Bingewatch: The Intruder


The DVD arrived on Thursday.

I didn’t want to watch it piece-by-piece, eight episodes strung out over eight weeks and reviewed each week in my usual, inimitable fashion (who on Earth would want to imitate it?) This is more than a half century old television series to me, watched once and barely remembered until it was first mooted for sale on Amazon seven years ago. It’s more than the nostalgia of my family gathered to watch it, week-in, week-out. It’s a part of my own history, filmed in Ravenglass, where my grandfather was born, all along that main street leading from the bridge under the railway line and down to the sea. Twice in the years this programme was made we stayed in self-catering cottages on that street, two different ones. I couldn’t recognise them from the footage, but I could and did remember the stone barn against which I would spend long evening hours kicking a football: aye, I remember, would that I didn’t, for a memory that burns me with embarrassment but won’t ever go away.

I wanted to gulp it down in one go, take in the lot of it, immerse myself in what was. I didn’t remember much of it, and what I anticipated came more from the book, which was more than somewhat revised for this adaptation. The lengthy and informative booklet that comes with the DVD answered a question I had been wondering about: the series was broadcast in January and February 1972, whereas we didn’t get our first colour television until March of that year, so the one time I had seen it before had been in monochrome, though undoubtedly I saw Ravenglass as I knew it, in colour in my mind.

And I’m not going to review it in any familiar sense, even though I couldn’t halp but make mental notes of the things I would otherwise go into. There was much more to the series, to the individual characters, than the ‘story’ of Arnold Haithwaite, Acting Sand Pilot of Skirlston, living with his ‘Dad’, Ernest, who won’t tell him who he really is, and the arrival of the stranger from Manchester, the Intruder, who claims that he is Arnold Haithwaite and so Arnold can’t be (even at the time, aged sixteen, it struck me as phoney, this fundamental belief that there could only be one person named Arnold Haithwaite in the entire worled, though i can see more clearly now the reasons for the effect it has now).

There are stories within the story, each central figure in the cast having their own issues and concerns, none really having any bearing upon any of the others yet bundled together by virtue of being in this place at this time.

The cast were mostly very good, though practically none of the actors were playing their own age. James Bate, as Arnold, had the hardest job, the main character, the only one to appear in all eight episodes, a slow, stolid lad unable to keep up, who got more and more unsympathetic as the series went on. I was amused to see that Jane, the main female role, was played by Stella Ruskin, who only this past week I saw in Country Matters: she said and did a lot more here as well as wearing a lot less, bikinis and micro-skirts, a slender 23 year old playing 15.

But the plaudits have to go to Milton Johns, as Sonny, the Intruder. From his first moment onscreen, his first words, that funny, common as muck yet sneering accent, he was the only thing you saw when he was onscreen. A funny little man, with big dreams, impossible dreams, determined to shape the world around him, exploitive, unbalanced, liable to explode at any moment by virtue of which people bent over backwards to prevent that explosion. You sensed the danger. And there was a sting in the tail, when he died, drowned, leaving the enigma behind, who and what he was unexplained.

There was plenty of nuance to be explored. The ending, wholly the work of the adapters, Mervyn Haisman and Producer Peter Plummer but built upon the book, was beautifully assembled and there was a visual element to it that was blatant but which would have needed an entire separate series to tease out its implications for the character involed: no, not Arnold. Plummer was also responsible for The Owl Service, and the visual and musical style was familiar. I can’t put The Intruder on a par with The Owl Service, for the latter was a deeper and more serious story, because it adapted a deeper and more serious book.

But it was more important to me in being a time capsule, drawing me back to things that never can be again. And in that respect it was priceless.

A Glimpse into Girl Comic – Part 2

Girl 1

Reviewing the thirteen year history of Hulton Press’s Girl comic based on a single DVD of 55 issues has it’s limitations. The second part of this survey resumes with Volume 6 no. 20, cover dated 15 May 1957. It is one of only six issues throughout the remainder of 1957, of which only two are consecutive, and it is nineteen weeks since the last issue featured in part 1. I am anticipating that every serial running at that moment will have finished, its climax a mystery.
So, what do we have as we begin again? For a start, schoolgirl serial Wendy and Jinx still occupies pride of place in full colour across the first two pages, but on a new story, but the Pilgrim Sisters on page 3 are still dealing with the Great Fire of London, though it looks like the last chapter, especially as the family sets off to sail to America, albeit not in a ship called the Mayflower, appropriate though that would have been.
The page 4 serial slot now belongs to Showboat Summer (Pamela Brown, illustrated by Charles Paine). It’s already in part 7 so in all probability the next issue would be the last part. It’s set on the Thames in seemingly contemporary times, about a family setting up an old-fashioned showboat. Sue Marsh and Vicky have moved on, to a different part of the hospital in one case, and to Burma in the case of the globe-trotting redhead.
In the centrespread, the nature slot has been replaced by a squashed in colour serial, Claudia of the Circus, another Geoffrey Bond story. It’s difficult to assess it, even on one isolated strip, because it really is crammed in to space too small to give it a proper chance.
Belle of the Ballet had only just started her latest story when we broke off so it’s perhaps not surprising to see that still active. Much plot has flowed under the bridge since the nebulous beginning, with Belle and her best friend breaking a girl out of finishing school so that she can study ballet, against the wishes of her cruel film star Aunt: nicely melodramatic or what?
The second prose contribution is a running series, Penny Starr, the adventures of a TV make-up girl, another product of the Peter Ling/Sheilah Ward team, illustrations by Roy Bailey of the former front-page series Kitty Hawke. But the back page, from Chad Varah and Gerald Haylock, is another real life story, Angel of Mercy, which should tell you that we have come to Florence Nightingale: I’m surprised she hasn’t been featured before this. We’re very early in the tale, second episode probably, and the young to-be-famous nurse is behaving like a right little madam.
Ten weeks later, on the next available issue (24 July 1957). The Pilgrim Sisters have not continued their adventures in the colony of Virgina and their slot now belongs to Kay of the ‘Courier’, a George Beardsmore/Bob Bunkin serial about a girl reporter, but to my surprise, Showboat Summer has reached Part 17, beyond all previous serials (as opposed to series) in the comic to date. Belle starts a new holiday adventure.
The second serial is new, Jacqueline rides for a fall (Pat Smythe, illustrated Eric Dadswell), the title character being an anti-heroine, a stuck-up girl being taught lessons. A bit cruel and out of character for a paper who usually offers such girls as rivals to the heroine, like Linda at the pet hospital. What’s more, it’s written first person by Pat, owner of a pony school, in charge of Jacqueline and other children.

