Deep Space Nine: s02 e24 – The Collaborator


Nothing good will come of this

I found this to be a very much better episode than those I’ve been watching in recent weeks, and not merely because this was a rare episode that formed part of a longer, ongoing chain of events. Nor even because it was another Major Kira-centric episode, with the rest of the cast only playing bit-part roles, subservient to the plot.

The open consisted of a quasi-dream sequence, identifiable as such after only five seconds or so. Vedek Bariel – Bajor’s hottest tip to become the new Kai, and Kira’s current hot squeeze – is wandering around a deserted area until he finds a body in religious clothing hanging from a gantry. Kira, hot and sweaty from a solo game of handball, cuts down the body, whom Bariel identifies as Prylar Bek (who he?). But Kira contradicts him, saying it is actually Bariel. We cut to Bariel in his quarters, closing the door on the Orb: it has been a vision, but one cast in symbolic terms.

After the credits, we get a beefcake shot of Philip Anglim (Bariel) showing off his abs, whilst Kira languishes on a couch in an off-the-shoulder and off-the-thighs sleeping shift, hair erotically rumpled (wooorgh, you’ll be badly). It’s two days before the Choosing, the selection of a new Kai, and whilst Bariel is hot favourite, Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher) is also on DS9, still battling for an edge. Kira’s openly contemptuous, Sisko diplomatically so. It’s not looking good for religious fanatics around here.

Then a seemingly unrelated understory begins, though given the episode title, we should be cautious about assuming this is the counterplot. An elderly man, Kubus Oak, is denounced on the promenade as a former member of the collaborationist Government. As such, he is a traitor, condemned to exile from Bajor, though Oak protests that he was able to minimise Cardassian brutality, and anyway, what harm can it do to allow an old man to have his last, few, ineffectual years at home?

Major Kira puts paid to that feeble excuse is a taut, clipped explanation of why some things are quite literally unforgivable, and that seems to be that, until Vedek Winn offers Kubus sanctuary. On Bajor. The Major refuses to let him leave the station, which brings everything together nicely. Winn claims that Oak has knowledge of who collaborated with the Cardassians to bring about the infamous Kendra Valley Massacre, the slaughter of 43 resistance fighters, including Kai Opaka’s son.

But everybody knows who was to blame, Kira protests. It was Prylar Bek. He admitted it in a note. Just before he went out and hung himself.

Not so, according to Kubus. Bek was just a go-between, a messenger pigeon for the real Collborator – a Vedek.

It’s obvious where Winn is going with this, and Kira gets up in her face about it, especially as the evidence is so scanty. But time is short, and the mere revelation of the suspicion would do for Bariel so Kira agrees to investigate. Her word will be seen as honest.

I should also mention that, in addition to the ongoing narrative, we are treated to other Orb-visions (Bariel just can’t keep away). These showcase Bariel’s own doubts about becoming Kai, his fears that he is inadequate to the task, and ultimately Kira will betray, and kill him.

One of the things I was definitely appreciating about this episode was that I just had no idea where it was going, and how it would come out. I suspected, given that Kira was in charge of the investigation, that it would ultimately point to Bariel, but had great difficulty in imagining how that could be the outcome without seriously violating his character.

But Bariel’s evasiveness under questioning confirmed very quickly that he was going to be found with at least one finger in the pie, and that expectation grew when it was determined that certain Vedek communications had been sealed. Sealed? They’d been wiped. And the wiper was, of course, Bariel.

It was still pretty flimsy evidence. All it was was the absence of evidence, and a cooler-headed investigator would have weighed things up more carefully, but the distraught and betrayed Kira jumped to the cheap conclusion that the records could only have been erased because they were incriminating, and obligingly, Bariel confirmed that he had given away the rebel’s location.

That he could do something like that was explained on a lesser-of-two-evils basis: the Cardassians proposed to kill everyone in Kendra Valley and Bariel, faced with the choice no human being should ever be forced to make because no answer is right, weighed 1,200 innocents in one hand, and 43 rebels in the other, and chose to spare the innocents. No wonder he felt himself to be unworthy of the Kai-ship.

This placed the Major in the invidious position of having to deliver to her hated enemy the sword with which she would execute the man Kira loved, but there Bariel had already acted to spare her: he had withdrawn from the Choosing, so Winn had no need to smear him. And Vedek Winn duly became Kai Winn. This story was far from over.

And the lesser portion of it represented by this episode was also not over. The heartbroken, betrayed Kira still couldn’t believe it of her beloved, and a little bit of lateral thinking turned up unerased records of a completely different kind that proved Bariel couldn’t possibly have betrayed the Kendra Valley rebels: he just wasn’t there at the critical time.

So, if he were innocent, who then was he protecting, who meant more to him that Kira and himself? In a final meeting, Kira answered her own question. It was Opaka herself who had betrayed the rebels, even her own son, to death, to save innocents: Bariel had taken responsibility onto himself so that faith in Kai Opaka should not be disturbed. It was an action Kira could accept, and she reaffirmed her love, as the two prepared for the difficult days ahead…

A superior episode in every respect, and one to restore my faith in the series. Only two more episodes remaining in season two: I need to get hold of season three in the next couple of weeks.

Ten Weeks Ago today…


…I went to the Rheged Centre, near Penrith, to see Terry Abraham’s Life of a Mountain – Blencathra.

In the evening, alone and exhausted in my hotel room, I used my laptop to watch the pilot episode of Person of Interest, of which I had heard enough to suggest it might be of interest (heh, heh) to me. Indeed it was. By the following Sunday night, I had watched the entire 23 episode first series.

This morning to afternoon, I have binge-watched the final four episodes of season 5, the series’ final episodes. Ten weeks, give or take a few hours, to watch a complete series from end to end, 103 episodes in total, an average of over ten a week.

And the ending was wrackingly emotional and painful and yet beautiful and perfect. People who have become objects of fascination to me over the past ten weeks died. Some survived. Something survived that may suggest that the story lingers on in episodes that will never be filmed, restored to its original, seemingly narrow purpose. One love never was, yet strangely might survive in an odd form. One love that had been broken was restored.

It’s been intense. In a few days, when the rush subsides, I’ll write about Person of Interest. For now, though, I’m going food-shopping. One hundred episodes in ten weeks kinda contracts your free time.

Visiting That London (Again)


I been there

Another Saturday morning, another Museum Trip to Our Nation’s Capital.

As you know by now, these trips are prime occasions for full-blown paranoia, especially when the affordability of tickets hinges upon singles on specific trains. As usual, I have planned with military precision: bag packed Friday night, directions carefully copied from the appropriate websites, cash in wallet, Journey Planner consulted. I have selected the 8.37 bus in the security of knowing that there are two later buses that can still get me to Stockport Station on time.

My paranoia is refuelled the moment I get to the end of my street because the 203 is just rounding the bend at the top of the hill to my right. Early, naturally.

Of course I set off running, though given the state of my knees it’s been a long time since that has resembled real running. I wave frantically to the driver that I want to catch his (actually, her) bus. This is the second time this week I’ve had to do this: the last time, the driver let me catch up to his taillights before pulling out.

This time, a young lad turns out of a side-street, sees me pounding towards him and runs back to the stop to tell the driver to wait. I have enough breath to thank him as I pass – always acknowledge a kind and decent act, especially from a stranger – and I make it.

The irony is that, once oxygen returns to my brain and I can think again, only then do I remember that, the way the Journey Planner is set up, that 8.37 isn’t the bus but rather the time I should leave my flat to walk to the stop…

Still, better to be incredibly early than even remotely late, especially when I stop into the newsagents for the paper, plus a bit of travel food and drink. The queue is not only long but it includes people who want to complicate things: the woman who wants to use her card to pay for £2.39  of sweets, the other one who wants to split three items into two purchases, one with a receipt for 65p.

Even with this, and the roundabout way I have to approach the station due to the never-ending relaying/refurbishment of the Station Approach, I’m still on Platform 2 by 9.00am, with one London train to pass through before my train arrives. Only then does that little knot of tension in my stomach dissolve.

The journey is completely uneventful. I travel backwards, sunk into my headphones, mp3 player rolling. I complete the Futoshiki, fail at the Crossword and immerse myself in a large chunk of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I bought last year and which, to date, I have only opened once. I’m on the New Wembley side and yes, the thing looks a damned sight nearer than the old Stadium was (and I’m sorry, it will never ever be iconic). We’re into Euston almost ten minutes early, and I’m so far back on the train that I step out onto the platform in direct sunlight.

It’s a long walk just to get through the station, and I don’t need a fraction of it to tell that my right knee hasn’t come off well from my ‘sprint’ of nearly three hours ago. That’s a little worrying since, my Central London geography having started to reboot, I’ve planned to walk to the Cartoon Museum on Little Russell Street. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour, I estimated.

So plod on under a serious sun, taking my time. It’s the same route initially, that I followed about a year ago, when I had that brilliant day meeting friends from the internet forum I was on. A glorious long afternoon in a Fleet Street pub comes to mind, sadly not to be repeated because it’s the best part of six months since I last posted there.

It’s astonishing how quickly and irrevocably an environment can change. One new, determined poster with his own self-centred agenda, two existing voices with whom I have no sympathy taking on new prominence, and suddenly there’s nothing more to share. Nor has my disappearance been noticed, which kinda puts things into perspective (I know my place).

Committing the directions to paper has evidently had the effect of impressing them to memory: I have no need to consult them. Even ambling as casually as I have, half an hour proves to be a generous estimation so, before entering the Museum, I divert myself into The Plough, for it’s cool air, a rehydratory half – and the loo.

The Museum I’m visiting today is nothing so grand or established as the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, nor is the Exhibition so awe-inspiring as ‘Otherworlds’. It is, however, potentially more personal, being the History of the British Graphic Novel, parts of which I have lived at reasonably close range. It also cost £7 to enter, which is not a fact advertised on the website, but I’m well prepared and I pay and enter, with a joke about how, if I’m still interested in this stuff at 60, maybe I should qualify for the Child rate?

It’s a fascinating Exhibition, covering the pre-history of the form as far back as Hogarth, and the famous ‘Beer Lane’ and ‘Gin Alley’ series of prints. Nearer the present day, it’s got dozens of original pages, which is the true fascination. These are mainly black and white inked pages, but there are ample variations: preliminary sketches, thumbnail breakdowns, full colour pages and many of these in the form of clear overlays, superimposed over the artboard itself, enabling both layers to be seen.

