Pursuing Christopher Priest – an Introduction


I used to read primarily science fiction and fantasy, my tastes in each form coming from the borders where the two worlds grow into one another. I have rarely enjoyed the classic hard-SF of one genre, nor the sub-Tolkien forays into magic of the other. Though if given a choice between Robert Heinlein and Robert E. Howard, I would shade towards the former, my enthusiasms have always lain with those to whom the S in SF stands for ‘Speculative’.
But that was years ago, and it is the best part of twenty years since my taste in fiction automatically led me to that section of the bookshop. New names have arisen, tastes and trends have shifted (I was there for the beginnings of cyberpunk, which dates me) and I haven’t called myself an SF fan for many years. I no long know the field, nor am I interested in developing my knowledge further.
On the other hand, if I am asked who are my favourite authors, there’s an interesting link between them all: Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner. All but the last of these have spent their careers writing fiction that lies absorbed in SF and fantasy – and given that Garner’s work has myth, its process and consequences, as its central theme, I do not see him as an exception.
There are other names that I could add to that list, writers no longer with us, much-missed: R. A. Lafferty, James Tiptree Jr. Like those I have named, writers of those uncertain lands, the only difference being that there can be no more new work from them (though a lot of old, unpublished work by Lafferty may yet appear, if we are very very good).
What truly links these writers is not that they are in any way members of some genre or other, but that they are the writers whose new work I will buy on sight, without hesitation, writers who I trust not to fail me, but rather to engulf my mind, to draw me into the world their fiction has created, and to leave me enriched when I close their books on their final pages.
However, though these are the names I’ll give when I’m asked to define myself through my reading, there is another that belongs there. Less prolific, certainly Less celebrated, unfortunately so. A minor talent among his betters? No, I’ll not accept that. He belongs with the others for exactly the same reason: that I buy his books automatically, because I trust what he has chosen to write about.
Christopher Priest, who was born less than ten miles from where I currently sit, but a dozen years earlier, has written thirteen novels (excluding novelisations, published under pseudonyms) since 1970. His current novel, published in 2013, is The Adjacent, his eighth successive novel to be entitled with the definite article. I haven’t read it yet, but had read all its predecessors, and the short story compilation The Dream Archipelago, which collects stories set in a fictional world of islands separating two continents, which first came to prominence in The Affirmation, the acclaimed 1981 novel that brought Priest to my attention.
I do not have all Priest’s books: indeed, I have only added his second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island this Xmas. This novel aside, and the edition I have bought is a version revised forty years later, I found little to interest me in Priest’s first few books. But with his fifth novel, the subtle and ethereal A Dream of Wessex, Priest struck a vein that he has, in differing ways, tapped throughout the rest of his fiction, that of unreality.
I intend to spend some time re-reading, and commenting upon Christopher Priest’s novels, plus the Dream Archipelago collection, beginning with my recent acquisition, and them proceeding to that sequence of novels commencing with A Dream of Wessex. Priest is a fine writer who gets too little attention: in my small way, I hope to encourage more people to read him. You will be well-rewarded.

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Post NaNoWriMo update – Day +30


It’s taken a long time to get back on track, between physical and mental concerns, and the worry of a diagnosis of acute bronchitis a week ago today, with warnings about letting it develop into pneumonia, but I’ve finally recovered enough of my mental acuity to resume the NaNoWriMo novel, with a comfortable 1,100 word session that resumes the book’s course as far as the end of the next chapter.

That’s Chapter 19, and an ongoing total of 61750 words, to be almost precise. I estimate one more chapter to take me from where we are now: Main Character and Second Lead shopping in Stockport on Saturday afternoon, mildly prodding each other verbally, to the big revelation at the Library on Monday evening. After that, the big blow-up, which will be a chapter in itself and which will signal the end to phase 1: I’ve been experimenting with a rather rigid chapter length but this may exceed my common length, which is allowable here, where it will reflect the disruption of the story so far, as well as preceding a leap in time to the beginning of phase 2.

Which, at the moment, is something of a blank.

It’s good to be writing again, to see and feel the characters making their way forward, to re-enter that world that exists. To rediscover the momentum. I may return to the story later today: I have the sense of where to start the next chapter, the proper transition from the closing chapter line to later on and the effects of this scene starting to play out.

As an aside, I have an idea for another book. Ideas so often come in the juxtaposition of two unconnected efforts, as did this. I was daydreaming, thinking about an old friend I haven’t seen in years, who let me down, but who had gotten back into contact. In my datdream, she’d unexpectedly invited a mutual friend who I haven’t seen in decades, but who was the first girl I ever fell in love with.

Earlier that day, I had been reading a long short story by John Crowley, Great Work of Time. Don’t ask me to explain the connection between the two as it does not exist in any logical form, but the two ideas came together. A mysterious and intriguing situation arose from these two ideas, passing each other in this casual manner.

One more thing to store in my mind, perhaps as my next project after this one. It will be intensely personal when I write it, this much is certain. But first I must finish this novel. I had hopes of being done with the first drafter by Xmas – which, at NaNoWriMo rates, I had every right to expect – but now we’re looking at 2014. I shall have to up my productivity if it’s not to go over into February.

 

Still Open All Hours – the ratings


Don’t watch that, watch this!

The revival of the classic sitcom Open All Hours as a one-off special, replicating the formula with David Jason mimicking the late Ronnie Barker and a new, genuinely young actor mimicking Jason’s old role as Granville has been revealed as the most popular programme on Boxing Day, with an audience, at its peak, of just over 10,000,000 viewers.

This is not to say that everyone who watched it did so in full enjoyment: I’m far from the only one who watched out of curiosity and concluded it was a waste of time. But with figures like that, the odds are that a very high majority did enjoy it, and the chances of this being revived as a series are correspondingly increased.

Popularity has never been any sort of guide to quality – Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Justin Bieber and One Direction – and I’m as guilty as the next man, in my younger days, of turning up my nose at something that was overly popular. But I have, at least, learned not to dismiss something just because it is popular, and nowadays, if something essentially crap is massively successful, I simply ignore it, rather than get worked up about it.

People are enjoying it, so why not let them get on with it?

And if Still Open All Hours istaken up as a series, I will simply not watch it (unless Barbara Flynn returns as the milkwoman), and it will not spoil the original for me one bit.

Having watched the Xmas Special myself, I do wonder what people found in it that was funny? I suspect it was all the wrong reasons: that is was comfortable and familiar, like a tatty pair of slippers, that they like watching David Jason, that nobody in it said fuck or was rude about the Queen. Perhaps there was also the fact, which we overlook at our peril, that with the exception of the execrable but even more popular Mrs Brown’s Boys, there’s nothing else like it on TV, and that there is a substantial chunk of the audience out there that no longer has anyone making programmes for them.

Even when it was finally cancelled, to choruses of relief and high condecension from people who hadn’t watched the series in decades but still thought it shouldn’t offend their sight, Last of the Summer Wine was pulling in 6,000,000 viewers a week. Which meant 6,000,000 people who had their choice in viewing pleasure ripped out from under them.

Television so desperately wishes to be edgy and would really rather that those for whom edgy is unwelcome and unpleasant might disappear into their bland little holes and, well, die.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to see this uninspired and meaningless revival proceed but if there is an audience for it, sometimes we should remember that they have no less right to have programmes that suit their taste than we do. Programmes should be made to entertain them.They should be far better than Still Open All Hours, that’s all.

Still Open All Hours – but why?


Arkwright or Granville?

To everything there is a a season – several, if it’s good enough. But, unlike the Biblical injunction, the truth of television is that seasons are not cyclical: harvest does not return each year: once the yield is taken, the time is gone and, like our corporeal bodies, does not return.

That doesn’t stop people from attempting to revive things, in the hope that they can be as good as they were remembered to be. Only today there is a piece in the Guardian arguing for the revival of Top of the Pops, in the face of the fact that none of the reasons for its cancellation have gone away, that the worlds of television and music and their respective audiences bear no resemblance to the conditions which saw the programme thrive and that in order to give any revival a chance of succeeding, it would be necessary to destroy absolutely everything about the programme that is recognisable as Top of the Pops.

Bringing back something once popular has been shown, time and time again, to be disastrous. The problem lies in the essential dichotomy between capturing the elements that made the show appealling to begin with – requiring stasis – and the need to present its characters as they are after a period of time – requiring progress. It’s an impossible burden by its very nature, especially if members of the original cast are involved: they have aged, visibly, and in doing so have changed, therefore their characters must have changed also, in the intervening years, yet what is demanded of them is being what they were.

The only truly successful revival (and I discount Doctor Who because, by its very nature, it could reinterpret itself with a wholly new cast) was Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais’s 1972 sitcom revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? This was so complete a success because the writers chose to make the five years since the last episode of The Likely Lads into the driving force of the series. Instead of being about the recreation of the beer, booze and birds obsessions of two Sixties’ lads out to enjoy life, the series focussed on the changes in the characters during a five year spell apart, expertly contrasting Bob Ferris’s middle-class absorption into the young executive early Seventies, with Terry Collier’s suspension in time due to his Army service, and his thwarted intent to pick up where he last was, in a world that no longer existed.

And yes, for those who are not familiar with this programme, it was a comedy, and still is very funny indeed.

It was not an approach that was factored into the BBC’s one-off revival of the Ronnie Barker/Roy Clarke sitcom, Open All Hours.

I used to love that programme, and the occasional repeats of it still make me laugh out loud. It tends to be overlooked a little when people discuss the great sitcoms of the past because both its star and its writer were involved in contemporaneous shows that were more popular: Barker as Fletch, in the immortal Porridge, Clarke as creator and sole writer of Last of the Summer Wine (which would go on to become the world’s longest-running sitcom ever).

The show was a quirky three-hander, featuring Barker as Arkwright, the tight-fisted, grasping yet richly-comic small-town corner shop grocer, David Jason, in his first starring role as errand boy Granville, frustrated at all turns, nephew to Arkwright with a dubious father, and Lynda Barron as District Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, living opposite and nominally Arkwright’s fiancee.

Like most of Clarke’s sitcoms, the show developed its own absurd world, revolving primaily around Arkwright and Granville, but punctuated by the regular customers who were the basis of what were virtually mini-sketches as they came and went. The humour primarily in the dialogue, with occasional slapstick, usually relating to Granville on the shop-bike, or Barker with the finger-trapping till, was deftly played. Each episode took place in a day, starting from the opening of the shop before dawn, and Granville’s perenially frustrated attempts to build a relationship with the milkwoman (Barbara Flynn, looking delightful as ever, even if swaddled in coat and woolly hat). It would end with a monologue from Arkwright, nominally about the events of the day, as he brought in the displays from outside.

Open All Hours first appeared as a one-off in the 1973 series, Seven of One, a variation on the BBC’s old Comedy Playhouse format (in which six different comedy pilots would be broadcast, as an audition for series) in that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker. Porridge was the ‘winner’ from that run, but in 1976, Barker and Clarke followed up the Arkwright pilot with the first of four series between then and 1985. I believe it was David Jason’s idea, initially, to do a revival as a Christmas special, but that Clarke is very happy to write a full series if this goes down well.

So, how was the revival handled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst of such things that I’ve seen. It was even mildly amusing at times, and it certainly attracted the likes of Johnny Vegas and Mark Williams into cameo roles (and Barry of the Chuckle Brothers but let’s say no more about that). What it was, basically, was pointless.

Clarke, Jason and the BBC have chosen not to make any changes whatsoever. Apart, that is, from the most central and inescapable change, namely that the great Ronnie Barker is no longer with us (and would probably have had nothing to do with this if he had been). The show gets around this by turning Granville into Arkwright, a virtual carbon copy. It gets around having to have Jason play Barker by introducing newcomer James Baxter to play Jason: he is introduced as Leroy, Granville’s son, abandoned by his mother as a baby and brought up by his Dad, and all the local women.

Actually, Leroy is not a Granville-clone: not entirely. He has the same worries about who his Dad might have been, but as these are directed at the man who has been his Dad in terms of raising him, and who believes himself to be biologically the father, this introduces a note of psychological depth which is not only alien to the show but also unnecessarily cruel. On the positive side, he’s more popular with the girls than Granville ever was.

Apart from that, it’s all the same. The shop is a bit cleaner and lighter, the sign repainted, the pavement display more extensive, but they’ve still got the till. Former Nurse Gladys Emmanuel still lives opposite (Arkwright never did get round to marrying her). Stephanie Cole reprises her role as Mrs Featherstone, the ‘Black Widow’, looking virtually unchanged (a testament to how well she ‘aged up’ thirty years ago) and Maggie Ollerenshaw returns as the indecisive Mavis, still nursing a mutual crush on Granville but steered even further away from any decision by her widowed sister Madge (played by Brigit Forsyth, the former Thelma of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? who really hasn’t aged well at all.)

No Barbara Flynn though. Sigh. And as for the new characters, apart from the introduction of a couple of Pakistani customers, as a gesture to the changing social background of the Doncaster in which the shop is set, not a one of them couldn’t have come out of a thirty year old episode, in word or thought.

But that’s really all there is. Juggle Granville into a near replica Arkwright, introduce a Granville-substitute with nearly all the same hang-ups and don’t change anything from thirty years ago. It gets a mild, nostalgic chuckle, based on the wish that there’d been a few more of them then, in the same way that the debut of NYPD Blue, a vastly inferior copy of Hill Street Blues, immediately reminded you of the absence of anything with the qualities of Hill Street Blues. The outcome could be achieved more effectively, and more economically, by repeating an old episode of Open All Hours.

Still Open All Hours gives its game away in its title. It is firmly rooted in its season which, like all others, has passed, and should be left to be remembered. A series would be a grave mistake.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1973


Justice League of America 107, “Crisis on Earth-X!”/Justice League of America 108, “Thirteen against the Earth!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For months, the Justice League and Justice Society have been working on developing Transmatter Cubes, to get around the fact that they can usually only meet up at one specific period each year. Now the machine is ready for its first testing with human subjects: Batman, Green Arrow and the Elongated Man will jump to Earth-2, Superman, Doctor Fate and the Sandman will make the reverse journey.
The Red Tornado is still pleading to be allowed to take part, to find out if he can ever return to Earth-2. (He was not killed in issue 102: in only the previous issue, the JLA discovered that the Tornado had actually been blown through the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-1, where he found himself prevented from crossing back: he had been used by his creator, T.O. Morrow against the Justice League, for which purpose Morrow had carved the Tornado a human face. When the Tornado had helped defeat his creator again, he was rewarded with Justice league membership).However, as the Transmatter Cube has not yet been tested on androids, the Tornado is still to be excluded.
The heroes line up for the simultaneous experiment. Green Arrow wants them to hurry up: he’s standing in a draft. In an airtight satellite ? mocks the Atom. When the Cubes are activated, the two sets of heroes disappear from their native Earths. But they do not arrive at their destinations.
The sextet arrive on a hitherto unknown Earth, which will be known as Earth-X. The cause for their diversion reveals himself: it is the Red Tornado who, desperate to try to get home, has whirled himself into invisibility and stowed away in the Earth-1 Transmatter Cube. Except that his whirlings have upset the delicate workings of the Cube and deposited them somewhere unknown.
The septet’s musing about how to contact their friends and get home are interrupted by the shock appearance – on American streets! – of a platoon of German soldiers, in Nazi uniforms, accompanying a futuristic tank.
The Germans attack, the first tank shell crumpling on Superman2’s chest. Doctor Fate responds with a magic battering ram, but something on this world causes his magic to run awry, and the ram floors Superman instead. Then the Germans fire off gas shells, which knock the heroes out.
But as they slide into unconsciousness, they hear the German’s exclaiming with fear at the arrival of the Freedom Fighters.
These are six heroes formerly published in the Forties at Quality Comics: The Ray, The Black Condor, the Human Bomb, Doll Man, Phantom Lady and Uncle Sam. These newcomers mop up the fearful Nazis and spirit the JLA/JSA to their hidden headquarters, behind a Nazi propaganda poster.
Once the heroes recover, Uncle Sam explains the position on this Earth. When the President (Roosevelt, F.D.) suffered his fatal heart attack in 1944, the balance of Government swung the wrong way. By the time the US had the Bomb, so too did Germany, and neither dared use it. The war entered a stalemate, dragging on into the mid-Sixties. Many more people died, including the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. Finally, the German’s invented some form of Mind Control machine, ending the war in their favour. For some unknown reason, the Freedom Fighters are immune to the device, and they continue the battle from underground.
Of course, the newcomers volunteer their aid, despite Black Condor’s doubts as to their bona fides. Doctor Fate’s magic, used cautiously, shows the assembled heroes the whereabouts of three concealed Mind Control Stations: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mount Fujiyama in Japan and Mount Rushmore in America. Leaving the Red Tornado behind, so he doesn’t get in the way, the heroes split into three teams of four to go out and bring down each Station.
In Paris, Batman, Doctor Fate, the Ray and the Human Bomb mount their attack. The Ray flies to the observation platform and downs the guards but is in danger of being overwhelmed by their reinforcements when Doctor Fate, carrying the Human Bomb, swoops down on them, whilst Batman, scaling the outside of the Tower, frightens the life out of them.
Once inside, the quartet are confronted by an intelligent machine that makes monster opponents that neutralise each hero. However, they quickly switch, and defeat each other’s opponents, before turning to the machine. It then proceeds to override their nervous systems, paralysing them. The menace is averted – but only for a moment as the heroes, walking like automatons, march upon it and destroy it.
No-one feels better for it. It seems all three machines must be destroyed to free Earth-X from the Nazi horror.
Back on Earths 1 and 2, the Justice League and Justice Society are unable to locate their missing members. What if they have been transmitted… nowhere?
End of part 1.


After a short recap by Uncle Sam, we turn to Superman, Green Arrow, the Phantom Lady and Doll Man in Japan. The locals are filled with shame at having been subjugated by their one-time allies. The Mind Control Station is hidden in the centre of Fujiyama’s crater: the heroes attack from different points, but the machine responds by setting off an underwater earthquake that threatens to destroy all Japan, forcing Superman to break off and combat that. The Machine, which has apparently absorbed the lessons learned from its Paris counterpart, theorises that the greatest threat is gone, but the remaining trio come up with a plan.
Green Arrow bombards the machine with a flurry of arrows. It is contemptuous of their lack of effect, until its voice starts to slur and fail, and it ceases to work. This is down to Doll Man who, under cover of all those arrows, had slipped inside and screwed around with its wiring.
The final quartet, Sandman, Elongated Man, Black Condor and Uncle Sam, have gone to Mount Rushmore, which had had a new head added to the mountain, that of Hitler. They bust through the Nazi guards but somehow find the machine impervious to their every assault. That is, until Elongated Man works out that the bird hovering overhead throughout all the fighting is not natural, but a robot projecting a mirage.
The real machine is hidden inside Hitler’s head, affording Uncle Sam the pleasure of punching Hitler out and destroying the last machine.
Everyone returns to Freedom Fighter headquarters, dispirited and perplexed that nothing seems to have changed, that the force powering the Mind Control of Earth-X hasn’t been destroyed. But the visiting heroes then accuse the Freedom Fighters of having taken control of it, with the intention of ruling the world for themselves.
A fight starts between the two sides, the Freedom Fighters grimly aware that it is the machine’s energies that have now perverted their allies. Only the Red Tornado, standing aside, is logical enough to determine that there must be a fourth, Master Mind Control Station.
He sets off through the atmosphere, trying to find it, and discovers it in space, a satellite base. Inside, Hitler himself welcomes him, attempts to suborn him, but the enraged Tornado unleashes a punch that knocks Hitler’s head off, literally: he is nothing but a robot himself, a creation of the Master Machine, which has replaced all the Nazi hierarchy and taken control of the planet itself.
The Tornado fights back against the assault on himself, and his whirlings are sufficient to disrupt the gyroscopic balance of the satellite. Uncontrollable, it falls out of orbit, crashing in flames in the ocean far below, but not before the Red Tornado retrieves something.
The menace is over and Earth-X is free at last, but the JLA/JSA septet are stuck here. That is, until the Red Tornado unveils the device which allowed the four Mind Control machines to communicate together. This is hastily adapted to send out a signal that the relieved Justice League and Justice Society can home in on, enabling their missing members to go home.
* * * * *
The 1973 team-up is second only to that of 1965 in its importance in my eyes. The 1965 team-up of these introduced me to the Justice Society of America, but this team-up reintroduced me to comics, after a three-year absence of having grown out of them. Considering just how many comics I have bought, read and written about, this is one of the most significant events of my life.
Wein’s approach is still focussed onto the Gardner Fox tradition, which made this story easy for me to appreciate how much comics – or DC at least – had moved on in my absence: I had barely been exposed to anything but Gardner Fox when it came to the annual rite: the sole exception was the second half of O’Neil’s 1969 effort.
It’s fast, it’s brash, it’s a simply story told linearly, with its focus upon the heroes using their powers, yet with the added element of personality: Fox might have had the Golden Age Superman weighing in against Nazi soldiers, but he would never have had him say, “Ratzi, I cut my baby teeth on punks like you!”
The influence of the previous year’s inclusion of a third super-team was quickly felt. Wein had intended that to be a one-off, a salute to the double-anniversary, but Schwarz demanded another third force: the previous year’s anniversary had sold like crazy, and Schwarz’s first principle was to give the readers what they wanted.
So Wein had to cast about for an equivalent team, but ended up having to invent his own. It’s a perfect example of a story creating itself by necessity and logic from an initial element.
The six heroes gathered together as the Freedom Fighters had never previously teamed up, but they were all heroes from the Forties who had been published by Quality Comics, and who had subsequently been acquired by DC, alongside better known and more famous characters such as the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. They fit Schwarz’s bill. Wein’s next step was to recognise that, for most of their career, these characters had been fighting Nazis, and would be best employed in the role with which they were identified.
That in turn meant having to have an active Nazi foe in 1973, and that in turn led to the establishment of Earth-X as an Earth on which Germany had won a much-prolonged Second World War.
The venue for this story was originally intended to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwarz understandably refused to allow that symbol in his book, and Wein compromised by crossing out all the cross-pieces, to leave an X.
After the initial flurry of Earths a decade previously, the idea of adding parallel worlds had rather dropped into abeyance. True, a particularly goofy issue of The Flash in 1968 had seen Barry Allen wind up on an Earth where he and the Justice League were no more than characters in comics published by National Periodical Publications, i.e, this Earth (named Earth-Prime for the purpose), but this aside there had been no development of the Multiverse in almost a decade. Wein’s creation of Earth-X was the start of the second wave, by which the number of identifiable Earths would multiply, slowly, but steadily.
One thing that irritated me for years about this story, being interested in American history and having a food working knowledge of the Presidents, was Uncle Sam’s reference to Roosevelt’s (depicted in the comic but not named as thus) fatal heart attack in 1944, when I knew full well that he’d actually died of a brain haemorrhage in 1945. Unfortunately, it took me more years than I care to recollect before I twigged to the fact that this was actually quite a subtle counterfactual by Wein. Roosevelt had been succeeded by Truman, a man he hardly knew, who’d been added to the ticket in 1944, at a time when the course of the War in Europe had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour.
In 1944, Roosevelt’s death before an Election would have brought in Henry Wallace as President, a man known as a great, almost mystical liberal, but not for his decisiveness. Uncle Sam references the balance of Government going the wrong way, which in this context it no doubt would have under Wallace, so that Germany also had the Bomb when America was ready to use it. Besides, if this death had occurred before the Summer D-Day landings, the balance of the conventional War may have been more even. Rather than an egregious mistake, which I took it to be for much too long, Wein’s little throwaway line turned out to be an extraordinarily subtle and accurate way to distinguish Earth-X’s past.
The additional slickness, and naturalness of the story impressed me, as did the art. Though I’m well aware of Dillin’s flaws now, both in his reliance on stock figures and his lack of flair, he compared well with Sekowsky, and especially the early Sekowsky, as inked by Bernard Sachs. Of course, much of this was down to Dick Giordano’s inks, clean and strong and very clear, concentrating on thin, sharp lines that define the images without removing their underlying strength. The half-page image of the Nazi soldiers looking down the Eiffel Tower at the rapidly-climbing Batman, cape flowing in a decently Adams-esque manner.
The half dozen resurrected heroes made for an interesting bunch. The Ray, with his light and heat powers and simple all-yellow costume, was obviously the best suited to break out in the modern era, though when DC finally got around to this notion, it was post-Crisis and the role went to a new Ray with a decidedly inferior new costume. Phantom Lady, who also preferred yellow, was a Forties pin-up incarnate, and was actually appropriated as cousin to the JSA’s Starman, both having the surname Knight.
In contrast, the flying Black Condor, chosen as the team paranoid, failed to impress, as did Doll Man, a precursor of the Earth-1 Atom but not half so interesting a character. He still outdid the Human Bomb, a guy who has to live in a protective suit because his mere touch sets off explosions, so every time you want him in on the action, he has to whip off a heavy duty glove and punch one-handedly whilst desperately gripping the glove in his other hand, because if he drops it, and can’t cover his punching hand up, nobody’s going to want to get near him.
And this leaves Uncle Sam, who is the incarnation of America’s national self-image, and as such is really not something you can safely discuss in a comic book about three teams of superheroes battling left-over Nazi hordes in 1973.
Because, for all the enjoyment this story gave, when you say it like that, you’re making the whole concept into one with a very dodgy moral basis. I was not long since turned 18 when I read this story. My Mum had lived through the War, my Uncle had been in the Navy during it: all around the world there were people with vivid personal memories of the conflict against the Nazis, who really did not need cheapjack little affairs like this making free with their experiences.
Perhaps that’s too heavy a thing to lay on this story: remember that its counterfactual basis was genuinely subtle and, considered purely as a superhero story, intent on thrills and entertainment, it was almost an unqualified success.
I say almost for reasons connected with the reappearance of the Red Tornado. When we last saw him in this series, he was sacrificing his life to save Earth-2, but of course Wein had no genuine intent on killing off a character with so much unfulfilled potential. In the previous issue to this team-up, Wein did what should have been done from the start: he brought the Tornado into Earth-1, made sure he couldn’t get out and set him down in the Justice League, where he could at last develop.
There isn’t much sign of development in this story: the Tornado is still mistrusted on all sides as, basically, a whirling disaster, a point very much emphasised by his being responsible for stranding everyone on Earth-X in the first place. After which, everybody roundly tells him to go stand in a corner and not interfere, just like they always did in the Justice Society.
It’s more than a bit demeaning, and an ironic contrast to Len Wein’s contemporaneous Swamp Thing, where the theme was very much that those who tormented the horrible looking creature were themselves the true monsters. Wein does, at least, attempt to rehabilitate the android in the end, by having him save the eventual day, not to mention come up with our deus ex machina (literally) in the form of a device that, for no logical reason except that Wein needs a get-out, enables the League and the Society to get home.
In a post-Crisis Universe, all of this is impossible. In the Multiverse it was a moment of realisation that I could still get fun from American comics, and the start of something whose dimensions I would not have been able to believe had I foreseen what I was doing by splashing out 10p on issue 107.
One sidebar note, that I did not realise either then or until writing this series: traditionally, the annual team-up took place in the August and September issues of Justice League of America, but with effect from this year, would in future appear cover dated October and November. I never noticed. Of course, the cover dates were virtually meaningless, back then. But from my rediscovery of comics until now, I have assumed that these were the ‘summer issues’ still.

The Time of the Doctor – Uncollected Thoughts


There are many people ready to criticise Stephen Moffat for diverting new Doctor Who away from the sentimentality of the Russell T. Davies years, which I did not like, but in Matt Smith’s last appearance in the role, we got enough sentiment to satisfy anyone. But then we already knew he could do it from Rory and Amy’s departure.

In a way that hasn’t been so since my youngest years, when I watched Hartnell and Troughton as unfailingly as a kid with no control over his life could do, Matt Smith’s been ‘my’ Doctor. Or, when paired with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darville, he certainly has been. I was very disappointed with the half series with Jenna Coleman, until that extraordinary final episode, and Moffat has been travelling a light speed ever since.

I’ve avoided knowing anything about this Christmas Special (like I’ve avoided anything to do with next Wednesday’s Sherlock) so I came to this with clean hands, ready to be astonished. And again the pieces moved into place: the Crack in the Universe, the Silence, the explosion of the Tardis, River Song even, all part of this final sequence of stories. Either Moffat had known all along what he was doing and where he was going or the man is a fucking genius at fitting half-ideas into a whole, and I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want it to be the latter because if the pattern wasn’t there all along, then this man is awesome and I would like him to take over scripting my life, right now, immediately. Please.

Because what we had from this story was The End. Of that story that began when two teachers grew concerned about an unusual pupil. Because Matt Smith recognised he was the last, despite everything the Curator had implied. The Eleventh Doctor, plus John Hurt and that part regeneration of David Tennant: the show’s only low moment, that ungenerous snipe there, even as Moffat was using it to his advantage to allow him to now, not in some future time when he’s no longer in control, break the bonds of the Twelve Regenerations.

First though, in his resignation to a future that becomes inevitable once he learns he has been drawn to Trenzalore, Smith’s Doctor can grow old, in one place, bent on protecting those who need protection for as long as he shall live. To guard the secret of his name – which is no secret at all, despite the demands of Gallifrey for the answer to ‘Doctor Who’? His name is the Doctor: whatever he may once have been known by, that is his name, and the whole of it.

And thanks once more to Clara, devoted, loving, impossible, he gets to go on. Gallifrey ceases its attempt to get back into the Universe and instead confers life upon its most infuriating child: new Regeneration energy. Another go around. The queston resolved and removed, for another fifty years, no doubt.

And a final, mercifully brief moment of goodbyes, reminiscent of Tennant’s farewell but not so pukingly, dully drawn-out. A glimpse of Amelia, a moment of Amy – and the suddenest of transformations into Peter Capaldi…

What comes next won’t appear until July, if I understand correctly. Matt Smith has been ‘my’ Doctor, but I’m open to negotiations over Peter Capaldi.

Obscure Corners – The Uldale Fells


Burntod Gill from Great Sca Fell, with Meal Fell and Great Cockup right

There’s an argument that everything Back o’Skidda’ is an Obscure Corner, for this is indeed a little world of its own, shielded from the rest of the high ground of the Lake District – indeed, from the rest of the Lake District period – by the backs of Skiddaw and Blencathra and their respective massifs.

It’s quiet back there, green and grassy and smooth for the most part, less busy than the rest of the fell country. Indeed, there are few viewpoints Back o’Skidda’ from where anything but Back o’Skidda’ can be seen. The fells here look north, to the Cumberland plain and the Burghers of Carlisle.
The greatest concentration of fells is in the north-western quarter, the Uldale fells, which lie directly behind Skiddaw itself. With a little contrivance, there are five summits that can be easily linked in a gentle walk that, despite my best efforts in two visits, I have been unable to extend beyond four hours.
The outing, appropriately, begins in pastoral circumstances. Leave Keswick on the Carlisle road, bear right as signposted for Orthwaite following the eastern shore of Bass Lake, as far as Longlands Farm, which occupies the narrow valley of a stream. There is room for three cars to park just before the bridge.
The walk is better defined if done anti-clockwise, though this does bring the day’s highlight underfoot first, before any summits have been traversed. which rises steadily on grass for about fifty feet, before levelling out. This stream is the key to the approach, but its purpose is to lead you to the valley of the River Ellen.
The geography of the walk is not apparent until this little stroll crosses the tiny watershed and the  Ellen comes into view. Great Cockup provides the further flank, little Meal Fell an upthrust in the centre and the green ridge of Lowthwaite Fell and Longlands Fell the eastern wall. The Skiddaw massif, looking completely unfamiliar from this angle, forms the highest skyline and remains in clear view throughout.

Trusmadoor on the approach from the Ellen

The path, broad among the bracken, dips gently towards the Ellen (which is easy to cross) and rises towards the distinctive trench lying west of Meal Fell. This is Trusmadoor, a natural railway cutting, wide and straight, with steep, high sides, crowned by small rocky parapets. Some fairly gently uphill work is needed as the path, developing a few stony trends underfoot, rises to enter the cutting.
Despite its lack of geographical significance, Trusmadoor is utterly fascinating, and the imaginative will walk through it planning ambushes. It debouches above Burntod Gill, at that part when the gill proffers lush lawns purpose made for picnics. Above this spot, the gill rises to its source on the slopes of Great Sca Fell in complete solitude, below it enters a twisting, turning ravine from which there is no escape but to follow it to its end. I’ve heard that parts of the path through the ravine have been washed away which would be terrible: the walk, especially uphill, is a wonderful experience, enclosed and lively.
The ‘lawns’ are an ideal place for a break, though the flesh should be hardly tried thus far. Parties including both genders that feel inclined towards any form of extreme canoodling should bear in mind that this is one of the few places en route where other people may arrive, and there is no concealment.
Great Cockup lies west of the route, and its ascent is something of a necessary diversion, and not the most compelling of one. A narrow path starts up a rocky rib at this end of Trusmadoor, giving a momentary gentle exhilaration to the day. This is Great Cockup’s most interesting feature on this side, as the broad, flat summit is soon reached and is wide and uninteresting. The highest point lies towards the furthest north west ‘corner’, requiring a longish stroll there and back.
Return to Trusmadoor, cross the floor like a Conservative MP ratting out to UKIP, and take a similar path on rock, ascending towards Meal Fell. This path doesn’t actually go to the summit but levels out to flank the fell: leave it once it stops gaining height and cut uphill. Meal Fell offers the only rock on any of today’s summits, as well as an unusual arrangement of short, barrow-like ridges, at more or less right angles to one another, forming an intriguing zigzag.
From here, Burntod Gill can be seen below in its upper valley. A long, grassy, pathless ridge stretches from Meal Fell towards the slow-swelling Great Sca Fell, the highest point of the walk: make a bee-line for it and haul yourself up over the brow.
There is no comparison between Great Sca Fell and any other fell of that name of which you may have heard. It boasts a Little Sca Fell, though that indicates only the bulge of land to the north of the summit, to be crossed when leaving. To the east, the fell is dominated by the bulk of Knott, and there’s an obvious option to extend the walk by trudging in that direction, but it would be a two-way trudge, with little distinction, and there is a much better walk to be devised that has Knott as its principal aim.

Approaching Brae Fell

The two remaining fells both lie north of Great Sca Fell, separated by the surprisingly deep channel of Charleton Gill. A little to-ing and fro-ing is needed, but the grasslands are quiet and empty and time is not at a premium. Brae Fell, betraying an unusual element of Scottish influence, is the easterly of the pair and a gentle path of no great gradient leads in an almost straight line to reach its modest top from behind. Again, there’s little or nothing to detain a walker, the views being outwards not inwards, and most walkers will about turn fairly quickly and head back towards Great Sca Fell, or at least as far as is necessary to find a convenient place at which to cross Charleton Gill.
Indeed, Chris Jesty reports that there are the makings of a path in this lonely place, leading the walker’s feet where before there was the fun of decision. It seems strange to think that enough people have now trodden here to create a route where none was ever actually needed.
An old bridle road accompanies the further bank of Charleton Gill, which can be left to proceed uphill onto the low saddle behind Longlands Fell’s summit, but a little more energy can be burned up by making immediately for the ridge and crossing the slightly indefinite Lowthwaite Fell en route. Lowthwaite is actually higher than Longlands Fell, but is merely a declining ridge dependant upon Great Sca Fell.
Either way, Longlands Fell’s summit is fine and neat, offering a wide vista over the North Cumberland plain, though little dramatic to speak of in its views south towards Lakeland.
Leave it by the north ridge, descending easily as the ground broadens. This brings you down to an old, grassy road which takes you back to Longlands. From here, it is merely a step over the bridge to the car, by which time four hours, and only four, will have elapsed.