Girl 2

Jump six more weeks, and Wendy and Jinx are in the early days of their next story. A second look at Kay of the ‘Courier’ confirms the unusual aspect that Kay herself wears a completely different hairstyle in her title-box than the one she has in the story, and the title-box look is a lot nicer. Showboat Summer is now in episode 23 and closing in on half a year (it wouldn’t get there, Marcus Morris confirming that the following week was the closing part). It’s finally settled down into some old-fashioned melodrama as the showboat is being used for diamond smuggling by one of its crew. And you could call the illustration a bondage image, though William Moulton Marston would have sniffed at it! Actually, heroine Marley Somerville was drawn with a perceptible bosom, which was not the sort of thing I was used to seeing.
Jacqueline is now Jacky within her story, which was going to be collected in book form as soon as the serial ended, like the Jennings stories in Eagle. And somewhat belatedly, I twigged that the Pat Smythe who was author and narrator was actually the Pat Smythe, the renowned showjumper and Olympic medallist. My ex-wife would have kicked me for not realising sooner! This story was actually the first of a series of seven books about The Three Jays.
Interestingly enough, the book was published with the serial only half way through. Anyone fascinated by it could have nipped out and read the whole thing long before Girl was done with it. If their parents were prepared to fork out 10/6 for it. Instead of the successive 4½d for her being patient.
Incidentally, the Mother Shows You How feature inside the back cover this time was about making a ‘Shortie Nightie’, though shortie was still knee-length (we’re not out of 1957 yet).
Four issues later, with two consecutive issues to play with, Kay Roper lets her hair down, whilst the new serial is a series, Model Girls: bet you can’t work out what that’s about? Her name is Jill Lewis and she’s blonde, her flatmate Marie Dupont is French and dark, and in a sign of the hipper times, the photographer’s studio is above a Coffee Bar. Add in a one-off short story about a schoolgirl swapping her maths homework for looking after her married sister’s twins, which was nicely written.
This is the one for which I have the next issue. This added nothing but a burst of uncontrollable nostalgia, generated by an advert for a free ‘Atomic’ sub in packets of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, six different colours: mine was blue. Then the next issue, the last of the year and the volume, meant another eleven week jump. Kay Roper has started a new story, involving a friendly rivalry with a cub reporter on a rival paper, this one a boy: what a waste. Susan Marsh is also in the early throes of a new story that doesn’t yet seem to have established its point.
There’s another new serial, up to part 3, Peggy’s Ugly Duckling (J. Latimer, illustrated by Charles Paine). This was actually a fascinating set-up: Peggy, a hostess in a record store, is asked to makeover plain girl Christine. But Christine is really Debbie Clark, a former child star who’s run away from her exploitive aunt and uncle. Christine wants to stay clear of them but does want to establish her own, rather more mature singing career, if she’s good enough. I really want to know how this one works out, but my next issue isn’t until May 1958.

Girl 3

Volume 7 is a bit better represented, with eleven issues, and a little bit more concentrated between issues 17 and 44.
So, here we go again for, what, the fifth time? Wendy and Jinx have gone into another new adventure, Kay of the Courier hasn’t, though she’s won her rivalry, sparked a romance and wound up both wedding reporter and bridesmaid. But it’s her swansong as Marcus Morris confirms that her slot will next week begin an adaptation of Jane Eyre. First serial is a series, Cruise of the ‘Lotus’, about Laura Carroll, junior children’s nurse on a luxury liner. Susan Marsh is competing to be Nurse of the Year whilst Vicky’s globe-trotting has taken her to Australia now. Claudia’s still in the same story but Belle has a new one. Second serial is another pony job, literally I won a Pony, written by Judith M Berrisford. Like the Pat Smythe story, this too was published as a book as Jackie Won A Pony, in fact the first of sixteen in the Jackie series that continued until 1984. However, the short story series had been replaced by a non-fiction feature, Try Anything Once, athlete and TV personality June Paul (better known under her maiden name, June Foulds). It was a far less wide-ranging equivalent of McDonald Hastings. Mother Shows You How has been replaced by a recipe slot, What’s Cooking, another Gas Board advertisement, for once drawn by Chris Garvey instead of Dennis Mallet, and on the back page, rather than Florence Nightingale we had another woman Christian missionary out among the heathen, this being Gladys Aylward. Phew!
Two issues later, June Paul was gone, page 14 now offering People in Music with a feature on Frankie Vaughn, who also now the centrespread colour portrait. Hmm. And hmm again. There was even a miniature record review corner featuring a Dickie Valentine EP, singles from Elvis Presley and the Hallelujah Skiffle Group featuring Clinton Ford, and a live LP by, of all people, Dizzy Gillespie. What a snapshot of the times! I wonder who selected them. Eagle didn’t go ‘pop’ until 1964.
Two issues here, three issues there, dipping into and out of series and having to guess at what’s missing. By no. 24, Pat Smythe was back in the pony serial slot, starting Three Jay’s on Holiday. It turned out that I was wrong about June Paul, and that hers was an irregular feature, popping back up in no. 25. Also, we got another short story next issue.
But that’s the most concentrated run of issues for 1958, and now I’m back to snapshots at intervals. The big surprise was not that, yet again, I had missed the end of a Wendy and Jinx adventure but that they had been supplanted on the cover by Susan Marsh. Not only that but her series has reverted to its original title of Susan of St Brides, and the suddenly shameless hussy was in very abbreviated shorts and flashing her legs! The two inseparable schoolgirls had swapped places, turning up on page 6, in black and white, reduced to one page and, horror of horrors, separated by the new Headmistress.
Laura Carroll’s series ended with the termination of her temporary appointment on the Lotus and, two days later, her permanent appointment, so hurrah! The same end was in store for Vicky, yearning for a permanent home and getting it when her professor father is given a University post in Sydney. Her replacement would be Angela – Air Hostess. People In Music reoccurred, this time featuring Cleo Laine but also reviewing Perry Como, Julie London and Kay Starr: not exactly hip, eh?
Jump six issues and the serial, presumably Laura Carroll’s replacement, is Beginners Luck, two girls starting a career working in television. I shalln’t mention People in Music again, the selection is too depressing for 1958.
By issue 43, only three weeks later, Beginners Luck was gone, replaced by Continuity Girl so sticking to the television background. However, that was only a complete short story. And the following issue was the last for that year. Belle of the Ballet’s page had been absent from the previous issue so once again I was seeing a random page from yet another new serial.

Girl 4

Volume 8, 1959, is quite reasonably represented, but only for the first half of the year, with nine out of twenty-four issues, but when I start again, I will have missed three months: enough to drive you potty. Still, what’s there to see?
No. 5 (31 January) starts with Sue Marsh still grasping at The Last Chance and Jane Eyre is just being reunited with the blinded and crippled Mr Rochester. That had one more episode left. The serial, Strangers Quay, was in its last episode so I didn’t try too hard to get to grips with it, enough to be shocked that it involved the villain shooting himself and the heroine agreeing to get married. And I thought this was a nice girl’s comic…
Wendy & Jinx are still engaged in their current tale. Angela’s into a new, unnamed story, Claudia a new named one, involving ponies, whilst Belle’s new story is a bit Ruritanian, though not to the extent of involving doubles, yet.
The second serial was brand new, Alpine Adventure, about Carol, whose London Travel Agency has sent her to be an assistant at their branch in Switzerland, only for the two brothers managing the branch not to want her: I sense sinisterness! Apparently, there’s smuggling going on. Finally, Gladys Aylward is still taking up the back page. Series lengths would appear to be getting much much longer.
Incidentally, I finally checked Miss Aylward in Wikipedia to discover that her life story was dramatised, with multiple inaccuracies, in the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, with Ingrid Bergman, a complete physical contrast, in the leading role. I wonder if it was that which spurred this series in Girl. I’ve never seen the film but was aware of it as the last film for Robert Donat, the first Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, who died before it was released.
In no. 6 the new serial was The Bookshop Mystery by Sylvia Mead. It was another one with an interesting set-up and a nine week gap to the next issue. Marcus Morris was announcing that as the adaptation of Jane Eyre had been such a success, they were forging ahead with Vanity Fair: that one I have read and it’s a very curious choice.
By no. 15, it’s all change. Susan Marsh, Vanity Fare, The Mystery of the Lake (episode 2) replacing the Bookshop Mystery, Wendy & Jinx. Angela’s still on her current story, Lettice Leefe has turned into a serial like the later Harris Tweeds, but once again I’ve missed an ending as Alpine Adventure has concluded. I’m fairly sure that even on only two chapters I guessed the villains and the hero but it would be very nice to know how accurate I was. Finally, the back page now goes to Madame Curie.
Though the next issue is missing, after that I have a run of four consecutive issues, the longest on the DVD: it’s almost luxury.
Well, The Mystery of the Lake proved disappointing, not in terms of its writing but its length, episode 4 being the end. And it turned out that no. 18 was actually no 28., from August, so that put the kybosh on the run of four. So once again there’s a new serial, Kit Hunter, another girl-is-invited-into-country-home-with-strange-goings-on story. Which is retitled Kit Hunter – Young Horsewoman next episode. No. 20 also saw the end of the long-running Claudia of the Circus.

Girl 5

Three weeks later, I caught up to its replacement, Real-Life Mysteries, this one being about a ship that vanished, though not quite Marie Celeste-style. The comic seems to have abandoned a second serial, relying only on short stories and features.
And so it’s back to no. 28, the last issue for this volume. This was, I infer, the first dated issue following the printing strike that deprived all of Marcus Morris’s stable of seven issues. He was apologising for features being out of date when they had finally been printed. Kit Hunter was still going and was now tagged with the promise that this and other stories featuring her would be published in book form. In fact, retitled ‘The Wild One’, this turned out to the the first of a twelve-book series, all appearing between 1959 and 1961. Peter Grey was clearly a quick writer. Belle of the Ballet was in the early throes of a new story.
Once again, I’m cut off. There’s nothing now until volume 9, 1960, and whilst that boasts twelve issues, including a run of six in seven weeks, these are all in the first half of the year, and they represent the last ‘substantial’ selection I have available.
In fact, as this is running long, we shall consider these and the remaining issues in Part 3.

Gormenghast e01


I don’t know if it carries on today but, back in the Eighties there was a vicious battle in certain quarters over the respective merits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. Actually, to characterise it thus is misleading: the main proponents, writers Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, didn’t regard Lord of the Rings as having any merits at all. Ellison, more than once, described it as ‘imbecile shit’.

I’m not going to get into the argument save to say that it did harm to Peake’s work by setting it up in opposition to the vastly more popular Tolkien book by presenting the praise for the breadth and depth of Peake’s imagination in terms that positively reeked of elitism and literary snobbishness. If Peake was worthy of the praise being heaped on him it did him a disservice by framing him with the negative quality of being not-Tolkien.

Gormenghast, to give it the overall title applied to the books, consists of three books, Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. It was originally intended to be a series of seven books but Peake’s failing mental health and eventual dementia cut things short: his widow Maeve ‘completed’ a fourth novel, Titus Awakes, which is little known. It appears to have been derived from notes and a few very early drafts and has not been accepted as part of the larger work. I had seen the three books many times in my slow trawls through the shelves of Didsbury Library, their spines being very distinctive, but when I borrowed the first book to try it, I was utterly defeated. The language, its density, the absence of any immediate, clear story baffled me, and I lasted no more than about twenty-five pages.

Whether this was before, or after, I was introduced to Moorcock and Ellison’s opinions, I can’t now recall. Either way, I gave the books no more thought until it was announced that the BBC had produced an adaptation of the first two books, under the title Gormenghast, in four parts, broadcast in January and February 2000. Though it was obviously a much-condensed adaptation, it was a high-powered matter, five years in preparation, with a seriously heavyweight cast. I watched it with fascination and went on to borrow, read and complete the two books on which it was based (though not Titus Alone, not to this day).

And then I promptly forgot the whole thing until last summer when, on one of my visits to the far flung branches of CEX within reach of the Manchester Metrolink system, I discovered and bought the DVD of the series, which I’ve today begun to watch.

I tried to approach it as if it were brand new and I was watching it for the first time. This wasn’t hard to do as in the intervening twenty-three years I’d forgotten practically everything I had ever known about series or books. The first thing that impressed me was how thoroughly and convincingly the BBC had created a complete otherworld, in set-design, special effects, costuming and production, an entirely separate but extant world to which the cast, down to the smallest bit-parts, shaped themselves perfectly. Like the sets and scenery, they were theatrical, unnatural, artificial and not afraid to be ridiculous in mundane terms, but established from the outset a completely coherent and convincing environment.

And what a cast, including, in no particular order, Ian Richardson, Christopher Lee, Celia Imrie, June Brown, Richard Griffiths, John Sessions, Warren Mitchell and Zoe Wanamaker, in the company of whom younger and unknown actirs such as Neve McIntosh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as the central figure of Steerpike, did more than just hold their own. In a way, it was reminiscent of Alan Rickman in The Barchester Chronicles, save that neither actor has gone on to the kind of career he did (McIntosh’s name, though not her face, should be familiar from the recurring role she had in Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who).

The opening episode was split roughly two-thirds to one-third between world-building and story, so much so that, by about the half hour point I was telling myself that it looked good, and was indeed rich, but what was it for? The story, when it made itself apparent, was almost insultingly simple. But let us first establish, at not quite so great a length, where we are.

Gormenghast is a realm, an isolated city-state consisting of an immense, many-towered, crumbling and decaying castle. It is the seat of the Groan family, of whom Sepulchrave (Richardson) is the 76th Earl, bound by ritual that dictates his actions every day of every year eternally. He is a still, impassive man, a ruler both absolute and impotent, emotionless. To him, as things start, is born a son, a male heir, the eponymous Titus, by his wife Gertrude (Imrie). His family consists of teenage daughter Lady Fuschia (McIntosh), and twin sisters Lady Clarice (Wanamaker) and Lady Cora (Lynsey Baxter). Fuschia’s mood swings faster than a weather-vane in a cyclone whilst the ladies are vain, ineffecual and stupid, believing that the obese and unconcerned Gertrude has usurped their position and the power, not to mention opulence, they should enjoy as of right.

Add to these servants such as the genial, preposterous and frankly OTT Dr Prunesquallor (Sessions), his plain but vain sister Irma (Fiona Shaw), the Earl’s manservant Flay (Lee), his Master of Rituals Barquentine (Mitchell), his cook (Griffiths) and the Nanny, Mrs Slagg (Brown), and we have a world of grotesques that cannot possibly exist but which we accept as entirely solid.

