Eagle Volume 9 (1958)

Not the best regarded…

There’s a good case for arguing that Volume 9 is the Last Good Year. Most of Eagle‘s classic features were still in place, though the Dan Dare adventure that dominates the volume does not have the best reputation, and there was unrest behind the scenes, and there was a dodgy turn of events in one of the others.
But still they were there. The only change was the end of Mark Question and its replacement by something even blander and duller. And when all was said and done, this was the last year before The Fall, so let’s look for the good in things.
After almost two full years, ‘The Man from Nowhere’ trilogy came to an end, with initially a small handful of remaining episodes of ‘Reign of the Robots’, destroying the Mekon’s Selektrobot control at the seeming price of Dan’s life. This was followed by the brief, usually overlooked coda, ‘The Ship That Lived’, in which the rediscovered Anastasia is preserved, Dan makes a miraculous, non-medical recovery and the Mekon escapes into the swamp with the aid of the ‘Last Three’, a thread that would take six years to be realised.
The new story, ‘The Phantom Fleet’, has excellent art for the first two-thirds of its length although, despite Hampson signing his name to much of it, a sharp eye shows it to be more the work of his very efficient studio, and Don Harley, than Hampson himself.
Behind the scenes, Hampson was unhappy. Hultons would not support his efforts to market Dan to the American market, or to animated films, nor his desire to withdraw from art and direct his more than capable studio. At one point, he submitted his resignation, and Hultons decided to accept it! But before they could send a reply, Hampson withdrew his resignation.
There are clear and jerky changes in direction in ‘The Phantom Fleet’, and the overall opinion is that it was not going down well. Editorial was unhappy with a second successive story based on Earth and concerning an invasion. Alan Stranks proposed to change the title on the story after episode 28, signalling an extension of some kind, and Hampson himself was not unaverse to getting back among alien scenes.
In the end, ‘The Phantom Fleet’ turns into an inarguable mess. Desmond Walduck takes over the art with thirteen episodes left, the storyline turns into a disaster. Inexplicably, in the middle of this muddle, Hampson returns for three weeks of superior art, but leaves just before the eventual villains appear on the page, and the eventual resolution is a pure accident to which Dan Dare contributes nothing.
Mark Question’s adventures in Comorra speedily reach their predictable end: Mark’s courage inspires Max to discover his own, the twin boy sword-experts defeat Black Franz and his cohorts and the day is won. Unfortunately, King Gustavo dies without revealing what he knows about Mark’s background, and he’s back to London still no further forward. Retrospectively, this adventure is named ‘The Black Valley’.
It’s succeeded by ‘The Lost Clan’, which actually becomes an official title. A faded Highland Games medal sends Mark on his bike to Braeloch in Scotland, in pursuit of the survivors of Clan McDhu. En route, he intercepts a canister of microfilm intended for international spy and master of disguise, Babel, who pursues Mark to Scotland with the intention of killing him.
It’s a simple, but unconvincing plot, which ends with an elderly Laird, a caber-tosser, a poacher and two early-teens (if that) capturing the aforementioned international spy, and the revelation, which falls very flat indeed, that Mark is actually Alistair Colin McDhu, grandson of Murdo McDhu, and that he was born and raised in Australia. Funny how nobody remarked on his Aussie accent before now?
Mark would return in the back half of the Sixties, his adventures reprinted as Mark Mystery – the boy with etc. For now, his slot on page 3 went to Cavendish Brown, M.S., written by Bill Welling and drawn by Pat Williams.
Cavendish Brown is a brilliant surgeon and detective: what? how? why? Don’t ask such questions because no background is ever given. He’s just an effortlessly superior toff, with a butler/valet/chauffeur and he tells the Police, in the shape of Inspector Jason, what to do. Come back, Mark Question, all is forgiven.
‘Eagle Special Investigator’ McDonald Hastings spent the year at home, telling war stories under the overall heading of ‘The Bravest Men in the War’. This was interrupted twice for three part series. The first of these, ‘The Way into Space’ looked at scientific developments along the road of launching a man into space, with particular reference to how many of them had been anticipated by Frank Hampson. The second of these got Hastings to Kenya, but only in the context of a film being made for his regular television spot on ITV’s Tonight, and how the raw footage and commentary was shaped for broadcast.
Increasingly, most issues of Eagle in this volume ran to 20pp instead of the usual 16pp. This consisted of an additional B&W sheet, inserted as pp7-8 and 13-14. Most of these were mainly additional advertising with one, sometimes two pages of content, none of which was especially impressive.
Riders of the Range saw ‘The War with the Sioux’ through to its historic conclusion, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the death of General Custer. It’s an impressive story, drawn with Frank Humphris’s customary attention to detail, and with true likenesses of the real-life characters.

