LITTLE ENGLISHNESS[On 21 June 2001, in the Fitzroy Tavern in London, I interviewed Doctor Who author Paul Cornell about his original science-fiction novel Something More for my old, long-defunct website, ConcreteElephant. Our conversation includes spoilers for that novel.]
Me: Brussel sprouts – are they good or bad?
Cornell: Oh they’re horrid! One of the most awful inventions of mankind – you take a cabbage and compress it down to horrible smooth size... and the thing to start with isn’t that good. The only good cabbage is when it’s chopped up into really tiny pieces and served with seaweed in Chinese restaurants. Anything else that’s green and that shape is bad.
Me: Even when they’re cooked with bacon?
Cornell: Even! Even the bacon can’t make up for them.
Me: Okay. Favourite character from the Star Wars universe?
Cornell: Oh.... When I was a kid I was always a big... this is the progression from when I was a boy. Han Solo when I was a kid, Luke Skywalker now I’ve grown up.
Me: Do you dunk biscuits in tea?
Me: How old were you when you first fell in love?
Me: And what’s the best word in the English language?
Cornell: [Long pause]. That’s a bastard question. [More silence, and then, to the tape recorder...] There’s a long pause. [More silence].
Me: Should we move on and talk about the book?
Cornell: Yes! Please!
Me: First thing that struck me about the book is the definite sense of place. Bath, Winchester, Chiswick, Blackheath – in fact, all the places I live, which was a bit spooky. It’s all terribly British. Or rather Home Counties, which puts it beside the traditions of English sci-fi; Wyndham, Wells... And yet it’s not set the-day-after-tomorrow. In fact, the key date is 1998. Were you conscious of creating an alternate history?
Cornell: To be honest, I always thought it was a little awkward having it set ‘next year’. The time presented is the time that I actually wrote it, and I was aware that by the time it came out that would be the past. It seemed odd to be writing a present day scenario that might be different by the time it was out. Y’know? I couldn’t just say it’s the present day, write it as the present day and then be caught up in events. So I decided ‘let’s just root it in history, let’s say this is 1998.’ It wasn’t so much an idea of an ‘alternate’ as just a desire to be honest, to keep the present as the present and to go on from there. Britishness... is very important to the whole thing of it. I’ve always wanted to write science fiction that would seem to be in the same kind of world as Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh.
Me: One of the themes running through the book is history and memory – how people misremember the past, how they remember Britain.
Cornell: It’s about how shit history is basically, and how history is always limited and contained. Well, not always, actually. Since the end of the War, history has limited and contained who the British are. It’s interesting to note that during the Boer War, the stereotype throughout Europe of the English was that we were the passionate people who would laugh or cry at anything. And that’s shifted since then. That’s become, I suppose, the Italians. These supposed traditions of what the British are like, most of them are... like panto. Some of the traditions of pantomime were laid down in the 1970s. We always think things are ancient and they never bloody are. And that’s because we’re tied to the past. That particular war especially has been something that has anchored British history. Only now are we making efforts to let go of that, and Something More is about how terrible it would be if we could never let go of that, if our future was entirely determined by our history, by our past. If we could never get on to the rather wonderful, Dan Dare, one-world superstate that I envisage.
Me: You feel that the Second World War has set in stone the politics of today? An old argument is that with World War One, the reasons people went to war are no longer relevant, but the reasons we went to war in 1939 have become more relevant – race and identity.
Cornell: Yes, yes. But on the otherhand... we now celebrate our sporting victories with the theme tune from The Great Escape. That chant, ‘One world cup and two world wars’... Yeah, two world wars, what, fifty years ago? It’s like we’re stuck in a post-imperial loss. It’s like we’re never going to move away from that, never going to go beyond that, never going to redefine what Britishness is. We’re still waiting for a truly inclusive sense of what Britishness is. There’s been gestures towards it, but even this week, this month [with the race riots in Oldham] there’s still signs that we’re not actually getting it. We’re still lost in history.
