Great Walks: The Coledale Horseshoe



On a clear day in summer, there are no better walks for the lover of clean-lined fells and high, airy ridges than the Coledale Horseshoe, north-west of Keswick, taking in a half-dozen exposed and mostly narrow summits and circuiting the surprisingly deep, straight valley of Coledale.
Not only that, but the walk permits variations for the stronger walker, who can vary the test of the day in a number of ways.
The classic Horseshoe begins and ends at the village of Braithwaite, at the foot of the eastern end of Whinlatter Pass, a road route linking Keswick to Cockermouth, second only to Dunmail Raise in its ease of driving. The walk offers an almost-perfect start in the form of an old roadside quarry, a couple of hundred yards up Whinlatter from Braithwaite, on the left in ascent, which doubles as the access to the Coledale Mine Road. The quarry has long been converted into a small car park, allowing room for eight cars or so. As with all such walks of this nature, an early arrival is mandated if you don’t want to end up extending the approach by parking on the far side of Braithwaite.
Just inside the entrance to the quarry, a path supported by wooden steps leads upwards. Follow this to the summit of Grisedale Pike.
The truth is that, in terms of route-finding, that is all you need. Once on this path, it would take an act of positive genius, even in ten foot visibility fog, to lose the way, but who wants to do a walk with the views available from this in ten foot visibility cloud? (I can ask this question with experience, having once started out this way on a day where the cloudline was at 2,000′, proceeding with my usual bloody-minded determination to keep going until it was absolutely certain that the cloud was not going to lift).
The ascent breaks down into three distinct stages, the first two ending on reaching subsidiary ridges. On leaving the car park, the wooden steps rise into thick woods, before a long, gradually rising path forges ahead across the fellside for a quarter mile, before doubling back upon itself at a higher level, and emerging from the woods on the low ridge of Kinn. Glorious views over Keswick and the Vale burst onto the eye: from this point on, the views will be unrestricted all day.
The only tedious element of the walk occurs here: a wide grassy breach in the ubiquitous bracken leads blindly upwards, steep and dull, for a hundred feet or so, before the gradient eases and the way leads to a long, level subsidiary ridge. A good morning pace can be maintained, with the southern ridge of Coledale and the rocky frontage of Eel Crag in full sight. Given sunshine and a decent breeze, this is a pure delight of an approach, allowing progress to be made with almost indecent ease, until the main body of Grisedale Pike begins to loom above. The path veers to the right, starts to climb, and then switches back to the left, on a rising path that begins to get rocky underfoot as it approaches the ridge top of Sleet How. From there, another level walk follows, much shorter, before loins need to be girded for the direct ascent of the Pike’s eastern ridge.
When I was last here, the path was beginning to suffer serious erosion in places, and it would not surprise me now to find the National Trust had stepped in and rebuilt the way. Even so, the route will remain direct and challenging, interrupted only by a series of outcrops providing temporary relief from the rapid ascent. Progress can be measured as the north-east ridge comes into view to the right, narrowing and getting ever nearer. The final section involves a scramble that can be avoided by contouring to the right and joining that ridge, but serious walkers will pride themselves on maintaining the direct ascent and will enjoy the brief feeling of hands on rock. The summit cairn lies a hundred yards or so distant, up a gentle rise, from the head of the ridge.

Coledale Grisedale

Grisedale Pike – the final ascent

The hard part has now been done.
The glorious view open to the east is now at its finest, whilst the high mountains south, stretching towards the Scafell Range, beyond the head of Borrowdale, are also in sight, rising above Coledale’s afternoon arm. Only in the bulk of Eel Crag, highest point on this walk, is the view less than wide. Ahead, beyond the rocky upthrust of the subsidiary summit, and the broad lump of Sand Hill, the next summit, Hopegill Head, showing the ragged face of Hobcarton Crag in spectacular fashon.
The path heads in that direction before negotiating the rocks of the subsidiary summit. Here, a branch angles off downhill: if for any reason the walk needs to be curtailed, this will lead you directly to the top of Coledale Pass, from where the return can be made with relative ease to the quarry. On a sunny day, this thought is akin to heresy.
Instead, follow the path downhill into the wide, level gap between the fells, in which the path surprisingly disappears for the only time on the walk – a little unnerving when in cloud. In full visibility there is no issue. What is is which of the parallel paths ahead to take. One clings to the rim of what is obviously a very steep cliff, the other a comforting 2 – 3 yards ‘inland’. The choice of the safe route is only a temporary insulation from any walker’s tendencies towards vertigo, as the walks merge, on the edge of Hobcarton Crag, only half way up. There are no difficulties apart from the presence of such a drop, and in its highest section, the path veers away towards a small plateau and a three-way crossroads. Bear right for the simple walk to the exposed summit, coming exactly at the meeting of the two ridges that fall away so dramatically as Hobcarton Crag.


Hopegill Head and Hobcarton Crag

Return to the crossroads and take the path untaken, rising gently over Sand Hill and heading downwards to Coledale Hause. The way is long and gentle, and there is ample time to study the ground below, which can be very useful because, whilst it is no Esk Hause, Coledale Hause can be a very confusing place to be in mist, if you do not know how the paths lie. From above, it can easily be seen that the path arriving from Coledale in the east does not directly cross the Hause and descend into Gasgale Gill, but instead curves gently away into a shallow upland valley, rising to the broad plateau between Eel Crag and Grasmoor: the continuation of the Pass breaks off at a junction. What’s more, the Pass does not occupy the lowest point of the Hause, preferring to cross on the lower slopes of Eel Crag, requiring a small ascent to reach it from the Hopegill Head direction. There are also less well-defined paths criss-crossing in the lowest part of the depression, the direct route from Grisedale Pike rejected earlier joining onto this route in the shallow depression.
Both routes to Eel Crag start by following the main path into the shallow valley ahead, the upper waters of Gasgale Gill. A direct route is quickly available, ascending the rough scree beside the crags overlooking the Coledale face. This is a shorter but rougher approach to the highest point and the decision to go this way must be balanced out against the distances still to go before a return to the quarry and the car.

Coledale Eel CragEel Crag, showing the direct and indirect routes

I have not taken this route personally: it was on the list of walks I wanted to do. It’s considerably easier to follow Gasgale Gill to its lip, even though this route can sometimes act as a wind funnel, forcing you to walk into the teeth of a blast, except for the final section, which is sheltered by the upper lip of the valley.
The plateau beyond is surprisingly wide and empty, and is sufficiently short-grassed to arouse the temptation to produce bat and ball, and set up an impromptu cricket knockabout: it would take a long six to lose the ball downhill.
At the middle of the plateau, opposing paths start uphill, that to the south climbing the broad back of Grasmoor, somewhat doggedly and tediously, that to the north ascending the back of Eel Crag in like manner. The purist will trudge in this direction, but the dedicated peak-bagger will be attracted by an object lifting itself above the level horizon, less than a quarter-mile away. This is Wandope, which is no part of the Coledale Horseshoe, and is a plainly Buttermere fell with no Coledale connections. But it is less than fifty feet above the plain and can be reached with indecently little effort.
What is more, and which will appear decidedly unfair to the purist, is that Wandope lies on the edge of the great scoop of Addiscomb Hole. There is a spectacular path around the rim and heading across the flank of Eel Crag, which is an undeniably more attractive route than any other from this side of Eel Crag. Not that it continues to the summit, but by the time it definitively levels out, it is within ten yards of the ‘main drag’ up the whaleback of the fell, and a transfer is simple.
Eel Crag offers the widest and flattest summit of the day, a stony, littered and pathless top. It’s also the psychological halfway mark: the highest point and the beginning of the afternoon arm of the Horseshoe: the way is eastwards from here.
There are no paths but it is easy to angle half right towards the top of the eastern ridge, the ground narrowing until there is no possibility of misdirection. The descent was growing increasingly loose and degraded on my last visit, and the use sf hands to stabilise the descent was necessary in at least two places, but it is still easy enough to look down and see the nondescript top of Sail, and its shallow cairn, lying to the left of the path, half-hidden in the grass. There is a short climb from the col and the aerial surveillance is invaluable as the cairn is all but invisible from the path, which gives it a wide berth. The fell itself is probably the most indistinguishable of 2,500’ers, offering no temptation to stop either in its environs or its views.
The path continues smoothly down into the col of Sail Pass. This is not on the list of the Lake District’s ‘official’ Passes, but is a well-known walkers highway, linking Sail Beck in the east, for Buttermere and Stonycroft Gill in the west, for Stair in the Newlands Valley, though the Pass itself is a narrow gap in a long, declining ridge, crossed at an angle. Here is the point of decision as to how to proceed.

Coledale ScarScar Crags and Causey Pike, beyond – the Outer Wall

The purist route follows the ridge directly ahead, crossing the whaleback of Scar Crags and descending to the utterly delightful Causey Pike. Not only is the direct ridge, but it is the higher line, but it is the outer wall of Coledale, separated from the valley by the narrow confines of Stonycroft Gill. Furthermore, the ridge ends almost two miles from Braithwaite, requiring a long walk back down the road to recover the car: too long in my mind: anything more than a mile down the road to get back at the end of the day suggests that the walk should be better planned.
It wouldn’t take much, in time or effort, to reach Scar Crags and double back, whilst truly strong walkers will see no reason why they cannot continue as far as Causey Pike, and then retrace their steps to Sail Pass. I heartily (and enviously) applaud their strength and stamina whilst not promising to wait for them to return. The alternative is to transfer to the inner wall of Coledale, the lower ridge comprising Outerside and Barrow, for which descend the path, initially under the edge of some crags, as if aiming for Stair via Stonycroft Gill.
The path drops down to a shallow, dark green depression, which is obviously the bed of a dried out tarn. On my first visit, I carefully crossed the tarn, in case of still-soft spots, and contoured the pathless flank of the steep-sided Outerside, reaching its top with some unwelcome effort. ON my return, I found that a narrow path slips away, passing the head of the once-tarn, before climbing on a well-graded zig-zag onto the ridge west of Outerside’s peaked top. The final stage of the ascent is still steep, but the narrow summit, even with its views restricted by the higher outer wall, on which purist walkers can be easily seen, is a nice place to be on a summer afternoon, and the next stage of the route looks inviting, even if significantly lower. There are a profusion of paths in sight.

