During the course of a long and arduous career in the service of King and country I have had the honour in the name of freedom and natural justice to slaughter and maim men (and women) of countless creeds and races. Fuzzy Wuzzies, Boers, Chinamen, Zulus, Pathans, Huns, Berbers, Turks, Japs, Gypos, Dagos, Wops and the odd Frog or two – all of them, no doubt, decent chaps ‘in their own way’. Who is to say, for example, that the Fuzzy Wuzzies don’t have their equivalent of our own dear John Inman and the delicious Delia Smith, mother of the two Essex cricketing cousins, Ray and Peter. I have no doubt that the Dagos have their counterpart of our Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and I am perfectly certain that the Wops, just like us, have lady wives with hairy legs, loud voices and too many relations. Indeed it is my firm opinion that all the victims of this carnage and slaughter were just like you and I – apart from their disgusting table manners and their revolting appearance. Poor chaps, they had only two failings – they were foreigners and they were on the wrong side. Now as I approach the twilight of my life I look back with pleasure and pride on those campaigns which have brought me so much comfort and fulfilment – crushing the Boers at Aboukir Bay, biffing the living daylights out of the Turk at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, massacring the Aussies at The Oval in 1938.
Enter the Brigadier.
Peter Tinniswood’s second memorable character, who would become better known by far than Uncle Mort, in his field of operation, had made his debut on Radio 4 in 1980, in the voice of Robin Bailey (ironically, Uncle Mort in I Didn’t Know You Cared on TV), in a series of thirteen ten minute monologues. Tinniswood had thought long and hard about whether to turn the Brigadier into a prose character, but as soon as he did, the character became a phenomenon. Tales from a Long Room are cricketing stories, or perhaps you might call them fables: fantastic, preposterous, completely unbelievable. The Brigadier rambles on about astonishing implausibilities: the first and only M.C.C. Tour of the Belgian Congo in 1914, or Queen Victoria’s potential career as a First Class Cricketer, or Himmelweit, the only former German Prisoner of War to play County Cricket, or Scott and Amundsen’s game on the Polar Icecap, en route to the South Pole.
The tale of the Groundsman’s Horse has a particularly well-disguised final line.
By themselves, these dotty accounts would be worth the reading, but Tinniswood more than doubles the humour in the narrator.
The Brigadier is in his latter years, a devotee of the beautiful game. He has served his country in distinguished manner in areas of this world whose horrendously primitive and underdeveloped lands are compounded by having them crawling with Johnny Foreigner. His is devoted to fine claret and Vimto, to chilled Zubes (a now-obsolete throat sweet) and escaping from the blasted lady wife and her confounded Bedlington terriers. He lives in a world of muddle where the famous of similar name are inevitably related, no matter how disparate. Through his discourse we learn of the feats of the most improbable of cricketers to have wielded the willow or caressed the crimson rambler.
In short, this is a book for cricket aficionados who have a bloody good working knowledge of the history of the game and not merely its famous but several of its less widely-celebrated names. Hell’s bells, even I don’t get all the references!
The Brigadier is a crusty old soul, a Little Englander enough to make Nigel Farage look like a candidate for the Socialist Worker’s Party, a mass of prejudice in every respect and a buffer of the third water living in a world of his own that crosses with our own only accidentally, and with the frequency of a ‘maximum’ by Mr Geoffrey Boycott (and you’ll need to know a bit about cricket just to understand that gag).
So, basically, if you’re not into cricket, forget it. But if you are, you’ll probably find this hilarious, because the jokes – which achieve the density and texture of Tinniswood’s best work with the Brandons – come thick and fast, and they are the kind of jokes that are only possible from someone who knows and loves his subject, and loves it with the clear, pure, and abiding love of someone who can take the piss out of it unmercifully without ever once going soft.
There are thirteen tales herein, representing series 1, which would go on to be adapted for television and retain their purity and fantasy. Not all the tales are of a standard. ‘Cricketers Cook Book’ lacks a developed narrative strand, though it is replete with a series of effortless foods punned from cricketers’ names, as does ‘The Ones that Got Away’, a series of spoof Wisden obituaries. These reek a bit of barrel-scraping, but the Brigadier is on strong ground when he has a story to be told.
The book is a classic, but it’s a classic that was a product of its time. Its contemporary cricketers are probably known now primarily by the degree to which they have become Sky commentators and experts, and thirty years on, the archaic references to music hall, light comedy and early radio stars that dot the descriptions will probably pass over the head of a majority of the audience.