And then there’s Steerpike. Steerpike begins as a kitchen boy, under the fat, flatulent, tusked Swelter, who hates him. But Steerpike is a creature of ambition. At first it’s no more than to get out of the kitchen and away from Swelter, to where and what being unimportant. He follows Flay, Swelter’s bitter enemy, who despises him equally but allows him to see something of the Groans before imprisoning him for his effrontery. This is all a mistake. Steerpike escapes, walks the rooftops, ends up in Lady Fuschia’s attic, drawing her fascination by pretending to be a Romantic Adventurer. From there he becomes Dispensary Assistant to Prunesquallor, flatterer to Irma and arch-manipulator of Clarice and Cora, preying upon their combination of ambition, malice and stupidity to end the episode by having then set fire to the Library with all the Groan family save them within.

All this last bit within the last twenty minutes or so as the story becomes that of Steerpike’s ambition to take the rule and power of Gormenghast for himself, by foulest means. As I said, simple. Indeed, almost banal.

Given the mundane, indeed cliched basis of the plot there’s a case to be argued over Style versus Substance. I’m not going to get into that now, not with three more episodes to be viewed. What I do want to get into is the thought that struck me clearly in this first episode, about how archaic and retrograde the overweliming majority of fantasy is. Not an original thought, not by any means, but made pertinent by the imaginative structure Peake has built here. Gormenghast, as a world, is ancient and ritual-bound, by design, but that only focussed my attention on it being – like Tolkien, like Game of Thrones – so bloody retrograde. It’s always and only ever Kings and Queens and Earls of Groan, the complete medieval hierarchy of monarch and subjects. In a modern world, I suspect fantasy’s clinging to such things to be dodgy in the extreme.

It also casts a different light upon Steerpike’s ambitions. His aspiration towards ultimate rule is triggered by his exposure to how stultified and inflexible, no to mention feeble, the Groan’s realm is, and how easy it is to manipulate. Steerpike is the infusion of new blood this incestuous world requires to refresh itself. The villain is easily identifiable as the hero, the end to stagnation, even as he’s the usurper.

I shall watch this aspect of the story very carefully over the next three weeks.

The Infinite Jukebox: Arlo Guthrie’s ‘City of New Orleans’

There’s an entire genre in America for train songs. In my youth now long gone, when all we had on the Light Programme on Sunday lunch, before the much-missed comedy hour at 2.00pm, was Two-Way Family Favourites, I was impressionably attracted to the song ‘Canadian Pacific’, but that’s about as far as I went until I first heard Arlo Guthrie’s version of Steve Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’.
Given that I heard of Arlo Guthrie long before I heard anything by him, and furthermore that I don’t think I’ve heard anything else he’s sung, I can quickly calculate that I did not hear this song until a long time after Guthrie recorded it in 1972. There’s a charming tale of composer Steve Goodman seeing Guthrie in a bar and asking if he could play him a song, and Guthrie replying that if Goodman bought him a beer, he’d listen for as long as it took to drink it. Guthrie ended up asking to record it, and the song was his only US Top 20 hit.
When and under what circumstances I did hear it are lost, and also whether I was immediately impressed. Certainly the song, and Guthrie’s laid-back and gently rambling treatment have grown upon me. I’m even wondering if I heard the song before this version, perhaps from one of the many folk-singers we saw at the Sunday night Folk Club at the Deanwater Hotel, back in the mid-Seventies.
The song is a gentle gem. It’s an impressionistic story about travelling on a train pulled by the locomotive City of New Orleans, travelling from Chicago to its home city, inspired by just such a journey taken by Goodman, to visit his family.
It isn’t really a travelogue. Goodman identifies leaving Illinois Central, in Monday morning rain, pulling out at Kankakee, changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee, but that’s it. The geography is incidental. Once on the train, Goodman, Guthrie and all the other passengers enter into an enclosed world, a bubble universe that they cannot leave until their journey is done, and it is the trappings of that world that catch Goodman’s eyes.
At first it’s what’s outside, passed indifferently, houses, farms and fields, trains that have no names, freight yards full of old black men and and graveyards of the rusted automobiles, all emphasising the feeling that life is inside and what is outside is a wasteland through which there is nothing to do but pass.
And with that, Goodman’s attention moves inside, to the people who are travelling this route and what they do to pass the time, playing cards, passing a bottle that’s no doubt inside a brown paper bag and clutched at the neck, the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers riding their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel, mothers with their babes asleep, lulled by the rhythm, relaxing into this world of isolation and transport, where the journey is all.
I haven’t travelled on the railway anywhere except in England, and that’s not big enough for any journey long enough to be a thing apart, but the song connects me to those almost mystical journeys across a country that’s a continent. And Goodman’s chorus spells it out for us, taking on the persona of the train itself. Good morning America, how are you? Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son. I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.
And so into the night, nighttime on the City of New Orleans, halfway home, we’ll be there by morning. And the poignant thought of travelling through the Mississippi delta, rolling down to the sea. But as night and sleep encroaches the journey takes on a different aspect, all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream, and everything dissolves into something not quite real. This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.
I have heard other versions of this song. My pal Garth directed my attention to the live version by Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, which was alright, but that drove me back to what I will always see as the original: my original. I don’t know how Steve Goodman sang it, but I am content with Guthrie, relaxed, unhurried, borne up on a bubbling piano track, knowing that time lies ahead of him on the journey, and content to take that time: to be here and not going anywhere. He may not have written it, but to my ears he understands it best, and if I can’t take that journey for myself, I’ll follow in his tracks any day.

Cozy Cumbrian Crime: Rebecca Tope’s Lake District Mysteries

For several years now, predating the COVID lockdown of 2020, I’ve been not going to the Library. However, a few weeks ago, returning from my first Dental appointment since pre-pandemic, I passed its doors and decided to drop in. I am now attending regularly.
Certain books I fancied reading but not buying turned out not to be in the Catalogue, but then I recalled the name Rebecca Tope, prolific writer of cosy crime fiction since 2005 and author of three series, one of which I have written about previously.
I was attracted, if that’s not too strong a word, to Tope’s work by the fact that one of her three series is set in the Lake District, only the second crime series to explore that background after the better-written but tonally inept series by Martin Edwards. I don’t read much crime fiction and I do not have much time for ‘cosy’ crime, the kind of stories where blood and violence are kept to a bare minimum and occur at a distance from the centre of the narrative. No, I wouldn’t dream of reading any of Tope’s Cotswolds or West Country mysteries, but the Lake District is an irresistible magnet.
When I last read anything by Tope, the series had extended to either seven or eight books. I’d missed the first in the series and at least one other early book but had read either three or four books in the series. The protagonist is florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown (awful name, both of them), plus a slowly growing cast of supporting players.

