Save Dirk Gently!

While writing my last post about the buzzy, Technicolour, non-stop-funathon that is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I discovered it isn’t being renewed for a third series.

This caused me much more anguish than it should have, but DG is a brilliant needle-sharp, blood-splattered romp. Without it, my ironing sessions will be forced back onto dismal Scandi-noirs and A Place In The Sun (my lowest point).

There is a petition on Change.org, which I urge you to sign. Even if you haven’t seen Dirk Gently, sign it. You will be doing a service for mankind, and, as everything is interconnected, think of the karma!

You can also contact Netflix on this form apparently – you know it makes sense!

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Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #13: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

In my first A-level English Lit class, Miss Pitt – whose make-up resembled fine-grain Polyfilla and who must, I now realise, have been wearing a curly clown wig – wanted to know what we were currently reading. I don’t remember what the rest said – stuff that garnered nods and even the odd frosty smile or two, like Marilyn French and DH Lawrence.

I was eaten up with nerves – I hated speaking in class and didn’t know anyone. When she turned to me I forgot to say “W Somerset Maughan” (which was a bit true) and told the truth: I was deep into the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galazy ‘trilogy’ by Douglas Adams.

Miss Pitt sucked in her roughed cheeks and curled her glossy lip. “Oh Joanne,” she sneered.

Invincible, growly-voiced Bart

Invincible, growly-voiced Bart, my hero

Yeah, well, chez on you Pitt. Douglas Adams is now universally recognised as a visionary and a genius, still inspiring books, films and TV shows today (you can’t say that for Marilyn French).

My proof – Netflix’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I read the Dirk Gently books when they came out, enjoyed them but never felt tempted to revisit. All I can remember now is stuff about a horse in an attic, a sofa on some stairs and an Apple Mac.

The Netflix series may draw its inspiration from Adams’s detective, but it has – probably wisely – run with plots and characters of its own. And they are brilliant.

Farah and Tina track down a Michigan mom turned evil sorceress. As you do

Farah and Tina track down a Montana mom turned evil sorceress, as you do

Goofy Dirk Gently believes in ‘the interconnectedness of all things’. He’s also a bit psychic and a lot geeky. In series 1 he hooks up with loser bellhop Todd Brotzman (played by Elijah Wood, the only actor in the whole thing I remember coming across before). Todd has a sister called Amanda, who suffers from a weird condition where she has hallucinations that feel real. Dirk has a whole load of baggage from his time in a CIA-spinoff called Blackwing.

Blackwing is a facility where Dirk and various other weirdos were brought together. Most of these weirdos are now rampaging around America, murdering people in a holistic way, pretending to be squeezy toys or driving around in a van drinking other people’s emotions. There is a LOT going on, and the best thing to do is buckle up and enjoy the ride.

The plots are madcap capers, but they do come together, even if they fry your brain. Expect body-snatching, time travel, alternate realities, magic wands that do real magic, people with pink hair, giant scissors for swords and human dogs.

The thing that lets a lot of these seasons down – too much dull relationship stuff – doesn’t spoil Dirk Gently. Todd and Amanda fall out big time, but this helps drive the plot; Todd being Dirk’s first and only friend could teeter into yukkiness but hasn’t (yet).

Instead, we have so many Technicolour characters it is difficult to pick a favourite. Bart Curlish, a holistic psychopath, is hard to top, but there is also cool-and-hard-with-a-vulnerable-edge Farah Black, thick as brick with a gun Hugo Friedkin, the incredible Rowdy 3, turncoat Ken…

The Rowdy 3. Yeah, there's FOUR of them. That's the point, durr

The Rowdy 3. Yeah, there’s FOUR of them. That’s the point, durr

Series 2 featured less Bart than I would have liked, but it did introduce decent new characters, like nice Sheriff Sherlock Hobbs, tripped out Tina Tevetino and fairytale strange girl with rainbow hair (called The Beast, I have no idea why).

Dirk Gently also wins with the number of funny, evil, clever and strong female characters it features, scoring a nice balance even though the two main characters are men.

