Recognising Robert Neill: Song of Sunrise revisited

When I reviewed Robert Neill’s sixth novel as part of my series about his fiction, I did so from the small, dense, dark paperback version in which the novel’s title, Song of Sunrise, had been replaced by the more prosaic, but fitting, The Mills of Colne.
Under either name – and the novel is always given it’s original title in lists of Neill’s books – this was the last of Neill’s works that I had not read. Owning The Mills of Colne didn’t stop me keeping an eye open for a copy of the hardback. However, Song of Sunrise appeared to be one of the most expensive of Neill’s novels to acquire. Nevertheless, fortune came my way via eBay earlier this month, with the offer of a Good condition hardback, with complete dustjacket, at a discounted price that was virtually half the asking prices I had previously seen.
Three interesting points arise from re-reading the book as Song of Sunrise.
The first is that there is absolutely nothing to explain the mystery of the splendidly poetic title. Previously, I speculated whether some dedication, or epithet, in the hardback might shed light on Neill’s choice of title but there is nothing to assist us in its interpretation. And again the text throws up no clues.
Unless further research throws up notes or drafts pertaining to this novel, it seems that the choice of title will remain a mystery.
The second point lies in the easily identifiable physical differences between hardback and paperback. Song of Sunrise‘s dustjacket bears an uplifting image, a ‘shining town’ upon a hill, under a wide sky, that suits its title, The Mills of Colne a dark, painted scene of crowds in a narrow street, at night. What’s more, the hardback includes a ‘map’ – the only one of which I am aware in Neill’s works – of Colne at the time of the story.
The map, which is printed on both endpapers, was drawn for Neill by Wilfred Spencer, the former Librarian of Colne, who also receives credit for great assistance in the research into the events covered in the period of the story. I put the word ‘map’ into inverted commas since it is more of a satellite drawing, showing streets and lanes but depicting the buildings that line them as distinguished from a street plan.
It’s an interesting addendum but I found myself rarely consulting it. Though it identifies lanes etc. by name, the ‘map’s great flaw is that it does not attempt to even suggest hills etc. The drawing gives the impression of a level plane, with all the properties at the same height, which is far from the case in Neill’s descriptions of Colne, nor in the reality.
The last point is an oddly metaphysical one. I reviewed the novel fairly critically first time, describing it as a social realism/history novel and as such, in light of Neill’s career, a somewhat drab book in comparison with those that came before and after it. Re-reading it in hardback doesn’t disqualify that analysis in any respect: the flaws I described are no different. Robert Shaw is still a curiously inert leading character, forever acting upon others’ ideas and encouragement and bringing little of his own initiative to the table. His romance with Anna England is still determinedly unromantic and almost entirely without passion.
But as I’ve described, The Mills of Colne was physically a small, dark and dense book, with close lines of print, behind a dark cover that concentrated upon the purely pragmatic aspects of the story. In contrast, Song of Sunrise is a larger format, with ordinarily spaced print, presented between covers deliberately light and open. It should make no difference to the contents, but it does. The book is more enjoyable in hardback, easier to read, lighter in tone, because the physical experience of reading it is more expansive, the emphasis more upon daylight, or perhaps sunrise.
I certainly found the book more enjoyable as a reading experience on this occasion, demonstrating the importance that covers and format can have to a novel: the words are not as independent of physical reality as we may believe.


The Frank Hampson Studio – The Bakehouse Days

‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?

Beyond Redemption

On his throne

Things seem to have gone quiet, temporarily no doubt, on the FIFA front, but once the media has stopped burying all the interesting political issues arising from the Rochester & Strood by-election under the manufactured outrage over an innocuous treat, Switzerland’s favourite international organisation will once more take its place in the ongoing arguments over… well, over what, exactly?
At the moment, it’s the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively – especially the latter. Because Qatar is probably the least likely country in the whole world for playing world-class football. But it’s also one of the richest and most despotic countries in the world. Q., as they, E.D.
I’m not going to rehearse the saga so far, it’s too well known. Like all of us who are interested in football, for whom it has been the most exciting and visceral game we have ever known, for whom it is sunk in our hearts, things are only too plain. It’s been suggested that reform cannot begin at FIFA, that transparency and probity cannot begin until the bloated spider known as Sepp Blatter finally retires, but the truth we’re all refusing to face is different.
FIFA is corrupt. It is rotten to the core, in action, deed, word, thought. Corruption is the air that FIFA breathes and it has been for far too long for there to be any possibility of the least significant improvement. FIFA passed the point of no return far too long ago. It cannot be reformed, it cannot be changed, it cannot become something that it is not, which is fair, decent, open, democratic and an organisation that exists for the benefit of others.
There is no hope. The only recourse, literally the only recourse, is to destroy FIFA entirely, to burn it to the ground, to erase it from existence. To shatter it beyond the ability of anybody to put even two splinters back together. To sow of dragon’s teeth to make the soil where FIFA stood infertile for centuries. And to forbid, on pain of imprisonment, anybody who has had even the remotest connection with FIFA in any of its myriad forms, from having anything whatsoever to do with any organisation that seeks to replace it.
This is, of course, impossible. Leaving aside the enormous and wholly despotic powers needed to raze FIFA to the ground, even if it were not to be faced wih opposition from the vested interests that constitute the entirety of this organism, we are talking about the destruction of football in any form that we know it now.
In short, the only way to counter what FIFA is, is to rewind history to the very beginnings of football, and start again: fresh, clean, untramelled.
What are the chances of that happening? Zero would be optimistic. We are, after all, talking about an organisation that behaves like a Nation-state, that invades Nation-states at four year intervals, casting aside all their laws, disrupting their domestic economy, riding rough-shod over its populations and, in short, behaving in every respect like a Fascist occupying power, and which somehow can get self-regarding countries and governments who would normally bristle at the slightest suggestion of outside interference to compete to invite this degrading and despoiling organisation to do so.
Remember that by vampiric lore (unless Stephanie Merritt has revoked it), the vorwulka cannot pass your doors unless you ask it to enter.
Personally, I would be willing to sacrifice International Football for as long as it would take to sweep FIFA aside, consign it to the history books, destroy all the people associated with it, distribute all its money to individual Football Associations in a fair and equitable manner, sell all its holdings and imprison every administrator above secretarial level to indefinite imprisonment in a Turkish jail (I could be persuaded against this last provision by evidence being produced of a worse prison environment).
And I suspect that a substantial proportion of football fans globally, possibly even a majority, would take a perfectly impious delight in such a thing happening, and indeed would create the world’s greatest Black Market in the pursuit of ringside seats to the spectacle (who, with the very slightest degree of humanity, would not openly thrill to the sight of Jack Warner being reduced to penury?).
We’d love it, just love it ((c) Kevin Keegan) if it would happen. But it won’t. Like the Banks that are too big to be allowed to fail, FIFA will not suffer dissolution. There will be mutterings about a change of culture, about transparency and reform once Blatter steps down, but that is like expecting the vampire to turn up for an outdoor lunch on a sunny August day eating garlic bread.
Because FIFA is rotten beyond redemption. It can only be handled by being placed into Quarantine, from the rest of the world. Preferably in a vacuum. Somewhere in orbit about Uranus. Or Sepp’s.

Xmas Starts Early 2

I work in a Call Centre. Unless the calls are flying thick and fast, we usually have televisions on in the background, with the sound off. This isn’t too much of a problem when it’s something like sport, where you can follow the pictures, but less successful on something like, say, Xmas videos.

Each year, we sit here for days on end watching MTV on the overhead screens as they plough through various Xmas oriented programmes, despite the futility of watching music with the sound off.

It’s the kind of programmes we get that gets me. Firstly, Has-Been Celebrity No 1 picks their Twenty Favourite Xmas Videos. These include such luminaries as Mariah Carey, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, The Darkness, Slade, Wham!, Wizzard, Mel and Kim, Band Aid and the rest of the usual suspects.

This is then followed by Has-Been Celebrity No 2 picking their Twenty Favourite Xmas Videos, seventeen of which are the same as those chosen by Has-Been Celebrity No 1 but in a slightly different order.

After which Has-Been Celebrity No 3 picks their Twenty Favourite Xmas Videos, eighteen of which you’ve already seen during the prevuious two programmes, and you still haven’t heard a single one of them. In the case of fifty per cent of these videos, this is a bonus, especially if the choice has fallen on any John Lewis Xmas Ad Famous-Song-Done-Hypersensitively-At-A-Tempo-That-Would-Bore-A-Snail.

It’s not even December until next Monday. All a bit previous, what?

Xmas Starts Early

Maybe it’s the new Band Aid 30 single, shooting predictably in at Number 1 tonight, AND dragging the original back into the charts at 61, but the Xmas revival of the classic songs has started in the last November Hot 100 on 2014, and we shall, as usual, be monitoring this years progress of the Greatest Xmas Record of All Time. Which, for non-veterans of this blog, is ‘A Fairytale of New York’, by the Pogues, featuring the late and forever missed Kirsty MacColl.

