Sitting in my local pub in Nottingham, talking to a guy who lived on one of the other floors of Alexandra House, I started expounding on one of the, to me, great virtues of punk/new wave. Which was, for want of a better word, it’s ephemerality.
This was December 1978, still part of a decade in which, outside the rarefied castles of the ProgRock titans and their wannabes, the trope was that bands had to pay their dues before they could be taken seriously. Yes, in order to achieve success and build careers, bands had to have done a minimum of three years gigging in appalling conditions, living on the road, playing in every crappy place under the sun for impossibly small fees before they could be considered fit to progress to making worthy albums of worthy music. And they had to have beards.
But why did you have to spend three years of your life wasting your time on repetitive rituals? Why can you only achieve success by ‘honing your chops’ in every small town you could think of? Why, if you’ve got the ability, can’t you get down to it whilst you’re fresh?
And, I argued, some bands don’t have a career in them. Some bands maybe only have three minutes of genius in them, one song that lights up the universe, tears at hearts and feet, fills you up with its wonderfulness.
That was the glory of punk/new wave for me, with the tiny independent labels, the rushed out releases: the chance to get that three minutes of glory out there for us to hear, instead of drowning it in practiced rote and a dull adherence to the rules.
I quoted examples. There was The Tours’ ‘Language School’, a brilliant, pulsing, thrashing guitar and pumping bass with a one-note riff that buoyed the whole thing up, and nobody ever heard anything else from them that sounded remotely as good, but so what? We had that song and we were better off for it, and would it make a difference to ‘Language School’s charms if there was never an album’s worth of songs slapped around it?
Or, I said, take The Undertones. I explained about them being from Derry, and getting in touch with John Peel, and getting ‘Teenage Kicks’ not only onto his show but into the Top 40 and on Top of the Pops (by this time the song had had a three-week chart career, peaking at 31). They’ll probably never make a record remotely as good as that again, hell, they might not ever make another record at all, but we’ve got this one, and it’s brilliant, and that’s because they could go into a local studio and record it and release it, without any thought of having to do anything but bring us this song.
That’s what’s so great about punk/new wave.
Probably never make a record remotely as good as that again. Might not ever make another record at all.
I went home to Manchester over Xmas, lugging my hi-fi home because I was going to be gone for ten days. It was the Winter of Discontent, snow choking Britain on New Year’s Eve and, in order to be back at work for January 2, I had to travel by train with only what I could carry. No hi-fi for over half the month, until the roads were safe for my mother to drive over and deliver it. I had nothing for entertainment but the TV lounges and my transistor radio.
And then Peely played the second Undertones single…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kh0JcwMeQ6M


This Blog always promotes Rick Geary Kickstarters (and it always pledges, too). Rick’s latest project is Murder at the Hollywood Hotel, details of which can be found at the other end of this link. The Kickstarter requires $5,000.00 to be fully funded and already has $1,290 – better than 25% of the goal – in the first day.

This is Geary’s fourth Kickstarter project, and all the first three have been successful, and great books as well.

Do yourself a favour, have a look and get in on the ground floor. UK Residents should add $10.00 to their pledge for the book itself, to cover the additional costs of postage.

Have fun!