It is bright, quirky, witty and violent.  DH Lawrence it ain’t.

Things I think about when I try and match up three dozen pairs of black socks

  • Is that Bart’s real hair or an actual bird nest made of the stuff that comes out when you take out the vacuum cleaner filters?
  • Amanda’s eyeliner = a work of art.
  • That boat in a field in series 2 – what was all that about? Where did it come from?
  • And I’ve forgotten what happened to the kitten-shark in series 1. Hope it’s ok.
  • The missing person cops in series 1 – they were good. Killing them, that was a shame.
  • Lux Dujour – why has no-one called their band that yet?
  • I don’t trust Farah’s brother.

Why are knitting pattern pictures so rubbish?

knitting stripes
Woman in aran jumper and ugly trousers

She woke up hungover in a barn in 1890 and grabbed the farmer’s clothes. No other excuse for those trousers

I like to knit. Knitting is very Zen. It is hypnotic and soothing, you can do it while watching TV, so it appeals to the multi-tasking monster inside me, and – bonus – you get clothes out of it.

For the sad sacks who don’t knit, and think jumpers and gloves just appear like magic out of a pile of yarn and two pointy sticks, I need to point out that you need a pattern.

The pattern tells you how much yarn you need, what type, how many stitches to cast on, what to do with them, when to stop, when you’ve fucked it up so badly you need to unravel the whole sodding thing and start again (not bitter).

The pattern also has a nice big picture on it that shows you what the finished garment is supposed to look like.

These pictures are universally shite.

Look at some of these – would you ever want to knit anything that made you look like you just woke up naked in a stable and grabbed the first horse blanket you could see?

Woman in brown cardigan

A cardigan the colour of shite, with peach trousers. Mmmmm

Sewing patterns do not do this (yeah, I sew too, get me).

Sewing patterns are stylish, with slender models rocking the latest looks, or artist-drawn pictures of what the clothes will look like if you have a team of tailors at your disposal and can actually understand the instructions about putting in zips. Sewing pattern pictures are aspirational.

Butterick sewing pattern 6582. Who wouldn’t want to make this beauty, despite there being no photo and no-one has a 1950’s hourglass figure anymore?

Too many knitting pattern pictures look as if the knitwear has been shoved on top, like dressing a Twinkle doll in cut-out cardboard clothes with tabs to hold it in place (that dates me).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some patterns – often from indie designers – look lovely and tempting and don’t scream I’M WEARING THIS BECAUSE SOMEONE OLD MADE IT FOR ME AND I’M TAKING IT OFF AS SOON AS THEY’VE GONE BACK TO THEIR CARE HOME.

The pink reminds me of travel sickness pills. And what’s with the foxy secretary look – in a pink short-sleeved jumper??

The thing is, most of these patterns are perfectly good designs. In the right colour, with the right clothes, without those massive brown plastic buttons you only get on home-knitted stuff, they will look OK. But you have to reimagine them.

The only way to do this is to take the pattern picture, hold it at arm’s length, squint and imagine it:

  • In a colour that isn’t lime green or diarrhoea brown.
  • On a model who isn’t 18 trying to look 70.
  • With a different background to the ‘walking across a field or standing by a barn door’ that seems to be essential if you are photographing knitwear.
  • With a model wearing normal clothes, not a tweed skirt last seen on Nancy Mitford in 1934 or some bizarre colour combination.

It can be done brilliantly, and lots of independent knitting designers come up with draw-dropping pattern photos that have you reaching for your cable needle.

Family in homemade aran cardigans

Be honest – if you saw them coming at you with that net, you’d run a mile

But a lot of the established companies (I’m looking at you, Sirdar and Wendy) have fallen way behind.

Or have they? The fact they are still going after all these years means they must be doing something right, yes?

Maybe they are appealing to a (much) older knitter, whose eyes are too feeble to see just how wince-inducing that lilac and pistachio Fair Isle jumper is.

Whoever it is, it isn’t me.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #12 : Dick Turpin season 1 (1979)

Dick Turpin title sequence

When I was twelve, Dick Turpin was the most exciting programme on a TV calendar that included such classics as The Muppet Show, 3-2-1, Tales of the Unexpected and Not The Nine O’Clock News, as well as unappreciated gems Sapphire and Steel (sheer brilliance), It’s A Knockout and Rentaghost ***pause for misty-eyed reminiscences***.

Robin’s Nest and Man About The House – Richard O’Sullivan’s previous shows – had never darkened our black and white screen, which was fiercely policed by my father, who would have no truck with light comedy (Are You Being Served and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum excepted).

Therefore, I had no preconceived ideas about O’Sullivan as a lightweight beta male flummoxed by female flatmates and one-armed kitchen hands. To me, he was a dashing, dandy highwayman with a strong sword arm and a warm heart.

Dick Turpin & Swiftnick

Dick and Swiftnick. What larks they had

I loved the series so much I bought the book (see previous post), and reading must have cemented the storylines in my head, because I can remember every one of them. For someone who regularly forgets where the reverse gear is on my car, this is momentous.

I also discovered  that when it comes to fiction and drama, most of the things I love now are just a midnight gallop away back to Dick Turpin. Outlaws! Swords! Flintlocks! Dastardly plots! Rougeish heroes! Cunning tricks! Feisty women! Inns and ale and pies! Billowing white shirts! And I thought my finely honed writing style was the result of decades of experience and painful fine tuning.

Apart from the nostalgia hit, the programme itself has survived the last 38 years with surprising robustness. The acting is low key but solid, and while all the action seems to take place around the same field and tumbledown barn, it is still exciting and atmospheric.

A favourite episode is The Poacher, when Dick and his sidekick Swiftnick come across a perfumed fop called Wiloughby who has – apparently – just been robbed. Dick later fools Wiloughby by pretending to be a bewigged buffoon himself, but in a double twist, Wiloughby turns out to be a highwayman in disguise. The scene where they are trading quips while swordfighting back to back is sheer swashbuckling fun.

The Imposter, where Swiftnick’s uncle is shot and everyone blames Dick, is both shocking and satisfying, but the best episode is the last one of the series, The Jail-birds. The main characters – both good and nasty – end up locked in a cell together. There is very little action, just a lot of smart dialogue, some real history chucked in, a cunning twist and the re-emergence of a forgotten character as an unlikely saviour.

Scene from Dick Turpin

Richard O’Sullivan punching his way out of a brown paper bag

Dafter episodes involve Dick being mistaken for a prize-fighter and having to beat the local big bully (cue snorts of derision from my father, who hooted that Richard O’Sullivan couldn’t punch his way out of a brown paper bag. Why the colour of the bag mattered, I have no idea).

Having a rogue highwayman who turned out to be a beautiful woman (gasp! how could no-one tell?) in The Pursuit was an excuse to inject some frilly 17th Century lingerie into the show and The Hostages – where big baddy Sir John Glutton suddenly develops a never-before-mentioned niece and Swiftnick is involved in a half-arsed kidnap attempt – felt as if it had been dreamed up on the back of a beer mat.

I was gutted to discover Series 2 isn’t on YouTube, but there is a DVD – and Christmas is coming.

Definition of boredom

deflated yellow balloon in a tree

I was walking the dog across a field last week.
In the distance, where the trees began, I could see something orange, bright in the dreary November morning.
It was near the base of a tree, and as I got closer, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was so out of place, so different from the usual, flat landscape.
I often see dead balloons caught on hedgerows, their nasty shiny plastic and tangled ribbon never rotting, forever proclaiming A Baby Boy! and Happy Retirement!
This though, was too big to be a balloon and too far off the track to be flytippers. This was interesting.
Or not.
It turned out to be a teeny tiny tent – the kind you pitch over your firewood or food store. It had clothes pegs on it and had obviously blown off someone’s line. I found all of this fascinating.
This was the single most interesting thing that happened to me all week.
I have to get out more.