The song re-enters at no 80, making this the tenth consecutive year the track has charted for Christmas and the twelfth overall. It hasn’t reached the top 10 since 2007, when it peaked at no. 4, but the song’s been remarkably consistent, peaking between 12 and 17 in the last six years. And the beauty of it is that, as always, it’s not been re-issued, it just comes back because people want to hear it again at Xmas.

In terms of consistency, it has to be admitted that Maria Carey’s ‘All I Want For Xmas Is You’ also comes back year-on-year and is consistently the highest charting regular: new entry today at no 68. But I shalln’t be following that song’s progress, just this one.

So, one more time, as we always do…

Obscure Corners – Ullscarf

North from Greenup Edge

There isn’t a fell I’ve climbed in the whole of the Lake District for which I don’t have a vision, locked in my memory, available at any moment the name of the fell is summoned. There is, literally, nowhere that I’ve been that I can’t summon up in mind, seeing through my own eyes some part of the journey or the view, some scene that impressed itself so keenly that, in a world in which I can forget in literally the space of a heartbeat the thing I was going to do next, I can return mentally to where I once walked.
Lately, for no discernible reason, one such scene has been pushing itself involuntarily before my eyes.
It’s perhaps straining things to call Ullscarf an Obscure Corner. Such places are almost always off to one side, on the fringe somewhere, away from the areas of concentrated walking in the centre of the Lakes, and Ullscarf has very good claims to being the most central fell in Lakeland. Yet it is still an Obscure corner, a place few visit for excitement or achievement. It stands at the southern end of Lakeland’s central ridge, itself low, wet and in many ways short of true appeal. It’s a lumpish, unlovely fell, with few attributes, and nothing to distinguish it in views. It’s border to the higher fells south and west is Greenup Edge Pass, notoriously one of the wettest places for walkers in the high country. Few go there, for reasons that are obvious when you are there.
One breed of people does come to Ullscarf, and that is the Wainwright-bagger.
I was nearing the end, hoping to complete my journey before the end of 1994. I had four summits left, but two walks, in different areas. And the weather would allow me one final day, leaving the last two fells to be collected at the start of a new year instead of the end of an old one.
My penultimate walk was designed to encompass Ullscarf and Great Crag. It was one of only a handful that involved an ascent out of the Stonethwaite valley. I would park at the farm, ascend Greenup Edge, walk up Ullscarf and descend, cross-country, to the small, amorphous mass of ground that comprised Great Crag, dropping back to Stonethwaite from the same.
Any walk that involves a Pass carries with it the nostalgic thrill of my first steps in walking with my family. Before my sister and I were old enough and hardy enough to reach summits, we would target the tops of Passes, and I am so much of a completist that it remained a goal to reach the top of all those officially designated passes in the Lakes. Greenup Edge was (not quite) the last of these (I had been at the top of Scandale Head, but did not actually climb it until three years later).
Greenup was not massively exciting in itself. In its early stages, it passes beneath the lip of Langstrath, offering no views in that direction, nor of Bowfell. Only then does it begin to gain height steadily. As Eagle Crag is passed, the ascending valley is taken over by moraines, and views open up into the strange, hidden upper valley that lies behind Eagle Crag. That is a valley almost exclusively occupied by moraines, looking extremely lonely and a recipe for getting irretrievable lost. And forgotten.
The best part of the walk is Lining Crag. This lies across the route on the long crossing of Ullscarf’s western flack, visible from a distance and growing ever more impressive as you near. Once the base of the Crag is reached, the path takes to the left hand side of the rock, offering a steep and enthusiastic scramble that is quiet the best section of the walk.
From here, the route continues over increasingly wet ground towards Greenup Edge. There is no need to actually visit the highest point of the Pass, and those with leaky boots are best advised to make a more or less beeline from above Lining Crag directly to Ullscarf. This cuts out a substantial corner on the approach, but sometimes you have to be a bit of a purist, even if the final yards of the Pass involve enough water-walking to qualify you to found a major international religion. Linger not, but head left without delay, leaving the sticky summit behind. The walk to Ullscarf is without incident.
For the possibly most-central fell, I did not find the view from Ullscarf impressive. It has position, but not height, and its summit is flat and wide, but it was not best served by the late October conditions.
Head north, following the line of fence posts that are the summit’s only distinguishing features. Those who are bound for the central ridge, and a medium-high level return to Keswick, will need to bear right at the fence corner, making a dogleg approach, but travellers bound to return to Stonethwaite will bear half left.
It was from this point that my abiding vision of the Ullscarf walk comes. A second, lower ridge, lacking the characteristics of a ridge almost entirely, descends towards the indefinite ground and profusion of tops that represents Great Crag, almost three miles away. Beyond and below, caught between these two ridges, lies Bleatarn Gill, descending to Watendlath Tarn. From the edge of the plateau, it’s a long view, with a steep but not precipitous fall ahead.
It is a long walk to Great Crag, long enough to be almost an expedition in itself. The route descends over Coldbarrow Fell, crossing High Saddle and Low Saddle, and continues through an open, empty landscape until beginning to rise again towards the small mass of Great Crag. It’s desolate, and it is plain that there will be no encounters with other walkers once you turn this way. Almost the whole of your course for the next couple of hours is visible, and it doesn’t look the sort of terrain you’d want to ascend.
Yet this is the image that is always my first thought when I hear or read of Ullscarf. It was undemanding, but I walked it, alone and in contemplation, a Sunday afternoon late in the year, grey and tending to cold, and very far away from anywhere else.
There are no firm paths until that from Stonethwaite to Dock Tarn is crossed. Wainwright insists you divert to the latter and I always try to follow his recommendations, but I was less impressed by the Tarn than he. Still, it was getting on in the afternoon, and another fell, and the road back to Manchester beckoned.
Though there were no paths, I found it surprisingly easy to find Great Crag’s summit. I stayed long enough to admire the view towards Watendlath and Keswick, then retraced my steps top the path and descended, on a knee-crackingly steep zigzag trail through the woods below White Crag until reaching the Greenup Edge path a quarter of a mile or thereabouts above Stonethwaite.
No, Ullscarf’s not a fell I would place in my top 100 to return to, but my inner eyes look on Lining Crag, and the scramble alongside it, and I am currently haunted by that unexpected vista, northwards and down, across a lonely country. I’d like to see that again, on a nicer day.

