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.

Hmmm.

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.

The Lakes: When the Journey was the Charm


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a kid, and we went on holiday to the Lake District, to the farm at Broughton, travelling was an all day affair.
Some of that was because we weren’t supposed to arrive at Low Bleansley until 4.00pm on Saturday, to give the previous week’s guests time to leave and Mrs Troughton to clean the rooms and wash and change the bedding, but of course much the largest part was the roads of the 1960s.
We holidayed as a family: Mam, Dad, me, my little sister and my Uncle, Dad’s elder brother, who did the driving: at first because Dad only had a motorbike, and then because Uncle Arthur enjoyed driving and was very bad at being a passenger, whilst my Dad was an ok driver and had no problems with someone else doing the hard work.
Packing would begin on Friday night then, in the morning, we would have everything ready for Uncle Arthur to collect us or, in later years, for dad to drive us to Droylsden, to Granny and Grandad’s, where everything would be transferred to my Uncle’s car and his gear added. Even before Dad’s first car, we still went by Droylsden, to be wished on our way and for Uncle Arthur to be warned, ahead of our inevitable visit to Wastwater, not to drive too near the water.
The M6 existed in those days, though only as far as Carnforth in North Lancashire, but both my Uncle and my Dad hated Motorways and would never use them. The obvious alternative was the A6, and a stop at Chorley for refreshments. But the A6 was too busy, by Sixties standards, and one year Uncle Arthur sent off to the AA for a route from Manchester to the Lakes avoiding the A6, and was sent directions that ever after we followed. That first time we used them, I was given the important task of Guide, given hand-written directions to escape through North Manchester, which i self-importantly read out until I got bored with the task, before we had actually escaped North Manchester…
From Cheetham Hill to Bury, through Central Lancashire by Rawtenstall and Burnley, the Colne valley as far as Nelson and then the first diversion across the moors, crossing into Yorkshire and dipping into and out of Gisburn.
Originally, that was the signal for a mid-morning stop, at a tasteful cafe where I would eat, for the only time each year, a jam shortbread: two slices of shortbread with a compressed layer that did not exist anywhere we knew of at home. But as we children grew older and better at longer spells in the car, Gisburn became just an interruption to the pastoral roads.
Then back to the moors again, joining the A57 at Long Preston, fringing the Yorkshire limestone country dominated by Ingleborough, via Settle (where Dad, who had usually been up half the night, would ‘settle’ into a nap) and Buckhaw Brow and the edge of Kirby Lonsdale, and finally the turn off to Milnthorpe, which was and always remained lunch.
Each holiday, we would get to Milnthorpe, which lay on the A6, for about 12.30pm, and take a good long break from the drive. Just as Gisburn was the only place I ever got to eat those jam shortbreads, the Flying Dutchman cafe meant sausage butties, which did not come my way in Manchester.
The Flying Dutchman was as much a part of the holiday as a trip on the Ratty. It had a jukebox, and in 1966, the first time we got away for no less than three weeks on holidays, the song playing as we walked in was Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’. Mam and Dad loved the song and, most exceptionally, bought it in EP form, in a picture sleeve, which now forms part of my own collection. Before that year, on one occasion the Dutchman had a prototype video jukebox, and I remember being allowed a song, selecting Acker Bilk’s ‘Strangers in the Shore’ and watching a colour film of Acker playing his clarinet in the street to a lady on a balcony, before driving away at the end on a sports car, just as she was about to rush downstairs and get her hands on him (idiot).
Milnthorpe was, in effect, the line. Once we left, about 2.00pm, though we were still not in the Lakes themselves, we had crossed into a kind of Greater Lakeland, our holiday sphere, that surrounded and merged the District itself. There was a drive north, of a mere three to four miles, until we turned left at lights, off the A6 and onto the road that led across the south of the Lakes and would take us anywhere. First directly towards the limestone cliffs of Whitbarrow, then sweeping gradually to bypass these, then the long, undulating, narrow road. Through Newby Bridge, just south of invisible Windermere. The dual carriageway at Finsthwaite that ran past the Dolly Blue works, offering a brief glimpse inside to where everyone was coloured blue.
Onwards towards Greenodd, where the road bordered the estuary, and then climbing into the low fells, far from the high fells that Wainwright had cornered. There might be queues, there usually were, lines of traffic even that many years ago, all headed for tranquility, beauty and the high mountains.
Eventually, our destination drew near. We would come off the low moors, descending the ferocious hill at Lindale. It was steep, and there was a nasty bend at the bottom, and a Shell garage from which the first letter in the sign was missing which, given the number of wrecked cars at the back of the garage, was appropriate. Then it was across the lowlands of a grassy valley and the question of whether we would take the low road or the high road into Broughton-in-Furness. The high road went over the ridge with some steep gradients, that did not suit a laden car and I clamoured for it every time but mostly we took the low road, round the end of the ridge and back up along the east side of the Duddon estuary, through Foxfield (‘all change for Broughton and Coniston!’ before Doctor Beeching closed that line).
Finally we would go through Broughton and out on the Coniston road, until coming off for Broughton Mills. By then, Low Bleansley was visible across the deep trench of the Lickle valley, and we would already have looked it over. It was a narrow road, dropping quickly to the village, no, the hamlet, in the bottom of the valley, then turning back on ourselves on a long, increasingly familiar road serving the farms on the western wall of the valley, ending up at Low Bleansley. Here the road ended, though the track, unsuitable for cars, carried on through a gate and crossed the bridge into the bottom of the Duddon Valley, the other side of the low fells behind the farm.
And there were suitcases to carry in, and put down in different rooms, Mrs Troughton to greet as the friend she was, rather than hostess, and if it wasn’t raining – and it very rarely did when the Crookalls stayed at Low Bleansley, which was one of the reasons we were so welcome, especially at Harvest – we’d sit out on the terrace in front of the farmhouse and look down to the Duddon estuary, and the ‘battleship’, which was the name we gave to Millom Ironworks.
Sometimes, in later years, if the journey had gone easily, and we’d arrived early, we might go off for a couple of hours, to Bowness Bay, or Coniston Lake, but Mrs Troughton offered bed, Breakfast and Evening Meal, and we would be sat at table at 6.00pm, not only on Saturday night but all through our week away, no matter how far we had travelled.
The journey was a part of the holiday, it’s beginning in good manner, a ritual to be followed to tell us we were free from daily life.
Twenty years later, when I began to take holidays in the Lakes on my own, I would first use that old AA route, or as much of it as I could: short lengths of motorway in Central Lancashire had replaced old roads even whilst we still holidayed as a family. But motorways held no fear for me, and as time went past, I would take to the M61 and the M6 to carry me northwards to Cumbrian with the least delay, fetching me up in Ambleside or Keswick, depending what time of the year it was, by midday, or sooner, chucking my single suitcase in my room and off to find a ‘starter’ walk, a half day job reintroduced my legs to the demands that proper fellwalking would make of them.
And after Mam died, and I bought my first 1600cc engined car, and the Lakes became close enough for me to be there and back in a day and still climb Scafell Pike, the journey became even more of a means to an end rather than a part of the holiday itself. I would leave my house and know that in an hour, no more, I would be crossing the Cumbria border. My record time was 58 minutes.
A long way from all day, and I marvelled at the contrast each time. It would never have suited my parents, my uncle. The journey was part of the holiday, and that meant that it too was a time of leisure, not to be hurried, whether that rush was achievable or not. Maybe, when my fortune changes, I should also return to those days of dispensing with haste, the distance to the Lakes was a part of their charm.

Homicide: Season 1 on the Street


Crosetti and Lewis

Paul Attanasio wrote the pilot episode of Homicide. It was his only script for the series, but it was the most important. It was Attanasio’s job to take the book, and work out the best means of translating its qualities to the screen, and establishing the characters who would populate the series, in a manner that would make them immediately familiar to viewers, whilst setting them up for future development by the series writers.
Pilot episodes are crucial to the success of a series. They have the enormous responsibility of getting over to the viewer a colossal amount of information, about who these people are, what affects or moves them, where they stand and what world they live in. It has to infodump, without being boring, dry, pedantic or overloading. It was Attanasio’s moment and his work was immaculate.
‘Gone for Goode’ set out to establish nine central characters of equal importance, whilst delivering the essential background to the reality of life in the Baltimore PD Homicide Squad, whilst simultaneously establishing the realistic police procedure aspect of a Homicide Squad and the unique personalities occupying it. And all in 48 minutes.
The central thing Attanasio does is to use the vehicle of the rookie as the audience’s eyes and ears for most of the episode. The rookie is Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), on his first day as a member of the Homicide Squad. Bayliss is a fresh-faced, innocent, eager and slightly naive character, approaching Homicide with a degree of wide-eyed wonder. He has romantic visions of thinking cops, solving puzzles, has set his career up to get himself into Homicide.
He’s there to have things explained to: his fellow Detectives briefly introduced by his Shift Commander, Lieutenant Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the squad’s partnering and rotation system outlined, and to be introduced to the Board, which is given its rightful place as Homicide‘s distinguishing feature. The Board, a fact of the real Baltimore PD’s life, is a whiteboard headed by Gee’s name and divided into columns, one for each Detective. Under each column is a list of names and numbers: the surnames of murder victims, and their place in the order of murders since January 1. Unsolved cases are written in red, solved cases in black. By itself the Board is a silent witness to death and the avenging of death, and a measure of each Detective’s success.
Cannily, however, Attanasio does not open with Bayliss, who appears for us after the title credits. Upfront, we are to be given a brief but effective demonstration of how and why Homicide: Life on the Streets will not be just another cop show of the kind with which we are inordinately familiar.
We open with a very familiar scene, a back alley at night, in the rain, and two Detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), attending a murder victim. All very familiar. The Detectives have flashlights in their hands, are searching for a bullet. Except that they’re not discussing the case, the victim, anything like that. They are arguing about personal concerns, about where they are,  about anything but the latest dead body on their hands. Everyone’s waiting for them to release the scene, so the body can be removed and everyone can get in out of the rain. When they do, it’s with a casualness that suggests they have better things. Welcome to being a Murder Police.
The jolt is surprising, and Attanasio builds on this throughout the episode. Bayliss enters, with his box of effects, his text-books, his eagerness and innocence already a contrast to Detectives who speak and think with practiced cynicism. Even the ones we don’t know yet, lounging around at their desks, are infinitely different from the newbie, who starts by mistaking Crosetti for the Lieutenant, who then shows him round.
Everybody performs superbly. The excitable, overweight, breathless Crosetti is obsessed with the Lincoln Assassination, constantly nagging at the laid-back Lewis over it. But he shines when his friend, up-and-coming patrolmen Chris Thorman, is shot and blinded in episode 4, not merely forcing himself into the investigation but in supporting Thorman and his young wife through the trauma of events.
The acerbic John Munch (Richard Belzer) competes for the attention of veteran Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) but is more of a nagging toothache to the Big Man, who, recently divorced, is finding himself interested in the new Medical Examiner, Dr Blythe, whilst the thrice-divorced Munch is constantly on the edge of breaking-up with his (never seen) girl-friend, Felicia.
As for Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), they’re a contrast in competence. Howard, skinny, a mass of red curls, is the only detective with a 100% list in black under her name. After the first few episodes, Leo, growing to understand her character better, stopped wearing any make-up as Kay, horrifying NBC’s executives – she was the token woman, she needed to be looking glam – and focussed her intensity on where it needed to be, on being a woman in a male environment and having to be twice as good as everyone else to be treated as an equal.
Felton, on the other hand, was sloppy and second-rate, a drinker and a womaniser, despite being married with three kids. Though he can focus on his job, for much of the time he’s riding on Howard’s coat-tails, and both Giardello and the squad’s loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) treat him with contempt.
And Gee: much of the early filming had to be redone as Yaphet Kotto found it difficult to adapt to the long, repeated takes, his very deep voice not being pitched enough to be captured on tape. But the finished episodes show no sign of uncertainty. Gee is the boss, genial and aggressive as the need or the mood takes him: his men respect him for the way he will protect them from the brass further up the chain of command.
The individual cases that go into forming our opinions are dealt with necessarily briefly, but very effectively. On the one hand, Lewis and Crosetti’s body is accompanied by a survivor, Dolly Withers, who, with a curious sense of inevitability, identifies her Aunt Calpurnia as trying to have her killed for the insurance money: Lewis and Crosettti have lucked onto the most unlikely of serial killers here.
In contrast, Howard and Felton pull a dead rent-collector, found in a basement. Their job is made simple when the basement owner phones home whilst they’re investigating, and presents himself at the station where he shows very little resistance to interrogation.
Bolander taunts Munch into taking seriously the investigation of a girl’s death that hasn’t even been officially declared a murder. Stung, Munch puts in the long hours that lead him to a clue identifying some guy whose only answer to all the questions, as it is absolves him, is “I was drinking.”
Last to be introduced in Pembleton: Pembleton the loner, the eccentric, the New Yorker. Cool and immaculate, rejecting the idea of a partner, Pembleton is the master of the Box, the master of interrogation. At first, Gee tries to break Bayliss in gently, pairing him with Howard, forcing Pembleton to work with Felton, but the investigation of the strangulation of a guy cruising for rent boys leaves Pembleton with a seriously unwanted shadow.
We get our first chance to see Pembleton at work, an interrogation technique that would have cops the nation over asking how many interrogations showrunner Tom Fontana had carried out to get it so right. To the silent outrage of Bayliss –  a tour-de-force from Secor, who gets no lines but tells a complete story of his own in his face, as he studies Pembleton and not the suspect – Pembleton charms, bullies and tricks a punk kid into a confession and still has the energy to shouted down Bayliss as too naïve to survive.
Three cases fall. The Calpurnia Church case rumbles on.
What the above account doesn’t convey is that, in addition to establishing both these people and their milieu as worthy of our time and attention, the pilot episode is gloriously funny. Homicide would always lean on the humour to be found in David Simon’s books, some of it the black, dry, ironic humour of the cops themselves, and those who are near to their world, others from the implausible and absurd cases the Detectives work, that are funny and stupid and unbelievable and true to real life.
Lewis describes his excitable partner as a salami-brain, leading Crosetti to write up a complaint of racial harassment, calling on his and Gee’s shared heritage, causing considerable consternation over crabs at lunch. Felton pretends outage to stiff everyone for the check. Bolander barrels down the morgue to complain that the ME was incompetent in not pronouncing Jenny Goode a murder victim only to be silenced by discovering Dr Blythe to be an attractive Australian woman: in response to his query about what a woman like her is doing in a place like this, Carol gives the only possible answer: Looking for Mr Right.

Bolander and Munch

That’s not to say that the Pilot is perfect, either in itself or in establishing Homicide as a series. Crosetti is given an absurd fixation on the Lincoln assassination and the lies supposedly surrounding it that is artificial and unreal: no-one else gets a tv-style crank personality, everybody else is very down-to-earth.
And there’s a scene in the garage where Pembleton, having keys but not the tags that identify which of the several dozen identical units they’re for, insists on trying every car, over the catcalls of Felton, which demeans the character by throwing a stupid obsession over him, which was rightly ignored in all future episodes.
Of less import is a minor confusion over how to pronounce the Big Man’s name. Ned Beatty introduces himself as Bolander with a short ‘o’ (as if spelt ‘Bollander’) but everyone pronounces it with a long ‘o’ (as if spelt Bowlander). It’s an uncharacteristic mistake.
Series 1 would be dominated, over its first half-dozen episodes, by the Adena Watson case. It is led into at the end of the Pilot when the phone rings in a near empty squadroom. Bayliss hesitates. Howard offers to take it, if he feels he isn’t ready. He’s been partnered with the unwilling Pembleton, he’s worked alongside Howard and Felton, he’s been shocked and outraged by Pembleton in the Box.
He’s not ready, we know he’s not ready. But he takes the call. And with a precise symmetry, the episode ends where it began, in an alley at night in the pouring rain. But a different detective stands over the body, his mouth agape, his voice cracking as he introduces himself. Because the victim is a ten year old black girl, raped and strangled.
Adena Watson (based on a real-life unsolved case) haunted Bayliss, haunted Homicide right until the very end of the Movie. Bayliss’s failure to close the case marked him, was but the first step in the changes that would put paid to the fresh-faced rookie with the books. Incidentally, the uniformed officer who shows the body in the alley to Bayliss was played by real-life Homicide Detective Tom Pellegrini, the squad rookie who caught the case Adena Watson was based upon.
The Adena Watson case dominated season 1: it also featured the kind of interference from NBC that would continue until cancellation.
The show always operated an internal continuity, but NBC would ignore this in favour of promoting more conventional or sensational episodes into earlier slots. This was applied as early as the third episode, ‘Night of the Dead Living’, a deliberately experimental episode in which the squad is on night shift in a very hot squadroom. Nothing happens, not a single case is reported, and the detectives swelter and argue the hour out. NBC postponed broadcasting this episode until the end of the series, even though the episode clearly takes place in the middle of the Adena Watson case. It was prefaced by a card, saying, “One hot night, last September…” which is retained, incongruously, for the DVD box set, which shows the series in the intended order.

Felton

Series 1 saw the show at its purest, even though NBC were trying to change it, drag it back into the realms of the predictable and conventional from the outset. Despite network interference in the broadcast order of episodes, despite dismay at the (deliberately) washed out colours, the show progressed at its own pace, determined to be as loose, inconvenient and messy as real-life Policing.
There are no neatly tied-off ends. The Adena Watson case went unsolved, ending with a tour-de-force episode set almost entirely in the Box as Bayliss and Pembleton try to break down their only suspect, Risley Tucker, the Araber. Bayliss is convinced he has the killer, Pembleton doubts. Moses Gunn, in his final television role, holds out, stolid, resistant, finally overwhelming the detectives when he at last begins to speak. But he won’t confess and time runs out, ending the case without a conclusion, with Pembleton convinced and Bayliss now uncertain.
Officer Thorman, introduced trying to cope with an elderly couple who hate each other in episode 2, is shot and blinded in episode 4. He’s Crosetti’s protegé and friend, and the story doesn’t shrink from what is done to Thorman: one scene involves him shitting himself in bed, to his self-hating shame. But Crosetti, wheezing, excitable and weirdly obsessed as he may be, is at his stoic finest, lending unflappable help to Thorman and his wife (emphasised by how Crosetti is so often seen with one or the other, but never the pair together).
On the other hand, Bayliss and Pembleton’s first case after the Adena Watson investigation is officially shelved involves the death of a Police dog, with Bayliss barely able to take it seriously.
The out-of-sequence shuffling of ‘Night of the Dead Living’ to last gave season 1 an artificially upbeat ending, as the Homicide Squad, having survived night shift in the midst of a heatwave, frolic in the dawn light on the roof with a hosepipe. Those watching the show on DVD will watch Homicide in the order its producers intended: the season ends in a much more downbeat manner as Bolander sits over a drink in a quiet bar, having unloaded his troubles to an uncaring barman (played by cult Director John Waters), and humming Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ to himself.
All told, in dribs and drabs, NBC ordered a total of thirteen episodes, although only nine would be shown. The series’ initial high ratings fell away rapidly, although critically the show was a massive hit. It couldn’t stay in that shape, however, not and survive on Network TV in the Nineties. Though Fontana and his team would resist mightily, NBC would constantly demand changes, constantly pressurise the series to conform to what everybody already knew, to break away from the awkward demands of reality and honesty and be just another run-of-the-mill glossy Hollywood money-making machine.
The story of Homicide over the next six seasons is one of small concessions, made reluctantly, gradually forcing the show of its unique and centre ground. It never entirely sold out, indeed even in its last season, enough of the original show was clear and present to maintain its reputation, and it never got jerked around as badly as Hill Street Blues did after Stephen Bocchco was forced out: Fontana made sure of that. And in years to come the series would, in its acting, its characters, become even deeper.
But it would never be quite so pure as in that shining moment of first realisation.

Dan Dare: The Venus Story


Dan and Dig – the old firm

The first Dan Dare story has no official name. In view of its subject, it’s usually referred to as ‘The Venus Story’ or ‘Voyage to Venus’, the title applied to the last round of reprint editions, published by Titan. It’s by a substantial margin the longest story, running to 77 weeks, a week short of eighteen months. The boy who started reading this story in the week of his seventh birthday was nearly halfway towards his ninth before he finished it, an almost incredible example of retaining attention.
The Venus Story has first to set-up Dan Dare and his cast of regular supporting characters and, more importantly, the world in which they lived. Though Hampson had no prior experience of building a story, or a world, he managed all of this with an instinctive skill, and an eye for building in exposition without ever nearing the shores of the miserable ‘As you know’.
Part of Hampson’s success was in his canny construction of a story that, whilst set in a future that was close enough for each reader to imagine himself growing into, was also keyed to their current experience. Dan is the Pilot of the Future, immediately linking him to the dashing RAF pilots of the recent War, heroes to small boys. And his task is to eliminate Food rationing, an issue that still plagued Britain five years after the end of the War, not being abolished until 1951. The theme joined dismal present to colourful future, a future that Hampson crammed dozens of fantastic futuristic devices into: fantastic but utterly plausible and realistic.
I’ve already described the first week’s set-up. In addition to that, Hampson announced that ‘Kingfisher’s flight to Venus, via this future’s dominant technology, Impulse Wave Engines, would take seven days, automatically drawing its audience back for week 2 when, that dull and mundane week of waiting done, they could find out what happened when Kingfisher reached the clouded planet.
What happened was another disaster. To the frustration of a control tower that could do nothing, Kingfisher is consumed in a space explosion exactly as its predecessors were, and Sir Hubert and Colonel Dare must fly immediately to a World Cabinet meeting, at which the Controller will report, and the Chief Pilot will give his quick-witted (and of course correct) theory of what is happening and how it can be overcome.
Which is that Venus is shielded by a barrier that causes explosions in Impulse Wave Engines, which can be by-passed by approaching in old style Chemical Motor Rockets (i.e., our own technology).
Dan’s theory is accepted, a fourth expedition is ordered, and this time Dan Dare has his way: it will be under his command. He won’t be left out any longer.
This, after three weeks continuity, will give Hampson the chance to introduce the rest of his cast, as they assemble to crew under Colonel Dare, but before we meet the men (and woman) who will be regulars in the strip for the next decade, we must pause to examine that one essential cast member, the other ranks Spaceman who will be the most loyal and most consistent member of the team for the entirety of the run, Spaceman First Class Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, of Wigan.
The faithful Digby, Dan’s batman (i.e., personal servant). Short where Dan is tall, prematurely white-haired (with a quiff) where Dan has smooth, well-brushed brown hair, tubby where Dan is slim, Dig is the physical opposite of his Colonel just as he is the other pole in the series.
Before long, Hampson would break down his two principal characters into an easy, aphoristic line: “Dan Dare was the man I dreamed of being, Digby the man I was afraid I was.”
It’s easy to take such a jokey approach to Digby: after all, he was the comic relief character, the constant companion to whom everything had to be explained, benefiting the audience. He was Other Ranks, he came from Wigan, with the appropriate accent and language, he was concerned with his comfort, he was rotund (almost to the extent that you wondered about the Health Requirements for Spacefleet). But Digby was brave, and he was loyal, and he never let anyone, especially ‘his’ Colonel down.
Well, perhaps that’s not wholly true. Digby was married, and the father of four, with his wife and children back at home in Wigan, but despite his longing for familiar surroundings (only slightly less pronounced than his desire for a plate of fish’n’chips), the one place we would never see Albert Fitzwilliam was Wigan, with his family. Whether or not he took leave was never revealed: certainly, every time Dan is on leave, Dig is by his side, brewing up and looking after his clothes. And on those rare occasions that Digby received awards for his bravery, it would not be his wife who came to the ceremony but his spinster Aunt Anastasia, who had brought up the orphaned Albert from a very early age and retained no high opinion of him.
As adults, we can perhaps wonder about this: even if Hampson would have been minded to address the Digby marriage in the series, Morris as Editor and Vicar would certainly not have allowed any reference to marital discord, so perhaps we are on safest ground in assuming that the Digbys’ relationship was like that of so many happy marriages of the Twentieth Century and before, and founded on never seeing each other! We can at least be sure that Digby made over enough of his pay for Housekeeping!

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here!

But the next member of the cast that would dominate the early years of the series had already been introduced before Dig. Sir Hubert Gascoigne Guest, Controller of Spacefleet, was a veteran of space travel (Guest had been part of the expedition that made the first Moon landing in 1965, and was the third man to walk on the Moon). A crusty, old-fashioned Commander, Sir Hubert was a father figure to Dan, a man he clearly regarded with a paternal eye, though not one unfocused in its adherence to rank and order. It would be many years before we heard about Dan’s actual father, though Hampson had composed a biography of his hero – of each of his characters – that underpinned their on-panel solidarity whether such details were ever mentioned or not.
Sir Hubert may have been as a stern, strict father to Dan Dare but to the boys who read Dan’s adventures, he would have been seen as a grandfatherly presence. As I’ve already mentioned, given that he was born the same year as the first generation of Eagle readers, Sir Hubert was their promise of an exciting future.
He also stood more firmly on the ground than any other character, for Frank Hampson sought the only father figure he knew, former Detective Inspector Robert Hampson of the Southport Police, and tremendously popular and supportive figure in the Dan Dare Studio (or the Bakery, as it was in real life). Frank simply drew his own father, to a level that is almost frightening in its accuracy. I was fortunate enough to see a Granada TV documentary on Dan Dare that included film of an interview with Hampson in the Fifties, seen drawing at his table with Robert, in his Hubert Guest uniform, overlooking his shoulder. It is disturbing to see Sir Hubert walking around, off the page: very disturbing.
Hampson completed his cast in the fourth week of the story, jumping ahead three months. Spacefleet Construction Branch had knocked itself out, completing three two-seater scout ships with old-fashioned chemical rocket motors. These would be transported to Venus orbit, outside the presumed Barrier zone, where Dare’s expedition would then launch and try to penetrate the Barrier.
Three times two made six: Dan and Digby counted as two of these, and Sir Hubert, despite being over the age for active service, insisted on forming a member of the party: as a veteran of the early days of spaceflight, he wasn’t going to miss this nostalgic chance.
This still left three. Two were accounted for quickly. Dan had arranged for two of Spacefleet’s most-accomplished pilots, and his two closest service friends, to be assigned to the mission. Pilot Captains Pierre Lafayette and Henry Brennan “Hank” Hogan emphasised the international element of the future, of the World Government. Borders may have been abolished, but Pierre and Hank were as distinctively French and American as their names suggested, the one with his slightly tubby appearance and his little Gallic moustache, the other a Texan with an exuberant disdain for authority, and little wire-rimmed glasses: features that would easily identify who was who in the plentiful scenes in spacesuits.
Hank and Pierre would be mainstays of the series for the first five years, missing only from Marooned on Mercury. They were easy-going, reliable lieutenants, cheerfully insulting each other along the way, and occasionally causing accidents. But Hank and Pierre’s main weakness was that they were only lieutenants: they lacked the initiative to take independent action when they were removed from their commander, as we would see later in The Venus Story.
But Hank and Pierre would be overlooked for the first two parts of the classic Man from Nowhere trilogy, only to disappear again immediately after its conclusion, appearing only in one final adventure together in the early Sixties.
There was one more almost indispensable member of the series, the last to be introduced in those early weeks, and the most usual of all in the context of a boy’s comic. Professor Peabody was a Botanist, directed to the mission by the World Government to carry out the necessary tests to determine if food for Earth could be grown in Venusian soils.
But the Professor was not the ancient greybeard that the team expected. The Professor turned out to be a capable, cool, slim red-headed young woman in her late twenties, Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody. And she was an attractive young woman to boot, though not portrayed as a knock-out of any kind (as Robert Hampson modelled Sir Hubert, the Professor’s template was the studio’s youngest member, Greta Tomlinson).
A woman in a boy’s comic! And not just a woman but an independent highly-qualified woman who was determined to look out for herself and perfectly capable of so doing. In all the ways Dan Dare and Eagle broke with convention, in the early Fifties, Miss Peabody was probably the most radical. Jocelyn was a feminist almost twenty years before feminism began.
Of course she would still need rescuing, from time to time. And once, but only once, she was left crying. But the Professor, despite the chauvinistic response of Sir Hubert, was part of the team, and she would be so for most of the rest of the decade.
There was one team member that Hampson was not allowed to introduce. To emphasise the utopian nature of the series, that the recent War had led towards the inexorable development of a United Planet under a World Government, Hampson wanted to include Boris, a Russian, among Dan’s team. Sadly, with Germany partitioned, with Stalin still in charge, with the Iron Curtain settling across Europe, that was a step Hultons were not prepared to accept, not in a comic directed primarily at seven year old boys, who might think the Russians and the Communists were not dire enemies forever.
And so the adventure begins. ‘Ranger’ conveys the team to Venus orbit, and the expedition prepares for Venus-fall.
The team split themselves up naturally: Dan and Dig in ship 1, Hank and Pierre in ship 2 and the odd couple, Sir Hubert and the Professor in ship 3. How else it could have been done was irrelevant: Sir Hubert insisted on accompanying the Professor, in order to keep an eye on the clearly unreliable female.
So Dan and Dig made the first approach, proving Dan’s theory. However, by a clearly understandable design oversight, the ships had been provided with standard issue Impulse wave radios. This blew, cutting off communications and forcing a crash-landing on Venus, in a tropical belt of strange and wonderful vegetation, waters and fauna.
This, as much as the story itself, is what Frank Hampson excelled at, and was what made Dan Dare so memorable over so many years. Hampson imagined into being, in an utterly convincing manner, the surface of an alien planet. Not so alien that it was utterly unrecognisable, without logic, but coherent: a wonderland for the reader’s imagination, which after reading the story would return to sink into the landscape and explore, in their mind, what lay out of sight in the panel.
Meanwhile, Dan and Digby were marooned, unable to escape or even earn their team-mates about the risk. All they could do was set off towards the planned rendezvous point at the equator.
Back in space, it is the logical Pierre who divines the reason behind Dan’s radio silence and, after the radios are removed back on ‘Ranger’, he and Hank set off from the second attempt. But when Sir Hubert announces his intention, should they fail, to return the Professor to the ship and proceed alone, Miss Peabody, who is a fully qualified space pilot and is at the controls, defies orders and sends no 3 ship in pursuit.
We leave them for now and return to Dan and Dig on the Venus surface. The air, it appears, is breathable, though their suits’ atmosphere testers don’t agree. But their first encounters with Venusian life are imminent.
First they are captured by blue-skinned primitives, human in shape save for their thick red hair and a pronounced bump on their forehead. These primitives take then to a base controlled by a technologically superior race, green-skinned, hairless, seven foot tall dressed in near identical costumes.
These are the Treens, the dominant life-form of the northern hemisphere of Venus, cold, calculating, scientific, of lizard-like descent. In due course, the Treens will be found to be led by their Chief Scientist, the Mekon.

                                                                        The ever-present threat

The blue-skinned people are the Treens’ slaves. They are Atlanteans, descendents of slaves stolen from Earth a millennium ago, by the Treens, whose depredations led to the destruction of the great land barrier that preserved the vast inland valley where Atlantis lay, and which is now the Mediterranean Sea. There is a third race on Venus, but we are not destined to meet them just yet.
Dan and Dig are taken to the Treen capital, Mekonta, the first chance Hampson had to draw a full-page spread, sixteen weeks into Eagle and the series’ life. It is Mekonta, a fantastic yet logical creation, set in an artificial lagoon of multi-coloured water. It is a page that can be studied forever.
In the city, they learn that they will be subjected to scientific experiment. The Treens apparently know a great deal about Earth, and have plans to invade and take over the planet in order to scientifically rationalise it and its population. Furthermore, Dan and Dig are shown a broadcast of the other two ships of their expedition.
This is where the one significant failing of this story first appears. It’s at least heavily implied that what Dan and Dig see is happening live, yet their own experiences and journeys have taken the equivalent of a couple of Earth days, and no such lapse in time could possibly have happened to the other four members of the team. It could be that the Treen scientist is only showing a recording of what has already happened, but if this is so, it’s certainly not made in any way clear, and as the issue of time on the Venusian surface against time in space and on Earth will continue to be completely at odds, this is not an explanation I am prepared to accept.
It appears that Venus’s Equator is surrounded by a ferocious flame-belt, separating the hemispheres completely, and the expedition’s rendezvous point is right in the flamebelt. Pierre and Hank manage to force their craft out of its dive and soar away, trailing smoke, into the southern hemisphere – which the Treens dismiss as lost – which the Professor’s piloting gets her and Sir Hubert down in one piece, but with no hope of lift-off or escape.
Dan’s pleas to be allowed to go to his friends’ help fall on deaf ears until he cleverly intimates that more experimentation – including vivisection – would be possible with four subjects, one of them female. He and Digby are sent out with a Treen pilot to rescue Sir Hubert and Miss Peabody.
That they are sent with a single Treen is either a subtle expression of a Treen overwhelming superiority complex, or else a convenient device for ensuring Dan and Dig don’t have to do anything improbable to take over the craft – or indeed, possibly both. The Treen is Sondar, who is to become the first ‘good’ Treen, though no explanation will really ever be given for his turning out to believe in Earth’s democratic ideals.
It’s an interesting defection. There is nothing – physically or intellectually – to distinguish Sondar from any other Treen. The only thing that seems to differentiate Sondar from his fellows is that he reacts with anger to being attacked by Dan, and fear when the craft is threatened with the Silicon mass that inhabits the Flamebelt. Once he’s beaten, he is glumly resigned to the knowledge that he will now be wanted back in Mekonta just as much as the Earthmen, because he showed an emotion.
Sondar throws in with Dan’s expedition on the purely pragmatic grounds of survival, and his later absorption of human principles seems to take place by osmosis.
So the trio rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor from the menace of the semi-sentient Silicon mass that threatens to sweep over them and, with a Treen military party in hot pursuit, they set off into the interior, trying to escape. Their flight is ended at the top of high cliffs: a brief battle reaches a horrifying moment as a blast from Sit Hubert’s para-gas pistol inadvertently hits Dan who, paralysed but unstable, falls from the edge. The others are captured and returned to Mekonta.
Thus, and surprisingly, the first meeting with the ultimate enemy, the threat to peace in the Solar System, the mighty Mekon, takes place without his inveterate enemy, Dan Dare, missing presumed dead.
The Mekon. Though Hampson would go on to say that he kept bringing the Mekon back because he couldn’t think of anything better to do, there’s no doubt that he had created something that resonated acutely with his readership.
Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who, has been sneered at and satirised for decades for the supposedly amateurish, cheap and unconvincing design of the Doctor’s oldest enemies. Not one of these ignoramuses has given a moment’s thought to what Nation did. He conceived of an alien race that was simultaneously clean, sharp and comprehensible, and utterly, disturbingly alien. Why do you think the Daleks have lasted almost as long as the Doctor, and with fewer essential changes? Because we see them, we interpret them and yet they are wholly unlike us.
