Theatre Nights: The Goblin


Sandman Mystery Theatre 65-68. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Goblin is a superb play, both sublime and tragic. It is sublime due to its deft interweaving of the crime that it tells with the overarching development of Wesley and Dian’s relationship. It puts Dian Belmont front and centre in a way she has never been before, showcasing both her vulnerabilities and the inner strengths that none suspected lay in her in The Tarantula. It starts hares that would have far-reaching consequences on the story as it lay to progress in coming months. It encompassed a whole-hearted declaration of love from Dian that, for once, came from a position of strength and not weakness.
It is tragic because this was the last full play the Mystery Theatre would perform. Falling sales had led to Sandman Mystery Theatre being cancelled with effect from issue 70. Two Acts, a truncated, deliberately unfinished play to deliberately disrupt the carefully developed sequence of almost six years work.
The Goblin is magnificent in itself, and glorious in terms of what it promised to foreshadow. But we would never discover those promises.
The story began in banal circumstances. A baby cries in the night, disturbing the sleep of its parents (in Hays Code approved single beds: an intriguing detail). She, unconcerned, wants to go back to sleep, he, worried, goes to check on their little man.
They are being robbed, of cash and baby, by the ‘Goblin’: a strange, misshapen, grunting, long-armed, long-legged, horribly ugly little man. The Goblin beats his head in with a bottle, then uses it to brain the wife when she comes running.
We have a murder, and we will have Burke and O’Grady on the case, but first we have a dream: Wesley has dropped off briefly, at the Belmont house for a dinner insisted upon by a DA, who’s running late. Larry wants to speak to Wesley about Dian, about how much she sees of him, how often she stays at his house: in short, Larry wants to know about Wesley’s intentions! And Wesley, who has allowed himself to think that this issue is solely between himself and Dian, and is thus settled, has no answer. Larry warns him he’s going to have to come up with one, and soon.
Wesley seeks his usual refuge from such issues in the Sandman. To avoid thinking about it, he plans to spend the night monitoring the Police radio bands.This leads to him catching Burke and O’Grady’s assignment and rushing out to reconnoitre. He’s not alone: the Goblin is also on the rooftops. When he runs, the Sandman pursues, but where the agile little monster ca clear the gap between roof and roof, the Sandman cannot. He falls.
He’s lucky enough to fall into the back of a garbage truck, which breaks his fall, but the Sandman is plainly not right. Some sort of head injury, a concussion at least. He’s not in his right mind for the rest of the play, his cryptic utterances muddled and strange, his actions paranoid and dangerous. He accuses and attacks innocent passers-by, folding them into his pursuit of the missing child. He attacks Humphries at one point, even tries to do the same to Dian. And though he does bring down the villain at the end, it is unknowingly, by coincidence.
In short, he becomes a menace equal to those he pursues. The lot of saving and solving falls solely upon Dian.
I’ve jumped ahead slightly in relating that. It’s easy, on a superficial reading, to attribute the Sandman’s confusion, his madness, upon the injuries he sustains in his fall, but there are deeper issues here.
Larry’s question, his incipient disapproval – reinforced by a coversation with Humphries about a ‘hypothetical’ instance where Etta might be sleeping with a man outside of matrimony in which Humphries is insistent that no father could approve – is what drives Wesley downstairs to his laboratory. But he cannot concentrate until he dons the Sandman’s gas mask and fedora – a pathetic sight as rendered by Davis.
Before that comes two panels that chill me, as Wesley defends himself to himself:
“No matter what we’ve been through of late – I can’t be held responsible for Dian’s happiness or reputation if they come at the cost of my own beliefs.”
And:
“In the end, I know I’ll do what’s logical…” (emphasis in original).
Those words horrify me, frighten me. I can’t recognise love in them, nor humanity. Even reading them now, fifteen years after the event, I crave to know what consequences would have followed from those thoughts. But they are nothing but a ghost trail.
But despite obliterating himself in the Sandman, Wesley Dodds sleeps. And its in his dreams that he hears the vital Police message, compelling him into rushing out, in daylight, without thought of concealment, almost knocking Dian down. What follows for the Sandman is not solely the result of concussion, no indeed.
Dian’s on the spot because she’s moving in. That is, she’s accepted Wesley’s old offer of establishing a writing office at his home, and she’s here to set up. The decision, taken the preeceding night, after Wesley’s ‘talk’ with Larry, is another factor in his concerns.
Etta, Humphries’ daughter, is firmly established in the household, without however relinquishing any of her poliotical beliefs (later in the play, Davis depicts her as having taken to wearing trousers!). Before Dian even starts, Etta’s persuaded her to join her in volunteering, at All God’s Children Orphanage, a private insitution set up by socialite Carmen Bohage (not out of charity but for social kudos).
By accident, this brings Dian into the heart of the Sandman’s case. We already know there is something rotten there, as we’ve seen Mrs Bohage delivering unwanted children to the far less salubrious surroundings of Standard House, a public orphanage as grim as they come, owned/run by the hardened Mr Ricketts.
Etta is impossible, utterly unmaternal, martinet-like, but Dian is a natural with the children, almost too good for Mrs Bohage. The presence of the children, her feelings for them, spurs Dian on to the final step: she insists her father be home early where she will finally unburden herself over the secret of her abortion.
But things get in the way. Dian has already arranged a literary dinner with Richard Manten, the essayist, having reminded him that she is firmly spoken for. In the course of the play, Manten will a) extravagantly praise Dian’s budding novel, b) arrange for an (initially) disappointing interview with his publisher and c) kiss her, though again we will never get to find out where Seagle planned to take this diversion.
However, between her appointment with Manten, and her late arrival home after Mrs Bohage sends her to Standard House – where her eyes are horrifyingly opened – Dian leaves herself no time to talk to her father, a missed opportunity with terrible consequences.
The following day, Dian takes the decision to transfer her services to Standard House. The children there are in greater need of love, but whilst Ricketts accepts Dian, he is insistent that she stay within strict bounds: in his strange, cruel way, Ricketts does care for his inmates, even the malformed and misshapen kept in virtual prison. He refuses to allow them kindness and hope that will last only as long as someone is bothered to do so. It’s a bleak philosophy.
But in Burke and O’Grady’s world, evidence leads them towards Standard House. Ricketts has a (distant) criminal past and the bundles of cash in his desk drawer call attention to him. At  All God’s Children, Etta recognises the birthmark of a recently abandoned baby as being the stolen child, and goes to tell Dian
But Dian has other things on her mind. Only a night after not telling her father when she meant to, the truth bursts out in terrifying manner. An overpaid bill from Sunny Hills, initially sent to Wesley Dodds and re-directed here has been opened by Larry. Larry knows about Sunny Hills, and knows the only reason people go there. Larry wants to be told that what he knows isn’t true, hasn’t happened. And Dian can’t do that.
He rants and raves. Dian cries. He accuses her of whorish behaviour and she defiantly takes the name, if it’s meant to apply to her being a woman and loving a man. He forbids her from ever seeing Wesley again. She refuses his orders. He collapses with a heart attack.
Thankfully, Larry survives. Even more so, his first thought on wakening is to assure his guilt-stricken daughter that it really is not her fault.
This bombshell unexpeectedly brings about the solution. The sick Sandman is drawn to the hospital, only to be sent away by Dian in hatred and fury. She goes to the Precinct to tell whoever needs to know, where she meets Burke. He’s there after the DA’s assistance, and even his gnarled heart – increasingly softened as it is by the eager Doris – is nudged by it.
But he’s still Homicide, and if Dian’s been at Standard House he wants her handwriting to eliminate her from the billhead clue.
Suddenly, everybody converges on Standard House. Dian and Etta, to aid the unspervised children.The Sandman, pursuing the Goblin, driven by a dream of Dream, who tells him he can no longer hide but must wake. Carmen Bohage to dump another child, carrying a note from the cleaner, Clara, the handwriting of which Dian recognises. Burke and O’Grady, pursuing Mrs Bohage after Etta’s tip-off.
And Danny, the Goblin-child, a mute, polio-infected child being used by his mother, Clara, to steal money so that they can afford at last to have a home where she can take care of him. The murders were never meant, the fruit of panic.
The Sandman gasses Clara and Danny. Dian manages to get him to go home, to safety. Burke now seriously wants to know why Miss Belmont is always getting mixed up in his cases.
One last resolution remains. The Sandman is back home, still paranoid and fearful. With words of love, with a fearless determination to resolve what is wrong, Dian persuades Wesley out of his mask, into his real life. No longer oppressed by circumstances, openly and freely Dian declares her love and commitment to her man. And Wesley, going into this with cruel rationality, emerges broken, emotionally cracked, sobbing desperately for the child he lost.
Dian reassures him, cradling him like that infant. Remember that both of this pair lost their mothers when young, that Wesley’s father sent him to the other side of the world to be educated, alone and distant. She promises him, if and when the time comes, they will have their child (that the time never comes, not in that way, is a sorrow only the reader knows).
It’s a powerful story, even despite the careless slip that has Danny the Goblin named Jimmy in the Third Act. It trailed many developments (as well as those I’ve indicated in the narrative, there is Dian’s mention of the hitherto un-referenced murder of her cousin Buck, which Seagle would not have brought up without an intention).
All of it gone, all of it lost. The Goblin was written and drawn unknowing of the closure of the Theatre. Seagle’s next task was to be to turn off the house lights in only two Acts.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance. Before we come to that last play of our season, they will act out two sketches featuring our leading man.
Break a leg.

New Rick Geary Kickstarter – The True Death of Billy the Kid


Billy the Kid

People, it’s time for another plug for one of my favourite graphic artists, the inimitable and unique Rick Geary, whose latest project is another Treasury of Murder hardback, this time pertaining to the death of the legendary outlaw, Billy the Kid.

For as little as $30 (including postage and packing for supporters outside the United States) you can support Geary’s new book AND guarantee yourself a pristine new signed copy, delivered to your door, complete with a unique bookplate and a personalised thank you postcard. If you want to pledge more, the rewards are higher: five pledgees with $500 to spare will have their likenesses appear as characters in the book!

The link to the project is here, and the target is $5,000 by 11 August.I’m already amongst the 10 backers who have pledged $285 at the minute I’m typing this.

You know Geary’s good – or if you don’t, this is the time to find out – and that this story will give you actual details and real history about the kid, his life and death. Cut through the myth, cut through the fantasy, read what actually happened.

This is Geary’s third Kickstarter, the third I’ve plugged here, and as the art has already been completed (except for you five lucky – and cash-rich) people, the funds will be going directly to printing, bindimg and delivery charges. Trust me, this is going to happen, and it WILL be good.

Tarns – Goatswater


I’ve written about Goatswater before, in the context of it being one of the family’s ‘stock’ walks, repeated from holiday to holiday. Tarns were just some of the easily-achievable destinations to which the family was limited by the respective strength and stamina of its two youngest members, my sister and myself. Targets like Throstlegarth and Mickleden were flat, but walks to places like Goatswater introduced us to the uphill climb that was neither too distant nor too strenuous for little legs.
On the main road from Broughton to Coniston, on the approach towards the Village, there were a number of Public Footpath signposts, pointing fellwards towards Coniston Old Man. On a rare holiday without my Uncle, the four of us tried one of these, only to have it peter out in the open on the moor east of the Old Man. We wound up in the Village, three of us hanging around in the sun whilst Dad walked back to retrieve the car: I still have a vivid memory of a crowd of lads walking up the road chorusing the Lovin’s Spoonful’s big hit, ‘Daydream’ a song perfect for the conditions.
Though I’ll never know, perhaps that experience is what prompted Dad to first buy a Wainwright: the Southern Fells would have been the book of choice, given our habit of limiting ourselves to the south western quarter. Certainly, when we next tried a walk from the Coniston Road, it was from much further away, near Torver, it was along a route described by Wainwright, and it took us to Goatswater for the first time.
The approach is gentle enough, starting along a farm lane at a bend in the road, and easing upwards through woods to gain a path following the beck that descends from the tarn, high above. There’s not much to see in the early part if the walk, between the trees and the outwards swell of land from the edge of Cover Moor, but it’s quiet and a gentle uphill walk.
The first point of interest on the walk is Banishead Quarry. It’s developed a certain degree of fame now, but in the Sixties it was completely unheralded, despite the spectacular waterfall pouring into the unnamed ‘tarn’ in its bed. Even Wainwright passed it by with nothing more than a cursory mention.
Admittedly, both tarn and waterfall are artificial, but they’re no less a sight for that. Dad and I tried to find the source of the waterfall and, despite obstacles, squirmed round just far enough to see that it actually fell sideways out of an otherwise untroubled beck. And clearly there must have been an underground outflow as the water level never increased over the following years when we passed: no danger of the quarry filling up and spilling over.
Banishead Quarry was the true beginning of interest in the walk beyond its exercise. From here, the way came out into the open, still below the lip of the Moor, but only a short distance below the line of the Walna Scar Road, rounding the foot of Coniston Old Man’s south west ridge. But the section up to the road, and again beyond it, was on steep grass, the steepest gradient of the walk.
When it was done, we were let out onto the upper part of Cove Moor, on a path that hugged the wings of the ridge, in a wide, fractal curve around the edge of the moor, aiming for the turn into the corrie that holds the tarn. A little bit of uphill scrambling to round the final outcrop and take that first sight of Goatswater’s rocky shores, where we would fetch up.
For my sister and I, Goatswater was the destination: the intrinsic fascination with water, and shores, where we would stand, compulsively throwing in any stones that would fit our little hands. Goatswater was long and narrow, contained within its steep-sided hollow, with the rough, wall-like flank of the Old Man behind us and, across the tarn, the cliffs of Dow Crag.
That was what drew Dad and his elder brother. They’d stand side-by-side, twin binoculars fixed on the crags, sometimes calling me over and trying to direct my trembling hands to find little flashes of red or blue that were cragsmen, suspended by rope on vertical stone. My Dad and Uncle would have been up there themselves if they had the chance, the equipment, the experience: instead, they would find miniature climbs on the rocks behind us, rope up and scramble up.
One year, at least, they roped my sister and I in, literally. One would stand above, with the rope belayed, whilst we would make our way up stiffly, the other to one side, filming our endeavours with the cine camera. I heard Dad praising my sister to her mother as a natural, commenting on how she would clean handholds out with her fingers. When it was my next turn on the rope, determined to win the same praise, I spent so much time digging the moss out of a spectacularly easy crack that the whole sequence of the film is of me stood there, making no upwards progress.
For all that it was so easy to access from easy country, Goatswater was a rough place. It was always cold, the surface of the tarn white and choppy from the wind hissing through the corrie. Dow Crag leant a great tone to the atmosphere, but we were so regular in our visits.
We never went further than the shore beside the outflow, the path petering out yards from there. There were no heights from which to get a perspective on the tarn so I always think of it in that first sighting, as I ’rounded the corner’.
A couple of times I suggested going further on, following the shores of the tarn, then heading up the trackless wall of Goats Hause. That would have enabled us to look down upon Goatswater as a whole, and also to see out the other side. I was always curious to see what could be seen on the other side: it was the foundation of my urge to climb all the Wainwrights. There was no path, but there were no difficulties, and it wasn’t too steep, but my suggestions always fell upon deaf ears. Eventually, we’d pack up and set off back, down the way we came, to Torver and the car. Until the next time.
Since those days, I’ve never been back to Goatswater itself, though I have twice seen it by the view from Goats Hause that my family wouldn’t stir themselves to see.
Both times I was crossing the Hause as part of a walk between summits.
My first occasion was years ago, at the very beginning of my solo walks, a day spent in the southern part of the Coniston Range. There was no visit to Torver, nor any diversion to Banishead Quarry, just a crossing of Cove Moor on the Walna Scar Road, to the top of the Pass, and then the switchback route along the ridge of Dow Crag and its subsidiaries, before descending to cross the Hause en route to the Old Man.
And, a decade and more later, in the bright sun of a late afternoon of a glorious day, the tail end of a walk along the whole range, from the Old Man to Dow Crag, and Walna Scar Pass and back.
To be honest, from the Hause, Goatswater is nothing much to look at, though for once the sun glittered on its waters the way it never did from the shore. It belongs to Dow Crag’s crags, sombre and dark, as if on the edge of a storm. Sun does not suit it. The view from the Hause is not the view I remember when I think of Goatswater.

JLA Incarnations 6: The Old 52, or, Blink and you’ll miss them


I present this without comment

This one’s a joke, but we’d better include it.
After Infinite Crisis, the whole DC Universe moved One Year Later, paving the way to form a new Justice League.
The idea was that, during that year, there’d been no Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, no Justice League or Society. Things changed, the One Year Later issues presented a new status quo that you had to piece together. And in the meantime, there was 52.
52 was DC’s first official weekly series, written by a quartet of writers (Waid, Morrison, Johns and Greg Rucka), each issue covering seven days of the missing year. It was intended to fill in the pieces. Unfortunately, nobody foresaw that they were throwing four competitive writers into a story with an already fixed ending (i.e., the first month of One Year Later) and that if these guys were going to be writing this for twelve months…
But let’s pass over what became of 52 and instead focus upon issue 24, in which Firestorm reforms the Justice League in its Sixth Incarnation. He recruits Firehawk, Super-Chief, Bulleteer and Ambush Bug (and if the last of these didn’t tell you that this wouldn’t be a serious League, you’re hopeless). Much is made over a couple of preceding issues of the origin of the new Super-Chief (a revival of a very short-lived Western character in the very early Sixties, immediately before the Silver Age superheroes started their inexorable march to dominance) only for him to be killed in the League’s first – and only – battle, after which Firestorm disbanded this League.
Only the Detroit League welcomed this little snoozer: now they’re no longer the JL’s nadir.

24:Live Another Day – 9.00 – 10.00pm


Happy Ending? Nah!

Ok, I assume you’re all waiting for another snark-fest from the the only blogger on the ‘net who thinks that 24: Live Another Day is a piece of overwrought, ludicrously written crap. Well, you’re not going to get quite what you wanted from the penultimate episode, large parts of which were well-handled, tense and, dare I say it, not merely plausible but logical. Oh, but when it went below the waterfall, it scraped the bottom of the Marianas Trench, so I’ll be making a few comments about that.

