About twenty years ago, while I was still living in Brighton and struggling with my first novel, Mortal Engines, I took some time off to work with my friend Brian Mitchell on a musical called The Ministry of Biscuits. It was a 1984-ish affair, set in a parallel post-war Britain where biscuits are strictly controlled by the eponymous Ministry (sensible biscuits such as the digestive and the Scotch Abernathy are permitted, of course, but dubious exotic confections like the gypsy cream and the jaffa cake are suppressed with the full power of the state). But when Cedric Hobson, a meek junior biscuit designer working on the recipe for a thinner, drier Rich Tea Finger, falls hopelessly in love with his new secretary, he resolves to win her heart by creating the most delicious biscuit ever imagined…
Brian is a much better writer than I am (the plays he writes with Joseph Nixon are all little masterpieces) and I learned a lot from working him. He’s also a very good composer, and he filled the show with songs which draw on the British Light Classical tradition, emphasising the wonky 1940s/1950s quality. (I didn’t really have much to do with the songs: I just provided Brian with tea (and biscuits) and watched him pace about my living room inventing lyrics, occasionally chucking in a suggestion when he was stuck for a rhyme.)
I think The Ministry of Biscuits was the moment when I found my feet as a writer. I knew while we were working on it that it was better than anything I’d done before. I suppose I could say that I had finally ‘found my own voice’. In fact, what I’d found was Brian’s voice, and it was such a good voice that I had to up my game considerably to try and match it. He understood things I hadn’t yet grasped, like the importance of a consistent tone, and how a scene can sometimes be funnier if it isn’t stuffed full of jokes. The lessons I learned from him helped to shape Mortal Engines, and I think there’s a hint of Mortal Engines in The Ministry… too; a kind of broad, retro sci-fi flavour which I brought to the proceedings. (Ideas flowed the other way, too: Chudleigh Pomeroy and the other senior guildsmen in Mortal Engines would feel right at home in MiniBic.) But, like any successful collaboration, now that it’s finished I find it impossible to say for sure which bits were mine and which were Brian’s. It’s simply The Ministry of Biscuits, and I’m very fond of it.
It was staged several times in Brighton in the late 90s/early 2000s, did a small regional tour, and played at the Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing much has been heard of it since. UNTIL NOW… because The Ministry of Biscuits is being revived this winter by the Foundry Group, at the Lantern Theatre in Brighton.
Much has changed since we wrote The Ministry… Back then, the idea of the government trying to control what biscuits people liked was an absurdist fantasy – now Public Health England is probably busy drafting stringent dunking regulations. How will this whimsical bit of lightweight political satire from the liberal late ’90s fare in the age of Brexiteers and Corbynoids?
The Pug-A-Doodle-Do launch party at The Alligator’s Mouth children’s bookshop last weekend was great – you can read Sarah McIntyre’s full account here. And here’s a list of other events I’ll be doing this autumn. Click on the links below for booking details etc. (I’m still waiting for details of a few, so I’ll update this post when I get them.)
Saturday 7th October: Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Thursday 12th-Saturday 14th October: Dun Laoghaire Library family fun day (details tbc)
Friday 13th October: Deptcon, Dublin.
I’ll be doing an evening panel event, talking about Railhead and Black Light Express – more details when I get them.
On Saturday 28th October I’m planning to be at Bristolcon, my favourite SF convention – I’m not doing any events there, but lots of lovely and interesting people will be, so it’s well worth a look if you’re in the area. And if you’re desperate to get your copy of one of my books signed or just want to say hello you’ll find me wherever the coffee is.
What with one thing and another I’ve been too busy to publish any new fiction this year – although I have been hard at work on Railhead 3, which will be coming out next spring. (I’ll be announcing the title and sharing the cover artwork soon.)
But although Sarah McIntyre and I won’t be releasing a new story until next autumn we are publishing one book together this year, and here it is – PUG-A-DOODLE-DO, the Reeve & McIntyre Bumper Book of Fun:
When those nice people at Oxford University Press asked us to come up with an book of doodling and colouring activities based on characters and illustrations from our four books with them (Oliver and the Seawigs, Cakes in Space, Pugs of the Frozen North, and Jinks and O’Hare, Funfair Repair) we had to have a good hard think…
And some full and frank discussions…
We decided that we didn’t want to just re-use pictures from the other books, so we ended up writing and drawing quite a lot of new material too, including some surprisingly pointless quizzes, the autobiography of Colin the superstar crab, a day in the life of put-upon space tyrant Lord Krull, Iris the Mermaid’s Beauty Tips and super villain Stacey de Lacey’s frankly disturbing debut as an agony aunt. There are, inevitably, Quite A Lot Of Pugs. It was also a chance to publish print versions of a few things which have hitherto existed only online, like the excellent character drawing guides which Sarah produces to go with all our books, and the touching tale of Kevin, the Dartmoor Pegasus.
That lot filled about half the book. For the rest, I went to Sarah’s studio in London’s exotic Deptford, where we sat up late into the night dreaming up jokes and activities to fill the remaining pages. This resulted in some lovely spreads…
…and some rather odd ones…
…and towards the end it all started to get a bit Conceptual…
Anyway, PUG_A_DOODLE_DO is available now from all UK booksellers, price £10, and I think it’s turned out rather well. When I was a kid I always looked forward to the Bumper Summer Specials which comics like the Dandy and Whizzer and Chips used to publish in the summer holidays – extra thick editions crammed with stories, jokes and puzzles – and I hope our Bumper Book of Fun has something of that quality. It made us laugh like drains while we were thinking it up, so hopefully it will amuse somebody else too. Here’s my 8-year-old cousin Aretha test-driving a copy, and she seems to approve!
If you’re able to get to Tales On Moon Lane bookshop in London’s exotic Herne Hill this coming Saturday (8th September) Sarah and I will be launching the new book with a special doodling event, featuring guest pugs (including pug superstar Benny Bean).