of the Sunday before Advent when my friend Sherlock Holmes and I found ourselves returning, through streets still lit by gas lamps, to our Baker Street abode.  Having successfully solved the mystery of Colonel McKenzie’s midnight visitor and dealt with its aftermath, Holmes had determined on a walk through the night air to clear our heads of the horrors we had seen, instead of embarking on the long and possibly fruitless search for a hansom. 

     We were nearing the famous museum of Madame Tussauds on the Marylebone Road when a terrible scream reached our ears, a sound more suited to the waxworks’ Chamber of Horrors than to a humble London terraced house.  I stopped still, but Holmes' sharp ears had swiftly pinpointed the direction of the noise and he was already running up the stone steps towards the house’s front door.  As I followed him, a further cry came to us. ‘He is dead!  Dead!’
     Holmes banged on the door.  I joined him on the top step and waited, but there was no answer.  ‘I hope you are feeling strong, Watson,’ said he.  ‘We may have to force entry.’ 
     He knocked again as I braced myself on the railing, ready to give my strongest kick.  But my preparations were unneeded.  The door was opened by a flustered-looking night-shirted man, a nightcap perched on top of a head that would surely have qualified him for the red-headed league, had that strange society really existed.  ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ he muttered, vanishing back inside. 
     We followed him down the hallway and into a kitchen.  A plump woman knelt on the flagstones, tears streaming down her cheeks.  ‘What is it, Mrs Mutlow?’ the man demanded.  ‘Who is dead?’
     She moved back, spreading out her arms towards a small white body on the floor.  ‘It’s Percy!’ she cried.  I stepped into the room.  The creature which had brought forth such an agonised scream was a bird. 
 ‘What you need is a nip of brandy,’ said I to the distressed woman, but the gentleman raised a hand in protest. 
     ‘On no account,’ said he.  ‘I will not have spirits drunk in this kitchen.’  He turned to us.  ‘I apologise that you gentlemen have been troubled by cook’s ridiculous outburst.’
     ‘So, what should I call this most singular case when I write it up?’ I enquired of Holmes as we once more set off towards Baker Street.  ‘”The Problem of the Dead Parrot”?’
     ‘More of a problem than you observed, Watson,’ said he.  ‘That parrot – or, as it should be more properly known, a cockatiel – was murdered.’
     ‘Indeed.  Perhaps you did not see the blood spots on the floor, blood that did not come from that bird but of which there were traces on the hook of its beak.  No, Watson, that cockatiel attacked some malefactor, causing, I suspect, considerable injury, and in return the intruder wrung its neck.’
     ‘Good grief!’ I exclaimed.  ‘Who would do such a thing?’
     ‘Someone annoyed by its squawking no doubt.   An interesting little problem.  There had clearly been no break-in – you do not need me to enumerate the many ways in which that fact is obvious – which leads us to conclude the murderer was a member of the household.  Yet the cockatiel would almost certainly have attacked the head of its victim, perhaps their hands if they tried to protect themselves, and neither the cook nor the night-shirted gentleman displayed wounds and the only other member of the household is a bedridden invalid.’
     ‘You know the family, Holmes?’
     ‘Not at all. It was merely observation and deduction – can it be that you did not notice the solitary male garment on the hatstand and all the accoutrements needed for calves’ foot jelly set out on the kitchen table – to say nothing of the absence of a maid leading to the gentleman of the house opening his own front door?’ 

Intriguing as this was, the puzzle of the parrot soon passed from our minds as preparations for the Christmas festivities commenced.  But on the second day after Christmas, as we sat reading the daily papers, a paragraph caught my eye.  ‘Holmes,’ I cried.  ‘Do you recall the house where we had such a singular encounter with a dead bird?  Surely the address given in this obituary is one and the same!’