To begin with, I’ll admit to not remembering Cheng Tzi at all last week. 24 fans all over the Web were having kittens of recognition at that heavily scarred face, but not me. My only excuse is that that was Season 5, which was eight years ago: in another country, and besides the wench is dead, as the wistful phrase goes (originally from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta): 2006/7 was very much another country for me.

Once the episode begins, everything moves at a terrific pace, one of the bonuses of a) having only 12 hours to play with and b) upsetting allprecedent by having everyone going around believing Jack Bauer all the time. Jack and Barbie Kate hold off the Russian task force and their overwhelming numbers and firepowers without anything more than a cut eyebow on Jack’s side, in the sure and certain knowledge that the very moment the pair simultaneously run out of ammo, the back-up will arrive and shoot anyone left standing. Which they do.

However, the commotion draws Cheng’s attention to the fact that Jack’s about. He’s doing a runner, taking Chloe for no apparent reason than her place in the cast list but leaving behind the tracker. But Jack discovers who is behind everything when Chloe manages to set a leftover smartphone to recording Cheng’s dulcet tones for Jack to recognise.

Everybody assumes Cheng’s working with the Russians, and, guess what? He is: with that self-same Anatoly who’s been hassling Creepy Mark about handing Jack over all day. Cheng’s purpose is to start a War between the US and the China that turned on him, a War that will leave the Russians stronger for the damage done to both sides.

This assumes that the damage will be survivable. The President of China doesn’t believe the President of the USA and the Chinese are pretty bloody fast at setting up a military response: fleet steaming towards the US base at Okinawa, squadrons in the air to cover them,missiles knocking out the US surveillance stations and blinding Heller and the Generals, who want to edge quickly to a nuclear response.

This part of the show is handled creditably and credibly, and with some tension. Heller (who we should all remember is giving orders illegally, having resigned the Presidency wef two hours ago) is resistant, is fumbling his medication – thankfully we have nowhere near enough time to whip out the 25th Amendment YET again – and reluctantly has to concur.

Meanwhile, Jack has learned that the Russkies have been tracking him through his comms. A smoking gun aimed directly at Creepy Mark’s head materialises with breathtaking speed and, with nothing delaying him except a heartfelt phone conversation with Old Flame Audrey, during which she tells him to kill Cheng-the-equal-opportunities-torturer causing Jack to bottle out of telling her he’s en route to shopping her hubby fpr treason and the electric chair, turns up at the Embassy to speak to Heller and Boudreau alone.

Creepy Mark coughs on the spot. Heller wants him charged but Jack wants him as a decoy to get them into Anatoly’s residence so they can find out where Cheng is (he and his truck are on their way to Southampton Docks where, at about 10.15pm, a ship is going to take them away, or at least that’s what the audience thinks.

It’s one of those Sacrificial Lamb ploys: no-one really gives a shit about Mark living or dying as long as his pretencc at being on the run and wanting to defect gets Jack and Kate and their silenced guns inside. It’s all bang bang, shoot shoot until every guard is dead. Unfortunately, Mark doesn’t quite understand that he’s supposed to take the loaded gun and do the decent thing, and he fights Anatoly to stay alive, until the two crash through the glass doors onto the landing and Anatoly gets a jagged sliver of glass through the carotid artery.

As I say, it’s fast-paced, decently gripping and, if the series hadn’t ruined any chance of taking it seriously a hundred times over before now, it would be mostly a good, exciting penultimate episode. But it’s 24: Live Another Day and it cannot resist fucking the whole thing over with a bit of arrant lunacy.

As I said, Cheng Tzi, his men, the override device and Chloe O’Brian are in the back of a truck heading down a country road towards Southampton Dock. Now the thing about Southampton Docks is that it’s in Southampton, on the South Coast, in the County of Hampshire, which is just short of 70 miles and involves a drive time of 1 hour and 32 minutes in average condition, and this truck’s supposed to get there within an hour? But it’s bowling along the highway merrily when, all of a sudden Chloe – a computer analyst – grabs a shiny steel pipe that happens to be within reach and lays about her with such force and dexterity that that she downs no less than four armed professional kilers and confuses the rest into letting her open the back door of the truck, set herself and jump into the bushes before any of them can recover sufficiently to just fucking shoot her.

And out of sheer luck, she happens to jump off a embankment and go rolling downhill into the bushes until she knocks herself out on a tree (with no scratches, cuts or bruises) after falling far enough to be out of sight so far as Cheng and his minions are concerned, and they can’t stay to find her because this is apparently a no-parking country highway and there’s a handy truck driven by some bod in army camouflage slowing down to tell them you can’t park here (has there been a military takeover? Where’s the bloody Police in all this?).

So Chloe is left to sleep the sleep of the conveniently knocked out until the very end of the episode where her eyes open and she no doubt wakes up without the least concussion. And Cheng races on to his escape from England.

Except that he doesn’t. Audrey, having hung around being supportive to her Dad all day, has decided to get in on the action. She has a contact in the Chinese Embassy, a young woman who trusts her, and whose Dad is in the Politburo. Audrey’s going to pass on as much information as she can gather to prove that her country is a patsy for terrorists in all this in the hope that President Wei will be persuaded to row back on Mutually Assured Destruction. They meet after dark in the Park, or at least in a London square somewhere.

Except, this being 9.59pm, a hidden sniper takes out the young Chinese extra and Audrey’s guards, leaving a transfixed President’s daughter stood there all alone, presumably in the cross-hairs. Her phone rings. It’s Cheng: well, who else could it possibly have been? I mean, he’s in London instead of being on the Southampton road, he’s discovered Audrey’s secret mission and set up an ambush with not the slightest of clue as to how he could have done so – magic? – and he’s menacing Jack’s bird, alright?

So, no cliches going into the final muss-’em-up hour then, and no set-up, logic or even a semblance of rationality to sustain us in getting here. Even the good episodes cannot resist diving headlong into lunacy a five year old would reject as stupid.

One left, people. Twelve years ago, when the first series was running, my then-wife and I were so absorbed that, when we worked out that the final episode would fall on the Sunday night as we flew to Mallorca for a week’s holiday on the Saturday, we not only set up our video recorder and left tapes with two different people to ensure it was recorded, on arriving in the Balearics we asked my wife’s Mum and Step-Dad if they could pick up BBC2. They couldn’t, but friends of theirs in the southeast of the island could. The tape was available on Tuesday so we drove to their apartment and threw everybody – the parents too – out into the kitchen so we could watch the last episode without interruption.

That was how good it was then. This time I’m not holding my breath.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Introduction


I only ever saw him once.
It was at Lords, in the early Nineties. I was there with Lancashire CCC: we were there often that decade, getting to a helluva lot of One-Day Finals, NatWest Trophies, Benson & Hedges. It was the lunch interval, and I’d gone across to the Souvenir Shop, and was returning to my seat when I saw him, deep in conversation.
I recognised him immediately, from television, from pictures. The greying pudding-bowl hair, the dark glasses, the beard and goatee, the inevitable pipe, the cravat. He was a devoted cricket fan, and a Lancashire member, but I’d never made the connection to the possibility of his turning up to watch his beloved County.
I had nothing for him to sign so I didn’t interrupt him and his friend.But, like I said, we got to Lords pretty often after that, and each time I poppedone of his books in my bag, to be ready in the event of seeing him again. Of course, that sighting was never repeated.
I’d first discovered Peter Tinniswood’s novels in the early mid-Seventies, and I’d loved his work and followed him devotedly ever since. He was in the midst of his Brandon Family novels then, and the BBC sitcom version, I Didn’t Know You Cared was about to start. He’d been a journalist, a satirical sketch writer. He’d go on to create fantastic, surreal cricket stories. He’d later write extensively for Radio 4, plays and serials: these latter dominated the last ten years of his life.
He died in 2003 and it was the ubiquitous pipe that did for him. Throat cancer, and, despite an  operation to remove of his voicebox, he passed away in early January, days after his 66th birthday.
I’d love to have gotten his signature on one of those wierdly stylised books of his. Not for any presumed value that a signature adds, but for the record of a moment of personal contact with someone whose mind has fascinated me, and for the chance to express my thanks for the hours of occupation someone’s imagination has forged for me.
What kind of writer was Peter Tinniswood? He was surreal. He was funny, black of humour to the point that it shaded into ultra-violet. He relished words, the sound, the rhythm, the sensation of them. He wrote in short paragraphs, and his early novels were decorated with titles for every page, knowing, ironic, bizarre summations of what was going on on that page.
Because of that relish for words, he was far more suited to books and radio than TV, though that was where his career began, on The Frost Report, with his early writing partner David Nobbs. He was unique, and he shouldn’t be forgotten. Most of all, he was a Northerner: born in Liverpool, brought up in Sale, just outside Manchester, a journalist in Sheffield. Though he lived for many years down South, the North never left him, and he used his words to shape it into a living, breathing, comic force.
I don’t have all his books, though I have read them all. I certainly haven’t heard anything like all his Radio 4 work. I’ve seen most of his TV series, one of which still stands out in my mind as an incredible piece of work that would still be ahead of its time even now.
For many years, I thought he was one of the funniest writers I have ever read, and although the later years of his career did considerable damage to that opinion, as I will later describe, and though I heard little or nothing of his output for Radio 4, those books from his early career are still as bizarre, hilarious and surreal as I found them when I first plunged into these deep waters.
So for the next few months I’m going to delve into those books, and take you with me into what animates this most unusual of writers, and just what dark and despairing comic glooms the northerner’s mind can encompass.

Theatre Nights: The City


Sandman Mystery Theatre 61-64. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The departure of Matt Wagner was meant to open up a new era for the Mystery Theatre. Steven T Seagle was full of ideas, not least that the hitherto rigid four-Act format of the series might be varied, suggesting three-Act and five-Act plays would now start to appear. And he delivered a taster of what might be in his first solo effort, The City, by adopting a Rashomon approach that interlaced a series of contemporaneous stories, each seen through the eyes of a different cast member, whose interactions repeat and reflect from differing viewpoints across the four Acts.
The crime of this story is a simple one, solved by the sandman in a single Act. A protection racket enforcer bullies two Italian barbers, father and son, one of whom cuts his throat. As he is the third they have disposed of, they desperately need to dispose of the bodies. They do this by dragging them into an abandoned warehouse and setting light to it, but the fire is put out before the bodies are too badly burned.
Because a witness has seen a man dragging the bodies, the two Prima’s are put into a line-up at the Police Station. The witness picks both out but cannot distinguish between them, until the son confesses, trying to exonerate his father. But the Sandman intervenes that night, forcing the father to confess: the throats were cut by a left-handed person and his son is right handed. Wesley returns home to find Dian in his laboratory: the two go to bed and make love for the first time since the abortion.
That’s Wesley’s day (and narrative). It begins with Dian watching him in bed as he sleeps. She rushes off after breakfast, which Wesley has made himself since Humphries has, reluctantly, asked for personal time off. Burke is at the line-up, though he’s not handling the Prima’s case: his own line-up is next.
But in the second Act we see the day from Dian’s perspective (and narrative). It begins with her thoughts as Wesley sleeps, but she then takes a phone call from a contact who she hopes can advance her literary ambitions. He has seen the latest chapters arrive from the mysterious recluse, Gerald Leavy. But this tme there is a clue as to the elegant Leavy’s wherabouts, the return address of what proves to be a very seedy Staten Island private hotel. Dian heads out to the Island to try to find him.
The hotel is indeed seedy, and the Leavy who lives there is a drunken, illiterate brute obsessed with his money. A less likely writer could hardly be found, and cetainly not someone capable of the work of a true stylist. With the aid of another writer at the hotel, Richard Manten, a socialist essayist, equally sceptical that ‘Leavy’ could possibly be Leavy, Miss Belmont investigates, even to the extent of borrowing Wesley’s old Sandman gas-mask and a spare gas-gun.
The mystery is not difficult to divine once Dian brings the gas gun rather wildly into play. The real Leavy lives in a nearby sanatorium, no longer able to walk due to his opium addiction. The drunken brue of the hotel is merely a front to maintain his privacy. Behind the gas-mask, Dian gets to talk literature for hours. She has only just returned Wesley’s things when he returns from his mission.
The Third Act is devoted to Humphries’ day. Despite the freedom and respect Wesley Dodds presses on him, Leslie Humphries is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, always putting his master’s needs first. But on this occasion he is forced, reluctantly, to ask for a day to deal with personal matters, because these relate to his daughter, Ella.
We have already seen a be-wigged young woman performing for stag films, but being dragged out by a Polish lover who wants her covered. Now Humphries is visited by one of his colleagues who, having cleared up his master’s latest stag film, has taken a clip of the film from which Humphries is horrified to recognise Ella. She is supposed to be in Canada, visiting relatives.
Weak though he is, and in many ways unworldly, Humphries begins a search in the New York porn industry for Ella, determined upon rescuing her from what vile forces have forced her into this life. In the end, he locates her, and brings her back to the mansion, but the true story is very different. Ella is acting willingly, to raise money for the communist cause, of which she is a passionate convert: the Polish man was, indeed, her lover.
Nevertheless, she consents to go back to the Dodds mansion with her worried father, unrepentant of her beliefs yet willing to accept his parental direction to the extent of seeking a more ‘respectable’ course in life. Humphries is, for the moment, content. Ella, on the other hand, is determined to kick against the traces: what she has done is deemed to be whorish, whereas Miss Belmont sleeps openly with Master Dodds. An interesting point.
These three stories surround each other, their common moments building into a more comprehensive whole. The Fourth Act, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Burke, is something of an interloper. Burke’s participation in the stories of the Sandman, Dian and Humphries has been largely peripheral: he has taken a call from Humphries when the latter was trying to report the making of films and promised to pass it on to Vice (and we see in Burke’s Act that he does make a point of pressing the case). But his concern is with an unrelated case, the death of a young man, dropped from the Staten Island funfair big-dipper for failing to pay debts.
It’s our first chance to look under Burke’s skin, to understand something of his sourness, with life and with himself. Burke only has the Law: he sees himself unfit for decent people.
But in between Acts, Weaver has re-introduced him to Doris, a nice looking woman in her late thirties who has always liked Tony Burke. The Lieutenant is beginning to see that there may be a choice for him where before there has not only been no choices, but he has proudly espoused his life as being entirely fit and right for him.
Even the case of the murdered boy is an expression of his nascent need to want to be seen as worthy in Dorus’s eyes. The lad may have been killed outside Manhatten, but he’s a cousin of Doris’s, and that makes him family. With O’Grady in tow, Burke heads off precinct, relying on the custom that allows him to dip into another station’s work.
Burke’s promised a result to Doris, and in pursuit of this, knowing that her family relationship makes her a target to the two killers, he asks her and her sister to pose as targets at Coney Island. Though scared, Doris trusts in Tony to protect them. And Tony Burke is as good as his word: though Weaver takes a flesh wound, Burke corners the killers and, happily, returns fire, killing both without a moment of remorse.
It makes him more of a hero with Doris. Yet Burke takes only satisfaction at having ended the threat of two vicious men, any displays none of the vicious pleasure we would usually expect from his coarseness. He’s becoming concious of the desire to rise above what he’s been. He asks to start seeing Doris, and she happily obliges. A happy ending.
But not for Seagle. The City was the only experiment he would be able to write, and though he got his wish to write a non-four-Act story, it came in circumstances that no-one would have wished. Six months after the end of The City, Sandman Mystery Theatre would ring down its curtain for the last time.
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 Goblin.
Break a leg.

Tarns – Blackbeck Tarn


Tarns are bodies of water, but a tarn is more than just the water. It is its surroundings, its background, where it is and how it is shaped. This is what makes a tarn delightful to the sight, or not.
Far back in the Sixties, when we still lived in Brigham Street, my parents had a set of four Heaton Cooper prints of paintings of various tarns, identically framed by my Dad and hung one above another on the wall. Fifty years later, more or less, I have these prints still.
The four tarns were, in no particular order, Sprinkling Tarn, Stickle Tarn, Goatswater and Blackbeck Tarn.
Two of these were obvious choices: we had already visited Stickle Tarn and Goatswater, and would return almost regularly. And Sprinkling Tarn was also obvious, given how attractive the Tarn is, with its curving shores, its little peninsula and the massive backdrop of Great End: it’s so wonderfully photogenic, even for those who have never been to it. I myself would not do so for many years yet.
But Blackbeck Tarn? I don’t think I even knew where it was for several years, not until the day we climbed Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for it’s the lower of the two tarns on the sprawling back of that terrier fell. Even then, we didn’t see it: we were limited in time for exploring, and only made it far enough from the cairn to see the more famous Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were to be sprinkled.
It’s not as if the print was in any way attractive. It was painted from no great height above the tarn, close by its shores, looking across a flat and indefinable spread of narrow water to an undistinguished background. Why ever did they choose that? By the time I wanted to ask, they had gone.
It was years before I saw Blackbeck Tarn for myself, and then only from a distance. It is visible from behind and above from the Brandreth plateau, rising from Honister Pass towards Great Gable, crossing the back of the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.
From up there, it’s a detail, a blue pool in a wide vista, whose greatest significance is the way in which it looks as if it pours directly into Crummock Water.
Finally, in the early Nineties, closing in on the decreasing number of outstanding Wainwrights, I spent a splendid sunny Buttermere Tuesday on the direct ascent of Fleetwith Pike from Gatesgarth. A sweaty ascent in conditions of great beauty, especially the view directly behind of Buttermere and Crummock Water. To complete the day, I planned a wide circuit of Warnscale, descending Fleetwith’s back, via Black Star (the summit of Honister Crag), all the way down to the Old Drum House, which i’d previously approached from Honister itself.
From there, I circuited back towards the old quarries, all of it easy walking high under the sun, winding in and out of derelict buildings, and making my way towards the back of Haystacks.
It was a fascinating walk already, and even more so once I got onto the crags and the path began to slide into and out of the rocks, until it descended to cross the outfow of an enclosed hollow in the rocks, and there was Blackbeck Tarn.
I fell in love with it instantly: the narrowing of the Tarn between the encroaching rock walls, the wider, rounder, gentler section beyond it, swelling into this hidden bay, with reedy shores at the far end, the whole surrounded by green lawns. It looked like a magical hidden place in the world and I, who have never camped out in the fells nor had any serious inclination to do so, immediately felt the urge to wake up in this little kingdom, in the glowing rays of dawn, alone and silent.
It was late in the afternoon, I still had Haystacks’ by no means smooth summit to negotiate, and then the descent to and by Scarth Gap Pass. So my time in that spot was limited but the image is still in my mind.
So I walked on, past Innominate Tarn, scrambled over the summit, Dad’s last, and down, carrying with me the lovely scene. The print is still nondescript, but now I’ve seen Blackbeck Tarn for myself, I can discern the curve of the far shore, understand where the painter stood and imagine myself into that scene.
I still don’t understand why Mam and Dad bought the print, though.

