Sunday 23 March 2014

Who on Earth is Tom Baker.

About a quarter of an hour passed, during which time several of the rooted queue glanced furtively at the man who’d coughed, as if in the desperate hope that he might cough again and thus suggest that we were still alive.  As these sly glances darted about the Trappist line, something happened; an event took place.  This event changed my life.
- Tom Baker, Who on Earth is Tom Baker?


I deny this reality.
- The Doctor

So, final time then: my first confirmable memory is watching Tom Baker bang a ganglion to annoy a prawn.  I’ve repeated this in public so many times over the last year on podcasts, online articles, printed essays and so on, that it might even be true.  If it isn’t, who cares? 

While I’m being familiar, how do you want me to go about this?  Perhaps you’d prefer an analogous road trip; maybe something psychogeographical; possibly an introspective retrospective; the old favourite’s always the painfully unfunny vanity piece - I usually fall back on that one.  Let me know at the end, we’ll have given most of them a tip of the fedora by that point.  If we work on the basis that time is simply an illusion then it doesn’t really matter where we begin or end, or even what order the story’s told in.  Let’s start near the end then.

On a hill in the Arctic Circle there’s a shop that sells toys, comics, nostalgia and books.  In the year before the old wizard’s third big screen outing, the Him had spotted a friendly face staring fixedly from one of the high ledges above the poster section.  Hidden amongst the Adventure Time handbags and optimistically-priced t-shirts, crouched the Doctor.  The Him immediately set his heart on this image in cardboard.  I asked one of the assistants how much it would probably cost - you can see where this is going.  When I’d recovered, I thanked her, grabbed the Him and we ran out into the teeth of a screaming ice storm.  The Him was quite disappointed by this turn of events.

One damp Friday, at the start of last December, I made the final payment on a piece of original Mark Buckingham M*****man artwork.  It was too big to fit in a bag, so getting it home was a challenge.  Flushed with enthusiasm and a sense that anything was possible - it was a payday - I made an executive decision and cajoled the Him into a return journey to the blinding white wastes.  I set my jaw in a stoic jut and we trudged through the ghosts and up the endless hill, toward the future in general.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next.  I asked an assistant, again, how much the relic would cost and got told a totally different price.  Oh well, anything’s possible.  The chap headed into the dungeons to find a ladder, leaving us with a hairy minder who may or may not have been an employee.  With a lot of grunting - and under the breath swearing - the Doctor was pulled from his hiding place near heaven and lowered into my sweaty hands.  This was the point that I realised it wasn’t just a torso, but a life-size replica - it’s still taller than I am, even after all that exercise.  Our hairy minder stuck his head next to the Doctor and started grinning, pointing and bellowing: “Hey!  Tom Baker!  Hey!  It’s Tom Baker!  Hey!"  Which was nice. 

The Him was glowing with earned embarrassment by now and I was starting to panic about how we were going to get this giant effigy home.  Luckily, he folded in two places.  Unluckily, he didn’t fold into a shape that would fit into any of the shop’s bags, so me and Him headed out into the howling hell with the Doctor stuffed into a black sack.  Behind us, someone was having a strip torn off for flogging the shop’s not-for-sale mascot.  The angry shouts were soon scraped away by the storm’s icy claws.  We got home undamaged and propped our guest up between The Scream and the bookshelf, where he spent a fortnight terrifying me whenever I entered the room.   

The festive season came and went and one of humanity's illusory chronometer clicked once, causing the arbitrary concept of a twenty and a fourteen to begin appearing on fuel bills.  Shortly after this, the lower third of the UK lost a bet with Neptune and had to cosplay as Atlantis for a couple of months.  Then, just when it seemed that nothing new would ever happen again, Tom Baker announced he’d be making a belated birthday appearance in London’s Sci-Fi Collector Stamp Centre Shop on London’s The Strand in London. 

Seeing as I’d recently said to the Him that I’d do whatever it took to meet Tom Baker while I still could, this put me in a bit of an awkward position - and not just because the manifestation was scheduled for first thing on a Thursday morning in a different country. 

Let’s go back a bit now – don’t worry, it won’t take too long.  There’s something about the Doctor that I’d like to clear up.  A lot of people seem to confuse the character with the actor – which is ridiculous.  There’s only ever been one Doctor and a succession of thespians whose skin he hides in for as long as he’s having fun; the only mortal who ever came truly close to imprisoning the myth was Tom (“Well, yes, some people know me as that”) Baker.  That’s not even an opinion, it’s a fact.  Or as close to a fact as we’re likely to get in this murky confusion.

