Friends Again

Friends again
But only friends and not the
same again
All too often love will
never mend
But at least we can be
Friends again

Drift apart
With remarks that often
seem too tart
This is common in affairs
of the heart
But careful friends can halt the
Drift apart

All my lovers threads
Dangled by our heads
Puppets left for dead
To be friends instead

Now we joke
Reduced from people to a girl
and a bloke
Touching anything but the fires
we daren’t stoke
Unhappy at our fate but
still we joke

Friends again
Unhappy lovers who have
hearts to mend
Frightened victims with no
will to unbend
But at least we will be
Friends again

Time, Words and Feelings

Believe me I have spent my time
Trying to find a better rhyme
But I have had too little time
With you

And if I find a better word
A song of my love will be heard
But I know too little words
For you

But believe me when I say I have the feeling
The time I’ve spent with you has been revealing
And though I don’t know words that are appealing
I want to be with you

And if you think how little time
There is that has been yours and mine
You’ll know why I wrote such poor rhymes
For you

And if you find the better word
Or one that’s easily preferred
To the like of which I’ve heard
It’s you

But believe me when I say I have the feeling
The time I’ve spent with you has been appealing
And still the words I sing are all revealing
I want to be with you

The (Other) Phantom Fleet

(Originally published in Spaceship Away 23, Spring 2011)

Despite the failings of Marooned on Mercury and Prisoners of Space, Dan Dare’s 1958 adventure The Phantom Fleet holds the distinction of being the most criticised story of Frank Hampson’s career. It is known mainly for being the only story where Eagle editor Marcus Morris intervened, demanding it be cut short.

But does The Phantom Fleet deserve its reputation as too slow and dull? It is certainly full of flaws, but I believe the worst of these come after the point where Morris stepped in; especially the pathetic ending. Is it possible, at this remove, to look through the story we know, and catch glimpses of the other Phantom Fleet, the story Hampson might have produced if he had been left to his own devices as usual?

Before we can do this, we need to understand the context in which the story appeared, both on and off the page.

Behind the scenes, everything appears settled. The team has been long-established at Bayford Lodge, the years of insane hours are, if not over, somewhat reduced, and Alan Stranks has been the scripter for the past four years, freeing Hampson to concentrate upon Dan Dare’s direction and future.

All is not well though. Hampson is drawing less and less personally, and wants to stop entirely, to establish himself as a director of assistants working to his requirements. The team is, after all, good enough for this. But slowly his bitterness and frustration at not being able to expand Dan Dare as he has always envisaged – into the American market, into animation – is beginning to eat at him. Only the previous year, he has submitted – and withdrawn – his resignation.

As for The Phantom Fleet itself, the story began on 25th April 1958 (Eagle volume 9 no 17) faced with an insurmountable problem, namely The Man from Nowhere Trilogy. For just short of three years, Hampson and Co had guided their audience through non-stop, high-power adventure, for great stakes: a planetary invasion to foil, the Earth to liberate from the Mekon. And suddenly, after literally longer than most of Dan’s readers could remember, they had a new story to read. A new story, with new dangers, new opponents, new problems, all of which had to be set up. The non-stop action of three whole years has, literally, had to stop.

There was another problem about The Phantom Fleet, though it’s far more apparent to us now, since it is an element that in 1958 would have exercised neither Hampson or his readers, and that is the almost total lack of continuity to the just concluded Trilogy.

True, Stripey is on hand, and Lex O’Malley, and in the first episode we see Crusoe and Friday (though they vanish completely thereafter). But Spacefleet is back up to full strength, an entire fleet of alien ships enters the Solar System unnoticed and, after ten years of devastation at the Mekon’s hands, when it is proposed that a wholly unknown alien race should colonise one of Earth’s oceans, only a single member of the World Government Cabinet seriously objects – and he is made to appear an extremist! And if that is not enough, the Treens – recent conquerors of Earth – are already allowed their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!

But at least the story gets off to a galloping start: a sudden total breakdown of system-wide communications, spaceships in peril, Sir Hubert missing, a mysterious ship seen by Digby alone, Anastasia captured by the ‘Clustaships’ and the brainwashing of Sir Hubert who announces the intended surrender of Earth to – the Cosmobes! No complaints at the first eight episodes, surely?