The four books I bought when I was 12

Book token ad

Christmas 1979 and someone gave me a £2 book token. It was a slip of pink paper, a bit like Monopoly money, stating CANNOT BE EXCHANGED FOR CASH and NO CHANGE GIVEN.
It came inside a card with a robin on the front, and to spend it I was taken into Sheffield to Hartley Seed, a big, proper bookshop.

books on a bookshelf

Go on, choose just four


I had never been in a bookshop to browse before.
My pocket money was saved up and spent one volume at a time at the local newsagent, and I was building up my collection of Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outer books (so much superior to the stupid Famous Five and their soppy dog and silly island). With £2 I could complete the set with ease.
I don’t remember getting anywhere near the Blyton shelf. I was distracted by the rows of enticing stories, beguiled by their exciting descriptions and bewitched by their entrancing covers.
I bought four books – four! That makes that £2 book token equivalent to, say, £25 today.
I don’t know whether it was my impressionable age or the novelty of the situation but those books have had a lifelong effect on me.
Dick Turpin by Richard Carpenter

At 75p, the most expensive book of the bunch, but oh so worth it


The first one I fell upon was Dick Turpin by Richard Carpenter. I hadn’t realised you could buy books of TV series that weren’t annuals, and Dick Turpin was, along with Tales of the Unexpected and Sapphire and Steel, compulsory viewing for me at the time.
It was pricy – 75p – but a quick flick through was like watching the series all over again (this is the pre-video age, and I only had my memory to rely on when reliving Dick and Swiftnick’s hair-raising adventures).
I can still remember the thrill when I started reading the first page – that someone had sat down somewhere and typed these words out, and here they were, in a book in my hands. One day, I knew, I’d write a book just as exciting.
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

Lesson: Don’t judge a book by its blurb

The second book was a dud. Overwhelmed with the opportunities open to me, I was beguiled by the blurb on the back of The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.
It was about two dogs and a cat who, for reasons I never fathomed, become separated from their owners and have to walk across Canada to be reunited.
I don’t like animal stories. I don’t even watch David Attenborough. It was a huge disappointment.
The three pets didn’t ‘escape death at almost every step’ and Bodger the bull terrier’s much vaunted ‘strong sense of humour’ must have lost a lot in Canadian translation.
In the following weeks I bitterly regretted not spending that 50p on The Mystery of the Invisible Prince by Enid Blyton.
The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt

Oh lucky hand of fate that drew me to The Search For Delicious


But the third book was a dream. It, like Dick Turpin, made such a lasting impression on me I called the main character in Shriven after one of its characters. The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt is a beautiful story, and the one by which I have measured all others, ever since.
It has everything a good fantasy story should have. The hero is a foundling abandoned at the castle gates. There are mythical creatures – a 900-year-old woldweller, cave-dwelling, apple-loving dwarves and a mermaid who lost her doll.
There is a baddie who brings war down upon the kingdom. There is a quest, a magic whistle and the most satisfying conclusion ever. The names are good. It even has a map.
The Search For Delicious was 50p. That left me with 25p. Even in 1979 it was going to be hard to find a book for 25p. But I persevered in the Ladybird section and came up trumps with Garden Flowers for 24p.
Garden Flowers, a Ladybird Book

Lovely pictures and non-patronising descriptions. A lesson for all childrens’ writers


This was written by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald and illustrated by John Leigh-Pemberton.
It isn’t a childish book, but a straightforward guide to some lovely English cottage garden flowers. I poured over the beautiful pictures for years, imagining I lived in the stately home you catch occasional glimpses of.
Many of the plants it features have done time in my own garden. Short sentences usually – I have the opposite to green fingers (blue toes?)and my lupins, pansies, lilies and alliums rarely last a year.
These were the four volumes I took to the till – dashing adventure, classic epic fantasy and the ultimate escapist garden. Oh, and a bunch of wet animals wandering about.
Their influence on what I read now, and how I strive to write, has been incredible – tight, clever plots, excitment, intriguing characters, tried and tested tropes, wry humour and a light sprinkling of magic. And no plodding pets.
And, despite the edict that no change would be given, the woman at the till took my voucher and gave me a penny change. Result.
Picture from Garden Flowers

The spark for a hundred stories


Picture from Garden Flowers

One day I will live here…