Tope 1

The set-up, for those not familiar with the books, is that Simmy, aged 38, is a recent divorcee whose marriage has collapsed after she had a stillborn daughter. She’s moved from Worcester to Windermere where she’s opened her shop (her parents, Russell and Angie Straw, have run a successful B&B in neighbouring Bowness for twenty years), assisted by local Melanie Todd, ambitious to work in the Hotel business, who has an artificial eye, who brings with her genius schoolboy Ben Harkness.
The gimmick is that Simmy’s flowers (her shop is called Persimmon Petals) cause her to make deliveries to places where murders have either just been committed or take place shortly afterwards. Simmy wants nothing to do with it but both Melanie and especially Ben get her involved in solving the crimes, to the advantage of local Detective Inspector Nolan Moxon (Nolan, reet guid Cumbrian name, that) who appears to be sweet on Simmy,to her embarrassment though he will eventually be found to be happily if childlessly married.
That’s basically how the series works. Simmy’s based in Windermere and lives north of that, in Troutbeck. Tope keeps the series concentrated upon the south east corner of the Lakes, more old Westmorland than Cumberland, giving each book an alliterative title, such as The Coniston Case, The Bowness Bequest or The Hawkshead Hostage. Melanie gets written out when she gets her opportunity in the hotel business and her place is taken by anorexic foster child Bonnie Lawson, who becomes Ben’s mostly platonic girlfriend, theirs being a meeting of minds rather than of bodies
That’s more or less where things were when I stopped visiting the Library, save that Tope had just introduced a potential love interest for Simmy in the form of Keswick-based Auctioneer Christopher Henderson. Chris is an old friend and family friend who Simmy hasn’t seen in twenty years whilst he’s been mostly wandering the world. They were born on the same day in the same hospital, the families went on holiday together, everybody simultaneously expected and feared, that sort of thing. Would Christopher rescue Simmy from her loneliness? Would he give her the baby she still wanted so desperately? Will she solve the murder of his parents that’s the catalyst for their reunion? If you can’t answer the last one, don’t read on.
What prompts this essay is that in the past month I have gotten completely up-to-date with the series via reading the latest four books, volumes nine to twelve, consisting of The Patterdale Plot, The Ullswater Undertaking, The Threlkeld Theory and The Askham Accusation, though not in that exact order (I reversed the middle two). As a result of which I have some observations I want to make.

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The first of these, as any Lake District aficionado will instantly spot, is that there has been an abrupt geographical shift northwards. All four places lie in the northern Lakes, the north-east to be precise (Tope has never ventured further west than Coniston). There is an undeniable story rationale for this, and change is very often a good thing for long-lasting series, but I hope I’m not being over-cynical in suspecting that it’s more a case of Tope having run out of viable villages south of Kirkstone Pass.
I don’t intend to go into detail about any of the murders, save to record a definite, but strictly isolated change in approach in book 9, as the victim actually expires in Simmys arms, on the landing of her parents B&B, claiming to have been poisoned. The intrusion of the actual death into the vision of the audience is not repeated and every other homicide thereafter is reported from afar and after the fact.
It’s so long since I read any of the earlier books for me to recall with any certainty, but reading these four books in such quick succession left me with the impression that, along with the geographical switch, Tope has changed the style of her mysteries, to the extent that, functionally, all these books are identical.
There’s an uncanny similarity between all four. The victims and where they die are different, of course, and Simmy and her little crew more or less solve them each time, but in terms of what happens between the covers, the ‘action’ is almost exclusively concentrated upon the day-to-day, personal events affecting our florist heroine and her ‘family’, whilst the case du jours is discussed as a matter of endlessly canvassed possibilities. And given that the ongoing soap opera element has Simmy continually questioning her life and where it’s going, the effect is that of a book in which there are nothing but speculations in both of its strands. It’s woolly, to say the least.
Of course, things do happen, there are resolutions of a kind, and not just the identification of the killer, but such resolutions as we get in the soap opera are really only springboards for whatever will be on Simmy’s mind next time round.
For instance, in The Patterdale Plot, Simmy is heavily pregnant. On top of the primary fear, of a repetition of her previous stillbirth, Simmy is a mass of worries: about where she and Christopher will live that is somewhere roughly halfway between their respective businesses, how they will cope with living together full-time, how her shop in Windermere will work, not so much with Bonnie as the effective manager but with new assistant Verity, a middle-aged, empty-headed gossip who’s nevertheless useful making deliveries, whilst Ben’s younger sister Tanya helps out Saturday mornings, and the effect of the murder on her parents’ business and them personally.
Next book, the baby has been born healthy and is named Robyn, not that that slows down Simmy’s fears to any degree, over him or the as yet unconcieved second child, whilst their new home in Hartsop is a barn conversion still being converted by builder Humphrey, and will Chris be the kind of supportive new father she needs him to be, and unlike him she really doesn’t want them to get a dog, and what about getting married, is that really a good idea?
After that the wedding takes place in Threlkeld with the minimum number of guests (Simmy would have had none if she could have managed it). The honeymoon sees her off the premises for a few days whilst the latest murder victim was found dead at the other end of the village, killed at more or less the same time as the wedding. Then they do get a dog and Simmy’s got to worry about that as well as her son and her fears about being a good mother, not to mention her parents’ life-changing decision (see below).
Most recently, Simmy and Chris attend the funeral of builder Humphrey in Askam, after a bizarre and gory self-inflicted accidental death, which is followed the next day by the death of a ninety year old woman and Simmy being accused of knocking her over the head.

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That’s just Simmy. There’s Ben Harkness’s arc. I last saw him going off to Durham University to study Forensic Science as the lead-in to a brilliant career, but it turns out he doesn’t like the course and is talking of transferring to History, which makes his martyr-to-arthritis architect mother look blackly at Simmy but actually it’s University that doesn’t suit him and he ends up taking an admin job at Chris’s Auctioneers after his predecessor is murdered. Meanwhile, he and Bonnie have tried sex but don’t think much of it, but they’re separated by the length of the Lake District, poor lambs. Simmy worries about them. A lot.
Russell and Angie? They get over and past the death in their B&B then abruptly, in The Threlkeld Theory, decide to retire and go to live in Threlkeld. Naturally, Simmy worries about them (perhaps she needn’t bother after all, Russell’s slow onset dementia has cleared up as spectacularly as Ernest Saunders). Constantly.
Bonnie herself gets to be the focus of worries in the most recent book when it turns out that Sophie Craig, the widowed mother of the unfortunate Humphrey, is actually the sister of Bonnie’s long-disappeared father (the fact the pair are nearly identical given the twenty years between them is the first pointer but it will turn out that Sophie’s known all along, as has Verity (?!?!), and how will this impact on the tiny, formerly-anorexic young girl, though given who the murderer turns out to be in the end, that’s going to be something to be further pursued in next year’s book. Needless to say, in amongst worrying about the accusation against her, which she is the only person in the whole of the Lake District to take remotely seriously, Simmy worries about Bonnie.
In case you need the reminder, these are crime fiction novels, about murders and finding out who has committed them.
But these concerns, and the constant fret and worry about what might happen, are the meat of these books, to be ruminated upon possibility by possibility.
And the true curiosity is that the same approach is taken to the investigation of the murders themselves. Though the death in The Patterdale Plot is prominent by virtue of where it takes place, it’s solving is conducted through exactly the same kind of waffling speculation as Simmy’s fears over her unborn child. There’s a paucity of fact so it’s all down to talking through possibilities, motives, means, opportunities, until the answer come almost out of the blue, thanks to a chance piece of cameraphone footage.
At least this case is solved in something of a rational manner. That can’t be said for any of the next three.