After two lengthy historical stories, Charles Chilton steered the series back to adventures in which Jeff and Luke could be the centre. ‘The Penny-Farthing Dude’ brought Jim Forsyth back into the series, which segued into ‘Down Mexico Way’, leading our heroes to defend a second Christian Mission, this time south of the border.
In Luck of the Legion, Luck, Trenet and Bimberg continued their balloon journey with the ‘flying Dutchman’, Professor Vanderdecker, who was not all he seemed. Their quest became one for eternal life, as revealed when they discovered the titular Eyes of Horus, but the eternal life turned out to be a source of water: eternal life for the village and the tribe, not any individual.
Then it was back to the Sahara for the relatively routine ‘Scourge of the Sands’, another story about a leader attempting to raise rebellion against the Legion.
Jack O’Lantern ran through the remaining weeks of ‘The Assassins’, a glorious riot of Bow Street runners and thieves’ cant, although the story’s abrupt ending, with the leader of The Assassins falling on his own pistol and shooting himself through the heart wasn’t up to the standard set.
George Beardmore then resorted to another cheap device in ‘Race for Life’, by resurrecting Jack’s evil Uncle Humphrey from the dead and reinstating him at the family home of Brackens. Humphrey’s up to his cheating and conniving self, robbing young Dick Lawless of his prize racer, Diabolus, Jack ends up racing in the steeplechase and winning it, sending Humphrey overseas to escape his debts, but leaving Captain Yorke faced with selling their home of Brackens in order to pay off those for which he has become responsible.
Jack tries to postpone the evil moment by selling his horse, Black Dragon, which gets him involved in the circus in ‘Brotherhood of the Key’, and a story involving treasure and the evil circus clown, Little Caesar.
Now that I’m having the chance to read Jack O’Lantern as a continuous story, I’ve come to respect it as a better tale than I’d previously realised, but those cheap devices referred to above rather devalued it in this volume.

I found The Three J’s rather pedestrian this year, with the various stories adding very little that was new. The same old tropes – especially those of the increasingly tiresome Jacko – were on display in each story, nor did Peter Ling’s imagination run quite so freely when creating the various new boy that give the J’s something to resolve. Willi Jarmann, the semi-sick boy from last year, joins Northbrook only to be renamed Bill, so that has foreign background can be quickly forgotten.
He makes up the numbers for a Northbrook team in a proto-‘Top of the Form’ TV quiz that, despite Ling’s background in television, is not in the least convincing (not least in its scores), is threatened with removal because his Aunt needs cheaper accommodation and then blots his copybook in a somewhat foolish story about ‘Faraway’ Hill inventing some valuable formula by falling in with Fifth Form bully, Bradbury, and becoming a smoker.
Nor is his replacement, jazz-trumpet loving cool kat, daddio, Raymond Key anything to write home about. This is clearly a story written by an adult with no real understanding of teenagers and their growing musical passions (you’ll note it’s jazz, and not rock’n’roll…). I’m afraid the year smacked of a series that was running out of steam, having used up all its ideas. As a prose serial, and not a comic, the lack of innovation is far easier to perceive.
Pretty much the same could be said of Harris Tweed: in fact, little else can be said about it. John Ryan goes back to one-off gags instead of semi-serialised stories, but Tweed also has nothing new to it. On the other hand, Ryan does maintain a level of interest that ‘Simon Simple’ never reached and which it declined yet further from, week by week.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer continued to go strong, thanks to Guy Morgan’s willingness to sail the Silver Fleet to new seas every story and, in the weekly term, Richard Jennings’ vigorous and energetic art. There’s a running theme to the stories in this volume, the ‘Black Box’ giving way to the ‘Yellow Bird’ (a budgerigar, actually) set in the West Indies and seguing into the ‘Magenta Mark’, courtesy of the mastermind behind both threats, the anonymous Nemo.
The ‘He wants to be a…’ series was all but finished now, with only three appearances all year. The George Cansdale/Tom Adams half-page spent most of the year continuing the development of Prehistoric Animals towards their modern day form, but several months in, this became sporadic, alternating with a different series by the same pair, featuring Insects, which was in black and white. There seemed to be no pattern as to which would appear and in some weeks, neither was represented. Ultimately, both series were replaced by a black and white half page featuring dogs, with a variety of artists replacing Adams, whose unsung art was some of the finest ever to appear in Eagle.
What we got instead, inside the back page, was a seriously odd return to Eagle‘s practice of offering advertisers comic strips for their advert. These had been a feature throughout, in corners or one-tier strips, never attracting much attention, unlike the old Tommy Walls’ pages. Now, under the white-on-black banner of an Advertiser’s Announcement, we got a weekly series promoting Gas Central Heating, under the aegis of Mr Therm, a cartoon figure.
It’s one of the most puzzling advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Much of the Volume was taken up by ‘It’s time to learn with…’ which is, and I kid you not, all about redesigning a kitchen, its white goods, cupboards and even a gas-heated airing cupboard, to improve Mum’s daily lot. Unless Eagle’s adult audience was considerably more extensive than suspected, I cannot see the appeal of any of this to an audience of 7 – 12 year olds.
Nor were things much improved, target-wise, by its replacement, late in the year, by ‘Magic in Meter with…’, written and drawn in a quasi-realistic cartoon form by Dennis Mallet, extolling he virtues of gas each week by means of jingly rhyme.
But each week of Volume 9 was decorated on the back page of Eagle by Frank Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art, pristinely realistic, highly detailed and yet imaginatively impressionistic. Once Bellamy got into his swing, without going overboard on lay-outs, he began to vary his pages. He was never less than respectfully accurate to Churchill or any of the many figures who appeared in the story, but once Churchill’s tale reached the First World War, Bellamy never looked back. His battles scenes, in both wars, be they on land, sea or in the air, were breathtaking, his control immaculate and his colours superb.
Once ‘The Happy Warrior’ was complete, at 53 episodes, it was collected as a book, an honour given previously only to the Baden Powell story, and not as quickly. Bellamy stayed on, drawing ‘The Shepherd King’, the story of King David, with rich and flowing colours, stimulated by the Middle East sunlight.
Three Franks, three brilliant artists. It was still a Good Year. But it was the last one.


The Infinite Jukebox: The Chieftains’ ‘Mna na h’Eireann (Women of Ireland)’

I don’t understand this music.

I’m not Irish, I have no Irish in me. It isn’t in my heart or my soul, or in my deepest memories that spring from race and place and culture. I’m always and forever an outsider, a visitor looking on as if watching a ceremony he’ll never understand. This is music played in a circle, the musicians facing inwards, and those for whom it is played are within that circle.

If I analyse it, it’s a single, lamenting melody, sweet, brave and complete, played over and over, as instruments join and leave, a complex of sound, in, around and between that slow tune that you might think easy to learn.

But long before that last whistle carries the melody to its final, extended note, my cheeks are wet with tears, because something responds, to beauty, to sorrow, to myth and legend, and finally to exclusion.

The Infinite Jukebox plays music like this, sometimes, in the lateness, when all is still. And my yearning joins with this.

American Gothic: e17 – Learning to Crawl

Don’t worry, he won’t shoot

At this point in the series, and this remove in time, it’s impossible to know what was being produced to complete an order doomed to a premature end, and what is being made in furtherance of an overarching story, to be developed to an even deeper extent in season 2.

‘Learning to Crawl’ is an episode that looks, feels and plays as part of an overall scheme that is not prepared to end in five weeks time. It’s an episode that starts to change the terms of the series, and an episode that takes advantage of the removal of Dr Matt – who was directly involved in standing between Lucas Buck and Caleb – to tip the balance towards the former. It’s an episode about corruption.

It begins with Caleb, helping clean up the Sheriff’s station, accidentally electrocuting himself. He has an out-of-body experience, watching himself in the hospital, and meets Merly, there to welcome him. But Lucas Buck is also there, driving a wedge between Caleb and his sister by telling the boy what Merlyn hasn’t: that he has a choice, to stay or go back. It’s in his hands. Merly is driven to want Caleb to die aged ten because she’s afraid to let him live to make wrong choices. I mean, Buck as good as says that being like him is a bad choice, but what other choice would a ten year old boy make? Caleb takes Buck’s hand, and lives.

The rest of the episode is a chilling, slow expansion on that choice.

Without Dr Matt, without Billy Peale having quite settled in to his role as new protagonist for the Sheriff, and having made a conscious rejection of Merly, Caleb goes off on a fishing jaunt with Lucas, to the nearby ghost town of Simpsonsville. En route, the Sheriff can’t resist pulling over Selena Combs’ bright yellow sports car to fuck with her, leading her to think Billy Peale is standing her up for their symphony concert date that night to join the fishing party.

However, and this is an unfortunate contrivance that has to be ignored in the face of the quality of its development, the cabin Lucas and Caleb are heading towards is being used by a little family trio of kidnappers, who are holding a Cigarette company CEO as hostage. There’s the wild, stupid ex-con Cody, his wife, the even more vicious Jeri, and his somewhat ineffectual younger brother Ted (guest star Ted Raimi, son of Sam and future recurring character in Xena, Warrior Princess), who we later learn is shagging Jeri.

Whilst Cody and Jeri wait in vain for the pick-up of the extra ransom the idiot Cody is demanding, our CEO behaves with considerable stupidity. Used to obedience from all around him, he tries to control something he can’t control, won’t listen when Ted warns he’ll shoot him if he keeps running away, and gets shot in the back. The brief role put me in no sympathy with the ‘innocent’ victim who thought he was a Master of the Universe, even tied up, blindfolded at gunpoint.

Anyway, it’s completely thrown the weak-willed Ted so that when Lucas and Caleb arrive at the cottage, and are held at gunpoint, it’s easy for the former to face Ted down and take the gun off him. Cody and Jeri arrive to find the hostage situation reversed. They’re both stupid enough to believe that their having guns makes them in control of the situation, and they’re not. Lucas Buck is all set to manipulate all three players, playing them against each other, using the respective urges for money and love off, all for the purpose of providing an object lesson to Caleb. Caleb is shown how to control things, is lead towards the idea that love is meaningless, selflessness is stupid and control and its concomitant, selfishness, are the sole object worth attaining.

