Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”

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Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

Oxford’s Final Frontier: a chat with Oxford TrekSoc

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

They say Oxford is another world, but for many students that simply isn’t enough. Some want to seek out new friends, new experiences, to boldly split infinitives that no man (or indeed woman) has ever split before. Hence the existence of the Oxford Star Trek Society, a group of Trekkies who meet every Monday to watch the show, discuss its nearly fifty years of history, and generally appreciate what lies beyond the final frontier. Heading them up is the newly-elected Captain Rose Atkinson, who was kind enough to meet with me to discuss Star Trek, ropey special effects and the social life of the society.

We started by discussing her role within the society. “I’m the Captain of the Star Trek Society, so I’m responsible for organisation the weekly meetings, arranging the themes of the episodes we pick, keeping the society finances in order, and organising events. There are four of us on the society committee – we’ve got the First Officer, who assists me and helps out with food, that kind of thing. Then there’s the Morale Officer, who also does events, and the Technical Officer, who’s responsible for showing the episodes we watch during the meetings.”

So what does a typical meeting involve? “Usually beforehand we have a poll on the Facebook page, so everyone can pick some episodes that they want to see. Then we turn up, watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek, maybe share some fun Star Trek-related information, but all in a very light-hearted sort of way. Then we go to the pub, usually. It’s quite a nice, easygoing time.”

Star Trek fandom often involves a high level of commitment. How did Rose get involved in the society, and how did she first get into the show generally? “Well, being a lifelong (almost) Trekkie, I went looking for them at the freshers’ fair, because I had heard about them on the offer group, and signed up from there. In terms of how I first got into the show, I think my mum showed me it when I was about ten, or something. I’m a big fan of the original series, and I liked its outlook. It’s a very hopeful show, a very forward-looking show, and also one with a lot of fun in it. The whole Star Trek community is one that enjoys the flaws of the show as well as its selling points, I think. And it has some very good stories, as well.”

What’s the social dynamic of the society like, and what sort of crowd does it draw week to week? “Well, there’s about fourteen or fifteen regular members, so we’re quite a small and close-knit bunch. But to be honest, it’s quite a wide selection: we have grad students, undergrads, all sorts of sciences and humanities. It’s not a stereotypically “nerd” society, really. There’s a lot of different types of people within the group.”

What are the challenges of running a society like this in Oxford specifically? “I think that does have a dint on numbers, because I’m always meeting people who say they are interested in Star Trek, or they signed up at freshers’ fair and they’re still getting emails, but they just don’t have time. And I think maybe it’s perceived as more of a fun society, one that’s not going to look good on your CV, like for instance being a committee member of the Oxford Union or whatever. So it’s perceived as being a sort of frivolous society. I mean it is frivolous and fun, but I think it’s a good way to relax from the Oxford lifestyle. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously for the most part. I mean we all very much love it, but we can appreciate the silly side of Star Trek, the terrible low budget, the silly costumes and so on. I think it’s a show that lends itself to good-natured fun, really, and the small size of the society means that we all know each other. I mean, we had a contested election this year but it was never in the slightest bit aggressive, or a “hacking” election – there’s nothing to hack for, really, which is why it’s so much fun.”

Having been made Captain this term, does Rose have any grand plans for the society? “Well at the moment I hear this year’s batch of freshers has been bigger than previous years. In previous years the society has been down to about five people, I believe. So we would like to increase from the fourteen, fifteen members. We’re probably going to the fiftieth anniversary convention later this year, and organising a few more social events, because it is very much a society for friends with a similar interest, and getting along with each other. So we’d like a few more social activities to cater that. We’re hopefully going to have a crewdate with another nerdy society. We’d like to get in touch with maybe the Harry Potter society or something later in the year, and we’d like to try and go for a Star Trek picnic, and try and make some of the food that they have on the show. Off the top of my mind I think I’ve seen some recipes for Klingon worm dishes which I’d like to try. Though not using any actual worms, I hope.”

What are Rose’s favourite bits from the half-century of the Star Trek franchise? “I’m an original series Trekkie. My First Officer is more of a Next Generation fan – we tend to watch a lot of the Next Generation in the society, but I think we get quite a good balance of all the series’. It’s always the same people who suggest the episodes of a particular season. We’ve got some people who are very keen on one series and not on the others, so there’s a bit of a split there, but it’s entirely amicable.”

In that spirit, where does Rose stand on that great Trekkie debate, Kirk or Picard? “Well, personally, I don’t think my Captainhood is much like Captain Kirk’s [William Shatner], but he will always be my favourite captain, because he’s just a lot more fun than Picard [Patrick Stewart]. Picard is rather more realistic, but he’s not half as bombastic.”