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The big, and I mean serious problem is the shift in location to north of Kirkstone Pass. This hits the format right where it lives. For one thing, Simmy’s distance from her florist’s business removes her from being peripherally involved in the discovery of the bodies but, more fundamentally, it removes DI Moxon. As long as the deaths fall under the jurisdiction of the Windermere Police, he can be the investigating officer and Simmy’s little can attach to him, in the knowledge that, unlike most real policemen, he not only respects but welcomes their input.
But Moxon has no official standing with Keswick or Penrith Police. Indeed, Tope is honest enough to present him as almost a figure of fun to them, because his success rate is so clearly based on Simmy, Ben and Bonnie’s efforts. Without that official standing, and the leeway Moxon enjoys south of Kirkstone to furnish the flower shop mob with Police information, Simmy and Co are reduced to, yes, unconcrete speculation.
Tope does contrive to get Moxon involved in the cases, one way or another: in the case of the Threlkeld victim, it is because he was stood where the body was found less than fifteen minutes earlier and becomes obsessed with it. But Tope has created a rod for her own back here. If Moxon is to be hammered, square peg-like, into cases north of Kirkstone, credibility will vanish.
It’s already teetering after three such stories, especially so in the most recent book,which threatens to parody itself. Instead of the more or less organic collisions between Persimmon Petals and murders in and around south east Lakeland, she and her two teenage assistants are now having to be treated as semi-official crime solvers, in an unconvincingly Holmesian manner. And in the afore-mentioned Askam Accusation, Tope dabbles with metafiction by suggesting that Simmy was only accused in order to draw her and her squad in to sole the case in the first place.
I shall be very interested in seeing what form the thirteenth book takes. Because once the series starts to become metaphysical like that, the distance from its contemporary state to the factors that made it popular in the first place becomes insurmountable: one more like that and the next stage is a mercy killing.
As for the murders themselves, the last three books all eventually come up, in their very late closing pages, with a villain who has appeared innocuously and who has never been the subject of speculation. Indeed, the killers in the two most recent books are practically interchangeable, as is the unintentional fatal action. It’s a crime fiction trope, the villain being the last person you thought of, or someone above suspicion, but in these three cases, the perpetrators are peripheral figures and their exposure carries no emotional weight. Certainly the last two are a frank disappointment. The first one might be acceptable as a neat twist, if it were a one-off, but to re-run it immediately dissolves any credit Tope might deserve for being offbeat.
So after a dozen books, I’m looking at a series that’s run into serious problems artistically. I have no idea about commercially, but next year’s trip to the Lakes is fraught with peril for Rebecca Tope as well as someone wholly unconnected with Persimmon Henderson (she’s married now, remember).

Wednesday Morning Sitcom Time: dinnerladies s02 e07-10: Minnellium/Christine/Gravy/Toast


She was just so bloody funny. And sometimes it hurts to be reminded of that.

When it comes to watching blocks of a sitcom, three is the perfect number. Unfortunately, the makers of sitcoms make no allowances for the needs of bloggers and fail to arrange their series in multiples of three. Sometimes you find yourself left with four episodes at the end of a series, and are you really going to leave one episode dangling like that? Of course not.

Victoria Wood was very clever. You only have to watch one episode of dinnerladies to realise that, if you were in any doubt. It helps when you have a seemingly infinite number of ideas to explore, but basically she understood how not to run something into the ground. dinnerladies‘s second series was planned to be conclusive, complete with an ending that successfully combined fantasy and low-key tragedy, removing entirely the basis for all these funny, implausible yet thoroughly natural characters to be in the same place to talk across each other with such grass roots surrealism.

We’d already come to one satisfying moment, in the previous episode, with Bren going to Scotland with Tony for Xmas. But typically, just because this pair that were as suited to each other as a pair of old gardening gloves had got together didn’t mean that everything was happily ever after. Over and above Bren’s natural anticipation of a happy sitution buggering itself up there was Tony, Tony, free of the chemo and the cancer threat, but disenchanted with what he saw in the new light that shone about everything else he saw around him. Tony’s fed up with the canteen, with the routine of the day, with Manchester (I know, how can anyone be, but we’ll just have to accept the premise or the whole thing falls apart).

There’s an option though. His mate in Scotland, at the Highlands Hotel where they stayed, is willing to take him on as a partner, to run the catering. It’s a dream for Tony, and he’s in the mood for dreams coming true, now one has. And Bren’s an integral part of that dream: she’ll be coming with him, of course. But to the naturally pessimistic bren there’s no of course about it, he’ll leae her behind, with all the places and people she knows and is dully content with. It’s not as if he’s said he loves her. He does, but he hasn’t said it.

There’s another option for Brenda’s future playing out over these four episodes, and that’s to have her mother, Petula, come to live with her. Posiive or negative. Petula can’t live on her own any longer, according to the Social Worker. Tony wants Bren to refuse to take her, not so much for his benefit but for Bren’s: Petula is in every sense a deadweight.

How all of this plays out, and how in the end in completely unbelievable fashion, Petula saves the day after her death, is the spine of the last four episodes, and how we will Bren and Tony on to achieve the life we believe they deserve. But Victoria Wood didn’t write solos for herself. dinnerladies is an ensemble and everyone is integral, even down to such walk-on parts as the bread deliverers Norman and Glenda. Everybody has their own story to work out: Anita who is pregnant withut knowing it, and who gives birth and leaves her baby on the fire escape for Brenda to look after. Dollie’s constant refinement and her decision to move to Mobberley, bondage capitol of Cheshire. Jean’s husand Ken returns on New Year’s Eve, all apologetic and conciliatory, but he only wants to get back his wallpaper table, rather than buy a new one: Stan gets all protective of her, leading first to sex then a marriage proposal. Twink considers an alternate career in lapdancing: she’s ok with the shaking of the tits and bum but they also want her to smile so san fairey ann to that. Anita, the dumb mother who only did it once and got pregnant, prepared to stay at home ecause she’s too nice to ecome an Estate Agent. Not to forget poor put-upon, harrassed, silly but increasingly self-aware Phillippa, who decides she’s had enough up here and is going to leave, which enables her to stand up for herself at last, especially to the caustic Stan.

In the end it ends. Petula dies. Bren and Tony realise their dream: it won’t be happy ever after but theiy’ll just bugger about like everybody else. The factory wishes new and ridiculous uniforms on the canteen, refuses to replace the toaster when it breaks down, and then decide to close it. Everyone will move on to new futures, individually. Only two series, only sixteen episodes. That’s still two more than The Office, four more than Fawlty Towers. Not enough for the audience, but enough for Victoria Wood. She always knew what she was doing.

And she was always so bloody funny.

Country Matters: s02 e03 – The Higgler


What a strange little story that was.

I’d originally intended to watch the previous episode but recognised it within the first minute as one I’d already seen. So to ‘The Higgler’, the last of A E Coppard’s contributions to this series. The episode starred Keith Drinkel (the second Carter Brandon of I Didn’t know You Cared) as Harvey Whitlow, the titular character, together with Sheila Ruskin as Mary Sadgrove, Rosalie Crutchley (The Prisoner ‘Checkmate’) as Mary’s mother and Jane Carr as Sophy Daws.

I’ll say immediately that the story confused me, and that after I then read the original short story, I had to put that down to the inadequacy of the adaptation, by Hugh Leonard, who failed to make one crucial element come over, as a result of which the conclusion failed to make the impact it should have done.