But if you have the knowing, as it were, this collection is still very funny. It gave Tinniswood tremendous cachet, and marked him, for the rest of the decade as a cricket writer. As we will see, though, it wrenched his career off-balance, and the rest of his work would be substantially affected.
Not at first, it seemed.
If you’ve hung around me long enough, you’ll already be aware that, unlike most bloggers, I have an unusual method of counting off landmarks. I do not count in hundreds, but rather in Nelsons, and this little blog is my sextuple-Nelsonth post. Yay, me!
For those who are not avid cricket fans, and have missed any previous explanations from over here, Nelson is a cricketing term denoting 111 runs, or any multiple thereof. Why is such a score known as a Nelson? Because Horatio, Lord Nelson, had only one arm, one eye, one… well, we’ll not go further into that, shall we?
So, the mathematically minded amonst you will have already worked out that this must be my 666th post. Actually, technically, it’s more than that: a number of posts, usually in relation to expired Lulu offers, have been deleted, so this is actually only the 666th post accessible to you, my highly intelligent and much-valued readers.
Of course, there are those who will have drawn back, askance. For is it not written that 666 is the number of the beast? He that is Fallen, Lord of this World, Lord of Misrule, the cloven-hoofed one: Lucifer Morningstar, the Light-Bringer. When we celebrate his number, do we not call upon him, invite him to us?
No, we don’t. To us card-carrying Atheists, the Devil is as fictional as is God, the Creator. Though we have been known to relish his appearances in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and in his solo series as written by Mike Carey, about which I may one day be tempted to write.
I have no fears about this post, any more than I had about the 555th, or I will about the 777th (apart from the usual bemusement that I’ve a)actually had that much to say and b) that you’re still reading after that much verbiage here.)
As this is an off-shift weekend, I hope to be a bit busy this weekend and post another couple of things before work resumes plaguing me on Monday. I’m also still advancing, however slowly, with last year’s un-named NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft has expanded to just over 101,000 words and I’m hoping to finish on about 125,000. And by the beginning of November if I can, to at least give myself the option of entering NaNoWriMo 2014. So I gotta work.
Thanks for listening to my slightly self-congratulatory ramble: see you for the 777th?
Every now and then, I’ve tried to give book readers (if they are interested) an insight into the ways that comics reading differs from book reading.
One principal point cannot be emphasised too much, which is that mainstream comic book characters are corporate properties, not creative properties. They have been written by dozens, if not hundreds in the case of older creations, of writers, each with their own vision, perception, thought and preference, each tempered by an editor appointed to oversee the corporate custody of the character. And each editor has their own vision, perception, thought and preference.
Accordingly, everything the comics reader reads is a purely temporary vision, valid only so long as that individual writer is in nominal control. And sometimes not even then.
Take, for example, the case of Bethany Cabe. Bethany was a supporting character in Iron Man, during the successful late Seventies/early Eighties run by David Michelinie (writer) John Romita Jr. (pencils) and Bob Layton (inker). Bethany, a stunningly attractive redhead, was introduced intially as a new girlfriend for Tony Stark, who was also head of a bodyguarding company and a highly skilled martial artist in her own right.
Micheline et al.introduced the idea of Tony Stark as an alcoholic during their run, and Bethany became an integral part of the series with her (successful) efforts to help him go sober. It transpired that her late husband had been a drug addict, who died in a car smash after she left him: Bethany is determined not to let Stark go unsupported. During this run, she learns that Stark is Iron Man. The pair are incredibly close, and completely open with each other.
Michelinie left after issue 141. The new writer’s first story was a two parter in which Bethany Cabe suddenly became ultra-secretive, betrayed Stark and announced she was leaving him to return to her husband, who suddenly – and miraculously – was discovered to be alive. Off she went, not to be seen for ages.
It was a complete betrayal of everything that had been estalished over a two-year run, completely lacking in emotional consistency or plausibility, because the new writer didn’t want to use Cabe and wanted to bring in a girlfriend he’d create for his stories.
That’s what comics are about. Writers and artists change, abruptly, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality, or even popularity of their work. And each new team comes in wanting to do their own stories, wanting nothing to do with the ideas and themes of their predecessors, and even less to do with building storylines that their predecessor was not able to bring to fruition.