These lessons are given even sharper point by the arrival of Selena, thinking Billy’s there and intending to confront him. Though the point’s never made, the fact Lucas has effectively manipulated her to be present to provide an ineffectual counterpoint to his education of Caleb, added to Gary Cole’s continuingly awesome depiction of Buck as cool, detached and concentrated, suggests that the stumbling upon Ted and co might not not be the coincidence the show presents it as being, though the episode cannily doesn’t devote even a second to this possibility.

No, the lessons pile up for Caleb. Ted’s a broken reed, blaming CEO Ralston for his shooting: ‘look what you made me do’. Cody’s prepared to sell out his wife and brother for the money. Jeri is driven to kill him, believing Cody knows about the affair when he knew nothing at all (stupid to the last). Selena tries to keep Caleb on the straight and narrow, warning that Buck destroys peoples hopes, dreams and fears, that he’s trying to teach Caleb to hate people, though her hotheadness enables Buck to talk through her.

And even this last lesson has to be abandoned when a half-crazed, injured Jeri seizes her in daylight and puts a gun to her head.

By now, the dice have started to roll. First, Buck sends Caleb out top talk to Jeri, facing down her threats to shoot him, to plant in her head the notion that Cody knows. Then he begins to teach Caleb how to focus his thoughts, use the very same supernatural abilities Buck has, to force visions on Jeri that play on her paranpia and fear overnight.

It’s begun. And over the remaining five episodes, this strand will develop. May God have mercy on Caleb Temple’s soul.

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Black Banner Players’

The third Bannerdale book is the last of the series to be set wholly in West Cumberland. It’s an absolute delight, even more so than its predecessors, drifting gently in its final quarter towards the foiling of a low key but personally significant crime, whilst spending much of its time dealing with the parallel ambitions of its two most important characters, Bill and Penny.
As is the pattern, as opposed to a formula, Trease keeps his intentions close to his chest whilst dealing with naturalistic scenes from the lives of our little gang. It’s almost Xmas, and the book starts on the last night of the Grammar School Shakespeare play, which this year is The Merchant of Venice. Bill Melbury, a new member of the Dramatic Society this year, is playing a small part, the performance of which is not made easier by the fact that this is an all boys School and, in accordance with headmaster Mr Kingsford’s firmly held beliefs, it is being performed with an all-boy cast, with Tubby Taylor as Jessica, with whom Bill is supposed to elope.
With his mother and sister Sue in the audience, not to mention Penny Morchard, and the girls’ Headmistress, Miss Florey, Bill has a lot on his mind but things go decently well. But the year after next, the play will be Romeo and Juliet, and Kingsford is adamantly opposed to any suggestion that the Schools join forces!
Typically, having established that, Trease lets it go for Xmas. For once, he inserts a clever bit of foreshadowing, with Bill doing some part-time work in Mr Morchard’s bookshop to earn Xmas money. He has a difficult encounter with a youngish woman who he suspects has helped herself to a particular new book. Though she tries to bluster out his challenge, Bill bluffs her into handing the book back, establishing her guilt.
More importantly, in the longest run, he is seeing a bit more of Penny, whose uncertain cookery cues up the next chapter. In the meantime, he’s asked to deliver an envelope to her secret Xmas stash in her bedroom, and takes the opportunity for a good look round, reassuring himself that it’s only the writer observing what the room tells him about her character. As if.
And Bill is nursing a secret with regard to his writerly ambitions, for he has submitted a book of poems to a London-based publisher who is always open to new writers…
This initial phase leads to an invitation from Mrs Melbury for Penny and her father to come to Beckfoot for Xmas. It’s out of character for Mr Morchard to agree to go away from home at all, but it is Bill who silently recognises his concern for Penny and his willingness to disrupt his own preferences to provide her with some joy. And it leads to one of the most delightful scenes in the entire series when Bill, playing Father Christmas and distributing gifts to everybody’s stockings, gets trapped in his sister’s bedroom as the two girls wickedly start a conversation pretending no-one else is there, forcing him to remain hidden at the foot of their bed. His revenge is subtle.
And Xmas Day is signified by a letter from London, offering Bill his dream of publication. Subject, that is, to his paying £100 to defray printing costs…
You and I and we, not to mention Mrs Melbury and Mr Morchard, instantly recognise it for what it is: a scam (one that the young Trease fell for, in real life). But Bill, who is still only a Lower Fifth schoolboy, facing the gratification of a dream with which I can identify absolutely wants to take the chance, before it may be withdrawn.
In this, Penny is his biggest booster, spreading the word around and securing Bill’s fame amongst everyone. And she plays an even more important role, once Mr Morchard’s friend in publishing gently but thoroughly explodes Bill’s naivete, by clearing the way for him, so that nobody compounds his embarrassment.
This is even more impressive from the girl who cannot always conceal her own bitterness at the denial of her own dreams. Bill has his writing, Sue her future as a farmer’s wife (and we already know who will be her partner), Tim his Police career. But she’s the girl with the most natural ability amongst all of them, and her path has been pretty comprehensively barred to her.
All of these pieces go together to create the springboard for the book. The freezing winter has made Black Banner Tarn a popular place for ice-skating, sledging and even some nascent skiing. Penny can’t do any of these either, but she can plant an idea that will be fun of itself and also be the thin end of a wedge that might just get that future Romeo and Juliet to become a joint production.
Penny’s notion is an impromptu show for Twelfth Night, boys and girls from both schools coming together of their own volition to do a show.
Everyone gets involved: Penny directs, Tim is lighting and electrics, Sue Wardrobe Mistress, and Bill’s recent shame is overcome when Penny quite easily talks him into writing a revue. It’s a success, and fun for everyone and in seeking a way to make it go on, Penny comes up with the ingenious idea of the Black Banner Players, that is, a mini-troupe of those enthusiasts, putting on shows in the local villages and hamlets, where entertainment is hard to come by.
The first ‘engagement’ is in Gowderdale, across the ridge on the other side of Black Banner Tarn, in the Village Hall. Miss Florey attends, to witness proceedings, and to give our four principals a lift home afterwards, though that plan is thrown into disarray by torrential rain that sends the beck flooding over the bridge.
There are, before this, two big surprises, one each of unpleasant and pleasant. The first comes when Bill recognises a member of the Gowderdale audience as the woman from Mr Morchard’s shop, whose name transpires to be Gloria Minworth. The other consists of Mr and Mrs Drake, two elderly actors of the old school, who’ve loved every minute of the show. They invite our friends, with Miss Florey, back to their cottage, where they obviously live in deep poverty, though they’re both spry and happy, and provide hospitality to the benighted travellers.
In the morning, Bill is shocked to find their nearest neighbour, in the cottage opposite, is Miss Minworth.
Trease now develops two interweaving storylines, both with Bill at their centre, both relating to his writing.
On the one hand, which he’s determined to keep to himself after his experience in publishing, Bill has sent a short story to the BBC Children’s Department for consideration on Children’s Hour. The response, from Celia Bridgewater, North-West Organiser, states frankly that it’s too long, but invites him to the BBC’s Castle Eden studios to discuss the matter further. Bill, once bitten, many time shy, is dubious until the other side of the story makes a trip to Castle Eden, and its much better-stocked library, an end in itself.
Because the Drakes have been clearing out ancient, historical papers and documents by burning them but Bill, fascinated by history, has bagged them for study. One is written in a code that Tim is getting nowhere cracking until the pair realise is actually an historical form of shorthand.
Bill’s accompanied on the train by Penny, looking at her most attractive, meeting her Manchester aunt to go clothes shopping, or so she says. There’s no-one he’s more likely to confide in, but he’s only prepared to talk about the library trip. Still, the thought of being seen, and assumed to be with Penny is pleasing, for now.
And the trip is successful in more respects than one. Bill comes back with the key to translate the journal, which he will soon realise is a pungent, elegant account of life in Cumberland during the Jacobite Rebellion, and full of publishable interest. And Celia Bridgewater has encouraged him to turn his story into a radio play, and given him several very practical pointers on how to do so. Though Bill, being Bill and unable to help himself, fears he’s blotted his copybook by suggesting an actress to play one of the roles: Penny, of course.
It is therefore all the more crushing to find, on the return to the station, Penny laughing and joking with a handsome young man from a Castle Eden school, who looks nothing like a Manchester clothes-shopping aunt!
Even more so than in Under Black Banner, Bill is gripped by the green-eyed monster. His mother tries to reasonably point this out, including the fact that Bill wasn’t being honest with Penny over his reasons for travelling, but even this doesn’t make him realise what’s going on inside himself.
Time and preoccupation – with school, with the tea garden, with the Black Banner Players and a new resolution to work hard for the Oxford Scholarship Kingsford believes him capable of – forces Bill to put his upset at Penny out of mind, especially as, when he finally gets round to translating the Jonathan Ashton Journal, he realises its significance. And if it could indeed be published, and provide even a little income for the Drakes, that could make a big difference to their lives. Everything looks possible – until the Journal goes missing!
Bill is convinced it’s been stolen, and by Gloria Minworth, an opinion Tim echoes, and one the Drakes would like to share if only Miss Minworth hadn’t got a watertight alibi: she was staying in a different village on the night of the ‘theft’. But Bill remains suspicious, especially as the self-centred Gloria has now been unveiled as a writer herself. Tim steps up to the plate, and with Bill as his Watson, quickly establishes that Miss Minworth’s ‘alibi’ is by no means unshakeable.
With Penny added to the mix, and the Drakes deploying their old skills, a trap is laid, the word dropped of another notebook, containing the key, and with all the gang bar Sue lying in wait, Gloria walks straight into it.
In a funny way, Bill relates to her more when she says it wasn’t just the money, but they wouldn’t understand. He does. It’s the boost to the literary reputation that she wanted, as much as anything. Instead, that goes to him, as translator and, but for his youth, editor of the book. Despite all the Drakes’ efforts, he refuses any share of the proceeds, but he does accept becoming their heir in the copyright, after they have gone. It’s a fitting reward for his literary efforts, and his honesty and faithfulness.
And besides, Bill has a double reward all of his own. The BBC commission his play and, what’s better, even before he can recommend his loyal friend, Penny is commissioned to act in it: her trip to Castle Eden was to audition for Celia Bridgewater, her only realistic prospect of an acting career, and like Bill she wanted to keep it to herself to avoid pity in the event of failure.
Indeed, for a moment there’s trouble brewing, when she thinks she’s only got the part on Bill’s influence, but his delight for her is as much as his for himself. The last night of the Black Banner Players’ first season has come to a glorious conclusion!
Though Trease would use this book as a stepping stone to the fourth in the series, and the Black Banner players would, in effect, be the bridge, the twin successes of Bill and Penny would not lead anywhere. Indeed, though Bill will offhandedly mention difficulties over a second play, and then lead us to assume his school commitments, and that mentioned Scholarship, put the advancement of that career into suspension, the only other reference to Penny’s radio acting is a lament that even this becomes impossible, once television begins to dominate.
But the next Bannermere book would leave West Cumberland behind, and take our gang of friends sur le continent.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e09 – Statistical Probabilities

