Theatre Nights: Sandman Midnight Theatre


Sandman Midnight Theatre  (Prestige Format) . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner and Neil Gaiman (story) Matt Wagner (plot), Neil Gaiman (script), Teddy Kristiansen (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Like the Annual, the previous year, Sandman Midnight Theatre, though being an essential part of the overall story, and crucial to the relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, has never been collected*. It is difficult, and expensive to find, having been published as a one-shot Prestige Format edition.
For those who misremember the Programme Notes, Sandman Mystery Theatre was a spin-off of Sandman, despite it featuring the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds. The Sandman ran  from 1940-45 in Adventure Comics, with only rare and occasional revivals from 1966 onwards. He debuted whole and entire: Wesley Dodds was already slipping out at night, with gas-mask and gas-gun, to crusade against crime, without reason or explanation.
There were other mysteries in the Sandman’s career, which were dealt with, piecemeal, but the last of these was an origin, finally told in 1986 by Roy Thomas, a Justice Society fan and continuity obsessive. Thomas’s origin was typically convoluted, weighed down by his compulsion to link in more things than any story could decently support.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was born out of a flash of inspiration at a meeting with representatives of DC who were interviewing British writers and artists that same year. Gaiman, a reporter and aspiring writer was read a list of characters available for treatment: mention of The Sandman sparked an image in his head that translated into a character vastly different from the human crimefighter: Gaiman’s Sandman was the embodiment of Dream, and his story was set in mythical terms and roles.
Despite Gaiman’s private belief that it would last a year if he was lucky, this Sandman became a major success, commercially as well as artistic: enough to create an audience receptive to a new version of the Golden Age Sandman.
And Gaiman’s issue 1, which covered a mere 70 years, dispensed with the Roy Thomas origin in a less than a page, substituting a simple yet profound concept that instinctively felt right. In 1918, self-styled Magus Roderick Burgess attempts to bind Death, but instead captures her younger brother Dream, who remains a prisoner in a pentacle until he is accidentally released in 1988.
The Universe knows someone is missing, and slowly it attempts to replace him. Wesley Dodds’s nightmares have stopped since he started going out at night. He puts evil people to sleep with gas, then sprinkles sand on them, leaves them for the Police to find in the morning. The idea came to him in his sleep. He doesn’t dream about the man in the strange helmet anymore. No more burning eyes. Everything’s all right. Wesley Dodds sleeps the sleep of the just.
We begin with a dream, of Roderick Burgess and his pale captive, a dream in which Wesley Dodds is both people. In the waking world, he’s late to a much-anticipated meeting with Linus Benchley, an elderly friend of his father’s, a US diplomat and former Ambassador to Great Britain, who’s equally looking forward to an evening catching up with Young Dodds (a terminology that reminds me of a late friend, who was a mentor to me).
But the evening is interrupted, terminally, by the arrival of a mysterious letter, containing photographs. Bentley ushers Wes out hurriedly, draws himself a bath, listens to the radio playing a song about Havana, them carries that radio into the bath, electrocuting himself. An aghast Sandman, watching from without, bursts in, too late to rescue more that a couple of fragments of envelope from the fire: a symbol comprising the letters O, A and M in a triangle, and a London postmark.
So the much-travelled Wesley comes to England for the first time ever, the England of London fogs, classified adverts on the cover of The Times, strange accents, rain at Lords, and an audacious Jewel-thief known to the Police as the Cannon.
But England also holds one Dian Belmont, who has been introduced by Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten (in the absence of Roddy on a tea plantation in Ceylon) to good works in the East End of London, among the poor, unwashed and destitute, the whole thing run under the auspices of the ever-optimistic and jovial Reverend Armitage Hawley, Bagsy to his friends.
It is, of course, a compilation of cliches, but it is done with both affection and knowingness by Gaiman, and there isn’t a reader worth his or her salt that doesn’t finger Bagsy for the Cannon (or ‘Canon’) from his first appearance.
Dian is angry that Wes has followed her. She’s found something worthwhile, something that can make a difference, working with good people who are what they seem to be, without secrets. She hasn’t moved 3,000 miles away from Wesley Dodds only for him to follow her. And despite his plea that he is tracking Linus Benchley’s killer, Wes has to agree that he is following Dian, that he loves her so much.
It’s enough to get Dian to forget her animosity long enough for an afternoon in Wesley’s hotel room, but for no longer than that: she does not want to see or hear from him – or the Sandman – again whilst in England.
That we know will be a vain wish, for things now start to converge. OAM stands for the Order of Ancient Mysteries, Roderick Burgess’s circle, and an evening is planned for Fawney Rig, the Sussex mansion where Burgess bases himself. Where a being captured 21 years ago is imprisoned.
Letters of invitation go out to a host of curious creatures, who react in various strange ways. They include an MP, a Nazi sympathiser, a schoolteacher with a curious attitude towards snakes, an actor, a poet, a painter who paints forgeries, an arms manufacturer. And Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, like so many others a blackmail victim.
Like Benchley, Annabel’s thoughts turn to suicide, but she is swayed by Dian, who will accompany her and who will, in dead of night, find and steal the evidence of Annabel’s depravity, at age 17, with her elderly poet, now dead, that is being used to destroy her.
But the gathering is an unusual one, with powerful undercurrents, undercurrents almost too powerful for Annabel and Dian both, but not for two other, not entirely unexpected party guests, Mr Wesley Dodds and the Reverend Bagsy Hawley. There is not one but three persons on the prowl at dead of night, and both the Sandman and the Cannon are far better safecrackers than Dian Belmont.
But what is sought for is found, and the ungodly are duly smitten, though in one spectacular case by the even more ungodly than all. A massive donation finds its way, anonymously of course, to the Reverend Hawley’s mission.
Above all, though, the Sandman finds what he has sought, without knowing even that he sought, let alone what his objective. In a cellar beneath Fawney Rig he finds a being, tall, pale, shaded eyes, long, lank black hair. Someone who looks upon him with pity, for having a part of the pale man in him, who who sends him away, unable to assist, with the instruction to forget. And except in one final dream, in which Wesley understands everything, even the knowledge that such knowledge cannot be taken into the waking world, he forgets. If the Sandman remembers, he does not say.
Sandman Midnight Theatre is a brief joy, a charm in its slim pages, the only moment at which both Sandman meet, in the only circumstances in which such things are possible. For a moment, the Theatre audience see as if through more than the curtain that descends upon the stage.
And of course the experience leads Dian back to Wes, to America. It’s the one part of the play with which I have issues, because its presentation is very much that of a defeat for Dian Belmont, a defeat she accepts with weariness. Wesley has undergone no lesson or change pertinent to why Dian crossed an ocean to escape him: he’s crossed that ocean to bring her back, unchastened. Instead, it is Dian who has sought to place herself amongst real people, true people without secret lives, only to find that both Lady Annabel, and Bagsy Hawley conceal lives unimaginable from their exteriors. And it Dian who, for vouching for the Sandman to the Cannon, receives the unnecessarily caustic reminder that she too is not a person without a secret life.
That Dian’s return is predicated upon her will being broken is a very dubious outcome to say the least.
This one-off story was painted by Danish artist Teddy Kristiansen, who is known basically for gothic and horror work. Kristiansen’s style, angular, eschewing photorealism and any of the panoply of Eisnerian storytelling styles, lends itself confidently to what, in many respects, is a talky, static story. Whilst he can produce stylised depictions that are easily recognisable as Wes and Dian, his facial art is heavily stylised. This works superbly on Bagsey, who is an affectionate caricature of the Saint, and upon the aged Burgess, not to mention the gallery of grotesques who attend Fawney Rig.
But it is noticeable that, except in one highly affecting moment, Lady Annabel, an essentially serious character, is painted as a virtual blur, all but featureless. That moment comes when she and Dian first arrive at Fawney Rig: up to that point, Annabel has been painted as a sweet but shallow woman, collected and reserved, almost more minor aristocrat’s wife than the real thing. Even when the veil is ripped aside, and she is confessing to a more than ribald past, as a supposedly sweet innocent, Kristiansen paints her at a distant, an unreal, unformed figure, her hair primly done up in a bun.
It is as this wholly external shape that Annabel conducts Dian through Fawney Rig, which she knows of old, with her poet, with others. In their room she fiddles with her bun as she asks Dian to leave her alone for a little while. “I want to remember him. Just for a little while.” she says, half-turned, her hair shoulder-length, unbrushed, looking ten years younger, and Kristiansen puts something in her unfathomable eyes as she looks inwards, something that we could look upon for the ten years Annabel has lived since then without ever really knowing what is in her mind or her heart.
It’s an astonishing panel, one that is hard to turn from.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, once more upon the stage of the Mystery Theatre, in a play titled The Mist.
Break a leg.

*Edited to add: This statement is incorrect. Sandman Midnight Theatre was reprinted in the Graphic Novel compilation Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, published in 2000. The GN is out of print, but is considerably easier to find on eBay/Amazon than the Prestige Format Original.

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Dad’s Army – the NEW film?


No. THESE people.

It’s been a long day, and all I wanted to do when I got home was relax and catch-up with what the Internet had to show me about the last twelve hours. It wasn’t overly impressive, but at least it wasn’t too ridiculous until I got to the Guardian and discovered this little piece under Culture about a New Dad’s Army film. A NEW Dad’s Army film.

And yes, people are planning to do this, and Jimmy Perry is going to be involved in the writing, which is the most outrageous piece of treachery imaginable because he, of all people, must know that it can’t be done. It can’t be done, because with the exception of once young and naive Ian Lavender, they’re all dead, and you’ll never be able to get him playing Private Pike and convince anyone anymore.

Dear old Arthur Lowe, with that unmatchable fussiness and pomposity and self-importance built upon a core of genuine patriotism and unshakeable belief. The elegant John Le Mesurier, detached, relaxed, so carefully amused at everything around him. Clive Dunn, gone beyond the years of his aged character, always a half-step behind himself. John Laurie, with his rolling eyes, his perpetual air of gloom, prophet of unending despair. Doddery Arnold Ridley, the forever gentleman, gamely going on beyond his ancient strength. James Beck, poor, died-too-soon Beck, the conniver and fiddler, and of course Lavender himself, a boy being asked to do a man’s job, without ever being accorded the respect due the man.

How can you possibly think that there are seven actors who could begin to measure up to these men in the perfection of their casting, in the communal spirit of their acting, in the conviction they brought to the truly English ability to see ourselves in the most serious of situations and yet wring laughter that exposes, yet does not mock, lacerate or tear? What unfathomable arrogance animates the people who might take on these roles to think that they can by anything but a pygmy in comparison to the originals? It can’t be done. The people can’t do it, the writing is no longer possible in these times where cynicism has become an integral part of all our souls, whether we want it or not.

The past cannot be remade and yet be recognisable.

So far, the only names put forward are Toby Jones as Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Wilson. I don’t know Jones, have no idea of his talents, but he can never overcome not being Arthur Lowe. As for Nighy, he is a consummate actor, a genuine player of strength, easily capable of the bones of what made Arthur Wilson, but he can only ever be Bill Nighy displaying those characteristics. He cannot be John LeMesurier.

Those people no longer are with us. Their moulds are all broken. Worse even than the travesty of Still Open All Hours, a Dad’s Army project has no hope of success. We have all of us seen Dad’s Army so many times over, enough to practically recite each script, see each joke from the instant its foetal seed enters the script, yet we still laugh, each time, over and again, at the dozenth repeat.

How can you hope to take away the face, the twist of the mouth, the cast of the shoulders, the very voices that have done all that, and pretend that strangers are these old friends? You can’t. It’s impossible.

Don’t do it. Don’t be so utterly stupid as to waste so much time, energy and money on a thing that will never have a soul.

Obscure Corners – Walna Scar


Walna Scar fell, and it’s road leading from Coniston

Technically, Walna Scar and its environs is not that obscure a corner. It’s a part of the Coniston fells, the continuation of the Dow Crag ridge after it has descended over Blind Pike and Buck Pike. But it’s not in the Wainwrights, or not to those of us old enough to remember the Blessed’s reluctant rejection of the very idea of the Outlying Fells, in the closing pages of Book 7.
On the other hand, there’s enough interesting and attractive country, and summits, on that long ridge accompanying the eastern wall of the Duddon Valley, and Walna Scar fell is the only 2,000′ plus top in those Outlying Fells, making it an obvious target for a day in which solitude is a primary desire.
And I confess that solitude was specifically what I required on this outing, as it took place on FA Cup Final day, 1998.
I am a long-term football fan, and I love the FA Cup. Since 1968, I have lined up on Cup Final Day to watch the whole proceedings, throughout all of BBC and ITV’s coverage (the BBC has always been best). I was seriously committed to the Cup Final, but I didn’t want to watch that year. Each year, I’d choose a team I wanted to see win, but the choices on offer were Arsenal under the still-relatively new Arsene Wenger and Newcastle United under the former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalgleish.
I passionately wanted to see Wenger lose the Final. I passionately wanted to see Dalgleish lose the Final. I could not sit there and see either of them win.
So, with no alternatives available short of crossing the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-2, I boycotted the game and went to the Lakes instead. I didn’t even discover the result until the Sunday paper was delivered. The Lake District is a wonderful alternative to most things under the sun.
The road to Walna Scar the fell is the road to Walna Scar the pass, of course. It was a sunny May Saturday, and despite the limited nature of my expedition, I didn’t award myself a lie-in: alarm at six, hit the road at seven, the Cumbria border at eight, and parked up at the head of the narrow, climbing lane past the old station generously before nine.
I have a history with the Walna Scar Road, dating back into my father’s life-time, when on a soporifically hot August afternoon, we took up Wainwright’s recommendation about the sweet and gentle gradients of the Boo tarn approach, long since obliterated by quarry activity. Easy it might have been in normal conditions, but all of us struggled to lift our heavy legs at all, and we managed no more than three zigs and two zags before giving up and trudging down to the shore of the Tarn to rest.
Later, at least one of our multifarious visits to Goatswater was made by following the Walna Scar Road as far as Cove Moor, before turning up into the wide basin above.
And one of my very first solo expeditions was to Dow Crag, and thence the Old Man, via the pass and the ridge.
The point is that, as far as the pass, the way is as rutted and eroded and busy as any walk in the Conistons is likely to be, and the solitude you seek will not surround you until you break with the processions and, at Walna Scar top, turn left, not right, up the bare, trackless grass slope that leads away from the high fells.
The top of the fell is absurdly easy to reach: 100 feet of climbing, and the ground levels out onto a wide, grassy top, with the small summit cairn less than fifty feet away.
But that brief ascent makes all the difference. The crowds have gone a different way, no doubt marvelling at your eccentricity in going off in the wrong direction, and now you are on your own for the next couple of hours.
All the hard work has been done, but Walna Scar’s summit invites a gentle stroll west and south, towards the two subsidiary summits of White Pike and White Maiden, little more than half a mile away.
White Pike, the lower of the two, overlooks the Duddon Valley, a sovereign guarantee of beautiful views. Visit this first, and return to White Maiden.
This, for me was the highlight of the walk, as this narrow, slightly peaked top, looks out over a steep fall to the upper valley of the River Lickle, a place of closely planted trees and logging, a wilderness with no seeming access, especially from White Maiden. Further west, a jumbled ridge with no paths enabling the continuation of the walk, leads top the rough but shapely Caw, worthy of a separate expedition in itself another day.
There’s no more progress to be made in this direction, but the walk and the solitude can be pleasantly extended by descending the eastern flank of White Maiden, crossing a gently rock-strewn slope towards Red Gill, which, further downslope, becomes Ash Gill Beck. There are no paths, but when you reach the former bridge, cross the Beck and work left towards Ash Gill Quarry, where a good track heads across the fellside towards the lower slops of the Old Man.
I actually got into trouble near the bottom of this section, not from the landscape or anything like that, but from my left contact lens, which abruptly dried out completely on me.
This was not nice at all: it immediately became so dry, and so painful that I had to extract it, but I had not brought the lens carrying case with me, nor did I have my glasses in the rucksack. The lens was far too dry to even attempt to pop back in, and all I could do was to gently decant it into a compartment of my wallet (which I never usually carried onto the fells) and carry on with grossly mismatched eyesight: excellent in my right eye, extremely myopic in the left. It was such a hot, sunny day that it was far from ideal to maintain a permanent squint.
From the base of the Gill, it was a simple stroll towards the Walna Scar road as it emerges from the shadow of the Old Man. At this point, you might expect to kiss your solitude goodbye, but there are ways. I started down the old route back to Torver that I’d not walked in over twenty years, to give myself a view on Banishead Quarry and it’s waterfall and pool. Though this loses a small amount of height,, which is not recommended on a hot Saturday, it enabled me to strike off east, on sheeptracks that toyed with being intermittent, but which conducted me back comfortably to the roadhead, in peace and quiet. indeed, the main drag was visible more of the way, a hundred yards and more to the left, and if the track was ever seriously threatened, I would just have walked over there. But it kept me away from people until the time came to swing back towards the gate, and the car.
The quiet part of the walk is relatively short, there being no feasible link from Walna Scar fell and its subsidiary to any other high ground, and even the crossing of the lower part of the Moor cannot be said to be lonely, but on a day when you wish to get away from all others for a time, this is an enjoyable short expedition, during which you will learn nothing as to the progress of football matches taking place in London.

Squeaky Bum Time: Ah, well…


We did everything we could. It’s finished 3-0 to FC United, but it’s also finished 2-0 to Chorley. Congratulations to the Champions, and all back to Gigg Lane as we go through the Play-Off dance for the fourth year in a row.Ashton United on Tuesday night and, we hope, Fylde or Witton Albion next Saturday.

Addendum: apparently the Chorley fans have invaded the pitch, which is understandable, but allegedly have been hitting Buxton’s players, which is not on. I’m not alone in wondering if there will be consequences of this…

If there are, I’ll be back with an update. The Bum is not done yet!

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Separation


I have long been ambivalent about The Separation, which was first published in 2002. I have never entirely understood its ending, which has never seemed like a true ending, but rather a stopping, leaving more than just the usual mysteries that are a hallmark of Christopher Priest’s work, that are the necessary, and indeed right, concomitance of a writer whose work is founded so deeply in Unreality.
Like almost all of Priest’s fiction, The Separation concerns itself with at least two different versions of events, the opposition of which and the lingering uncertainty as to which, if either, is Real and which is Divergent. Usually, there is a dominant version, corresponding to either everyday ‘reality’ or else a near future version of the same that is discernible in the same terms. Usually, the story starts in the dominant reality.
That seems to be the case in The Separation, which opens with popular historian writer Stuart Goddard attending an unsuccessful signing session in a Buxton bookshop on a rainy afternoon. Goddard writes historical accounts of recent history based almost entirely of the collected oral testimony of participants. This session is attended by a woman who is responding to his appeal for information about a Second World War RAF Flight Lieutenant, J L Sawyer, who appears briefly in Churchill’s memoirs, and about whom there seems to be a mystery, or rather an obscurity.
The woman presents him with an envelope containing copies of her late father’s memoirs: he may be the relevant Sawyer. Gratton, already busy on other things, takes the manuscript back home, though he doesn’t read it immediately.
So far, so (beguilingly) mundane. But there are already a couple of off-key references: a Sino-American War, an address in Antananarivo, Republic of Masada, massive economic stagnation in an even more paranoid, near-Third World United States. Priest does not waste much time in showing his hand: Gratton was born on 10 May 1941, and his first success was a book about that very day, about what people were doing on the day the Second World War ended.
It’s a dramatic change of direction for Priest, to begin a story set indisputably in what his readership will define as Unreality. As things develop, the story takes on a structure similar to that of The Prestige: two, relatively short sections are set contemporarily in 1999, centred upon Gratton, but each serves to introduced longer sections set in the War itself, dealing with the events of that time in two completely incompatible worlds: Gratton’s War of 1939-41 that is confined to Europe and ends in a negotiated peace and the deposal of both Hitler and Churchill, and the 1939-45 World War with which we are familiar.
Is this latter reality Real? It’s tempting to think so, but this time Priest has thoroughly undermined the reality of either history. There are contradictions and almost parallels everywhere, not just between the separate accounts but within them, and both versions contain one common incident that, in itself, signals that history is doubling upon itself and dividing in each version.
The book centres upon J L Sawyer, Flight Lieutenant and Registered Conscientious Objector in one person. Or rather two persons, for Sawyer is identical twins (another echo of The Prestige), Joe and Jack, each given confusingly converging names and identical initials.
For all that they are twins, the brothers are very different, as evidenced by their War service: Jack, usually known as JL, is the RAF Bomber pilot, Joe the CO and Red Cross Ambulance Driver. At first, they’re united as sportsmen, 1936 Olympic Bronze medallists in the coxless pairs, but from that point their differences drive them very much apart.
JL’s memories come first. They begin with his plane being shot down on May 10, 1941, in an attack on Hamburg: JL is badly injured in his left leg and head, the rest of his crew is killed except for navigator Sam Levy. JL gets the plane as far back to England as he can before it crashes: he and Levy are later rescued from a dinghy.
This early account is told, somewhat repetitively, in alternating chapters to JL’s recollection of Munich 1936, his worldly naivete in thinking only of sport, being presented with his medal by Rudolf Hess, (who later propositions him), rescuing the lovely Birgit from persecution as a Jew, worshipping her but finding Joe has acted whilst he mooned, and their separation being marked by Joe and Birgit’s marriage.
But JL’s account is directly contradictory of Gratton’s 1939-41 reality: Joe is dead, killed in the Blitz in London, and JL goes on to a brief but fascinating attachment to Churchill’s staff, asked to question the prisoner ‘Jonathan’ – in reality the newly captive Hess, who has flown to England to propose peace.
There is another internal parallel: JL has already seen enough of Churchill to have decided that there are two of him, virtual twins, the one who goes out in public, in morale boosting visits to Blitzed areas, with his homburg and his cigar, being a near identical double: slightly taller, slightly slimmer, but otherwise a duplicate.