Finally, how would Rose try persuade someone to come along to the society? “We’re not a society for “hardcore fans”. Some of us really love the original series, know all the different battleships, all the different cruiser classes, or whatever, and some of us have watched them once or twice, and think they’d like to get into it more. It’s a very welcoming society, there’s not a certain level of knowledge you need about Star Trek in order to get in. You can just turn up and give it a go, even if you’ve never seen it before. It is, after all, a cultural icon, turning fifty this year. It’s such a popular culture reference point that it’s worth coming just to understand the influence it’s had – if you look for it, you start seeing Star Trek everywhere.”

 

Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

A secret lake, containing a beast known only to myth. A species made of smoke and shadow, capable of following you wherever you go. An orphan on the run from fate itself. Whatever its faults, The Kraken Sea can hardly be said to be short on ideas. It’s a rapid-fire story with the guts to be weird, almost every chapter introducing a strange new concept. Sadly, concepts alone do not a good story make, and Tobler’s prose and sense of pacing leave more than a bit to be desired.

The story centres on Jackson, a mysterious orphan taken in by a Catholic order in late-1800s New York. The novella opens with him on a train to his new adoptive home in San Francisco, but a stopover at a sinister carnival unleashes a disturbing secret. Jackson is not truly human, but is in fact a tentacular monster struggling to maintain a human form, watched over by a Sister who may be a literal embodiment of Fate. Once he arrives in San Francisco he finds himself embroiled in a turf war between two rival gangs, with mysterious creatures lurking beneath the streets.

The novella’s key strength is that it manages to make Jackson sympathetic without being heroic as such. He’s broadly relatable, asking mostly the same questions as the reader at any given moment, but occasional glimpses of his childhood reveal a much less human side to him. We’re told throughout that he bullied his fellow orphans, and at one point it’s revealed that he ate a largely unthreatening child, “broke him and swallowed him because he could”. Moments like this are genuinely chilling, and create an interesting tension over what, exactly, Jackson will become at the end of the story.

But the rest of the characters are nowhere near as interesting. The supporting cast features a generic femme fatale, a generic sinister nun, a generic female gang boss who doubles as a femme fatale, a largely mute henchman and a few more femme fatales to make up the numbers. There’s a late subplot about Jackson trying and failing to fall in love with an ordinary human, but it’s under-developed and goes nowhere. The overall structure is a bit of a mess; the novella feels like a string of barely-connected episodes, oscillating between tedious over-explanation and cratering leaps in time and logic. The last third of the novella jumps from a normal encounter between Jackson and his girlfriend to all-out apocalyptic war, with absolutely no explanation for how we got there. It’s a jarring transition, and Tobler provides almost nothing in the way of buildup.

On top of that, the basic prose style is mediocre at best. Tone wavers all over the place, right down to individual sentences, such as this late moment where the Kraken emerges: “There was a curiosity, perhaps a respect, which sent a chill down Jackson’s spine. The kraken knew what the man was about and weren’t intelligent monsters the worst?” The text is also riddled with typos, and cringeworthy similes abound, my personal favourite being “It was clumsy the kiss, like learning to tie his shoes, like riding a bike down a steep hill, like throwing himself into boiling ice water.” Weird fiction can often get away with clunky wording in the name of creating an uncanny style, but this goes beyond alienating into actively sloppy. While the ideas here are frequently interesting, the execution is extremely sub-par. Tobler’s novella is daring and ambitious, but feels at least four or five drafts away from the finished product.

Ebooks: kindling our affections

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 May 2016.

I recently started reading a novel. I’ve been reading it on a tablet, actually. It’s called Newtons Sleep (and no, that’s not a typo), by a writer called Daniel O’Mahony. It’s about… well, I’m still figuring that out, but from what I gather so far it’s about England in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and the interventions of a mysterious time-travelling cult known only as Faction Paradox. The novel is disturbing and meandering, happily skipping between time periods, frequently launching into tangents and dragging out its action with reflections on the nature of language and Restoration politics. No major publisher would ever touch it. It’s dense, weird, and deliberately difficult. And it is brilliant. What’s more, it’s something that could only reach its audience in the age of ebook publishing, which, as the headline may have hinted, is the actual subject of this article.

Ebooks have gotten something of a bad rap in recent years. Derided by literary snobs as cold, remorseless slabs of data, lacking the warmth and personality of printed, decaying wood pulp, many literary types see ebooks as cheap imitations of the real thing. There will never be a Facebook group dedicated to ebook marginalia, such people harrumph. What often gets glossed over in such debates is the fact that several publications, if not for ebook publishing, would never see the light of day at all. This doesn’t just apply to weird sci-fi/historical mashups, though it is particularly relevant in the world of genre fiction. There are lots of exciting things being published right now that would be next to impossible without the ebook. We have, for instance, Tor.com’s acclaimed series of novellas, championed for bringing diverse and daring new types of genre fiction into the mainstream space. We have publications like Apex and Uncanny Magazine, bringing shocking and surreal new short fiction to the market. Smaller than that, there are tiny independent zines like Fever Dreams Magazine, publishing new and untested writers from the UK, and great media critics like Philip Sandifer and Andrew Hickey publishing their own ebooks. In the face of so much new and exciting content, it’s hard to choose the side of Nook-burning Luddites.

But more than that, there are important consumer-facing reasons why ebooks are worth paying attention to. Thanks in part to the disinterest of a large section of the market, Amazon has been able to grab an enormous share of the ebook market, as well as an effective monopoly on the digital distribution of audiobooks. This is a problem, because the degree of control Amazon wields over the electronic book market is likely to mean bad things long-term. A monopoly is more likely to charge extortionate prices, as well as to gouge the publishers and authors with which it works, and Amazon’s business practices are sharkish to say the least. If the mainstream literary world were a bit more clued-up about ebooks, Amazon might be incentivised to offer a better deal to both its readers and the publishing world at large. If they faced a bit more competition from we literary snobs flocking to alternative ebook distributors like Smashwords or Lulu, the ebook market, and the publishing world in which it is increasingly important, would be far better off.

It’s easy to distrust ebooks. I’ve certainly done so in the past. But the fact of the matter is that they are an increasingly big part of what publishing is now, and it would behoove us to pay more attention. We don’t have to abandon the physical book, of course, but we cannot afford to let this exciting (and potentially dangerous) new publishing venture pass us by.

Review: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 7 May 2016.

Imagine a fairy tale written by Samuel Beckett. Dense, dark, and utterly mesmerising, This Census-Taker is in some ways typical of China Miéville. A leading light of the New Weird (think H.P. Lovecraft minus the racism and with added Marxism), one of Miéville’s favourite themes is the inadequacy of language in describing the bizarre and the profound, expounded in such novels as Embassytown and The City and the City, as well as his superlative short fiction. The entire novella is shrouded in mystery — almost no-one has a name, and there is a sense of several narratives going on just outside the reader’s field of view. The story operates on the margins, its meaning never quite made clear, the reader left to puzzle it out for themselves. It’s quintessentially Miéville, but with a level of precision and depth he’s never quite achieved before, and therefore perfect for the curious reader new to his work.

The tone throughout is one of unease, reflected in the ever-shifting prose. The novella opens with the line “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. That boy was I.” That sense of dissociative fear is key to the book’s technique. When the boy reaches the town at the foot of the hill, he blurts out that “My mother killed my father!”, but after a few minutes’ confusion this is revised to his father having killed his mother. The haziness of details like these is endemic to the book, as the limits of both language and memory impede our perception of events. We are repeatedly told that English is not the narrator’s first language, and that “He was nine years old, I think”; details are fuzzy and adults uncommunicative. This extends to the nature of the setting – there are several details which could be read as supernatural, but could just as easily be childish fantasy. The narrator tells us that “Our house was at the same level of the slope as those of a few weather-watchers and hermits and witches”, but it’s hard to tell whether this is a case of genuine magic or local superstition. Similarly, we’re told the boy’s father makes keys, not for locks, but for “love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly”. Again, is the father genuinely some sort of magical locksmith, or is the boy simply misunderstanding his father’s real profession? Contradictions abound — the boy says his father’s clients are never seen again, then offhandedly mentions conversations with them, the father is estranged from the town and then accepted again without explanation, and the nature of the mother’s disappearance is constantly elided. The novella provides multiple answers to the many questions raised, but refuses to settle on any one of them. Even the main character remains an enigma — at one point he confesses that his identity is a “mystery story” even to himself.

In the hands of a lesser writer this would be infuriating, but Miéville creates a setting that is richly textured as well as oblique. It’s a world in which street children fish for bats over abandoned bridges, in which giant lizards are kept in too-small jars, and when the narrator asks how this is possible he’s told simply “Magic, mate”. The titular census-taker cuts an intriguing figure; absent for three quarters of the book, he ends up as a kind of bureaucratic fairy godmother, listening to the boy where other grown-ups have written him off. It’s implied that he’s somehow broken away from his fellow bureaucrats when towards the end the father yells: “They were recalled! Why’s this one still counting? This man thinks he knows what I’ve done? When? Always?” The idea of a data-gatherer gone rogue is an appealing one, and apposite for a novella in which all information seems elusive and suspect.

This Census-Taker is by no means an easy read. It’s a frequently beautiful, occasionally maddening exercise in uncertainty, and the sense of a truth always just out of reach may alienate some readers. But for those prepared to go with it, it’s a fascinating labyrinth to get lost in. Its short length (at only 206 pages) means it’s tight and focused as well as dense, and it will surely reward repeat engagements. The book is itself a kind of census-taker; you must, eventually, scrape together answers to the questions it poses. But you know full well it will be back before long, and your answers will have changed in the interim.

Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 6 May 2016.

If I were to tell you that Carry On is the story of a boy wizard named Simon Snow, and his adventures at a secretive school for magicians, you would likely feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Carry On is an exercise in metafictional commentary and pastiche, and in that regard it’s a typical Rainbow Rowell novel. Best known for the critically acclaimed ‘Young Adult’ novel Eleanor and Park, much of Rowell’s career has been defined by taking cliché-ridden genres, from the teenage love story to the time-travel comedy, and re-invigorating them with a dose of wit and self-awareness. Carry On sees her tackling the YA fantasy sub-genre, specifically Harry Potter. Rowell treats her teenage audience as intelligently as ever, even if the novel’s referential nature makes it a tough sell for those not already familiar with her work.

This is unquestionably a book for fans, of Rowell’s work as well as Rowling’s, and positions itself in terms of modern fan discourse, with which Rowell’s teenaged fan base will almost certainly be familiar. The pop culture that shaped this book works right down to the characters’ origins. Simon and his love interest, the initially villainous vampire Baz, first appeared in Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl, where they featured in a piece of slash fanfiction written by the main character. There they functioned as an obvious stand-in for the popular romantic pairing of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy in fan-created media, so the act of giving them their own novel feels cheekily subversive, flying as it does in the face of Rowling’s original (particularly given her recent comments about Harry’s love life). The story begins with Simon entering his final year of study at the Watford School of Magicks, and continuing his battle with the ever-present menace known as the Insidious Humdrum. But when a ghost delivers Simon a cryptic message meant for Baz, the two must form an uneasy truce, and investigate a conspiracy which implicates the entire magical world, even the school’s headmaster, the Great Mage himself. And, of course, fulfill the promises of that original slash fiction.

If all of that sounds terribly derivative, that’s largely because it is. But it’s self-aware enough to get away with it. The novel requires a certain amount of trope-savviness from its reader, as well as an awareness of the online communities which have formed around works like Harry Potter and Twilight. Several jokes hinge on references to pop cultural terms, including the Bechdel Test and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While these references may prove alienating for those unfamiliar with TV Tropes, they form a key part of a novel which criticizes its source material as much as it pays tribute to it.

This criticism feels particularly relevant in the wake of the controversy surrounding Rowling’s recent ‘History of Magic in North America’. Some have accused Rowling of cack-handedness in her treatment of Native American people, as well as in her attempts to diversify elsewhere. The casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, for example, while welcome, has been viewed as an indication of the original work’s unconscious racial bias. Carry On is clearly written with these faults in mind, and addresses a few specific criticisms of Potter, chiefly by having the main characters’ same-sex relationship be an explicit part of the narrative rather than mentioned after the fact. Rowell also nicely skewers the franchise’s reflexive embrace of the Great Man theory of history through its endorsement of the ‘chosen one’ narrative. As Baz puts it, “Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”.

This kind of critique is valuable, but only when it does not drown out the novel’s quality as a work of fiction. Luckily, Carry On is up to Rowell’s usual high standard – this may well be her funniest book yet. Her narrative voice is lively and affable, filled with careful introspection and witty asides – each chapter is narrated by a different character, and Rowell manages to make each one feel unique while maintaining a coherent style. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. A third of the way into the novel, Simon speculates: ‘Everyone’s still gossiping about where he’s been. The most popular rumours are “dark coming-of-age ceremony that left him too marked up to be in public” and “Ibiza.”’ This is witty and well-done, and comfortably within Rowell’s usual wheelhouse. Rowell’s weakness is her less idiosyncratic plot dynamics: the second half of the novel gradually peels back the layers of a conspiracy, but the series of revelations feels muddy and confused. It’s the one area in which Rowell fails to get the better of her predecessors.

On its own merits, Carry On is a fun and worthwhile read. But in the context of the time and culture from which it originates it feels absolutely crucial. It’s refreshing to read something that’s both fond and critical of the work it’s based on, and which is invested in real human relationships rather than exploiting a lucrative brand name. Compared to that awful-looking Eddie Redmayne film and the prospect of watching a play about a middle-aged Potter filing his tax returns, it’s clear which ‘franchise’ at this point has the more spark, the more charm, and, ultimately, the more magic. I’m with Simon every time.

‘Carry On’ is available to buy from the author’s website.