Recognising Robert Neill: Witch Bane

Apologies for the severely belated nature of this post, which should have appeared between the posts on The Devil’s Weather and the Crown & Mitre trilogy. It was certainly written at that time, but somehow I seem to have managed to overlook posting it, a failure I have only now realised. Smack wrist, must do better. I feel a proper fule!

I have mixed feelings about this novel, Neill’s eleventh, which date back to my first discovering his works, and seeing those novels that were available in paperback in my late teens, 1974/5, the middle of my University years. Mist over Pendle and its first three successors were available in every bookshop/book section I went in, those four and Witch Bane.
Naturally, I assumed to be his latest novel, though it had actually first been published in 1967, and there was a far more recent book that I knew nothing of. But compare the covers of Pendle et al – indeed, of all the other novels – and what stands out about Witch Bane? The word that comes into my head every time I see it is Cheap.
Though the novel pre-dated the notorious film Witchfinder General, and the subsequent Hammer horrors that were slipping towards soft-porn territory, by a year, the paperback didn’t appear until 1970 and it’s a definite attempt to draw on the sadoporn imagery of terrified women stripped nude or semi-nude.
As for the book itself, it’s a rather slight, almost indeterminate book, awkwardly marrying two things together and using one to draw a line under the more substantial (in story terms) other. What’s more, a substantially longer Historical Note at the end once again admits to a lack of the evidence that Neill would normally have absorbed to the full: authoritative accounts of the Battle of Preston are few and contradictory, whilst the witchcraft and what surrounds it is portrayed on something of a ‘must have happened’ level.
What of the story? It is set over a few short weeks in 1648, making it technically another Stuart novel: the First Civil War has ended, King Charles I has made allies of the Scots and has initiated the Second Civil War, that would lead to his beheading.
But we are not concerned with that. The novel begins in media res, and how! Mary Standen, newly widowed at 23, has been accused of causing the death of her unloved and doctrinaire Presbyterian husband by means of witchcraft. In a moment, she will be thrown onto a table in Clitheroe Market Place, stripped publicly naked, explored for the ‘Devil’s Mark’, whereupon the Pricker (stop sniggering at the back, there) will plunge a three inch brass pin into whatever skin blemish he finds: if she does not feel pain, if she does not bleed, she is a proven witch.
The Pricker (stop it. Now) is a professional witch-finder, paid for each witch he finds, so not biassed then. Mary, though not a witch, neither screams nor bleeds and would be condemned were it not for the intervention of Major Dick Rowley, who points out that Mary, being a woman of the better sort, has actually fainted at the treatment she’s had. A second test, administered after she’s roused, produces screams, blood and a rather reluctant acquittal.
Rowley, and the Army, are not well liked in such a godly county as Lancashire – meaning a county full of Presbyterians determined their religion shall be the only one. The Army are Independents in religion, all determined to resist the tyranny of ministers as such as they have overthrown the tyranny of Kings, and Rowley has, for some undisclosed reason, taken a considerable shine to the comely Mary.
So Mary is reinstated in her late husband’s farm, Twelvetrees, and supported thus by the Minister, Mr Soames, though it was he who ordered her stripped and pricked (for the last time…). But though Soames is as hot against witches as ever, his conscience insists that Mary, having been acquitted, be restored to the community fully.
This is not a position that can be held by Mary’s sister-in-law, Isobel Grimshaw, a hating, loathing harridan who will not allow herself to accept Mary. Isobel is crazed about witches, bitter and determined that they be destroyed with fire and brutality. Her inability to control herself will put Mary and her friends in danger as the novel reaches its end, forcing them to flee to Preston, just as the Battle is being fought between Cromwell’s New Model Army and the ill-disciplined, rebellious Scots.
But at a very early stage, Neill shows Mary learning that Isobel has more of the right of things than she cares to think. For there are witches in the unspecified village near to Clitheroe where Twelvetrees is established. There is a Devil who leads the coven and there are followers. They arouse Mary’s disgust at their behaviour, and her shock at learning that seventeen year old Judith Hay – who also escaped the Clitheroe Market Place – is its current Maiden, and Mary’s own maid, Betty, is a coven member.
For Judith it’s a way of life, for she is daughter to a witch and has certain powers, not to mention a tactical mind far better than all the Presbyters put together. For Betty, it is something to do, something fun in a county that has banned fun: if it were not for the fact that she has sold her soul to the Devil, Betty would happily be a social member of the coven.
Mary’s problem is that, leaving aside her concerns about Betty, and her increasingly reluctant liking for Judith, she is genuinely disgusted at the coven but, after Clitheroe, implacably opposed to doing anything that will see anyone put into a position like the one she experienced.
It’s this tension that underpins the story, together with the rising concern about the rebel Scots getting into the county, and Preston’s significance as having the only bridge across the Ribble. Mary’s romance with Dick Rowley is unusually perfunctory: he likes her, she likes him and that’s the future sewn up, if only these bloody witches would go away.
Which is where the book starts to get into difficulties. Because it’s only going to end if the compromised Judith leaves for good. After certain shenanigans on Mary’s farm, she’s willing to go, but Isobel’s intervention intervenes, and the three women, with Mary’s friend Prudence, who has been sent out of Preston to avoid the forthcoming battle, are forced to flee back to Preston, escorted by a rebel soldier who’s taken a more direct shine to the shapely Judith.
So the battle forms the backdrop to a scene whereby Judith’s soldier is saved from the bloody rout to take Judith away, whilst Mary gets to see her soldier survive routing the rebels bloodily, and all will be well and the coven dispersed.
And that’s it as far as a resolution goes, and not particularly convincing really, is it? We’re not even given any intimation, for those not already familiar with the details of the Second Civil War, that the Battle of Preston is, to all intents and purposes, its end.
I’d love to know how Neill’s books sold, how they were received. Reading them in publication order, yet with an overview in my head, it’s impossible not to start fantasizing scenarios of how he would move from book to book. The fact that he openly admits that he has had to come to conclusions about the Battle of Preston that could be challenged is one thing, but there’s a greater confession made when Neill talks about the almost complete lack of history of witches in Lancashire.
There’s the 1611 case, he says (being the Pendle Witches) and possibly another in 1634, which also depends on a single document, but given the inevitable presence of witches, and the prevalence of Presbyterians, what he presents must have happened in some form, and the forms may be taken from other sources, notably Scottish ones.
This is not an approach, we feel, that Neill would usually take, but there are those uncharacteristic novels that have perhaps dragged down his reputation (and sales?) this half-decade, and perhaps The Devil’s Weather hasn’t gone down as well as it deserved to. Perhaps something deliberately harking to his first and biggest success, something about Witches in Lancashire, might do the trick?
I stress that this is just an imaginative interpretation of the interplay between the books themselves, a decipherable pattern that is based on no facts whatsoever. If there is any element of truth in it, I am in no position to say. But it would be three years before Neill’s next novel, and that, when published, would be announced as the first in a trilogy set in Stuart times, featuring a single family. Which, given Neill’s forte, would again be the sort of move onto home territory that a writer suffering a decline in sales might make.
It would also be another recovery of form, and a welcome one.


Arthur Ransome: Farewell and Adieu to you fair Spanish Ladies – Part 1

MisseeMissee Lee has always been the lowest selling of the Swallows & Amazons series, no doubt because of its exotic and utterly unrealistic setting, on three islands off the South China coast.
It’s an obvious sequel, or companion, to Peter Duck, a children’s tale of themselves, although no details are ever given as to the time or circumstances of its composition, nor, unlike Mr Duck, is its title character mentioned anywhere outside its pages. Many readers imagine another Norwich wherry winter, and the same kind of shenanigans that produce the six children’s earlier adventure into self-mythologisation.
But it’s a shame that this fantasy, whose original title was Poor Miss Lee, has never reached the popularity of Peter Duck, for whilst it repeats the form, it provides a story that is quite original, and not a pallid, ultimately unworkable knock-off of Treasure Island. And it is at least authentic, Ransome having drawn upon his experiences of China as a Foreign Correspondent to write this book.
So: back for another outing, at least temporarily, is the schooner, Wild Cat, crewed by Captain Flint and the children, without the assistance of either Mr Duck or any other adult sailor. They’re on a voyage round the world, and have already got to the South China Seas, where they are becalmed for days. Unfortunately, for tranquillity and progress, if not for the plot, back too is Roger’s monkey, Gibber. One bit of business with a discarded Captain Flint cigar and an open petrol tank, and Wild Cat is burning down to the waterline and its crew taking to the lifeboats, which are, of course, Swallow and Amazon.
Separately, the two boats come ashore on the Three Islands, and separately encounter the Three Island Pirates. These Pirates once were in rivalry, until they were united by Olo Lee, of Dragon Island, a Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon (as opposed to the two subordinate chiefs and Ten Gong Taicoons, Chang of Tiger Island and Wu of Turtle Island).
Olo Lee had a strict policy: never take British prisoners hostage for ransom, as this will only result in the Royal Navy putting Three Islands out of business. Despite Captain Flint claiming to be Lord Mayor of San Francisco, and therefore ‘Melican, everyone is in danger of execution. Only a piece of schoolboy silliness from Roger, writing an execrable Latin pun in someone else’s Latin Primer, saves the day.
Because the Primer belongs to Missee Lee: daughter and heir of Olo, and now herself the Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon of Three Islands. And Missee Lee is an educated woman: a western educated woman. She is, in fact, a student from Cambridge, who gave up her academic aspirations for her duty to her father, to take his place.
And she is going to keep her English prisoners, in defiance of her father’s rule, because she greatly misses her life in Cambridge, and intends to re-create it here, with the Swallows, Amazons and Captain Flint as her private class. In which Roger is Head Boy.
It’s an original idea, without a shadow of a doubt, and Ransome should be congratulated for the sheer cock-eyed absurdity of it. Of course it can’t work, it’s completely unsustainable, but while it lasts it gives Miss Lee (whom Ransome based upon Madame Sun-Yat Sen, wife of Republican China’s founding father and first President) enough of her dream that, when she realises she cannot change reality to that extent, she has committed herself sufficiently to her students that she will ensure their escape rather than allow their death.
Indeed, for a deus-ex-machina page or three, long enough to pilot the escape-Junk through a tidal bore that only she can navigate, she plans to fly with them, back to the real Cambridge. But when Chang pronounces himself Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon, Miss Lee’s true nature reasserts itself, and she returns to once more rule Three Islands. And the children set sail for London, by Junk, and don’t tell anyone, especially the Royal Navy, where to find the Three Islands.
Missee Lee is imaginative, original, and authentic. Though its central concept, of turning the children into a Latin class in a pirate’s den, is patently absurd when presented baldly, this is already an unreal story, and Ransome builds his stepping stones carefully enough to make it believable inside the delivered suspension of belief. Believable, but sadly not plausible.
It doesn’t suffer in the same way from Peter Duck‘s collision between the children’s made-up adventure and the violent ‘reality’ into which they awkwardly intrude. The violence is kept at a greater distance, providing a menace that is authentic but confined to a background element.
And yes, I did say that Secret Water was the Swallows’ last appearance in the series, yet here they are, only two books later. But these are not the Swallows of ‘real life’, who have been through the fire and come out the other end, but instead their fantasy of themselves, mixed very thoroughly in with Captain Nancy’s unbridled (and undeveloped) imagination. They are stereotypes of themselves, none more so than the cheeky, regressed schoolboy Roger.


From the exotic, Ransome returned to the domestic: more than the domestic, he returned to the Lake.
The Picts and The Martyrs is the only book in the Swallows & Amazons series to have a subtitle, or perhaps an alternate title: Not Welcome At All. It’s an apt subtitle for the book, given its content, but those who know the circumstances under which this eleventh book of the series were published will see a wider, more personal and more appropriate meaning.
But first the book: The Picts and The Martyrs features the Amazons and the Ds. It is the beginning of the fourth summer, and the Swallows are due at Holly Howe in about two weeks time, and indeed Professor and Mrs Callum are coming up to Dixon’s at about the same time. The Ds have come ahead, to Beckfoot, at the invitation of the Amazons, and to collect their own little boat, Scarab, which is almost complete. Mrs Beckett is absent, leaving Nancy in charge: she has suffered a (probably long-overdue) nervous breakdown and has been taken on a convalescent cruise around the Fjords, by Captain Flint.
Nancy’s determined to live up to the responsibility placed in her hands, but that test abruptly becomes serious when the Callums arrival is followed, almost immediately by a telegram from the Great Aunt. Having heard that her great-nieces have been left home alone, Miss Turner regards it as her duty to take over the household in Mrs Blackett’s absence.
The Amazons determine that they will take the brunt of this disaster, and will give the Great Aunt the least amount of cause to criticise their mother. But the Ds are a complicating factor. If they’re found here, it will make things unbearable for Mrs Blackett. At the same time, they refuse to allow the Callum’s holiday to be spoiled in the way their’s will, so the Ds are swept off to a windowless stone cabin in the woods, which will become their home/camp until the GA is gone. The Ds become a secret tribe, like the Picts of old, whilst the Amazons martyr themselves for the cause.
What no-one expects at first is just how great the lie that Dick and Dorothea don’t exist has to become. It’s the greatest aspect of this book that Ransome, in calling up nearly every supporting or peripheral character that has previously appeared in the Lakes books, he shows not only how much a part of their world the Amazons are, and, by extension, the Ds as well, but integrates everyone into a community of equals.
A sequence of misadventures and narrow squeaks ensues, as the great lie is forced to travel wilder. To everyone’s relief, the Great Aunt, who has never heard of the Ds, develops a suspicion that the Swallows are about, which enables Nancy and Peggy to avoid direct lying. meanwhile the Ds take receipt of Scarab and practice sailing with and without the assistance of the Amazons (and find the latter to be far preferable).
Ultimately, the Great Aunt’s visit comes to its penultimate date. The Amazons are allowed bail for a day. They return to find Miss Turner missing: gone for a drive, the car runs out of petrol, when her driver returns she is gone.
It’s a disaster of tremendous proportion, and the entire district turns out to look for the missing lady, except of course for Dick and Dorothea, who, being the last people who must meet the Great Aunt, are sent to hide out on the Houseboat. Unfortunately, thanks to the kind assistance of Mary Swainson, the one person in the whole Lake country who doesn’t know  that the Ds presence is a secret, that is where Miss Turner has been all night. And it is impossible for the Callums not to acceded to her request to be taken back to Beckfoot, in time to catch her train.
Once again, the enterprise balances on the edge of failure. But Miss Turner’s acid response to the spectacle that has been created by her absence – which, as far as she has been concerned, has been no absence at all – takes up so much attention that the Callums are able to let Scarab drift down the river, out of sight, and out of the need to accept Miss Turner’s thanks and give their names.
So all is well, the plot has worked, the Amazons have undergone a test of strength that might have been the equivalent of the Swallows’ trial in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea – and the rest of the summer holidays stretch out ahead.
Unfortunately, we would never see what adventures might have resulted.
The Picts and The Martyrs was another critical and commercial success for Ransome, with reviewers praising him for the realisation that children enjoy recognition as much as discovery, and the comfortable friendliness of the Lake country of the early books was a delight to them. But for Ransome’s mother, however, it would never have been published at all.
Like many an author’s spouse, Evgenia Ransome enjoyed the privileged position of First Reader, once Ransome considered the book to be complete. Unfortunately, her naturally pessimistic (Russian?) temperament led her to abuse this role. Evgenia was a great supporter of Arthur’s work, full of confidence about it, avid in her praise and enthusiasm. But only after the book had been published, and become a commercial success. When the manuscript first came to her, she was cutting, pessimistic, continually downgrading its quality. ‘Not much worse than the worst of the earlier ones’ is about the kindest comment that biographer Hugh Brogan finds to reprint. But once this shoddy, inadequate, hopeless effort, that was sure to destroy Arthur’s career if he let it be published had been read and praised, then it became as much a classic, and a bar against which the next book would be measured as all his other works.
Ransome was happy with The Picts and The Martyrs. Entirely confident, he broke with his usual policy and sent a copy to Jonathan Cape’s at the same time as giving it to Evgenia. It provoked a perfect storm. Evgenia put her foot down. The book was bad, dreadful, it would destroy his career and their income, it was not to be published. If Cape’s had not already got it, and been eager to publish it, in all probability it would never have appeared. Even so, it took a long time to overcome Evgenia’s objections, and it took the intervention of Ransome’s mother, who had read and supported the manuscript, to get her to recant. Still, she saw it as a betrayal, and was miserable and savage about it for a long time. Not Welcome At All.

Baby Love (1969)


Something reminded me the other day of the well-known Seventies actress, Linda Hayden, who was principally known for getting them off in some of the very early Seventies Hammer Films that was were experimenting in soft-porn, and a couple of the Confessions films, which were also, in their way, experimenting with soft-porn.
But before these ‘career-highlights’, Hayden first made her name in a somewhat more serious film, Baby Love. It was a film for which I was far too young in 1969 to see at the cinema, although I remember the film poster I’ve shown above, and at least one newspaper ad that puzzled me most seriously. I’ve seen it a couple of times on TV, but it won’t be on the box in the foreseeable future, nor will it be getting any release on DVD because, under the laws of the land as they now stand, Baby Love is illegal.
To watch it again, to refresh my memory of it for the purpose of this essay, I’ve had to download an obviously pirate copy, of very poor, very blurred quality. It seemed appropriate for a film which has been praised for its intentions elsewhere on the ‘net, yet which is stiff, static and woodenly acted throughout, to the extent where Dick Emery is actually the most naturalistic player, and all his character is is a rude chortle that could have come out of any Dick Emery Show.
The story does have potential for a psychological study. Hayden plays Luci, a teenage girl from an unspecified terrace street oop north, orphaned when she comes home from school to find her mother has slit her wrists in the bath. Luci, who we learn has been emotionally neglected, and who we see equates love with attention and physical love, is taken in by the Quayles, a rich, middle-class family in London. Robert (Keith Barron) was Luci’s mother’s lover but left her due to his ambition (he is a successful doctor).
The Quayles have their own issues. Robert is dictatorial (this is 1968, remember, when husbands ruled) and determined to stay in control, exacerbated by the barely-concealed chip he has on his shoulder in respect of wife Amy (Anne Lyn), a rich, former convent girl, whose family has opened doors for him, no doubt to the detriment of his manhood. They have a son, Nick, of similar age to Luci.
Into this melting pot comes a manipulative, needy, short-skirted, long-blonde-haired teenage girl. Even if this wasn’t a film, you’d only ever expect disaster.
Luci blows hot and cold on the clearly hormonal Nick, alternating between prick-teasing and shriekingly shoving him off (though this latter aspect is highly understandable, given that he’s the worst kind of teenage know-nothing). Nevertheless, whilst sunbathing on the terrace, Luci removes her bikini-top and invites him to her in a way that implies that the two do have sex.
However, Luci also manipulates Amy into an affair with her. (How could they have sex when neither of them has got a… wondered the uninformed 13 year old me). Nothing is shown explicitly: indeed, the furthest the film goes is right at the start, when Amy agrees to sleep in Luci’s bed to quiet her after nightmares: Luci goes off to genuine sleep, one hand thumb in mouth, the other on Amy’s breast (through her firmly opaque nightie, of course), whilst Lynn emotes the mixture of feelings she’s getting from this sweetly innocent contact.
But it’s when Luci, having just heard that Robert intends to send her off to a boarding school, tries to seduce him by throwing herself – naked – at him in the garden that the film comes to its decidedly underwhelming climax.
Having been rejected by Robert, who tells her she’s just like her mother (and implicitly answers the question he’s refused to divulge thus far, namely why he left the mother in the first place), Lucy races indoors and finds Nick in the shower, so she throws herself at him. He rejects her violently, his urges towards having an in-house fuck buddy having been somewhat tempered by his recently having faced serious violence from a bunch of ‘hooray henries’ led on by Luci’s provocations. During the struggle, he slips, hits his head against the shower tap, and collapses, dead.
Or is he? Because, after Luci runs from the bathroom,screaming, Nick and his fate simply disappear from the story. Robert and Amy, barely changed, discuss a social affair with their friends the Pearsons (the afore-mentioned chortling Emery and the criminally unused Sheila Steafal, who isn’t given a single word to say). Amy agrees that Luci must leave their house, so Luci advances on her, repeating “Don’t you want to play with your little doll?” until Amy bursts into tears and runs out of the room, and the penny finally drops with Robert.
Which leads to the final scene, when Emery arrives at the door, all dress-suit and bowtie, to collect the similarly attired Robert and the evening-dressed Amy. Luci’s staying at home, Robert urbanely claims: she has a bad head. Oh really, chortles Emery, and we cut to Amy, on the stairs, made-up ridiculously, and wearing a completely unsuitable (and quite horrible) dress, ready to join them.
And that’s where it ends. And is Nick dead or not? Because either way, his parents are acting as if he’s never existed in the first place.
It’s typical of the film as a whole. An interesting scenario, with potential for psychological depth, betrayed by ugly, disjointed writing that puts everything on the surface. It’s stiff and static, moving from scene to scene with the alacrity of frozen treacle dripping. And for a film that offers Swinging London for a back-drop, it’s bloody lifeless.
Barron barks almost every line and gets into small-minded tempers, Lynn is as wet as they come, the son a hormonal cypher. Hayden plays her part as well as you might expect of a girl of her age, flat and unconvincing, though she properly foreshadows the rest of her career by her willingness, from the outset, to get her clothes off.
She’s happy to show her breasts when taking off her (ill-fitting) bikini top, and again when trying to tempt Robert, and in between she appears nude in the bathroom, full-length from the back.
And that is why this film wont ever turn up on TV again, or be available on DVD. Because Luci is a fifteen year old girl. And so was Linda Hayden.
Yes, this is a film that even Confessions of a Window-Cleaner is morally superior to because, when Hayden got her tits out in that, she was an adult. For some reason, people who made and displayed serious films thought it was perfectly reasonable to have a fifteen year old girl appear topless and naked in a supposed serious film.
And as a serious film, it’s a load of amateurish crap. Even if it were legal to make this film freely available, you really wouldn’t want to bother watching it. Not if Plan 9 from Outer Space were available.

Shawn Colvin – ‘Fat City’

Fat City

Some friendships, though short, have long-standing consequences. For a few months in 1993, I was semi-seeing a lady from Lancaster, who I’d met through the Guardian’s dating service. She ended up being one of only three ‘girlfriends’ that I took to a felltop in the Lakes, and the only one that I didn’t kiss on getting there. Apart from our living at opposite ends of Lancashire, it wasn’t going to work out. But in the early stages, when we were still working that out, we did what everybody did, and exchanged tapes. I don’t know if my offerings ever really sank in that far, but twenty years on, two of the singers on Susan’s tapes remain on my short list of favourites.
The first tape I got had k d lang’s Ingénue on the first side, and this album on the other. lang was big at the time, thanks to the song Constant Craving, on this album. It’s not a bad album, smooth and comforting, but for me it wasn’t anything else, and lang’s voice didn’t seem to hold any great range. Because Ingénue was only 40 minutes long, and Fat City 55 minutes, the final track of the latter was added to side A of the tape, to fill as much time as possible. So I was introduced to Shawn Colvin, of whom I hadn’t previously heard, by the last track of her album, and by an absolutely stunning Grammy nominated track, I Don’t Know Why.
The rest of the album lived up to that promise. Because of the association with lang, I assumed Colvin would be bracketed as country-rock, but that’s an inadequate description, and it doesn’t suit her voice. It was the voice itself that got to me, the cadence of it, the slight breathiness, the range of tones and sounds across which Colvin sung, and the songs supported that voice with an assuredness that was more than impressive. Though this was only her second album, she was already supremely confident in her music (or at least such was the impression it gave, though the reality was somewhat different).
I didn’t have the whole of the album: track ten barely had chance to make itself known before the space on a C90 shut down. So I needed the CD so I could hear the missing song, and so I could hear the album without the run through Ingénue or the interminable wait for the tape to fast forward, and the back cover picture of Ms Colvin in a short, sleeveless dress was a bonus on top of that (she doesn’t look her age now, let alone then, and she’s just under two months younger than I, so I only have to work out how to get to Austin, Texas, and…)
It’s no slight to the rest of Shawn Colvin’s work that Fat City remains my favourite among her albums, and no slight to any of them to say that none match the range of songs that this album boasts, nor the depth. This is gold in the ears.
The album begins with one of Colvin’s most popular songs, Polaroids. It opens with a light, skipping, acoustic beat, leading to a minor pause before Colvin’s voice comes in: Please, no more therapy/Mother take care of me/Piece me together with your needle and thread. The openness of the opener, one of Colvin’s earliest songs, is made more open yet by the knowledge that this song was written on a New York bus, en route to a therapy appointment in a series that was going nowhere.
It lays down a marker. This is not an album, that is not an artist where feelings will be covered up, deflected or set at a safe distance. Colvin isn’t like that. Her autobiography makes clear that she has been a lifelong depressive, for whom music has been the only sole safety net. And it’s this plea for help, which rolls on as an organised stream of consciousness, that opens an album that, paradoxically, is a stronger, more positive experience, courtesy of the prozac which was controlling Colvin’s moods.
There’s no sign of that yet. Polaroids is followed by two cheery, almost rocky songs, that keep far away from the subject of emotions. Both Tennessee and Round of Blues are up in mood. Tennessee calls and offers freedoms, Round of Blues hits the road, literally and metaphorically, with a new life, and the originals bracket a superb cover of Warren Zevon’s Tenderness on the Block, an urban song about a girl making up and going out to meet a boyfriend. Colvin sings with conviction and faith, and backing vocals from the Sub-Dudes on an accapella final chorus repeat the mantra that She’s gonna find True Love.
But it can’t stay that way, and with Monopoly we’re back in the emotional red. Low key, low tempo, a solo acoustic guitar underlaid with a little bass, a little keyboards, a near funereal pace. Colvin sits alone with her guitar. It’s gone bad, and she’s helpless in the face of it, left with only that guitar and the inevitable need to make sense of it in a song, when that’s the last thing she wants to do, the only thing she knows to do. The song just keeps it going, erects a monument to something that’s dead, and she hates that but the hurt won’t let her stop.
Then comes the first of several astonishing moments on this album, astonishing lines. Colvin’s voice, sad, wistful, self-hating, suddenly increases in intensity, in pitch. But right now I’d be bought and sold, she confesses, because it can’t be kept within, just to see your face somewhere. I would sell your sweet sweet soul/for just a touch of your crazy black-gold hair. That’s what I know of as love, she admits, unable to justify or deny herself.
Because this isn’t about love as we know love in songs, the public face, the declaration or the mourning, the glory or the pain. This is love and passion, in a degree that is inseparable, when love and need and want break down both head and heart, when people become a part of each other and begin to unravel the dreadful loneliness of being separate.
And her voice drops its pitch, aware of reality but still stumbling over it, whilst the music slowly advances, unchanged through that momentary glimpse inside upon things for which words are not made. Music, it never goes, she admits, but I told you I hate that shit/And friends say “well, you know/You got a song out of it.” But, I don’t know what else to do, Colvin admits, to herself and us, letting the song play out. She’s indeed got a song out of it, a great song, a terrifyingly naked song. But all she’s got is a song.
Monopoly, or that moment in its middle where Colvin can’t hide from herself, transforms the album. What has come before had been, in its way, an attempt to distract herself. But from here, the tracks build in unending waves of glory.
Things take off literally in the case of Orion in the Sky. Colvin is in love, a love so big and broad that maybe even the emptiness of the Southern hemisphere cannot contain it, so she looks to the skies. Orion is her shelter, her protector, her guardian angel. The song praises him, returning again and again in mythopoeic fashion, calling down aspects upon the head of Colvin and her lover. But the doubt is there all the time: but can he protect us baby/from all the sad things we’ve done?
The music swings, Orion’s tributes raise ever higher, until the cycle breaks loose, and Colvin anxiously sings on, out into the Universe, until at last the fear draws her back to Earth: we are forever tied/still on the run/to the medicine man/for all those sad, sad things we’ve done. The tension flows out, the music winds down, the song ends.
To be followed by Climb On (a Back that’s Strong). Love has prevailed, Colvin is confident, enough so that she can and will offer shelter and support to her lover. We work so hard being tough on our own/but now it’s me, and you. Her back is strong, he need only let go and she will carry them both. The moment he does, the song takes flight. Colvin is looking to heaven, with her man, and with that as her goal will face Armageddon. She will provide such strength that ‘then you can be the woman you need/if you just let me be the man I am’. Roles reverse, two become one in heart, the strength to look outside is supported.
But what of the strength to look inside? The album comes to a peak, in every sense, with Set The Prairie On Fire, and it’s about sex. You don’t need the words to tell you that, you just listen to the organ, slow, sensual, smouldering. Not a person in the world except Booker T. Jones could play like that, and it wraps Colvin and her lover up in an aural soundscape that marries to the words of passion within.
And you’d better be ready for this ride. It’s not raunchy, it’s not dramatic. It’s sex, but it’s that other kind of sex, when heart and soul are involved as much as body, when the boundaries dissolve between me and you, into us, into the inability to distinguish which one of you you are. Colvin’s not shy, she’s not abashed, this is she and him and tonight they’re going to set the prairie on fire. She can’t wait until she gets him in ‘that defenceless position’, feelings ‘burn down to one solitary colour/the velocity of lonely melts us into each other/it’s a song our fingers play/all at once and together/ you can bet we’ve never learned it/but we’ve known it forever.’ Then the song is released as the lovers reach that peak and the words and the music climax, and there’s Booker T’s organ soloing as the song slowly falls away into release. Wow!
Set The Prairie on Fire might be expected to exhaust everyone (it sure drains me!) but Colvin, instead, is full of life, full of energy. In Object of my Affection, she can’t sit still, into the car, driving up the coast in the night, listening to the radio. She’s bubbling: excited and unable to stop: and why? She has a lover: she coyly refers to him as the Object of (her) affection, and he’s not a dream, or a fantasy, and she wants him to come to her. She sings of others who have gone before, sweet Anne of Mercy and Sylvia Plath, who died for love. ‘If we locked up all the girls who died in vain/we could walk on their heads to Hell, and back again.’ But that’s not the fate Colvin expects: (she’s) ‘got the big book/and antidepressants’! At last the message is that ‘you try looking for love/well, I guess it’s true/you don’t look for love/it’s gonna look for you’.
And then, with the end of the album in sight, things change. Kill The Messenger retains the energy, builds upon it with banks of drums, but the words escape into a strange place. Colvin no longer sings of herself but instead talks to her friend Jane. Jane also loves, but is faced by nay-sayers. Colvin understands her situation well, and from the position of one who has passed through, offers advice on standing firm. But at the end, the message is ‘Heed the Message/Kill the Messenger’.
So we come to I Don’t Know Why. It astonishes me that this song’s reputation has not spread further, that it has not become a modern standard (then again, if When You Say Nothing At All hasn’t done so, what chance has anybody got?). Colvin sings beautifully, plaintively, over a sympathetic arrangement of strings, about her love, about how she doesn’t understand why she loves him, but she does. In the end, though, it’s music that matters. If there were no music/then I could not get through. Without her music as the filter for her feelings, she couldn’t understand them. The song makes room for a dreaming guitar solo (an alternate version, on one of the CD singles, replaces this with a solo horn that is almost as effective), before Colvin’s final plea, for understanding as much as the continuation of her feelings, brings us to the end of this enveloping, fascinating, enlivening and utterly brilliant album.
Put it back on again, now!

Joy Division – ‘Unknown Pleasures’

joy-division-unknown-pleasuresApart from holidays, and a month spent filling in at my then-firm’s London Office, I’ve lived my whole life in Manchester, except for one period. From March 1978 to Match 1980, whilst doing my Articles of Clerkship, I lived and worked in Nottingham.
It wasn’t an auspicious time to move to the East Midlands. When I arrived in Nottingham, Forest were a couple of weeks away from winning the League Championship, and when I left, they were not much further away from securing their second consecutive European Cup, which made the place not that good an environment for a Manchester United fan.
Musically, it wasn’t much better. The pure punk movement had run its course, but the public phase had gathered momentum throughout 1977, and I was just developing a fascination with Manchester’s own Buzzcocks when I was suddenly removed from ‘the scene’ to Nottingham, which was not a punk town, no sir, indeed not. It didn’t even have its own local concert venue, like Manchester’s Apollo Theatre or even the Free Trade Hall. I mean, if you wanted to go gigging, you were left with the Assembly Rooms in Derby or the De Montford Hall in Leicester which, without a car, were a bit remote.
Nor was the radio much better. Nottingham was a death trap for MW, which made Radio 1 on 247m impossible to pick up, except for the lifeline of John Peel five nights a week, on the Radio 2 FM band. Even the change to 275 and 285m in 1979 made only a marginal improvement, so I was restricted to the local commercial Station, Radio Trent, except during those hungry ten hours a week (reduced in 1979 to eight when Friday night was given to Tommy Vance for hard rock) when Peely brought you strange, weird and exciting sounds. Oh, and before I forget, I could actually get BBC Radio Nottingham on FM (in Mono) until 7.00pm, with a non-pop show that openly loathed punk and new wave. Exciting, eh?
So it was something of a change to get out on a Sunday night in February, to Nottingham Playhouse, a small arts theatre at the furthest end of the City Centre, to see John Cooper Clarke.
The venue was probably large enough to host about 200 people, and there was kit on stage: drums, amps, stands for bass and guitar: a backing band? But Clarke came out on time, alone, shopping bag full of notebooks which he dumped by his side, He rattled off three poems at top speed, then retired from the stage. Four guys, dressed in various combinations of black, white and grey, came onstage and took up the instruments. One guy behind the drumkit, the bassist stage right, facing into the wings, the guitarist stage left, facing into the wings, the grey-shirted singer ashen-faced, staring blankly into the audience.
Then they started. It was an ten song, 40 minute set, during which the guitarist and bass-player faced outwards the whole time, the drummer pounded away mercilessly and the singer intoned to a stunned audience, occasionally bursting in short and furious spells of dancing, arms and legs flailing, like somebody doing TISWAS’s ‘Dying Fly’ stood up.
They didn’t speak a word to the audience. Not then, nor when they dismantled their gear and removed it from the stage, afterwards. Clarke reappeared on a bare stage and went into the main set with a will, leaving the audience howling with laughter and at least one member stunned by the support band, but in complete ignorance.
They weren’t down on the ticket. There was no posters indicating a support band. Neither they nor Clarke gave their name. No-one knew who they were. They were just fucking amazing and totally anonymous.
And I’m not just saying in retrospect that they were fucking amazing, I have the diary entry I wrote that night to prove that I thought it then (although being a well-brought up and fairly shy young man, I did not write words like fucking in my diary. Not then). One track, in mid-set, has stuck in my mind ever since, for not only featuring a syndrum solo (which prior to then I had only ever heard in disco music) but the soundboard sent the sound rolling around the theatre, the sound coming from every possible point of the aural compass. It’s an effect I’ve never experienced since.
Who were this band?
I didn’t get my answer for six months, until August 1979. I had probably heard, but not registered, the Peel Session they’d made, and the same goes for the early singles, or maybe I just missed the nights on which such things were played, but Peel was now playing the début album from Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures. And he played the track Insight, the one with the syndrum solo, and insight flowed into my head. That band who had supported Cooper Clarke: that’s who they were!
I play Joy Division less now than I did. For many years they were the constant companions, the soundtrack to a dull, unfulfilled life. Though I’d deny that the term fitted either the band or myself, it’s not inappropriate to suggest that the music and my then-life could be described as “shoe-gazing”. To me, Joy Division were the band who understood my depressive states, when I would do all I could to hit the bottom all the faster, as that was the only way to break through and re-surface.
This is an album that detonates on the lowest level, an utter nihilism that, paradoxically, in facing the worst, offers the promise of recovery by facing it with openness and honesty. Its sleeve – which features neither the band’s name nor the album’s title (‘unknown’ pleasures indeed) – presents a matt, textured black surface with only a striking white pattern upon it. The image was found by Albrecht, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, and presents successive pulses from the first pulsar ever discovered, PSR B1919+21. The deliberate obscurity, the rejection of convention, was to be characteristic of Joy Divsion and New Order both.

It’s also the most composed, complete, sure and entire début album I’ve ever heard (only the Stones Roses’ first album pushes it close), a thing of balance and strength, grace and passion on the kind of knife edge that feels as if a single altered note will cause it all to collapse inwards.
The album opens with Disorder, one of only a handful of tracks with a fast tempo. Hooky’s bass leads into the song, creating a pattern that the album as a whole rests upon: bass as lead, a strong, steady, powerful percussive underpinning, Albrecht’s guitar angular and cutting across the rhythm, and Ian Curtis, intoning as much as singing, mixed provocatively forward, unlike the general tendency of punk to absorb the vocal into the razor of sound.
There’s an immediate alienation that remains unbroken until the album’s end. Curtis is seeking a guide, is seeking sensation, something to make him feel that he is alive, and not merely some observer. His alienation is accelerating, literally, It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand.
Where will it end? Curtis repeatedly asks in Day of the Lords, a gothic pile, slow, intense, but he’s singing about the start, the room where it all began, whilst the band build mountains of sound around him.
Candidate (one of only a few Joy Division titles to have a direct relation to the lyrics) adopts an even more glacial pace. Curtis is facing the collapse of all previous certainties and finds himself apologising for what he’s tried to say: Oh, I don’t know what made me/What gave me the right/To mess with your values/And change wrong to right. The effect’s been too powerful, the reaction too extreme. I tried to get to you/You treat me like this.
This is followed by Insight. Years ago, a BBC Radio documentary on Joy Division and New Order went out in two parts, drawing their titles from lyrics: “I remember when we were young” and “Now that we’ve grown up together”. The lines perfectly encapsulate the difference between the two bands, three members of which were both groups. The Joy Division line comes from this song: it opens with the sound of a lift door closing, sustains itself upon an almost bubbly bass-line, and breaks out into that astonishing electronic syndrum break, but through it all is Curtis, still sinking towards a bottom growing ever more unfathomable. Dreams end, times are wasted,  I remember when we were young… but the line repeated most often is the defiant I’m not afraid anymore.
And he isn’t.
Side One – for this is an album from the primitive times when there was such a division – ends with the monumental New Dawn Fades. There is still no escape. Curtis has reached the centre of what affects him and here, as Hook sculpts the melody and Albrecht creates shapes above and behind the voice, Curtis stands alone in the dark, facing his failures. The song builds towards a peak as his voice alters, at last escaping contemplation and rising in passion as he metaphorically skewers himself, the butterfly pinned to the card. The guitar builds up to carry the song towards its eventual dying fall.
Side Two (which is not described as such: the first half of this album was titled Outside, the second half Inside) escapes this aural loneliness but only into the personal. She’s Lost Control operates on an emphatic, almost dancing beat, laid down by Morris with that syndrum popping, only to grow ever more ambitious around the static beat. Hook and Albrecht riff. There’s a girl having an epileptic fit, and Curtis knows about epileptic fits, being a sufferer himself. Though the beat is maintained, the growing momentum of the riff makes it feel as if it gradually accelerates
Joy Division made only two television appearances in their short life. This song, and its immediate successor, Shadowplay, were two of only three songs in which they could be seen performing.
The song begins with cymbals, adds a bass-line that is one of Hooky’s most propulsive, adds a storming guitar that mixes heavy-laden riffing with high, slowing lines, coming together to make one of the band’s finest ever tracks. Curtis is in search of someone, has been drawn into the centre of the city to look for her. He finds an elaborate, strangely ritualistic scene, the assassins all grouped in four lines/dancing on the floor, but his only outcome is a confession of failure that makes him an improbable rescuer: I let them use you for their own ends. There is no excuse.
If Unknown Pleasures falters at all, it is in the next two tracks, Wilderness and Interzone (the latter title taken from William Burroughs). These are the two shortest songs on the album, brief and intense, sonically closer to the punk sound with their driving guitar-dominated speed, and both employ a call-and-response lyric which the band don’t use elsewhere. In the first, Curtis asks and answers himself on an unusually impersonal journey into the past that suggests he has decamped to Biblical times, finding again only cruelty and terror. In the latter, Hook actually sings the lead and Curtis a slightly mixed back counterpoint, creating the odd effect that there are two songs going on at the same time, but each in their tale of journeying into an abandoned zone looking from different angles.
But it’s not a falter. The relative primitivity of these two songs, their brief, violent interruption is but a prelude to the album’s closing track, I Remember Nothing. It’s a counterpart, a balance, to New Dawn Fades, its equivalent on the other side. It’s long, slow, monumental in sound, and it’s where producer Martin Hannett is at his most overt. A sub-choral drone hangs over the song, filling in the massive gaps between Hooky’s funereal bass, Morris’s subdued rhythms and Albrecht’s little interjections. Found music, noises, effects, slip into and out of the mix, building the cathedral-like acoustic. Curtis’s singing is deliberately kept down: in places he is almost speaking his words in resignation.
Paradoxically, in all its drawn out, aural morbidity, the song offers, in the album’s closing minutes, a suggestion of hope, a suggestion that the worst may have been faced and defeated. We were strangers/for way too long. But the word is ‘were’. The suggestion is that something has changed, that were strangers are not strangers now. There is no daylight in this extreme, intense, powerful and utterly dark album.
But there may be a place after this experience from which daylight might be seen. What remains after the worst?

Arthur Ransome: The Great Summer – Part 2

we didn'tThe Swallows, however, were not destined to have an adventure on the Lake ever again, except, perhaps, as ghosts in an unwritten book. During the writing of Pigeon Post, an idea had come to Ransome, that he described in a letter to a friend as an absolutely gorgeous notion, a fresh angle of attack, an absolute natural. And he was right, too.
Hugh Brogan may give the palm to Coot Club, but in my eyes, Ransome’s finest book was We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. It’s the only book to feature the Swallows alone, and it’s a book of high drama, and serious danger that had the side-effect of transforming these children to such an extent that they were no longer suited to adventures such as those that Ransome wrote. It’s an involving, gripping book, with a beautifully judged, gentle introductory section that gives the Swallows (and the reader) the learning upon which they will rely when the drama unexpectedly, but completely naturally, kicks in.
It is the same summer as Pigeon Post. The Swallows have been summoned south to join their mother and Bridget at Pin Mill, near Orford. Commander Walker (despite having been in Malta at Christmas) is on his way home from service in the China Seas. He’s travelling overland, so the family are gathering within easy reach of Harwich, to meet him off the boat the moment they know which sailing he’s on. And, being the Swallows, they are out on the river on the evening of their arrival, not merely rowing, but helping a tired young man by the name of Jim Brading, singly-handedly sailing his boat, Goblin, to secure safe mooring.
Brading, who is only 18 years old, agrees to occupy the Swallows by taking them on as crew on Goblin, for a few days sailing up and down the rivers. Mrs Walker agrees, upon three conditions: that they telephone every day for news of their father’s progress, that they do not go further than a day’s busride from Pin Mill, and that they don’t go out of the rivers, into the sea.
All progresses smoothly. The Swallows learn quickly about sailing Goblin. Roger is fascinated with the engine, which gets them into Harwich harbour on the last of its petrol one night. The following day, Brading rows ashore to top up the tank. He doesn’t return. A fog descends on the harbour. The children wait and wait, growing increasingly disturbed at Brading’s absence, but stranded on Goblin, with no means of getting to shore. The impasse lasts all day. What none of them realise is that they moored at low tide, that the tide has been rising all day, and, on the edge of evening, it is about to turn.
Goblin’s anchor chain is too short and the boat starts to pull away from its mooring. John’s efforts to release more chain are clumsy, and only result in the anchor going overboard, leaving Goblin unmoored, and being dragged out of harbour by the tide, in the fog. What is worse is that, when they are outside the harbour, out of the fog, in the dark – at sea in breach of their promise – the Swallows, four children aged between about 13 and 8, find themselves facing a violent storm, without lights.
The skill in this book is in the natural, plausible manner in which Ransome creates a horrifying situation, but one in which the skills the Swallows have learned in the opening part of the book make equally plausible that they can survive the experience.
There’s an early division between the two elder children. Susan, the manager, the carer, the mother-surrogate in all these adventures, is consumed by the breaking of the promise to their mother. It’s her first and only thought, that they must undo that breach and as quick as possible. Opposing her is Captain John, captain indeed on this occasion, whose instinct is for the ship and the sea. The promise can’t override their safety, and the only safety in these conditions is to get out to sea and stay there, until daylight and calm weather. When Susan’s insistence overrides John’s instincts, Goblin comes closest to disaster, although there is another, personal trial for John to overcome, when, in service to his ship, he comes closest of all to death.
By luck and good judgement, and the Swallows’ judgement IS good, they survive the night, not just intact but grown. Ransome symbolises this in the rescue of a kitten, floating on some sea wreckage. Sinbad is brought aboard, fed, warmed and saved: the children have passed their initiation and can take charge of others.
By now they’re in sight of what proves to be Holland. The next task is to get ashore without allowing someone to claim salvage on Goblin: the Swallows are determined not to let Jim Brading’s boat be lost. They signal for and take on a Pilot, with John playing cabin boy and Roger leading the rest in a racket below that’s supposed to be the Captain celebrating. Thus Goblin is guided safely into Flushing Harbour, the journey ended safely.
Instead, though, disaster threatens at the last. Entering the harbour, Goblin passes a departing liner. From the rail, a sun-browned figure suddenly hails John in a voice used to making itself heard across the China Seas: it’s Daddy, bound for England, just when the Swallows are in Holland.
But Commander Walker is a resourceful man. As the children try desperately to explain to the Pilot how things stand, their father gets himself taken back ashore in a launch, thinking the whole family has come to meet him. But once he grasps the essence of things, the Commander takes charge: cool, quiet, completely unlike the exciteable child-man, Captain Flint. Full explanations wait until the situation is protected by buying petrol for the tank, and the quick sending of telegrams to reassure Mary Walker that her husband is still in transit. Only when this is done does Daddy sit down with his children, waiting for the return tide, and hears their explanation.
And there’s a wobble. Captain John, the stuffy, repressed, anxious, dutiful son, explains his actions to his father. And behind the scenes, Arthur Ransome, for whom John is a surrogate-self, who never received his father’s approval before the latter died all too young, waits for judgement in equal measure to his creation. The Commander is not effusive. ‘You’ll make a seaman yet, my son,’ is all he says, but there’s a world in those words and both John and his creator threaten for a moment to lose themselves.
The last remaining possible fly in the ointment is Jim Brading: where he is and what he’s told to Mrs Walker. The Commander sails Goblin home overnight, having considerable fun himself, and no sooner do they dock at Harwich than does a turbaned man row out to them: Brading, who’s lost three days in hospital after being knocked down by a bus and has told no-one that his charges have been lost at sea. And he’s rapidly followed by Mrs Walker, with Bridget, quietly angry and let down by her children, only to suffer the shock of her life as a rescue kitten and her husband rapidly follow each other from below.
Of Ransome’s books, this presents the most sustained and realistic danger to the children of his creation, an adult danger that they overcome from their own resources. What Ransome perhaps did not appreciate immediately was that the Swallows could not be the same again.


Secret Water follows almost immediately on from We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. Commander Walker, re-established in the family, has a fortnight’s leave. The Walkers plan a substantial family holiday, to the nearby Hamford Water, in a borrowed Goblin whilst Jim Brading recovers from his head injury. Father and Mother will sleep on the boat whilst the children – and yes, to her great delight, this includes for the first time Bridget – will camp ashore. The holiday is a mapping expedition: Commander Walker, who has gotten seriously involved in this, has created a very sketchy map of the area, and the expedition will explore the surrounding country and fill it in.
Unfortunately, the plan goes awry before the opening line (“The First Lord of the Admiralty was not popular at Pin Mill”). Commander Walker is called back to duty a fortnight early, but he proves determined not to let his family be disappointed so, in a whirlwind of activity, he arranges for the Swallows (and Bridget) to set up camp, receive milk etc. from a local farm (the Kraal), and leaves them to carry out the expedition under their own charge. More than that, though this is not apparent until their sudden arrival, almost halfway through the book, he has the Amazons brought down from the North to extend the expedition.
By then, the Swallows are already aware that, inadvertently, they have crashed into someone else’s equivalent of the Lake and Wild Cat Island. The Secret Water is infested by the Eels, a barbarian tribe.
The Swallows first encounter Don, the one local boy in the Eels. Don sees their camp, assumes it’s his friends and leaves them a carved Eel Totem. Because of the tracks he leaves with his wide-bottomed mud-splatchers, the Swallows nickname him the Mastodon. But for him and them the potential friendship is wrecked when a message comes through from the rest of the Eels that they don’t want anyone else about, and he’s to chase the interlopers off, wreck their boats if necessary.
The Mapping Expedition goes on under this threat. And the sudden arrival of the Amazons, whilst boosting their numbers, threatens to derail the purpose further. All Nancy can see is what a perfect place this is for ambushes and barbarian attacks on missionaries. But the Swallows have changed. Their expedition is a responsibility to their father, and they will not let him down. When Nancy says ‘You’ll be famous’, a friendship breaks.
Agreement between the three sides is reached when Bridget is ‘kidnapped’. Finally everyone gets to talk, and the result is much the same as that original meeting on Wild Cat Island. The savages agree to assist the visiting explorers, whilst Nancy finds a new friend in the aggressive Daisy, leader of the Eels. Something is in the air.
The days of not being able to leave the camp have put the expedition behind schedule, and there are two large sections outstanding – not in convenient corners, but front and centre. And damage to the rudder of their temporary boat forces the Swallows into an overland journey, at low tide, to the mainland for repairs. They have to return before the tide turns, and they get cut off, so the younger three are sent ahead. Unfortunately, they get delayed by Bridget playing with Sinbad and a spot of unexpected map-making, and whilst John and Susan return safely, the others push their luck too far and find themselves stranded, unable to press on or retreat, with the tide rising.
The Mastodon rescues them, but suddenly the Swallows face failure. Their parents are collecting them at first tide tomorrow, there are two front-and-centre prominent sections of map incomplete and the last chance to do them at all evaporates when the Amazons and the Eels,in Savage mode, attack the missionaries ans seize Bridget as a human sacrifice.
And the youngest Swallow, who is the absolute star of this book, doesn’t want to be rescued!
With a sense of resignation, the Swallows join in one last time with their friends’ games, even though it means letting their father down. Their reward is a literal last-morning dash by, onstage, Titty and Roger, redeeming their part by surveying the ‘North-West Passage’ whilst, offstage, the Amazons repay their dereliction towards their friends by surveying the ‘North-East Passage’, completing the map with seconds to spare.
Though they, or rather their seemings, were to appear in another two novels, this was the last that would be seen of the Swallows. The older children’s experience on the North Sea had ended their fitness for the games of fancy and pretence on which the Amazons survived, whilst Bridget, having burst onto the scene in grand style, could not appear without her brothers and sisters. But Ransome had to be true, not merely to his craft, but his creations.

big 6

And still the great summer wasn’t over. With the Swallows and Amazons engaged in Essex waters, Ransome moved back a little west and a little north, returning to Horning and the northern Broads for a second adventure with the Coot Club and the Ds, in The Big Six.
It’s the end of the summer, with Dick and Dorothea due to stay (on land) with Mrs Barrable, but not yet arrived, and Port and Starboard in Paris courtesy of their father. This leaves only Tom and the Death & Glories, and the book belongs to the latter.
In gratitude for their work in saving Margolotta, the boat-builders have refitted the D&G, enabling the lads to live on the river through the summer. This has already enabled them to get the Bird Protection Officer onto George Owden when he went egg-stealing. But, suddenly, wherever the boys moor, boats are being cast adrift, Margolotta-style. And though Joe, Bill and Pete protest their innocence fervently, public opinion is against them, and it looks like they will have to be taken off the river.
Into this horrible mess, which the boys feel keenly, arrive the Ds. This time it’s Dorothea who takes charge, leading the investigation into the crimes being pursued, and gradually building a case to show the Death & Glories’ innocence.
It’s not difficult to guess who is the true villain, although the Death & Glories reject the idea of it being their ‘arch-enemy’ Owden, but the conclusive information, in the form of a photograph, showing Owden and his friend pushing off a willing victim, is provided by the two least likely heroes: Dick, who sets up the conditions to take a flash-photo at night, and Pete, the youngest of them all, who takes the actual photo and preserves it.
The Detective Story ends with its own equivalent of a court scene, as Mr Farland receives the evidence that, until Dick and Pete arrive with the crucial photo, bids fair to condemn the Death & Glories.
Their vindication completes the story, and the society from which they were being progressively excluded, welcomes them back with pleasure, but the book’s epilogue deals with something that feels even better to the boys, the unveiling of the record pike they landed in a seemingly unrelated episode early in the book. So young, says an elderly fisherman, and nothing left to live for: I used that line myself to a seven year old supporter at the 1999 European Champions League Final.
So, after five novels, written over six years, the third summer ended.

Cumbria Scenes – An Epilogue

There were more walks after Seatallan and Middle Fell. I was free to explore wherever I wished, and to return to places last seen long years before. For several months, I could cheerfully boast that I had done all the Wainwrights in a cycle of less than ten years. And I could chance my arm at things like Lord’s Rake now that a slip, and a broken leg, would not have meant the ultimate disaster of falling short.
But those years were all too short, far shorter than I could ever imagine they’d be. Injury, working commitments, constraints of time and money, and the dream of an unexpected marriage: all these things happened.
Now I’m 57: overweight, with no stamina, dodgy knees, diabetic, financially strapped. Can’t get there, couldn’t do what I used to do if I did, not without a lot of practice to regain walking fitness once more. There’s still Jack’s Rake I haven’t done, and the West Wall Traverse, and the Robinson’s Cairn route to Pillar, and maybe Sharp Edge again, or toiling up Gable by Gavel Neese and the Hellgates, to Westmorland Cairn.
And there’s Dodd, High Stile and Seat Sandal, from whom I’ve yet to see a view.
Or every one of the routes I’ve taken that, given a heartbeat to make a decision, I would walk again.
I live in hope, if not, at the moment, with hope.
But this series is over. Will there be a third series? This epilogue appears long months after it was written, and the urge to take myself out among the rocks and bracken of memory remains quiet. Not yet, if ever, is the only answer I can give.
In the meantime, there is one more photo to share, that belongs here.


Stanley Crookall (1929 – 1970)
Dorothy Crookall (nee Robinson) (1926-1991)
Mam and Dad

The Stockport Steps War – Phase 2

Hostilities have broken out again over the damaged step on the stairs out of Mersey Square, beside the Plaza Cinema.

After weeks of inactivity, during which the temporary tarmac bodge deteriorated in the manner expected, the Council returned to the attack on Thursday 13 December.

The lower section was once again barricaded off by heavy orange plastic barriers, one at the top, two at the bottom. At 16.35 hours pedestrians were seen walking round, down the other half of the stairs. No buses were missed as a consequence of the o journey time thus imposed.

But on 14 December, at 10.15 hours, the upper barrier had been removed, whereabouts unknown. The two bottom barriers remained as originally positioned, hard against the bottom step, but when passed again at 17.05 hours, though still in situ, both barriers had been set back one foot, allowing passage at either side.

The Libertarian Forces currently hold sway. Further battlefield dispatches may be expected on 17 December after 22.30 hours. There is, as yet, no sign of UN Peacekeepers seeking to prevail upon the Council just to fix the bloody step, why don’t you, and let’s put an end to all this nonsense, this lot won’t give up until one of them falls and breaks his leg.

For Author for Sale, this is Martin Crookall, at home.

Series 2 – 40: Mr 214

Mr 214

Sometimes someone says something that makes you stop and think. I was in the fells, talking with a passing walker, explaining that I was collecting the Wainwrights, and he asked, “Which one are you saving for last?”
I’d never even thought that before. My first reaction was to think that all the good ones, as in the properly ceremonial ones, like Scafell Pike and Great Gable, had already gone. Though there were still big fells in the thirty plus I had yet to climb, none of them seemed properly final, in that sense. But only a little thought was required to come up with the ideal, the only selection.
You’ve likely never heard of Seatallan, and there is no good reason that you should have. It’s a green, grassy lump of a fell with indefinite borders, lying between unlovely Blengdale and the lower part of Wasdale, from which it is removed by two rougher outliers. It’s only of modest height, has no compelling features, no demanding routes or especially beautiful views, but it was my choice for Final Fell.
So the moment came, Saturday 14 April 1995, twenty six years and nine days after that first ascent. I parked halfway down Wasdale, opposite the Screes at their finest. It was a sunny day, clear at valley level but hazy to the point of invisibility at felltop height. All was bright and inviting, and I walked a mile along the Greendale Road, under the cliffs of Buckbarrow, first of those outliers and my first target for the day, in quiet but with mixed feelings.
Who doesn’t approach an outcome that you’ve pursued over years with such feelings? The satisfaction of achievement, of completion, of having had the skill, the stamina and the persistence to gain that goal has always to be balanced against the realisation that you will no longer have a goal to aim for. The underlying rationale of so much of your life is about to be taken away. What is there left?
I found the way off the road, zig-zagged uphill and gained the indeterminate plateau of which Buckbarrow was, primarily, the terminal cliffs. There was no difficulty in finding its low top, or the lower point from which the view is actually more extensive. Then there was one.
I walked back across the plateau, pausing halfway to visit the curious, isolated rock outcrop of Glade How, and then gritting my teeth for the uphill grind onto the ridge, dull as it was. An equally unexciting uphill walk followed until the ground began to level out, the broad summit approached, and I arrived at Seatallan’s summit cairn.
I had done it. I was Mister 214. I’d climbed all the Wainwrights.
The haze made views impossible, even of the Scafells, across the head of Wastwater. Luck, as it so often has been on my many wanderings, was with me, because after a decent few minutes for private reflection, a party of walkers arrived, who gladly agreed to take a photo of me at the cairn, with the invisible Scafells as proof of where I was. That’s me above, Mr 214, leaning against the final cairn, grin as big as the fells themselves.
Then they went their way and I prepared to return. From Seatallan I headed east, down steepening slopes towards the valley of Nether Beck, but swinging round to the south east to follow the rough ridge around the head of the valley containing the marshy Greendale Tarn. A rough path materialised, and I followed it beyond the wide col, gaining height again onto a scrubby ascent up the back of my first post-214 fell.
My luck was holding. A party occupying the summit were packing up and leaving as I approached, clearing the summit within seconds of my arrival. I had Middle Fell to myself.
That’s what made Seatallan the only possible choice as my last Wainwright: the formal closing of the biggest circle and the symbolic re-start in visiting, for the first and only time, that insignificant, scrubby, unprestigious top that was magical only for being my very first.
The last time I had been here, I was a thirteen year old boy, accompanied by his mother, father and uncle, and his younger sister. Dad, Uncle Arthur and Mam were no longer here, and my sister Lee, a mother herself by now, would never put on walking boots again, so I returned alone, the only one who would, could and did come back.
Each year, on the anniversaries of my Dad and my Mam, I go to the Crematorium, to the plot where their ashes were sprinkled, decades apart, and, provided I am alone, I talk to them about the year gone, about who and what I am, what I’ve done and not done, of who their son is. On Middle Fell I went through a more extreme version of that, granted solitude by the fates that sometimes favour me for the full half hour I spent talking to the air.
I have no idea what I said. It was none of it prepared: I have become expert across the decades at keeping what I might say in front of Dukinfield Crematorium Plot C out of my own mind, and on Middle Fell as much as at the Crem, what came out was unrehearsed, was what the heart had in it to say about twenty six years and being the only one to carry on. I’d walked in solitude, and content, indeed relishing it, for most of that time, but I still wonder what it would have been to have the affinity of my Dad as we reached all these places, or to share with a life partner who saw the same beauty and drama that I did.
Afterwards, I packed up and headed down, free now to go wherever I wanted, just for the hell and the fun of it.
In 1969, I’d made a point of noting that it had taken three hours to get up Middle Fell, and one to get down. I wondered how I’d fare, second time round. Clearly I was a fitter, stronger walker in 1995, even on the first day’s walk of the year, because I was back at the car in forty-five minutes. Indeed, excluding the half hour I had spent out of time at Middle Fell’s summit, it had taken me only a half hour longer to ascend the fell this time – even talking the roundabout route over two other fells to get there!

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”


I liked it.

And it didn’t feel like a film that was two and three quarter hours long, not even to someone who’s been in agony from a ricked back all week.

There are many people who, without waiting to see it for themselves, who have condemned this film as over-extended, overblown and far too long, all so that the makers of the trilogy can rake in more money. Whilst you have a viable case for the first three points, which I’ll address in a moment, you’re wrong that it’s been done just for money. It’s been done because this is how the film-makers, Jackson and his scripters, see this film, because this is what they love about Middle Earth and the story.

It all depends on what film of The Hobbit you wish to see. If you want to see an independent story that is faithful to the story’s cheerfulness and childishness, this is decidedly not for you, and your criticisms are on the mark. If however, like me, you originally read the books in the order they were filmed, if you did not realise that The Hobbit was for children, and all but completely lacked the seriousness and high drama that had had you devouring The Lord of the Rings as quickly as possible, if you want films that are gnuine companions to the LOTR film trilogy, then this is what you have been waiting for.

In terms of the plot of the novel, An Unexpected Journey runs from Gandalf’s first appearance at Bilbo’s front garden to the rescue by the Eagles from the trees in which the party are surrounded by Wargs. The structure of the plot is followed faithfully (it may appear to be familiar, given that The Fellowship of the Rings goes to similar places in the same order, the relic of Tolkein’s original Hobbit-walking-party sequel). And a lot of the humour is preserved (Martin Freeman is every bit as perfect as Bilbo as I’ve been going around saying he would be, ever since I first heard he’d been cast, and he is hilarious in the role).

What has been done is that, instead of the historical background to Smaug’s destruction of the Kingdom under the Mountain, and the deaths of Thror and Thrain in the vain attempt to retake Moria being brushed over in the few, let’s-not-bore-the-kiddies words they get in the book, Jackson opens these out, shows what happens. Instead of Gandalf mentioning the White Council as a far-off thing, already done, it meets at Rivendell: Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman. In a move reminiscent of the Black Riders in Fellowship, Jackson also draws out the ancient Orc-enemy of the Dwarves, Azog, and injects him into the story-line in pursuit of Thorin’s party, to drive the storyline along.

And, wonderfully, since there was no room for the third Wizard, Radagast the Brown, in LOTR (less of an excludable detail than a dangling notion with no resolution), Jackson brings him in here, to bring news of the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood, and the reoccupation of Dol Guldur by the Necromancer. It’s also another element of The Hobbit‘s comic underpinning, courtesy of a gleefully OTT performance by Sylvester McCoy (not to mention the Rabbirs of Rhosgobel).

And there is Gollum. Andy Serkis hasn’t forgotten a thing of his now-surely-definitive portrayal of Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe was spectacularly good in his vocal portrayal of the creature in the classic BBC radio adatation in 1981, but his slimey, oleaginous interpretation is surely outmoded now). And the handling of the scene is no less than brilliant, in the way that the exceedingly childish Riddle-Game is introduced and enacted between Bilbo and Gollum in a manner that removes any possibility of disbelief that such a thing should be played by grown-up (so to speak) people.

Like I said, I liked it. It was a re-entry to Middle Earth, and a reminder, a good reminder (though not without some personal sadnesses) of watching The Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001, and immediately wanting more, wanting to leap without a moment of delay to the following December, for the next instalment. Roll on 365 days hence, The Desolation of Smaug and, I hope, a back that isn’t killing me next time!