What interests me most is what I’m most familiar with, the explosion of creativity that was the Eighties, when I was at my most involved in fandom. I have two pages of original art from that period, and for a very long time it used to be three until, in a time of financial straitedness, and with the film boosting interest to a peak, I sold my signed Watchmen page on eBay for over £5,000.00.

Of the two I retain, my Dave Sim Cerebus page is irrelevant today, but the David Lloyd V for Vendetta is directly on point. There are other original pages on display from that and Watchmen and I linger longest, studying these examples.

Nevertheless, I spend less time than I’d expected in the Exhibition, and that tailing  away is delicately saddening. Far too many of these originals are pages from stories that post-date my involvement in that world. I have no connection to this work. I haven’t read it and a lot of it is work I don’t even know exists. They’re a reminder of hos out of it I’ve become, how disconnected. Of how lacking in buzz I am.

So, back into the sunshine. It’s sweltering, and London is milling. The sunand the heat has sparked a profusion of short shorts, and short skirts, whilst many of the ankle-length skirts are floaty and filmy. Legs are oon happy, unconcerned display everywhere I glance, golden and getting there.

I amble amiably, my aesthetic appreciation index on overdrive.

Of course I drop into Forbidden Planet, though I really don’t know why. It’s still too cramped, too crowded, too full of things that I can easily get in Manchester or, more cheaply, through the internet. What it offers is a profusion of things I have no interest in, and not merely because I don’t want to cart them round London, or home on the train. It’s no longer treasure trove and it hasn’t been for decades, literally, but still the persistence of memory takes me back to when London trips were about all you could carry of things that never made it to the north-west, and not just comics.

My plan is to wander on to Leicester Square, where their website indicates there’s a Pizza Hut. Unfortunately, my bump of location flattens out once I leave Forbiddenn Planet, and I stroll down a bunch of streets whose names are familiar, but whose relationships to Leicester Square is a mystery. I do get there, eventually, butwhen I do the Pizza Hut turns out to be an Express, basically a take-away for which there’s a long queue.

Nevertheless, I passed a Pizza Hut coming down Southampton Row so, whilst I’d rather eat now than later (it being about 2.00pm, and having woken up just before 5.00am), I decide to start ambling back in that direction.

The sun remains high and the crowds thick. I happen upon Orbital Comics and head inside but it does more than remind me that I have very few interests in comics, whether present or past. There isn’t anything to buy that would be for more than the reason of buying something. Of course, there are compilations that can replace old comics, but these tend to be more expensive and you can no longer guarantee recouping anything off the original floppies on eBay.

I do make the serendipitous discovery of Freemason’s Hall, an impressive piece of architecture I wasn’t previously aware of. My paternal Grandfather was a Mason, which I only discovered after his death. When my mother downsized to a bungalow, after her emphysema made stairs unbearable, I made arrangements to have his Masonic Medal returned to the home lodge. I am not a Mason, and would never join. Mind you, no-one’s ever asked me to.

By now, I’m moving very slowly. This is not because of my feet, since I have on soft-soled trainers today, but my shoulderbag is starting to weigh heavy, pulling painfully at my left shoulder. I need to sit down, eat and drink, and get the bag put down. Getting to Pizza Hut is a great relief.

Suitably restored, I stroll across the road to the park at Russell Square. There’s nothing left to do but go for my train, and that’s still more than two hours distant. It strikes me, as I pass a certain shop, that there is still one thing I could buy that you can’t get outside London, and that’s a Souvenir of London, which is the last thing I want (though if you offered me the head of Cameron on a plate, I’m sure I could find a corner in my bag to cram it in.)

Despite the sun choosing that moment to duck behind the first substantial cloud of the day, I stretch myself out on the grass. This is a desperate thing to do, knowing what struggles will be necessary to get back to my feet again, but nevertheless I lie in the sun for an hour, soaking up the UV. I complete the Sudoku and the Killer Sudoku and even increase the number of answers in the Saturday Prize Crossword from two to seven.

But all things must end. With my shoulder much relieved, I toddle back to Euston. even now there’s still nearly an hour before the train leaves, so I pull on my headphones, pull out Jonathan Strange and keep to myself. The parade of shorts and skirts passes before me continually. For a time, my attention keeps flickering towards a teenage girl not far from me. She’s dressed in a curiously tight, curiously archaic mini-dress that is very much of the Sixties, and she’s a slightly odd shape, her legs, indeed her lower body being rather thicker than you’d imagine if you saw her only from the waist up, but the combination of the dress, her face and the style of her hair makes me feel as if I am looking at the cover of an Armada paperback of a lost Malcolm Saville ‘Lone Pine’ book.

I’m not so far down the train this time (it will stop for me exactly opposite the platform exit at Stockport) and I’ve got a window table-seat again, but I’m still traveling backwards, this time on the opposite side of the carriage. Again the journey’s as uneventful as you could wish, though as time goes on, I start to suffer from incipient cramping in lower joints of my fingers – holding a 1,000 plus page book for that long can do that to you.

We’re slightly early again at Stockport. Ironically, after my comments about the never-ending refurbishment of the Station Approach, it’s been finished today, whilst I’ve been away. The barriers are gone, the turnaround is open, it’s in use: well, waddaya know? There’s nothing to show if the Metrolink free bus has started coming round this way again, but I walk down to the Bus Station anyway, with the traditional cough and spit as I pass my place of employment.

Another day out. I’ve missed England racking up a massive score at Old Trafford, Joe Root scoring a double century, Pakistan losing four wickets cheaply. I’ve missed Sounds of the Sixties, but that’s what the i-Player is for. Half the weekend’s gone, half the time for routine is taken up, but I don’t get to go anywhere that often so, apart from the inevitable leg and knee-aches on Sunday, it’s been a treat.

And I still have one more Museum to visit this year. Come back this way in September, I’ll have another tale for you.

Work-Related Issue


Written at work at 12.30 – 1.30pm.

I’m trying to stay cool, calm and collected at work today.

There’s only a half dozen of my team in today, and we’re just starting a week or more of being allocated to Inbound Calls. This can mean one of two things: long, dull periods when the phone doesn’t ring and the lack of anything to engage my brain either results in posts for this blog or sitting there in dull inertia for periods of time far longer than the clock contains, or being sent ‘overflow’ calls, which can be about pretty near everything under the sun, except my area of expertise. Deep joy.

But I’m aiming for coolness, calmness and collectedness because of what happened yesterday with another member of my team (who, at this very instant is laughing shrilly and making silly remarks at a decibel level far higher than that necessary to communicate with his customer).

I have been a professional for over thirty-eight years, during which time I’ve worked with, and for, several people I didn’t like. I’ve learned to maintain a professional calm, a laidbackness that concentrates upon the needs of the job rather than the desire to bash someone’s head in with the business end of a shovel. I’m having problems with this individual, however.

Most of the team thinks he’s a knobhead, for the same reasons I do, He’s loud, self-centred, argumentative and incapable of understanding anything outside his own viewpoint. He’s always talking and his voice is always loud. He always thinks he knows best.

The other week, we clashed. There was a team meeting to enable the Company to re-advise people about Data Protection, at which our standards are slipping, it seems. When we phone customers, to be Compliant, there is a specific set of words that we have to say to them, word for word. My colleague started arguing. As far as he was concerned, the specific words were wrong, and unnatural, and he wanted to say them his way, which consisted of the same words, but with the two clauses reversed. He kept arguing this, for ages, demanding to know what was different about the two phrases.

As words go, they meant exactly the same thing, except that there was one vital distinction between the two versions that he seemed completely incapable of understanding: one was Compliant, the other wasn’t. In the end, sick of the meeting going over and over something completely irrelevant – no-one in that room had access to anyone remotely able to affect the wording – I ended up loudly stating that very difference I’ve just explained. It got commented on.

So, we jump to yesterday. When we are not taking incoming calls, my team works existing cases where review or callbacks have been booked to take place in specific hour-long slots. When things are quiet, we look at cases due later, when the calls usually accumulate, in the evening, and see if we can deal with these ahead of time, ease the pressure and avoid letting our customers down by not contacting them as promised.

There’s also a professional obligation on us not to ‘cherry-pick’ cases. You pull a case, you work it. You don’t dump it back for someone else to do, and if you can’t get hold of the customer, you don’t dump it back in the queue just a few hours later for someone else to pick up.

I don’t do that. If a customer needs a same day callback, I keep the case in my personal pot and I call them back.

Except that yesterday evening, between 6.00 – 7.00pm, my colleague thought he’d caught me out. We were sat at opposite ends of our bay (can you work out why?) and he called across the rest of the team, plus our manager, to tell me I’d worked a case earlier and then dumped it back into the pot, same day.

I knew I’d done no such thing, and I called back to say I hadn’t. At worst, I’d pulled a case early, tried to contact the customer, then left the original callback booking in place. He replied, still shouting this out loud, so that no only our team but the other teams that work on our floor, could hear that I’d disgraced our professional standards, that I’d left my notes at 5.45.

There was just one problem with this, as I pointed out to my manager shortly afterwards: at 5.45 I was on my lunch and sitting in the break-out area, logged out of all our systems.

Indeed, when I checked my system, I hadn’t been in the case at all that day. I walked over to my colleague, and quietly spoke to him. he tried to fob me off, saying it was all resolved now, but quietly, so that no-one else would hear, I told him that if he ever had an issue with me again, he would come over and speak to me, ‘not shout it across the fucking floor’.

And, do you know what? I had left a note on that case at 5.45. The previous day, Wednesday. I’m sure his muttered fob off was made in the knowledge that he’d realised that, knew he’d fucked himself up in his eagerness to get a snotty little point over me, but lacked either the guts or decency to apologise.

So today, I intend to blank his existence. I am not reciting my grievance against him: those who weren’t there yesterday evening are not going to hear about of from me, though I’ve already put my manager on notice that if he ever shouts allegations like that across a crowded floor, I’m making an official complaint. I’m going to stay calm, cool, collected. I will not react, I will not explode, not even quietly.

And I’ll PS when I get home to confirm if it worked.

PS.

I mostly managed to keep my mouth shut. There were no exchanges with my colleague, and I only raised the subject with two team-mates with whom I have good relations neither of whom were there yesterday.

Thank you for listening.

Horace and Pete – episode 7


Don’t Do Breakfast

I really wasn’t in the mood for this today. In part, it was the heat, that’s depressing yet further my already depleted mental faculties, but mainly it was last week. What Horace and Sylvie, and especially Horace, did to Pete took me at least over a line that’s hard to cross back. Some things are unforgivable.

This episode did nothing to suggest forgiveness might be possible. Last week might never have existed, all seemed as it was between Horace, Pete and Sylvie. Nothing was said, nothing was even glanced. I’m sure that there will be longer term consequences, and even now Pete is going behind his cousins’ backs to apply for ‘Landmark’ status for the bar, which if granted will make it harder to sell, or even modify.

Otherwise, his quiescence in what was done to him was dramatically flat, though it may have been an extraordinarily subtle way of demonstrating how broken Pete is, how narrow and trapped his life, if he really has no possible reaction to that swinish fuckery than to swallow it.

It was an odd episode, not really seeming to know what it wanted to do with itself. At fifty minutes, the episode was longer than the last three, but it had no structure. The first half was set in the bar and was a mish-mash of disparate scenes. Kurt tells a provocatively homophobic version of the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, until he uses the C word, and Sylvie throws him out and bars him for life. Alice visits to introduce her boyfriend Eric to her Dad: Eric is whipped, nervy, ineffectual, incoherent. He’s at the same Law School at Alice (prime lawyer material) and their relationship seems to be an emotionally sadomasochistic co-dependency.

Sylvie, trying to go through the accounts, gets hit on by some barfly who gets sexually aroused by woman cancer patients, which was creepy to the max and very much deflated his exit monologue about being disregarded, about being a giver who in turn received only rejection. I might have recognised a lot in what he was saying, but for his predatory weirdness having totally alienated me. Oh, and his truly horrible Seventies style yellow and brown striped shirt.

And Pete talks to a couple of cops, one of whom was an old school buddy, the other a somewhat insensitive berk, who got asked to go sit on his own for a while whilst Pete asked his old buddy, who is on the Mayor’s detail, to steer the Mayor towards this ‘Landmark’ application.

Short scenes, linked only by taking place in the bar. No sense whatsoever of what the episode is about except in the show’s exploitation of the many different ways people cannot/do not communicate with each other.

Early in the opening scene, whilst Kurt is spurting on in his very annoying manner, an attractive 40ish, light-skinned black women enters the bar, takes a seat in the foreground, orders and drinks a bourbon on the rocks and proceeds to sit there quietly, saying and doing nothing. This is another theatrical move, and I was waiting, half the episode as it turned out, for her to become involved because it was only too clear that she was a Gun in Act 1.

Her name was Rhonda, and Horace fancied her. He attempted to chat her up, a process made easier by Rhonda’s having earlier been crying unobtrusively (I didn’t see that, stage attention having obviously been directed away when it was shown). She’s not unhappy over a man, she proudly insists. She doesn’t need men to be lonely. Men are only useful for two things, lifting furniture, and fucking. Horace lightly used this as a way to declare that he found her attractive, and that he would like to lift her furniture.

Laughter got her into his bed and the following morning, both attested to a spectacular night of fucking, a sexual boastfulness that, applied to Horace, seemed rather at odds with the entire series. Rhonda didn’t mean to fall asleep (yay Horace the Stud! He da Man!!!) from which we all know that conversation over a scrambled egg breakfast was going to be another disaster.

In a manner I didn’t quite get, the suggestion arose that Rhonda might not be entirely who she seems to be in her skin, that she actually have been born a man and have transgendered. That idea fucks over Horace’s brain, for all his soft liberal attitudes, his belief in equal rites (that Rhonda painfully and swiftly shafts), that he might have done something gay, might have fucked what, from his own testimony is all woman, now, but may once have been man and, to Horace, are forever damned to be so.

Horace thinks that women who once were men should announce themselves as such prior to fucking men who have only ever been Men, because the only men who want to fuck women who once were men are men who only want to fuck women who once were men and, being such freaks, don’t want to fuck women who have only ever been women. Horace is a self-deluding prick.

Not that I have ever knowingly known a transgendered woman, let alone been in a position to have sex with one, so whilst I hope that the things that attracted me to such a woman would be all I would concern myself with, I can’t say that I too might not be affected by such a shadow. Throwing stones is a quease-making thing when you can’t truthfully say I have been there, I know I behaved better. We are all of us products of our time and of our history, and there are deep pools and unwanted eddies that drive us faster than our conscious mind.

The episode tops itself with another switch of pace. As Rhonda leaves, Sylvie returns. She’s had her results, the tests are back. She’s going to be ok. The cancer won’t kill her. It’s a better note on which to leave Horace: he’s awkward, feels unable to be demonstrative, even as Sylvie, for all her relief, is fragile. But he is crying too, with relief, and the two manage a hug that expresses more than their words.

So let’s end on an unsentimental piece of good news for once. As I’ve said, Horace could sure do with it, not just in his character, but in the character’s status with the audience. I am still not filled with sympathy towards Horace Wichtel VIII, and I wonder how far the story has to go to steal that back from me. Three more episodes in which to see.

 

Comics in the Seventies: A Game of Pages


We still remember, we who were there

If you were to ask me the page content of the average, 2016, 32 page comic book (or ‘floppy’ as they are commonly called now), I would have no idea. Off the top of my head, I would guess twenty. That is, twenty pages of art and story, i.e., content, out of a thirty-two page package.

That’s not a good percentage but, believe me, it’s not the worst it’s ever been.

When it was first invented, in the Thirties, the American comic book consisted of 64 pages for a dime. Due to War-time paper restrictions, that package was successively reduced to (briefly) 56 pages, then 48 pages, before being reduced even further, in the Fifties, to its present format of 32 pages. All still for that original 10c.

When I first discovered American comics, in the early Sixties, comic books were taking that first, tentative steps into increasing their prices, gouging their customers for an extra 2 cents. At that point, the average DC comic consisted of approximately 24 pages of story and art, a full 75% of the package.

It took nearly the whole decade before the next increase was put through, this time to 15c, but the Oil-Inflation Seventies saw increase after increase, at intervals of eighteen months to two years. In the meantime, the companies desperately attempted to head off, or at least delay such increases, but cutting costs. Artists no longer drew originals on boards two-up, but were restricted to 1.5 up (i.e., twice, or one and a half times the size of the actual printed art).

Paper quality was cut, to cheaper, more porous stock on which lines and colours soaked in and ran. Steel printing plates gave way to cheaper and easier to engrave plastic printing plates, which blurred and distorted lines long before the print run was completed. And page counts were cut. Fewer pages, lower payments to writers and artists paid by the number of pages completed and bought.

DC had tried to get out in front of the curve in 1971, jumping their comics directly from 15c to 25c whilst increasing the size of the package, to 40 pages, the extra pages entirely devoted to content, in the form of reprints: those in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books were prime Golden Age Kirby and Simon material.

This plan was undercut by one of Martin Goodman’s last, shark-like tricks at Marvel. The plan was for everybody to increase the package at the same time, which Goodman did, but only for one month, cutting back immediately to 32 pages at 20c, far faster than DC, with its more sclerotic management structure, to react. DC struggled back to 32 pages at 20c, no reprints, but the content went down to 20 pages, then eighteen and finally, by mid-decade, seventeen.

There was another attempt on DC’s part to change the deteriorating status quo. In 1974, they went off on another bigger package run.

This was the year of the 50c comic, which was just coming in as I rediscovered American comics and started buying them again. Basically, it was a rerun of the 25c experiment writ large: for 50c, the reader got a squarebound, 100 page package, containing the standard 20 pages of new art, plus a massive wodge of reprints, varying as to the title in question. The enhanced Justice League of America was the first place in which I was able to read Golden Age Justice Society reprints.

It lasted a year, during which the price increased to 60c, before the experiment was carried off, and it was all back to the bog-standard floppy at eighteen pages. As an experiment, I enjoyed it, though it was very dependant on the choice of reprints.

The best of that era was, undoubtedly, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, the new back-up in Detective. It lasted seven issues, six of them as a back-up strip to the Caped Crusader, and if it hadn’t been for the Fifty Cent Comic, I’d have never noticed it.

Detective Comics was in another sales trough in 1973. Julius Schwarz, the ‘Now Look’ Batman and the TV series had saved Bruce Wayne from cancellation in 1964, but the bubble had burst and, in an effort to drum up sales with a new approach, Archie Goodwin was brought in as editor (and writer) of Detective, which was down to a bi-monthly schedule.

Upfront, Goodwin went for unusual offbeat stories, by artists not normally associated with Batman, but for a back-up, he wanted a complete contrast: a brightly costumed, globe-trotting hero with a strong martial flavour. With the then-newcomer Simonson, Goodwin devised Manhunter as a seven page, very taut back-up, tacking the character onto the back of the Forties hero of the same name.

It was a massive creative success, as witness the number of times it has been reprinted since. In addition to buying the original run, I have had no less than three different collections. It won industry plaudits by the ton, and it stands up beautifully four decades on, in a way that the vast majority of Seventies comics just don’t.

It didn’t do anything for Detective‘s sales, however. A year on, and unhappy with management at DC, Goodwin relinquished the editorship and writing, and moved on to Marvel. Julius Schwartz, resuming as editor, had no interest in continuing Manhunter, and Goodwin was able to get agreement for his final issue to be a 20 page crossover with Batman, providing a definitive end to Paul ‘Manhunter’ Kirk’s story. It was that ending, so rare and precious, that made Manhunter the creative success it was.

Had I not seen, and been intrigued by the first Detective fifty center, I would probably never have seen the series. Goodwin’s first issue, with the debut Manhunter back-up, was the final 32 page floppy, and I was lucky to scrabble round and fnd a still-available copy, which was nearly as difficult to ensure as it had been in the Sixties.

No doubt I would have heard about it later, maybe bought one of the reprints at some point, but I have always found a deeper attachment to those series I have had to accumulate, in monthly instalments, the story-front creeping along, offering endless speculation about what might follow. Reading the whole thing at once, cover to cover, no delay at any of the cliffhangers, is never quite as enthralling.

So the year was up, the Fifty/Sixty Centers vanished and DC went back to floppies.

Seventeen pages was the nadir though. once upon a time, it might have almost been a luxury: throughout the Fifties, and well into the Sixties, most DC comics offered two stories per issue, both of around twelve pages in length. Its writers were veterans, long used to the professional demands of telling a clear, concise story, with a beginning, middle and end, in twelve pages or thereabouts, so seventeen pages ought to have been easily manageable.

But this was not the Sixties any more, and that generation of writers were no longer writing comics. Their replacements had been brought up, drawn in to the industry, by Marvel Comics, who concentrated on book-length stories to a greater extent, and on ongoing stories, in which the three unities were rarely within the same covers. The writers of the Seventies wanted to write comics like that. They had never had the training to produce short stories. They neither wanted to nor were capable of writing satisfying stories in only seventeen pages.

One writer was comfortable with the form, however, Denny O’Neil, who wrote perhaps my favourite page of comics from the Seventies.

It was a bog-standard Batman adventure of the era, drawn by Ernie Chan, and the villain was the Riddler. Batman frustrated him a couple of times, so the Riddler headed back to his new secret HQ, at Gotham Zoo. The page in question covered a single scene.

The Riddler approaches the Zoo entrance concealed by trenchcoat and hat pulled down. He’s frustrated, planning on fleeing, his body language is hunched, withdrawn, downbeat. In short, he is not a happy bunny. However, he is waylaid, by a boy aged about eight, trying to catch his attention. The Riddler is in no mood for such things and tells the kid to beat it, cram, but he blurts out that all he wants to do is tell him a Riddle.

Mr Nigma transforms in an instant. he’s down on his kness, level with the kid’s face, holding his shoulders and insisting, “Yes, please do! Please do!” “Do you want me to tell you the story of the bed?” The kid asks. “go on, go on,” the Riddler says, barely able to contain himself. “I can’t,” the kid says, with the kind of perfect cheesy grin of a little boy who’s come up with something funny all by himself and just has to share it, “It hasn’t been made up yet!”

The final panel shows the kid approaching his parents. “Dad, look what the nice man gave me,” he says. “A $100 bill?” the dad gasps. In the background, The Riddler is walking through the Zoo gates, but his body language is transformed. He’s striding out, head up and back, almost strutting.

It’s a magical page. In structural terms, it’s completely redundant and irrelevant. The story could be told with the other sixteen pages without the smallest of changes, and this scene would not be missed, nor any gap felt. As such, with only seventeen pages available, it could be described as poor writing.

And yet it’s brilliant, because it’s the only page of the script on which anybody does something human, that is not purely and simply a function of the plot. And this was from a very early point, at which I had not even begun to get bored with superhero dynamics and fights. Which is why I can remember each panel of that page, whilst I have no recollection of anything from any of the other sixteen pages.

It wasn’t tenable, however. Seventeen crappy pages with crappy stories and crappy art and the price going up five or ten cents a year, year-on-year. So DC shifted out Carmine Infantino as Publisher and brought in an outsider, Jeanette Kahn, a novice in comics but a children’s magazine publishing success.

Who, once she had settled herself into the Publisher’s chair, came up with a brilliant idea to move forward and secure comics’ future.

Bigger comics. With more pages.

It was known as the DC Explosion. It was planned as a massive uplift to the DC line, introducing new characters and new titles, but the heart of it was that, in order to avoid the awkward jump from 35c to 40c, DC’s comics would hurdle all the way to 50c, but for a 40 page package, of which the additional eight pages would all be of content: story and art, and all of it new: no reprints.

It wasn’t exactly original, except for the fact that the extra pages would be all new. Some titles would add them to the previous page count: the Justice League of America would escape the straitjacket of seventeen pages for the relative freedom of twenty-five, but other titles would add back-ups. Old characters unable to sustain series would be revived, new concepts and ideas would be tried with the support of the lead feature.

It was bold, it was exciting, it was one of the biggest fucking disasters mainstream comics has ever suffered.

Because the week the first titles of the Explosion were launched, the sales figures came in at Warner Brothers, and they were bad. Far worse than had been expected. The word came down from on high with the speed and force of a Jovian thunderbolt, and the word was No. No more forty page 50c comics, get back to 32 page floppies, and cut the number of titles. Including scheduled comics which never actually were published, almost half the entire DC line was cancelled in an afternoon, reducing the line to its ‘core’ titles. Everything remotely experimental vanished in a day. The bottom half of the line ceased to be tenable and went into the hole. DC, who had been big with publicity about it’s great leap forward, which had been building its stable of creators, suffered a massive blow to its credibility that the majority at the time thought it would never recover from.

Down the street, at Marvel, its recently installed Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, had been sniffy about the whole thing anyway, dismissive of the idea that the fans would even notice an increase of eight pages, nearly half as much story again. Former editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, set about discouraging eager new talent from getting into comics: in five years time, there wouldn’t be any.

We know now that he was wrong, and ironically Wolfman would play a major role in leading DC and, in its wake, comics out of the slough of despond of what inevitably became known as the DC Implosion. Page counts went up, despite Shooter’s arrogance. So did paper quality, and costs, the latter being inevitable given that the only way of further reducing the cost of producing a 1977 floppy would have been to hire a hall and have people pay to sit there whilst the writer read the script and the artist did chalk-talk sketches on a blackboard borrowed from the local high school.

Yet in that era of desperation, when the death of comics was being predicted almost every other week, there were still comics of quality that prevailed over the conditions in which they were created. That was the era of Manhunter, and that was when good writers could come up with pages like the Riddler being made happy by a kid’s riddle he’d never heard before.

They didn’t even need seventeen pages to produce delight that’s lasted with me for forty years, proving yet again that there is something more to life than ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.

Zola Budd and the Lecture on Winning


A long ago controversy

There was an article in yesterday’s Guardian about the forthcoming Sky Atlantic documentary, The Fall, all about the infamous incident in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the Golden Girl, the hot favourite mile-runner, Mary Decker, tripped over the legs of the British representative, fell and was out of the race. That runner was Zola Budd.

Let us, for the benefit of those not around in 1984, recap the case of Zola Budd.

Miss Budd, was a successful middle- and long-distance runner, who set a world record for the Women’s 5,000 metres at the age of 17. A self-taught runner, she was a small and slight figure who was also notable for running in bare feet. Unfortunately, she was South African.

This being long before the demise of apartheid, Miss Budd’s record was not officially recognised, South Africa being formally excluded from international sport. Nor could the young lady appear in the 1984 Olympics, taking place only a month or so after her 18th birthday.

Until, that is, the Daily Mail stepped in. Miss Budd had a British grandmother, entitling her to a British passport and qualification for the Olympics as part of the British team. Of itself, this would not have raised many eyebrows – after all, English cricket had already availed itself of several South African cricketers in the Test team. However, whilst the likes of Alan Lamb, Chris and Robin Smith were patient enough to go through the system, involving three years residence in England without representing their native country, the Olympics were more than imminent. Miss Budd could quite easily qualify for a British passport, but she couldn’t get it in time for Los Angeles.

Or could she?

The first that the non-athletics following public heard of Zola Budd was when the Daily Mail started a campaign to rush through her naturalisation.

There was an immediate furore. Zola Budd was being given favourable treatment – massively favourable treatment – at a time when ordinary people, people without sporting ability, people who were not white and did not come from a country that repressed its majority black population – had no option but to go through the channels. And, let’s be clear about this, the only reason Zola Budd was being skated through the system in this manner, was to be carpet-bagged into the British UK Olympic Squad – at the expense of a native-born athlete who had put in her time qualifying. She was being brought in to game the system, to add a ringer to the team in a manner that, whilst legal under international law, demonstrated a lack of moral principles.

It was a disgraceful step to be taken on behalf of a country that still prided itself as being above the tricks and cheats employed by others.

The Labour Party were high on the list of those opposed to this flagrant bending of the rules. This brought out the sheer fury of the Mail, who slammed the the Left in a full-page, headline rant, accusing them of resenting success, being against winning, and calling them every name under the sun. Even at that (relatively) young age, I could spot the angry defensiveness of someone who knows that the hand behind their back is in the cookie jar up to the shoulder.

Miss Budd’s naturalisation went through in time, and she was selected for the Olympics after setting an officially recognised World Record time.

The story reached its conclusion in the Womens 3,000 metre final, which the press billed as a duel between Zola Budd and the World Champion, American Mary Decker. The race had run just about 1,700 meters when Budd’s left leg came into slight contact with Decker’s thigh. Budd stumbled slightly, into Decker’s path: five strides later, the two collided again. Decker’s spiked show drew blood from Budd’s ankle, but it was the former who lost balance and fell, injuring her hip and being forced out of the race.

Budd continued to the end, but only came seventh.

The collision with Decker was a massive controversy, with blame for the incident being apportioned initially on national lines: the American press blamed Budd, the British press defended her. Later, Decker made it clear that the collision was an accident, and not the fault of Budd, though by then this wasn’t being publicised to the same extent.

At the time, I admit, I found it hilarious. All that cheating and conniving and rule-bending and preferential treatment at the expense of ordinary people, and it blows up in Britain’s face (and that of the Daily Mail). How could you not laugh? Rarely is the outcome of such underhand sneakery so karmically perfect.

Now, in anticipation of the forthcoming documentary, here is Zola Budd, thirty-two years on, spilling the truth. Actually, it’s not new news, Budd having spilled the truth in her autobiography, years ago, but as I have no interest in athlete’s autobiographies, I unacccountably failed to discover this before now. The truth now being acknowledged, is that after Decker fell out of the race, Zola Budd – the girl being hyped into Britain as a winner, and f*ck the Labour Party – deliberately slowed down to make sure she didn’t win the race. Nor even the bronze medal.

Because she couldn’t face the thought of being on the podium and being booed by the crowd.

And I cannot help but think of that accusatory Daily Mail front page, with its vicious castigation of its political opponents and losers and cowards, and I cannot help but appreciate the richness of the irony that their little girl winner turned out to be exactly that.

Yet, in relishing the way that the tables were turned on these vicious right wingers, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Zola Budd herself, pity that I wasn’t capable of feeling in 1984. She was every bit as much a victim of the circumstances as everyone else: a shy teenager, brought up on the veldt, not even used to running in crowds and brought to England as the puppet of unscrupulous glory-hunters.

When Decker fell, it would have taken tremendous strength of character, strength that she can’t be blamed for not possessing, little girl alone, separated from her family, unwillingly controversial for what she was, a pawn placed in the middle of someone else’s battle, a world-spanning battle. I can romp in the glory of the Mail‘s pretentions being exposed so brutally, but the woman at the centre of this should never have been placed in that position, and she was made the scapegoat for nothing more than naivete.