Me: So is Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), the architect leader of the heroes, the rag-tag rebels in the book, is he your envisioning of what Britishness should be?
Cornell: Yes. He seems to me to be historically one of those odd Englishmen that pop up from time to time who have just got the whole universe at their command. Englishness does occasionally produce these extraordinarily liberal thinkers who seem to be able to break from the confining code that created them. If I wanted a beneficent deity to be looking over me, I’d want it to be Lutyens, especially since he dealt to admirably in his own life with a wife who was lost in a fog of spirituality which never connected to the real world. And here he was, building buildings in the real world, really good buildings, and expressing himself in a very solid, very concrete way. I think he had a kind of spirituality of his own which is attractive and very interesting. He’s my perfect dad.
Me: So there’s the real history of his opposition to spirituality, and then in your book, Lutyens is fighting a war against a resurrected, alien Jesus Christ from Outer Space.
Cornell: Oh, now you’re giving away the ending.
Me: Jesus is the villain of the piece.
Cornell: One of the things I really like is people who read this before they read the book will wonder ‘How the hell did they get there from the first few chapters?'. I don’t think Lutyens was opposed to spirituality, he was always very supportive of his wife.
Me: There’s a genuine struggle in the book between the means and ends approaches of the great war. The Grey Namer, Jesus, is very much looking towards the ends, drastic solutions whatever the cost. He’s going to destroy the planet Earth – or at least kill everyone on it.
Cornell: But for the best of reasons.
Me: Yes, for the best of reasons. Whereas Lutyens is opposed to that because his idea is that you look to the details. He looks at the pennies and lets the pounds look after themselves. His idea of what a spiritual life involves is having a nice house, with a garden, and going boating with his wife. As opposed to the grand designs. Is that something that you believe yourself?
Cornell: Again it’s that ancient... well it’s not ancient Britishness, it’s a conception of Britishness founded fifty years ago, that the little things are important and big ideologies are rather scary. I quite like that, but I think we’ve carried it just a bit too far. I think Lutyens would say moderation in all things as well, but what does that remind you of? That scones are more important than fascism? I think that this is my Doctor Who heritage showing through.
Me: There are a number of links through to your Doctor Who books. First of all, the emotional backdrop, the incredible sense of mourning, of the First World War is similar to parts of Human Nature. There’s the fact that Mary Poppins, a pop culture figure, comes forward as the Virgin Mary – a far more transcendental cultural icon – in the same way that Vic Reeves cameos in Love and War as the Trickster.
Cornell: Vic Reeves of course, is the Trickster. It’s Mary Poppins because I wanted people to get her straight away. Mary Poppins – that’s a scary movie. She’s all powerful. She’s an omnipotent deity who’s acting as a household familiar. It’s a very odd movie. And deeply English – that sense of the transcendant, coming down into your house and fitting in to the social mores of the time. Fluttering them about a bit, but it’s that wonderful English link between manners and the infinite.
Me: Cultural references play a funny role in the book. In the future, Empire of the Sun is the greatest film ever made.
Cornell: I’m glad you spotted that. Because it’s shifted. It’s Citizen Kane right now. And we kind of think that it must have always been Citizen Kane – but of course it wasn’t. It’s like it’s something that’s only happened to us in the last ten years.
Me: And the people of the future can quote Beatles songs and make reference to Winnie the Pooh, but Booth makes a comment about The Rocky Horror Show and nobody has any idea what he’s talking about. And, most importantly of all, nobody makes any reference to a man who travels round in a police box and saves people from monsters...
Cornell: Absolutely. Because what’s Paul Cornell going to do when he writes a mainstream novel? He’s going to put some kind of stupid Doctor Who reference in there. And I really didn’t want to do that. I don’t think that there’s a single in-joke. Is there?
Me: The only thing I could think of was that you have stately house that’s somewhere near Bath, with wild animals and a maze – and I immediately thought, ‘is that Longleat?’
