The daleks. Photo: BBC
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Spaceships and scampi: A L Kennedy’s Doctor Who adventure

Erica Wagner is whisked away by A L Kennedy’s The Drosten’s Curse.

The Drosten’s Curse
A L Kennedy
BBC Books, 368pp, £18.99

Which Doctor? The Fourth Doctor. How do we know? It’s 1978, for a start, in A L Kennedy’s Tardis jaunt. But as we’re talking about a Time Lord there are no guarantees – until, about 20 pages in, he appears: “. . . wing collar and something that might once have been a cravat, baggy oatmeal trousers, brown checked waistcoat, plum-coloured velvet jacket with bulging pockets, raddled shoes . . . an immense and disreputable scarf with a life of its own”. Lest you be in any doubt, jelly babies feature, too, but most convincingly, Kennedy’s dialogue rings with Tom Baker’s unmistakable tones. Whovians are in safe hands here.

Yet what has persuaded Kennedy, the prize-winning author of novels such as Day, The Blue Book and So I Am Glad, to write a sci-fi TV tie-in? Simple: she loves Doctor Who. She has called the series “funny, lovely, daft” in print and credited it as an influence in forming her sense of the moral world in her childhood. The show asked of her, “What happens when the oil runs out? What is personality? Is humanity evil or good? What is genocide? Even if you can destroy every last Dalek, should you?” Not bad questions to grow up with. And if you’ve been paying attention, you will have spotted that The Drosten’s Curse has its origins in a short story Kennedy wrote for Time Trips, a jolly collection of Doctor Who tales first released between 2013 and the beginning of this year as ebooks. For that series, Stella Duffy, Nick Harkaway, Joanne Harris and Jenny Colgan took on the Doctor, too, but only Kennedy has taken the bold step of expanding her piece into a full-length book.

And it would be fair to call it funny, lovely and daft. Kennedy is a fearless artist, as her short non-fiction book On Bullfighting, published in 1999, proved. Ten years ago, she began an alternate career as a stand-up comedian and if that’s not fearless, I don’t know what is. So it is hardly surprising that she has wholly entered into the spirit of Doctor Who in The Drosten’s Curse, which is an energetic romp set in . . . Arbroath. Why not? It begins on a golf course, at the Fetch Brothers Golf Spa Hotel, a place where things have taken a turn for the distinctly peculiar. Punters are being sucked into the sand of the bunkers, vanishing without a trace.

Bryony Mailer is a junior day receptionist at the hotel; she is both bored and put upon by her dim and demanding boss. (“There wasn’t a Senior Day Receptionist, because that would have involved Mr Mangold, the hotel’s manager, in paying Senior kind of rates.”) Poor Bryony, stuck in limbo in the ghastly Seventies: Kennedy is very good at throwing in the odd glass of Liebfraumilch, basket of scampi or safari suit to remind us how dire things were. Then that chap in the scarf turns up: “And Bryony Mailer thought  – This is it. This is what’s next.”

There’s a monster, but one with motivations that turn out to be pleasingly complex – as this is Kennedy’s novel, and not just Doctor Who’s. There’s another alien, a bumbling fellow called Putta Pattershaun 5, with a spaceship that looks like a Morris Minor. There’s even a moment of time travel back to 1914 that raises a real tear. I won’t say any more – spoilers, you know.

Who can blame Kennedy for wanting to enter fully the Doctor’s universe? It’s a welcoming place. For more than 50 years, the Time Lord has been saving human beings, not only from extraterrestrial threats (from Daleks to Weeping Angels and everything in between) but also from themselves. This is one of the joys of Doctor Who. More often than not, the Doctor’s adventures don’t happen in a galaxy far, far away: they ­happen right here, among us. If there is something familiar about the story of the Doctor – our friend, our salvation – it may be because we have heard other stories about a man who looks like us but is not like us, who might arrive at any time and who always, always, comes in peace. They bear retelling.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear