Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 5 – The Luck of Sallowby


For the fifth Jillies book, we’re back. Back in England, back to the Standings and back to a decent plot which Saville wants to use to dramatise the dangers of flooding in the arable land of the Fens as based on the real-life events of 1947, whilst bringing a Jilly enemy back into the middle of a good, strong criminal plot.
We’re three chapters in before the Jillies actually come onstage, heading for a holiday in Ely with their spinster aunt, Bridget Singleton, the sister of their late mother, who has been successfully running a warm and friendly cafe, the Copper Kettle, for six months or so. Aunt Bridget wants to reacquaint herself with her family. Still, in the midst of all this rain, and the flat and superficially undistinguished land of the Fens, Mandy and Prue in particular are wondering what they’re going to do.
By then, the reader has a fair inkling. In a technique he would not introduce into the Lone Pine series for some time, Saville starts with the villains, in this case the small, pointed-nose, circumlocutory of speech Mr Beale – who we know is a villain because he kicks a puppy into the gutter – and the younger, smoother, but still repulsive Mr Chester. Beale is a man down on his luck, under Chester’s thumb due to certain papers the latter holds. And Chester runs a criminal enterprise devoted to identifying and… acquiring… valuable relics to be sold to the American market. Beale, who is something of an expert, is to act as his spotter here in the Fens. And pretty damned quickly.
Chapter 2 reintroduces the Standings, Guy and Mark, at their large and comfortable home in the Midlands, growing frustrated at the waste of half their school holidays, trapped by the rain. They’re kicking against the traces and thinking of a mini-cycle tour when a lengthy letter arrives from Mandy, setting up the visit to Ely and inviting the boys to cycle over (it’s only a hundred miles!) She even suggests Aunt Bridget could put them up.
It’s Mandy to the life and though the stiff-necked and prim Mrs Standing objects, Mr Standing is not only more favourably inclined towards the idea (and Mandy!), he’s on a business trip the next day that will take him to within twenty miles of Ely.
Once the boys are on their own, buffeted by the high winds and able to see for themselves the risk from the river levels and their raised position above the Fens, Saville is able to ease into the wider concerns that will take us into the threatening territory of the book’s second half. Guy and Mark identify a hole in a dyke, give a lift to Water Board Inspector Mr Curtis, whose thirteen year old son Francis is the owner of the kicked puppy and who becomes a contingent member of the gang, like Sandy Barton in Two Fair Plaits, and like any decent Saville children, show an immediate interest in helping out this increasingly desperate situation.
Even so, they still arrive at the Copper Kettle the same day as Mandy, Prue and Tim, and of course Aunt Bridget is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect a Saville adult to be, so they’re accommodated with ease.
Which leads to one of my favourite exchanges in all of Saville’s books. Mandy catches Guy alone, grasps the middle button of his jacket and asks him, seemingly as if the answer matters, if he thought she was being a forward hussy in inviting the Standings to join them. Guy, who is not as far forward in this relationship than Mandy, still knows what to say and, straightfacedly replies that he does. And Mandy leans in until she’s almost in his face (and certainly within kissing distance) before hissing, ‘Silly old stick-in-the-mud!’ and running off.
It’s flirting, Jim, if not quite as we know it. The Neglected Mountain was still to come (it would be the next Lone Pine book), but Mandy Jillions and Guy Standing were a lot closer to marking the long term nature of their friendship than David Morton and Petronella Sterling.
The boys – and this includes Tim and Francis – are eager to experience more of the flood protection methods, although Aunt Bridget has arranged for all of them to take afternoon tea with her friend Colonel Frensham of Sallowby Manor, a widower of limited means but with great local and historical knowledge and a family history extending back to the times, and the band of Hereward the Wake. Prue refuses to go out and cycle but Mandy has no intention of being left out and joins the boys on a long, exhausting day, during which they are several times treated as if they’re underfoot (which they are) and which ends with them discovering a leak and the Standings desperately (and dirtily) plugging it up until Mandy can summon help.
This is where the various strands of the book start to be tied together. AS the two parties converge on Sallowby Manor, the man we know as Beale is just leaving. Prue recognises him but can’t remember from where. Somewhat surprisingly, everyone takes her seriously, as indeed they should. Though Colonel Frensham has certain antiquities on display, he has something priceless concealed in a safe in his study that he permits only Guy and Mandy to see. This is the Luck of Sallowby, a short-handled, immaculately preserved battle-axe from the time of Hereward, handed down through generations, complete with a rhyme, tying possession of the Luck to the fate of Sallowby Manor.
And whilst the children are examining that, Mandy sees a face peering through the window that they all automatically associate with Mr Beale. As indeed they should, as once they return to the cafe, Prue recalls who he really is: Mr Sandrock, the art smuggler of Redshank’s Warning.
The gang warn Aunt Bridget, who doesn’t actually disbelieve but seems overwhelmed, and the next day Mandy and Prue take the bus to Sallowby Manor to warn Colonel Frensham. (They have an additional motive: Aunt Bridget twice called the Colonel ‘Charles’ – she clearly wants to marry him! They could end up related to the Luck of Sallowby).
But the increasing danger from the flooding remains the central focus, with the threat of Chester and Beale taking advantage of the confused situation and everybody’s distraction. At one point, when the banks have leaked and everyone’s milling about, they find Mark on his own and kidnap him to a nearby but very dilapidated pub (another of Saville’s tropes: all pubs run by characters who give shelter to villains are run down and dirty), though he escapes and gets back to Ely. Where he’s greeted by the ever-dramatic Prue with a hug and a sob and a heartfelt cry that they thought he was dead: Mark is to Prue as Guy is to Mandy, but this is the first and only expression of anything more than friendship on either side.
There are some wonderful individual touches in this book, that explode the kind of cliches Saville and other writers so often indulged in. At one point, having been formally and mutually recognised by the gang, and taunted about other names, Beale finds Mandy alone in the cathedral, clutches her arm and threatens her over forgetting any other name but Beale or any other encounter. When he relates this proudly to Chester, the latter bluntly tells him it was the most stupid and dangerous thing he could have done.
And when Mandy and Prue repeat their warnings to the Colonel after Mark’s adventure, and he shows them the Luck’s empty case, Mandy bursts into tears that they have let him down by coming too late, only to be reassured: the day they first warned him, the Colonel took the Luck into Ely and deposited it with his Bank. He took their warning seriously. Why couldn’t more writers do this?
Eventually, the water wins. The culverts burst, the road explodes, the flood starts in. Unfortunately, Mandy is caught by it. She and Prue have, as planned, watched the housekeeper steal the empty case and follow her as she delivers it to Beale and Chester. The headstrong Mandy insists on following the pair to try to get the number of their car for the Police, though she’s supposed to stay within the Manor grounds. When the road goes, she and they are trapped. All three make for an isolated farmhouse, that won’t last forever under the pressure of the rising water.
Everyone panics at her absence, with Prue in tears, but inevitably it’s Guy who sees the light Mandy manages to flash from the farmhouse. He joins the Colonel in the boat that goes out to rescue everyone, the subdued Mandy first, joining Guy in the boat and clearly very but quietly grateful that he is there, in a manner that leaves him without any words to say how important it has been to him that she is safe.
So all’s well that ends well, even if the threatened flood has happened, causing untold and uncounted damage to the Fens, its economy and the food supply to England, which gets forgotten in the dark, as Mandy briefly wakes to see Charles smiling at Bridget, and is sure there’ll be a wedding ere too long. How very Austenian.
After the disaster that was The Sign of the Alpine Rose and the contrivances to construct Strangers at Snowfell, The Luck of Sallowby was a welcome return to form for the Jillies. Such a pity then that Saville would only write them one more adventure.

David Squires on Jack Charlton


One day, soon maybe, I’ll talk about how and why the deaths of the people that I refer to on this blog affect me as they do.

I’ve already written about Jack Charlton, but this, with far fewer words, says much more than I ever could, especially in the last tier, and that last panel.

For those who don’t follow the Guardian, and who won’t otherwise see David Squires’ beautiful tribute.

Person of Interest: s04 e16 – Blunt


The Stumbling Block

Here, I’m afraid, we hit a block. A stumbling block of rather large proportions. It’s called Harper Rose, and since she’s the Number of the Week and thus looms large in this episode, it is a stumbling block of major proportions.

As usual, we begin in media res, Reese on a snowy campus tracking the new Number, played with energy by Annie Ilonzeh. Harper Rose is already unique in that, instead of her Social Security number, the Machine has provided her College Registration. This is because Harper Rose is not Harper Rose’s real name. What that is goes unrevealed: ‘Harper’ is a chameleon with multiple phones, IDs, names, roles etc. Why is this? Hang on a bit.

The usual question is Victim or Perpetrator. There’s nothing except Harper’s general air of innocuous innocence to tilt the balance, but early indications are that she’s likely the former. Her stoner boyfriend, Trey, works shifts at a Medical Marijuana Dispensary, and he’s feeling under the weather so Harper takes his shift. A legal Dispensary of marijuana nevertheless has issues, especially around how orthodox Banks won’t open accounts for them, and there’s tons of cash lying about, enough to warrant private security from a legal operation of, and it’s about time we got back to them, the Brotherhood.

And something goes wrong tonight. Harper’s handling the takings run. The Cartel attempts to steal the money. Much shooting occurs, including the usual number of kneecappings by ‘Detective Riley’. The bag is recovered. It is full of travel brochures. The bag with the money is disappearing towards the nearest horizon in the possession of Harper Rose, she who is a grifter, a conwoman, a perpetrator of criminal acts.

Which is where I hit my personal wall. It’s not just here but I remember her return appearance (and her third), and between now and next I find myself violently disliking her. Harper is highly intelligent, curious and inventive. She operates on permanent alert, every second devoted to pursuing angles and advantages, and to complete the alliteration, she’s completely amoral.

Every second of dear little Harper’s day and night is devoted to furthering the interests of dear little Harper, using her wits to con, shuffle and trick absolutely everyne around her, to get what she wanrts and do what she wants, without an atosecond’s worth of thought for anybody else. She is the predator and they are her prey and her refusal to get attached to anyone or anything leaves me cold. I cannot feel anything about a character who feels nothing and prefers to see everyone she encounters as sheep to her wolf.

That was a bar against my ability to enter into and enjoy the world of the show this week, or to be engaged in the machinations of the plot. Who cared if Reese and Finch got Harper’s feet out of the fire? She certainly didn’t. All she wanted to do was get out and find another sucker to leech off. Did we care about Trey’s fate, the pathetic stoner put at risk through all this but who, as played easily by Connor Hines, was insignificant to the point of utter dispensability?

The only things of merit to the episode lay in the aforementioned return of The Brotherhood and Dominick to the forefront of the audience’s attention, and the extremely truncated subplot featuring Root. Root has an idea. Finch and Reese have the wrong approach, pushing everybody else out since Shaw’s ‘death’. Instead of excluding, Team Machine should be recruiting. There are others out there who think as they do, who would fight if only they knew how. Root has designed an App (we all know the Machine has been at least a consultant on this).

And Finch, concerned, follows Root to a company, with whom she is set to go into partnership, to market her App, and to work with them on designing another.

What is the App? What does it do? How will it work? This is something to be patient about.

There are now only six episodes to the end of season 4, six episodes in which to deal with the Brotherhood, the War Dominick intends with Carl Elias, and the counter-measures Root and her App will bring into play to start the attack on Samaritan. Such a waste that this episode had to concentrate upon Harper Rose, who I decidedly do not trust, or like.

The Infinite Jukebox: Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’


My father and his elder brother hated motorways. They didn’t like the A6 either, finding it too congested, despite the traffic taken away by the M6 (which in those days ended just short of Carnforth). So, before our next holiday, Uncle Arthur wrote off to the AA for An Alternative Route from Manchester to the Lake District Avoiding the A1.
It was a roundabout route, for obvious reasons, but we were in no especial hurry, and it took us through Central Lancashire, Bury, Rawtenstall, Nelson, and across the moors via Gisburn to the main road across the edge of the Yorkshire Limestone Country, through Settle and Kirby Lonsdale (which we passed dozens of times but never entered).
It was a gentle, friendly, familiar way that was an essential part of going away on holiday.
Whatever route we took, we always stopped for lunch in Milnthorpe, at 12.30pm every time. We would always eat at The Flying Dutchman cafe, in the Market Square, and I was allowed sausage barms for the only time in the year. We’d wallow in the break, not returning to the car until 2.00pm to resume our journey.
Which is all very well, but what has this to do with music?
The Flying Dutchman had a jukebox. One year it had the forerunner of a Video Jukebox, but in 1966 they had an ordinary one. 1966 was the first year we, amazingly, got away for three holidays in the Lakes, three separate weeks. And 1966 was the year of ‘Strangers in the Night’.
When you set it against some of the other number 1s of 1966 – The Small Faces, Chris Farlowe, the Stones, the Beatles, the Troggs – it’s an oddity, almost a throwback, but if it is it was a glorious throwback and an instant hit, charting at no 14 in its first week and number 1 for three weeks thereafter. It was one of Sinatra’s best and strongest songs for a long time, a rich and powerful melody, and lyrics that married hope, fate and circumstance into a love story that resonates with everyone.
Strangers in the Night. It’s an evocative phrase, full of mystery and possibility. Two people meet, who have never seen each other before. Two lonely people, both consciously or subconsciously looking for someone with which to share lives. Anything can happen. Love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away.
Sinatra’s voice is rich and enveloping. It’s not the swing of the Fifties, but it’s an embracing sound on a song that could have been written for him, that may indeed have been written for him.
And indeed it is love at first sight. The Strangers who met have embraced each other, have chosen a life that bonds them. It turned out so right.
It’s a universal dream. Every one of us, practically, meets the person we will love as a stranger. Sinatra pulls us into that world of possibility, incarnates what we feel about the chance of a future. He sings us into that future with the sound of the past.
Song and singer: for me, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is the definitive Sinatra song, not the overplayed, supposed signature song, ‘My Way’. Sinatra was a familiar sound to me from endless days of playing in the living room at Brigham Street, absorbed with things like a miniature cannon that fired used matches to knock over ranks of little plastic soldiers, giveaways from Corn Flakes packets no doubt, a military band with varying numbers of instruments. And Mam does her housework and drinks her cups of tea whilst the Light Programme plays and I absorb some of the classic songs of Sinatra’s late-Fifties/early-Sixties period. In 1966, free of the impression of pop, another classic song is free to impress itself upon me. Like The Gang Show, not everything in your head is there because you chose it for yourself.
I love the song anyway, but it has significance for me from 1966. All three times we walked into The Flying Dutchman, ‘Strangers in the Night’ was playing on their Jukebox. Mam and Dad loved Sinatra anyway, and they loved the song’s association. Though they didn’t buy records, they bought this: an EP of which this was the title track. Many a time it would play at Sunday tea-time, and it was a long time before I could hear this without subconsciously expecting it to be followed by ‘On a Clear Day you can see Forever’.
When my mother died, the EP was among her things. My sister no longer had a record player but I did, and so I took it. I no longer have a record player but I still have the record, and I will keep it until my time comes, because it is an indelible link to days gone by and a rare example of my tastes coinciding with my parents’.
And because I remember meeting a stranger for the first time, in the early afternoon, not the night, but with the same outcome Frank Sinatra sung about.

Film 2020: Private Property


It took me a while to settle into this film, a 2006 Belgian production, French language affair (original title Nue Propriete – literally Bare Property), starring Isabelle Huppert. This was not through any failings of the film but rather that I’d set my expectations for something light and comic, and also French, only to discover at the literal last minute that it came without English sub-titles.

So, what was this family psychologogical drama about? Huppert plays Pascale, who has been divorced from Luc (the bear-like Patrick Descamps) for at least ten years. She lives with their twin children Thierry and Francois (played by half-brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier). If I understand the Wikipedia explanation about property rights corectly, Pascale has the right to live in the property but not to profit from it. The problem is that, after a decade and a half of devoting herself wholly to her sons, Pascale wants to resume her life. She’s started a clandestine relationship with Jan (Kris Cuppens), an accomplished chef and is talking of opening a B&B. To fund this, she talks of selling the house.

That’s the practicalities of the situation. The film is about the relationship between the characters. Director Joachim Lafosse complicates this somewhat by not giving us an objective external view of Pascale. We see her for ourselves, externally calm, still upset and angry with Luc, who has never got out of the habit of dropping round whenever he feels like it, at one point turning up in her bedroom when she’s taking a nap, passive in the face of Thierry’s offensive talk, his total self-entitlement. We’re meant to be sympathetic to her but we don’t know the past history except from her side. At one point, having invited Jan to dinner (which he cooks himself), Thierry starts accusing Jan of not knowing about Pascale and what she’s capable of, and this prompts the reconition that we don’t either. We can only jude her in the light of the men surrounding her and confining her, and frankly when you look at them, you rapidly find yourself in complete sympathy with her!

I’ve already characterised Luc as controlling, and Thierry is a replication of him assurely as if he’d been cloned. It’s not until the end of the film, and by way of a severely belated correction from Luc, that it’s made explicit that Thierry blames his mother for the family breakdown, and hates her for it. His words towards her, his demands to know what she’s doing, where she’s going, his refusal to even countenance her selling the house, his open hostility to Jan (who in truth , is making one ham-fisted mess of their one meeting) and his constant demands of her – and his girlfriend Anne (Raphaelle Lubansu, who we note looks not unlike a young Huppert – that they do what he wants, immediately, without thought of their own lives, depict him as an evil little bastard, a selfish tw*t.

Between these two, we cannot be but understanding of Pascale. She lives in her ex-husband’s house, unable to break free of his shadow, bringing up two boy who, now in their early twenties, show no signs of growing up or taking responsibility for themselves, one of whom is constantly ‘teasing’ of her by being as obnoxious as he can: the nice dress that makes her look like a whore, the red-tinting of her hair that he openly laughs at, but it’s all her fault for not seeing that he’s joking, oh yes, we’ve got your number, sonny.

Francois, in contrast, is more supportive, in an entirely passive manner. Thierry is the more forceful of the pair, who are twins, and thus bonded. He is mostly silent when Thierry is going off on one, but though he’s far more like his mother, to the extent that I detect the faint echoes of an Oedipus Complex, he’s a weak person and his encouraement always comes way too late and way too diffidently.

Both boys haven’t grown up and don’t want to grow up. Thierry has his studies in some undisclosed subject and Francois is ‘looking for a job’, the process of which seems to be his sanding down doors and shutters. Only in comprison to his poisonous brother is Francois at all a positive figure.

And Jan’s no bloody use either. He and Pascale have sex in places like the back of an estate car out in the forest (not cramped at all) but as soon as he’s introduced to the boys, he walks out on her, doesn’t want to know: supportive or what? Admittedly, he’s dropped right in it by Pascale who, having told him of her problems, wants him to try to talk to the boy on her behalf, at which he’s bloody useless. Given Thierry’s nature, this was always going to be a complete waste of time and only serves to jack up the boy’s hostility to the point where he’s telling her to fuck off, to her face, repeatedly, enough so that she loses her temper (about ten years too late) and belts him round the head, screaming at him.

This leads to the film’s turning point. Pascale leaves, requiring a breather, recognising that Thierry is impossible and won’t change. Luc won’t take any responsibility for looking after them: she wanted the divorce, it’s her bed, let her lie in it.

Left alone, Thierry’s selfishness is extended to Francois who, resentful of his mother having been drive away, starts fighting ack. Anne comes for the weekend. Sex is disrupted by Francois’ insistence on playing video motor-racing games all night, he tells a mocking story about Thierry’s childhood. When watching TV, Thierry starts trying to feel Anne up and Francois watches them. Infuriated by the atmosphere between the brothers, Anne leaves. Francois mocks Thierry’s please for her to come back,leading to a short,violent brawl in which Thierry pushes his brother off, causing him to fall and demolish a glass coffee-table. Francois lands half off-screen and lies still.

This is where Thierry falls part. What’s happened to Francois we don’t know. The film deliberately won’t tell us, nor the eventual outcome. But it’s serious and potentially fatal. Thierry stands there, speaking his brother’s name. Instead of helping, or call an ambulance, he calls Dad, then he runs off and hides. The camera sits unmovingly on him as, in the deep background, first Luc’s car then an ambulance then Pascale’s arrive iutside the huse, running in. He takes himself to Anne’s but can’t/won’t speak. she drives him back to the house and dumps him there.

Luc and Pascale return. He’s lying on his bed, refusing to speak, pretending that if he doesn’t admit what he’s done it won’t have happened, the sniveling little merde (excuse my French). Luc won’t press him but Pascale will. He tries to run away, calls her a bitch, who is responsible for all this. It’s not his fault, nothing was ever his fault, a big boy did it and ran away…

And then Luc, at least ten years too late, grabs him by the throat, drags him outside, shouts in his face that his mother is not a bitch. And in a long-overdue and no doubt ineffectual, he tells Thierry that they tried, but it didn’t work out. That was all.

The one note of optimism is in the defeated slump of Luc’s shoulders, the merest suggestion that, having seen what anger and hatred has led to, he might have learned. Silent in the living room, Luc slumps to his knees and begins, carefully, to collect the shards of the coffee table. After watching him for thirty seconds or so, Pascale kneels and starts her own pile.

Thierry? I think he’s irredeemable, that his ingrained sense of self-entitlement, indulged for so long by Luc, is too thick to be penetrated even by this shock.

The film offers only one more shot, a continuous shot from a camer affixed tothe back of a car, driving away from the house along country roads until the screen fades to black. We assume this to be Anne, leaving forever, and perhaps we can infer that Francois’ injury has been fatal, though it’s clear she had more or less given up on her other son as well.

Either way, it’s a non-ending, but what else could be possible? here was a family who were fucked up beyond all recognition,save that there are millions of them. When there is no ending, a decision must be made to stopsomewhere. Itn it’s way,this is a dynamic non-ending, not one produced through inertia,lack orf enery or imagination.

Not what I was planning for a genuinely sunny Saturday morning, but thought-provoking and involving nevertheless.

As It Must: Jack Charlton R.I.P.


As the years go by, the privilege of having been there to see England win the World Cup grows ever more important. A ten year old boy, watching a black-and-white television set in the midst of a family, none of whom were interested in football but who gathered together to hope to watch history.

Eleven names, a litany all of us could recite. Amazingly, over half that team remain with us, but one more name has been subtracted from that list. Jack Charlton, centre-half for Leeds United, elder brother of Bobby, World Cup Winner, has passed away. We can only expect more names to follow, in more rapid order.

I remember lots of stories about Wor Jackie. The time that, on television nearing the end of his playing career, he stated that he had a couple of names in a book, of players who had done things for which he would exact revenge before he was dne. Didn’t go down that well with the authorities but I doubt there was a fan of any team that didn’t understand, and approve.

The other came out of the Munich Air Disaster. It was not a world in which news could be had quickly and Jackie and his wife took the train to Manchester where they hoped to find if Bobby had survived. I will never forget Jack Charlton, whose relationship with his younger rother, already strained by the irreversible changes in him due to the crash, telling of how he stepped own off the train, saw a newstand at the bottom of the platform, and from that distance saw his brother’s name in the printed list of survivors.

Though they grow old and leave us, they will not grow old as other, nor will their memories pass from us.

Lest a Black Cat cross your path: Part 1 – Her Solo Title


The first one

After indulging myself with one of the Golden Age’s brighter heroines, what better than to have a look at another popular character from the same era, who, like Lady Luck, lived and breathed outside the ambit of DC Comics. I’ve long been intrigued by images of Harvey Comics’ Black Cat (nothing to do with Marvel’s Felicia Hardy) for the simplicity, sexiness and brio of her appearance. So, a DVD-Rom of her solo series, all 29 issues of it, and let’s see if the stories match up to the art.
I’m actually starting in the middle. Black Cat got her own comic in 1946, which ran bi-monthly until 1951 in a 48-page anthology format of which she was the indubitable lead role. Hollywood’s Glamorous Detective Hero it said on all her stories, whilst the cover went one further in proclaiming her the ‘Darling of Comics’. Black Cat was movie-star Linda Turner, America’s sweetheart (and a redhead, what more can I ask?). Linda, daughter of silent movie western star Tim Turner and a now-deceased stuntwoman, got her start as a stuntwoman herself, working her way up through bit-parts to stardom. Along the way, in circumstances we won’t go into at the moment, she became Black Cat, Hollywood’s heroine.
Only Tim knows Linda’s secret. Her boyfriend, Rick Horne, radio news reporter, has no idea whatsoever, despite being practically Black Cat’s partner in her adventures. Nor does Linda’s secretary, Jonesy. The only other one aware of her double-life is Toby, Linda’s (black) cat who, despite the name, is actually female.
According to the family, Black Cat was supposedly conceived by Alfred Harvey, though there’s no evidence to support this, and was initially drawn by Al Gabriele. She debuted in the experimental, digest-sized Pocket Comics 1, in 1941 but transferred to Harvey’s Speed Comics, where she co-starred with Captain Freedom. Speed Comics was still running when Black Cat got her own title but was cancelled the following year.
The cover of Black Cat 1 amply demonstrates the character’s appeal. It’s not just the backless bathing-suit costume, the boots and gloves (not to forget the red hair), but the sheer exuberance of the drawing. This is someone who looks full of life and vigour, promising good fun stories. And inside the first issue were two Black Cat stories, topping and tailing the comic, and separated by three rather surprising stories about competing airmen, American kids and Yugoslav resistance fighters, none of whom who looked like regular series material, still fighting the War that had been over a year before the comic’s June/July cover date.
The two Black Cat stories were quite a contrast. In the opener, two ex-circus members, part of a German spy-ring, try to kill Rick Horne to stop him exposing them, with the female impersonating Black Cat, and at the end Linda and Rick are in India entertaining American troops and foiling a Japanese plot to invade India via the Khyber Pass. The one page prose story was abysmal, though.
The art is relatively simplistic but Black Cat is lithe and active, and quick-moving, and in neither story does this pre-Code comic show any concerns about killing enemies. Nor does it show any concerns about depicting the Japs as racist caricatures with yellow skin. This, I think, may have to be taken as a given, to be mentioned only if particularly egregious.

Lee Elias debuts

Given that she was an already well-established character by this point, there’s no feeling around for the best approach. Linda doesn’t go out patrolling or anything like that, she stumbles onto crimes as she goes about her Hollywood star business, slips away to change into her costume, and heads into the action. Said costume at this point and throughout her own comic, consists of a backless dark blue bathing costume, an opera mask with two high points, flared gloves and buccaneer boots: as I said, simple, practical, flexible and pretty damned sexy, much of which is a tribute to the energy with which she’s being drawn, tempered by realistic, non-exaggerated physical motions.
And Black Cat is fearless, lithe, a master of ju jitsu, a skilled acrobat and a top-notch motorbike rider. She isn’t fazed by thugs of any description or size, and unlike DC’s soon-to-be-introduced Black Canary, whose series will display some uncomfortable similarities to the Black Cat set-up, she doesn’t go around getting clonked on the head every tale, or ending up tied up all the time.
In short, her adventures are fun, short, cheerful in outlook, fast moving but also grounded in crimes by ordinary criminals. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not ambitious, but it’s infectious fun. And in its attitude to death, which on both the lawful and lawless sides takes place with realistic frequency, but never exploitively, it strikes a different tone to DC’s contemporary titles. Once Lee Elias took over the art from issue 4, giving Linda a much less wussy hairstyle in the process, I could see I was going to enjoy this.

An Elias splash page

Black Cat was nevertheless an anthology title. There was a Black Cat lead plus a prose tale of either one or two pages near the back: the two pagers were far better and they were awful. But the rest of the pages were a confusing muddle. Harvey really hadn’t taken the idea of a settled line-up to heart as characters would run for two to three issues before vanishing to be replaced with some other idea
Nor was there any pattern to what might appear next. Detective Johnny Nabisco looked like a stayer but lasted two stories (maybe three: issue 2 is missing from the DVD), Danny Dixon, Cadet, a series about a poor military cadet rooming with the rich and self-centred denizen of Cafe Society, Jonathan Spencer Alden III, looked about five years out of date but stuck.
And there were ‘superheroes’, like The Red Demon, alias harsh-sentencing Judge Straight, a man with a law textbook for a heart, who actually got an origin story with the ironic twist that he took his identity and costume from a murdered gangster, and master archer The Scarlet Arrow, a very close contemporary of the one in green at DC, but with an ornate and archaic costume that must have been a bugger to draw.
The legendary Joe Simon/Jack Kirby team had a run in the title with a bunch of oddball characters they’d worked up a year before, planned as a new line for Harvey Comics that didn’t last due to a post-War glut of new comics swamping an already-shrinking market. These included the Duke of Broadway, with a Runyonesque background in theatreland, the Vagabond Prince, a greetings card writer turned crimefighter with an absurd multicoloured costume and a teen sidekick called Chief Justice, plus a one-off for Stuntman, a stuntman-turned-crimefighter.
This is not the highlights of Simon and Kirby’s career – experts pin the first to to Joe Simon only – but in an off-the-wall way I liked the Duke of Broadway and the Vagabond Prince was at least different, in a stare-open-mouthedly-in-shock manner

But all these stories were leftovers from a year earlier, being used up. And there weren’t many of them, which led into another abrupt change in issue 8. Harvey ran a lot of titles reprinting famous newspaper strips, the most notable being Terry and the Pirates, but also including Joe Palooka and Alfred Andriola’s private detective, Kerry Drake. Suddenly, his strips started appearing in Black Cat, though not consistently: his continuity was being swapped with his own title so stories continued elsewhere.

Let’s take a look in detail at an issue of Black Cat, and to demonstrate our susceptibility to superstition, we’ll choose issue 13, dated September 1948. The cover is a typical action shot, using a distinctive monotone yellow background as Black Cat, her dark blue costume standing forward, dives right to left across the cover, her bike (right) tumbling away from her as she reaches for the handle on the rear of a small van (left) driving away from her, already half off-panel: a simple dynamic pose.
Inside the front cover, there’s a feature on artist Lee Elias with the cover story starting on page three with another action splash, Black Cat, her parachute billowing across panel rear immediately on landing, being menaced by two guard dogs, one of which is already chewing on one of her boots. There’s a mini-paragraph setting up a threat to Linda’s employers, Century Studios and the tale’s title, ‘Crime at 2,000 Feet’.
The eight-page story starts at the end, with Linda winning the Oscar for her new picture Revolution before winding into a flashback told by her father Tim in which a rival studio, facing bankruptcy, tries to ruin Century’s chances by seeding dry ice and causing constant rainfalls that keep the final scene, the burning of the village, from being filmed. Black Cat follows the autogyro and parachutes in to stop the interference. Though she beats up one boss, the other gets the drop on her and she’s tied up. They threaten to unmask her and torture her but are distracted by the bomb she’s put in the autogyro. Black Cat burns through her bonds, suffering scorched wrists, and uses her fighting, judo and jiu jitsu skills to beat up and bag the pair, saving the day and the film. And Linda even has enough time for catty remarks about Black Cat to her boyfriend Rick Horne, who for once hasn’t been at her side during the action.
There’s a second story of the same length immediately after, with Rick entering a motor-bike race watched by Linda. Unbeknowst to either the race is fixed by an unknown baddie in a monocle, out to secure the prize. Everyone’s on watered-down petrol except Rick, who’s been drugged. Black Cat joins the race on a borrowed bike to save his life, goes on to collar the baddie and win the race before disappearing: Linda pleads to keep the Cup until they can present it to Black Cat…
Next up came the latest set of two jiu jitsu lessons, with Black Cat demonstrating moves to use in different tight circumstances, also drawn, very elegantly by Elias.
After a one page cartoon featuring a new character, Winnie the Waitress, at the Gym, there was the next lot of Kerry Drake, starting a new story. Drake, at this stage, was still a civilian investigator for the DA’s office, facing fantastic and grotesque crooks Dick Tracy-style, but concentrating on detecting using modern methods rather than fights and shoot-outs. Drake spent ten pages getting involved with post-Prohibition-repeal bootleggers, dealing with untaxed booze.

The Darling of Comics

Danny Dixon and Jonathan Alden Spencer III faced up to radium thieves trying to discredit one of Hilltop Military Academy’s Professors in a typically semi-comic seven pager, following which the issue finished up with two one page Black Cat shorts, neither worth the minimal ink used to print them, separated by another Winnie the Waitress page, this time featuring picnics. It’s not that the prose stories are necessarily bad, but they are far too short for any kind of worthwhile story, and the font is exceptionally large, preventing even a millimetre’s development: in comics form, they’d be lucky to fill three pages.
Once this issue passed, the back-ups changed again. Kerry Drake went back to his own mag to be replaced by another reprinted newspaper strip, Mary Worth, of which I’ve heard some things but never previously seen, followed by one of Harvey’s original characters, Invisible Scarlet O’Neill, a redhead (yay!) who can turn invisible.

Go Western, Young Woman

There was a change of direction, title and costume with issue 16, as Linda Turner relocated from Hollywood to the Wild West for her adventures and the comic was re-titled Black Cat Western. The costume change was the least of it, the Darling of Comics merely exchanging her halter-neck swimsuit for a strapless one. Funnily enough, the varied costume was less attractive. The next issue, Linda Turner changed her role as mistress of drawing-room comedies for that of Western star. It was 1949, and as we’ve seen at DC Comics, superheroes were dying on the vine and Westerns were the new big thing. Black Cat was merely obeying the law of commerciality.
Interestingly, to go with the Black Cat lead in issues 18 and19, there were two ‘A Day with Linda Turner’ shorts, featuring our glamorous movie star out of costume, and crime, so to speak.
Though the stories were still fun, and Elias’ art making Black Cat a lithe, all-action but entirely grounded figure, the character was in trouble. The Golden Age was fading, and there were signs on the horizon that foreshadowed Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. Quietly, the series’ cheerful attitude to crooks dying had been supplanted by arrest, but there were complaints about Linda Turner’s costume, and how sexy the Black Cat appeared with bare arms and legs (Shock! Horror!), not to mention her bare back and the revelation that Black Cat had a cleavage. Later reprints would be touched up to show less skin, especially up front and top.
But the Western phase only lasted four issues until, despite a western cover, the comic reverted to Black Cat and Linda’s latest movie turned out to be about pirates, not cowboys.
Mary Worth, a low key romantic soap opera, seemed completely out of place in Black Cat, and in accordance with the general stability of back-up features, was ditched for issue 21, which featured another change of approach, re-emphasising the Hollywood aspect, with an Agony Aunt column from Linda, an interview with Montgomery Clift in comics form across the centre-spread, whilst Winnie the Waitress, which had a spark of life to it and some bright cartooning, was shunted for Holly of Hollywood, a piece of fluff.
The Hollywood angle was played up for all it was worth, and Black Cat/Linda Turner was thrust even further to the front, with the number of stories multiplying until, by issue 26 the comic featured nothing but Black Cat, Holly and a couple of half-page strips about Hector the Director.
Suddenly, the series went desperate. Black Cat started fighting costumed villains like the Firebug (the delightfully named Orson Arson), and then she rescued a thirteen year old circus aerialist, Kit Weston, from a fire that killed his parents, adopted him, revealed her identity to him and co-opted him as her sidekick, the Black Kitten. Nothing familiar about that then.

The last one

It was a truly awful idea, one born of desperation – I mean, Black Kitten: who in their right mind would agree to that as a superhero cognomen? – and it was the series’ last. This all occurred in issue 28 and issue 29 is missing from the DVD but that was the last issue to feature Black Cat. Her face appeared on the cover of issue 30, and above the first story, but Black Cat was gone and never to return. The comic was re-named Black Cat Mystery and were-positioned to tell short horror stories, with Black Cat as the seeming hostess and narrator but in practice that just didn’t happen.
It was a sadly downbeat end to the character’s history but I was always conscious of the fact that I was reading the second half of Black Cat’s career, so I equipped myself with a DVD of Smash Comics, to see what the first half was like. So we’ll look at that next time round.

Lou Grant: s04 e13 – Strike


I don’t think there’s been an episode of Lou Grant that made me feel the gulf in years between then and now more than this week. The Trib is facing running at a loss within a year and Mrs Pynchon is looking at ways to turning the situation around. The way is automation, of the presses, but at the cost of 200 jobs. The Union won’t agree one. The result is a strike. Lou Grant, as a lifelong Union man, is torn because, as Management, he has to be on the other side of the divide.

It was a very odd experience to watch this. It was so completely reflective of its era, and it was a sign of how far I’ve absorbed the present era management-dictated situation that I so easily accepted the management position. It was easy to see, from the perspective of 2020, that the Union were on the wrong side of history, that they were fighting against improvement, against efficiency, against better ways of doing things. They wanted to keep things in the past.

Yet they were also fighting for people, men and women with families dependent upon their wage. The paper was bending over backwards to accommodate those who would be affected, but there was a strong element of people not wanting to change. The old line about jobs guaranteed for life was used.

Of course, based on the Bitish experience of Print Unions, which were notorious for featherbedding, I couldn’t help but query how mny of those 200 people had real jobs: that was something the episode didn’t go near. There was Management’s line, represented by hotshot business advisor Bart Franklin (a young and not altogether recognisable Ray Wise), and there was the Union line and neither was subjected to any external, and potentially objective line.

The resolution came after at least three weeks of a near all-out strike when Mrs Pynchon forced Franklin off the negotiations; after all, as Lou had already seen, his goal was to crush the Union and hers to save the paper for as many as was possible. The compromise was a sixteen-strong composers room, which was quite a way down from twenty-five, suggesting what I said about featherbedding.

Of course, the episode also involved itself in the animosity between the two sides during the strike but as every scintilla of that will have never happened by next week, I don’t see any reason why I should go into it.

It was truly looking back into times that are gone and maybe need to be resurrected, to protect workers from the incessant desire of management to have absolute, and therefore capricious control over the people they employ. I have never felt the programme to be so far away than today.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 4 – The Sign of the Alpine Rose


In my younger years, I had five out of the six Jillies books and read them several times over. For some inexplicable reason I never got hold of The Sign of the Alpine Rose, and me such a stickler for complete sets. So the fourth book of the series represents another Saville story that I can only consider as an adult.
The Sign of the Alpine Rose is an anomaly in several ways. For one, it is the only book of the series not to feature Guy and Mark Standing, not even by passing reference. For a second, it takes the Jillies out of England for the only time, to Austria, the first of Saville’s characters to venture abroad. For a third, the book leans heavily on J.D. instead of his children, playing a more substantial and direct part than any of the adults in Saville’s fiction that I have read. And this is because, fourthly, the subject of the book is politics, and the Iron Curtain.
Instead of the Standings, Mandy and her family are going to a picture-book Austria, high in the mountains, to stay with her pen-friend Lisbeth Schmidt and her mother in the Alpine village of Bercht. At the time the book was written, 1950, Austria was still under quadripartite control, divided into four Zones, administered by the Allied Powers, America, Britain, France and Russia, though Saville mysteriously omits the Americans, and indeed writes as if there are effectively only two Austrias: free and Communist-controlled.
He blurs the matter further in his introduction, which for once is not about the characters but about the utterly-foreign country where it takes place, a mystery to all his readers. He then suggests the readers imagine Bercht as being in either the British or French Zone, only for it to be certain, if not telegraphed, in the book that this is the French Zone.
This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I get simplifying the political background for an audience in which only a tiny minority will care, but there’s simplification and confusing obfuscation and Saville errs too much to the latter.
Still, the story. Lisbeth, a rather serious sixteen year old, and her elder, somewhat standoffish brother Franz, live with their mother, who runs a small but homely guest-house for visitors. Her father used to be the village schoolmaster, until he went away to war ten years before: he has long been believed dead. But Herr Schmidt is alive and well, albeit in the Communist Zone (Saville does not use the word Russian, he is being polemic in this story). And with the aid of a local underground, who are operating Scarlet Pimpernel-style to get refugees back from the East, Herr Schmidt is trying to get back to his family.
Enter the Jillies. J.D. has decided they are going on a holiday abroad, Mandy has nominated Austria to meet Lisbeth, it’s going to be so much fun. And at first it is, with beautiful mountain country all around, enough that I wanted to see it for myself. But already there’s trouble brewing of a kind I was actually ashamed to see.
Bercht, it’s valley and it’s higher satellite, Ober-Bercht, reached by a narrow cable car, is dominated by its prominent mountain, Bullshead, so called for its twin peaks, like horns at either end of a flat, snow-capped plateau. Bullshead? Not even a stab at an Austrian name? Bullenkopf? Mandy immediately wants to climb it. She, and J.D., get warned off: it’s a dangerous mountain for one thing, especially for completely inexperienced English schoolgirls, and besides, the border to the Communist Zone runs along its top.
But this is where I found myself feeling that shame. As far as Mandy’s concerned, and later J.D., they are British. They can go where they want, they can do what they want and no-one can touch them because they’re British. The arrogance and the ignorance overwhelms me. It makes the whole family look like egotists, blundering into a delicate situation that they have no understanding of, wilfully going their own way despite the manifold warnings of people who know the situation intimately, and who keep warning that the Jillies’ actions are endangering the organisation, it’s people and, what is worse, the refugees from the harsh Communist regime who are being smuggled back to freedom one by one.
Despite all this, the British know better. It’s one thing to see this in the impetuous and impulsive Mandy, whose heart is always in the right place even when her desire to prove her competence and independence leads her into foolish proclamations. But J.D. is an adult, old enough to have fought in the last war and owing his slight limp to a 1917 wound. That makes him somewhere around his early-to-mid-fifties, for all he plays a good decade younger, and therefore something like 37/38 when Mandy was conceived (I bet Saville didn’t think of that when he was writing this).
The point is that he is old enough to know better. I know he’s an artist, which is a shorthand for unconventional, but in the face of warnings he persists in invading the Communist Zone himself, despite his oblivious lack of knowledge. He even drags the heroic Johann, our Pimpernel-manque, along with him, promising to obey orders and follow his lead, only to ignore sanity and his own commitments at every turn to near disastrous effect.
The book’s supreme irony is that Herr Schmidt does escape and return to the bosom of not only his family but his village, a village that has identified the traitors among it, and run them out of town, but that he does it with no assistance from the Jillies greater than his leaning on Mandy’s shoulder as a stranger.
Of course, you could argue that J.D.’s nonsense played a part in distracting the Communists, but the timescale doesn’t work as Herr Schmidt has gotten across the Bullshead before J.D. goes off on his quixotic mission as the self-appointed British Saviour, superior to Johnny Foreigner.
I’m sorry to be so savage about this book, which did reflect the mood and morale of its time. Britain was five years out from winning the War, though it was still observing food rationing at home, an unmentioned fact though Saville has Tim goggle at the size of breakfasts etc. in the defeated enemy country of Austria. Saville clearly feels strongly about Communism, especially as practiced by the Russians, and especially from his position as a devout Christian, and he’s neither the first nor last author to allow his passions to override his writing skills.
The truth is that his chosen subject is far too weighty for his characters. There’s a limit to what Mandy, Prue and Tim can do. They can wander the mountain trails, they can draw the attention of an unpleasant man to them, they can act as red flags to bulls, but when it comes to helping Herr Schmidt return to his native village, they can’t do a damned thing. And J.D. not only comes close to borking Schmidts’s rescue, but he puts the entire operation at risk, and jeopardises his own freedom through his insistence on doing what he wants to ahead of the advice of experts with extensive local knowledge.
To complete the heaping of coals on Saville’s head, the book misses the Standings. Not just the sparks between Mandy and Guy, a safe figure against whom to kick, but the sense that all the cast are operating on a level together, not dividing between children and adult levels.
Saville would not make that mistake again.
I’ve no idea what I would have made of this book in that pleasant country we call the Sixties, probably far less than I’ve done now. But I think I made an unconsciously sensible idea not to go there then.

Person of Interest: s04 e15 – Q&A


Wanna fight?

It would be stating the obvious to say that this was a complex episode. It was composed of two contrasting stories, one each for Reese and Finch, that led to a foreseeable link at the very end and it featured one of the most satisfying and unexpected deus ex machina saves the series has produced. Let me explain.

Reese’s story continued the partial reset aspect of the show’s current phase. Number of the Week was Anna Mueller (Bella Dayne), a transcriber working for Fetch and Retrieve, the latest, hottest, most successful search engine, and its new programme, VAL, which is basically Alexa. The company is headed by Lauren Buchanan (Helene Yorke) and its chief technical officer is Calvin Mazer (Nick Westrate). Anna transcribes verbal queries for the record.

She alo has a very sick sister, Jill, who’s getting home chemo, and she’s a very aggressive and effective MNA fighter in illegal private bouts. She can’t help Jill but she has got something she can kick. Victim or perpetrator?

Victim, definitely. Anna has pursued a case, Paul Zimmerman, who made multiple requests relating to depression and suicide. The last query should link only to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline but in Paul’s case (and thousands of others) it threw up guides on how to do it, and in Paul’s and thousands of other cases, he did.

Someone doesn’t want this known, and is willing to have Anna killed to prevent it. Anna, a slight, dark-haired slip of a girl, is well capable of looking after herself, though ultimately she needs Reese – or rather Detective ‘Riley’ – to make sure it all comes out well. It’s an algorithm designed by Calvin behind the back of Lauren that turns VAL into the greatest manipulator of emotions for vulnerable people and thus the greatest advertising tool the world has ever known. Lauren would never have allowed it, because it’s wrong. Bear that in mind.

That’s Reese’s portion. Finch’s is functionally separate, though the pair stay in constant communication by phone throughout, without impinging on each other’s work. Finch’s story starts with discovering another Nautilus puzzle poster, identical to the one in episode 2 of this season. Only it’s not quite identical: a hidden message is embedded in the image, saying ‘You Were Right’ and the puzzle decodes to a place on the shadow map, where Samaritan cannot see.

We realise and look forward to seeing the young, fanatical programmer, Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard again). Finch promised her aid and she’s reaching out for it. She’s seen inside now and is horrified/disgusted with Samaritan. She wants out and wants Finch’s help, even though she never knew his name. A Samaritan sniper interrupts the meeting, shooting Claire through the shoulder: Finch takes her to a nearby morgue to fix her wound.

She’s full of remorse and regret, not to mention determination to bring Samaritan down and save the world. It was at that moment that I smelled a rat and wondered if she was playing a double game. Partly this was because I’ve seen this episode twice before and if I don’t consciously remember exactly what happened, my subconscious is far more retentive, but the larger part is that this is Person of Interest, and after 82 episodes prior to this, you learn to anticipate reversals.

Claire’s got a flashdrive, stolen from Decima. It can be used to access Samaritan and destroy it. It can also be used to access Finch’s network and identify all his friends prior to killing them, or so he fears. Is he right to doubt, or is he paranoid? Sweet-faced Claire is convincing, but she can’t help the light of fanaticism, which marked her in episode 2, from shining out of that sweet, desperate face.

Finch decides to take the chance on her, but is wrong to do so, for Claire slips and calls him Harold when he still hasn’t told her his name. He turns to find her holding a gun on him.

She takes his laptop and phone. She’s bringing him in, but Claire is too much the fanatic to just simply complete her mission, which she believes is to get Finch on their side, make him an asset.  She takes him to see Samaritan, but to her Samaritan is a saviour, out to improve everything for everybody. To Claire, Samaritan is a bright, bustling, effective Charter School, promoting a new, more effective manner of education (to Finch it’s education in what?)

It’s an echo of The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a portrait, true enough in its way, of what an overarching intelligence could do to make what we do with our world healthier, wiser, more efficient, eliminating waste, ignorance, pollution etc. The most deadly eneny is happiness or contentment. But Finch knows what Claire will not, cannot ever see, that Samaritan is also Sauron’s Ring, that it’s first duty is to itself and which, by its very nature, is corrupt and self-serving.

He won’t join them, not even the true believer Claire, so he’s to be taken away. This is where we anticipate the god in the machine, shots to ring out from an unseen source, but how can Reese have tracked him? Reese can’t, but Root can, goddess in the Machine, to rescue him and bring him home before setting off on her next, enigmatic task.

And that link? At Samaritan HQ, where Finch’s laptop has proved to be the bust we all knew he would have ensured, Claire is desperately apologetic for her failure but Greer is avuncularly forgiving, appreciative of her fanaticism. Though Claire has a question: the bullets were supposed to make Finch sympathetic towards her but they were also supposed to miss; what if they’d killed her? Then, my dear, the smiling Greer replies, you would have died in a good cause.

We won’t see Claire again, which is a pity, but Claire is just one of a thousand details and time is limited. A full Fifth season order would, subject to Quinn Shephard’s availability, have brought her back, I’m sure, and shown us whether the chink in her belief healed over, or split wide open.

But the smiling Greer has a meeting to attend, under Mergers and Acquisitions, a promising company with a very special algorithm to identify and manipulate emotions, that’s vulnerable due to a recent fall. Greer’s going to a meeting with a rather subdued Board and a CEO named Lauren Buchanan. Who, very recently, placed right and wrong ahead of profit. Where does that stand in relation to survival?

Power corrupts. What the hell else is it for?