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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.