The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Paperback Writer

In memory of Terrance Dicks. The following is an excerpt from an article written in 2016  for a charity book that has yet to see the light of day. If the book ever gets a release date, I'll delete this article. Consider it a sneak preview.

About a dozen years ago I was at a party somewhere in London, celebrating something to do with Doctor Who. I can’t remember precisely what it was but I celebrated it heartily, drinking until I was very much in that state where the interval between ‘thinking of things to say’ and ‘saying them’ is no interval at all. I remember that Paul Cornell was there with the legendary Terrance Dicks, and he was asking people to talk to Terrance because he was feeling a bit left out. The problem was, everyone was far too intimidated to approach him because although Terrance is a very approachable person he is also, to a generation of Doctor Who fans, something of a God. When somebody is responsible for making you fall in love with literature, of turning you into a voracious bookworm, it’s quite hard to think of what to say to them. When you’re a small child, the names of authors on book covers are burned into the core of your being, you don’t imagine them ever being real people you might get to meet in a pub. Terrance Dicks is one such name, up there with Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and CS Lewis. His name just transports me back to childhood when I would sit absorbed in his books for hours, re-reading them again and again, my imagination running wild, filling my mind with the stories. Taking them into my heart.

But there Terrance Dicks was, an embodiment of the contradiction in terms that is a ‘living legend’, and he was feeling a bit left out. And so, emboldened by alcohol, I approached him with some other fans – we may have formed a ‘throng’ – and struggled to think of anything to say. For all of us it was a very awkward social situation to be in – and these are people for whom any social situation is very awkward – because all the normal conversational gambits, ‘Hello’, ‘So what do you do?’ ‘How do you know Tom?’ all seem absurd, because this is Terrance Dicks you’re talking to, the name from your childhood, not a stranger.

So instead – this is why I mentioned the alcohol earlier – we just asked him questions about Doctor Who. He took it in good spirits, he knew we were all fans, we all knew he was Terrance bloody Dicks, there was no point in dancing around it and trying to be grown-up and professional. I think, actually, he found it rather flattering. And when it came to my turn, so I asked him the question I have always wanted to ask him, which was; “You know the bit with the chessboard in The Five Doctors, where the secret to how to cross it has something to do with pi? Well – how does that work, exactly?”

His reply was typically concise, consisting of five words: “I”, “have”, “no”, a word that I’m sure you will be able to fill in yourself, and “idea”. He went on to explain that he’d just made it up as a puzzle that the Doctor and the Master would be able to work out, and that it was probably too complicated for mere mortals to understand.

Anyway, having broken the conversational ice, I suddenly found myself talking to Terrance Dicks. Or at least, he was staring at me, as though to say “Is that it or do you have any more?” So I had to rack my brains for another thing to ask him. My brains came back empty, which is how I ended up asking him:

“You know, Terrance, when you were writing the Doctor Who books in the late 70s, do you ever wish that you had been given more time to do them?”

“No, not really, I felt I always had enough time -”

“No, I mean, that you were limited, in the number of pages that you had to tell the story, that you couldn’t do a better job –”

Terrance was now looking at me with great amusement. “A better job?”

“I mean, no, the books were still great, but with say, Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl, don’t you wish that if you’d had more pages you could’ve done more with it –“

“You know,” said Terrance. “Nobody ever mentions Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl. I remember thinking I did a really good job with that, that it was one of my best ones.”

“No, I mean, I enjoyed it too, but -” And then I ground to a halt. The other fans in the throng – which may have included Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat, amongst others – were shaking with laughter as they had watched me break the conversational ice and plunge into the frozen lake below. 

“I think maybe you should stop digging,” said Paul, throwing me a lifebelt. 

And that is the story of the first time I met Terrance Dicks.

I’m sorry if I was rude to you, Terrance. But on other hand, you gave me something that you’ve given countless readers over the past forty years. You gave me a good story.

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