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.

A Day in the Lakes – 2014

016It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I take this week off each year, for my birthday, and on the Thursday I go up to the Lakes for the day.

This is the third year now. The last two have seen me go to Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside, and last year i even got back onto the fells, in a small way, for a small time, to a small height, but enough to bring back to life all those wonderful years of spent with my boots on and to give me perhaps the only truly, unalloyedly happy day I’ve had in several years.

This year I wanted to be a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see Keswick again, Skiddaw and Blencathra, the North Lakes, to go down to the lakeshore at Derwentwater and gaze into the Jaws of Borrowdale.

Such things are not easy from Manchester by public transport, on a limited income. There’s a substantial leap in fares between Windermere and Penrith on the train, and the bus service to Keswick is by no means as aligned to the trains as it is at Windermere.

But if you start early enough, it can be done, if planned along the lines of a military operation. Piccadilly to Penrith. A half-hour wait for the bus to Keswick. To return by the same route would mean nearly two hours hanging around in Penrith for the economical train, but a bus to Windermere means only 40 minutes wait for an earlier – and cheaper! – train.

The problem with military operations is that they’re dependant upon being on time for each leg, and when the first of them involves the 203, Greater Manchester’s most consistently unreliable service, the day starts fraught. There were many moments on the rush hour ride that had me nervily checking my watch: miss the train at Piccadilly and the day would be fucked and my tickets wasted.

But speed picked up, stomach issues subsided and I was easily on time for my train, in which Coach A naturally proved to be the one at the back.

The weather of last week, or even yesterday afternoon, would have been ideal: cold, crisp, clear blue skies. But of course it had changed. It was overcast, a thick layer of dark cloud, louring. It didn’t look helpful. Mind you, the further north we travelled, the more this dark underlay dispersed, though it only revealed a higher level of white, flat sky.

There were no views of the fells until beyond Lancaster, looking across Morecambe Bay and trying to find the distant Black Combe. It looked dark further in, and it stayed that way. As we passed the periphery of Lakeland, our air was relatively clear, but all the glimpses inwards showed the clouds low and in command.

From Oxenholme, I abandoned my Crossword and Killer Sudokus in favour of what views I could: Longsleddale’s narrow slit, the looming Howgills above Tebay Gorge, the expansiveness of Wet Sleddale (which I’ve never visited). Kidsty Pike was visible over the line of Mardale, but High Street was consumed.

I left the train at Penrith. Nature called so I used the nearby MacDonalds for the only thing it’s useful for and waited for the bus opposite the ruins of Penrith Castle. It was the first time I’d ever seen it: my only other trip to Penrith Station was in the dark, to collect my shortly-to-be sister-in-law and her son.

When I got on the bus, I settled on the driver’s side, thinking to enjoy the views of Blencathra close up. From the east, the saddleback to Foule Crag that gives this fell its unwanted second name – pretty much its first name until Wainwright came along – is most obvious, and despite the scant difference in height, the top was hidden by cloud but Foule Crag stood clear.

The bus didn’t just barrel down the A66, but made side-trips to Stainton, Penruddock and Threlkeld en route. The first of these was the scene of the first holiday I persuaded my family to take on the eastern side of the Lakes, which turned out to be the last one I went on.

Still, the best views were inwards, not outwards, even if the air was lightening in the north. Inwards and forwards: when it came into view, the Vale of Keswick was majestic but satanic. The familiar fells crowded round but cloud hugged Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike, lending a threatening aspect to the scene that was all the more dramatic for discovering that Skiddaw, that perennial cloud magnet, was free and clear and bright.

Four hours after I left my flat, I touched down in Keswick. But the moment of arrival was also the onset of leaving: I only had four hours and twenty minutes to go. No time for excursions onto the fells, not unless I wanted to pay for a taxi to take me to the Latrigg roadhead and wait whilst I shuffled my way up and down it.

Food first: when in Keswick, I always eat at the Oddfellow’s Arms and I did not intend to make an exception today. Roast beef, unstinted, new potatoes, carrots and peas with gravy, all in a plate-sized Yorkshire Pudding, for only £5.95. Pity the lager and lime was nearly £4 on top of that.

