The Doctor (And Another Doctor)

So it's a year since Stephen Moffat took over the reins as executive producer and chief writer at Doctor Who, and it's time to consider what kind of a fist he's making of the job. In my opinion: a pretty damn good one.

In the new version of Who, I've always loved Stephen Moffat's episodes the best. His writing is simply breath-taking, and he understands the possibilities of time travel for clever, puzzling, deeply satisfying stories in a way that I don't think Russell T. Davies was ever really interested in. It seemed to me that RTD was so caught up in the mythology of the Doctor's character (a near-immortal, deeply lonely, almost god-like figure, stalking the wastes of time and space with the fate of worlds weighing oh-so-heavily on his shoulders, etc etc) that he rather neglected the sheer fun you can have with a time machine, zooming back and forth to five minutes ago with a silly fez on your head and contradicting what you're just about to say, if only you hadn't already said it.

I was quite prepared to not warm to Matt Smith's Doctor (too young, not serious enough) but he's won me over. It's been a wrench to part from David Tennant's No. 10, who did seem to me the perfect embodiment of the Doctor, but I think I've come to terms with it now. And I must admit, at times, RTD's Doctors were so freighted with all that history, all that meaning, that it sometimes became a bit... a bit much. A bit pompous, a bit earnest, a little bit too much staring soulfully into the middle distance with flames in the background. The Eleventh Doctor, Stephen Moffat's Doctor, is playful and merry and clever, and most of the time, he's having fun.

Having said all that, I do have reservations. I don't like the new Daleks. The cartoonish, clunky, brightly-coloured versions just aren't scary to me; I prefer the rough, industrial, ruthless originals. I'm not sure about all this business about being married to River Song; the Doctor doesn't do "married."Moffat doesn't seem to have the same reverence for the Doctor's mythos as RTD; he chucks stuff around a smidge too carelessly, perhaps.

But I can go with it. We all have our own visions of the Doctor. I was around when John Nathan-Turner reinvented the Fifth Doctor as a youthful action hero; there were gasps of dismay from fandom, but we all survived. And the Doctor and his TARDIS keep on spinning, through eternity.


Down To The River

I was in charge of four little girls yesterday and we all went down to the creek. The girls found two more friends from school already playing in their special hideout, so I left the kids to free-range while I sat nearby, but out of sight, by the water's edge.

From time to time the girls would appear. Once they brought long willow switches to "fish" in the creek; they'd run back to me to get drinks of water and fetch biscuits to bring back to their cubby; they'd come to report their injuries - a cut finger, a near-miss falling out of a tree. I could hear them playing, mostly peacefully.

For nearly two hours I sat and watched the creek. The air was full of thistledown, swirling like summer snowflakes. Cyclists whizzed by along the path at my back, dog walkers brought their pets to the water on the far side of the creek. The sun shone on the brown water and turned it the colour of milky tea. A family of nine ducklings and a mother duck bobbed and skittered downstream, followed a little later by the father duck, gliding just along the surface. Just before we went home, they returned, the ducklings scrabbling and waddling and hopping up the rocks to negotiate the little waterfall.

I remembered my long train trips to and from high school, when I would make myself really look at what I was seeing and describe it in my head, searching for exactly the right words.

I couldn't believe how quickly the time passed when I wasn't consciously trying to make it pass. The minutes and hours slipped by as effortlessly as the water of the creek. I listened to the breeze rustling the leaves and whispering in the grasses, and slowly the sun travelled across the sky, and then it was time to go home.

I wish you all a very Zen Christmas (if there is such a thing) and the happiest of New Years. See you in 2011.


School's Out For The Summer!*

It seems like only yesterday that Evie was crying because it was the first day of school, and this morning she was crying because it's her last day as a Prep. Ah me.

It's been an eventful year in our household. For the first time, both girls are going to school, which took more adjusting to (for me!) than I expected. We did our big renovation, which has transformed our house from a poky, cramped living-space to a glorious place to hang out. One of the best things we did was get a great big tank; it might not save us massive amounts of money, but oh! the smug is priceless.

The Western Bulldogs came fourth - beaten in the prelim again! - but we had a bad run with injuries, and with Bob Murphy at the helm (maybe??! nah, probably Boyd), 2011 will be our year. Fingers crossed.

I've kept up my record of a book a year (just) with Dear Swoosie coming out in January - the funnest book I've ever written, thanks to the divine Penelope (who also had a big year) - and definitely the fastest. Cicada Summer was short-listed for the PM's Literary Award, which was a huge thrill, and even better, I've had lots of wonderful feedback from readers who love it.

In same ways I've felt as if I was treading water this year, but it's not really true. Behind the scenes, a lot of work went into Crow Country, and I'm really excited about it being published next year, the most excited I've been about any of my books since The Singer Of All Songs. And Independence has also been chugging along quietly, slowly taking shape, being pruned and moulded and fertilised. Yesterday I had one of those eureka moments when a veil falls and suddenly a whole lot of things become clear...

... just in time for school holidays.

* Or at least it will be at 1.30pm today. Not that I'm counting the minutes or anything.


Queens of Shops

We watch too much television. One show that the whole family enjoys is Mary, Queen of Shops, one of a seemingly endless string of programmes where a bossy Englishwoman strides in and instructs people how to reorganise their lives (think Trinny and Susannah, Kirsty Allsop etc). In this case the bossy Englishwoman is called Mary Portas and we have all relished watching her cruel-to-be-kind efforts to revitalise sagging retail businesses.