     Holmes took the paper from me and perused it with a frown.  ‘”On the 25th of December, at her home in Marylebone Road, Miss Constance Ackerly.”  “Miss” – so the young man in the nightcap must therefore have been a nephew.  Cause of death given as acute gastritis.’
     ‘Overindulgence on mince pies and roast goose, perhaps,’ I suggested.  ‘An invalid’s stomach, more used to calves’ foot jelly and beef tea, could well rebel against such rich fare.’
     For a few minutes Holmes sat staring into the middle distance, apparently concentrating on the sound of carollers coming from outside our window.  As they moved on to proclaim the many things their true love gave to them to celebrate Christmas, Holmes leapt to his feet.  ‘Of course! Maids a-milking.  Tell me, Watson – is there not some quaint name associated with the Sunday before Advent?’ 
     ‘Yes, indeed. In households everywhere it is known as “Stir-up Sunday” referencing both the opening words of the Collect of the day and the custom of making the Christmas plum pudding on that day.  But what that has to do with milkmaids...’
     Holmes did not enlighten me.   His only utterance, as he exited the room, was a request for Mrs Hudson not to wait lunch for him.

I had learned not to be surprised by Holmes’ many and varied guises, but it still took me a moment to recognise him in the shabby, disreputable figure that shambled into our rooms some hours later.  He had been indulging in gossip about the Ackerly household, and had discovered that the deceased lady, despite the humble nature of her home and the lack of servants, was wealthy. 
     ‘A miser, in the manner of the late Mr Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, although perhaps prompted by fear rather than avarice.  Despite being confined to her bed, the lady was expected to live for a good many years to come, and suffered from great anxiety that, should her funds fail her, she would be removed to a workhouse.  She therefore clung tight to every penny to ward off such a day, despite her nephew – Mr George Ackerly, her sole relative – assuring her that such an outcome was, if not truly impossible, then at least so unlikely as to make it absurd.  Her adherence to a simple diet was as much to reduce the household bills as to preserve her health.  Christmas furnished the one exception to this strict diet, when, for the sake of the season, Miss Ackerly would descend from her bedroom and partake of the feast alongside her nephew.’
     ‘A mistake,’ I said, shaking my head.  ‘No invalid’s constitution could take such treatment.’
     ‘Exactly.  That is what we were expected to think.’
     ‘Expected?  By whom?’
     ‘By her murderer!’
     I gasped.  ‘Surely you jest!’
     ‘By no means.’  Holmes began to remove the dirt from his face.  ‘Miss Ackerly’s constitution was not much  feebler than the next man’s, for all her invalid diet.  Should she perish of gastritis in the normal way of things, a doctor may become suspicious.  But that was avoided by her death coinciding with such a break in her routine.’
     ‘Poison, you think?’
     ‘I am sure of it. I can even put a name to it – arsenic.’
     Arsenic!  The tasteless, odourless scourge of the medical profession.  How many poor souls had gone to their graves with ‘gastritis’ recorded where ‘arsenic’ should have been? 
     ‘This is what I believe happened.  Mr George Ackerly, who I have ascertained has many gambling debts, resolved to do away with his aunt to inherit the money she guarded so fiercely.  On the night before “Stir-up Sunday” he descended to the kitchen to adulterate the ingredients for the Christmas pudding – remember how he reacted when you suggested the cook take a mouthful of brandy? – not knowing that Mrs Mutlow had lately taken to leaving the door to the parrot cage open at night, to allow her pet, Percy, to fly free. When Percy attacked he had to silence the bird or risk discovery.  That done, he merely had to wait a month until his aunt partook of the poisoned plum pudding.’
     ‘But Holmes,’ I cried.  ‘Did he eat none of the pudding himself?’
     ‘That is where his genius comes in.  He ate the pudding, yes, and enjoyed it.  If anyone should query his aunt’s illness, the innocuous nature of the meal was proved beyond doubt, as each had partaken of the exact same feast yet only one of the two diners had succumbed to illness.  You know of course that small doses of arsenic, taken over time, eventually lead to immunity from the poison.  They do, however, leave deposits in the hair of the individual.’  He produced a few bright red hairs from his pocket.  ‘Obtained from the hairbrush of the gentleman in question.  This will demonstrate the truth of the matter!’
     I watched while he set up the equipment needed to carry out the Marsh test, then waited eagerly for the shiny black ‘arsenic mirror’ to appear on the tile.
     We waited in vain.
     Holmes’s eyes narrowed.  ‘No.  I do not accept that my reasoning was faulty.  It is unquestionable that there was no break in, and no stranger had passed the threshold for months beforehand.  Every fact leads to the conclusion that George Ackerly is guilty of the murder of his aunt.’
     ‘But remember there was no sign of a wound on his head, Holmes, whereas we know that the bird drew blood.  And if his hair contains no trace of arsenic –’
     ‘No!’  Holmes thumped his fist on the table, then fell into a deep reverie.  Almost an hour passed before he rose.  ‘Watson,’ said he, 'have you your revolver handy?’ 
     ‘Of course!’ I cried.
     ‘Excellent!  Then fetch it, and meet me on the Marylebone Road in an hour’s time.  Once I have run an errand, we will pay a visit to the house of mourning and get to the bottom of this affair.’
     He grabbed coat, stick and an empty carpet bag.  ‘Don’t wait dinner, Mrs Hudson!’ he called as he left, and I wondered how long it would be before vittles passed his lips again.

The blinds were down at the house in Marylebone Road.  Normally one would not intrude on a house of mourning, but if Holmes was right, these were no ordinary circumstances.  I had been waiting only a few minutes when my friend arrived, a large carpet bag in his hand.
     The door was opened by the cook, and we were ushered into the drawing room to wait for George Ackerly.  ‘We apologise for disturbing you,’ said Holmes when that gentleman joined us.  ‘I also apologise that no introductions were made when we made your acquaintance a month ago.  My name is Sherlock Holmes –’  Was I imagining things, or did Mr Ackerly start at those words?  ‘- and in light of the rumours which have reached my ears – ’
     ‘What rumours?’ 
     Holmes looked surprised.  ‘Why, the rumours regarding the death of your aunt from the poison in the plum pudding.’
     This time I knew I was not mistaken.  The man’s face went as white as the snow that lay on the paths outside. 
     ‘I have heard no such rumours!’ he cried.
     ‘No?  They say that arsenic was added to the Christmas pudding ingredients the night the parrot died.’
     ‘But I ate a good portion of that pudding!  That proves these rumours to be nonsensical.’
     ‘Ah!’  Holmes beamed at him.  ‘Excellent!  Arsenic, as I am sure you aware, can be found in the hair of anyone who has been exposed.  All we need to do is make a test of your hair, and then we can lay the rumours to rest for good.’
     I frowned.  Holmes had already carried out such a test!  Was it possible that the hair he had somehow obtained was not that of George Ackerly?  Its distinctive colour made that doubtful.  Yet Ackerly visibly relaxed at Holmes’s suggestion, and when my friend went on to tell of the theory that the poisoner would display obvious wounds from an attacking parrot, the man almost smiled.  He must be confident of proving his innocence if he could smile at the idea of Holmes’s tests.  I waited for Holmes to make our apologies and leave.  But he had other ideas.
     ‘Oh, one other thing,’ Holmes said, and reached for the carpet bag.  ‘I wondered if your cook might be able to give a home to Polly.’  He opened the bag and drew out a bird cage.  A sleepy looking cockatiel cocked its head at us. 
     ‘I don’t think –’ Ackerly began, but Holmes was already unfastening the cage door.
     ‘She needs a home and she is very friendly.’  The bird stepped tentatively on to Holmes’s hand – then gave a massive squawk as he flung his arm towards George Ackerly.  The man yelled as the panicked cockatiel flew at his head.  Its outstretched talons caught in the man’s hair – which fell off, revealing a few ragged red hairs round a bald, heavily scarred scalp.

‘A wig! It covered up the injuries caused by the parrot, and ensured that his “hair” was arsenic-free.’  We were trudging back through the snow towards Baker Street, having left Ackerly in the care of the police.   Polly was quiet once more inside the carpet bag. 
     Holmes nodded.  ‘I recalled that the frequent taking of arsenic can cause extreme hairloss, and with hair of such a striking shade the loss would have to be disguised to avoid difficult questions.  It seemed the only conceivable explanation, but I felt the man would not readily allow me to get close enough to test the theory for myself, hence borrowing Polly here from our old friend Sherman in Lambeth.’
     A thought struck me.  ‘Holmes, I am still perplexed about the maids a-milking.’ 
     ‘And you a medical man, Watson.  Edward Jenner!  His discovery that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox were immune to the smallpox virus led to him infecting others with cowpox to prevent them from catching the worse disease.  A small amount of a harmful thing taken to protect you against greater harm – which is what Mr George Ackerly did with arsenic.’ 
     I suppressed a shudder, recalling the look of madness on the man’s face as he launched himself at my friend after his deceit was revealed.  ‘It is as well you suggested my bringing my revolver.  What a villain!  Still, he is in Japp’s hands now.’
     ‘Indeed,’ said Holmes.  ‘And I suspect I know how he feels about the matter.  As sick – as a parrot.’