Derwentwater was nearer – much nearer – than I remembered it. I wandered across Crow Park, finding the ideal place to look down the Lake. A sunny Saturday on this spot came into mind, when the fells were full of light and looked enormous, but I ruthlessly tuned that memory out. From here I could see fells that spread across five Wainwrights, all of which I’ve climbed and some more than once, and but for the interior cloud, I could have claimed the Southern Fells as well. Out of reach for now.

On the other hand, somewhere else famous was not. Maybe I was at last old enough to visit Friar’s Crag. So I strolled slowly along to this famous viewpoint, which was everything that has been said about it, conditions permitting (see the photo above), but on the other hand the essential me hasn’t changed one bit and there were too damned many people about for my liking, and none of us had put in the hard yards to deserve this.

On the way back, it started raining, whispering in the woods. I contemplated the Crazy Golf in Hope Park, trying to remember what my course record was: something in the low Thirties, I’d played it that often and regarded a three-shot hole as a personal insult. The Pitch-and-Putt course was something else. I’ve never been round it in less than 42 or more that 49 strokes.

But the rain was getting harder, I have a recalcitrant shoulder bag that refuses to stay on a shoulder unless nailed on (no thanks) and besides, the shop was shut.

Keswick’s changed. So many familiar places, most of which offered books, have closed and gone. So too has the Cars of the Stars Museum, removed to Miami in 2011. The building and sign are still there, just not the exhibits I wandered round with awe and amazement, telling myself I’d died and gone back to my childhood.

I decided upon a coffee. I’m a straightforward white Gold Blend with one sweetener sort of guy, but of course they don’t sell that kind of coffee anywhere. The filter coffee gad run out, and as they were closing at 4.00pm, they weren’t making any more. So I scanned the list and decided on Espresso, but that was because I’d forgotten how small the cups are and that I don’t actually like Espresso, so the stop wasn’t exactly a success.

By the time I started drifting towards the bus station (a mere layby: I remember when this place had a proper Bus Station), it was raining like no bugger’s business and Skiddaw had disappeared, along with the whole of his massif, and indeed every fell it’s possible to see from the streets of Keswick.

The bus wasn’t due for another twenty minutes, but instead of holing up in a warm pub with a cold half-pint, I sat outside Booths. It was the old military operation bit again, and these days I’m far too paranoid about being late to feel in the least bit comfortable at being anything other than awfully early.

When the 555 arrived, I led the general charge from shelter, but courteously stood back to let the Keswick-bound passengers stream off. There’s always one though, one who’d rather stand on the platform and natter to the driver, completely oblivious to how many people are being kept standing in gusting winds and sheeting rain whilst he’s dry and warm, but a concerted psychic blast hit him and he shifted out of the way.

The bus climbed out of Keswick, heading south. I looked back across the town but in that gloom, that rain, there wasn’t an earthly chance of glimpsing Bass Lake under Dodd, not without Superman’s powers of vision. For me, it then became a race south, losing the light rapidly, to reach Thirlmere whilst it was still possible to see the Lake, but that was a forlorn hope.

In the dark, we could have been anywhere. Indeed, it was only when I saw the Dual Carriageway sign in the bus headlights that I realised we’d climbed Dunmail Raise and were now heading down into the Vale of Grasmere.

A couple of walkers in their early Thirties got on in the village and sat in front of me. I mention them because she was having a brilliant day, one of those days that’s too good to be contained, and she was grinning and chatting, and snatching little kisses at the side of his face. For the time being, her world was everything it was possible to be and she was elevated, and I was envious of him and found myself hoping he could be what she saw him as being at that time. You didn’t want to think of that sort of delight being brought down. Thankfully, they got off at Ambleside, before I could no longer resist recollecting times when I was the lucky recipient of joy like that.

Grasmere and Rydal, and even with the lights at Waterhead, there was no more lakes to be seen. I got off a Windermere with time for a much more palatable coffee before waiting for the train home. What shall I do next year?

Three Books: John Buchan’s ‘The Courts of the Morning’

Back in the summer months, some stray thought brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The last of these books is John Buchan’s The Courts of the Morning. Buchan, who in later life was ennobled with an hereditary peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir, is a famous writer, many of whose novels are still in print seventy-five years after his death, the most famous and indelible of which being The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Buchan was a prolific writer of more than just fiction, publishing over 100 books in his lifetime whilst maintaining an equally full career in diplomacy and politics, including a spell as an MP before reaching his peak as Governor-General of Canada, and a very hard-working, unwavering promoter of Canadian interests.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, despite being far from Buchan’s best novel, is the one for which he remains known. It’s a classic early thriller that has been filmed four times to date, three in the cinema and the most recent for TV. The story stars Richard Hannay, a Scot turned South African mining engineer enjoying leave in London, who gets dragged into a fast-paced chase, seeking to foil a secret organisation planning to throw Europe into War, by assassinating the Greek Prime Minister.
It was a change of direction for Buchan, who wrote the book whilst convalescing at a nursing home with thirty-nine steps down to the beach. He described it as a ‘shocker’ for its implausible events, but it’s recognised as on of the earliest chase-thrillers, and an early example of the genre of an ordinary man prepared to sacrifice his own life for something bigger and more important.
Hannay went on to star in another four novels, and even appears in The Courts of the Morning, though he plays no part in the actual story except to (silently) narrate it. Instead, the book centres upon a group of Buchan’s supporting players, most of whom can be characterised as ‘clubland heroes’ of the kind typified by Dornford Yates’s thrillers. Sandy Arbuthnot, Archie and Janet Roylance, and the American Agent, John Blenkiron, hold the centre of this novel, Buchan’s fifteenth, published in 1929.
The Courts of the Morning is set entirely within the fictional South American country of Olifa, facing west towards the Pacific Ocean. Buchan does a splendidly thorough job of creating a country, with a history and geography, out of whole cloth, having never visited any part of South America in his life.
Olifa stands apart from the traditionally volatile and unstable Latin American countries of stereotype in being a model of stability, almost to the point of political dullness. This is because it’s upland Gran Seco region is home to the richest copper deposits in the world, which makes Olifa a very comfortable country, and to the extraction of these riches under the control of the Gran Seco Mining Company.
But there are matters for concern. The Gran Seco is almost a private fiefdom of the Company, and the country is all but led by the company’s President, a charismatic leader named Castor. Those who work for the company in Gran Seco are rarely seen elsewhere in Olifa, and when they appear, they are pale and thin, their movements are very limited, and they look and act unhealthy.
And this is what the book is about. Castor’s control of the Gran Seco is based upon the supply of an addictive drug but, more than anything, the man is building a base towards establishing a dictatorship that will first sweep the South American continent.
Hannay’s friends, Sandy Arbuthnot, the Roylances, Blenkiron and his niece Barbara, Hannay’s former batman Geordie Hamilton, all these people are drawn together into a freelance alliance of souls whose aim is to head off Castor, a man who, even before he is brought on stage, is being spoken of admiringly in Napoleonic terms..
Their plan is ingenious: to kidnap Castor, removing him to a remote, defensible area of Olifa on its northernmost coast, that is known as the Courts of the Morning. A guerrilla civil war is raised, with Castor as its announced leader, wholly against his will. By this, Archie and Co plan to trap Castor into a situation that will neutralise him.
Instead, the experience affects Castor unexpectedly. He grows attached to Janet Roylance and comes over to Archie’s band, taking true control of the civil war and redeeming himself, albeit too late, as his former allies mount a retributory attack that, aimed at the women, succeeds in killing Castor.
The book is longer and more detailed than many of Buchan’s similar thrillers, in part because Buchan chooses to build so detailed a vision of Olifa, but in large part because, during the latter part of the book, he spends a lot of time and wordage upon troop movements as Olifa erupts in civil war. He was criticised heavily for this at the time, and yes, it is a bit dry, but at the same time it serves a purpose, to contrast the differing flexibility of the Olifan forces and Sandy’s rebel army.
Buchan faced criticism on this score when The Courts of the Morning was published, and also upon the larger and more unavoidable issue of Castor’s conversion from Dictator to Agent of Liberty. The criticism is more than fair: there are no concrete grounds upon which to base the change of heart no introduction of new facts or interpretations that invalidate the would-be dictator’s entirely self-centred concerns and open his eyes.
The process is mystical, spurred on, in the only sense put forward, by Castor’s growing impression of the lovely Janet Roylance, who, from the outset, he accepts is a married woman whose commitment is absolute and who can never offer him anything but friendship.
But all of this is taking place in the Courts of the Morning itself, a remote area of Olifa, lovely beyond measure, peaceful and heart-easing. It is both a superb pracical base, and a part of an otherworld, not entirely of this planet.
Buchan doesn’t paint it in any way crudely as that, but what makes The Courts of the Morning so involving a book is the Courts of the Morning, its evocative name indicating somewhere where the facts of real life are subtly altered, and in which minds can rewrite themselves in better language.
Castor emerges the opposite of how he was on arrival, taking up arms against his former self. He leads the forces Sandy Arbuthnot has raised to victory over the evils he has raised in preparation for far deeper depradations, but his return from the Dark has come too late for him to be freed from consequence and he is killed by those he once led, proud to the last.
It has to be said that The Courts of the Morning is very much of its time, and Buchan was Conservative of mind and conviction. It has to be accepted that there will be references to Jews and Negroes, Anarchists and the Poison of Communism, and that these will be derogatory. Those who cannot accept that in the past such things were regarded differently should not read this book: those who can put such things to the back of their mind will find a stirring and uplifting adventure, and will wish, in some way or anoher, to transport themselves to the Courts of the Morning.
This book remains on my shelves.

The Wall

Twenty-five years ago, Friday morning. I’d been in my new home not quite two months. I had my routine for working days: the alarm at 7.00am, three prods at the snooze button whilst I got over the shock of waking, then downstairs for breakfast. I wouldn’t get a TV until the World Cup in 1990, and I’d probably stopped listening to Radio 1 by then, so what I did for entertainment I can no longer remember. But, as always, I was in the shower when the eight o’clock news was taking place, then off to work in Altrincham.

I still parked in the big car park, on the rough ground behind the Railway Station, and walked up to the back of our office, letting myself in with the key entrusted to me as the firm’s senior Assistant. En route, I grabbed the Guardian at the little newsagents just before the railway bridge, but it wasn’t until I settled myself in my office, which had belonged to the Senior Partner before he retired, that I took a first look at the news of the day. The Berlin Wall had come down.

Everyone else knew. It had been opened the previous evening, when I had been otherwise engaged with a close personal friend. Everybody in the office had read or heard some form of news that morning and I was the last to find out. It made for a difficult day at work. The world had changed. It had turned upside down in a moment and the unbelievable had happened.

The next day was my birthday, my 34th. The Wall had been erected twenty-seven years earlier, but I had been six at the time, with the interest and horizons of a six year old boy in an East Manchester back-street terrace. As far as I was concerned, the Berlin Wall had always been there, a fact of the life we all lived, one of the fundamental pillars of our existence. East was divided from West: that was how things were, how they had always been, how they always would be. To grow up in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties was to accept the Cold War as being as much a part of our lives as was breathing. The Berlin Wall, though it ran only a tiny fraction of the Iron Curtain, though it lay so many miles beyond the Curtain, a thing to keep the West out of the East, was still the Iron Curtain made solid. It was the border.

And it was gone. That night, I watched the BBC Nine O’Clock News, watched the film of Berliners pouring through the Wall, clambering on and over it, pulling pieces off it. The World had Changed. I sat and wept tears of joy, that this could happen, that this had happened and that I had lived to see it. Even at only 33 years and 364 days, it was a lifetime of waiting without belief.

I could hardly work that day, that Friday. How could I concentrate? How was it possible to think of Sales and Purchases and Mortgage Redemptions on the day that The World Had Changed. It didn’t affect me in the slightest, it made not one jot or tittle of difference to me and my life, but how could it not affect me? All the assumptions of a life in the shadow of history suddenly gone, released, dissolved.

It was a year to stand forever in History, 1989. The year of Tiananmen to Timisoara. The Berlin Wall was only the beginning. Chinese Students had demonstrated for Democracy and been crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square in the May. It might have been a distant land, but it was a time of dismay and despair. And now, in our own world, in our Europe, suddenly Democracy was ablaze. East Germay was just the beginning of disbelief at the crumbling of certainties.

And in the end there was Timisoara. A Romanian Dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, secure and impregnable in his power, confronted a rally from his balcony. Instead of doing what he expected, backing down, running away, accepting that he could do with their lives what he had always done, they booed. Three-quartes of Romania, watching live, saw the shocked expression on Ceausescu’s face as his hold on power was broken. Revolution swept him and the Communists from power.