In the Seventies and early Eighties, readers had to get used to stories that vanished out from underneath them, to certainties that reformed themselves from one issue to the next, to the expectation at any moment that a new writer would abandon something that would remain uncompleted.
The situation did start to resolve itself as the Eighties progressed: between Jim Shooter’s dictatorial regime as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel reigning in the anarchy of the Bullpen, and the Kahn-Levitz-Giordano triumvirate at DC accepting the company’s lesser market share as a given and concentrating on quality and creators as their USP, such things grew rare. Not dismissed, aswe shall see, but far less common.
These are not the only reasons why, in comics as opposed to books, stories fail to end – and I don’t mean the mainstream necessity of superheroes living endlessly in a narrative stream without conclusion.
All this musing comes about because I’ve recently been re-reading a couple of series that have failed to reach their ending, with no prospect of further work in sight, and it’s given me the urge to write about such instances, and the effect incompletion has on what we have available to read.
I’ll be starting with a story that was both uncompleted and completed: tune in to find out what series this involved.
It’s closing in on five years since I last had a television set, and I can’t say that I miss it. Indeed, I’ve forgotten the whole experience of having 24/7 television available, channels and channels filling with airwaves at every conceivable moment. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
I haven’t given up on watching television though, it just means that what I watch is what I want to watch, given the extra lengths I have to go to even see it: iPlayers, catch-up TV, DVD boxsets and such like. Programmes such as Dr Who (roll on Saturday), Sherlock, The Killing, The Bridge. And, naturally, The Big Bang Theory.
What I watch is by choice, and not by habit, or lazy inclination, a surrendering to that vast amorphous mass of programming that, in all its disparate forms, can be lumped together as Insubstantial Airfill. You know the kind of programmes I’m referring to: games shows and reality series, pointless documentaries, uninspired sitcoms and phone-it-in dramas that amuse or mildly thrill for an hour then are gone, and all the audience does is change channels looking for something slightly different but equally anaesthetic.
But what is life without a little inconsistency? Do I contradict myself? Why then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
Though I’ve never quite understood why, I do find myself happy to watch the long-running BBC1 comedy-drama series, New Tricks, series 11 of which began on Monday night. It’s a typically formulaic piece of work, mixing the inherently serious subject of police procedural work and the detection of crimes – usually murder – that have disrupted and damaged lives at the deepest levels, with the comic eccentricity of characters who are improbably set, and even more improbably highly efficient at resolving these issues and bringing about closure. All overlaid, naturally, with the soap opera aspect of these eccentrics’ ecentricities overflowing into their personal lives, week-in, week-out.
The concept of the series was built around the fictional Metropolitan Police Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad (UCOS), a ‘cold-case’ unit created in the one-off pilot as a cynical publicity stunt designed to ward off complaints without ever being intended to be taken seriously. It’s first commander was DCI Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), a work-obsessed career policewoman whose high-flying career had just been derailed by a high-profile operation that had got a dog killed: UCOS was a hole in which to bury Sandra, as was evidenced by her staff. UCOS’s budget extended not to serving officers but to civilian consultants, i.e., three ex-coppers, who had left the Force under different circumstances.
The idea was that these three old coppers, with their old-fashioned approaches to detection, would be thrown up against the new-fangled technologies of DNA and the like, which they would distrust, and which they would disparage grumpily whilst producing results that derived more from old-style coppering built on newly-determined evidence.
The trio consisted of ex-Detective Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam), ex-Detective Inspector Brian “Memory” Lane (Alun Armstrong) and ex-Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). Halford, who was Pullman’s former mentor and her unofficial second-in-command, had retired after his wife had been knocked down and killed. His was a more or less straight role, an old-fashioned copper with a loathing for crime, and a voice of sanity and calm. Lane was a recovering alcholic with a degree of OCD, a photographic memory for cases and criminals and a long-suffering wife: he had left the force when still drinking, after a suspect he’d brought in died in custody, an incident for which he believed he had been scapegoated. And Standing was the Jack-the-Lad, maintaining (and occasionally re-seducing) three ex-wives and a flash car, who was on chummy terms with most East End lags, the only straight copper in a unit more or less bought out by a villain, who’d ended up being forced to resign over graft allegations.
New Tricks found a modest but substantial audience to begin with but, as series followed series, it began to grow in popularity. Series 3 ended on a cliffhanger, with Halford having found out that his wife’s death was not an accident but murder, having been run down on the orders of a villain annoyed at being investigated: Halford planned to run the man down in retaliation, forcing Pullman and his two colleagues to drive into his path, causing a horrendous collision. Audiences shot up for series 4, when the aftermath was revealed, and the programme would on a number of occasions actually top the weekly viewing chart for BBC programmes.
As New Tricks gained in popularity, UCOS began to gain in respect. Supporting characters would be added to the squad for longer periods, usually younger coppers to contrast with the aged trio. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland (Anthony Calf) became an increasingly supportive character, ever conscious of political and public factors but allowing these to influence the team less and less. The longest running supporting character was Esther Lane, Brian’s much put-upon wife, played, ironically, by Susan Jameson, James Bolam’s wife.
I’ll be honest, little or nothing changed. Brian might suffer a relapse into drinking, but a few episodes later it would be conquered. Sandra was perennially poor at relationships, forever hopeful but doomed to betrayal and self-reliance. The cases usually involved murders, though the sources were well-varied. The team would start by summarising the old evidence for the viewer’s benefit, move on to reinterviewing witnesses, roughly 73% of whom being hostile to the death being brought back up. Stones would be turned over, and we would follow what crawled out. Usually, the script would offer up a potential villain, only for it to come out, in the last ten minutes, that somebody else was responsible, usually someone you’d disregarded early on.
It was part of the game to identify the real villain, not by the ancient and honourable tradition of deciphering clues, but by using the show’s ambience to lead you into recognising which seemingly innocent character would be unveiled as having a previously unsuspected motive for violent death.
New Tricks was never a particularly serious show, though it dealt with serious stories and when it chose to do so, it could operate on that serious level to great effect, and very movingly. It tried to incorporate a degree of cop show action, though this grew increasingly implausible given that the cast were getting visibly older all the time and that Redman, whilst still an attractive woman, had filled out since her younger days and made an implausible athlete (especially in heels). In fact, the show might have worked just as easily on Radio, had we had such a thing as a thriving radio drama audience any more: it was very dialogue heavy.
Eventually, the cast got bored. Bolam was the first to leave, saying the show had gotten ‘stale’. Jack Halford bowed out in the opening episode of series 9, distracted from the case under review, detached, and eventually disclosing only to Brian Lane, on condition of secrecy, that he had inoperable cancer, and was disappearing to a south of France village of sentimental importance, to die unbothered. Daringly, the series left it for three episodes before replacing him with ex-Detective Inspector Steve McAndrew (Denis Lawson), a Scot who assists UCOS on a case with Glasgow elements, and is invited to join the team.
But both Armstrong and Redman were now unhappy with the show and expressed their wish to leave. There was an amusing twist to the final episode of series 9, in which neither appeared (nor were credited) and which took place in Glasgow, with Gerry and Steve detached to advise the Glasgow police on setting up their own UCOS. For a moment, it looked like a radical change might be in the offing, but that wasn’t so.
Series 10 began with everyone in place, but the first four episodes were built around a running story that, despite clearing Brian Lane’s name over his dismissal from the Police, led to his sacking from UCOS. He was immediately replaced by ex-Detective Chief Inspector Dan Griffin (Nicholas Lyndhurst), a significantly younger man than the rest of the team, though a choice made on the recommendation of Brian. And Sandra, having built UCOS up to a fine, well-respected unit, which she was loath to abandon, nevertheless saw a new future for herself, moving upwards again at long last, joining an international unit dealing with crimes of greater subtance.
That left the show’s newest member, newly promoted DCI Sasha Miller (Tamzin Oughthwaite), in her first command, only two episodes to establish herself as the new team-leader.
So, series 11 continues the show with only one of its four original stars still remaining. How successful is it with such sweeping changes to its core cast?
Firstly, the newbies aren’t quite changes to the status quo. Each of the replacements has been chosen to maintain continuity of balance within the ensemble. Steve McAndrew has replaced Jack Halford: whilst he’s younger, more physically active, and capable of getting more emotionally involved than his predecessor, he’s still the straight man of the team, the least burdened with overt eccentricities. Lawson plays his character gently, and whilst he lacks the seniority, his steadiness leaves him on course to be the first lieutenant, especially as he’s no longer competing with Halford for Sandra Pullman’s opinion.
Danny Griffin has replaced Brian Lane as the team eccentric, the man most likely to know something obscure and not apparently relevant. Lyndhurst has chosen to play Griffin in contrast to Alun Armstrong’s volatile, exciteable Lane: Griffin is very internalised, unexciteable, but decidedly capable of sarkiness. I’ve not followed Lyndhurst’s career closely but this strikes me as the most mature role he’s played.
And where Brian had Esther, Danny has Holly, his CP daughter, played by CP Actress Storme Toolis, who was a scene-stealing, irresistable blast in her every scene in series 10. She’s supposed to be off to University in episode 2, and the absence of her name in the credits suggests she may have been written out, which would be appalling. Both actress and character are simply too good to ignore.
And as for Tamzin Oughthwaite, as Sasha Miller, she’s dropped into place with incredible ease, already looking like a fixture with years behind her. In part this is because her role strays the least from her predecessor: attractive blonde, strong commander, a slightly less dominant waspishness. It’s on the personal front that Sasha strays further from Sandra. Sandra was unmarried, without children, lacking judgement in men. Sasha, nearly a decade younger, begins as married, contentedly, to a fellow Senior Officer, with two children, conveniently of University age and off-scene, only to find her husband cheating on her before her first episode’s over, ending the marriage.
As yet, this has not developed very far, though the scuttlebutt about series 11 is that, for a few episodes at least, her ex-husband temporarliy replaces Strickland as being responsible for UCOS.
The opening episode was a typically New Tricks experience, though it saved its twists until the very end, with the true villain being pulled from very far out of left field, having made only a brief appearance, nowhere near the frame. It was a slightly odd choice, though beautifully conveyed by the actor, who wasn’t really a murderer as such. And there was a nice, if unrealistic twist to the outcome, which hovered on the border between sentimentality and lack of reality without quite falling.
So an almost complete transplant of the cast has been carried out in respect to New Tricks, without serious damage to its gentle straddle of comedy and drama.Feet are still maintained in both camps and there’s still the likelihood of a certain revivification by phasing out a cast too comfortable in, and defined by their roles. New options are available for exploration, and if the BBC can take advantage of this without straying too violently for the programme’s comfortable core, there’s every prospect of a season 12, this time next year.
It’s still Insubstantial Airfill, but I unaccountably like it, and am happy to continue doing so.
The evening of the Governor’s Ball. Claret glow of dying sun. Soft patter of wild duck on tidal creek. Dolphin’s leap. Shemerelda sat in her dressing room in front of her mirror. Her dress was unadorned by flower or jewels. She slipped off her shoulder straps and let it fall to her waist. Her breasts stood out firm and full. Leonard trod softly up behind her and gently powdered the tips of her plum-red nipples. He pressed his mouth into her neck. He cupped her breasts in his hands and stroked their proud shimmering flanks. He pressed his loins into the pit of her naked back. “Shall we, Shemerelda?” he whispered.”Shall we? Please. Please.” Shemerelda turned to him. She smiled. She hooked up her shoulder straps. That was all.
It was seven years before Peter Tinniswood published another novel. Shemerelda (or, more properly, Shemerelda, by the Incredibly Beautiful H. H. Washbrook, as told to…) appeared in hardback in 1981. I have no figures as to its sales, but it is significant that it did not receive a paperback edition.
Tinniswood had not been idle during those years. There had been I Didn’t Know You Cared as a sitcom, four series. There had been an adaptation of A Touch of Daniel for Radio 4. There had been a six part comedy serial for Radio 4, Home Again, about a father unexpectedly reappearing after walking out on his family twenty years earlier.
There had been something else for Radio 4 that would change Tinniswood’s career, and which would form his next book. But first, there was Shemerelda.
I have no sales information for any of Peter Tinniswood’s novels. I’ve already mentioned that Mog didn’t get a paperback release until the mid-Eighties, when it was adapted as a sitcom. The Brandon family novels all went into paperback, and The Stirk of Stirk, but there was no such release for Shemerelda, and sadly I am not surprised.
It is a very slim novel, only 156 pages. The majority of those pages are filled with single sentence paragraphs, to an even more extended degree than The Stirk of Stirk. The extract above is typical. It is short. It is sharp. Sentences without verbs. Staccato. Reading the book again took just under an hour.
In his comments to the Independent, attached to their on-line obituary, Tinniswood’s friend, fellow-writer and journalist and former writing partner David Nobbs referred to The Stirk of Stirk as semi-poetic. It’s certainly a description that would suit this book, though its subject matter is at heart considerably more prosaic. Tinniswood’s style is deliberately clipped and intensive, compressing experience into brief, rhythmic lines, isolating these lines to the importance of a single element.
Yet the approach doesn’t take the reader in, doesn’t absorb them into the heart of what is happening. Shemerelda is a beautiful, rich, lavishly adorned, stylish, cool, self-contained woman living a life of leisure and luxury in Rackham City, on the Atlantic coast of America.
Shemerelda is married to Leonard Tozer, rich, plump, damp, a Banker. Their relationship is formal and distant. Laverne Van Strijden, loud, angular, full of boasts about her many and variegated lovers, urges Shemerelda to take a lover of her own. She is introduced to the incredibly beautiful H. H. Washbrook,who has travelled far and wide. But it is the grizzled, stocky, scar-nosed Mirakel who asks her to become his lover.
They couple in a dirty, downtown, sparsely furnished hotel room. Shemerelda is filled with passion, but she, being completely passive, must wait for Mirakel’s infrequent calls.
In the meantime, a black limousine has tried to run her off the road and kill her. Unnoticed, it follows her everywhere. It holds the incredibly beautiful H. H. Washbrook.
Matters become complicated. Leonard’s private secretary tries to blackmail Shemerelda into becoming his lover. She dashes a glass of lime juice in his face. He is found dead, strangled. The Police suspect Shemerelda. Leonard, inexplicably, denies her alibi.
Mirakel tries to kill Leonard in a motor race. Instead he kills Milne, the Tozer’s chauffeur, who has had to substitute for the yellow bastard who is too scared to race (the Tozers also have a butler named Ransome: an in-joke).
Mr Van Strijden tries to manipulate Shemerelda into being his lover. If it will get her news of Mirakel, she agrees, though the affair is not consumated, for Mirakel appears and takes her away. They make love in passionate isolation for days, but Mirakel locks Shemerelda in each day. Is he a kidnapper, as the headlines say?
But no. It is a complicated plot. Leonard is ruined financially. At Van Strijden’s instigation he hired Mirakel to kidnap Shemerelda and, when the ransom is paid from her wealth, kill her. But Mirakel fell in love with Shemerelda and sought to protect her, in the face of threats to his life from Van Strijden.
And overseeing all, hired to mastermind this dastardy plan, is the incredibly beautiful H.H. Washbrook.
There is a twist. The good go free, the bad die, thanks to the incredibly beautiful H.H. Washbrook, though the motivation for this seeming switch in character – or else his book-long deception of the villains – goes wholly unexplored. And Tinniswood rips off his own ending to The Stirk of Stirk to close the penultimate scene, though it’s penultimate only by a three line final chapter, addressed kind of sideways to the reader.
What an odd book.
The problem with novels that are built on style rather than substance is that the appeal of that style, its effectiveness upon the reader, then becomes the only criterion on which the book can be judged. There is one Tinniswodian running gag, deployed at intervals during the book, about the cream of the cream of Rackham City being in fine form:
“Did you see the (game) last night?”
“You didn’t see the (game) last night?”
“I saw the (game) last night. It sure was good.”
The gag is repeated three times, about different subjects, though its last iteration is about Shemerelda’s plight and this ends, “It sure was bad.” As gags go, it’s not bad, a little simplistic, but it’s the only one of its kind, whereas in earlier novels Tinniswood might have as many as half a dozen such, thickening the pot, and with a greater significance when the twist/variation is employed.
But that’s about the whole of the overt comedy, far less even than in The Stirk of Stirk. But what if this was intended to be a serious novel, what if I am misreading it completely and Shemerelda was not intended to be funny at all?
If this is so, it would stand out in Tinniswood’s work as one of the few serious pieces he ever wrote. The point was that he was a comedy writer: even in the early Nineties, when he wrote and appeared in a short series of television documentaries about the North, as seen through his eyes and childhood, he took the Brandons with him on his tours to joke about things.
No, I’m forced to concede that Shemerelda is not a book I can recommend, and the extreme style that Peter Tinniswood adopted for this and its pedecessor is rather a dead end.
But this was not Tinniswood’s only book this year, and his second would transform his career, creating a character even more famous, and more memorable than Uncle Mort. But in due course I’ll be making the case that, rather than transforming Tinniswood’s career, his next publication derailed it, and there would be very little in the future that lived up to those first four novels.
I promised I wasn’t going to do this anymore. I wasn’t going to comment on Astro City unless I had something important to say about it. So issue 13 forced me into it by being so good, and now here’s issue 14 and I have to open my mouth again. Because this just isn’t good enough, not good enough at all, and it has to be said.
“Ellie’s Friends” is the first of a two-parter. It is set in the New Mexico desert where the title character, an elderly and slightly unworldly women, has established a robot museum. The thing is, all the robots are criminal robots, machines built to commit thefts, cause damage, kill and rule, by supervillains. Robots that have been damaged or destroyed, and left abandoned by superheroes, but which have been salvaged by kindly Ellie, repaired and reprogrammed to be good and friendly, doing things according to their conscience.
Ellie’s been doing this longer than she can remember, which is something she doesn’t like to do because there’s something she mustn’t remember.
At which point I’m already growling. Busiek is foreshadowing something that will be revealed in the second part of the story, only instead of subtelty, he’s doing it with flares and rockets, since it’s already obvious what the bloody revelation’s going to be.
Which is the whole problem with issue 14: that it’s not merely predictable as far as it goes but it’s utterly predictable as to issue 15 itself.
You see, Ellie has a good-for-nothing nephew, Fred, a nebbish fleeing another divorce and busted business that was everybody else’s fault but his own. You can practically see the wheels in his head as he encourages Ellie to leave the business side to him as she takes longer and longer field trips to retrieve busted robots. The money starts flooding in, although Ellie isn’t seeing many paying customers on the days she’s back home, because, yes, Fred is using the robots to carry out robberies etc. Not personally, because he isn’t anything like bright enough, though he’s got doddery Ellie taken in.
Even when robberies and violence featuring robots – oh, gosh, wow! – of the same kinds as she has, Ellie doesn’t twig. Not until Fred is stupid enough to use a unique robot, one that nobody but Ellie’s got. It’s enough to bring her rushing back, into the hands of the Sheriff’s Department, who have also twigged. So unhappy Ellie is hauled off to clink and poor Fred starts blaming whoever it is has actually been running the machines, who’ll gladly help clear Ellie’s name in return for her notes and schematics… and Fred believes him. Fortunately, one of Ellie’s Friends is watching him…
Yeesh, it’s an awful story, and so is issue 15, which anyone who has read more than half a dozen mainstream comics already knows will go like this: Fred and Ellie will be betrayed by whoever’s pulling Fred’s strings: Ellie’s ‘Friends’ will break her out of jail: they will release her from her conditioning that has concealed from her that she actually used to be a genius-type super-villain (almost certainly the ‘Vivi Viktor’ who, in the Seventies, was taken out by Mirage and The Point Man) and her robots actually buried those memories: that Ellie and her now potentially lethal ‘friends’ will wreak vengeance upon the manipulator, saving Fred into the bargain: and that Ellie’s conscience and her love for her mis-treated friends will win out, and she will not go back to her villainous past.
There, I’ve said it. That, more or less, is issue 15 in its entirety. And this time next month, I will come back to say so.
Of course, I may just have set myself up for a great big fall, in which case I will come back and apologise profusely. Embarrassing though that might be, I’d kinda prefer that, because if issue 15 is what I say it will be, I’m going to have to take very seriously the idea of giving up on Astro City completely.
But this is not the only sign that the series may be in trouble. Vertigo insisted on skipping a month in the schedule to enable to keep the book on track, yet this issue is the single worst job Brent Anderson has ever done on the series. Some pages are awfully rough and scratchy, and the double-page spread of the entrance to the robot museum (which is duplicated in reduced form a few pages later) is an eyesore. And after issue 12 became the first fill-in issue in Astro‘s long and proud history, there’s another one scheduled for issue 17.
I didn’t like the Atomika story in Local Heroes issue 2, and I’ve never understood the great enthusiasm other fans have shown towards it, but this issue is worse than that. Yes, I’m in the minority again, as reviews elsewhere on the net are gushing already. Let’s see if Busiek can pull anything out of his locker to astound, enlighten, and make me look a prize pillock.
Just to let you all know that the 25% off offer at Lulu.com, by using the code TWODAY14, has been extended by another three days, allowing you to buy my books for a quarter of the price off for three days longer.