                                                                                      A Don Harley panel

And this is an undeniable nadir.
The Earth-Stealers is a horrible mess from beginning to truncated end, thirteen weeks of which not a panel can be justified, a story whose provisions and effects disappear utterly the moment the next story begins, and which is an insurmountable block in any attempt to collate the various Dan Dare stories into a coherent chronology.
Nor does it have any artistic highlights to at least leaven the criticism, for it is presented throughout in the horrible split-cover fashion foisted on Eagle in the latter weeks of The Platinum Planet, complete with the airless five tier cram on page 2.
Dan and Digby, in the Zylbat, return from years away in deep space to find the Earth surrounded by clouds so that it looks like Venus. Under the cloud cover, they find that the planet has drastically changed: Spacefleet HQ is under water, so too is London, capital cities the world round are deserted and English country villages have turned into swamp and jungle in the tropical heat. In fact, the whole of Earth’s population has vanished.
Finally, our heroes find a remote settlement high in the Andes, only to find themselves shot at when they climb over its wall. The camp belongs to Earth Reclamation Ltd, and the pair are brought before its Director, a South American looking type called Malvol, whose assistant looks like an ex-Nazi concentration camp commander (and probably is).
This is where we get the explanation. During the years of Dan and Digby’s absence (and we are given no clue as to how many years that is), Earth underwent a dramatic increase in temperature and expansive climatic change, shortly followed by a virulent but unexplained plague, which decimated population, so Earth’s Government gave up and evacuated the planet to Mars. Malvol has been given the job of investigating if it’s going to be possible to come back, with a bit of work, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s planning on taking over for himself.
You may well be asking yourself, What the F? (sorry, the Reverend Marcus Morris may be long gone but we’ll have no language like that around here, even though it’s by far and away the most appropriate). This is a large chunk of hindsight, given the years we’ve been exposed to theories about Global Warming and the long term gradual effects of what man has achieved in a considerably more polluted world than that of Dan Dare, but just how bloody long are he and Digby supposed to have been away for?
Climate-changed planet incapable of supporting life, AND a devastating plague all at once? Evacuation to Mars, which is incapable of supporting human life outside of its luxury and limited dome accommodation? Are you serious about this? Giving a private, commercial organisation the contract to see if the planet’s fit to move back to when half of it is still underwater, and lions have shifted their natural habitat to Surrey?
There isn’t an ounce of this that’s remotely plausible, and since we all know that Dan’s going to expose Malvol as some kind of would-be dictator anyway, there is no remotely conceivable way of getting out of this situation for as long as the Dan Dare series lives. The storyline is beyond a joke.
As is the incredibly perfunctory ending. Dan and Digby escape in the Zylbat and head towards Mars to verify this idiot tale. Malvol frames them as having the Plague, which at least results in the unloved (by me) Zylbat being blown to pieces. We don’t get to see anything on Mars that would remotely make the background credible, just Spacefleet’s new HQ and Acting-Controller Burke, late of the Security Division (Sir Hubert went off on a deep space mission shortly after the Zylbat first disappeared: nothing comes of that, so maybe a search for him might have been the next storyline if something bigger hadn’t intervened).
Burke’s suspicious of Malvol but hasn’t a shred of proof, so he lets Dan and Digby ‘escape’ in an unguarded two-seater, to go back to Earth and get the goods for him. En route, Dan catches up on the papers, and discovers a series of discouraging reports from one of Malvol’s experts, our old friend Lex O’Malley.
Sure enough, once Dan tracks Lex down, the Irishman confirms that his reports have been altered for the worse, obviously by Malvol. The Earth is a lot closer to being rehabitable than Mars thinks, despite the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen with Dan. It’s a long time since these friends have seen each other, but Dan hasn’t a word of friendship for the bloke he took to Cryptos: just a business call, no fraternising.
As for Lex, we have some spectacularly poor scripting from Eden, who can’t write a line of dialogue without lapsing into stage Irish cliché in word or accent. O’Malley was never remotely like this, which is not Irish but Oirish: Eden’s ear is horribly tin in this respect.
Anyway, the reason Malvol’s gotten away with everything so far is QX, which is not a forerunner of Spike Milligan’s anarchic BBC2 comedy series’ but a drug that renders Spacefleet visitors from Mars very suggestible about what they think they see, hear and, on this occasion, do. Malvol’s ready to take Mars over militarily, with a flotilla of Spacefleet ships to carry the bombs.
Until Dan and Lex pour all the QX away down the sink. Then it’s just a matter of telling everyone to pretend to be drugged until Malvol is off-Earth and neutralised, whereupon they all beat the living crap out of the would-be dictator and his Nazi aide. End of story.
I’m not going to go on about this story. What I’ve said so far is sufficient to describe the tale. But Eden is not solely culpable for the abrupt, oversimple ending. Elsewhere in Eagle, series’ were coming to sudden endings, stories were cut short. Odhams had owned Eagle for two and a half years, but now it was their turn to be bought out, this time by Longacre Press. Odhams’ name would return to the comics, as an imprint, later in the decade, but Longacre were going to put their own stamp on Eagle, and it would be the biggest upheaval the comic ever experienced.


Sometimes, tiny little details that appear to be insignificant at the time assume a greater prominence later on. Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld novels were published by Colin Smythe Ltd, but their success meant that Pratchett would need a larger publisher, and Smythe became his agent instead, whilst the hardbacks started to appear from Gollancz SF. Yes, SF.
Suddenly, however, with Guards! Guards!, the actual books went up a size, larger, wider, thicker, as if representing a more important, more prestigious approach to Pratchett’s work. That it happened with the first book of the City Watch strand is probably no more than a fortuitous coincidence, and not a subliminal recognition that the most important and serious of Pratchett’s various series was coming into being.
Certainly, Pratchett himself didn’t know at this stage what his book would lead to. Though not to the same extent as Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, Guards! Guards! is an off-key introduction to Sam Vimes and the veterans of the Night Watch that, in two respects, doesn’t quite ring true with what the characters go on to become. Indeed Pratchett, in a short preface, makes it clear that his only thoughts at this time were to pay homage to the cannon-fodder, the common guards whose usual job is to rush the hero and be beaten, and give them the centre of the story for once.
The plot is surprisingly simple. A mysterious individual manipulates a group of malcontents and losers into magical rituals that summon a real dragon into Ankh-Morpork for increasingly longer periods. His intent is to put forward a young man, posing as the long-lost King, who will ‘defeat’ the dragon and then rule, under the plotter’s advice of course. The plot develops a serious flaw when the dragon decides to stay on and rule itself. The only people to take the threat seriously are the overlooked, mocked, derided Night Watch, which includes among their minuscule number the real heir to the throne. With the aid of one of the city’s leading swamp dragon breeders, they succeed in seeing the threat off, leading to an improvement in their standing.
That’s far from all there is to it, but on that relatively straightforward foundation, Pratchett starts to build some of his finest characters.
The Night Watch, at this time, consists of three people. These are the drunken Captain Sam Vimes, the fat and bumbling Sergeant Fred Colon and the petty pilfering Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Until very recently they were four, but Sergeant Herbert ‘Leggy’ Gaskin made the mistake that the Night Watch work so assiduously not to make, and actually caught up with the villains he was pursuing, and so after the funeral, they’re all that’s left.
But they’re also soon to be restored to four, thanks to the arrival of Constable Carrot. Carrot is a dwarf, not that you’d think to look at him, given that he’s six foot six inches tall, with bright red hair and his muscles have muscles on them. Carrot’s an adopted dwarf, you see, culturally dwarfish but physically human, survivor of a cart wreck that left just a baby and a functional sword. He also has a birthmark on his upper arm, shaped like a crown.
Carrot, we are led to believe, is the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork, not that he’s aware of this.
Four of them, four no-hopers, Sad Sacks, in an unwanted organisation, in a city that has privatised crime and has thus done away with the need for Policemen.
Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs arrived perfectly whole and entire, a double act as perfectly tuned to one another as Morecambe and Wise in their prime. Pratchett got them 100% on their first outing, and if they haven’t gone on to develop, it’s because they’ve never needed to.
The slow, bumbling Sergeant with the low level sense of entitlement about freebies due his rank, comfortable, rotund, pretending to knowledge and understanding he clearly lacks, and the dirty, semi-simian Constable, perpetually smoking dog-ends, the petty pilferer and trier of unlocked doors, wiser in some ways than his superior but still unfathomably ignorant would be unbearable in real life.
But in fiction, they are a comic team who are ultimately completely endearing, because under their frailties, Colon and Nobbs are honest (to within a given value for honest) and they are loyal and, when push comes to shove as it does in Guards! Guards!, they are true, reliable and even brave (no matter whether it’s artificially stimulated).
To an extent, Fred and Nobby don’t get to play their best role here. In future books, their double act is enhanced by the added dimension of their being the past, the link to the bad times for the Night Watch: here they are the Night Watch in the bad days, and their story is of their following Captain Vimes’ example and starting to take being the Law seriously.
And then there’s Lance-Constable Carrot, the six foot six red-haired dwarf who radiates an air of absolute simplicity: well, no, not quite here. For most of this book, what Carrot radiates is naivete, and there’s a very big difference.
The problem is that there’s no-one to see through Carrot’s surface in Guards! Guards!, not like Angua will in later books, and without that kind of insight, Pratchett is limited to only showing the surface. True, Carrot starts to grow in stature towards the end of the book, when his natural charisma and innate leadership qualities come to the fore, unconsciously, but at this stage, that’s just a function of his barely concealed status as the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork.
Though it comes in handy at the end, I tend to suspect that Pratchett introduced Carrot’s heritage as an ironic counterpoint to the villain to defeat the dragon by producing an ‘heir to the throne’ of his own, an irony multiplied by the fact that it is he – Lupine Wonse, the Patrician’s secretary – who signs Carrot into the Night Watch that he, uniquely, is eager to join.
No-one, especially in the Watch itself, can understand why, especially not drunken Captain Vimes.
I believe, and I am very far from being alone in this, that Sam Vimes is Terry Pratchett’s finest creation. He is, very simply, The Decent Man. To the depths of his soul, beyond all his self-recognised failings, prejudices, shortcomings, angers and his burning desire to arrest the whole world for doing things wrong, Sam Vimes is the most honest, most principled person you will ever find. And he is all these things and believable as a person at the same time.
Just as with Carrot, I don’t think Pratchett saw this in writing this book. The intention was to honour the cannon-fodder, to put them at the centre of the story, and it’s very noticeable that it would take another seven books before he brought back the Night Watch, because I think the possibilities of Carrot and, especially, Vimes, needed that time to grow into the futures that aren’t really visible to them from here.
At the moment, Vimes is a drunk. He has no family, no relationships, nothing outside the Night Watch, which, as he is all too aware, is a joke. The news that someone wants to join the Watch, instead of being pressed into it, is incomprehensible to him. His life is empty of anything with any significant meaning, except a bottle.
What kick-starts the astonishing transformation in Vimes? The Dragon: or rather it’s a coloured silhouette on a wall, in the Shades, of four thieves who made the mistake of attacking the wrong victim. Because inside Vimes, forgotten for many years, is a Policeman. And, in the face of all opposition, from above as well as below, Vimes sets out to solve a Crime.
And in doing so, it brings the Captain to the home of Ankh-Morpork’s leading swamp-dragon breeder, who can give him very cheerful, jolly-hockeysticks professional advice about dragons, in the form of Lady Sybil Ramkin. And that starts another story for Sam Vimes…
For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on the main story, on the transformation of Sam Vimes. It’s a classic arc, the seeming no-hoper who, in a time of crisis, demonstrates an unexpected competence, even genius. Because drunken Captain Vimes is, despite his fears otherwise, a Policeman. Suspicious of others, determined to put a shape on things, but committed to the notion that those who do not have power, or privilege, status or wealth, should not have their lives destroyed for the whims of others.
Pratchett presents Vimes as the Copper Incarnate, though we’ll see this more in later books. Despite the fact that, except for comic purposes, Politics plays about as much part in Discworld as sex does, I think that Vimes is also the pure Socialist.
In the end, the Dragon is banished, the day is saved. Vimes is going to marry Lady Sybil, Carrot promoted to Constable. The tradition of rewards begins in comically minimal fashion. But in essence nothing changes, which supports my instinct that Pratchett intended nothing more than a one-off. Thankfully, he didn’t leave it like that.
And let us not forget, when we’re concentrating upon the Night Watch, that this is the book in which we first see, in all his glory, Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and guider of that city into a future more complicated than any might have imagined at this point in time.


Re-acquainting myself with the library last month, for the first time since before Christmas, my eyes happened to light upon Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud, the sixth and, to date last, in his Lake District Mysteries series featuring Historian Daniel Kind and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary Cold Crimes Squad.

Thinking it was a new book, I thought I’d give it a peruse, but I had in fact read it before, but simply not commented upon it. Feeling in the mood for a bit of malicious chastisement, and suffering from sufficient a degree of anal retentivity as to be faintly disturbed at leaving one book out, I thought I’d pass a few comments on the same.

It’s possible that this may be the last book of the series: after all, it ends with the two will-they-won’t-they-oh -get-on-with-it protagonists finally planning a shagging weekend in Wales after assiduously spending over two-thirds of the book avoiding each other rigidly on the grounds that now all complications keeping them from getting it together have been erased that they aren’t actually interested in each other at all. So, bang goes the sexual tension, which is more than the sexual tension had been going in the first place.

Plus Hannah’s publicity-seeking Deputy Chief Constable has legged it out of the Force, no longer blocking Hannah’s route to further promotion.

And, on a more sobering note, the present day murder victim is Hannah’s best friend and polar opposite, Terry, her face battered in in a brutal crime intended to echo two similar incidents – one deeply historical – which have given rise to rumours of a ghost. The killer is the least likely person, naturally, until a motive common to the present killing and the one of five years ago with which Edwards opens the book, presents itself as the closing pages approach.

The setting for this crime is once again Ullswater, in the shape of a fictional peninsula on the east shore of the lake, south of Howtown, which forms an effective closed community, inhabited by flamboyant, arty types. The book’s title is not linked to any pseudo-Cumbrian place or thing, but rather the brutal crime, which is less offensive, but mostly the book’s plus points are negativities: that it doesn’t try too hard to persuade you that it is taking place in the Lakes.

The same old criticisms apply: a complete absence of sense of place (it takes a bit more than placing Helvellyn ‘opposite’ and having Hallin Fell ‘loom’ over the scene at convenient moments when the latter is only a small fell to begin with and far too far north of Helvellyn to be in any meaningful sense opposite). Nor does anyone in the book talk remotely Cumbrian. But I repeat myself. And really, the out-of-place names for places and things are just trite this time instead of unreflective.

As a by the by, this is not the only crime fiction story I’ve read of late to set itself in the Lake District. When I’m after undemanding, easy-to-read fiction that I can just breeze through without being tempted to blog, I’ve read several of Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series: polite, mid-Victorian crime, very professional, slightly formulaic stuff whose selling point is that the crimes are all, in one way or another, connected to or facilitated by the burgeoning rail network of the 1850s. Former Barrister Robert Colbeck of the Metropolitan Police is the go-to guy for any train crime, much to the disgust of his stuffy, ex-Army Superintendent Mr Tallis and his home-loving, train-fearing Sergeant, Victor Leeming.

Marston’s most recent contribution to the series, which now includes a dozen novels, is a collection of short stories, a dozen indeed, spanning the whole country and including, in one tale, Ravenglass Station. Now that’s what you call personal, not merely on behalf of my spiritual county, but my great grandfather, who was Stationmaster at Ravenglass Station. Probably not quite as far back as the Railway Detective’s celebrated visit, but that’s not the point.

Honestly, Marston must have done no research whatsoever into Ravenglass Village, because the kind of community he plonked down for Colbeck to investigate made Edwards’s efforts look like a documentary. If you’re going to be that casual about your subject, bloody well make something up instead, so it doesn’t matter.

Oh well, at least I’ve got that off my chest.

 


Back in January this year, the BBC aired a beautiful hour long documentary, directed by Terry Abrahams, about a year in the life of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and I watched it and raved about it here.

At the time, I mentioned that this was an edited-down version of the original film, available on DVD in a two hour length. I have now put my hands upon this DVD and watched it, and I can only recommend it all over again, only even more.

For anyone who loves the Lakes, this is an absolute must. It’s gentle, thoughtful, unpretentiously lyrical, and the filming is some of the most beautiful and enthralling I have ever seen about the Lakes country. Abrahams has imposed no personal vision on his film, nor given it any set course. It’s organised around the four seasons, and these four sections can be viewed separately, but who, given the possibility of 126 minutes of heavenly absorption, would want to watch only a part?

Given that this is just over twice as long as the original, it’s strange to report that it doesn’t feel as if there are masses of additional material. With the exception of another interlude with the Wasdale shepherdess at the end, book-ending her introduction to the televised version, the additional material is mainly more of the same things, more conversations with the natural talkers I referred to previously, relaxed, delighted just to be where they are, as much a part of the landscape as the mountains we return  to, over and over.

My two criticisms previously are resolved in the extended original. Whilst the film itself is still Wasdale oriented, there is much more material on the Eskdale flank of the mountain, and the music, second time round, comes over as much more in tune with the whole piece. It seemed nothing like so obtrusive, and it was a fitting companion to such scenes of beauty, grandeur and enthrallment.

It was interesting to contrast pronunciations. The proper pronunciation of Scafell Pike was spelled out to be with a long ‘a’, Skaw-fell, echoing the former spelling of the title, which is what I was taught as a land, though a majority of those referencing the name did so with a short ‘a’, as in Scar – fell. On the other hand, I have always been brought up – by a Cumbrian grandfather, no less – to pronounce the valley as ‘Wast’l’, whereas people who ought to know were universally pronouncing it ‘Wass-dale’.

Too late to unlearn now.

Lovely film, and a poignant reminder of places to return to and places still to go. Worth every penny you pay for it.

 


Having celebrated Astro City‘s previous issue for demonstrating the series’ long overdue longevity, it fels incumbent to review the second half of the story, just to record how disappointing it was.

The set-up, if you don’t recall, was that Sticks, a soldier from the secretive Gorilla Mountain, had escaped and come to Astro City to pursue his dream of becoming a drummer in a band, but found this impossible due to the hassle of people wanting/expecting him to use his ‘powers’ as a superhero.

How does Busiek square this circle for his forlorn talking gorilla? Initially, Sticks succumbs to the inevitable and joins the hip, young team, Reflex 6, but after six months he leaves: it isn’t what he wants, it’s not what he is. He tries to go back to his human friends and their band, but it’s just the same as before. Moping on a rooftop, he meets Samaritan, who offers help: there is always a way. At which point, Sticks gets an idea.

This is a familiar moment in an Astro City comic, when this month’s central character is struck by inspiration and comes up with an ingenious plan, and mentally we sit back, waiting for Busiek to dazzle or amuse us with the lucidity of his idea. Except that the great idea of Sticks of how to live his life and pursue his dreams without everybody on his back, trying to force him to become a superhero and fight is… to become a superhero and fight.

Granted it’s as Tuxedo Gorilla, an immaculately dressed gorilla in a tuxedo, complete with anti-gravity spats, and Sticks is working solo, off his own beats, but it’s still a very disappointing conclusion if the only way you can prevent being a round peg stuffed into a square hole is to become a square peg. I mean, Martha Sullivan (who’s mentioned in passing) has superpowers but hasn’t had to take up superheroing.

As for the music side, that conclusion is also pretty banal: Sticks forms a band with other superhumans who are interested in music. I hope they’re happy.

What depresses me about this issue, whether Busiek intends it or not, is that it’s message is that being superhuman trumps everything, that all your choices in life are suborned into being a superhero, that all individuality is overridden. I’m not happy with that.