Jacqueline Rayner is a writer who was at one point also an editor, but is now frustratingly unable to do anywhere near as much writing as she’d like due to having Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (please have a look at this blog where sufferers are frantically fundraising for research and treatment), and the editing has fallen by the wayside completely.  So what possessed her to attempt a piece of fiction for Paul’s blog when she’s frantically struggling to meet her own deadlines amid vomiting six-year-old twins?  Because golden age crime fiction is the genre she loves above all others but she’s never actually tried writing it before and it suddenly felt like a thing she really, really wanted to do.  (And how do I know this?  Because I am she!  Just writing in the third person because it’s the tradition for biogs and you don’t start messing with tradition at Christmas.) Of course, anyone trying to ape Conan Doyle is setting themselves up for a fall because he was a genius at this stuff, but it’s Christmas, so please forgive the self-indulgence.  (Oh, and she’s just realised, if only Poirot was out of copyright this could have been written for him and been called Dead Parrot (for The) Sketch. Dead Parrot (for The) Strand just isn’t funny.  Shame.) 

Thank you, Jac.  We'll continue tomorrow with Fables creator (and the man responsible for this run of blogs) Bill Willingham talking about... Nine Ladies Dancing!  Until then, Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Seven

We're experimenting we're trying to give Tom set times for feeding, which is how myself and a protesting little boy ended up watching the cricket this morning at 4am.  And this afternoon I'm due to be sidesperson in a Christmas service at St. Mary's.  Oh dear.  I hope they won't find me snoring against a radiator.

Subscribers to the mailing list will by now have been sent my new story 'The Ghosts of Christmas', but it hasn't yet appeared on the site.  I'm rather proud of a story that I think is chilly and warm at once.

If you want to put a date in your diary for really a very long time ahead, the second volume of Saucer Country, 'The Reticulan Candidate' is due in July.

And you may remember that, when I was on Joseph Scrimshaw's Obsessed podcast, I caused my host to make a rather strained metaphor about happiness, which has now been rendered into cartoon form.  Though I believe originally he said 'feng shui'.  But that made even less sense.

Tom has a new soft friend, made for him by the lovely David Moloney...

Now, and I'm aware that, because of my tiredness, I'm still putting off adding much content myself to this year's Twelve Blogs, we come to our continuing theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', explored by our guest bloggers.  Today it's the turn of comedian and poet Donna Scott, talking about Seven Swans a Swimming!  Hello, Donna...

'Hello there!
     I initially chose ‘seven swans-a-swimming’ from "The Twelve Days of Christmas" for this absurdist poem I sometimes squidge into my comedy set:

She’s full of grace
like a swan.
She can break your arm
like a swan.
She hasn’t shaved;
Swan Vesta.

However, I realised that me, this song and those swans go back a long way.
     I remember when I first heard the carol and was subsequently made to learn it.  Just like everyone else, I was sitting on the varnished wooden floor of the assembly hall, cross-legged, squinting up at Mrs B in her sunshine-yellow cardigan and pussy-bow blouse (she’d be so bang on trend right now).  The teacher was at her piano, her posture upright and deliberate as she loudly enunciated the lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  We had lessons with Mrs B whenever something vaguely musical was involved:  she was infectiously enthusiastic, but, truthfully, her singing style tended to be one third mezzo soprano, two thirds Hinge and Brackett.  Yet, if we followed her advice to open our mouths EXTREMELY WIDE, and keep smiling, and really pronounce the words, we could all at least look really, really keen about whatever it was we were singing about, and do a Jerry Hall-style facial  workout at the same time.
     I was wearing a royal-blue cardigan as per the school dress code, knitted for me by my mom.  Regulation colour, non-regulation homemade lumpiness.  Everyone else in the school wore navy-blue jumpers from BHS.  At the very least you could say I stood out: most kids tend to wise-up  before long and avoid that wherever possible.  Prodigiously clever though I was (am), like neat joined-up writing, this was a skill I was never truly going to be able to master.
     My row had to sing the line about the seven swans-a-swimming.  In my head, these were already getting mixed up with the wild swans – the brother princes in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy story who were transformed into swans by their evil stepmother, and whose sister was the only one who could save them by knitting jumpers out of nettles.  The princess toiled, enduring painful blisters and the threat of being burned at the stake as a witch for gathering nettles from the churchyard at night.  As the time of her execution approached, she was unable to finish the final jumper for her youngest brother, and so he was left with one swan’s wing.  How miffed off would she have been if she later found out she could have just bought them any old scratchy jumper from BHS?
     I put my hand up.  “Miss, why did they give each other swans as presents?  And partridges?  Wouldn’t it be better not to have presents on all those days if they were only going to be rubbish ones?”
     The only decent present on that list would be the gold rings, but why so many?  Mind, my uncles tended to wear quite a few all at once …
     “But they’re not rubbish presents,” said Mrs B.  “They are symbols.  He didn’t really give his love all those things on those days, he just wanted her to know how much he loved her and that he would give her those things if he could.”
     “That’s even more rubbish, no actual presents,” I said.
     “It’s the thought that counts,” pointed out my classmate, Adrian.
     My hand went up again.  “Miss, are we practising this song to do in front of the parents?”
     “No,” said Mrs B.  “We will be singing this in front of the rest of school in assembly. We’re doing the nativity for the parents.”
     “Oh,” I said, and slumped.  What was the point?  I needed an audience, and the nativity was no good for that.  In the first year I’d wanted to be Mary, but that role had gone to Helen.  I’d been picked to be the angel instead– a plum role as it turned out that involved ragging my hair into ringlets and wearing tinsel round my head and everyone saying how cute I looked.  This year Helen had been chosen to be Mary again, but I had been relegated to ‘passer-by’ – a non-speaking part.
     Something had to be done about that.
     On the night of the nativity performance, I took my cue to enter the "market place" and cross the stage chatting to another "passer-by" while Mrs B played some incidental music and the scenery got moved about. We were meant to look as though we were gossiping… so why not improvise some dialogue?
     “Oooh – have you ‘eard about our David…”  I began in my best Black Country brogue and began recounting things about some imaginary miscreant.  I can’t remember what I said, but the crowd roared with laughter.  My teacher waiting for me at the other side looked aghast.  I beamed.
     When my mom came to get me, she was still smiling. “You…” she mock-chided.  A lot of the parents crowded round.  They called me a little star.
     Did I get a speaking role the next year?  Nope.  Nor did I get a non-speaking role.  In fact I was bumped from every school play after that and ended up mouthing songs I’d not learned in the choir.  Perhaps it served me right, but I didn’t attempt performing again until I was 34.  So BBC3 ain’t calling anytime soon…
     But back in ’78, my family got to hear a regular solo performance of the whole of "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  There had to be a point to learning it after all.
     But what of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – the actual lesson that was meant to be conveyed by that particular line?  Wisdom?  Understanding?  Knowledge?  Awe?  Reverence?  Right judgement (ha!) Courage (well, people keep calling me ‘brave’…)?  I’m afraid I’ve picked up none of those.  But fitting in my love of performing around my other work does involve one aspect of the swan – its legs.'

Donna Scott is a writer, editor, poet, and comedian as well as being the BSFA's Awards Administrator.  She was the first Bard of Northampton and can next be seen hosting a cabaret show on 21st December at The Racehorse in Northampton with magician Al Rudge and Jimmy's End star Khandie Kisses (Jimmy's End being Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins' new film.)

Thank you, Donna.  We'll continue tomorrow with Doctor Who novelist Jacqueline Rayner talking about... Eight Maids a Milking!  Until then, Cheerio!

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Six

(This blog post is the one that contains the final league table for the This Time Next Year Game!)

First up, I really do have to highlight the always brilliant Sword and Laser video show, whose latest episode is, well, all about me, really!

Isn't that flattering?  I love the intro and the whiteboard diagrams at the end.  It actually provides rather a nice  introduction to my work overall.  Thank you so much, you lot!

And talking of video, here's me the other night, talking about London Falling, a video taken at Topping and Co in Bath, recorded by Magus Studios.  Thanks to them for doing that.


Okay, now to something I know a lot of you will have been waiting for, the results of the This Time Next Year Game.  I should apologise, first off.  Because of an error in my notes, I failed to give the following people a point for guessing Grant Morrison would still be writer of Action Comics: Jennifer Kelley; Tom; B-Guymer; Phil Hansen; Michael Lee and LM Myles.  Those scores have now been added into what follows.

I won't go through who got points for the remaining questions, because there are a lot of them, but here are the remaining answers.  3: David Cameron was still PM at midnight on December 12th (a few of you went for Boris).  5: Life on another planet has not been generally accepted by the scientific community as having been found (though many of you will have got the jitters in the last couple of weeks, only two of you having been brave enough to answer that it would).  11: No more missing episodes of Doctor Who were discovered.  13: The only complete Doctor Who stories not yet released on DVD are 'The Mind of Evil' and 'Terror of the Zygons' (and okay, 'Dimensions in Time' for the one person who said that). The release of 'The Ambassadors of Death' must have disappointed a lot of you.  16: This question was actually hard to call, and what I decided upon in the end was that the closest thing to the truth is this: the physics community have generally accepted (to a higher than 5-sigma level of uncertainty) that a new boson has been found, but have not yet generally accepted that it's the Higgs (though most sources say they think they soon will).  So, in our game, I declare that that boils down to a No.  17: Much easier, nobody now thinks neutrinos can travel faster than light.  27: Kate Bush did not release any new music, just a remix.  And finally, and this must have caused a few palpitations in the last week or so also, no, the makers of the new Star Trek movie have not announced that Khan is appearing in it.

All of which gives us this, our Final League Table:

L.M. Myles: 17
Paul F: 17
RHeitzmann: 17
Soru: 17

Fizzle: 16
Michael Lee: 16
Nick Pheas: 16
Uther Dean: 16

B-Guymer: 15
Liz: 15
Matthew Hyde: 15
Phil Hansen: 15

Tom: 14

David Bishop: 13

C.A. Young: 12
Penny Heal and Jason Stevens: 12
Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre: 12

PSmithsonian: 11

Ads: 10
Dean Hazell: 10
Jennifer Kelley: 10

L.L.: 9

James Fairlie: 8

Adam Short: 7
Kendersule: 7
Run Iago: 7

N.J.: 4

Congratulations to our... four winners!  (Assuming nobody wants to quibble with my maths.  If one of you four thinks you did better, please let me know, so I can break the tie!)  If the winners could all get in touch (via my competitions-only email address:, sending me your postal addresses, I'll send you each a package of genre-related loveliness.  And thanks everyone for playing.  I hope you had fun. And, well, phew, I'm not doing that again in a hurry!

Now, we come to our latest guest blogger, following our theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.  Today it's Doctor Who script editor, writer, producer and novelist Gary Russell, talking about Six Geese A Laying! Hello, Gary...

'I don't like Christmas, let's get that established straight off. Loved it as a kid, had the best Christmases ever but by about 13 or 14, it lost its veneer for me, becoming more about strained manners around family, and an overwhelming three-line whip to be sociable to family friends and neighbours I cheerfully avoided the other 364 days. And as I've got older and more Grinch-like, Christmas has started in late November and ended mid January.  I have no problem with the commercialism of it (yaaay, if shops can fleece money out of stupid people willing to pay twice what they could pay in the summer for their wares, good on them).  I just loathe the forced jollity of it all, and they incredulity that if you say "no, love New Year's Eve but would like to hibernate during Christmas" people treat you like you've personally bitten the head off their favourite kitten.

The one aspect of commercialism I cannot stand though are carol singers. When i was a wee lad, we'd heard carol singers in the streets, often joined by Santa Claus on the back of a tractor or milk float.  My mother would lead me out into the snow and we'd listen to the carols (most of which we'd been tortured into singing at school in the previous few weeks, so I knew them off by (my cold, dead) heart) and smile at the singers.

This week my door was aggressively hammered upon by one group of carol singers wanting me to pay cash for the joy of them trespassing on my doorstep and bleating their inane tunes at me.  See, that's what I don't like - you wanna go sing carols outside in the street, fine.  Doesn't hurt me.  Knock on my door and expect money ("it's for charity" they explained to the harassed young mum next door who foolishly didn't put two and two together and link the caterwauling with the persistent knocking.  Bravely she sent them away with a flea in their ears. I lack that resolve - if I'm caught out by answering the door, chances are the chugger will get money/a standing order/a chance to sit on the sofa and show me sad donkeys in chains, because I have that awful British inability to be rude to someone's and say "bugger off".  Unless they are Jehovah's Witnesses (my ex once brilliantly sold them a copy of New Humanist and got a Watchtower for free) or other religious callers. ("We look so respectable, how can you refuse our ties and neat shiny shoes?"  Easy. "Hullo, I sleep with other men" usually works wonders.)

Anywaaaaay, the point of this is that this year, I was intrigued by my carol singers.  Not enough to open the door but enough to realise that carols when sung in Welsh (I live in Cardiff) are actually really rather beautiful.  Personally, I can't read or understand a word of Welsh.  But I hear it spoken a lot and I love it.  I really love the bi-lingual attitude of Wales, the determination to preserve the language, the weird differences between North and South Welsh, and adore trying to follow Pobol y Cwm on the Sunday omnibus repeats. I am always surprised that Scotland, so much more aggressively independent and pro-home rule than Wales, doesn't have the same attitude about universal bilingual signage and official paperwork and stuff.  As a result, I have no idea what "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" or "Away in a Manger" sound like in Gaidhlig, but at least I do in Cymraeg.  Sadly, they didn't try "The Twelve Days of Christmas" so I couldn't discover there and then that on the sixth day my true love gave to me chwech gŵydd yn dodwy.

And this opened my eyes and ears a little bit to Christmas this year.  I'm starting to look at my chums' Christmas Trees (another pet hate of mine) in a different light (excuse the pun).  Still won't have one myself, but some of the clever artificial ones are really pretty - I'm less tolerant of real trees, by the way.  What a stupid waste of a tree.  And walking through Cardiff's city centre, I have to acknowledge that it's been tastefully decorated (if taste is the right word) in comparison to the OTT nauseating nonsense I used to see when living in London.  I even watched a movie last week on telly about the Christmas miracle - no not the li'l baby Jesus one, the Dickensian one.  It starred Vanessa Williams as a pop star called Ebony Scrooge whose entourage hated her, and whose friend Marli Jacob she seemed to have driven to suicide.  God it was awful and not in a "so awful it's great" way but in a "how did this ever get green lit" way!!!  But the point is, I watched it!!  'Cos it was Christmassy!!

So has the magic of song, the spirit of those lovely carols, permeated my soul, given me my own Ebony Scrooge-like transformation into a positive, pro-Christmas guy, full of good will and the joy of the season? Course not, I'm just fractionally more tolerant of other people enjoying it now.  This week.  Well, maybe just today.

Now if my true love had given me six geese laying golden eggs that I could've cashed in and made a fortune from, then I'd love Christmas, commercialism and all!!  I'm nothing if not enormously shallow.

Nadolig Llawen!!!'

(Photo by Alex Mallinson.)  Gary Russell has recently returned to the mad world of freelance writing. Most of what this involves is because he has been involved in the world of Doctor Who for as long as he can remember (and that includes remembering Hartnell regenerating into Troughton – yes he’s that old, and more!).  A lifelong love, adoration and even slight obsession with this one TV show led to him joining the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in the late '70s, eventually ending up on the organising committee of said fanclub, editing their newsletter.  He also edited his own award-winning fanzine Shada between 1980 and 1985 and in 1983 began writing regularly for Marvel Comics’ Doctor Who Magazine - an association that still continues irregularly today. Over the last 30+ years in fandom (dear God...) he has edited DWM, written quite a lot of novels and books on the subject, written computer games, comic strips for IDW and Marvel UK, moderated DVD commentaries, produced and directed about 100 audio dramas, script edited the TV series and produced two animated stories and a number of Adventure Games.  He has also script edited Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.  In what laughingly passes for his spare time he was written books about The Simpsons, Frasier, The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, collected far too many books, DVDs, CDs, action figures and Converse.  Yes, bloody Converse.  He lives in Cardiff, has no pets and frequently wanders around his home muttering to himself and scaring the neighbours.

Well, that was... it was, really, wasn't it?  There were geese in there somewhere, I think.  Thank you, Gary.  We'll continue tomorrow with comedian Donna Scott talking about... Seven Swans a Swimming!  Until then, Cheerio!