Cornell: I think that kind of goes beyond an in-joke. I was thinking of a house called Castle Drago, which is a Lutyens house, was the map I used. It’s kind of Castle Drago in Longleat’s grounds. I’ve got really a strong mental imagery of those grounds, and I’ve always wanted to write something set in that area. What it is about Longleat to me is that when I was very little, you would walk through this incredibly well-kept-up stately home, past all these incredible angles. What I remember at Longleat as a kid is really solid angles of stone against a clear blue, empty sky. And you turn a corner, and there’s the TARDIS. As a kid, that’s magic here in the middle of this English manor. And there’s Lord Bath’s private maze which is only open every now and then, with his erotic murals inside. I never went to see those. I still never have. That was forbidden stuff in the maze. It’s not really, then, an in-joke as much as a deliberate setting.
“We have friends in the Universe. Their ambassador’s an Englishman. Everybody’s going to be filled with hope again. What a great Christmas present.”Me: I was reading the book as the General Election was taking place, and here’s a book set in 1998 and the Prime Minister’s name is Tony. He’s never sign-posted as Tony Blair, MA Oxon, Leader of the Labour Party...
Tony, the Prime Minister, p. 216.
Cornell: I don’t think I name him –
Me: He is actually referred to as Tony.
Cornell: Oh right. Well it’s meant to be him obviously. I think I’m the only New Labour zealot I know. I just think that if people actually do appreciate something, when things fall right, then they should stand up and declare it. And the British are very bad at that. So this a New Labour science fiction novel, and the Prime Minister presented therein is by no means heroic, or saintly, but is nevertheless decent.
Me: He’s the first person to talk to Booth after he’s changed, rather than at him. He addresses him as a human being and asks his opinion -
Cornell: Because I actually think he would.
Me: - and Booth walks into a committee of experts, and gets the feeling that they’ve been carefully selected to be racially representative. Which obviously contrasts with the future where even people from different families are suspect, homosexuality is a capital offence... it’s a tremendous contrast where the world has fallen apart.
Cornell: Absolutely. It’s the two approaches isn’t it? Humans can continue down this road of Horlicks and inclusivity, which I think, thank God, we’re finally shifting to, with this second election victory in a row.
Me: A damning indictment by the British people of the Conservative Party’s efforts over the last five years.
Cornell: Oh yes. The average age – the average – of Tory Party members is 68. The average, for God’s sake. I wanted to say that what people call political correctness now is actually just the first step towards a real, different society, a different Britain. A Britain of the future, the kingdom. What the book is about, the future it presents, is a world where that doesn’t happen. Where we stand-off from Europe, and declare ourselves alone and live for an Empire that no longer exists, and thus keep on degenerating and degenerating into a bunch of warring tribes. I really wanted to portray in a country-British disaster way, Britain like Mozambique or one of those terrible places in Africa where there is no law, through purely economic struggle, through wars that never end. It’s a bit of an overreaction perhaps.
Me: In the book, the history of the families and the nation are addressed by a house with it’s own history. And the house’s haunted past is a moment when Booth turns his back on the backward-looking people and their confused ideas about Britishness.
“We are never going to get back to the Union Jack, to Britain, to one government over this island […]. We can’t start anything new, because we keep trying to build new things in the image of the old. We can’t get out of that mind-set. We are still too British, when there is not Britain to be British about.”That’s the starting point, and the resolution is to turn your back on history. The pivotal human action that causes everyone to forget their past, comes from Jane, who’s been this violent priest. It’s astonishing the barbarity her faith takes her to, but it’s actually her faith that takes them where no one else has succeeded. She’s able to turn back time.
Booth Hawtrey, pp. 329-330.
Cornell: Paul nods enthusiastically. Yes.
Me: All of the way through the book, faith is problematic. Having made Jesus the villain –
Cornell: He’s the hero in my next one. No he is. I think if you look what happens in the whole span of the book, he is the villain certainly, but it’s like grace does win through. His actions turn out to be exactly right for the greater good, that the actions of the book create. It’s almost like the Trinity warring against itself, like his dad is up to something that he hasn’t quite got yet. It’s interesting comparing the two books – British Summertime [due 2002]. When I finished it, I became suddenly aware that a lot of the same things happen in British Summertime as do in Something More. We have hangings, a touch of paedophilia, a huge presence of Christ at the centre of the narrative, except that things are reversed. It’s like a mirror image of the first one, and none of this was conscious. It’s just that my brain seems to want to sort through these things again. And it’s another version of history going in a particular way. In the second case it’s an ecological disaster, and how the future might work out that way. The way to tie it back up in a knot, to bring it back to where it’s supposed to be, a sensation of grace working through history. I think it’s also a question of where I was at the time. Something More is a violent battle with faith – it’s me really kicking hard. And British Summertime’s a very faith-full book. Something More is, in the end, a Christian novel but you’d be hard-pressed to see it, and British Summertime is much more of a CS Lewis-on-acid thing. I’m told it might actually be blasphemous, but I’m not sure. Being married to a vicar is going to be interesting, if some of her congregation actually read Something More. Hopefully British Summertime will be around by that point to reassure them. It’s strange because both books I think are equally... British Summertime is nastier if anything, it pushes the characters further. It’s nice that from a kind of fanboy point of view... that they couldn’t possibly exist in the same world, in that the central character i.e. Jesus is a villain in one and a hero in the other [laughs].
Me: Maybe he was just having an off day.
Cornell: Maybe he was. An off life.
Me: You’ve now been a novelist, a paid novelist, for ten years. Early on you carved a niche of what your themes are, what the things you’re interested in are. Women priests –
Cornell: It’s odd isn’t it! When you say ‘carved’, it’s more like ‘randomly had’. I take a couple of steps back and see that there are things there that were never meant to be. I had no idea that these things would keep on recurring.
Me: As well as the novels, though, you’ve done a lot of television work. There was your own series, Wavelength, and two years ago your episode of Love in the Twentieth Century - an insight into masturbation. And now you’re writing what seems to be half of the next season of Casualty...
Cornell: [Laughing] I’m writing three out of forty. Nearly a tenth.
Me: Yes, well, my maths is a bit ropey. When you’re writing a Casualty episode, do you find yourself pitching, ‘Well, there’s this woman priest, and she’s having problems with Jesus. And there’s an alien...’
Cornell: Yes.... There’s a priest fighting with his faith in the first one. The characters I created for Casualty, Comfort, one of the paramedics, is a Catholic, and that's an issue that keeps coming back. I’m having the time of my life on Casualty – they’re giving me incredible freedom, incredible support. The ability to be free to write novels, and also the freedom to express oneself in an ongoing Saturday night primetime BBC One series – ooh I’m so satisfied. So the same themes do come up albeit using their characters. The BBC has turned down many, many vicar shows from me. I’ve had comedy vicar shows, I’ve had drama vicar shows. I’ve got to the point where when I present my latest batch of wannabe drama proposals, people will say, ‘Now there aren’t any vicars in this, are there?’ And The Godfather, the book I’ve just adapted for a BBC pilot script – I don’t know if it’ll get filmed but I’ve just delivered the script. Today, actually – it’s very much about ‘my’ themes. I really loved it because it’s slap-bang in the middle of my territory. It’s about a horror novelist, a very rich horror novelist, a bestseller, who inherits, through bereavement, these two godchildren and has to take care of them. In a big, sprawling gothic house. He has to deal with grief and... there’s no spirituality. I may introduce a vicar somewhere along the line. But it’s right up my street.
Me: And is television and film somewhere you see your future? Is that the dream?
Cornell: Yes. I want to write a film. I want to write my Battle of Britain film. I’ve got a plan for that, and that may happen. I’ve got a spy novel on the ramp, and a magical fantasy trilogy about magic throughout the last century, the twentieth century. Witches in 1939, and they have a little cosy Great Escape style witches' coven.
Me: And haunt women vicars?
Cornell: Yes, there’ll probably be a vicar in there as well. I’m marrying a woman vicar! How much more into this can I get? It’d be wrong of me to just say that writing pays the bills. It doesn’t. I find real expression there as well, and I’m having the happiest time of my writing life. All of those future projects are of course subject to the whims of the future. In the back of the dust jacket on the hardback [of Something More], it says ‘Paul’s currently developing a series for Channel 4.’ Well I was when that came out. Nothing came of it. I must stop saying that on backflaps. But yeah, it’s a nice place to be at the moment, and [he fingers the dog-eared copy of Something More on the table] I’m desperately proud of it. When I was little, my brother who introduced my to science fiction, would lend me his Analogs. I suppose it’s an association of my brother and a deep Englishness, that I actually lived in a little English village and had all this wonderful stuff in cardboard boxes that he’d show me, his old sf models and things, that got me this big association between spaceyness and little Englishness. I’ve written about my brother already. He’s Peter Hutchings in Timewyrm: Revelation and Happy Endings. He’s an absolute duplicate of my brother, apart from the fact that he’s a mathematician and my brother’s an insurance broker. Anyway, now I’m wittering...
Me: A couple of year’s ago, the Doctor Who New Adventures were reviewed by Foundation – the British academic journal of sf – and you didn’t come across brilliantly. In fact, some kind fellow had to step in to refute the accusation of Doctor Who as ‘sf’s imbecile’.
Cornell: Yes, thank you. I didn’t, did I? Foundation was after science fiction in the New Adventures.
Me: It seemed to be after ‘grit’ – it didn’t like the ‘nice’ stories.
Cornell: There’s nothing worse than grit.
Me: Their favourite story was [Ben Aaronovitch’s] Transit – which shows exactly what their sensibilities were. Not that I’m dissing Transit.
Cornell: Well, I was going to say. They have a point. I think The Also People [Aaronovitch’s subsequent New Adventure] is better than Transit, in that it shows that that author can kick arse without grit. Indeed, without any gestures in the direction of darkness or horror. Just by talking about nice people having a nice time. I think grit is teenage. There’s an awful lot of pain in Something More and British Summertime. People looking for grit will find it, but I think that the important thing about grit is getting past it. It’s what gets in the way, it’s the problem, it’s not what the books are about. It’s what the books are about getting over.
Me: Something More is about people living in an utterly different, difficult, violent world. And some of the violent scenes are particularly nasty.
Cornell: Oh, some particularly horrible things happen to Booth.
Me: And you have Rebecca being buried alive and standing on tip-toe just so that she can breath... all sorts of horrible things. But the whole point is about people overcoming this.
Cornell: And the fact that condition that they’re after is peace and happiness and scones. And a society that can make scones. I think all my books are about pushing that and trying to get back to it. I think there are certain authors who indulge in grit who actually like it. Who want to be there and want their characters to be in it. Which always sits very difficult with Doctor Who... ‘difficult’ isn’t the right word. Can you put in a better word than ‘difficult’?
Me: It’s against the ethics of the series?
Cornell: Yeah, so anyway, that’s true of Who books. But free to write my own stuff, it’s about the victory over grit.
Me: So do you find the violence difficult to write?
Cornell: Horribly, no. I was a little upset by what I did to Rebecca, and I was wondering if this was some kind of sadistic thing. But then I realised I’d done far, far worse things to Booth. Booth being my hero, and being immortal of course, I can do him far more damage. But it’s about him being better at the end, it’s not about the damage.
“Things seemed to be different already. All the new growth. All the new systems. Anything that fell apart just got replaced by something better.”We mug at each other for a bit. ‘I think that’s it,’ I say. 'Cool!’ enthuses Cornell. ‘Wonderful. Good stuff, nice questions.’ We head back upstairs for more drinks. Later, over pizza, he comes back to that question about the best word in the English language. If he has to choose a word, it’ll be something silly and onomatapaeic... like ‘plop’.
The happy ending, p. 420.