The Enhanceds

I was all set to dislike this episode, a combination of feeling under par from a cold that’s come back after I thought I’d finally shifted it, and another of those occasional bouts of burn-out I get (I am never going to tackle a project of this length again). And for the first few minutes, one of the guest stars was well on the road to being even more irritating that Quark at his Quarkiest.

But the episode turned itself around, and turned me around, and I ended up enjoying it, even though I felt it bottled its message in order to give itself an ending that wasn’t totally depressing.

Basically, this episode feeds off last season’s revelation of Doctor Bashir’s genetically enhanced nature. A quartet of enhanced humans, who cannot pass for normal as he did, and who live in an Institution, are brought to DS9 for therapy with Julian. They’re portrayed as weirdos: Jack (Tim Ransom) is hostile, nervously aggressive, superior but paranoid, Lauren (Hilary Shepherd Turner) is a smouldering sexpot whose always lying down, showing off her long legs in bright red tights, Patrick (Michael Keenan), in his fifties, is a big baby, and Sarina (Faith C. Salie), who never speaks, is practically catatonic.

We’re talking wilful eccentricity here, with Lauren as the slinky cliche and Jack, jumping up and down, talking incessantly, biting his nails, going ‘mm, mm, mm’ ALL THE TIME as the blazing irritant.

But when they watch the broadcast from Cardassia, of Gul Demar’s challenge to the Federation to enter into peace talk, the instant insight the three vocal ones have into his demeanour, unraveling the entire story of his killing of Ziyal down to the relationships of all the parties without an atom of knowledge, impresses Bashir, who wants to see ‘his’ people better integrated and become useful.

The enhanced become a think-tank, analysing the peace talks, uncovering the Dominion’s longer-term plans, becoming incredibly useful and, since they’re actually using their intelligence on something that demands complex thought, growing happier, calmer and less flamboyant. For a given value of flamboyant, that is.

Unfortunately, as they build their analysis further forward, the group comes to the unwelcome conclusion that the Federation cannot win the Dominion War under any circumstances. There will be defeat, on the backs of 900 Billions deaths on both sides, five generations of Dominion occupancy and then, spreading from Earth, a resistance that will unite the entire Alpha Quadrant in a New and greater Foundation, defeating the Dominion and bringing peace for 10,000 years.

Funnily enough,no-one outside the enhanceds, which now incorporates Bashir, is inclined to surrender and let history take its inevitable but incredibly long-distance course. Our good Doctor gets incredibly depressed over the non-enhanceds inability to accept inevitability. But when Jack comes up with a plan to hand the Federation ship movements and strategies over to the Dominion, in the form of Demar and Weyoun, accelerating the defeat and reducing the casualties to a mere 2 Billion (hey, it’s an 898 Billion improvement!), he refuses to let them commit treason.

So Jack belts him in the jaw and knocks him out.

Then comes the bit we have to have but which cuts across the entire point of the story so far. Bashir awakens to find himself tied to a chair with only the fair but silent Sarina for company. Playing on the fact that he can see she worships and adores the volatile Jack, and that if they go down for treason she’ll never see him again, he gets her to untie him (apparently, Sarina would have spoken as she did this but the scene got cut for tine) and the plot is foiled.

The enhanceds are sent back to the institution, but everybody’s all friends before they leave, even the furious Jack.

But the cop out is this, and it’s taken from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (which I read a good forty years ago), which has been the inspiration throughout, and it’s that this kind of future analysis can only predict large scale movements, and it cannot account for the random actions of a single individual. Sarina is the case in point: Jack’s plan to give the information to the Dominion failed because he didn’t/couldn’t predict her actions. Ergo…

I mean, we weren’t going to get out of here without something like that, and the solution is really only a restatement of the old ‘For the want of a nail…’ parable. But after going to such lengths to portray the future as resolved beyond measure, the lone man theory doesn’t really stack up against it. What we’re saying here is that the inevitable interaction of social and political movements can be derailed irretrievably by one person. Well, sure, if you believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted entirely alone…

But it doesn’t wash with me today. So, though I ended up enjoying this episode more than I expected (and found Faith Salie far more attractive than Hilary Shepherd Turner, but then I’ve always been awkward like that), the ending didn’t convince me. No doubt it’s foreshadowing the end of season 7, but I will get there in my own sweet time, providing I don’t burn out, or get this blasted cold too many times before then…

The Infinite Jukebox: Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’

On the Infinite Jukebox, one song often leads to another, especially if you use YouTube in between. The ‘la-la-las’ of Stevie Wonder led me to the ‘la-la-las’ of Amen Corner, which is another example of that lovely Sixties song enthralled by the ecstacy of pure love.