It became obvious that Alice and Evie had been paying a little too much attention last weekend when they played shops at their grandparents' house. Alice set up a homewares business at the foot of the stairs, ransacking the kitchen cupboards for her stock of tea towels and lemon squeezers, produced a catalogue, and embarked on a marketing campaign that warned us to "Get in now, as prices are set to skyrocket!" A series of rapid calculations on the back of an envelope produced the reassuring information that she had made several hundred dollars in invisible profit.

Meanwhile Evie had set up her own business in the junk room and issued all of us, her employees, with phonetically spelled identity labels. I was "Kathren Cook", Nana became "Janes Canseltunt" while Papa was "Wellyum Inspekta." An emergency staff meeting was called to brainstorm ideas to improve turnover, which wasn't easy since none of us were exactly certain what the business actually did.

I learned that window-dressing is really not my forte, and that a freebie hotel soap can retail for up to twenty dollars. It was all very exhausting, but I must say it was educational.


Reading Aloud

There's a lot of reading aloud done in our house. Mostly it's me reading to the girls, though there should probably be rather more of it done the other way round. Listening is the main way that Alice, for reasons previously discussed, feeds her book addiction, and lately Evie has been asking for longer books too. They both like to be read to in the bath, for some reason... Currently I'm reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Alice (she's finally getting into the Narnia books, after a couple of over-eager, too-early attempts on my part to introduce them), while Evie is listening to The Starlight Barking, the sequel to 101 Dalmatians (anything with dogs is good for Evie).

I've been reading to Alice since she was very small, a babe in arms in fact. Evie's aural concentration span is not as long, so she hasn't sat and listened to quite as many books as Alice has, but she does all right. I've been trying to work out exactly how much time I've spent reading aloud in the last few years. Say I started seriously when Alice was two and a half, so make it seven years -- let's say, conservatively, half an hour an day (often it's a lot more than that, but then there are days when we don't read at all, so I'm sure it evens out). 365 x 7 (forget the leap years!) = 2555, divided by 2 = 1,277 and a half hours of reading.

Crikey. A thousand hours. How about that, eh. I think I should get a medal.

The upside is that I feel pretty confident about my reading-aloud skills now. And I'm certainly no Stephen Fry, but I may modestly say that I too have read the entire series of Harry Potter aloud, and I even sometimes did the voices. And whatever criticisms one may wish to level at the Harry Potter books (not that I do wish to level any, actually) it cannot be denied that they are a brilliant read-aloud.

Another upside is that I love doing it. I enjoy reading aloud, I relish the joy of introducing the books I love to my children, and getting the immediate feedback of their reactions. I love the cries of 'Keep reading!' when I try to put the book down. And surely, after a thousand hours, my daughters will carry with them some memory of these precious times we spent together, sharing books. For all my failings as a parent, that's one gift I'm determined to give them.


Decking The Halls

The festive season has arrived at our house! (After a bit of a slow start)

Rex has his own Christmas tree:

The dolls' house is adorned with teeny-tiny paper chains (the product of hours of painstaking work by Alice and me, involving microscopic slivers of paper and sticky-tape):

There is even a Littlest Petsmas tree:

And some slightly bigger paper chains which will go up as soon as I have time to finish making them:

Aren't they pretty?

We've decided not to have a full size tree this year. There doesn't seem much point since we always stay at Nana and Papa's house and the presents go under their tree; also most of our ornaments aren't much chop. But I felt slightly sad about having no decorations at all, and what kind of message is that sending anyway - it's only the presents that matter?

Hoping to fit some carols in at some point, too. I love carols. Though you must know by now how I feel about any form of collective singing.

What's your favourite part of Christmas?


Aiming Low

The theory behind my pitiful target of 250 words at a stretch (and they don't have to be wonderful words, they can be, and often are, utter drivel) goes back to a book that became my Bible in my depressive mid-twenties. Feeling Good by David D. Burns (otherwise known in my circle as "The Yellow Book") was one of the early texts on cognitive behavioural therapy. Essentially, it argued that your thoughts can influence your feelings, and therefore can be to some extent consciously managed; this was a bit of a revelation to me and my depressively-inclined mates.

Anyway, one of the many useful pieces of advice that I gleaned from its pages concerned the paralysing effects of perfectionism. Better to aim very, very low, and achieve, than to aim high and fail. As anyone who has been depressed knows, there are times when any activity at all seems impossibly hard, even getting out of bed. Therefore, better to write one sentence and feel good about doing it than to tell yourself, I must write 10,000 words today - a target you will inevitably fail to meet, and then beat yourself up about.

The magic trick of this technique is that almost always, you find yourself exceeding your very low aim. You say, okay, I'll write one sentence -- but before you know it, one sentence has become two, a hundred words becomes 250, and then a page, and the shot of amazed pride you feel in your achievement surfs you onward almost without you noticing it. Once you get started, it is so much easier to keep going.

Doing anything, however small, is better than doing nothing.


Discipline, Discipline, Discipline

8.59am Drop the girls at school.
Eat breakfast while browsing the internet. Feed lizard.
Write 250 words.
Break for housework - make beds, stack dishwasher, hang out washing.
Write 250 words.
Cup of tea. Check out WOOF.
Write 250 words.
Walk to shops. Plan dinner.
Write 250 words.
Lunch break. Listen to radio. Read while eating. Check WOOF.
Write 250 words.
Think about doing yoga. Have cup of tea instead.
Write 250 words.
Feel virtuous for achieving writing target. Sit in window seat and read. Reading is necessary part of working day -- stoking fires of creativity etc. Almost as vital as checking WOOF.
3.25pm Leave house to pick up girls from school. End of writing day.
Beginning of next work shift - provision of after school snacks, homework supervision, dinner preparation, post-school counselling service, dinner clean-up, after-dinner walk, baths etc. Watch TV.
Talk to husband. If possible.