Let me summarise the story to illustrate that. It takes place less than a year after the end of the First World War. The Higgler – which means a travelling trader, usually in dairy and poultry – is a former soldier struggling to establish himself. On Shad Moor, he comes to a neat and prosperous farm owned and run by Mrs Sadgrove.They agree on terms that establish Harvey in his trade, and he visits regularly. Mrs Sadgrove, a widow, has a daughter, Mary, a beautiful and educated girl who is near-silent. Mary is totally unfitted for the farm.

Harvey is courting Sophy, from the village, nothing official-like. Mrs Sadgrove invites him to marry Mary. Harvey recognises the gulf between them, both in education and personality. Whilst she’s very attractive, she has barely a word to say for herself to him, though she’s rich, in the terms of the times. His mother is all for it, but Harvey is dubious. It’s all too good to be true, there must be a catch. He marries Sophy and stops going to Shad Farm.

Things go downhill. His mother and Sophy can’t share a home, his horse dies, he can’t afford another, their money is fast going. In the hopes of getting a loan from Mrs Sadgrove, Harvey walks up to Shad Farm. The door is answered by Mary who tells him her mother has died overnight. She has been alone all day, waiting for the Doctor, who hasn’t attended. She obviously has no idea what to do so Harvey takes over, completes the laying out. He tells Mary that her mother wanted him to marry her but she contradicts him. Her mother was opposed: it was she who wanted to marry him. She was fond of him. She sends him away, back home. He suggests returning tomorrow. She says Goodbye.

See what I mean about strange? The revelation that Mary, not her mother, wanted the marriage, did not surprise me: it came at a point when something was needed to create an ending and it was a typical dramatic reversal, but it fell flat and that was due to what the adaptation didn’t introduce – that the story cleary showed Harvey being attracted to Mary prior to her mother’s suggestion. In the episode, he’s obviously impressed by her beauty, but that’s it. He’s polite to her, but until Mrs Sadgrove intevenes, he neither says nor does anything to suggest that he sees her as anything more than a pretty girl who is the daughter of his best customer. What’s more, in both the story and the episode, Mary is nothing more than a cypher. She’s meant to be, a silent enigma, an unworldly figure in a very wordly environment so the fact that she has, or had, emotional and possibly even sexual feelings, is meant to come as a surprise.

But the episode never gives Drinkel anything to work with to suggest that he is interested in Mary other than as a nest egg, and that that only makes him wonder about how he is to be twisted. Sophy, a nice enough, chubby, not-unpretty girl (Jane Carr got a lot of roles as the pudgy girl) might not let him have anything but kisses but she is at least a real figure, unlike the ethereal Mary. The episode fails to impress Mary as a real contender for a marriage, and without that the story is without ballast, and the revelation that she was a genuine option is robbed of the irony it should possess if the story is to have a proper dramatic impact.

I can’t fault Sheila Ruskin, who was asked to stand there looking pretty and say practically nothing. No actress can make a character out of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and by the time she gets some actual dialogue, she’s required to act shell-shocked and out of it at first and then, when she finally has something worthwhile to say, is stuck with saying it with the same lack of emotion and intonation demanded of her all episode.

The frustrating thing is how close this came to keeping up the standard of everything before. The cast were well-chosen, their performances excellent, but the absence of one key emotional factor undermined everything.

F*cked over by Amazon

It was going to be a glorious irony.

Up till this time yesterday, I was expecting to get a delivery from Amazon today. I’d been waiting for it for some while. Years, in fact. The Intruder, the complete eight part television adaptation of John Rowe Townsend’s novel, broadcast in 1971 and watched avidly by my mother, my sister and myself, because it was mostly filmed in Ravenglass, where my Grandad was born. Themoment I heard about it, I put it on pre-order with Amazon.

But it was delayed. Delayed indefinitely. My guess, which turned out to be wrong, was that there were insufficient orders for it for it to be commercially viable, and it would never appear. I would be wrong about that, too. I never cancelled the order though, leaving it there on the off-chance, just in case. In hope.

And then last year, I was tipped off that the obstacles, the barriers had been overcome, that the series would finally released in 2022. In BluRay format. I don’t have a BluRay player. But at last it was confirmed, a DVD release, release date 27 March 2023. Today.

My Amazon order was still there. I did wonder but they officially notified me, delivery date 27 March, and at the original price when I ordered it. The Amazon promise, the price guarantee. I wasc looking forward to it arriving today, to setting aside the time for a bingewatch, the whole series, start to finish. And the glorious irony, the wonderful icing on the cake, was going to be the delivery of this item exactly seven years to the day that I had ordered it, 27 March 2016.


Yesterday, an email from Amazon arrived, notifying me that Payment had been Declined. I needed to update my Payment Method. I was irritated, but not concerned. As it happened, I started using a new Visa card this month, but I’d not only already updated my Payment Method, I had already bought two items from Amazon using my updated Payment Method. An irritation, but a minor one. So I clicked on the link and clicked on the button to Update My Payment Method and… And, oops. An internal error. Something not working. It’s been logged. We’ll investigate this.

So. Amazon have a perfectly valid Payment Method they’ve already accepted. But they want me to update my Payment Method for this one ite which just happens to have been ordered seven years ago, at 2016 prices, only when I try to do so their system fails’ and there’s no altenative method to do what they are, completely unnecessarily, asking me to do. The odour of Rattus Norvegicus arises. If I do nothing, my Order will be cancelled in five days time. All very neat and hermetic. It seems that the only way i will get my The Intruder is to re-order it at 2023 prices. Which are only half as much again.

Some might say I’m being cheeky, expecting to get a 2023 item at 2016 prices, and on that level I am. But I placed that order in good faith, upon Amazon’s terms that I would never be charged more than that price when the order was placed. They know that. So, instead of accepting the situation, as I have had to do these past seven years, they decide to fuck me over. Nice.

I don’t like being fucked around. I don’t expect the earth, but I expect ordinary, decent service. Play fair with me, I won’t act unreasonable, I won’t create a fuss if there are issues. just don’t fuck me around, because you only do that once. I cancelled the order from 2016. I re-ordered the DVD. Only I did that direct from the company. It’ll only cost me £1.02 more than the original order, which is the best part of a fiver less than Amazon are charging now. The only thing I lose is getting the DVD today: allow up to 28 days for delivery. Oh well, I’ve waited sven years, another month won’t kill me.

I shalln’t be boycotting Amazon after this, much though it’s my natural instinct to do so. But I’ll be doing everything I can to find other sources for the things I want to buy. Fuck me over and expect me to carry on giing me your money? I used to work for someone who would rather rip you off for £100 now tthan make £1,000 off you over the next year. I’m sorry to see that being replicated.