This where I should really start listing viewing figures and dull pseudo-scientific rot.  What’s the point?  Search your heart; you know it to be true.  Yeah, you do. 

And this is the point where I’m supposed to regale you with my childhood memories of learning to read through Target books, the unutterable glory of Doctor Who Weekly’s comic strips, the raw, eyeball-scratching terror of the wizard’s television adventures and…  Look.  Shall we just take all that as read?  I’m hardly expressing a unique experience here.  Some of us - maybe even you - are of an age to remember being there at the moment this strange British character became first an icon, then a folk hero and then… something else, something other.  Something very possibly immortal.  Something looking very, very much like a god.1 

I phoned London’s Sci-Fi Collector Stamp Centre Shop on London’s The Strand in London to make sure I’d got all the details correct.  The gentleman I spoke to was lovely and very helpful.  I told him I was planning to bring down a life-size standee and he laughed.  

Yeah, you should.  We’ve got one in the doorway advertising the event.  This might be the last signing that Tom does though, so make sure you get here early.”

“Ah, right.”  I told him I’d be travelling down from the Arctic Circle.

“That’s not the furthest.  I’ve heard someone’s coming from the States.”

Suitably mollified, I thanked him, hung up, booked the necessary time off work, bought a coach ticket and started preparing for the pilgrimage.

Millions of years later, the day of manifestation arrived.  I muddled my way through work, journeyed home, did the ironing, showering and general ablutions and waited until it was as dark as it gets up here, before heading off for the first stage: by train.  The standee folded mostly into a black sack, with only the hat sticking out.  There was a fair gale blowing, trying its best to steal the stationery statue, flicking it away.  I managed to hang on until the train slid into the station like an anaconda.  The doors opened to reveal a brand new penny on the floor.  Taking this as a sign of good fortune, I picked it up and lumbered aboard. 

I made fairly good time to the main railway station and hopped off, self-consciously lugging the folded Doctor up the hill adjacent to the shop he’d come from and into the bus station.  I found the coach fairly easily; the driver checked my ticket and said I could carry the Doctor on as hand luggage.  The coach was fairly empty, which was a relief.  I’d decided not to risk the luggage hold as it’d be embarrassing to present a childhood hero with a mangled effigy to enhance, so I slipped the Doctor between my knees and the seat in front, then prepared for the long-haul interactive veal experience. 

We didn’t depart until Thursday in the end, which left me in the delightful position of already being late ten hours before anyone else needed to start queuing.  The coach filled up in Manchester.  The gentleman forced to sit next to me was obviously uncomfortable but made a huge effort not to damage whatever it was that I had in my sack, for which I’m grateful.  It had been light for about an hour before I finally managed to fall asleep.  

In the end, the coach was only quarter of an hour late landing at London’s Victoria’s Coach Station in London.  I’d guessed that I’d be daft to try and make it on foot, so spent half of my emergency budget on a Tube ticket to Embankment.  After nine hours sat in the same position, walking had become a much more challenging activity than I was used to.  This, twinned with the fact that London was also experiencing a bonus delivery of wind, hopefully made my rambling, shambling, re-enactment of Hick in the City entertaining to anyone who fancied a laugh.

While I’m crushed up against a tube door, we’ll have a quick aside to talk about London.  It’s more like a country than a city and it weeps history.  However, like every other human colony, it’s only as special as we allow it to be.  London’s largely a photoshopped ideal, filtered through a quick-cut prism of legends, celluloid and mass-reproduced images, flickering and repeating – which is how reality gets built up of course.  Holiday snaps and innuendo, lies and songs and unreliable narrators construct the fabric we hide inside as a species.  It’s a wonderful, liberating, terrible, shambolic, disappointing and understandable way to create worlds.  Apophenia meets the Naked Lunch moment.  Each of us carries a London within us – it’s as real and as false as we are ourselves.  Mind the gap.

The doors open and I come lurching out and into the human tide.  Up the stairs and out into the sunshine.  It’s beautiful but that might be post-veal experience disorientation.  Each step feels like I’m sinking into the ground slightly.  Up the shallow hill and onto London’s The Strand.  Turn right.  Advance.

And there’s a queue.  Is it the queue?  Of course it is: that fellow’s dressed as the Autumnal Doctor from JN-T’s debut season.  He's even got the socks.  The queue’s huge already.  It takes a bit of time to locate the end of it, folding around the corner off London's The Strand.  It’s 1015.

For the first hour or so, I listen to Coil.  During the eighty minutes of the Moon’s Milk Cycle the line moves about three steps per track: forty-five in total.  It’s not until I start typing this paragraph that I realise it’s the only music I took with me – everything else was spoken word.  Apart from the standee, which is whipping and twisting with each sudden blast of wind, I’ve got the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly with me.  The back up strip’s by Steve Moore; I’m listening to moon music.  We shuffle forward a step. 