Fall of The Fall

Let’s put a Hitchcockian ‘Ice Cold Blonde’ picture of Gillian Anderson here, shall we?

Eighteen months ago, in the company of four to four-and-a-half million other viewers, I spent five weeks watching BBC2’s very successful crime drama series, The Fall. It was pre-billed, and pretty much lived up to its reputation as a British equivalent to the influential Scandi-Noir crime series such as The Killing and The Bridge.

The Fall starred Gillian Anderson as Metropolitan Police Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, seconded to the Northern Ireland Police Service to review the investigation of a murder case about a young, attractive professional woman, tortured and killed, and Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector as a bereavement counsellor, happily married with a daughter, who is Alice Morgan’s killer. Spector is more than that: he is a serial killer.

The series was broadcast in five hour long episodes. It was immaculately written, acted and directed, with a wide cast of characters both connected and unconnected to the central drama of Gibson’s increasingly personal duel with the serial killer. Both the leading parts were, in differing ways, carefully underplayed by Anderson and Spector, as undemonstrative, quietly spoken, clearly intelligent people, and both actors were extremely photogenic in their roles.

The series attracted a lot of attention over and above its setting in Belfast, against the background of the post-Troubles era, with the continuing antagonisms and hatreds of the people. Serial killers have long-since become a cliché in crime fiction: as was post-modernly observed in one such story (which one I can’t remember, nor whether it was TV, book or comic), ‘doesn’t anybody just kill one person any more?’ However, The Fall set out to present a deeper portrait, showing the serial killer in a different light as a man who is, in almost every other respect, a model citizen. He follows a caring, sharing profession, devoted to helping others, he is devoted to his six-year-old daughter, he loves his wife, he’s deeply handsome and sexually appealing.

Ah, but he kills attractive, young, independent brunette women in a horrifyingly ritualistic, drawn-out, tortuous manner after long weeks of very careful stalking and manipulation. Still, nobody’s perfect, eh?

The gift of The Fall was to make this creation plausible and, despite the intent of the portrait of Spector, to avoid glamourising him, an achievement aided greatly by Dornan’s low-key, thoughtful performance. That didn’t stop the series from attracting criticism, in particular for the fact that, yet again, what was being sold was the objectification of women and the bloody slaying of young, slim, physically attractive specimens, whose key characteristic was that they were independent.

You don’t need to go far along those lines to hit the misogynism buffers, and the series didn’t really have any answer to deflect criticism of that nature. Instead, it relied on the quality of its production and upon the strikingly independent Stella Gibson (ah, but whilst Gillian Anderson looked very good in her silk blouses, summoning Detective Sergeants to bed for a one-off fuck, she was different: she was older than Spector’s target group, and anyway, she was blonde) to escape serious consideration of the accusation.

I, like the other 4 – 4.5 million, kept the criticism in mind but was hooked by the programme’s dark style, its range of characters, its breadth of storytelling. Until the very last minutes of the very last episode when we got a real, serious kicker: there wasn’t an ending. Gibson got too close, Spector hopped it to Scotland with his family, the protagonists spoke for the first and only time, on an immediately-discarded mobile phone, and that was it. See Series 2.

It was a dreadful let-down. Nowhere in any of the pre-publicity, or the enthusiastic reviews and arguments that had followed the series, had there been any suggestion that we were only to get half a story. The ending was a gross let-down, a cop-out: Spector’s fled, swearing never to do it again but Gibson promises to get him, series over and everybody suspended in mid-air because we were presented with this series on the traditional, implied basis that it would be a complete story, with some form of resolution, however many loose ends it may be wrapped in for us to puzzle over. Instead, it was a cheat.

Nevertheless, The Fall had been so much of a success that a second series was guaranteed, which duly began last week on BBC2, with the first of a further six episodes, and presumably an ending this time. It was broadcast on Thursday night at 9.00pm. I was enjoying a week’s holiday, so was free to have watched the episode live if I wanted. I completely forgot it was on and ended up not watching the episode on i-Player until Sunday, having avoided reviews in the meantime.

Series two starts only ten days after the end of series one. Spector’s wife and daughter moved back to Ulster after only two days, Spector now secretively follows them. His last victim survived but is as yet not able to answer questions. His fifteen year old babysitter is once again playing with fire. His wife doesn’t want to see him, he’s practicing bondage on his daughter’s Barbies (one truly asinine little element). Gibson’s trying to get the woman who is their only lead to give her more information. In the meantime, Spector is asked to be the bereavement counsellor for his last surviving victim, and ends the episode by kidnapping the lead.

In short, almost nothing happened. It happened in a fairly straight line, with most of the complications of series one forgotten about. Anderson half changed out of dress uniform in the Ladies, giving up voyeuristic blimps at the well-stocked bra. And there was an embarrassingly stupid scene on the train with a woman who’d dyed her hair blonde so as not to be brunette, y’know, this serial killer thing, blithely spilling name, address, identity etc into Spector’s lap like a graven invitation to rape and slaughter.

And it was all so glacially slow. Nothing happened and it happened so slowly that I barely made it through the hour. And my interest in The Fall and the conclusion of this game of wits being carried on between Gibson and Spector was switched off. Just, as Tommy Cooper so eloquently put it, like that.

Episode 2 will be broadcast tonight. It’s my day off-shift. I can watch it tonight. But I can’t be bothered. The mystique has expired and only the mannerisms remain. Watching the rest of The Fall, learning how it all comes out, has become pointless. From the cheat ending of series one to the stunningly empty start of series two, my interest in what the show has to tell me, even to the extent of How It Ends, has fallen off, as if off a cliff.

I’m not going to draw any morals from this, or make any recommendations on how to retain interest better in future shows. Sometimes, you just go off things. But rarely so precipitately and so thoroughly. Now I’m looking through, not at, The Fall and instead of not liking what I see, I’m seeing nothing but a blank wall onto which has been projected nothing but smoke. There aren’t even any mirrors.

The Worst Decision Ever

The Enemy

Try as we might, short of developing some kind of omni-scanner that can produce an instant, 3D hologram replay on any incident that takes place on a football field, we are never going to eliminate the shit refereeing decision.

I’ve been watching footbal for nearly fifty years, live or on TV. I’ve watched Manchester United in the League, the Cup and in Europe. I’ve watched World cups and European Championships. I’ve watched various levels of non-League football with Droylsden and with FC United. And I have seen right royal clangers galore, and more than a token few – especially at non-League level – where I remain convinced that the wrong decision did not come about due to honest human error.

You may call that last remark a vile calumny on an honourable body of men without whom the game of football could not exist, or dismiss it as the automatic response of every dedicated football fan whose default position is that the referee is biassed against his team, but when you’ve lost 4-0 away and the referee has sent off your makeshift goalkeeper for complaining about having the ball kicked out of his hands for a goal, and the word comes back that said referee was down the pub in Liverpool that Saturday night boasting about how he fucked Droylsden over…

Fans of teams in the Premier League complain about the refereeing at the top level, and a lot of it is chronically awful, even after you make every objective allowance you can make, but you haven’t seen poor refereeing until you’ve dropped down somewhere about level six, seven or eight. That was where I saw the worst refereeing decision I have seen in my life.

This took place in a game between Curzon Ashton and Droylsden, in the Unibond Northern Premier League First Division, in September 1996. I’d started watching Droylsden regularly again the previous season, anticipating (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be able to get into Old Trafford during the redevelopment of the North Stand. The Bloods had been relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference, but I’d been hooked enough by the non-League experience to extend what had been intended to be only a one season experiment into a longer-term enthusiasm.

During the summer, a new interpretation of the Offside rule had been agreed by the Football Association, which went into operation at the start of the 1996/7 season. The Law itself was not changed: a player in the opposition half was in an offside position if there were fewer than two players between him and the opposition goal-line. But fans and clubs were long past tired of the innumerable interruptions to the game when, with the ball on one side of the pitch, a winger on the opposite side, over fifty yards from the ball, was running back but still flagged offside.

That summer, referees were instructed to focus on the line about ‘interfering with play’. With respect to the speakers of bullshit about ‘if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?’ (even Bill Shankley spoke a lot of crap from time to time), henceforth referees were instructed that a player running back from an offside position, who was not attempting to play the ball or interfere with players who were, would not be given offside. It was the beginning of the Offside Law as we know it today.

By the time Droylsden went to Curzon Ashton, that interpretation had been in effect for a month, about six matches. I was interested in the visit to Curzon: it was one of the very few away grounds I’d visited with Droylsden when I’d been a regular in the Seventies. In 1979, it had been little more than a park pitch with railings around it, but in 1996 there were stands, seats and floodlights, a sign that Curzon had climbed the ladder far enough to be expand the traditional ‘Tameside Five’ to Six.

Though Curzon opened the scoring, it was mainly a comfortable night for Droylsden, who took a 3-1 lead just after the hour, though Curzon reduced the deficit to one goal with five minutes left to play. That’s when it all kicked off.

A long back pass was played to the Curzon keeper in his area. Striker Billy O’Callaghan chased it back, not letting the keeper settle on the ball. The keeper kicked it deep into the Droylsden half, at which point O’Callaghan, in the centre of the field, turned and started jogging back towards his own lines.

The ball was met by Droylsden centreback Dave Ashton, who headed it into Curzon’s half, and over to the Droylsden right wing. In the centre, O’Callaghan was about 10 – 15 yards behind the last Curzon defender, still jogging back with his head down. The defence appealed, the linesman (directly in front of me) raised his flag, the referee considered the situation and waved play on.

A year before, he’d have whistled for an infringement. But O’Callaghan’s position was exactly what the new interpretation had been designed to cover. He was in the centre, the ball on the wing. He had neither moved, nor even looked, towards the ball. He was not interfering with play and the referee’s decision not to stop the game was completely correct.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. A Curzon defender dropped back to collect the loose ball, but midfielder Ray Wyse, who’d been in his own half when the ball was headed forward, had gone in pursuit and, before the defender had settled on the ball, tackled him and went away, bearing down on the goal with no-one between him and the keeper.

Instead of dropping back, the Curzon defence kicked off at the referee. In the meantime, Wyse closed in on the keeper, who advanced to the edge of his area to narrow the angle. On the other flank, midfielder Walter Nesbitt had raced forward in support of Wyse, twenty yards or more to his left. Wyse waited for the keeper to commit himself before passing the ball sideways for Nesbitt to plant in an empty net.

4-2, game secured, three points! Not so. The referee disallowed the goal and awarded an indirect free kick to Curzon for offside, against Nesbitt.

The first consideration is whether Nesbitt actually was offside. I’ll be straight with you: I have no idea. It was a Tuesday night, under non-League floodlights, they were roughly level with each other, and I was sat on the sidelines at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees to the play. Wyse and Nesbitt were at least twenty yards apart and it was impossible to tell which of the two was ahead of the other.

But that wasn’t really the issue. I was at forty five degrees to the action: the referee, who was level with me, was directly behind it. Yes: at least twenty yards behind the play, equidistant between two players themselves at least twenty yards apart. It was physically impossible for him to tell if Nesbitt was offside or not. Try it in the Park sometime, with a couple of mates: it’s the equivalent of pronouncing on a Leg Before Wicket appeal from Square Leg: it just can’t be done.

The outcome was inevitable: Curzon scored an equaliser in injury time to secure a 3-3 draw and deprive Droylsden of two points.

What made the decision so appalling was the referee making a deliberately bad call, because he didn’t have the courage to stand behind a correct decision. He was absolutely right not to penalise O’Callaghan for offside, but when Curzon’s own inattention cost them a goal, he lacked the bottle stand behind the right call and made a deliberately wrong one to ‘even things out’.

It didn’t make any long-term difference. Droylsden ended up in mid-table, a long way from anything two points would have affected. Curzon were relegated, and suffered the appalling bad luck of an enforced relegation into the Northern Counties (East) League (all three relegated teams should, geographically, have gone into the North-West Counties League, who would normally have accepted one: they agreed to take two but Curzon, as the most ‘easterly’ of the three teams, had to be shunted into a League where every away game started with crossing the Pennines: unsurprisingly, they fell straight through).

We often see suspicious decisions by referees, particularly with regard to bookings, where a player on one team gets an unjustified yellow or red card because the referee considers that he’s made a mistake in issuing a earlier sanction to the other side. These are still wrong, but are understandable in human terms: a second wrong to balance out the first.

This stands out in my memory for the burning sense of injustice that it created, which is higher than with any other decision I’ve seen, because it did not even have the feeble excuse of redressing some kind of perceived balance: a deliberately wrong decision was taken to ‘rectify’ a 100% correct one. It was disgraceful, and I am well aware of it because I was there.

New Tricks’ Old Tricks

The old gang

In the run-up to Xmas, BBC1 dropped in a New Tricks repeat on Monday night, featuring the original cast. In view of my comments about the new tone the series has taken with its revised team, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this episode and compare the two.

“The Gentleman Vanishes” was originally broadcast in 2011 as episode 7 in series eight. I’d watched it at the time but didn’t recall anything of it until the very effective and disturbing ending. The episode was notable for being the show’s all-time most successful episode in terms of audience, pulling in 9.87m viewers on its original broadcast, It also featured the first of three guest appearances of Tim McInnerny (Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) as Stephen Fisher, a somewhat shadowy individual in intelligence and a former crony of UCOS’s boss, Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland.

As a comparison between the old lightweight New Tricks and its somewhat more serious modern incarnation, “The Gentleman Vanishes” was a spectacularly bad choice. It was played completely straight from start to finish in a well-plotted and ultimately dark story that involved the (thankfully offscreen) physical and mental torture of a person ill-suited to resist even gentle societal pressure. The individual eccentricities of the characters were kept well in check: Sandra Pullman’s temper, Brian Lane’s voluability, Gerry Standing’s wide-boy, all were underplayed. Only Jack Halford was fully in character throughout and he was always the sane and sensible one.

The re-opened case was the disappearance in 2004 of scientist Philip McKenna, an expert in cold fusion whose disappearance ended his research project. The episode’s title was a nod to the iconic pre-War Hitchcock film, “The Lady Vanishes”, about a woman disappearing on a moving train. McKenna had been abducted in a clearly professional operation, from the London to Dover train, during a short delay resulting from someone pulling the communications cord. But someone had taken his passport and completed his journey via Ferry to Calais, and thence to Paris, where McKenna was due – at short notice brought about by a burglary that had deprived his research partner of his Passport – to present a paper.

Thus McKenna’s disappearance was not noticed until two days later and was initially thought to be in France. This meant that his actual removal from the train was not discovered until the trail had gone long cold.

The case had been brought to UCOS’s attention when McKenna’s wife, Bea (a delicate portrayal by Rebecca Front) started receiving emails suggesting the sender knew where her husband was, one of which included a document purportedly coming from a Swiss company that showed clear evidence of work developed from McKenna’s researches.

There was no new evidence as such, but UCOS made progress by identifying a currently imprisoned conman as one of the men involved in the abduction, which opened the door to further leads. Halford used a pet hacker turned internet security expert – a typically nervous, would-be jovial performance by Shaun Williamson – to trace the emails, though this resulted in a dead end of sorts: they were the work of an anonymous superhacker known only as ‘Ninetails’.

But this sparked a connection in Brian Lane’s memory to Japanese mythology, and Kitsue, portrayed as a fox with nine tails.

In the meantime, we’d been treated to a splendidly superior, faux- superficial performance by McInnerny as Fisher, ostensibly warning UCOS out of waters too deep and dangerous for them, but dropping the name of Simon Crane, who turned out to be the mastermind behind everything, and a former British Intelligence Agent with sufficient dirt on sufficient people to be, effectively, untouchable. Unless arrested for murder, that is.

As became increasingly clear the longer the episode went on, McKenna was long dead, broken by evidence of his wife’s brief affair with, naturally, Simon Crane. This set up a Police operation at Paddington, aimed at capturing Crane and his associate, Fisher having tipped off UCOS as to where and when to find Crane. Meanwhile, thanks to Lane, ‘Ninetails’ had been identified: Kitsue was a fox, or rather A. Fox, aka Alice Fox, the girlfriend of McKenna’s former research assistant, who’d briefly appeared as a person suspicious of the Police.

Alice, it transpired, had been the third part of the abduction, pulling the communication cord, but unaware of the intention to torture and murder McKenna. She’d been living in hiding ever since, avoiding being killed. But when UCOS set things up at Paddington, Alice stepped in. With the net closing, all communications, radios and CCTV failed. Crane fled, pursued by Halford. Lane went a different way, followed, in advance by Alice, in a striking floor-length leather coat. In an access corridor there was a shot, offscreen. Halford let a screaming young woman, crying there’d been a shot, go past him: he and Lane found Crane shot dead. Not that, cynically, anyone expected Crane to face a proper trial anyway.

The episode ended on a disturbing moment. The team, with Strickland, leaves UCOS’s office heading for the pub. As Lane manoeuvres his bicycle out, behind him a laptop screen comes to life. It shows CCTV footage of the concourse at Paddington. In the centre of the screen, looking into the camera, was Alice, in her leather coat. After a few seconds she raises something in her right hand, points it at the camera: the image winks out.

So: an uncharacteristic episode, played straight: comedy/drama without the comedy. Kudos to writer/director Julian Salmon. It was an excellent episode, the more so in its ending, but in terms of comparing the series now to then, all but useless. Nevertheless, a useful reminder that New Tricks’ reputation as a dull, stale show was not always deserved.

Considering John Crowley – The Deep

John Crowley’s first published novel, The Deep, was published in 1975. He had written an earlier novel, based on the Wars of the Roses, but this was never completed. The Deep was marketed as an SF novel, and hailed with great praise by such as Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin. But whilst I am usually prone to respect her opinions, I can’t share hers or Aldiss’s enthusiasm for this book.
If we’re going to talk genre, The Deep, to me, is properly a work of Fantasy and not Science Fiction. It is set in a fantasy world, of armies and Kings and magic, a world divided by the competing claims to kingship of two opposing factions. It’s a world that, early on, is said to exist on a pilar that is founded on the Deep, and this physical structure is confirmed at the book’s end.
Into this world, Crowly introduces one SF element, in the form of the Visitor. The Visitor – who will go on to subsequently be given the titles of the Secretary and the Recorder, titles which identify the three parts into which the novel is divided – is a made thing, superficially human but neither male nor female. Damaged at the outset by a skirmish between the Protectors and the Just, the Visitor progresses throughout the book towards the Revelation that he/she/it was been made by Leviathan, who has made the world of the Deep.
For what reason? There, for me, lies the great failure of the book. It uses the trappings of conventional fantasy but only to pay lip service to them. Rule of this world lies at first with the Blacks, a rule that the Reds are determined to challenge. There is an ancient feud between them with the throne at the heart of it.
But that’s all there is. The names are flat and prosaic: indeed, they put me in mind of Draughts (or more appropriately for an American author, Checkers). Crowley uses the tropes of fantasy but in an abstract form that denies any underlying form of passion. Everybody’s name incorporates the element of their faction: King Little Black, Black Harrah, Red Senlin, Red Senlin’s Son, Fauconred, etc.
It’s an approach that might work if the intent were satirical, to undermine the tropes by presenting them in such an elemental, anatomised manner, but whatever Crowley’s purpose here, he at least needs this story to be taken seriously, and this careful removal of any kind of human context doesn’t serve.
Indeed, Crowly takes pains, after adopting this schematic approach, to avoid actually depicting the cliches one would normally associate with the form.
It also makes it easy for the book to slide out of the head, leaving it untouched. It’s only a couple of weeks since I finished re-reading it, yet it’s already impossible to remember what it was about, what it meant, what end it reached. A couple of moments only: King Little Black running, shrieking a warning as he eavesdrops on the Queen rutting with her lover Black Harrah, but not what he’s warning against: the vaguely Mervyn Peake atmosphere of Little Black’s mad and ultimately fatal escape from imprisonment, but not which character he frees to go with him.
The Deep fails to spur the imagination and fails to hold the memory, and to me that makes it a complete failure. As such, I am at complete odds with those who welcomed and praised it, and who professed to see a skilled depiction of the complexity of human nature, and many deep levels. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent reader, but in this respect I see nothing in this book to recommend it, except the quality of Crowley’s prose.
He’s a very thoughtful, very stylish writer, almost to the point of mannered in some instances, and we’ll be seeing with later books how he can create an atmosphere, invest in a level of finely-observed detail, that will irresistably hold a reader’s attention irrespective of the actual content of the story.
The evidence is here that Crowley possessed that quality from the outset, a lucid, almost limpid prose that seeks to fill up the senses. Crowley’s on the right track alright, but at this apprentice stage it’s far from enough to hold. There is insufficient weight or body to either the events or the characters for the prose to form a musculature that absorbs attention. It’s pretty, but is it art? as the old saying goes and, for The Deep, the answer from me has to be no.
Frankly, it’s not a book I’d keep if I had it as a solo volume. After Crowley made it big with Little, Big, and confirmed his quality with Ægypt, his first three novels were reissued in an omnibus volume, as Three Novels. So, if I wish to keep any of Crowley’s early books, I must keep all of it.