The Infinite Jukebox: The Small Faces’ ‘The Autumn Stone’

It continues to amuse me as much as it amazes me that even after more than half a century and nearly five-sixths of a lifetime there is still music from the Sixties that I’m discovering for the first time, and not just the obscurities that often are fifty per cent of a band’s recording history. When it comes to The Small Faces I actually have two box sets of their music, one representing the Decca Years, the other their time on Immediate, and I still blinked my ears in surprise when I found ‘The Autumn Stone’ on YouTube and wondered aloud how the fuck I had never heard this before. Even though it’s track 2 on the fourth disc of the Immediate collection.
Nevertheless, it’s one of the most uncharacteristic tracks recorded by The Small Faces – slow, acoustic, wistful, nary a trace of Ian McLagen’s organ – but the song doesn’t stand out on the CD, amongst the other songs and alternate versions collected there. It sneaks past, almost unobserved in its quietness and languid air.
Musically, its nearest companion is ‘The Universal’, the band’s final top 20 hit, but the two don’t really bear much comparison. The single is herky-jerky, rhythmic, bucolic in sound and atmosphere, with Marriott showing every sign of enjoying himself, but ‘The Autumn Stone’ is quiet, and even, its entire sound wistful and entranced. The Small Faces started off as an R’n’B band, feeding the Mod market, and then went psychedelic, retaining the energy of their first phase and focussing it into wider visions. Though it’s nothing like that, this song is still clearly characteristic of their psychedelic aspirations.
‘The Autumn Stone’ is hazy, impressionistic. If Marriott and Co had confessed to dropping acid before they started playing this, you wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised. There’s a lysergic blur to what is going on. Certainly, Marriott’s words are not coming from a place of stone-cold sobriety.
For once, their actual meaning is not strictly relevant to the beauty of this song. The production puts a mild echo on his voice, moving him away from the music. The verse structure marries up two short lines, non-rhyming, with a longer third that impresses itself more in the consciousness of the song by requiring more breath control from Marriott. The song simply flows forward, without an orthodox middle-eight, just a change in inflection at that point in the song where a middle-eight would be implanted, and the only change in the lyrical structure is the final two-line verse.
And what is Marriott actually singing about? It’s a stoned reverie – the gentle music and the woodwind accompaniment suggests summer fields, skies of light and haystacks, the slow drone of rambling bees – blissed out on love and potentiality. Steve’s getting his head together in the country.
And he’s found a muse. He sings as if this is a woman, a love that inspires him, but his words do not define her as more than an abstraction, and that final verse, which breaks the two-and-one pattern, speaks of finding a living sound, that moves and breathes and then makes love to me.
So: woman or something more? Something other. Some fairy queen, conjured up out of the grass and the leaves and the flowers?
We’re in Steve Marriott’s head by now, floating with him on currents not necessarily of this earth. Kenny Jones and Ronnie Lane provide a beat that is more of a musical punctuation than a rhythm. McLagan plays an electric piano buried deep in the sensation of the music, that Marriott blows a blues harp over in the extended coda to the song, leaving that as his last note.
The whole experience is just that, an experience as much as a song. It stands alone, which is why it is much more impressive listened to for its own sake on YouTube than having to perform as an unrelated bridge between songs that it shares little or no DNA with on a compilation. At least then it can be contemplated in isolation, which is where it stands.
An unknown, a nothing, a midsummer afternoon’s daydream. ‘The Autumn Stone’ is something I should have known about from when it was recorded, if I could have been miraculously translated to both its year and an understanding of it. But that’s impossible. If it makes such an impression on me in 2023, I can only wonder what I could have made of it when it was fresh, and of it’s time. A living sound, that moves and breathes and then makes love to me? Who knows?

Film 2023: A Hard Day’s Night


They don’t make films like this anymore.

Actually, I think there was only one time when they could make films like this, and that was 1964, so it was a good job they made it then. And despite all the things that have happened since, such as the passing of 59 years, to date it, A Hard Day’s Night remains remarkably fresh, and alive. Watching it is like slipping into a bubble of preserved time and breathing the air of then, the only problem being the return to 2023 when the recording ends.

Watching the film this morning had its drawbacks. I was watching an upload to YouTube that, in order to evade copyright restrictions, had been ‘modified’ to 0.5x speed. This was not a problem as all I had to do was change settings to play at 2x speed. But the film was cut, a few seconds here, a few seconds there, lines and notes flensed from some, but not all of the song performances. And, most curious of all, the entire mid-film performance of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ was removed from the soundtrack, leaving the Beatles to perform their running and jumping antics in the park in dead silence. But the song’s reprise in the closing concert session was broadcast loud and clear. Wierd, I say, wierd.

A Hard Day’s Night was a cash-in, an exploitation of the group’s fame, a step on the road to becoming ‘all-round entertainers’ who would survive the end of the inevitably ephemeral Merseybeat boom. At least, that was the intent. Messrs Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starkey (Starr) were to be presented as they were, in the midst of their existence, in the midst of being The Beatles. This kind of presentation was chosen, no doubt, to reflect their incredible popularity and to accomodate thair limitations as untrained actors. The beatles would play The Beatles, saying and doing what they said and did anyway. Liverpool playwright Alun Owen was hired to script the film, and provide dialogue that mirrored what the four Moptops would have said anyway. Between the naturalness of what they were asked to say and do, and the internal confidence buoying up their innate Scouse personalities, John, Paul, George and Ringo came over as themselves. It didn’t hurt that they were playing the public personae they portrayed on a daily basis anyway.

And they were a bloody sight better than Gerry and The Pacemakers or The Dave Clark Five in their movies.

The film was directed by Richard Lester, who would go on to direct the band’s less successful sequel, Help! and the theatrical Superman 2. He gets a lot of praise for the innovations he brought to filming in this movie: the pace, the cutting, the hand-held cameras, the movement. Watching in the Twenty-First Century, the whole film feels familiar, yet these were all techniques that 1964 would have found strange and new.

A Hard Day’s Night was shot quickly and on a low budget, none of which shows. The Beatles are the centre and they’re supplemented by some very familiar professional figures of the time, such as Norman Rossington and John Junkin, as their managers and Victor Spinetti as the TV Director, but the primary figure is Wilfred Branbell playing Paul’s Irish Grandfather, a ‘mixer’ of the first water. Brambell had ht stardom the year before as Albert Steptoe in Galton and Simpson’s classic Steptoe and Son, an arhetypal ‘dirty old man’, hence the constant, in-joke references to him in the film as being very clean, which would have had contemporary audiences roaring their heads off.

The film has its serious side, not that it shows it off, satirising the life The Beatles lead, under constant pressure from their fans, unable to be free to just do anything natural or normal, except when they escape. That’s left to be absorbed, silently, subliminally. And there are moments, little throwaways, brief surrealities, that had me laughing uproariously, even as I saw them coming.

But what of the music? That’s what a Beatles film was going to be about and these were brilliant. The film and the album and the songs written for it represent a turning point for the band. The album would be the first to consist only of band originals, without rock’n’roll and early Motown covers. The Beatles were still the young, unaffected, instant band, producing a stream of instant pop/rock records that had no thought other than fun, excitement, energy and all the myriad angles on love. They’re still naive at heart in their music. But this is the hinge-point. This film captures the Beatles on the point of growing up, still inspired by the rock’n’roll of their youth but beginning to see the potential for bigger and better things. A Hard Day’s Night is the doorway to Revolver and Rubber Soul. Here, they’re still playing, and still captivated by playing, and they can still give ‘She Loves You’ every bit of their force. This is where their eyes start to open, where they start to tell themselves there can – and will – be more than this.

Flaws in the upload or no flaws, this was a glorious way to spend Sunday morning. By now, the film’s almost a social documentary, but if they were all as alive as this, there would be a lot more of them worth absorbing.