Then, abruptly, the storyline changes. The Cosmobes are revealed to be small and cute, the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten, and the newcomers just want help: a single ocean to occupy. It’s the Crypts all over again; especially once the Cosmobes reveal that they’re being pursued by a hereditary enemy, the Pescods. Even more so when we discover that the Cosmobes are not above lying and manipulating for their own benefit. Dan Dare is put into a sticky situation when, having used his influence to get the Cabinet to allow for a Cosmobe ship to descend to Spacefleet HQ for examination, the Cosmobes, having won safe passage through Earth’s defences, promptly split (literally) and invade the ocean.

All this takes place against the imminent arrival of the Pescods, the ‘real’ enemy (or so the Cosmobes maintain). The Pescods are pursuing the Cosmobes, or are they? The Pescod fleet makes its first appearance in the vicinity of Venus: did the Cosmobes sneak past Venus and out past Earth, or are the Pescods entering the Solar System from a different sector?

There is to be no time to think about that one because it is now the point at which we must address the question of when Morris ordered the story to be cut short. Sadly, no-one now recalls at what point that instruction came out, and we must rely on the story itself for any indications we can find.

For 23 episodes, Frank Hampson’s signature has appeared on page 1, just under the title, even though Don Harley is doing most of the principal drawing. Suddenly, the signature disappears on 4 October 1958 (volume 9, no 40), and so does Hampson and his team. The art is now done by Desmond Walduck. This seems to be the obvious point where Morris intervened. It’s easy to see Hampson surrendering control of the story whilst he sat down to plan the next epic adventure, and Walduck being called back to run the story down.

Given that at this point the story starts to crumble to pieces, the case seems conclusive. But there are still 13 more episodes before the story is over, and would Morris have agreed that three months was ‘cutting it short’? What’s more, four weeks later, Hampson and his team return for another three episodes before vanishing again, this time for good. Given that Hampson had to come up with something better, a six week wrap-up seems more reasonable.

Nevertheless, my instinct has always been to see Walduck’s introduction as the turning point, and the collapse of the story from this point onwards is, for me, the most important evidence. From here to the end, things are dire.

The Cosmobes come up for air, the Navy see them as cute, want to take them home as pets, and even Lex O’Malley is almost prepared to mutiny against the idea of hunting them down. Then the Pescod fleet arrives. The Pescods, being water-breathing creatures, unable to live on land, head straight for the ocean. Except for one ship, which lands in the most inimical surroundings, the desert, for no apparent reason except to make itself available to attack. As for the Cosmobes, who have publicly betrayed their word and invaded Earth, all it takes is for Professor Peabody to tell the World Government that the Cosmobes are our friends and they are immediately declared allies.

Dan’s attack on the desert ship is ineffective, so he sets out to get himself and Digby taken as captives. They’re actually making headway in disabling the vessel, but a rescue ship turns up and drags them off to the ocean. Was the point of the desert diversion to take human prisoners? If so, why are Dan and Digby left in an inadequate cell, with no guards and every possible exit opened? They escape, rendering their attempts to get captured pointless, at which point Lex chivvies everyone out of the area as the Pescods are burrowing into the base of Krakatoa. Which duly explodes, blasting the entire fleet to smithereens.

If nothing else, this ending makes The Phantom Fleet unique. It is the only story in which Dan Dare is completely ineffectual, and it makes the Pescods are the only creatures in the entire Hampson canon to be wholly without redeeming factors. Even the Space Bees of the Red Moon are allowed to be a tragic accident of nature.

We know that neither of these things had any place in Dan Dare’s universe, and in Frank Hampson’s perceptions. So can we, at this long remove, look at this disregarded story and try to see it as Frank Hampson might have done?

If we go back to the final episode before Walduck, and the Cosmobes don’t surface to look cute, what then happens? Perhaps the Cosmobes disappear into the depths, difficult to reach, but the arrival of the Pescods makes them the more pressing problem. The Cabinet agrees, reluctantly, to postpone pursuing the Cosmobe problem. Dan and Digby manage to get taken captive, which brings them before the Pescod High Command. The Pescods have no use for the surface and offer a strict non-interference agreement: humans don’t go underwater, they don’t go on land. And the Pescods will accept no interference with their vendetta against the Cosmobes.

Dan brings this ultimatum to the Cabinet, who are not prepare to accept it. As they have two invasions to face, some members suggest letting the Pescods deal with the Cosmobes for them: Dan and Sir Hubert are outraged and the Prime Minister agrees that this breaks all Earth’s fundamental principles. So what do they do?