OutersideOuterside and Barrow, beyond – the Inner Wall

The final fell of this walk is Barrow, from whose summit the line of the ridge turns distinctively north. In between lies the upthrust of Stile End, not regarded as a separate fell and therefore, in extremis, may be by-passed around its back. Go out in a blaze of glory by crossing it and descending to the final col, from which a green path traverses bracken to reach Barrow’s top. By this point, the average walker’s legs will be getting tired, and it is nice to reflect that no further climbing remains.
A long, lazy descent down the long ridge of the fell ensues. Wainwright directs the walker ahead to the village, a route I took first time, but on second visit I found the gate at the intake wall above Briathwaite Lodge closed to walkers. According to Chris Jesty’s revision of Wainwright, notwithstanding the changes in Access laws, this remains the case, but the walk around it is still a pleasant diversion. Simply follow the wall down to the right on a broad grassy trod. When this begins to curl back south, among uncultivated fields, a path glides away left to a gate into the quiet road. Turn left for Braithwaite village and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
When the Village is reached, seek out the Whinlatter road. Unfortunately, the quarry where the car has been safely parked lies up that road: a short, direct climb, a ninety degree turn right, and a hundred yards or so of rising road that will come as an unpleasant grind after a near perfect day of sun, air and high ridges. However, if the car has been parked so that you may approach it from the side opposite that from which you left it, several hours before, the joy of a genuinely circular walk can be experienced.


The Prisoner: episode 1 – Arrival – discursion


As an opening episode, required to established situation and character with an absolute minimum of plodding exposition, Arrival is a complete success. It may be eclipsed by many later episodes, but they can perform in the luxury of knowing that the series has been set up on a firm footing. And the episode also delivers in terms of established the surreal, other-worldly, almost fantasy aspect of The Prisoner. From the moment it appears before Patrick McGoohan’s shocked eyes through the window of a room that, by all rights, ought to be in London, the Village exudes a fascinating combination of chocolate box cuteness and utter sinistrality.
The basic set-up – the spy who resigns and is kidnapped to somewhere completely disconnected from the world – is established (almost) wordlessly in the opening credits (the sequence is silent, but the filing cabinet drawer card Resigned is still necessary to pinpoint what is happening for much of the audience: at this stage, the programme cannot afford to lose those not sharp enough to infer it from the sequence). Later episodes will use a slightly shortened version of this sequence, trimmed of unimportant detail and succeeded by the famous catechism that débuts in the second episode.
Even then, it’s still some time before the first words are spoken, when Number 6 addresses the waitress in the café. There’s a quick build up via the telephone, the taxi and the store, establishing the Village as a place of enigma whose seemingly ordinary inhabitants are, firstly, far from ordinary – the Chinese girl, her willingness to assume that people here may come from either side of the Iron Curtain, the shopkeeper who speaks a foreign language until Number 6 enters his shop – and secondly, may be a complex part of this uncomfortable set-up – the bland evasion of such questions as they don’t intend to answer, the immediately suffocating nature of their fundamental acceptance as normal of what is not in the slightest a normal situation.
We are also exposed for the first time to the Village ritual of parting, the phrase, “Be Seeing You”, accompanied by the gesture of forming thumb and index finger into a circle, with the other fingers raised stiffly, the circle brought to the eye and and flicked away.
It’s a simple, almost banal sign, and the programme brilliantly makes no big deal of it: it’s just something that happens, simply and unconsciously, over and over again. It’s a social nicety, and a constant reminder of the fact that this is a closed community, that the speaker will be seeing you again, because neither you nor they are going anywhere else.
From there, we are introduced to Number Two, in his surreal bubble, hidden inside an ornate building. He explains what else we need to understand, enabling McGoohan to articulate the basic principle upon which he and this series will rest: that the Prisoner will not accept imprisonment, that he will not conform, that he will remain forever in possession of his own identity and his own will.
The series’ most famous, and iconic line will not be introduced until the following episode, but it is preceded here by a longer, less pithy, but equally important and no less insistent creed: I will not be pushed, stamped, filed, indexed, briefed, de-briefed or numbered: my life is my own.
What might the world have been now if we’d heeded those words and attempted to live by them?
As part of the episode’s overt introduction to the Village, we are also shown their advanced, seemingly independent, unbelievable and destructive security system – the white roaring ball. It’s called Rover, though the only time the name is used is in episode 5. Our more sophisticated eye for special effects has long since identified it as a weather balloon, being dragged around on a camouflaged cable. On the old 425-line b&w tellies, this was far from obvious, but the success of the apparition (which was originally intended to be a ground based white Volkswagen-beetle shaped craft, that broke down whenever it was moved) is the same as the Daleks: a simple, recognisable shape but an utterly alien, strange thing.
The sequence with the Maid is the first reinforcement that he is not merely being paranoid, and that he cannot trust those who seem to want to assist him, and also that he is under surveillance, in a manner that we recognise in 2013 but which, in 1967/8, was alien and strange – only to be glimpsed in spy films and, yes, television series but never for ‘real’.
This is followed by the first, crude and simple, attempt to escape. It’s checked twice by Rover, once in the woods, once on the sands, although to get to this point, Number 6 has succeeded in knocking over two security guards and stealing a Village vehicle.
The hospital multiplies the air of oddity around the Village. Cobb’s appearance reinforces the aims of the authorities behind the Village, and his seeming death underlines the fact that, despite the surreality of the Village – further reinforced by cutaways in the Hospital showing absurd tests being carried out, one on a shaven headed man wearing Number 6’s old clothes, singing wildly at a ping pong ball bounced in a fountain – there is a real danger underlining things here.
The Prisoner storms off as soon as possible to see Number 2, only to be confronted with a different, younger, less sympathetic man, marking Number 2 as being not a person but rather a Position: Number 6 demands Number 1 but is not only curtly brushed off but is first addressed by his number: all Villagers are known by numbers instead of names, and the interchangeability of such numbers further demonstrates the dehumanisation implicit in this conforming society.
McGoohan’s resistance to this notion has been made physical by his almost instant rejection of his badge when issued to him: I am not a number. I am a person, he emphasises to the new Number 2, stating one of the most important underlying beliefs of the series.
The final third of the episode centres upon a second escape attempt, this time with the assistance of the attractive, dark-haired woman who purports to have been Cobb’s girlfriend and his collaborator on an escape plan. Though never referred to as such, her badge bears the number 9, an appropriate inversion of McGoohan’s never-displayed number. Number 6 is instinctively suspicious, the more so when Number 9 leaves him to meet Number 2. And when the escape via the helicopter is frustrated by superior technology, Number 6 (and the viewers) would be expected to have reinforced the idea that he is absolutely alone in the Village, that he cannot trust anyone. Ever. In any circumstances.
That’s a necessary point that the episode establishes, but it’s further complicated by our own insight, denied to Number 6, that Number 9 may be a Village agent who was assigned to Cobb, but that she is only assigned to play a similar role with Number 6 after she has offered him a method of escape. It adds another layer for the viewer to contemplate: can everybody else be trusted to be an enemy?
And in a second important sequence that the viewers, but not Number 6, are privy to, we learn that Cobb is not after all dead, but on his way to meet his ‘new masters’, with glowing reports on the Village operation. Number 9, it seems will be dealt with: Cobb murmurs that he was afraid of that. So, just who was fooling who between Cobb and Number 9? At what point did Cobb turn? The simple exchange hints at a back-story that will never be explained, but which briefly illuminates the world in which we, and Number 6, are now living.
Of necessity, Arrival is an episode of complete failure on the Prisoner’s part, but then his attempts are simple. All they prove so far is that the Village will not be easy to escape. And that there is more, far more, under the surface of what we have already seen, to be learnt.
Arrival was scripted by script editor George Markstein (his only writing credit on the series) and Producer David Tomblin (McGoohan’s partner). The original script is set out in The Prisoner – the Original Scripts Volume 1, edited to show the main changes undergone during filming. The 35th Anniversary DVD box-set, The Ultimate Collection, includes an alternate version of the episode, a rough mix that was actually broadcast in Canada two months before the series appeared in Britain in ATV’s area. The differences are minor – it includes scenes in the original script that were dropped from the finished episode, the panicky man sequence is absent and the classic theme music has not yet been applied: the theme used here is generically Sixties thriller series material, and undistinguished. Enthusiasts will enjoy the slight expansion of the episode.

Marvel Comics – the Untold Story, by Sean Howe


I’ve never particularly been a fan of Marvel Comics, though I did dip my toe into the Marvel Universe for a period of time roughly equal to the classic Claremont/Byrne partnership on X-Men (started following it about six months after they started, dropped out about six months after they broke up). In fact, technically I’ve been operating a personal boycott against the company’s comics for almost thirty years, since the dispute over Jack Kirby’s original art, though it’s difficult to determine the point at which my attitude passed from boycott to indifference.
Some of this indifference is historical. I first started noticing American comics at roughly the same time that the Marvel Era began with Fantastic Four 1, and I grew up in East Manchester where very few Marvel Comics were ever distributed, even after the company began to gain some sales momentum. By then, I was comfortably immured in the characters and manners of DC Comics: such occasional Marvel Comics as came my way were confusing, with stories continuing from an issue you hadn’t got to an issue you’d never get via the one you were trying to understand about someone you didn’t know in the middle of something you couldn’t work out.
There was also a substantial difference in tone and manner: Marvel then, and ever since, has always stood for dynamism, action, melodrama, action, tragedy, action. Lots of people loved that, and flocked to Marvel for more, more, more. For a great many people it’s the essence of what superhero comics should be: quick, violent,excessive, gaudy. I understand that and agree with it, but when reading Marvel I too often read it as hysteria, the deliberate inflation of everything beyond the reality of what it actually meant.
Nevertheless, as soon as I heard of Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics – the Untold Story, I was eager to read it. For one thing, despite my lack of knowledge of the company’s titles for approximately thirty years, large swathes of the book would cover periods that I had lived through, that I already had views upon from being an active part of comics fandom at various times. And because, in comics as it is not in books, there are always two stories to every story, and the one behind the scenes, revolving around the business that produces it and the men (and women) involved in its creation is, to me at least, equally fascinating.
And Howe has combined what is clearly a detailed knowledge of Marvel, its characters, comics and principal personalities, with hundreds of interviews with people there at the time, who can attest to the fact – as this book explores – that the Marvel comics portrayed in Stan Lee’s Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox over five decades was just as much a fantasy as any Captain America adventure.
Howe’s clearly a Marvel Comics reader, who knows the comics and where they fit into the development of the art and the industry, but that’s not what his book’s about. He’s interested in the people who created those comics, the editorial regimes under which they worked, the constraints and (increasingly) managerial and commercial dictates that drove Marvel’s course and, increasingly, the economic and entrepreneurial ineptitude that forced the world’s largest comics company into prolonged bankruptcy.
The story is divided into five sections, the first of which covering the thirty years between Martin Goodman’s move into comics, and what many expected would be a fatal blow at the end of the Sixties, a decade of almost unrelieved success.
This section is the perhaps the most important. The company’s foundation by Martin Goodman is explained, its early successes, the creators of the initial stars, and the arrival of seventeen year old Stanley Leiber, cousin to Goodman’s wife, with aspirations to be a great writer but in the meantime growing rapidly from gopher into editor. To protect his good name for the future, Leiber used an abbreviated, less-Jewish pseudonym: Stan Lee.
Howe profitably spends some time on this period, and skips relatively quickly through the insignificant Fifties, the era in which comics first started to lose its audience, and in which Goodman’s comics division declined to Leiber and one production man operating off a single desk in the corner of one floor of a large Madison Avenue building.
All this is prelude to the real Marvel story itself, which begins with Fantastic Four 1 in 1961,  even though the company, which had previously gone under the names of Timely and Atlas, did not  name itself Marvel until the following year.
What happened is the stuff of legend. It is also the stuff of bitter argument, and Howe gives equal exposure to both without seeking to analyse between either.
For fifty years the legend, the Marvel version, has been that Martin Goodman played golf one afternoon with his opposite number at DC, Jack Leibowitz, who boasted that their new title, Justice League of America, was topping the sales chart. Goodman returned to the office and instructed Lee to throw together a superhero team to cream off some of those sales. Lee, seeing his life disappearing without genuine achievement, was talked by his English wife Joan into putting something of himself into the book. He devised the Fantastic Four as he know them, and handed it to his most reliable and talented freelance artist Jack Kirby to draw.
Not until the mid Eighties, with the industry in an uproar over the issue of return of his original art, did Kirby speak out and contradict the legend. His story was that he arrived at the office one day to deliver his latest job, he found the company being closed down, desks being moved out and Stan Lee crying: Kirby told them to hold on, that he would create a bunch of comics that would sell and keep the company afloat.
It’s an argument that remains unsettled, and Howe wisely makes no attempt to take sides, not then nor in any of the later instances where and the creation of characters – and the potential ownership of them in changing copyright legislation – becomes important to the company.
The Fantastic Four was a tremendous success, and has been Marvel’s flagship book ever since. It’s the foundation stone, the first, just as Superman is for DC and, just as Superman did in 1938, it was the beginning of an astonishing creative wave, as character followed character: Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Thor, the X-Men, and dozens more.
These are faithfully recorded by Howe, but his concentration is on the tiny handful of people responsible for writing and drawing these characters and the even tinier number responsible for running Marvel itself.
Lee was at the centre, as both editor and writer. Even though Marvel were, by their distribution deal, restricted to only eight titles a month, Lee ‘wrote’ all of these, setting them against a common New York background that allowed characters to cross each others paths all the time, leading readers to other titles.
He was able to do this by an approach now known as the Marvel Method, though it pre-dated the company by at least a decade. Lee would furnish a plot of greater or lesser detail that the artist would break down (or in many cases would effectively devise himself from beginning to end), returning the pencilled pages for Lee to then add narrative captions, speech and thought bubbles in his distinctive, hip style.
It was fast and effective, especially in the case of Lee’s two most important freelance artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Kirby was a twenty year veteran, with an astonishing list of creations behind him: with Lee he would create almost every successful character Marvel had. Ditko was a loner, an enigma with firm views who would co-create Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and make these contrasting titles unique.
But whilst Lee hogged the credit, like any true salesman, the role these two artists played on their series grew ever bigger. Soon, Ditko worked completely alone, not even speaking to Lee, dropping off complete issues for Lee to dialogue, having no idea of what the story would be until the pencils arrived.
And Kirby helmed the Fantastic Four, expanding the story, and Marvel’s Universe, into realms undreamt off, with nary, or barely a word from Lee. In short, in both men’s eyes, they were writing the story, devising its twists and turns, conceiving and directing its development. And getting neither credit, nor nothing but penciller’s page rates.
With Marvel growing spectacularly throughout the decade, its comics successful both commercially and artistically, the underlying story is of this dichotomy. Ditko walked away in 1965, Kirby in 1970.  This was the hammer-blow that ends the first section.
Howe goes on to make clear the much-denied stories that many at Marvel, Lee included, feared that Marvel could not survive without Kirby. Indeed, it’s at this same point, which Marvel attracting commercial interest from outside, that Lee starts to withdraw, permanently, from the creative side of Marvel. Since it’s not the purpose of his book, Howe does not make anything of this point vis-à-vis the creative issue, but I’m under no such self-imposed restriction so I’ll point out that before the creative flood that was the Lee/Kirby collaboration, Kirby created dozens of characters, settings (and even an entire genre) whilst Lee created nothing memorable. After their partnership broke up, Kirby created numerous characters and settings whilst Lee created nothing memorable.
I know who I believe.
The Seventies, which occupy the book’s second section, is a time of competing interests, between freelancers and successive editors-in-chief pulling in all directions, and moving Marvel in those directions because there is no effective oversight or control that prevents them from doing so. The comics are tremendously uneven, but they are creator-led with a vengeance, by the first new generation of writers and artists to come into the industry since the Forties, and the first to come in as fans, wanting the chance to take over the playground themselves.
The price for this is coherence. The business side is not even of secondary importance to the dominant figures of this period, and Marvel became a sink of inefficiency that cried out for a strong leading figure to replace the long-removed Lee, now Marvel’s Publisher and Ambassador-at-large, as Editor-in-Chief
This comes in the form of the controversial Jim Shooter – a former boy wonder who had begun writing comics at the age of 13 – who dominated Marvel and its titles. His is the book’s third section, and the story is of first the gaining of control, and the regulation of Marvel as an organisation, alienating a lot of influential people along the way, for both good and bad reasons.
But it’s also the story of a megalomaniac, growing ever more determined to force everything and everyone into the confines of a single editorial vision – his own – and creating havoc and anger among senior contributors who fell foul of his plans. Howe manages to raise a degree of sympathy towards Shooter, which I never thought I’d feel, by the implicit link between his increasingly domineering behaviour at Marvel, and his years as a teenage writer working at DC under Mort Weisinger. I’d never previously considered that Weisinger had been as deeply unpleasant and overbearing to his teenage underling as he had to every other full-grown man who had had to deal with him.
Once Shooter is displaced, the nature of the story shifts and, I think, to the detriment of the book. This is not to criticise Howe, but rather reality. Although the company had high spots ahead, and periods when it was as commercially powerful as it had ever been, the story from the early Nineties onwards has been one of managed decline – a decline all but ensured by the crazy corporate practices to which Marvel was subjected. Increasingly, editorial becomes subordinate to managerial demands, and inevitably figures appear in the editorial side of the company that are adept and eager at second-guessing managements ‘needs’.
Creatively, the story of the last twenty years at Marvel has been of decreasing control, or even interest, in the contents of the comics. Perhaps its naive to imagine that was ever an issue, and the rot starts long before the Nineties. But it’s particularly ironic at the company that once, justifiably, called itself the House of Ideas.
Nor is the story complete, leaving the ending to peter out. What’s in the comics is of rapidly decreasing importance, and who is writing and drawing them, and what surrounds that, is equally irrelevant to the tale.
Howe brings the story almost up-to-date, to the tremendous success of the Avengers film in May 2012, but Marvel’s history ends in midstream, with more to come, and the book is unsatisfying in that respect.

However, in its attention to detail, in the depth to which Howe goes to give each side its viewpoint, never seeking to impose a dictate on the reader’s understanding, it is an exceptionally good depiction of Marvel’s history in the people who have been, at one time and another, the makers of that story.
This is a fascinating and honest book, and I recommend it highly.

Joy Division – Closer

Joy-Division-CloserFor someone living in Nottingham and dependent upon public transport, I was bloody lucky. I got to see Joy Division live a second time.
This was also by accident. I was a big Buzzcocks fan, they were touring in the autumn of 1979 and, as luck would have it, they were playing two nights in Manchester, at the Apollo, and they included a Saturday night. I was in the habit of coming home for the weekend every six weeks or so, and that made it easy to pick up a ticket one visit and see the gig the next.
And the support band were only Joy Division!
It was a special occasion on many levels: getting to a gig in the first place: seeing the Buzzcocks for the first of what would be four occasions: being as eager to see the support band as the headliners: and the song Joy Division played, fifth in in a set of eight songs.
I’d no idea what it was called. The band still weren’t doing things like talk to the audience, or announce titles, and the PA systems of 1979 had not yet reached the point where you could hear the words to unknown songs with any degree of clarity.
The only thing I knew about this song was that it had the most instantly compelling synthesizer riff I have ever heard. Ok, yes, you’ve already worked out what song I’m talking about: a song recorded by a publicly obscure, short-lived punk band from Manchester, for a piddlingly-small independent record label that, rightly but still unbelievably, got on a shortlist of five songs to be Song of the Twentieth Century.
But I had to wait until 10 December and the band’s second Peel Session, tape recorder at the ready, fingers metaphorically crossed that the band would choose to record that synthesizer song, which they did, to learn that it was called Love Will Tear Us Apart.
I love the song to this day. To me, it is probably the finest single piece of music I’ve ever heard, and, remembering its origins and the public hostility to this kind of music altogether, I still find it impossible to accept that it has been so universally recognised.
It’s not on the album though. Joy Division were recording a new album, we were all of us looking forward to it intensely. I was back in Manchester at the end of March 1980, having completed my Articles and found a first job with a now-defunct firm of Solicitors, one of whose partners was to Stockport Coroner: his District included Macclesfield.
It wasn’t in the press, and no-one, not even the band themselves, had ever understood just how personal Curtis’s lyrics were. But he was suffering from depression, his marriage was crumbling, his epilepsy was worsening, the band were getting bigger and busier, he was getting more exhausted. And on a Monday night in May 1980, John Peel opened his show by breaking to us the horrible news that Ian Curtis had committed suicide.
I didn’t know him, I didn’t hero-worship him, so I didn’t react in any way like the fans of Presley and Jackson did when they lost their idols. I just sat there, feeling empty.
A few weeks later, the single version of Love Will Tear Us Apart  was played by Peel. Like all too many, I sat there and listened to the words properly for the first time. They were about his marriage: I felt uncomfortable, understanding that I was listening to something entirely real, and personal: feeling as if this shouldn’t be made public.
But it was. The song was the hit it deserved to be, peaking at no 13. It was released in a gravestone sleeve, the band’s name and the song title being etched into a grey/silver background, a sleeve designed and produced before Curtis had killed himself, that took courage to press.
I remember hearing it on the radio during a short and unsuccessful holiday in Wales with my mother and sister, I remember there being no Top of the Pops for it to be played on, due to a strike that covered its entire chart run. I remember seeing the video for the first time on, of all places, a Saturday morning live TISWAS knock-off, and I remember thinking that TOTP could never have played it anyway, because Curtis looked dead already, in his eyes.
And the album got put back, until July. The same controversy surrounded its cover: a graven tomb-image against a pale cream, black-bordered background. Should it be used? Again it was. But looking back to the knowledge that both of Joy Division’s new releases were planned to be wrapped in images of death and burial, it is impossible not to believe that those around Curtis understood far more of his mental state than they realised, that the knowledge had entered their subconscious minds, collectively. Would that in even one of their cases, that understanding might have percolated into the conscious understanding.
So Closer became Joy Division’s monument, its epitaph, the frozen moment between actuality – which was tremendous – and potentiality – which was infinite. Even the name was a perfectly chosen enigma: was it Closer with a soft ‘s’, implying increased nearness, or was it  Closer with a hard ‘s’, implying ending, completion, validation?
I myself have always used the soft ‘s’ and taken the statement to intent to imply a greater emotional tuning.
It was never possible to listen to this album the way I’d heard Unknown Pleasures. Things were over, it was an epitaph before it was released, there would never be any more after this.
Closer was never as certain as its predecessor. Curtis’s voice had changed, deepened. The music was less certain, less monolithic, its sound broader, with synthesizers playing a deeper role in the music. Atrocity Exhibition, the opening song, starts with Morris’s rolling drum pattern, which he maintains uninterrupted for the whole length of the song, as guitars and synths combine in the effect of a road-drill, rising and falling as Curtis guides the reader through a place of terror and torture, torture that’s less of the body than the spirit.
What we’ve gone through in Unknown Pleasures has been distanced, externalised. At the beginning of that album Curtis was waiting for a guide, now he is the guide, except that he’s a guide with too much knowledge. No matter how much he depersonalises his experience, it isn’t enough, and though he tries, desperately, to maintain this pose through the first verse of Isolation, whilst the band lay down a skittery, rhythmic, synthesizer laden support that’s an uneasy pre-echo of what New Order will become, he can’t maintain the fiction: Mother, I tried, please believe me, he cries, I’m doing the best that I can, but this brief attempt to shift the horror outside himself has failed.
Though he tries again to distance himself, his own despair keeps pushing through, not violently but inexorably, his voice separated in the mix from the sonic surroundings, trying to remain in control. But only honesty is allowed.
Passover is not the best song on the album, not a song that will ever force itself into any essential Joy Division songlist, but it served me well, years later, in the grip of a black dog that had me fear for the outcome when someone finally disturbed the last straw. But out of nowhere, Curtis’s words arrived in my head: This is a crisis I knew had to come/ Destroying the balance I’d kept/ Doubting, unsettling and turning around/ Wondering what will come next. And: Can I go on with this train of events?/Disturbing and purging my mind/ Back out of my duties, when all’s said and done/
I know that I’ll lose every time.
Someone understood. Someone else had felt this way, had known the helplessness of understanding that to go to the final point would be to destroy myself. The dam dissolved, the black water drained away, and I was my old self again within minutes.
This song, and Colony, with its discordant rhythms and its failed attempt to displace the experience into an inanimate thing, a place, an isolation but still a colony, remote but still within, are the equivalent of Wilderness and Interzone on the first album, a two track interlude where the band’s sound, the way they presented themselves onstage, out of Martin Hannett’s influence, is allowed to dominate.
And you could, if you wanted to be critical, extend such a comparison into the closing track of Side One (and believe me, this is so very much an album of two sides, and side one is but a build-up). A Means to an End is simple and unadorned, but it is a buoyant track, coming out of the amps with Hook and Morris for once working in tandem on a swinging, almost boisterous rhythm, flexing its muscles and providing Curtis with room in which to sing with a surprising enthusiasm and vigour.
The warmth in the music elevates the words. Curtis sings as if out of a fantasy novel, he and another, acting in unison, taking up arms, as it were, against a sea of of troubles, intent on opposing them. Their purpose is high, their efforts are focussed together, but Curtis continually returns to the repeated phrase, I put my trust in you.
Was it betrayed? How long did it held? There are no answers in the song. In the context of the album, of Curtis’s overwhelming melancholy, in the knowledge that he has ended up taking his own life, we presume that the line is bathed in irony. But the music fight to tell us otherwise, until it slows and stops and we are forced to live the record and turn it over.
I confess: pretentious as it sounds, pretentious as it almost certainly was, but for years I would play no music on New Year’s Day but the second side of Closer. I would only accept this four song set, returning the needle to the outer edge of the groove each time it reached the inside. And, listening to it again, so many years on, I can feel its power.
Call it pop, call it rock, call it by any of the names we’ve devised over sixty years to drive to describe music in a single word, each song, each recording is of its time, made possible by what has gone before and by what is in the air. The best songs reflect that. But the better ones transcend time and place, tearing a hole in the fabric of time and finding a way into eternity.
Take the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, so absolutely a product of 1967, and yet so absolutely fresh, 46 years and a million plays later, each time it begins you are hearing it for the first time. Or Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. Lie all you want, it isn’t 34 years old, it came out a week ago Thursday and I’ve been playing it non-stop ever since.
In the same way, this set of four songs broke through, transcended its time and any time. It’s hard even to think of them as four individual songs, even if one of them was first recorded in that December 1979 Peel Session (and the NME’s album review came out and said they’d done it better then). It’s like a symphony in four movements, each a different form, yet indisputably a part of the whole.
And there goes the pretension again.
Heart and Soul begins with a scurrying rhythm from Morris, light and high in its sound. Curtis sings in a softer voice than elsewhere on the album, stepping away from his baritone. Heart and Soul, he sings, one will burn. The music comes from a distance, cocooned in itself. Morris and Hook lock into their rhythms as tightly as the MGs at their finest, and it’s almost two minutes before Albrecht begins to slice guitar sounds across the space vacated by Curtis’s voice. The distance extends to the words: Existence, well what does it matter/ I exist in the best terms I can, Curtis explains. He’s too weary of things even to sound weary. Albrecht, with guitar and some synthesizer, fills up the absence again, and in the closing seconds, Morris adds an intensified roll in the fade.
Twenty-Four Hours is the closest this side comes to the ‘classic’ Joy Division sound, the to-the-hilt onslaught of bass, guitar and drum, out of which Curtis’s rises, borne up on a sound equal to the astonishing Dead Souls. It’s also the only track to have appeared elsewhere. Hook’s repetitive four descending notes bassline underpins the song in both its uptempo sections and it’s slower, more contemplative interludes. Curtis surveys the landscape of his life and sees it in ruins: So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride, he begins, a thought that, in less abstract form, is echoed in Love will tear us apart. Oh how I realised how I wanted time, but it’s slipped away. He knows he needs therapy, needs to find a true destiny, but time is slipping away.
But if there still is time, there is no energy. The Eternal signals a shift into a slow, almost dreaming, electronic world. Synthesizer fuss like a swarm of insects approaching, out of which the simple, plaintive melody of this slow, brooding song is picked out on electric piano. The procession moves on, the shouting is over. We are not told what kind of procession is for, but the slow stateliness of the music, and our subliminal understanding of Curtis’s journey makes the conclusion inescapable. Again, as in Heart and Soul, the band are distant: the insects swarm again, almost enveloping the hypnotic micro-melody. Curtis emerges, returned to his childhood, playing by the gate at the foot of the wall. But his vision is still confined, from the fence to the wall. Rebirth offers no better chance of happiness. The locusts settle upon the song again and it fades.
And then Decades. Again, first Morris then Hook etch out a rhythm that underpins the song, slower, a little unsteady, before the synths spring out in almost an upbeat manner. Here are the young men, Curtis tells, the weights on their shoulders. It isn’t about Curtis any more. He’s vanished, dematerialised, or is it disintegrated. The young men stand together but is he one among them or is he… not, any more. And if he is just one of an endless mass of young men, facing the burden of being, where are they?
And where have they been?
The rhythm dies, the music becomes mournful, then almost defiant. Curtis makes one final attempt to face whatever has to be faced, though everything has been lost for all and not just for one, who has already left the stage. Where have they been? He repeats, as the song gathers tempo, soaring musically to the end. Where have they been? Where is he?
There is no answer, and there never will be.
Four songs, a discrete whole, inside but in a sense not of an album. Twenty minutes in which Joy Division step outside being even Joy Division, into a time and a zone that no-one would ever reach again.

The Prisoner: episode 1 – Arrival – synopsis


Thunder crashes over heavy clouds. A man with a set expression drives a Lotus 7 into an underground car park in London. He follows a corridor into a well-appointed office where, after angrily speaking, he slaps a sealed envelope onto a desk. Leaving, he is followed home across London by an undertaker’s hearse. A typewriter ‘X’s out his photograph, which is filed in a drawer marked ‘Resigned’. At his home, he prepares to pack a suitcase. He gathers his passport, selects photos of beaches, but is rendered unconscious by gas pumped into his room by a man from the hearse. His view of London tower-blocks disappears as he drags the blind down.
He awakens in the same room, seemingly untouched. Clearly puzzled at this, he raises the blind. And stops in shock as it reveals a strange, ornate, wooded Italianate village clustered around an open square with a stylised pond. The title Arrival is superimposed on the screen.
The Prisoner leaves his room to explore his surroundings. The door opens automatically, with a low, sibilant electronic hum. He surveys the area – a seemingly deserted coastal village surrounded by wooded hills, from a nearby tower. A bell rings, and he sees a waitress outside a café across the square.
The waitress evades his questions, but tells him there are no telephones and no police. She refers to their whereabouts as the Village. She directs him to a nearby telephone booth but the operator offers only local calls and when he cannot give his number, hangs up on him.
Next, he finds an information board. When he presses the button for Taxi, a brightly coloured, striped-canopy Mini-Moke draws up behind him, driven by a young Chinese woman, who speaks to him in English and French. She is equally evasive when questioned. The taxi is a local service only: the Prisoner is taken around the Village and back to where he started.
He enters a General Store, where talk in a foreign language ceases and the Shopkeeper addresses his customer and the Prisoner in English. When asked, he produces maps, but only of the Village: there is no demand for anything else.
Growing frustrated, the Prisoner leaves. He sees a young woman in a maid’s outfit leaning from the window of his room but, by the time he gets back, she has left. A card welcomes him to “Your home from home”. The phone rings and he is invited to breakfast by Number 2 – the Green Dome.
This building has a door opening onto a terrace above the Square. Inside is a silent butler, four foot tall, who leads him through a waiting room to double doors. These open into a vast-seeming, spherical room, in the centre of which, on a dais, a man awaits in a black womb-chair. He is  Number 2, a somewhat grave, almost avuncular man with an urbane tone.
Using his control board, Number 2 raises chairs and a table through the floor. The Butler brings a breakfast cart, with the Prisoner’s favourite breakfast already prepared.
Number 2 exudes sympathy, but explains that the Prisoner is a very valuable person. He has resigned from a very sensitive post, with highly secret information in his head. His reasons for resigning must be examined, and that information given up. That is why he has been seized and brought here. If he co-operates, life can not only be very comfortable, but he could be given a position of responsibility with them.
The Prisoner makes it plain that he will not collaborate, that he intends to leave, that he will not be held. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed or numbered. My life is my own.”
Number 2 takes him for a helicopter tour of the Village, pointing out the Council Building, the Citizens Advice Bureau – and the Graveyard. His next stop is to be the Labour Exchange. The Prisoner, studying his surreal and now busy surroundings, lags behind. At the Square, Number Two uses a megaphone from a colonnade. He instructs the Villagers to stop. Everybody freezes, except for a jittery man, whose nerve breaks. He tries to run, not knowing where to go.
A giant, white, quivering balloon appears on the terrace, making a mechanical, roaring sound. It leaps down to the Square, closes in on the jittery man, and envelops him. There is a close-up of his screaming face, pressed into the plastic, before he dies. Then it bounces away, and the Villagers unfreeze.
The Prisoner rejoins Number 2 at the Labour Exchange. There are slogans in the waiting room: A Still Tongue makes for a Happy Life: Questions are a Burden for Others, Answers a Prison for oneself. He is given aptitude tests and a Questionnaire, but loses his temper and storms out.
At home, angry and restless, he finds the Maid and orders her out, brutally. A wall rises, revealing more extensive quarters, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, with a cabinet of (empty) tinned foot, all labelled with the Village symbol of a penny-farthing bicycle, adorned with a striped canopy.
A soothing lullaby fills the house from a speaker, getting increasingly louder. There are no controls, so the Prisoner smashes it. He hears an an immediate public announcement sending the Electrical Department to a fault at Number 6’s house.
He is being observed from the Control Room, another spherical room, with observers at screens and a double-armed, swivelling two camera unit. The Maid returns, pretending to forgotten something. She turns to leave, but crumples in tears, admits she’s been planted on him to gain his trust, obtain information, in exchange for her freedom. The Prisoner demolishes that notion coldly. He refuses to cooperate and sends her away, not to return.
A workman arrives with a new speaker. The Prisoner leaves for a ‘walk’. He makes for the woods and goes through a walkway of old statues and busts, unaware that these contain surveillance cameras which turn to watch him. However, he is driven back by another white, quivering ball.
He makes instead for the beach. The Controller sends out two guards in a jeep. The Prisoner manages to knock both out and drive off. The Controller raises an Orange Alert, and the jeep is intercepted by the white ball. The Prisoner is briefly suffocated like the jittery man, and then captured and sedated.
He wakes in pyjamas in the hospital. In another bed he recognises Cobb, a friend and fellow agent. Cobb is woozy and unfocussed, unable to remember how long he’s been held or whether he has talked or not. Their conversation is interrupted when the Prisoner is taken for tests. He can go home in the morning, and will be issued new clothes: his old set have been burned. An alarm goes and an assistant calls that the amnesia victim, Cobb, has jumped from the window and is dead.
In the morning the Prisoner is given his Village cards, his new clothes and a free ride to the Village. He immediately discards the boater and his badge. Al the Villagers wear a circular white badge showing the canopied Penny-farthing, and a red number on the big wheel. Outside the Green Dome, he bursts from the taxi and makes for Number 2’s office. A different man is in the Chair, younger, more affable but more assertive about what the Village want from TP and what they will do to get it. He is the New Number 2. The Prisoner demands to see Number 1, but Number 2 is the authority as far as he, Number 6, is concerned. The Prisoner replies “I am not a Number.”
Back home, Number 6 hears the Village band playing an inappropriately jaunty tune whilst escorting Cobb’s coffin to the Graveyard. A young woman follows the procession, about fifty yards behind. He trails her. She tries to escape, but admits to having been Cobb’s girlfriend. They had been working on an escape plan, using an Electropass. This will get past the white ball to the daily helicopter. Still suspicious, Number 6 trails her to the Green Dome.
Whilst waiting for his meeting with the woman, at the Stone Boat, Number 6 plays and loses at Chess with a former Admiral. He accuses the woman of betrayal, though she protests her innocence. Nevertheless, he takes the Electropass, which enables him to get to the helicopter and take off. She is invited to play by the Admiral. He comments “We’re all pawns, my dear.”
Number 6’s escape is watched from the Control Room by the new Number 2, with Cobb. Number 6 is allowed to get so far before the helicopter controls are taken over remotely. The helicopter lands. The Electropass no longer works. Number 6 is escorted back to his house by the white ball.
Cobb leaves to meet his “new masters”. He will give a good report on the Village’s operations. He warns Number 2 that his old colleague will be a tough nut to crack.
We see an overhead shot of the Village. McGoohan’s face rushes towards us, filling the screen, but two sets of jailbars slam shut in front of it. The closing credits run, superimposed upon a stylised representation of the walkway of statues. Piece by piece, the symbol of the canopied Penny-farthing builds up on screen, until it dissolves, leaving only the wheels: The white ball erupts from the ocean and scuds ashore. The episode ends.

Arthur Ransome: And After

Arthur Ransome lived another twenty years after the publication of Great Northern?, and was buried in the churchyard at Rusland, a quiet village lying beyond Coniston Water, home of the real Wild Cat Island, and one of two lakes (with Windermere) that he had merged in his imagination to form the Lake of his novels. Apart from a second collection of already written essays, appearing as Mainly About Fishing, he never published again. His close friend and Literary Executor Rupert Hart-Davis suggested that he write his Autobiography which, in true Ransome fashion, he wrote haphazardly, dipping into his own life here and there. It was incomplete at his death, and when published went little further than the Russian Revolution. It would fall to Hugh Brogan to write the definitive Biography, though in recent years the book The Last Englishman has put forward evidence to suggest Ransome was a British Agent in Russia during the Revolution: another twist to that wholly different life that produced one of the best and ground-breaking series ever of children’s literature.

Towards the end of his life, Ransome sadly grew increasingly paranoid. In the late Fifties, a number of newspaper articles identified the Altounyan children as the originals of the Swallows, which their father Ernest, who had lost his hospital and everything during the War, was happy to confirm. To Ransome, it was as if they were claiming some share in the success of the books, casting doubt on his creativity, and all but suggesting that they were responsible for the popularity of the characters. It fed upon decades of letters from readers who had believed the children to be real, which, of course, they were. In this, Ransome was being very unfair: most of the Altounyan’s, Tacqui in particular, had suffered from being seen as Swallows, and whilst honest about the association, were not eager to promote it.

Ransome had been all but forcibly estranged from his only child in real life, Tabitha, and he was very possessive towards the children of his creation. The result was a very sad moment, when he instructed that the original dedication of Swallows and Amazons be suppressed, and replaced with a generic explanation that attributed the adventures in his books to his own memories of playing on the lake at a much earlier age. He became estranged from the family, a trait taken up with traditional vigour by Evgenia after his death. By the time I discovered the series, “To the Six for whom it was written, in exchange for a pair of slippers” no longer appeared, but I had the luck of a Webb-illustrated copy. Others of my generation, and younger, know nothing of it.

It was a sad, sorry ending to the story of a writer who had nurtured a genuine talent and brought immense pleasure to millions of children, a very high proportion of whom, myself included, retained their affection for the books, and an appreciation of their generous and expressive qualities, and their obvious love and appreciation for the country. Especially so for the Lake Country, which is my spiritual home, even if my own family roots descend from Cumberland and the Lake is a mixture of Lancashire and Westmorland settings.

The series has twice attracted the attention of television, both times the BBC, and once the film industry. Swallows and Amazons was filmed as a serial in the early the Sixties. I watched it avidly, being already familiar with the book, and still remember fleeting impressions, like the starter’s cannon fired for the opening credits, that Captain Flint was not bald but actually bearded, and that there seemed few other significant departures from the plot, which had been updated to comtemporary times: Ransome loathed it.

Twenty years later, BBC2 adapted the two Norfolk books as an eight part serial, reasonably well, though to the (continuing) mystification of everyone in the Press – No Swallows, no Amazons? This time, the books were adapted as period pieces, with good solid actors like John Woodvine and Rosemary Leach, though the kids in the starring roles all seemed far too young. I applauded the initiative in not just redoing Swallows and Amazons, and there was talk of a similar treatment of, I think, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, but nothing came of it. I suspect that whilst the book’s settings were still seen as not too archaic in the Sixties, another twenty years had added too much for them to be seen as anything but ‘products of their time’, and thus out-dated.

But the big adaptation was the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, starring Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker and a well-cast but ultimately unconvincing Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint. It’s a decent enough film, but best enjoyed for the scenery which, sadly, is also why the film is fatally fouled for me. Ransome built his Lake out of Windermere and Conistion Water, which makes it appropriate for filming to take place on both these lakes, but that doesn’t explain the use of Derwent Water, in quite a different part of the Lakes altogether. Nor, given my instinctive urge to identify a Lake District background when I see one, can the film suspend my disbelief due to its cavalier attitude to where the water scenes are filmed. It’s disconcerting to see boats flick from lake to lake to lake in a single sequence, making the Lakeland cognoscenti somewhat seasick from the rapid translations in space.

I suspect we’ll see no more attempts to put the books on screen, now that the time-frame of the series is over eighty years past. The books are certainly period-pieces, and even my ears wince at the constant “Look here”s and “I say”s of its middle class origins. But except perhaps in the exotics of Peter Duck and Missee Lee, the stories carry far less baggage than other classic series, and they are far more readable to an adult than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, the other big beast of my childhood. This is because, whilst Arthur Ransome understood and portrayed the innate ability of children to imagine themselves and their world into being, he never wrote down to them, never condescended to think that they could not understand anything, and he himself valued the quality of craft, the honesty of making and the democratic value of everyone and made this a part of his work. And children love that still.

Arthur Ransome: Farewell and Adieu to you fair Spanish Ladies – Part 2

great northern

But there was still to be one more book: the local veto, it seems, was lifted at least once.
Great Northern? was the first Swallows & Amazons book I read, and I still have this mental picture of our living room in Openshaw one evening, and my Dad giving me this book that he said I’d like, which I did, and of Saturday afternoons hunting the book stalls on Shudehill, looking for those distinctive dark green hardbacks, gradually filling in the stories I’d yet to read. So I have a soft spot for this book, despite its many and evident flaws.
Four years had passed since The Picts and The Martyrs, the Ransomes had moved back to the Lakes, and the book, which had been started in 1944, had gone very slowly indeed. The book was dedicated to Myles North, ‘who, knowing a great deal of what happened, asked me to write the whole story’, an in-joke reflecting the fact that Ransome’s ornithological and fishing friend Col. North had supplied the central idea of the story, and much of its plot.
Great Northern? is set in the Hebrides, though no more precise location is mentioned to anyone who can’t read charts. The children – Swallows, Amazons, and this time the Ds as well – are once more crewing for Captain Flint (without other adult help), this time on a borrowed former pilot-boat, the Sea Bear. The holiday is almost over and the boat is moored in a narrow bay, where Captain Flint and the elder four clean it, the younger four being allowed to roam for the day. Dick, Ship’s Naturalist and eager to see a Black-Thoated Diver, goes off to a small loch with an island in it, whilst the others explore up the valley, carelessly disturbing the deer in breeding season, attracting the attention of the local Gaels.
Dick finds his birds nesting on the island, but there is something wrong. The plumage is that of a Great Northern Diver, but Great Northerns do not nest in Britain. He’s still confused when the Sea Bear reaches harbour the next day, but has the opportunity to straighten things out when he discovers that the birdman, in his motor cruiser Pterodactyl, is in port. He consults the man, Mr Jemmerling, who excitedly confirms that the birds are indeed Great Northerns, and that this will make ornithological history, but to his horror realises that Jemmerling is an egg-collector, who plans to take the eggs, kills and stuff the parent birds – and take credit for the discovery.
Dick refuses to give out the whereabouts of the nest and, after a mutiny against an initially sticky Captain Flint, the Sea Bear expedition agrees to prove things by enabling Dick to take photos of the nesting, without disturbing the birds.
This requires much subterfuge, on the one hand to divert the attention of Jemmerling and his crew, on the other to divert the attention of the Gaels. Separate teams set off to misdirect attention whilst Dick gets his photos, only for things to go terribly wrong.
The Gaels are convinced by the return of the trespassers that they are here to disturb the deer and drive them to another breeding ground, which they will then accept as their own. They lie in wait for the Red Herrings and capture them all. The Decoys – John and Nancy – get complacent and are seen at too close range: they too fall into the Gaels’s hands. Most unfortunate of all, so does Dick, choosing the wrong moment to row back to shore. He is taken, but the boat is left for Jemmerling and his crewman to reach the island.
The gang manage to force themselves in front of the local Laird, who disbelieves their story until a shotgun is heard. Suddenly, everybody is on the same side, heading for the loch, Dick is almost blinded by tears at the thought of his responsibility for the death of the Divers and the blowing of their eggs.
But Jemmerling has failed to kill either bird, and the eggs are still warm. With Titty as pilot, Dick rows the eggs back to the island and replaces them. After a long wait, the birds return to their nest. All is well.
Ransome’s last published words on his fictional children come from Dick Callum, and they are, “Oh gosh!”
At the time I first read Great Northern?, and for decades after, I assumed the story was ‘real’, and never considered any other interpretation. But since first learning of the ‘controversy’ over whether this is a real story, as valid as The Picts and The Martyrs, or whether it is one of the children’s own fantasies, like Peter Duck and Missee Lee, I’ve come to regard this book as being one of the latter.
There are many things wrong with Great Northern?, not least the fact that, in disturbing the deer and angering the Gaels, the children are in the wrong. It may be an unintentional breach, but it is a serious one, and one that is neither acknowledged nor apologised for. What’s more, not only is Ransome unusually unspecific as to place, having prided himself as to accuracy since the series began, but he is equally unspecific as to time: this is because, as ornithologists would know, the nesting time for Divers is June, when the children should be in school.
Furthermore, there is the behaviour of the characters themselves. Not one rises above a simple stereotype of their essential characteristics, especially Roger, who reverts to being a cheeky little boy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the chapter in which John and Nancy act as Decoys. Here are a boy and a girl, each aged about sixteen, off on their own with no-one else to interrupt the conversation, and instead they talk as prepubescents, with an utter ignorance of, let alone indifference to sexuality.
And the ending gives an unrealistic sense of security. The birds have returned to their nest, ornithological history has been made (no it hasn’t: I immediately went to my Observer Book of Birds which confirmed the existence of Great Northern and Black Throated Divers, not to mention Red Throated, but which still stated that the first of these did not nest in the British Isles), and the assumption is that all is now well and good with the world and will stay that way.
With Jemmerling still around and knowing where the birds live.
One additional point about this book: Ransome had officially replaced the original Clifford Webb illustrations for the first two books because they did not exactly depict things in the story. His own illustrations did so but, as Brogan readily points out, they also serve to bring the books even closer to his own private world, in which everything is of and by himself, and no-one else can play.
But there is a final illustration in Great Northern?, titled ‘The Sea Bear goes home’, in which the young Gael Ian stands on a headland as the boat sails into the distance. The illustration is placed after the final page of the story and depicts a scene outside it. It’s easy to overlook that this  drawing is unique, an End after The End.


Great Northern? was the last book Ransome completed. Myles North, eager to contribute, proposed a fanciful story under the title ‘Coots in Africa’, involving Tom Dudgeon, the twins and maybe even the D&Gs going out to Kenya where they meet George Owden, exiled out there since the climax of The Big Six, but it should be obvious why that was a complete non-starter.
But until Hugh Brogan published his Biography, virtually no-one knew that Ransome had started a thirteenth S & A book.
The project was untitled: Brogan called it ‘Coots in the North’ and what was publishable of Ransome’s work featured in the book of the same name, edited by Brogan, that included the readable The River Comes First.
Under what circumstances it began, no-one knows, but Ransome started with confidence and fluidity. It’s the middle of the fourth summer, no more than a few days after the events of The Picts and the Martyrs. Tom Dudgeon and the twins are elsewhere, leaving Joe, Bill and Pete, the Death & Glories, as the only Coots in Horning, feeling bored. Dick and Dorothea are at that lake in the north, and Jonnatts are sending a newly built motor cruiser up there. The boys eagerly watch it being transferred to a lorry back, with Bill’s Dad going north to transfer it to its owner. The boys are wondering about how they might use the cruiser to get a message to the D’s, when a chance remark from Mrs Barrable gives Joe an idea.
On the pretext of sneaking on board to look inside the cruiser, Joe sends himself and his friends on a journey north, to the Lake, as stowaways.
The segment is beautifully written and would have needed little by way of polishing. Typically, having carried the tale deep into the night and the north of England, Ransome reverted to his usual style and broke off, to pick up the story a little further ahead. In the interim, the D&Gs have got off the boat/lorry at a stop, only to find it driving away without them, leaving them marooned in a completely foreign place. What’s worse, Joe’s white rat is still on the boat.
Somehow or other, the boys get to Rio Bay, enjoying their first, awed sight of the lake on the way. Ransome picks things up with them working their way through the boatyards, searching for the lorry, which has already set off home, and for the cruiser, which they eventually find. When looking through the porthole, they see not only the owner, but also Ratty, out on the table, being fed cheese.
There’s only one coherent section left. As with the owner of the Cachalot in The Big Six, the community of fishermen prevails. The cruiser’s owner agrees to drop the boys at the island whilst he goes on to the foot of the lake. Ransome picks up for the very last time as the cruiser approaches the island. Three small boats pull out from it. One is being sailed erratically, and capsizes. The Salvage Company rushes to the rescue, Joe in charge. There’s a squeak of “Dick, Dick, it’s the Death & Glories!”. Bill reaches down and grabs somebody’s hair to haul them up, only for the swimmer to wriggle free and smack him one across the side of the head. “Did that hurt? Jolly good if it did,” says a loud, cheerful voice. And that was the absolute last word.
What scuppered this fledgling book? Obviously, all the issues we’ve already discussed, of age, lack of confidence, lack of the energy to persist. The notes of what else might have been are interesting. They depict the D&G’s as being in obvious trouble, having to wait for someone to raise the money to collect them by train, in the knowledge of serious trouble when they return to Norfolk. There was a possible ending, one worthy of Ransome in his prime: all the children are on the houseboat one afternoon, when Captain Flint is away. The wash from a Lake Steamer breaks the old anchor chain and a fleet of three small boats, marshalled by the D&Gs, keeps the houseboat from being washed aground until Captain Flint gets back and rolls out the other anchor. For saving the houseboat from ruin, the D&Gs have their fares home covered and a dollop of pocket-money to boot.
It was a great ending, full of meat, but what worried Ransome was the middle of the book. He could get the three working class Norfolk lads to the lake, but he no longer was able to imagine what to do with them. Of course there were skeleton ideas – the lads staying in the barn at Dixon’s, the interplay between them and the resolutely middle class Swallows, their fears of what awaited them, teaching Professor Callum to sail. Indeed, to me that’s the biggest loss of all. The last set of parents, all set to come on stage, and all that remains of the absent-minded Egyptologist is a single, wistful line: “My theory has run up against a fact”.
It could have been done, but it would have taken work, and Ransome no longer had the energy for it.
And so it all ended.

Arthur Ransome: The Might-Have-Been

In 1931, fresh from the completion of Swallowdale, Arthur Ransome conceived of an idea that he confidently boasted to friends would be “his very best book!!!!”. It was about “an old schoolteacher and a fisherman and a boy and a river.” It was to be set in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and would be called The River Comes First.
But Ransome took no steps to realise the book then, wanting to let it “ferment”. It had fermented for a dozen years, and now it seemed time to brew.
Evgenia’s objections to The Picts and The Martyrs had done worse than almost prevent its publication. Throughout his life, Ransome had been trying to make-up for the lack of faith, of approval, that his parents, and particularly his father who had died too soon, had instilled in him. No matter how successful he was, how good the reviews, how overwhelming the response from his audience, Ransome needed encouragement, and never more so than during the writing of a new book that, to one extent or another, always seemed dull, flat, bad, unimaginative, in some combination whilst being composed.
This time, the response had been so negative, so savage, that it had reflected all his weakest fears. Worst still, his wife’s hurt at her instructions being ignored, her bitterness and temper, had made Ransome’s life, and health, very unhappy.
And in this time of trouble he returned to The River Comes First.
The book was to tell the young life of Tom Stainton, a 12 year old boy who, like the Swallows originally, and like Peter Duke, was the portrayal of a real person, Tom Staunton, keeper of the River Bela in Westmorland, a fishing river that was a great favourite of Arthur’s father. Ransome wanted to tell the story of how young Stainton (the name change was to represent a gentle distancing from the real man, and from the restrictions of his actual history) reached the life that gave him such contentment.
Brogan outlines the story in the Biography. Tom is the son of the local gamekeeper and a lad already well-tuned to his countryside. He is also bright enough to be a successful scholar. When he and enemy-turned-friend, poacher’s son Bob Lidgett prevent a massive act of poaching in the district, Tom’s qualities are recognised by a visiting gentleman, who takes him off to London, where he can better himself. But Tom ends up neglected, working in a tackle-shop, until he realises he is being set up for a robbery: Tom runs away and gets himself back home, where he is rewarded by being made keeper’s assistant, and setting himself on his right road.
Ransome did all the usual things, a complete, detailed outline, divided into chapters, and set about things in his old fashion, writing whatever chapters seemed easiest at the time. At first, he wrote in the first person, capturing the ‘voice’ of old Tom with great skill. But to maintain this over thirty-one chapters felt perilously like artistry for its own sake, plus the unlikelihood of the keeper writing an autobiography, so he began recasting it in the third person.
And one day, he stopped. The River Comes First died on that day.
Why was this? The finger has largely to be pointed at Evgenia. She had cut through the roots of what confidence Ransome had had in himself by her fervour over The Picts and The Martyrs. She had never had the slightest confidence in The River Comes First, because it was so radically different from what had always been, and because she believed Ransome’s audience was attracted to something that they could possibly do themselves, and would turn their backs on something set at a time almost a century gone.
She had even placed ‘a local veto’ on the idea of writing more books at all!
All of which drained Ransome’s crippled confidence. Even the fact that two publishers were eager to publish the book, and that Cape’s had already contacted a leading nature artist over illustrations, did not help. His insecurities betrayed him.
Does this all matter? After all, it was not until Hugh Brogan’s Biography that the vast majority of Ransome’s audience were even aware of this abandoned project. But once they knew, they clamoured for some sight of it. And they were rewarded when Brogan went on to edit a miscellania of work by Ransome, and included what was publishable of what had been written: the opening four chapters recast into the third person, and a complete episode in the first person.
No other fragments of the book were capable of being published without far too much supporting material. But Brogan refers in the Biography to a third section, set during Tom’s long return from London, when he falls in with a gypsy girl of similar age, and the two banter.
In this unpublished fragment, Brogan detects the unmistakable tang of burgeoning sexuality, as in Hull and Whitlock’s Maurice in The Far-Distant Oxus. It’s an element rigidly excluded from the Swallows & Amazons books, in which there is no sense that these are boys or girls in their mid-teens: ultimately, the Walkers, Blacketts and Callums are frozen children, denied the ability to grow (though it would have been really interesting to see the post-We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea Swallows in a proper book once more).
But even in the parts we can read, the evidence is of Ransome in peak form. He’d written eleven books featuring the same children in varying combinations, he was nearly sixty, and he was finding it difficult to conceive of more things to do with them. There is enough here to hold out the very real hope of rejuvenation of his imaginative abilities and, if Brogan is correct, to begin to grow with his children of fiction.
It was a Might-Have-Been that never was. Evgenia did not kill off The Picts and The Martyrs. But by the implacability of what she did, both to that book, and to The River Comes First she did achieve what she so wrongly feared The Picts would do: she killed Ransome’s career.

Unexpected Reversals – What I remember from the ‘Victor’


(No, no art like this ever appeared in a D C Thomson comic, but I needed a Sohrab and Rustum illustration from somewhere)

Referencing Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum as I did recently, in relation to the imaginative sub-structure in Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s The Far-Distant Oxus, has reminded me of a couple of vivid and memorable stories long ago in the classic D C Thomson weekly boys adventure comic, the Victor.
Before I go any further, I want to thank the poster Phoenix on the UK Comics Forum ( who identified these stories from my very imprecise descriptions of them, and who was equally invaluable in correcting my naïve recollections of the second of these.
I remembered the unlikely adaptation of Arnold’s poem into a Victor series, which appeared under the title “Sohrab the Warrior” between August and November 1965 (issues 233 – 246), and ending the week before my 10th birthday.
Victor (established 1961) was one of two such D C Thomson comics I was allowed on a weekly basis, the other being its younger – but virtually interchangeable – brother, the Hornet. Each provided a weekly diet of two page serials covering all sorts of exciting subjects: war, sport, westerns, adventure, crime. Neither were noted for historical adaptations of epic poetry, which makes “Sohrab the Warrior” stand out from the offset.
I am not familiar with the poem other than to understand that it tells of the fateful, fatal meeting between two Persian warriors, the veteran and famous Rustum and the young, dashing Sohrab. Unbeknownst to either in their epic battle (Rustum is incognito, and has last seen Sohrab as a baby that he abandoned to his mother) the combatants are father and son, a fact only revealed to them when one lies dying from a mortal wound, and the other is grieving.
“Sohrab the Warrior” was, to my recollection, faithful to the premise of the poem: the young man Sohrab leaves his mother to search for his warrior father and present himself for approval. He has weekly adventures, during which he gathers a band of equally young allies, frequently derided for their youth, but always prevailing due to Sohrab’s valour and leadership. Whether any of the action was faithful to the poem, I really don’t know, but given the difference in target audiences, I really suspect not.
Thus far, and without being kind, we have a story much like the hundreds of others I read in Victor or Hornet: exciting, entertaining and lacking in distinction. After all, my main memories of the D C Thomson stable are the recurring characters, who would go on for series after series: the mysterious Wilson, the Tough of the Track, war-hero pilot Braddock, footballer Nick Smith and cricketer Rob Higgs, lorry-driving sports natural Bernard Briggs, Scotland Yard Detective in New York, The Big Palooka.
But episode thirteen turned up an ending that would stick in my mind forever, for this was when the series caught up with the poem, and Sohrab met Rustum.
It’s a basic plot of literature (and life) that the son grows to overthrow and replace the father. It’s one of Heinlein’s three basic plots: A Boy Becomes A Man. At the age of nine I had neither the breadth of reading nor the experience to understand that, but I’d read enough comics to know the simplest Truth: The Hero Wins.
So when the story was faithful to the poem, when Sohrab clashed with a powerful, incognito warrior, who suddenly ripped off his mask and proclaimed himself to be Rustum, I had nothing to prepare me for the sick shock of Sohrab dropping his guard in surprise – and the villainous opponent slashing his sword down into Sohrab’s stomach and dealing him a fatal wound.
From there to the end of the story was mere panels, enough to sketch out recognition between victor and vanquished, Sohrab to die and his body be taken away, leaving at least one nine year old struggling to process what he’d seen. The Hero Wins. He doesn’t take a sharp one to the stomach and die. He Wins. Only he hadn’t.
Thus the story stayed with me forever, for being perhaps the first I’d read that was utterly honest with me.
There was another Victor story that had a similar twist ending that has also lodged itself indelibly in my mind, but which, to my surprise, had come before this tale of Sohrab and his fate.
I’m again indebted to Phoenix, not merely for identifying the series and its publication details, but also for a more precise recollection of the story that cuts across the grain of my very vague memories of it which, other than the last half page of the last episode, is non-existent. Nevertheless, I’m going to deal with the story as I remember it first, to account for how it got into my head.
The story was titled Crib Carson – Fighter, and it appeared in Victor 218 – 229, between April and July 1965, curiously ending only three weeks before “Sohrab the Warrior” began. Apparently, it had originally appeared in D C Thomson’s Adventure in 1957 as a text serial.
I certainly remember it ‘feeling’ older than 1965, in the two panels I can still clearly see in my head, and in those the look is even older, Thirties perhaps, the Depression.
Either way, as the title suggests, this is a boxing story. Crib Carson is an up-and-coming boxer who wants to get to the top: so, nothing new there. Unconsciously at least, I would expect the story to end with him as World Champion.
Crib’s gimmick was gamesmanship, which the late Stephen Potter defined as “The art of winning without actually cheating”. Crib was good enough, but would back himself up with all sorts of clever little tricks, wrong-footing his opponents and giving himself a winning edge.
Call me naïve, which I certainly must have been, but I remember the impression that we were supposed to applaud these little japes, these smart tricks. According to Phoenix, however, the introduction box regularly referred to these as “shady tricks” which, at one point, included rubbing sneezing powder into his hair, giving his opponent a faceful of it and polishing off the lad as soon as he became helpless.
I must have missed that distinction: The Hero Wins, remember? And therefore what the Hero does in order to win is right and proper, especially if they are only japes and pranks.
By this means, we got to the final episode. By now, Crib was firmly in the Big Time, and fighting for the British Championship, as preparation for the still-expected World Title. This week’s wheeze was to rub chalk-dust into his face, to make himself look white, like someone weakened by illness. It would lull the Champion into a false sense of security, enabling Crib to take him by surprise.
Only it didn’t. The Champion didn’t fall for it. Suddenly, Crib had to rely on his fighting prowess alone. With two panels left.
There came the most astonishing reversal I had ever read at that time, and one of the most astonishing reversals I have ever read in my lifetime. The first of those two panels was an angle from outside the ring, in the audience. The referee was seen, at a distance, pulling the fighters apart whilst the loudspeaker announced that the referee had disqualified Crib for sticking his thumb in the Champions eye! And next to it, the final panel, set several months later, showed a grimacing Crib, in flat cap and muffler, standing in the wind in an (unemployment) line. Two passers-by, in a background car, pick him out as the boxer who could have been Champion but who ruined his career by cheating.
That was a slap in the face, not just for Crib, but for everyone who had read that story, over twelve weeks, cheering on this clever hero, episode after episode, until this stunningly abrupt reversal when, in the last two panels, with a rush, we were told he was a cheat, which was the worst possible thing anyone could be in a sports strip.
Of course, that only applied to boys who hadn’t twigged that Crib was supposed to be an anti-hero, climbing ever higher so that his inevitable, and richly-deserved comeuppance would be all the more spectacular.
Yes, but in two panels? Only two panels?
I couldn’t understand it for a long time, and I lacked the critical equipment to understand why. I’d never before met an anti-hero, and wouldn’t have known what to call him if I did. It was, like Sohrab just a few months later, an ending that didn’t take. Stories in comics weren’t like that: The Hero Wins.
He certainly doesn’t have the rug pulled out from under his feet in only two panels.
It’s that very abruptness, the 180 degree reversal at the very last moment, unseen (well, by me) and unsuspected that, even more so than the soon-to-follow Sohrab, impressed this tale on me. As an adult, and a novelist myself (of whatever degree), it shouts of bad artistry to throw the precipice in so very very late, and with such finality.
But it hasn’t half had the effect the writer desired!
Two stories, almost fifty years ago, with two jolting reversals that flew in the face of the whole ethos of British Boys Comics of a certain generation. Better stories have vanished into the deep mists. But these haven’t.

Madness – One Step Beyond…

One Step Beyond

As I’ve previously mentioned, I spent two years in Nottingham where my punk/New Wave oriented taste in music meant that I stood out among the more staid tastes that prevailed in the East Midlands.
My period as an Articled Clerk was divided in two. During my first year, I learned about Common Law and Criminal, sharing an-almost cellar room that I dubbed ‘The Pit’, a term that caught on, with three others, two of them (initially) being fellow Articled Clerks. One of them, Simon, had only been there about three weeks longer than me. A local lad, he was very good, with an obvious future, and he went on to be offered a Partnership in due course.
We were good mates during my time in Nottingham, though after that first year was up, and we were switched to the Property side of the practice, we had far fewer chances to chat. We both sat in the corner of the rooms of different Partners, on different floors, with little or no professional overlap.
Which made that Friday lunchtime in the late summer of 1979 unusual in itself, for after bringing back my lunchtime butties, the whim took me to go up to the third floor and stick my head in on Simon. His boss was on holiday, leaving Simon covering his work, so he was behind the big desk, and I purloined his usual chair. It was surprisingly cool and dark for a room that was directly above my second-floor habitat.
We chatted away about the job, how we were doing with our respective bosses and other unimportant stuff. Then the subject of last night’s Top of the Pops came up. There was a band on, Simon said, that I knew you’d like. Apparently, the reason he knew I’d like them was that they were rubbish. They didn’t know what they were doing, they couldn’t even play their instruments.
This was intriguing, and somewhat amusing. It was also insulting, but I didn’t mind about that. I’d always been at odds with my friends over music, so I was used to it, and in living on my own for the first time I’d started to develop the outline of a self-reliance that made me (reasonably) impervious to people taking the piss.
But who were these no-hoper amateurs? We spent two or three minutes trying to remember who’d been on the programme, who’d offended Simon’s tastes so much yet were likely to go down a treat with me. Until I finally got it: Madness!
Yes, he agreed. It was their TOTP début, following the first entry of The Prince, and I admitted that I’d enjoyed the song, just as he’d predicted. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in nearly thirty years, and I’m sure the incident is long forgotten in his mind. But I wouldn’t mind reminding him that, on this occasion, I got it right.
One Step Beyond… was the follow-up to The Prince both as a single and as début album, for which it was the opening track. The single truncates Chas Smash’s now legendary holler of “Hey you! Don’t watch that! Watch this!” before the band slide into a slab of pure, light-footed Ska, dominated by Lee Thompson’s inexpressibly delightful saxaphone, and charge away with abandon.
The Specials had already transformed the sound of 1979 with the irrepressible Gangsters (the melody of which was, amusingly, based on the Prince Buster top 20 single Al Capone, of which One Step Beyond… was the b-side), but where the Specials were serious, Madness  (who’d taken their name from another Prince Buster song) were the fun guys, the pure, simple entertainers, the Nutty Boys.
It’s an image that the band deliberately encouraged, and there was more than a grain of truth to it. Their adoption of nicknames –  Suggs, Msieur Barso, Chrissy Boy, Bedders, Kix, Woody and Chas Smash – and the sheer verve of an album that was the sound of young guys having the greatest amount of fun, living the dream of playing the music they love, overwhelmed.
Madness were fun, for no other reason than having fun, and my old mate Simon could very easily have been justified in thinking of them as a flash in the pan. Nobody saw any depth in Madness until the surprising eighth single, Grey Day, which featured on their third album.
But if you listen properly to One Step Beyond…, it should have been clear immediately that there was more to this band than just the Nutty Boys, and the early attraction they held for Ska-loving, National Front oriented skinheads. Did nobody ever listen properly to My Girl?
It was the second track off the album, the third single, a number 3 hit (in the New Musical Express chart, it hit no. 1). One of five tracks composed or co-composed by keyboard player and band-leader Mike Barson, it maintains a expressive balance between slightly jerky, awkward rhythms as Suggs grapples with the problems he has with his girlfriend, and a sudden smoothness as the band close in on his attempts to negotiate a solution.
In it’s deliberate keying of the arrangement to the different phases of the lyric, it’s considerably more subtle than anyone ever gave Madness credit for, and that’s before we join Suggs in his heartfelt dilemma: that he loves his girlfriend, but occasionally want his own space just to do nothing, or watch TV (there’s a difference?) which she interprets as infidelity, lack of love and all sorts of moral failings: by the end of the song Suggsnaively thinks he’s gotten his point over, but no such luck.
To say nothing else, it’s a unique male perspective on love and relationships!
Typically, the band swing back into pure inconsequentiality with Night Boat to Cairo, a track that’s basically a quasi-instrumental, another sax-dominated bubble of joy whose single verse/chorus comes somewhere around the middle of the song, gets in, gets out and leaves the music playing freely. Madness had been making videos for their singles from the off, but the hasty, deliberately cheap effort for Cairo, when it was lifted off for another single, was paradoxically the point at which their gift for visual nuttiness really took off.
The under-regarded Believe Me is Barson again, this time with ex-member John Hasler, and both musically and lyrically it’s a companion to My Girl. Suggs is having girlfriend problems again: he loves the girl, wants to be with her but his friends have spread lies about him seeing another girl, she’s given him the elbow, and he’s out in the cold. Nothing exceptional, maybe, but a pointer towards the band’s collective ability to create little stories in short songs.
Next up is Land of Hope and Glory, one of two tracks sung by Lee Thompson, who co-wrote it with Chris Foreman. A call-and-response intro, or should I say a roll call-and-response, leads into a slightly oblique song that, like many songs to come, deals with an awkward situation without explicitly naming it (future single Embarrassment is the perfect example). Thompson’s filling in time, literally, in ‘this land of hope and glory’ or, less ironically, Borstal. ‘I pick at the floor for juicy buts’ he explains, with sly relish, ‘to make meself a smoke’ before the reality kicks in ‘of bog roll and envelope sticky’. ‘All this helps to pass my time’ he explains.
A re-recorded, and less sharp and strong, version of The Prince reconfirms the band’s musical allegiance but the weaker production disappoints. Nothing abashed, the band bounce back with a side-closing instrumental, Tarzan’s Nuts. Credited to Barson, it’s another One Step Beyond… quasi-instrumental that starts with some preliminary muttering about Jane before bursting out in a rollicking piano-based tune that, from the first moment I heard it, I recognised, though in thirty-three years I’ve still never identified the original.
Flipping the album over, we find ourselves greeted by three strong songs that illustrate just how much of a mistake it was to dismiss Madness as simpletons. Suggs and Chris Foreman combine to write In the Middle of the Night, a seemingly simple singalong but one that, like Land of Hope and Glory (also co-composed by Foreman), has more to it than the surface suggests, with it’s little story about ‘Nice man George, newsagent on the corner’ who turns out to be the underwear thief whose raids make stories for his customers to buy.
Then Barson’s Bed and Breakfast Man offers probably the most natural tune on the album, underplayed and laconic in it’s tale of a perpetual scrounger making his way through life, and Thompson contributes another song and vocal in the equally cool, but considerably more menacing environs of Razor Blade Alley, as a young man slides into deeper waters than he can manage in his first visit to a prostitute.
These are decidedly not simple visions, and the bands ability to underplay things as opposed to hurl themselves in with energy and glee, especially on the slightly creepy and muscular Razor Blade Alley raises the album to a peak it cannot, and does not want to sustain.
The rest of the set falls away quickly. The band release the tension with their version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, based on an earlier bluebeat adaptation from Jamaica. From a seemingly straight piano introduction, the band ska it up gloriously. I love it, but when I played this version to an old friend who has a more serious appreciation of classical music than I possess, she was horrified and insisted I took it off before we got halfway.
Rocking in Ab (Flat) shows the band more as rock’n’rollers, with an old time tale of a guy getting into the music twenty-odd years earlier. It’s an oddball little piece, which is unexceptional but demonstrates why the band were right to go with their love of ska and the Prince.
It’s followed by the confusing and slightly disturbing Mummy’s Boy, the last original in the set. It’s Mark Bedford’s only contribution to the songwriting, and whilst musically it’s of a keeping with the album as a whole, the subject matter is odd. The subject of the song is exactly what the title says, a Mummy’s Boy, still living with his mother after forty years, still holding her by the hand, everybody wondering what he’ll do when she dies… and then comes a belated middle eight in which Suggs grandly intones ‘Once went out with a London girl/Dirty weekend in a London hotel/broke it off when she got shirty/she was twelve and he was thirty.’
Before the shock of this line really sinks in, Suggs continues ‘Right after that he was dead sore/He wouldn’t go out with girls no more/Ever since then he never has…’ and the music stops to allow the last line to be growled with basso lasciviousness, ‘He wants to do.. something dirty!’. And the band spiral in a full-tilt, swirling sax to a rapid conclusion over which Suggs goes all Benny Hill, chanting ‘Knickers, knackers, knockers’.
It’s all a bit uncomfortable, really.
But the somewhat faded end is played out with the band’s cover of their name-song, Buster’s Madness, another and more successful re-recording that sweeps us to an ending. But not quite, as Chas Smash ends the album as he begun it, with a jaunty cry of ‘Did you have a good time tonight boys?’ ‘Yes we sure did’ chorus the band in response and we have an accapella minute or less call and response as the US Marine Corps chant is adapted as the silly Chipmunks Are Go.
So there it is. A mixed bag of an album, weak in parts, jaunty and fizzy and bloody good fun to get them all dancing. But there’s definitely more under the surface in this set of songs – according to the band in later years, pretty much their entire stage set, nailed up in one package – and those with eyes to see and ears to hear shouldn’t really have been at all surprised at the depths that made Madness last so very much longer than my old mate Simon envisioned on a summer night watching Top of the Pops.