Twenty-five years ago. The happiness of that year, the hope, the boundless possibilities, seem far away now, more than twenty-five years ago.  But I can still remember what it felt like on that day, when we were offered the chance to believe.

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Who series 8 finale – part 2

Nothing personal. Just go away. Now. Please.


To repeat what I said last week, I have struggled with this series. Not with Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, but with Clara Oswald, companion and self-important entity, bowing out at the last with a declaration of how special she felt at having gone travelling with the Doctor, and a thank you for making her feel special. Here I was prepared to say that she got so far up my nose that you would have to reach through the next three incarnations to get her out, but to be truthful, by this point the once-glorious Impossible Girl had just become a black hole that sucked in any sympathy I could muster wherever she was in this story.

Which was a shame for parts of it were good, and one part was very good indeed when Moffat’s desire to touch the heartstrings worked perfectly.

The story itself was relatively simple: the Master had worked out how to bond Cybermen to the dead, an unbeatable combination, and had been zipping up and down the Doctor’s timeline applying her formula to his friends and those who had died for him. Interestingly, the whole point of this inescapable menace was to place the army that could control the Universe and all of Space and Time in the hands of the Doctor. It was both an appeal to the Dark Side that Moffat’s been teasing ever since Capaldi’s eyebrows came along, but mainly it was an attempt to get the Master’s childhood friends back, and to prove that the Master could not possibly be all that bad, because the Doctor is just like her.

To do good. For a moment we were in Bag End, in the Shire, as Frodo Baggins offers the Ring to Gandalf. All the wrongs you could right… but just as Gandalf found the strength of heart to refuse the Ring, the Doctor removed the One Bracelet that Controlled Them All, and instead flung it to Danny-the-unassimilated-Cyberman, who led the Cyberman army to destroy all the Master’s plans.

After that, it was all a matter of endings, and there were too bloody many of them, lined up like dominoes, some of them better than others. Clara insists that the Master be killed for what she’s done (though the part of me that isn’t prepared to be blinded by great goops of emotion at this point notes that Clara isn’t out for justice but revenge for her poor dead Danny, and that though Danny fought nobly back against proper Cybernising – with not even an inadequate explanation for how – it was Clara who got him killed: talk about Displacement Activity). However, in order that dear Clara shouldn’t be tainted by comitting murder, the Doctor does it himself disintegrating the Master (a truly scenery chewing performance by Michelle Gomez) into a puff of smoke.

No Regeneration there then. Until the next showrunner wants to bring the Master back, so lets hope that the next one has more of a taste for tedious but necessary explanations of how than Moffat has sadly proven to be.

Then there’s the suggestion that Danny can come back from the dead to Clara, except that he instead sends back the boy he killed when a soldier, which was in its way equally saccharine. This led into the goodbye scene between the Doctor and his Companion with both of them lying furiously to each other in a wholly unconvincing manner (except that Jenna Coleman’s booked to do the Xmas Special, for which Nick Frost is playing Father Xmas – I may plotz, which is not meant disrespectfully. Npt to Nick Frost).

The other two endings were good though. A long time ago, last November to be exact, Gallifrey was restored and the Doctor (Matt Smith) promised to find it, setting up an exciting plot strand full of potential, which has been completely ignored all series. Now the Master has found it, and it’s back where it’s always been. Just before being disintegrated, she whispered its co-ordinates to the Doctor, except that she lied and she’s dead and it wasn’t there. Maybe this will get some people off their arses and pursue that story.

But the one that sealed it for me, though it was in its own way just as full of synthetically created emotion as everything else, was Kate Stewart. The Brigadier’s daughter popped up to appoint the Doctor President of Earth and commander of the globe’s armies, a somewhat unnecessary foreshadowing of the Master’s plan, but she also popped out, sucked from a crashing plane and spiralling off to die.

Except that she’s found safe and alive in the graveyard, under the safe guard of a Cyberman who spared the Doctor the actual execution of the Master. One Cyberman, among those created from the Doctor’s associates, who saved the woman who grew up to step into his shoes. Though Nicholas Courtney cannot give us a bow, his shade can occupy a Cyberman’s uniform and stop time for a moment for those of us who go back that far.

So the series is over. I switched off quickly to avoid trailers for the Xmas Special. It surely can’t be as bad as this was, please.