Amen Corner were a Welsh seven piece – vocals, guitar, bass, drums, organ and two saxophones – who had six hits from seven singles between 1967 and 1969, when they broke up. They were the perfect example of the band signed because of their quality and growing popularity, only to find themselves pressed to abandon the kind of music they’d formed to play in favour of a more commercial sound.

Amen Corner had two very bluesy hits in 1967, reaching nos 12 and 24 respectively, before bowing to pressure and recording a cover of The American Breed’s ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’, in a much rougher, aggressive manner that gave them a big hit and made lead singer Andy Fairweather Low into one of the pretty boy pop pin-ups of the late Sixties, alongside The Herd’s Peter Frampton and The Love Affair’s Steve Ellis. They had another top ten success with the pounding ‘High in the Sky’, before leaving Deram for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, and scoring two more top 10 hits in 1969. The band ended on an unsuccessful cover of ‘Get Back’ (a strange choice given that the song had already spent six weeks at no. 1 that year from The Beatles.)

The first of those two 1969 hits was ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’. It was an immediate (pun) success, charting at no 19 in its first week and going straight to no 1 in its second. It’s the lightest and least typical song Amen Corner recorded, the most commercial, and it’s an instant dream.

It’s about love, and like ‘My Cherie Amour’, it’s that love that is never spoiled by having to deal with the realities of sex.

Fairweather Low lays it out immediately. If Paradise, he says, is half as nice as heaven that you take me to, then who needs Paradise? he’d rather have her. It’s a simple, but heartfelt statement, and the song needs and asks no more. It’s the same idealisation, the same wish dream. A look from her eyes, the touch of her hand, these are all that he needs to send him into an ecstacy.

But like Wonder, Fairweather Low has already said clearly what the song means in the chanted ‘la-la-las’ that introduce it, the band in chorus, overlaid by Fairweather Low’s distinctive teenage falsetto yelp. But where Wonder was wistful and yearning, his love a Goddess glimpsed from afar, never to be touched, Amen Corner are singing with joy and celebration, the ‘la-la-las’ a cry of ecstacy going beyond mere words.

And the music lifts that up. The intro is underpinned by acoustic guitar and unobtrusive rhythm, with the organ joining in and the two saxes blowing a simple riff as Fairweather Low’s voice soars alone into the words. And the band holds itself in, respecting the lightness of the song. They’re solid, and the saxes riff beautifully in the limited role they’re given, but this is about the voice.

And where Wonder lives, breathes and dreams a woman he has never met nor ever will, Fairweather Low’s vision is a real woman, she is in his life, and whilst she’s still on the same pedestal that Wonder erects, he’s within her notice: she sees him, she’ll touch him (probably only his sleeve).

But it’s what he wants, and all he needs. When he sings about Paradise being half as nice as being with her, he’s not speculating, he’s convinced that it will be, that nothing else can compare with the nearness of her. And the song soars, and the band repeat with him those words-that-aren’t-words, and we soar with them.


The video above shows Amen Corner performing this song in 1969. Whilst browsing YouTube, I found the video below. The guy on stage, the old man in the three-piece suit, with the glasses, all but bald, with a fringe of near-invisible hair round the back of his head, doesn’t look like she should be anywhere near a stage. You would look at him for a long time before you took him for a rock or pop star. But he’s Andy Fairweather Low, and he’s going to sing ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’, and the band aren’t going to reinforce his voice, it’s all going to be softer, and slower, without the energy, but after so many years, the idea of being there to hear that song sung again, to be uplifted by it and to be reminded of how once we could think of love, brought tears to my eyes of envy for those who did experience this. Listen and weep for what we once were.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pandora By Holly Hollander