 

JLA Incarnations 5: The Bad-Ass League… and after


The Fifth Incarnation of the Justice League will always be automatically associated with Grant Morrison, and rightly so, but it was actually created by Mark Waid, in a mini-series, Justice League: A Midsummer Nightmare, with art from Fabian Nicsieza.
In truth, it wasn’t a very impressive story, being dependant upon the logic defying concept that the villain is able to brainwash the hero into not only forgetting that he or she is a superhero, but even that said superhero does not even exist. It’s difficult enough to pull off with one character, but with seven simultaneously credulity is strained unmercifully.
Nevertheless, seven heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter and Aquaman – had collectively forgotten who and what they were, but eventually remembered and set everything right again, after which they decided to reform the Justice League.
It’s terribly weak for a writer like Waid, and it was impliedly airbrushed from continuity in the JLA Incarnations mini-series, but it did what was required: it restored the Justice League, and it reset it with the ‘Big Seven’ that Helfer and Giffen had been unable to utilise a decade earlier. Their adventures would be published under the stream-lined title of JLA.
It wasn’t quite the original Big Seven of Brave & Bold 28. There was no Barry Allen nor Hal Jordan, and their places were taken by their heirs, Wally West and Kyle Rayner. And the Big Three had all been revamped, post-Crisis. And the Martian Manhunter’s history had been substantially tinkered with. And Aquaman had lost a hand and replaced it with a pike.
But this is comics, and we should know by now that it is the mask, the symbol, that is the core of being. The Justice League was back, with a vengeance.
And vengeance it was. This was the Big Seven, the legends, the mightiest of the mighty, and Morrison’s intention was to demonstrate that at every turned. The League met in the Watchtower, on the Moon, issuing forth to guard the planet against the worst that could be thrown at it. Conspicuous power demanded conspicuous menace. To confront it, Morrison plunged headlong into fast-paced, balls-out action, with rapid-fire dialogue. If these were the Over-men, then they wuld be the Over-men to the hilt.
Yet the underlying theme was not the fascistic impulse from which superheroes spring. Instead, Morrison hinted at a paganistic Pantheon; heroes as Gods – not in the religious sense of a being to worship, but rather the Aspects that overcame ordinary human strengths.
The continuity problems that had dogged the League since the late stages of its first Incarnation were dealt with largely by ignoring them. The JLA existed above and outside the DC Universe, increasing the pantheistic element. Or rather it was that the League’s battles rarely spilled over into the wider Universe.
Though the writers and their writing styles were poles apart, Morrison’s JLA was the closest DC had come to the glorious years of Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. Superheroes were big, they were fun, they were exciting. Though one wrote from innocence and the other out of a sly knowingness, Fox and Morrison made the League feel important, feel like the pinnacle.
Morrison even managed to fit in a Justice League/Justice Society cross-over, even though the Justice Society didn’t actually exist that year!
It was fun, it was ballistic, but it wasn’t to be forever. Including a couple of fill-ins, Morrison and his artist Howard Porter produced 41 issues before handing the reins over to Mark Waid, a superb choice. Waid had shone himself with the brilliant 12-issue series, JLA:Year One, creating a new post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour foundational myth for the original League. But after Waid finished his run, the inevitable set in.
Unlike past Incarnations, there’s no way to separate the Morrison/Waid JLA from the rest of the run. This title was the League’s third series, and despite changes of direction or form, the League it depicted was one thing, whole and entire. So all the other stories in the 125 issue run belong in this Incarnation.
It was the same old story: a running out of steam, an unwillingness or inability to create the excitement and thrust of the Morrison template, a changing litany of writers, a chaning of moods. There was the same old dilution of the brand, with spin-off titles and themes. At first this had been benign: JLA:Classified, begun by Morrison himself, a non-continuity series telling stories that might belong to any part of the League’s mythos, bound by nothing in the main title. But then there was the 12 issue parallel Justice League Elite, featuring a ‘black ops’ team that took a proactive as opposed to reactive stance to villains, and aimed to kill rather than imprison them.
The momentum drained away. A fresh start was needed, which meant killing the series and killing the JLA. By now, widespread editorial control, expressed in company-focussed stories was beginning to reassert itself. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had opened a can of worms with its revelation of mind-wiping  and memory-tinkering by the original League, included the robbing of ten minutes of Batman’s life (warning: never do this to a high-functioning sociopathic paranoid!)
Batman’s response to the rediscovery of his memories was one of several strands woven together to set-up Infinite Crisis, an 20 year sequel to the original. Things fell apart, the centre could not hold and, despite Green Arrow’s attempts to keep it going, the League fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
It would be back. It would aways, never fear, be back.

Tarns – Burnmoor Tarn


As flattering a view as it gets…

The beauty of the Lake District lies not in its Lakes, nor its mountains, but rather in the combination, the amalgam of them: water and wood and stone.
But when it comes to bodies of water, the Lakes boast more than just its Sixteen Lakes. There are over 200 hundred bodies of water, tarns of every size and shape and elevation, decorating pastoral valley floors, or perched in rocky cwms. These too are essential to the beauty and drama of the Lake District.
During the course of my wanderings, collecting all 214 Wainwrights, I’ve seen tarns by the score. How many, I don’t know, I never kept a check upon them the way I did on summits. But whether at close range, or via the panoramas of 214 summits, I’ve probably laid eyes on all but a few.
Some are more memorable than others. One such is Burnmoor Tarn.
Personally, I find Burnmoor Tarn a dull, tedious, featureless sheet of water in a dull, tedious setting. Given how much I dislike it, it’s no doubt ironic that I have seen it at close quarters more often than the vast majority of Lakeland tarns. And I’m prejudiced because of my first visit to it.
This was way back in the Sixties, in the very early days of walking, when I was not yet in my teens and my sister six years younger, and our expeditions were correspondingly limited. The adults decided that we’d combine a day out on the ‘Ratty’ with a walk out of Boot as far as Burnmoor Tarn, a decision in which I was not involved.
A trip on the ‘Ratty’ was more or less mandatory on our early Lake District holidays and our stayover in Eskdale usually meant a walk up the road to Boot, the ‘capitol’ of Eskdale. There’s only a short road into the village, terminating at the footbridge over the river, which was guarded by a telephone box painted grey: the first non-red kiosk I ever saw. Three paths led onwards: that through the gate on the right, before the bridge, was a sandal-friendly rough lane which climbed windingly up beside the Whillan Beck. We never went far, just up to where low but safe falls were easily visible in the Beck and we children could play.
Across the bridge, two footpaths ascended steeply out of the village. We would, at my urging, take that directly ahead one day in the seventies, leading to the foothills of the Boat How ridge, but this day, Dad led us onto the path ascending to the right, beside a wall, angling across the wooded, scrubby fellside.
It was steep, or so I remember it being: too steep, at least, for my liking, so I was not best happy to start with. I don’t remember the conditions under which we started, but probably they were dull to begin with. Certainly, that’s the way it was going.
At the edge of the valley, the path leveled out, leaving behind the woods and the wall, and opening onto a shelving green moorland, the path leading towards the brow of the nearby slope.
Given that Burnmoor lies between foothills to the west, and Scafell’s grassiest, least interesting and completely unphotogenic flank, I don’t think there would have been much to look at on the best of days. But the sky was getting greyer, the probability of rain growing ever nearer as we walked on, across an undulating moorland of little grassy ridges, interminable.
We’d trudge up a ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross to trudge up the further ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross, over and again, and it got colder and duller, and the rain got closer and the mood got gloomier and Dad kept encouraging us by saying it was only over the next ridge, probably far less often than memory now suggests but still too often for any of us to retain any faith that we would ever get there.
Then, at last, it was just over the next ridge, a flat, low-shored, spreading body of water, steel grey, with no features visible around it either close to hand or at distance, and we trudged down to the shore, which was the exact moment the rain chose to start, so we didn’t stay above a few seconds, just turned round and started back over that same undulating moor and the equally distant valley edge.
That first visit has coloured every subsequent visit to Burnmoor Tarn, or even the mere sight of it in a view. It has no appeal.
I’ve been back several times. The route we’d walked was, though I’m not sure if we knew it at the time, part of the Wasdale Corpse Road, a relic of the days before there was a church and consecrated ground in Wasdale, when bodies had to be carried across the fells by horseback for Christian burial in Eskdale. There is a Ghost Story associated with this route: in centuries past a young man of Wasdale Head died and was taken on the Corpse Road, his grieving mother following. It was a day of rain and low cloud and, in the vicinity of Burnmoor Tarn (where else?) the horse took fright at something and galloped off into the cloud. Despite desperate searching it could not be found.
The heartbroken mother returned to Wasdale but died herself within the year. Her body was carried along the Corpse Road on another day of rain and cloud. But in the vicinity of the Tarn, her horse was similarly spooked and ran off. This time the search was even more intensive, for no-one could accept the loss of two members of the same family. And a horse carrying a body was found. But it was that of the son, the previous year. That was taken to Eskdale and interred, but the mother’s body was never seen again. And it is said that, sometimes, travellers crossing the moor in low cloud, will hear the pounding of hooves and see a shadowy horse shape gallop past then with a coffin on its back.
There were no such conditions on the day we decided to climb the other part of the Corpse Road, out of Wasdale on a sunny, clear afternoon. The ascent from the valley was nothing like as steep as at the Eskdale end, but the views were considerably better. Wasdale Head lay behind, ringed with fells that looked at the more impressive from the climb. The saddle at the lip of the valley was at that exact mid-height point that gives the mountains heft and substance, a stunning proportion impossible to capture in a photo.
The Tarn lay ten minutes walk beyond the saddle, in its shallow and, this time, green bowl. Its waters were almost blue, almost sparkling. There could not be a greater contrast to that long ago walk out of Eskdale, but Burnmoor was still flat and dull, and we were on the way back within ten minutes, enjoying far more the views into Wasdale.
Since then, I’ve seen the Tarn at relatively close quarters three to four times, twice after walking to, and out of Miterdale Head to again examine the geographical curiosity that separates the two.
My last ‘close encounter’ was another Miterdale expedition, but this time a more ambitious one: ascending from the lower valley to the ridge on a day of low cloud, following the top of the Screes with will-o’-the-views into Wasdale, and descending from Illgill Head towards the saddle on the Corpse Road.
A formal route would require me to descend as far as the Corpse Road, follow this around the head (and foot) of Burnmoor Tarn, then break along it’s eastern shore as far as Miterdale Head. In short, I was supposed to walk around three sides of this big, dull, tedious tarn in dull, overcast conditions, right? Not likely!
Contouring across that flank of Illgill Head on pathless, tough, grass, sometimes softish underfoot, was in no way a pleasant experience, especially with the Tarn down there on my left, spread out as if it were on a map, but it was far better to get it out of my sight sooner rather than later! I dropped down into Miterdale with gladness in my heart.
So that’s Burnmoor Tarn, and why I don’t like it, and why it’s one of the few places in the Lakes where, given the complete restoration of my walking abilities, I am far from eager to return. On the other hand, I am tickled by the recollection of that rotten day so long ago, and it might be instructive to climb once again out of Boot, just to see if my memories of the walk accord with its reality. I am, after all, prejudiced.