And JL’s primary conclusion about prisoner ‘Jonathan’ is that he is also not Hess, but a very nearly identical duplicate (a theory that was raised in real life, although it has little authoritative support).
After this, the rest of JL’s account is relatively perfunctory. The War continues, he spends two and a half years in a German Prison Camp, emigrates to Australia on finding that Birgit has remarried, and generally fades away, his remaining history of no import.
JL’s memoirs are, of course, directly contradictory of Stuart Gratton’s reality. Needless to say, he starts pursuing the originals immediately. But JL’s daughter has vanished, her name can’t be traced, her address is non-existant. And a parcel arrives from Masada, the homeland created after the War for the Jews, who were not going to be allowed into Palestine and, in keeping with a proposition genuinely made, have instead been settled upon, and displaced the native population of Madagascar.
The parcel is from Sam Levy, JL’s navigator on that fateful raid, now long and happily settled in Masada. His statement is the fourth and shortest section of the story, the final section being comprised by ‘research’ materials Levy has gleaned, including many many pages from Joe’s diary. There is an immediate collision of realities: JL died in the bomber crash on 10 May 1941, Joe survived the bombing raid in London.
This final section sets out the reality that pertains to Stuart Gratton’s world. It is told primarily but not exclusively from Joe’s viewpoint. But it is undercut, and thus so is the entire book, by a troubling syndrome that develops after Joe’s head injury in the Blitz.
Joe becomes prey to hallucinatory fugues, complete real and realistic periods of existence that continue for differing lengths of time, that lead in one way or another, to confrontation with JL. But JL’s presence curtails the fugue, sending Joe back to the point at which it begins, after which the future envelops in a manner that is similar, but far from identical to Joe’s illusion.
Joe grows steadily more concerned at the recurrence of these fugues. His marriage is crumbling. He discovers JL has been visiting Birgit behind his back, exactly as in JL’s story. He suspects JL s his baby’s father, not himself. He grows ever more disturbed by Birgit’s reliance on her elderly neighbour, Mrs Gratton (yes), and her strange, middle-aged son Harry (Stuart Gratton’s adopted father’s name is…). What is real? Is any of what he is living real, or is he in a fugue that may, at any moment, unravel?
And, as a Red Cross representative, Joe finds himself drawn, as a fluent German speaker, into participant in a completely unofficial, but ultimately successful Peace Conference, headed on the German side by Hess and on the English side by the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent.
And Joe makes two crucial interventions in the peace talks, one in private conversation with Hess, the other to Churchill, who is refusing to even contemplate peace, as a result of which the accord is signed, the War ends, both Hess and Churchill offer Joe jobs in Berlin, and he sets off whom to his wife and the baby due to be born soon. The only drawback is that, on return to England, Joe learns that JL is dead, in the last British bombing raid of the War.
But when he arrives at his home, it is to a series of shocks: the Grattons have moved in, the baby is born, a son, that the Grattons have already decided, with Birgit’s full compliance, to call Stuart. And sat in an armchair, his presence not revealed at first, is JL, in his RAF uniform.
It has been a fugue, a very long fugue, covering six moths, and all of the fugues we have already seen, and Joe’s life unwinds all the way back to the Red Cross ambulance bearing him back to Manchester with his Blitz-induced injuries.
And the book ends.
And it’s that ending that undermines everything. The Separation has already proved itself to be a thing of uncertainty, every moment, every step on ground that is not firm, that is as stable as shifting sand, liable at any moment to turn into something else. But whilst we are clued in late to the unreality of much of what Joe is recording, as his successes grow ever more grandiose and compelling, his unyielding views persuading everyone, the disappearance of all reality casts everything into doubt.
Who is Stuart Gratton? Is he the son of J L Sawyer (one of them, at any rate)? Does his version exist at all? How does JL’s memoirs, diametrically opposed to Gratton’s world, exist in it? Is there anything in this book in which we can truly believe?
Has the story ended or, as I said above, has it merely stopped?
I can’t give you any answers because I don’t know any. The Separation is, for someone like myself, who needs some form of anchor in fiction, both unfulfilling and thought-provoking. It is, either way, a book that demands to be read.
I should also say that I found the idea that Britain would have compromised in 1941, would have cooperated, or at least adopted a position of benevolent neutrality towards Nazi Germany – even with Hess replacing Hitler as Fuhrer – extremely difficult to swallow. I look on such things with hindsight – I was not born until ten years after the war ended – and see the Nazis as an evil that had to be defeated, come what may, and the argument that Britain would have stood down from War to enable Germany to crush Bolshevism is plausible only in a theoretical sense.
Otherwise, my one overall criticism of the book is that, for large portions, especially in its later stages, it ceases to e a story and becomes an alternate history. Priest shows he knows how to construct a believable alternate world, but in places it becomes too interested in itself, to the detriment of the narrative.
Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary book, without the shape of a resolution that would make it a work of genius.