Gene Wolfe’s second novel of 1990 was probably the least characteristic book he has ever written, if that can be said of a writer with the chameleon-like quality of changing style and subject so frequently. On the surface, Pandora, By Holly Hollander appears to be what we would now call a YA story, a murder mystery related by a bright, bubbly seventeen year old girl. The title, invoking Pandora’s Box – a key element in the murder – hints that underneath the Illinois mainstream of the setting is a world of mystery, fantasy and confusion.
But what’s on the surface is all that this book contains. Even though the ‘detective’ in the story is, highly implausibly, named Aladdin Blue, Wolfe produces no genies. Blue, and Pandora are false trails, or they are trails so obscure and subtle that no-one in nearly thirty years had discovered a hint of where they lead.
What Pandora is about is a gentle spoof of Nancy Drew, in the voice of a teenage girl (carried off, for the most part successfully), who assists the ‘detective’ to solve a violent and brutal crime. Holly is chatty, bright but unfocussed, and plays a large part in exposing the real killer, at her own expense, though this latter aspect is something that is largely overshadowed by Holly’s relentless cheerfulness.
Holly is the only child of Harry and Elaine, the latter a very attractive woman much younger than her husband, the Chief Executive of a very successful locksmiths business in Barton, 65 miles from Chicago (though Harry is a 48% minority shareholder who runs the company in trust for his older brother Bert, who is in an asylum after killing his wife). As chairwoman of the local Social Committee for this year’s fair, Elaine has procured a Pandora’s Box, a locked, antique box with something in it, for raffling off. The box will be publicly opened by Vietnam vet and locksmith, Larry Lief, brother to Holly’s best friend, Megan, and lover to Elaine.
The ceremony is marred when a bomb goes off, killing Larry and a couple of innocent bystanders, injuring hundreds, including Holly, who is left on crutches for the rest of the story, just as Aladdin Blue walks with a cane (characteristically, the majority of Wolfe’s heroes wind up lame, a thematic note echoing Wolfe’s own limp from a childhood brush with polio). Uncle Bert, who’s already escaped) is found shot outside the hospital where she’s been taken, the following day.
The Police connect the deaths of Larry and Uncle Bert and come up with a strong case pointing the finger at Holly’s Dad. Blue persuades a second person to confess, setting out an equally strong and convincing explanation, but this is a blind to tempt the real culprit out into the open to claim to have additional information turning the crime back onto Harry Hollander. The real killer, if we can be certain of that, given our residual suspicion that Wolfe has at least another three arms up his sleeve, is Elaine, plotting too get her hands on the Hollander fortune.
The outcome is that, as soon as Holly is fit, she moves out to go live with Blue, his two housemates Muddy and Tick, at a dilapidated old house way out in the woods, where everyone lives in poverty. Elaine faces trial, Harry’s left Illinois and is dating an even younger woman, only a couple of years older than Holly, and can’t even remember Holly’s birthday. Meanwhile, her friendship with Megan has been broken, Larry’s wife Molly has lost her husband, in two ways, and even Blue has let down a woman, an ex-girlfriend who wants him back but in whom he’s not interested.
That’s what I mean about the personal cost to Holly that her manner draws a blanket over. I mean, there’s not a lot nice happens to women in this book. There’s even a breach with Holly’s other best friend, Les, with whom she goes to live for a time before coming to Blue’s: Les is a shadowy figure, never given a description, not allowed a line, even in the one scene where she’s present in the flesh and indeed only once referred to as a girl.
Now Holly is seventeen, a teenage girl who would normally be in something of a hormonal state. She’s not unattractive, but she doesn’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t seem to be interested in a boyfriend, has no sexual thoughts except for the odd ‘swooniness’ about remote male figures on TV but is a constant commentator about other women’s bodies, especially her own mother, who has ‘creamy big ones’.
Except that Holly never describes Les, which can be short for Leslie (male), or Lesley (female) but can also be short for Lesbian.
So I’m beginning to wonder at how all these pieces seem to point in one particular direction, and how Gene Wolfe is a writer who buries things with very oblique pointers and leaves us to ferret them out ourselves.
Then there’s the structure of the story. Other critics have set the events of the book in the early Eighties, though it wasn’t published until 1990. Holly herself, in her foreword, claims that this is not a historical story (now, why would she say that?) though it has taken a year to get published, and she’s had to have the help of a professional writer to lick it into shape, which immediately places Wolfe in the same position of ‘translator’ as he has been for ‘The Book of the New Sun’ and the ‘Soldier’ books.
That imposes a degree of artificiality on what Holly is saying and doing. Her youth and general naivete makes her the traditional Wolfean Unreliable Narrator to begin with, but to know that what we’re reading has been reshaped by Wolfe himself casts doubt on everything.
After that, how can we see Aladdin Blue – that name is so off – as anything but Wolfe himself? After all, he provides the answers, in a comprehensive manner that typifies the Wolfean Analytical Man, who will recur, over and over, forging theories from disparate and seemingly disconnected facts.
And Blue has two live-in friends whose presence is simply presented, with no explanation of how they come to know him or to be pat of his menage, neither do they play any part in the story. Nor do they have real names either. Now presumably they do have names, John Hancocks, but to us they are Muddy and Tick. Muddy cooks, procures food, smokes dope. Tick is fat but doesn’t eat much.
Once again there is this sense that Wolfe is providing us with something symbolic that we’re just not seeing. Or is it all a giant sham? Are we being teased into looking for something on another level that really isn’t there, in a book that really is what it seems, when all the writer is doing is to create a colossal spoof on us?
I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Finally, and this is probably another aspect of the joke, Pandora By Holly Hollander reads like the first book in a series that never existed. It introduces the characters, it creates a set-up, it is the left hand book on a ghost shelf of Holly Hollander Mystery Books, Starring Aladdin Blue. And it’s a one-off that was never intended to be more than this one story.
People don’t tend to take much notice of Pandora By Holly Hollander. Maybe they should start to look into it a lot deeper.