Dan faces possible court martial for bringing the Cosmobes to Earth. He volunteers to track down their base, both to establish contact and give them chance to explain their breach of trust, and to seek aid against the Pescods. The Ultimobes explain their desperation to set up defences against the Pescods in time, and freely offer to share these with humanity. World Government agrees an alliance, and a treaty ratifying the Cosmobe presence if they can help rid the Earth of the Pecods.

Dan, however, is unhappy about plotting the genocide of the Pescod race. With Cosmobe aid he constructs a trap which, if sprung, will destroy the arrogant Pescods, but which he plans to use as a lever to force their total evacuation. The Pescod High Command is captured and required to surrender or see their entire race destroyed. They do so, reluctantly, and are forced to accept a situation where their weapons are neutralised and they are escorted out of the Solar System.

Between the need to strike a different attitude towards others now they cannot be so belligerent, and the High Command being impressed with Earth’s approach in not simply destroying them, there are grounds to hope that the Pescods will learn peace from the example of Earth.

This, I submit, is a far finer, far more Hampson-like conclusion to The Phantom Fleet. It is, impossible to suggest that this might be, in any way, what Frank Hampson had in mind when Marcus Morris told him to cut his latest story short and come up with something better. But I believe it to be far closer to the aims and purposes of Dan Dare’s creator than the illogical mess that resulted from those instructions, and I also believe that if The Phantom Fleet had taken such a course, considerably more of its audience would have enjoyed and respected it, both in 1958 and 2011.

A Tribute to Clive James on his 60th birthday

Originally published in a privately published book featuring tributes to Clive James from members of the Midnight Voices mailing list/Smash Flops web-site, dedicated to the life and works of Pete Atkin and Clive James –

When I sat down to select a favourite Clive James lyric, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. A few seconds thought was all that was needed to have a dozen phrases ringing in my head, moments of sharp perception, elegant twists that suddenly allow you to see a commonplace situation or emotion from a reverse angle.

Some of those songs were simple love songs – or at least as simple as they get with Clive. I thought of The Flowers and the Wine, and the outward bravado of: “When you set the date for tête-à-têtes like these / what tells you that I count the days between / except my nothing-caring air of ease?”. I remembered Between us there is nothing and the constant, elegant shifts in perspective, from the proximity of the beloved – “Between us, the wristwatch comes to rest” – and the wider, uncaring world of the fantastic, yet natural: “the trainee seagulls contour-flying / through the swells long trough and crest”. I imagined Tongue-Tied, and that plea to be allowed eloquence when: “the poems that start out / by eating my heart out / are lost on the air.”

And there were the newer songs – newer to me at least – like The Magic wasn’t There and the times when “you even weep for what did not take place”, or The Standards of Today and all of those who “never had the temperament, I guess / for less”

But there were also those vistas of the fantastic, the sweeping and dramatic, or the allegorical that nevertheless fold into the intensely personal. The Rider to the Worlds End traverses “the broken bottle forests” and “the fields of ash” but their devastation is nothing beside “a suddenly relaxing set of knuckles never rapped against a door”. The Tenderfoot “moves by echoes through the cold formations”, “journey(ing) where the sky meets the sierra / that every man alive must one day cross”, but the torment is nothing beside the realisation that “his pride at never being sentimental / was just another way to be unkind”. And the magnificence of the yachts and yachtsmen, coming and going into harbour beneath The Faded Mansion on the Hill that houses “the out of date black Cadillac / with the old man crumpled in the back / that Time has not yet found the time to kill”.

And let’s not forget the stories. Those moments when a person sits and contemplates, taking in their surroundings and the circumstances that have brought them to this place and this pass, like Payday Evening (beloved of MV’s and needing no further explication here), or – a personal epiphany here – Thirty Year Man, as the veteran tinkles at the piano in the dark, aware of the moment when the glistening turns away from reflecting a devotional object and becomes “bones at the end of a cave”.

But how can I ignore Sunlight Gate? The precision, the balance, the falling away of instrumentation as the heroes ranks are winnowed, as they return, when “their faces are never the same”.

Or The Wristwatch for a Drummer and that mad, glorious piling of rhymes on top of one another until it seems impossible Pete will have the breath to sing them: “a warning bell that tells you when you’re overstaying / your tentative welcome with the paying / customers in the deep, decaying / cellar club with the stained and fraying / velvet drapes and the stooped and praying / owner”.