Buses glide past – red, re-occurring smears filled with inquisitive faces: occupants on an unexpected safari.  We stare back at them.  My sense of time is shot to hell after the journey.  Turns out to be a surreal blessing.  We shuffle forward a step.

There’s a gap in the line to allow civilians through.  At midday I cross this invisible Rubicon.  I finally catch sight of London’s Sci-Fi Collector Stamp Centre Shop on London’s The Strand for the first time.  My heart sinks.  It’s not far – you could walk it in moments – but it might as well be on the moon.  By my calculations, I’ll have to leave at 1330 if I’m going to walk – I can wait until 1400 if I’m going to spend the rest of my emergency money on another game of underground sardines.  We shuffle forward a step.

I’ve been putting names from Facebook to people around me.  I’ve reached the point that I’m almost certain I ‘know’ at least ten of them.  Of course, I’ve gone to such lengths to retain my anonymity that none of them’d recognise me, so there’s not much point announcing myself.  We shuffle forward a step. 

One of Coil’s guest vocalists walks past.  I have to stop myself from calling out.  It’s a very odd moment.  We shuffle forward a step.

By 1350, I’m fourteen people away from the front of the queue.  Punters are being allowed in two at a time.  We shuffle forward a step.

1400.  Although there’s some griping in the queue, what can you do?  Punters are walking out, clutching envelopes and grinning.  Eight people in front of me.  We shuffle forward a step.

1410.  Four people in front of me.  I can see in the shop now.  There’s another queue there.  We shuffle forward a step.

1415.  It’s just me and a lovely fellow now.  I’m remembering the joke about the Channel swimmer who makes it until he’s a mile from France, then gives up and turns back.  We shuffle forward a step-

- and we’re in the shop.  The queue moves much faster here.  The Lovely Fellow strikes up a conversation with me – he’s as excited as I am.  After a quick chat with the shop owners – I think one of them remembers me from my phone enquiry but that’s because I always think stuff like that – I’m allowed to make a token payment in lieu of purchasing one of their prints.  This means I can get the magazine signed as well as catch the underground and buy some water. 

I’m shaking as the Lovely Fellow heads forward to meet the Doctor.  I’ve purposefully not tried to snatch a glimpse yet – time’s weird enough as it is, I can wait.  I take a fumbled photograph of the Lovely Fellow's moment with the Doctor.  Now it’s my turn to drift briefly into Tom Baker’s life. 

Mixed in with the rest of the day’s surreality, he's just eyes, smiles and curls to begin with.  I fumble the standee out of the bin bag and bring out the gold pen I picked up specially a fortnight ago.  I try and explain about the Him and the whole pilgrimage thing and get a chuckle.  The gold pen doesn’t work so great - strange, I’ve been shaking so much the ink flow should’ve been like molten ice.  The Doctor gets signed twice, the second time in moon-silver.  I hand over the Doctor Who Weekly.

“Could you sign this ‘to Al’, please, Mr Baker?”

He’s amused.  He signs the square where the transfers aren’t, scratches his cheek once, thoughtfully and then

His eyes are huge – he’s far too real.

“Are you… Al?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“HA!”  His laugh’s huge and rattles my ribs. 

“Thank you for everything, Mr Baker.”  I shake his hand and our individual journeys disentangle.

I retraced my steps to Embankment, then to Victoria, then to the coach station.  All tucked in, the coach headed off in a stuttering exit from the imaginary city.

I stared out of the window, trying to find some sort of sense and failing.  The coach stopped next to a Marble Arch that looked very different to what I was expecting.  While we idled there, I watched the people passing on the pavement below, their lives drifting by silently through the glass; our slipstreams interacting with only the flimsiest of connections.  The coach was next to a small market with a newspaper dispenser set up adjacent to its fruit stall.  A young girl, possibly on her way home from school, stopped the adult she was with and pulled him and his bike over to the metal containers.  She yanked one open, pulled out a newspaper and began flicking through it quickly.  She stopped about five pages in, pressed her finger down against the photo on the page and started laughing hysterically.  Then, she pulled out about seven other copies, folded them into her rucksack and skipped off. Smiling and pushing his bike, the adult followed.

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
- Bertrand Russell
Dedicated - with immense gratitude - to Tom Baker and Steve Moore. 

Thanks to all the staff of London’s Sci-Fi Collector Stamp Centre Shop on London’s The Strand.

1.  Trust me, there’s a legitimate case to be made for this.  But not today. 

No comments: