Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Adjacent

The Adjacent brings us up to date. It is Christopher Priest’s most recent novel, published in 2013, astonishingly only two years after his previous book. Priest has, however, referred in interviews to having had both projects in mind for several years, sometimes almost working on them both simultaneously.
This is only the second time I have read this book, having treated myself to a copy as a late Xmas self-present, and having ignored it since then whilst I continued this project. Much of the story had stuck with me, but a second reading, without the element of surprise, has helped me get a proper grip on the book as a whole.
More than any of Priest’s previous works, I think The Adjacent cannot be approached without a lineal account of the book, which is divided into eight parts, crossing a number of realities, and in which vivid elements familiar from other books in Priest’s career play substantial roles: to a degree, The Adjacent is something of a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits!
The book is divided into eight parts, each of which represents a change in reality. The danger, as always, with Priest is in picking a ‘parent’ or primary reality, and treating all diversions from that state as, in one form or another, illusions. Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming urge to take Tibor Tarent’s story as our baseline. His account takes up four of the eight Parts, tops and tails the novel, is the constant thread to which the book keeps returning. But as we know, that is a dangerous assumption to make.
Tarent, in his late thirties, is a photographer, born in England of Hungarian and American parents. His story takes place an indeterminate amount of time in the future, in a Great Britain that is now an long-established Islamic Republic, which is fighting a losing war with advanced terrorism and which is slowly being devastated by Climate Change, in the form of excessive storms sweeping across the country every few days.
Tarent has been overseas for some time, posted to a Turkish refugee hospital camp where his wife, Melanie, worked as a nurse. The pair still loved each other, but the situation they were in was imposing severe strains on their marriage, which were ended abruptly by Melanie’s sudden death in a mysterious terrorist attack. Tarent has been summoned back to a Dictatorship style Britain, which takes the form of an authoritarian but incompetent bureaucracy, to be debriefed.
In Part 1, Priest introduces Tarent and his near future (‘fifty’ years later?). Tarent is recently widowed, the loss of Melanie still raw. As we gradually learn more details, from what he both tells and doesn’t tell her parents, we realise that her death stems from a highly localised Adjacency attack, even though we do not, as yet, understand Adjacency in this reality.
Tarent is travelling, under Government direction and control, to a base in Lincolnshire, at Warne’s Farm, where he is to be debriefed. After visiting his parents-in-law, he is taken to London. In West London (specifically Notting Hill, we later learn), the car’s windows are darkened, preventing him from seeing out, except for a few, brief seconds in which he sees a flattened, blackened area of total destruction. This, we later learn, is the scene of a much wider Adjacency attack.
From London, he travels north, slowly, in a Mebsher, a military transport vehicle, heavily armoured, with confined space inside. His travelling companions are officials of the Muslim regime, and ignore him throughout. The journey is dull and tedious, and Tarent’s only relief is in the photographs he continues to take, an obsession with documenting what he sees around him.
One of the officials is a woman whose head is concealed with a headscarf. She is sat in front of him, allowing him to see that she frequently fiddles with an area of skin just behind her left ear, where she has some form of information implant. En route, she surprises him utterly by pressing a small, folded square of paper into his hand as they disembark. It’s a very schoolroom form of messaging, especially in this future, and – perhaps fittingly – it is a proposition. The woman wants him to travel with her to her ultimate destination in Hull: she can override his instructions to report to Warne’s Farm.
Tarent is disturbed by the contact from an absolute stranger. The situation is further exacerbated when she visits him in his room that night. The woman, who will not give her name, but eventually instructs him to call her by a family name of Flo, is a senior official with great powers. She also has physical needs that she must indulge discretely. She wants Tarent for sex, both here and in Hull (sex in Hull: a romantic proposition indeed!).
Flo is also interested in Tarent because he has had a past association with Professor Thijs Rietvald, known as the inventor of Adjacency. The name is meaningless to Tarent, who disavows any connection with the man.
Though he makes love with Flo, Tarent is indecisive about what to do, and afterwards feels guilty about betraying Melanie, so soon after her death. In the end, despite Flo’s persuasions, he decides to go to Warne’s farm.
Tarent’s story has been, and will continue to be told in the third person.
In Part 2, the scene shifts back over a century. This section is told, in the first person, by Thomas “Tommy” Trent, better known as Mysterioso, or the Lord of Mystery. Trent is a stage magician, an illusionist. Recently, after a performance during which he made his girl assistant disappear, he was approached by a young airman, eager to learn the secret, which Trent refused to disclose. Now, he is on his way to France, temporarily commissioned, and summoned to a camp near the Front.
Trent has no idea why he has been thus summoned, or what is expected from him. On a crowded troop train, he is summoned to relative luxury in the Guard’s van, which he shares with another commissioned civilian who gives his name as Bert, though it comes out that he is actually H G Wells, on a similar mission, albeit to test an idea he has already submitted to the authorities.
Trent arrives at his destination to be welcomed by the young airman, Simeon Bartlett. When he arrives at his base, he discovers that his sponsor is a spotter pilot. To survey the German lines, the planes have to fly quite low, making them vulnerable to enemy fire.
To his horror, Trent realises that Bartlett wants him to come up with a way of making the planes invisible! Away from the carefully designed stage, this illusion is impossible, but Trent does apply his mind to whether there are any techniques that can give some sort of cover. He muses up Adjacency, the magician’s art of placing distracting objects near to whatever he intends to manipulate, relying upon those to hold the audience’s attention.
In the morning, when being shown the aircraft by Bartlett, Trent is approached by the Station Commander. He does not approve of Trent, accusing him of being some jumped-up amateur with delusions of saving his country, and ordering him to stay out of the way of the pilots. Trent is rattled, but there is worse to come: Bartlett’s plane stalls and crashes, burning him and his observer to death in front of Trent. Sickened by what he has seen, Trent loses all confidence and, based on the Commander’s orders, leaves the base to return to England, technically deserting.
On his return to England, he bumps into Wells again, also returning in disgust, but for a different reason: his idea has been adopted, been out in use, but not only is he not acknowledged, the Army refuses to admit the device exists, even with it there in front of them. The two part, and never meet again.
Part 3 returns to Tarent. He decides to leave the Mebsher at Warne’s Farm in accordance with his orders. He is dropped off on a ridge within walking distance, whilst the Mebsher circles round to return to the road. Almost immediately he changes his mind, but before he can signal, the Mebsher is enveloped in a pyramid of light – an Adjacency attack – and is utterly destroyed, along with its passengers. Soldiers come out from Warne’s Farm to investigate, but Tarent avoids them and makes his way there alone.
Inside the camp, he enters a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. The receptionist is a burka-wearing woman who has taken a vow of silence, his reporting officer, Captain Lepuits, does not want to know him, the debriefing officers have been sent away as they were instructed Tarent was going to Hull, not here. He is assigned a room that proves to be occupied already by a woman in her late twenties who, entirely understandably, refuses to let him in. After several, desperate attempts to get something sorted, Tarent takes the advice of the obstructive woman, Louise ‘Lou’ Paladin, to try his electric key on one of the unoccupied rooms, where at least he can sleep.
In the morning, he wakes to find her watching him, a little more friendly than before. His key has given her access to information about Tarent and who he is, and she has called to repay the compliment. That night, the camp is hit by yet another massive storm.
Part 4 is told in the first person by former journalist Jane Flockhart, about an interview that was never published. The interview was with Rietveld, an elderly, retired man. Flockhart asks about Adjacency from the point of view of someone scientifically ignorant. It is here that we get the clearest, most explicit explanation of Adjacency, though this is still couched in vagueness.
The technology was intended as purely passive, defensive, involving the creation of an Adjacency field that allows any personal attack, of any kind, to be deflected into an adjacent dimension. However, more focussed minds have turned Adjacency into an aggressive tool, seemingly by physically shifting areas into another dimension, leaving behind complete and utter destruction.
Flockhart’s photographer is Tibor Tarent, though not necessarily the Tarent of the ‘parent’ sequence, since his experience is something that it is unlikely he would have ever forgotten. Whilst Flockhart watches from the house, Tarent and the Professor set up in the garden, Rietveld carrying a distinctive pink ball.
The interview is destined never to be used, because Professor Rietveld commits suicide that night. But Tarent still attends Jane at her office, bringing with him the pictures. These, taken over a few moments, show Rietveld’s pink ball moving from hand to hand, appearing and disappearing. But when Tarent was taking the photos, the ball never changed position at all.
Part 5, instead of returning to Tarent, introduces a new setting and character. Mike ‘Floody’ Torrance is an RAF groundcrew member based at Tealby Moor in Lincolnshire. He aspired to being a pilot but was simply too tall to fit a cockpit. Nevertheless, he is an essential member of a close-knit bomber unit, carrying out frequent missions and suffering distressing losses of men.
New aircraft are delivered to Tealby Moor by civilian pilots from the Air Transport Artillery (ATA). One day, when inspecting the cockpit of a new plane, Torrance discovers an ornate wallet, left behind. He forgets to hand it in for return and becomes mildly obsessed with it. Finding a telephone number inside, he makes a call hoping to reach the pilot so he can arrange to return the wallet, and is stunned to find that it is a woman pilot, an escapee from Poland, Krsytina Roszca. She is immensely grateful for news that her wallet has not been lost and, in gratitude, arranges that when she is next posted to Tealby Moor, Torrance is taken off duty to enable her to treat him to a flight.
Both Torrance and Krystina are shocked at their meeting. Torrance simply falls in love with Krystina: for him, the rest of the day he spends with her, flown across country, alone with this woman, talking at great length, is a tragedy as it becomes apparent that she has no interest in him. But for Krystina, the shock is almost more: Torrance is the exact duplicate of her presumed dead Polish fiance, Tomasz Lowicz.
During the day, she tells Torrance her story in great detail. It is embedded in the middle of this Part, in the first person, as written by Torrance from memory, ten years later, in peacetime. Krystina’s account is of being taken from her peasant family when young to be the playmate of Tomasz, the heir to Count Lowicz. Years alter, Krystina is allowed to accompany the clearly fearful Tomasz on flying lessons, discovering her own innate ability and overwhelming love for flight. However, when the two young people declare their love for one another, and their intent to marry, the family turns on her.
Their relationship is torn apart by the German invasion. Tomasz joins a cavalry regiment, Krystina becomes a pilot. She last sees him in the midst of a shelling of their home town: Tomasz disappears, probably killed. Krystina escapes, making her way eventually to England.
Despite Torrance’s hopes, Krystina is still in love with Tomasz. She talks to him of her hopes and fears, describes how she dreams of getting to fly a Spitfire, and the feeling of being able to soar into the sky, above the clouds and fly forever, but the most she will allow is to ask him to call her by her mother’s pet name, Malina.
Torrance returns to duty, still hopeful of contact with Krystina. After several months, he is growing anxious that he has neither seen her return to the airfield, nor can he contact her by phone. Eventually, he beards an older, male pilot from ATA and asks him to make enquiries. The outcome is that he is summoned to a meeting where he is solemnly advised that, about six months earlier, Krystina went missing, presumed dead. She was delivering a Spitfire and apparently went off course crossing the Thames estuary. Torrance thinks of her words about flying into the sky and flying forever.
After the War, Torrance marries, has children, builds a career. In 1955, he writes out Krystina’s story as already given. In later life, he becomes a historian, writing books about the War. Not until his wife dies, when he is in his Seventies, does Torrance consider Krystina as a subject for one of his books. He travels at last to Poland, to research her life as related to him. There is no record of her, or of Count Lowicz and his family, not even in the town where their estates were held.
Part 6 returns to Tarent. In the aftermath of the storm, he develops a fever, and has to be nursed by Lou Paladin for several days. They talk about their backgrounds, and Tarent discovers that she is just as lost and isolated as he is. Her ex-partner lived in Notting Hill before the attack.
At night, Tarent sees a Mebsher brought in. various bodies are unloaded from it, on stretchers, and he can see oxygen masks in use. This is a hopeful sign, although he is convinced that the Mebsher was utterly destroyed.
However, a couple of days later, he is approached by Captain Lepuits, who is seeking his assistance to identify a body. Five corpses are in the refrigeration unit and Tarent is needed to identify that of Flo, or Tebyab (Doctor) Mallinan. As a condition of his aid, without which the corpses cannot be moved on, Tarent compels Lepuits to agree that both he and Lou will leave on the next transport that visits Warne’s Farm. On that basis, he identifies the body of Flo, within the limits of the little he knows of her, and also those of the other four bodies.
In a corner of the room, Tarent sees a sixth coffin, with objects piled in front of it. He volunteers to identify that body, if he can, but is assured by Lepuits that it is not necessary, that it has been satisfactorily identified already.
That afternoon, Tarent goes for a walk around the camp with his cameras. By trial and error he determines what he can and can’t photo without the guards reacting. Eventually, he becomes fascinated by an old and crumbling tower, which he examines at close range. Mysteriously, the tower, despite its height, seems to be visible only from certain places. When he tries to discuss this with Lou, despite her having been longer at Warne’s Farm than he, she cannot seem to picture where it is. More unusually, when Tarent downloads his pictures from online, the tower does not appear in any.
As evening approaches, a Mebsher arrives at the camp. Tarent and Lou packs their things and go out to join the transport. Six coffins are being loaded into its storage. One passenger, a hijab-clad woman who appears to be an important individual, is complaining about delays as she is travelling to an important meeting in Hull. Tarent is shocked to recognise the two drivers as the two Scottish muslims who drove his Mebsher. Neither of them recognise him, or show any sign of knowing him.
The woman in the hijab is Flo. When Tarent approaches her, she too does not recognise him and is completely hostile. She is suspicious of him knowing her official and family names, and, using the equipment lodged behind her left ear, erases various permits Tarent he retains from Turkey.
Lou enters the Mebsher. Tarent is about to follow her when he sees a man standing inside, a man with three cameras dangling from his neck. In horror, he backs away. He now realises who is in the sixth coffin.
So far, though it has moved about in time, the story has taken place on a recognisable future or past Earth. Abruptly, Part 7 removes to the Dream Archipelago, and in particular the Island of Prachous. Three times, gazetteer entries on Prachous, in the form of those in The Islanders are given, focussing on aspects of the island regime that correspond to the meanings of differing patois names. Each is followed by a story.
The first meaning is Fence. Two people, a man and a woman, leave a desert encampment to make a journey. His name is Tomak Tallant and he is a photographer. The woman, his guide, used to the route, is wholly detached, refusing to respond to conversation. She dresses in missionary garb and gives no name, calling herself a Speaker of the Word. They travel together only in body. Tallant takes copious photos of her on their journey.
When they reach a shanty town, and take rooms, they finally have a conversation in a bar, where the woman expounds on her religious duties and beliefs. She tells Tallant that she can only speak her name once in public, and wishes to be known only by her title. As Tallant leaves, she says something that he cannot hear: when he returns, she says it was her name, which she cannot now repeat, ever.
Nevertheless, after Tallant returns to his room, the Speaker joins him, dressed in loose clothing. Her vows do not commit her to chastity, and she has physical needs that she wishes to slake with him. because they are in private, she can tell him her name, Firentsa.
After they make love, Firentsa asks Tallant about his plans and his memories. The shanty town is called Adjacent and it is the biggest city on Prachous, a vast camp of people who arrive, continually, without seeming to travel. She asks if Tallant can remember where he was before beginning his journey across the desert. Save that he believes he was here with his wife, Tallant cannot.
They make love again. Tallant thinks of the journey ahead, of approaching the coast. He wishes he could remember his wife’s name.
A second gazetteer entry focusses on the patois name Revenger, and explains how it applies to policing. Punishment, it appears, is carried out by way of a licenced feud, with the victim allowed to respond in kind.
The second story, again in the third person, focusses upon a would-be illusionist, Thom the Thaumaturge. Thom is struggling to get a theatre to give him bookings: magic is old hat, not popular. Meanwhile, he is being followed by a young, dark-haired woman. She does not approach him, or try to speak to him, but every day, when he goes to his open air cafe, she is there at another table, staring at him.
More amused than anything at her persistence, Thom works on developing a major illusion, a disappearing act centred upon the Indian Rope Trick. He advertises for a girl assistant and is approached by the wealthy, well-established Gerres Huun and his daughter Rullebet. Rullebet is a young, intelligent, agile and athletic girl, bound for university in the autumn but eager to participate in this trick. Her widowed father is protective of her. A deal is struck, and Rullebet proves to be a very apt performer. Rehearsals go on every day until the trick is perfected. Thom persuades a theatre to give him a week’s booking, trading on Huun’s name and connections.
The week goes well, despite Thom’s concerns at the backstage staff, who are lazy and disinterested, an unwelcome combination for a magician’s act.
On the final night, Thom’s concerns grow about loose and dangerous wiring that the staff refuse to work on. The theatre is crowded but he gets a very good reception, until the final act. This does not go according to plan. Worse, when Rullebet climbs the rope to its top, there is a coruscating flash and she falls to the stage, killed by the combination of electrocution and the fall.
Numbed at her loss, Thom is aware of what will be his fate. He attempts to defend himself, to lay blame where it is due, on the Theatre’s negligence, but neither the police nor Huun accept this. He is pronounced guilty and sentence left to the crowd. This means that he will be kicked and beaten to death.
To his surprise, two women get onto the stage and try to defend Thom. One is the mysterious woman who has been watching him, the other a tall, strong woman, dressed as a missionary. The crowd does not respect their gender: both are beaten and kicked into unconsciousness. Thom is killed.
The women, neither of whom knew each other, who never met again, and who each assumed the other had died, were badly injured but recovered. One was a Speaker of the Word, the other was named Krystenya. Both subsequently escaped from Prachous.
The third gazetteer story, focussing on the patois name Closure, moves into the first person. It is told by Krystenya Rosscky, though she admits this is not her true name. She is searching for her lost love Tomak, a reservist, who she believes to be on Prachous. Krystenya has arrived by a plane, which is impounded. The Prachous authorities believe her to be a pilot from one of the warring nations of the northern continent, and the Covenant of Neutrality holds strong here.
Krystenya, who legally adapts the protective colouring of an Archipelagan name of Mellanya Ross, searches diligently for Tomak for months, without success thanks to the Prachoit bureaucracy. Gradually, she relaxes into island life though, when a briefly-friendly neighbour, Luce, mentions Adjacent, Krystenya redoubles her efforts to get to it and seek out the probably wounded Tomak.
She adapts to Prachous further, moving home, taking a job, volunteering backstage at a theatre. Then she sees Tomak, or rather Thom the Thaumaturge, his double.
She begins to follow him,unable to decide if it is Tomak or not. He sees her but doesn’t approach, confusing her further. She sees him go off daily with an attractive young woman, though it is not until she is approached by Huun that she finds out the real story. Nevertheless, Krystenya cannot stop following Thom, even after he confronts her and threatens her with the Police, and civic revenge, as a stalker.
Things differ in this story. Huun’s name is Gerred, not Gerres, and the young woman is Ruddebet, not Rullebet. And on the last night at the Theatre, there is no electrocution: Ruddebet falls, but only suffers fractures. Krystenya gets onto the stage, claiming to be a nurse, whilst the tall, strong woman says she is a doctor.
There being no death, there is no civic revenge against Thom. Nevertheless, the two women exchange details. The ‘Doctor’ was once qualified but no longer practices: she is now a missionary, and her name of Firentsa Mallinn.
The incident accelerates Krystnya’s plans to leave in her plane. After a test flight to ensure it is still working, she secures complete refuelling by filing a false flight plan. She then takes the Spitfire into the skies, intent on flying away.
Before leaving Prachous, she heads towards Adjacent. As she quarters the zone where it supposedly exists, the ground is different at each pass: uninhabitable wetlands, a destroyed Adjacency zone, a city appearing and disappearing. Finally, she sets her course above the clouds, at maximum fuel efficiency and flies away into the sky, on the bearing on which she flew in.
After passing through a major stormfront, Krystenya finds herself being menaced by Fokke-Wulf 190s. After evading these, she finds herself over unknown land, running low on fuel, seeking somewhere to land.
The final Part returns to Tarent, as he backs away from the Mebsher. It leaves, and he is stranded at Warne’s Farm, fallen through the system. Unable to understand what has happened, he walks out to the site of the attack on the Mebsher but can find no understanding.
As evening falls, he walks back to Warne’s Farm, but everything has changed. The compound and its fences has disappeared. The tower is visible, but it is sturdy and well-constructed. There are signs proclaiming this to be Tealby Moor. Everyone is in frantic action as bomber planes are readied for take-off. Tarent takes copious photographs, through his online link to his storage is inaccessible. He can go where he wants, get as close to people as he wishes, and they do not see, hear or perceive him. He has returned to 1944 but as a ghost.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light bursts directly above him. He fears he is about to fall victim to an Adjacency attack, but it seems only to e a Very Light. He follows two airmen across the field. One of them reveals it is his last day here, that he is being transferred tomorrow. The other wishes him, “Good luck, Floody.”
The airmen have mentioned that a lone Spitfire landed an hour earlier. Tarent, unable to process this strangeness, but feeling as if he is in a dream, photographs a raid on the base. Another Very light explodes above him. He seeks out a building, finding the Spitfire in a hangar. It’s female pilot is Melanie.
Both believed the other dead. They hug, astonished at their reunion. A third Very light explodes above them. Perhaps this is an Adjacency attack. They find themselves in the Lincolnshire countryside at early morning, above Warne’s Farm, with its decaying tower. Melanie was to report her for debriefing. They descend to the farm.
Having produced such a lengthy, but nowhere near comprehensive summary of the novel, how then do we interpret it? Certainly, it includes many echoes of previous works by Priest: the dystopian future following Muslim takeover harks back to Fugue for a Darkening Island: the photographer Tibor Tarent is a clear reminder of Richard Grey in The Glamour, especially in the final part, when his ghost-like presence in 1944 is identical to Grey’s performances when calling on the Glamour: Tommy Trent, though twenty years after the Victorian era, draws upon the ambience of the stage magicians in The Prestige: the wartime Tealby Moor returns to the war-time of The Separation (J. L. Sawyer lands at the field, briefly): virtually the whole of Part 7 could have been inserted into The Islanders without any sense of strain.
As I said, in some respects this is a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits tour.
But the most pertinent manner in which this reflects Priest’s lifes works is that, to the greatest extent possible, The Adjacent is spun around the central theme of Uncertainty. Every single moment of this book is a demonstration of Uncertainty.
In every Part, lines shift, lives shift. Tarent is Trent, is Torrance, is Tomacz, is Tallant, is Thom. He’s even three Tarent’s at the very least. Melanie is Krystina/Malina, is Krystenya/Mellanya. Flo is Flo twice, is Firentsa twice.
And note that Flo/Firentsa’s surnames, Mallinan/Mallin are themselves closely related to Melanie/Malina/Mellanya, further casting doubt upon whether these two roles are not the same person. The pair only meet as separate bodies only briefly, and in the strange, flexible world of the Dream Archipelago.
Identities shift, adjacencies recapitulate, characters move from world to world, sometimes overtly as in Krystina/Krystenya’s ability to fly into and out of the world of the Dream Archipelago, but most often by a simple change of adjacency. Nowhere do we know who is who, who is which. The book starts with Tibor and Melanie’s marriage torn apart by her death: it ends with a fairy-tale reuniting, but who amongst those who reads this book has any belief that the Tibor and Melanie of the book’s ending are those at its beginning?
It’s not layers of reality, as in the helter-skelter ending of A Dream of Wessex: these worlds through which we slip, almost unnoticed are, of course, Adjacent.
Do we know that our own lives are any more certain than those in this book?

Theatre Nights: The Crone

Sandman Mystery Theatre 53-56. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea) and Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Two things before we commence: the change in the dramatic credits signals a further distancing of originator Matt Wagner from the series that he originated. Henceforth, and for a short time, Wagner’s role will be to suggest themes – such as the world of nightly radio drama, and the fierce criticism it inspired – and to provide basic, rough plots. Steven Seagle, who has dialogued each play since The Vamp, ten plays back, now takes over plotting each story.
In the foyer of the letter column in the Final Act, Wagner’s further withdrawal is ascribed to his other commitments, especially the second part of his creator-owned Mage trilogy (as an aside, nearly twenty years on, there is still no sign of Wagner producing Mage 3, which leaves me fearing that the story will never be completed).
The other point is that reading The Crone in its individual issues is a very different experience to reading the graphic novels. What I’ve reviewed so far have been complete performances, page after page, without interruption or distraction, and I’ll always prefer that, but to have to fall back on the original comic, even without the monthly wait between cliffhanger and resolution, gives the story an entirely different feel.
It is more broken down, a thing of interruptions and distractions. Each Act exists as an artefact in itself, a new cover, a new entrance to be made at each stage. Adverts interrupt the flow, breaking down each Act into smaller chunks: four pages, then ads, four pages, then ads, six pages,ads, three pages.
And cliffhangers become real cliffhangers, the story poised in the arc of a leap, even if it takes literally seconds to close and put down an issue, pick up and open another. Even in those few seconds, the story is suspended, and an echo of those post-issue thoughts, the inevitable urge to outguess the creators, is triggered.
The play itself is set against the background of a nightly Radio soap opera, appropriately titled ‘The Coming of Night’ and, yes indeed, sponsored by a Soap Flakes company. The cast are, as may be expected, vastly different from their characters, and there are rivalries, hatreds and all sorts of other undercurrents at work.
And that’s before the programme finds itself subjected to a wave of murders, firstly of several successive leading men, but growing to include executives and the Producer. These murders are all committed by a dumpy, elderly woman using a sharpened hairpin, drawn from the bun and the back of her head, plunged through the victim’s neck to sever the carotid artery and then wiped fastidiously clean in the pages of a classic book which is then left by the victim.
As usual, Burke and the Sandman are rivals in seeking a solution to the latest series of Manhattan murders. But there’s an extraordinary scene in the Third Act where Burke arrives in his office to find the Sandman searching it. Astonishingly, Burke doesn’t make trouble, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want another gassing. He makes his dislike of the Sandman and his methods very plain, but for the first time he seems prepared to accept the Vigilante as an ally, as Larry Belmont has already done.
So Burke shares information, critical information as it turns out, that will lead the Sandman to the villain. And the Sandman promptly gasses him back to loathing: not the smartest of moves and one that the creators, when challenged, suggested was evidence of just how Wesley Dodds was disturbed by events in this play of greater import.
However, Burke’s willingness, however temporary, to deal with his personal demon is the first sign that our resident monster may be capable of change, may have been deeply affected by Gina’s murder in The Blackhawk. His encounter with the Sandman is immediately preceded by an encounter with an old friend/colleague, Detective Weaver, transferred back to Manhattan after a spell in the suburbs.
Weaver represents an older time, when Burke had had a personal life – a social life, even – and he wants to pick it up. After all, there’s Doris, his wife’s sister, who’s free again…
Burke runs away from both these suggestions, straight to his meeting with Sandman. But when Weaver repeats his offer in the Final Act, the case still unsolved, some of the fire seems to leave Burke. Let the case solve itself: he leaves with his colleague.
It’s not long after that the Sandman, with the aid of Wesley Dodds, solves the case. Throughout The Crone, he is his usually single-minded self, caught up in his obsession, expecting Dian to be his eager sidekick, with the same preoccupation, and to an unforgivable extent, turning his head away from what really fills her mind.
It’s a painful progression. An elderly academic, Dr Estelle Beauvedere, is set up as the potential killer. She’s the same size and age and her fervent, indeed ironclad belief that culture exists only in books and is incapable of being transmitted in any other form makes her into an inflexible opponent of other media, especially radio.
Indeed, the good Doctor inveighs against Radio’s jack-booted invasion of the home and its destructive effect on true culture in terms that, very shortly thereafter, would be universally applied to Hitler’s armies (the Declaration of War by Great Britain is announced in the background of the first scene of the play).
Wesley isn’t impressed in the slightest by Dr Beauvedere, but at least in the beginning Dian is, very much so. As is Dian’s old college friend, Nancy Fullbright, a bookshop owner and a junior Beauvedere in her opinions. Wesley’s dissection of the Doctor’s opinion, and his slightly patronising attitude to Nancy, also demonstrate how far he is from what is the central issue of this story.
Again, the crime, though entertaining of itself, is merely a backcloth for what is truly important. The good Doctor – too elderly, too frail – is not the killer, but once Wesley takes over sponsoring ‘The Coming of Night’ and threatens to sack the entire cast unless someone ‘fesses up, it draws out the true culprit, young Frank Bowman. Frank’s the perpetually hopeful but overlooked understudy to the leading man. Frank Bowman is also a stage name. For Francis Beauvedere.
I can’t resist a comparison between Bowman and his opposite number, Linda Rivers, understudy to the leading lady. The eager, unassuming Frank spends the entire play trying to get ahead but philosophically accepting his being passed over time after time. Linda, on the other hand, is a real, slimy shitbag, a poisonous toad willing to lie, slander and malign anyone in her way to get ahead. Nasty piece of work that she is, it’s her compliant counterpart who’s really killing people to get ahead.
I’ve spent more time on the plot than I’d intended, because the true heart of this play is the next stage of the ever-evolving relationship between Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds. And that little bombshell dropped at the end of Return of the Scarlet Ghost.
Because, though Dian has clearly recovered physically from her injuries, her thoughts now revolve around the life growing inside her. Aside from the medical staff, only Wesley knows of her condition. Her father remains unaware, and Dian intends that to be the case until she decides otherwise.
But what of the future? Dian is by no means thrilled by her pregnancy. She had expected to be so, when the time came, looked forward to it, but that was going to be a planned pregnancy,at a time of her choosing, and that’s not what she’s got.
Everything around her fills her with fear. She doesn’t feel ready. She’s only now beginning to wake up to herself, and her abilities, a process doomed to end if she takes on responsibility for another life, utterly dependent upon her. War is coming, War is here in Europe, her thoughts turn to Annabel and Roddy in England, who have just had a baby son. (There is a continuity issue here: Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten was not even pregnant in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a few months ago, and besides, Roddy was out east with his plantations). But most of all there is Wesley.
It’s not just his dedication to, or rather obsession with his second self, and the risks and danger attendant on that profession. It’s not his love, which is constant, vital and open. It’s certainly not fear that he won’t accept his responsibilities, because he’s as reassuring on that score as anyone could wish.
But he can’t be as reassuring as Dian wants, needs. For Miss Belmont knows, from conversations offstage with Mr. Dodds, that his youth in the Orient, his long years of exposure to Eastern thoughts and philosophies, have given him a set of iron convictions by which he lives.
Because Wesley Dodds has rejected marriage, rejected it as a concept, as a necessity for himself. Though he’s prepared, in every way, to make Dian his wife in every other possible respect, that final step is one that he cannot and will not take: he will not offer her the name and the certificate of marriage.
And Dian is equally the product of her own life, thoughts and convictions. To her, in all the ways that matter, she must have marriage. It’s an impossible impasse.
Stepping outside the story for a moment, I have sympathy with both positions. When the time came, I wanted to be married, but it made no difference: I was as committed without the ring as with. And I didn’t live in an age where marriage was expected. A good friend of mine was with his partner for over twenty years without marrying (though they’ve since gone and done it!). I see both viewpoints, even as I am closer to Dian’s views. And, frankly,Wesley’s behaviour pushes me into her camp.
Because, whilst Wesley does take the pregnancy seriously, and does want to do all the right things, he can only do that when he stops to listen to Dian. And that is only at intervals from what is clearly more important: the Crone.
Too many times, when Dian needs to be at the forefront of his thoughts, Wesley is not only absorbed in the murders, but assumes that this is his lover’s primary concern as well.
Though it is never specifically stated, Seagle and Davis impart the sense that it is this, more than anything, that persuades Dian to seek a termination. And, to be honest, I’m not at all happy with Wesley’s response: he doesn’t want it to take place, but then it’s Dian’s body and Dian’s decision, and it has to be all her choice. Pilate-like, he washes his hands of all responsibility. He’s got more important things to do.
(Needless to say, Dian comes around, rededicates herself to him and his cause, wholeheartedly, which I can’t help but think is very loaded-dice).
No, as at other times in this season, Wesley Dodds does not come out of this with his image enhanced.
The Final Act (and note how much more often I’ve referred to individual Acts in this review than when I have been dealing with a collected play) ends with Dian on her way to her termination, a comfortable and above all discreet journey to a respectable and confidential place where such things are done. It’s a contrast, violently so, to the parallel experience of ‘The Coming of Night’ actress Patricia Honeywell, pregnant by her married Producer and delivered by dodgy, uncaring associates to a back street abortionist from where she emerges in a very different state to how we know Dian Belmont will fare. All courtesy of Wesley’s very discreet doctor, Charles McNider. You know, his future Justice Society comrade, Dr Mid-Nite.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Cannon.
Break a leg.

Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head

MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!

A Moment of Insight, or, I become my parents

Once upon a time, many years ago, when I still lived at home, there appeared on the ‘scene’ a band who made a lot of noise in the press. They were called Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and their line-up included Tony James who’d previously been in Generation X with Billy Idol, who was now making a few waves as a solo artist.
This was in 1982, when I was still listening regularly to Radio 1, still obsessed with hearing dear forever-missed Peely four times a night, still reading the New Musical Express weekly, and before I first heard of R.E.M., though this was now in sight of the time when this concentration upon the new and the unheard would start to fall away.
I was still the same kid who’d first absorbed pop and rock with abandonment and enthusiasm that morning when the Christmas holiday started and I put on the weekday Radio 1 for the first time.
So I’d heard of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, whose name was supposedly taken from a Russian street gang. They were basically a bunch of wankers trying to get rich quick by posing as a philosophical stage in music, one of far too many futures of rock, whilst riffing off a seemingly more extreme fashion version of the then-current New Romantics. Tony James didn’t have any credibility whatsoever thanks to his Generation X days, and the bullshit he came out with, and the incredulous stupidity of the band having been given a £1,000,000 plus deal without a single song was another reflection of their complete hollowness.
I’m speaking after the fact now. Somehow or other, at the time, I managed to only become aware of their existence, and of their being controversial. I had managed, unintentionally, to neither hear their debut single, ‘Love Missile F1-11’, nor to see any photos of the group.
All this would change when the song came out. It crashed into the Top 40 on the Tuesday at no. 7 (I still followed the Charts, which had, during the previous five years, been known to feature lots and lots of bloody good music).
I was still living at home in those days. My sister was going out with her future husband, so my mother and I had a pretty regular Thursday night deal. After tea, and after I had washed the pots, she would sit herself down in the Breakfast Room with a cup of tea, the Manchester Evening News and a cigarette (or two) until 8.00pm, and I got Top of the Pops in peace.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik were first on. I sat and looked at them. I listened to the sluggish, badly produced electrobeat opening. I looked at their make-up, their hair, their clothes. I listened to the (non-singing) singer start to sing. All in absolute silence. Then, after about thirty seconds of that I stood and walked back through to the Breakfast Room. My mother looked up in surprise.
“I’ve come to apologise,” I said.
She looked at me as if I were mad.
“I’ve just understood,” I said, “everything you’ve thought about my music for the last dozen years.”
And that’s what it was. There’s been a lot of music flow past my ears in the thirty years since then, and plenty of it that I’ve found appallingly awful, astonishingly bad and unbelievably shite, and I’ve shrugged and just ignored it. It doesn’t bother me. There is more good music out there than I’ll ever  find in this lifetime, and far from enough time to rehear what I love to hear, so what does it matter if the Cowells of this world make plastic crap for people who’ve no idea what music sounds like, or the boy bands manipulate the hormones of screaming kids, or bands like Slipknot wear ridiculous stage clobber and suck anything related to music out of their music. People like them, so let them. I’ve long since ceased to be anything like the audience they are playing for, and I’m not bothered that they think of me and my tastes with contempt, for their contempt is meaningless.
And that goes for Sigue Sigue Sputnik as well, whose time in the sun lasted about four weeks and vanished, never to return, their novelty so veneer-thin that they were passe after a single sighting.
But in that thirty seconds, in a moment of almost awe, I did see, and hear, a version of ‘my’ music with the same ears as those of my mother, experienced a moment of sympathetic magic. An apology was necessary, a momentary sharing of a common insight.
They really were that fucking awful.

Is that what it’s really about? Cliff Richard’s In the Country

This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.
Incredibly, it was a double-header on today’s programme. I’ve been waiting for this particular bit of faux-innocence to come up as I spotted it’s darker sub-content a long time ago…
I have a confession to make: I don’t like Cliff Richard. Not his music, not his Christianity, not his films. And, after their Seventies revival, I’m not all that fond of the Shadows either: Hank Marvin’s guitar sound may be superb, but the rest of the band are pretty naff.
Yet despite our homegrown Elvis’s impeccably clean-cut surface, there are times when the mask slips, and the former Mr Harry Webb unveils a darker underbelly than the one we are used to seeing. One such instance is his 1966 hit single, In the Country.
On the surface, this is one of Cliff’s more palatable songs, a bright, uptempo, happy song, extolling the wonders of a day in the country, ‘where the air is good/and the day is fine’, ‘where the silver stream is a poor man’s wine’. Sound’s good, doesn’t it?
But our Cliff has a darker side, a decidedly unChristian one if you start listening to this song properly.
In the Country addresses a person in pain, in psychic torment, lost in a world of despair, confusion and depersonalisation. “When the world in which you live in/Gets a bit too much to bear/
And you need someone to lean on/When you look, there’s no one there.”
Ah, we’ve been there, mate. And “When you’re walking in the city/And you’re feeling rather small/ And the people on the pavement/Seem to form a solid wall.”
Yeah, isolation can be a killer, forcing you ever deeper into depression. It’s that time when, more than anything else, you need a friend, a hand reaching out, a kindly word, the recognition of what you are going through. So, what does the Christian Cliff have to say to you?
“You’re gonna find me out in the country.”
Come again, Cliff?
“Yeah, you’re gonna find me way out in the country.”
Hang about man, show some sympathy here, don’t rub the poor sod’s nose in it that you’ve got it going better for you then him.
“Where the air is good, and the day is fine/And the pretty girl has a hand in mine/And the silver stream is a poor man’s wine.”
Ah,you bastard! Here’s this guy suffering and you, all you can do is go on about how you’re living it up in the countryside, no bloody petrol fumes there, you’re romping with this bird (it’s not Olivia, is it?), and you’ve got natural water, not the horrible stuff that comes out of taps. You absolute shit, can’t you think of someone else I bet he’d give everything to get out and see some clouds and fields, even without a dolly bird to shag in the long grass.
I’m all right, is it Cliff? And they all think you’re so nice.

Is that what it’s really about? – The Ivy League’s Tossing and Turning

This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

This is really wierd, but I had been thinking of the Ivy League’s third, most successful and final hit, ‘Tossing and Turning’, as a potential subject for this series mot more than three days ago, and as if by some measure of ESP, SOTS producer and compiler Phil Swern selected the very track to open this morning’s programme. The Ivy League were primarily vocalists, session singers John Carter, Ken Lewis and Perry Ford, producing close harmonies based on a high-pitched lead voice.

Initially, they were forced on the Who for their debut single, ‘I Can’t Explain’, before the trio scored two well-remembered top 5 singles, seperated by a minor, top 30 hit.

To be honest, I’m not really sure I should be counting this as a song with a hidden meaning, since the hidden meaning is about as well-concealed as Rihanna’s bum. Try the opening verse: “I can’t sleep at night/Tossing and turning/I turn on the light/Then while it’s burning/I think of all the things that we do/And all the reasons why I love you.”

Basically, the guy can’t sleep ‘cos he’s got his girlfriend on his mind, so what does he do in those lonely, silent hours, awake without any relief? He ‘tosses and turns’. All night. I think we can all see very clearly, in our mind’s eyes, what he’s doing, whether we want an image like that in our heads or not (and I for one would definitely prefer not).

“Was I really holding you tight? Did I really kiss you goodnight?” our guy ponders, filling his mind with the immediacy of close bodily contact of a kind that impresses, firmly, where a woman is not shaped like a man, not to mention snogging on the doorstep, and as we might expect, he’s off tossing and turning again.

Of course, this is the Sixties, so the sweet little maid, doubtless unaware of the filthy practices to which she has driven her frustrated beau, is fast asleep, blissfully not polluting her carnality, not even with him. He knows: “Whatcha gonna do at night?/Nobody to hold you tight/Are you lonely?/Don’t you know that I get lonely, too?/And I’m blaming you!”  We are witness to sexist thinking here: of course, good girls neverdid that sort of thing: Heck, even bad girls didn’t!

Naturally, there’s a solution: “We’ll be lovers just like before/I guess I’ll never sleep anymore.” Oh, but there he goes again, ‘tossing and turning’ even more at the very thought. It frankly makes you doubt that, even after she’s let him have his way with her innocence, he’s not still going to be pulling his plonker every night.

I bet it wakes her up something chronic.

If you watch this video, you will see that I am not the only one to have penetrated (hee hee) the real meaning of this song…

I Confess

For the past three months or so, I’ve been engaged in a large-scale recording and burning process, all of which was sparked by a moment of forgetfulness.
This dates back to my disastrous day in the Lakes, back in March, when I forgot to charge up my mp3 player overnight, in anticipation of four hours or so on the train. At the last minute, I thought of my old Minidisc player that I haven’t used in years. I grabbed that, stuffed in new batteries, picked four MDs and made it all the way to the train before realising I’d forgotten my headphones.
However stupid all that was, it at least brought back to mind that I had a portable Minidisc player, and over 40 Minidiscs as full as could be of music, the majority of which being transferred tracks recorded off the radio (and friend’s LPs and, in a couple of cases, the TV via a microphone). These recordings go back as far as 1970!
Having been reminded of the MDs, I decided to give them a listen. Being a good little anal-retentive, I had of course kept a comprehensive track listing for each MD during the original transfer from tape. However, these lists had long since disappeared from view. So I spent every moment I could during the next three weeks or so listening, carrying pen and paper around with me, building up a new track-listing.
It was a revelation! The vast majority of the MDs had a minimum of 20 tracks on them, which meant something like 750 – 800 tracks to listen to. There were things I hadn’t listened to in years, things I’d forgotten I had taped, plenty of things I’d forgotten ever existed!
Of course, amongst this cornucopia were more than a few tracks I couldn’t identify. Sometimes this was just a temporary blindspot, like when I couldn’t immediately remember the band that did the doo-wop version of ‘Blue Moon’ (The Marcels, pillock!). Sometimes it took more prolonged racking of my memory until something floated out (The Bluetones and The Dylans). There were others where I chased details down by pasting lines of lyrics into Google, and in the case of the three tracks of the McGarrigle Sisters’ French Album, I identified two by cross-comparing with tracks uploaded to YouTube and, when the third track proved not to be there, cross-checking titles with other singers on YouTube until I placed the song!
After all that, I’ve ended up with eight tracks I’m unable to place, in whole or part. Three of them are instrumentals, and another three are early Nineties Cocteau Twins tracks, and if you know how to identify titles without listening to every single Cocteau Twins tracks until you recognise a liquid, wordless vocal, please leave a comment below!
But that’s not even been half of the project. Once I’d identified everything I could, I started going through the new lists and checking off everything I’d already duplicated on CD (commercial or otherwise) or simply downloaded to my laptop.
I then started downloading and burning CD-Rs, sometimes three or four a day, collating all the tracks I hadn’t already got. Mostly this was by way of YouTube, supplemented by as few Amazon mp3 purchases as I had to. Even so, that still left several dozen tracks that were inaccessible from anywhere except my own MDs.
(This included three tracks from long lost Lindisfarne sessions from the early Seventies, including the session where they did four Fog on the Tyne tracks but with electric piano instead of second guitar. These tapes are missing, probably wiped, and whilst they’re in poor condition, my recordings may well be the only ones in existence. So I contacted the official website, which out to be founder member and drummer Ray Laidlaw. I ended up burning these to CD and sent him a copy, which hopefully can be cleaned up and made generally available).
This should have been a problem. However, I had some software and leads that I’d bought through eBay a good two years before, with the intention of digitizing my cassettes but, because this was not physically convenient getting the laptop to the cassette player, I hadn’t even opened the package.
The software turned out to only be Audacity, which I’ve had on my laptop for ages, but it turned out that a simple jack-lead did the trick! Plug one end into the headphone socket of the MD player, the other into the microphone socket of the laptop, change Preferences in Audacity to record from microphone and I could transfer the songs with ease.
Gradually, all the downloads built up on my laptop as I alternated between downloading/taping and burning. That was another source of great fun, deciding on how to compile this rush of new CDs. I already had a few series of self-burned CDs along various themes, and I created a couple of dozen more in those sets. Sometimes, I created genre-themed CDs: punk and new wave on one, reggae and ska on another, a bunch of more commercially popular songs on a mainstream compilation!
I’ve even got nearly enough electronic music for another compilation but, anal-retentive that I am, I’ve about six minutes space left and I hate burning CDs that don’t have every feasible minute used.
It’s also been an excuse to start burning down a lot of the stuff I’ve simply compiled over the past few years and never got round to turning into CDs,and thus clearing up memory on my laptop.
All good things come towards an end. All the tracks have been gathered in and most of them burned out. But then again, having used a USB turntable to digitize my remaining vinyl, I’ve found a way to protract the procedure. At Xmas I bought a USB cassette player, to sort out the tapes. Even with the extra convenience that allowed me, I still hadn’t got round to doing it until this last week. It’s dead simple: plug the cassette player into the laptop via the USB cable supplied, reset Preferences in Audacity back to Primary Source, and start recording!
And there’s some dead good old stuff on those tapes that I thought had been lost forever! No more lost Lindisfarne, sadly.
All of which is really by way of an ultra-wordy preamble to a little bit of musing about the human mind.
Among the digitized vinyl was a bunch of 12” versions of singles by The Beat, that wonderfully fluid, post Two-Tone Birmingham band. I saw them on stage just the once and, after playing the first eight or nine songs fairly straight, everything after that was a brilliant example of a band so masterful at their music that they could slide orthodox songs into extended dub renderings live without any jarring.
I panicked about ten days ago, when a computer issue made me fear I’d lost all my downloaded music (though thankfully this proved not to be the case). Once everything had been ironed out, I made haste to burn a Beat CD. Whilst checking for additional tracks, I downloaded the 12” of one of their last singles, ‘I Confess‘, taken from their third and final album.
It was a weird departure in sound, for a band growing steadily rootsier to suddenly come out with a piano-laden, superficial, almost cabaret sound in places. ‘I Confess’ was a good, strong track, one I hadn’t listened to for ages. So I burned the CD, checked it was correctly recorded, and deleted the files.
That was over the weekend just gone. Today, half a week later, without having listened to the track again in the interim, I had ‘I Confess’ on the brain, serious earworm time, constantly hearing it, trying to sing along to it (try it one day, it’s one of Dave Wakelin’s most slippery vocals), over and again.
So where the hell did that come from? Why did it suddenly arrive today, after I listened to it last Saturday? What was the trigger to make it now, and not then?
And why is it that an earworm, the memory of a song or performance, is so much more powerful than the music itself. Had I had the song there available, I would have played it only once, fulfilling my listening pleasure, but I must have re-run it’s intro, that tinkling piano, the little crash of drums, those opening lines literally dozens of times, no amount of it swirling through my head able to satisfy the need for it to appear, again and again.
What peculiarity makes that so common a thing? Seriously, if anyone has any idea, I’m all ears. At least the external ones: the inner ears are just going to slip the song onto the ethereal turntable seven or eight more times…