Or the smooth velvet of Perfect Moments, sliding by, an easy, feet-up recollection of all those things that ease our passage through the void, “Charlie Chaplin policing Easy Street / Charlie Parker playing My Old Flame” – but nothing is ever perfect except: “the perfect bitch, it doesn’t work that way”.

But I see that now I’m talking about the music. That’s alright, so I should, because these are songs, not poems. Clive knows the difference well, knows that songs are meant to be sung, would be nothing without the music, without Pete and everything he’s contributed.

So I come to the last two songs on the ‘short’ list, both from A King at Nightfall, the 1973 album championed by Noel Edmonds (a pox on his name, save for this) that first drew my ears. I was thrilled by The Last Hill that shows you all the Valley, an idealists song, written as a lament but for Pete seeing what Clive didn’t, turning it into a surge of anger, set to a marching beat. But what are those helicopters doing on the Walls of Troy?

I wanted to tape that but the last song Edmonds ever played from that album turned out to be Carnations on the Roof and I had to settle for that. Skittery, skittish in sound, disjointed, jerky, yes. But I wrote down the words and I studied them, reading a picture of an ordinary man at the end of his life.

“Though he had no great gifts of personality or mind / he was generally respected, and the proof / was a line of hired Humbers lagging quietly behind / a fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof”.

My dad had died just a couple of years before, when I was 14. He was no-one special, except to us. Clive’s words could have been for him. I chose that they were. So many of Clive’s words, in verse or prose, move, amuse, touch, illuminate me, but they deal with things I want to understand, to know or learn about. So few of them speak to me so directly about my own life.

In the end, we choose our favourites by what they mean to us. Thank you, Clive.

The Leaving Of Manchester United

Originally published in ‘Team Talk’ issue 93, August/September 1999, an official Football Association magazine aimed at fans of non-League football.

(Unrevised, despite my desperate desire to make it much more readable.)

Even before the disgraceful decision by Manchester United to withdraw from next season’s FA Cup, I had decided that the European Champions League Final would be my last game. Instead of the polished magnificence of Old Trafford – and the football that comes with it – I would be heading into the Millenium in the much humbler surroundings of the Butchers Arms, watching Unibond League football with Droylsden.

Football fans who change their loyalties don’t usually get a good press. Your team is your team, good bad or indifferent, right? Those who trade up for something better, like our dear friend David Mellor or the amorphous mass of United’s ever-increasing non-Travelling Army, are only fit to be looked on with scorn anyway.

But at least their impulse is understandable, if regrettable. How do you account for those who trade down, who go the other way? What makes an otherwise normal-seeming fan, who has been an Old Trafford regular for nine years, give up the biggest team in the land, the winners of the Treble and a season ticket that used to be even more prized than a declaration of affection from Michelle Pfeiffer, give it all up for non-League football.

In my case, it started four years ago, before the season ticket came my way, when I decided to spend a year following Droylsden again. With Old Trafford’s capacity being cut to accommodate the construction of the massive North Stand, I figured that I wasn’t going to be getting tickets for the 1995/96 season and I shouldn’t torture myself with vain effort.

Which left me with the problem of what to do for a season.

The Bloods (as they are known) had been my team as a kid, before I discovered United when living in Nottingham during the Brain Clough One-League-Championship-and-two-European-Cups era (long story, don’t ask). I couldn’t imagine shouting for any other team, not even my ‘local’ side, Stockport County. Droylsden it was.

As it happened, I was obviously too pessimistic: I didn’t miss a game at Old Trafford and even took in the Double Double Cup Final against Liverpool. None of which prevented me from getting to more than two dozen matches with the Bloods, nor from the decision that I would carry on following Droylsden the next year, as well as the Reds.

I’m not entirely sure what prompted that decision. It wasn’t the football, not with a last day relegation on goal difference (with exactly 100 League goals conceded, that came as no surprise). Nor was it all due to the fact that I was now fulfilling the fantasy of being a sports journalist, doing match reports for not just the programme but also a local free paper – complete with ‘Press Card’.

There was just something about Droylsden which brought out a different level of commitment in me, and which provided a different kind of experience. I may be dipping into the territory of WSC cliché here, but where else could I watch a team that might dominate a game for 40 minutes, concede three penalties, save two of them and still get stuffed 4-0? (My very first away game).

Since then, I’ve been doubling up on football: a Season Ticket at United and an ever-increasing number of games with Droylsden. I became known at the Butchers Arms, so much so that when the programme editor left, I was invited to replace him: for the past two season, the Bloods Review has been my responsibility (and half the time my sole work).

But everybody knew, and everybody accepted that United came first, and that if the Reds were at home, you wouldn’t see me at Droylsden. That applied until the closing weeks of this last season.

United may have gone on to win the Treble, but they weren’t the only team chasing multiple honours. There was an FA Cup run that only ended in the Fourth Qualifying Round – and we still say that if Carl Holmes had been able to play off his suspension beforehand, Leigh RMI wouldn’t have been the ones facing Kevin Keegan and Fulham. There were two dozen Cup wins in different competitions over higher level opposition, including the winning of the Presidents Cup against Leigh, at Leigh. There was the promotion race. And there was the First Division Championship.

I was still putting United first, until it became a choice between an Old Trafford match and the game in which the Bloods could secure promotion. Contrary to every prior instinct, I found the second choice was more important so, whilst United were over-running a Sheffield Wednesday side that, apparently, would have had to have been twice as good to be a pushover, I was at Harrogate Town where only results elsewhere spoilt the party.

That might have been once, but Droylsden’s last match of the season also clashed with United, and with promotion guaranteed, this now meant the Championship. For a second time, I gave up my season Ticket, and for a second time I found I didn’t miss it.

And that was before the longest three minutes of my life, the ones where, with the Bloods having scored the necessary two goal win, I stood there on the mobile phone to our rivals Hucknall Town, sweating on whether they would score the injury time goal that would snatch the title out of our grasp. The whole ground – players, coach, manager, Committee and crowd – waited on my signal that we’d done it!

United’s season still had three games left, against Spurs at Old Trafford, against Newcastle at Wembley and against Bayern at the Nou Camp, and I was going to all of them. Three games, with three trophies riding on them, and with a decision to take over whether I would have any more afterwards.

When you follow two teams, eventually you have to choose which one claims the bigger part of your loyalty. Which one would you rather watch? Or, more importantly, which one would you rather not miss?

When one of those teams is Manchester United, the most attractive, exciting and talented team in the country, the answer should be obvious. Which is not to denigrate Droylsden, who are no run-of-the-mill kick and rush non-League outfit but a talented and football-playing team in their own right. But you can’t compare the football, can you?

You can compare what goes with the football however. The fact remains that at Old Trafford, I am a face in a crowd of 55,000, no more nor less important than anyone else. Worse however, to United, I am less than that. To United I mean the money I spend, and frankly they’d rather I sent that and didn’t turn up.

To the players as well, I’m an often irrelevant concern. When they want my support, such as big European nights when the opposition is fearsome, it’s a different story, but there are too many games when the players show no thought for me, games where they could and should be winning by six and seven goals, but in which they decide to play only as well as they need to, and if two goals are all that’s needed to win, two goals is all they’ll bother scoring. When people complain of the lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford, they rarely question the part the team plays in dampening tension.

And even before this disgusting decision to forfeit the FA Cup, there is the ongoing mess being made of the structure of football, in which United are playing a leading, television and money-drive part. How can you respect a game in which next season’s European Champions League could include a team that weren’t even good enough to be Premiership also-rans.

At Droylsden, there is none of that. Not only do the players try all the time, not only is every supporter important, but just as there’s a greater level of commitment, there’s a greater level of access. At United, I can’t travel to away games on the team coach, or hear Alex Ferguson discussing players he’s trying to sign. I don’t get to speak in the bar with Roy Keane or find out which midfield player Gary Neville hates playing behind. I can’t pick up the Premiership Trophy and kiss it. David Beckham doesn’t look up when he’s doing his pre-match exercises and notice I’m there. Nicky Butt doesn’t pretend to have a go at me because he thinks he ought to get more than a six in his match reports.

I decided that that was more important to me. It left me three games, three trophies and, the pinnacle of any fan’s career, the European Champions League Final at the very end of it. And who could have foreseen such an ending to that game? Nothing United can do next will ever equal that moment. How can it ever be better?

I don’t want to get onto the FA Cup decision, which of itself could have altered my feelings permanently. I decided to step out at the top, and I had my wish come true with a high higher than any there possibly could be, and I don’t want to cloud that memory with lows. I just want to look forward to the new highs coming at the level of the game I’ve chosen to stand.

Maybe gaining Football League status will feel like that night in the Nou Camp. Or maybe not. Now I’m more interested in finding out if Droylsden can do that than in whether United can retain the European Cup. And I’m not the only one either.