A decade earlier, Frank Hampson did exactly the same with the Mekon. He had already introduced the Treens: humanoid in shape, hairless, with heavy-lidded eyes and a wide, flat mouth, just above a wide, flatter jaw. The Treens are descended of some lizard-like genus, but they are still shaped like us. They’re functionally identical, which many commentators – having regard to the superb Sixties story, All Treens must Die!, in support – have interpreted as being a race that does not reproduce sexually, but rather by some biomechanical process: what SF would later term as ‘cloning’.
But the Mekon, like the Daleks, was disturbing and ‘wrong’ to look at, yet instantly comprehensible. It is his head that disturbs, that great, circular, globe-like formation, with the compressed, cruel face beneath it, Treen in structure but closer to human in its inner configuration. And the globe, which houses a brain that is not born, but bred and developed by sophisticated and lengthy procedures, dominates not just the face but the body: thin, spindly arms and legs, incapable of supporting themselves, a shrivelled trunk, the whole balanced upon a flying boat that places the Mekon, literally, above everyone he surrounds himself with. As they look up to him politically, so must they all look up to him physically.
The form is human, in that it was resembled human, but the dictates of the brain have thrown the body into terminal imbalance that we recognise but shrink from, sensing instantly that t is unhealthy. As is the mind it bears.
What many forget is that the Mekon is not a name but a title: Il Duce without the presence of Benito Mussolini. If the Mekon ever had a name, a Treen name, it is never spoken, and it probably never existed. Mekons are not natural: they have to be bred from a special strain of Treen, developed over a course of injections and treatments that take decades.
The Treens fear the loss of their leader: the ‘next’ Mekon, we are told, is fifty years away from being ready to assume power. That is the only word we ever have about the New Mekon: he is not mentioned again, not found on Venus when the Mekon is beaten and escapes, not taken with him. The most logical assumption is that he was concealed in the Mekon’s undiscovered base in the equatorial flamebelt, under the supervision of the ‘Last Three’. But that is a story for a much later time.
So it is Digby, Sir Hubert and Professor Peabody who first encounter the Mekon of Mekonta, the most advanced scientific brain on the planet Venus. Like any villain, he cannot resist relating his plans to them, the long-developed plan for the Treens to invade and take over Earth, and rationalise it to run on scientific principles.
It’s a Saturday Morning Serial Villain ploy but none the worse here, as the Mekon plans to use the puny humans to assist his plan. The Treens will soften Earth up first, into allowing them to place a base on the Moon, by pretending that the Dare expedition has been a disaster, that Dare is dead, and that the Treens have nursed and succoured the three badly-injured survivors. They will provide messages for Earth to this effect.
It’s time to return to Dan Dare. He hasn’t of course, died. He may have fallen from a cliff, been swept into an underground river and spent nearly twenty-four hours underground, under water, being swirled along, but the influence of the paragas shot has placed him in a form of suspended animation: he wakes, south of the Flamebelt, alive and unharmed.
The Southern Hemisphere seems to be an idyllic place, agrarian, beautiful, unspoiled, and yet somehow tended, unlike the Atlantean lands where Dan and Digby first landed. It also seems unpopulated: the only city Dan finds is robotic: clean, elegant, efficient, non-polluting. It’s a complete puzzle. Until Dan encounters his first Theron, a young boy, about the age of the reader, who addresses him with the immortal words, “Got any gum, chum?”
It’s pure Hank Hogan, and Dan quickly discovers his two lieutenants lazing in the sun, idly discussing repair plans for the crashed spacecraft with their Theron host, Volstar. So much for the Treen claims that the Southern Hemisphere is a vile and barbarous place.
The Therons – golden brown of skin, given to long, immaculately coiffed hair – can be seen as humanity tuned up. They are scientifically advanced but, unlike the Treens, they have retained their emotions. They have achieved peace. They care for their half of the planet, confining industry to clean, efficient robot cities, and avoiding living off the ground. They occupy flying houses that ride Venus’s Gulfstream. Environmentalist: in 1950!
President Kalon outlines the history of the Therons, the Treens and the Atlanteans, attributing their blue pigment to the different effects of the sun’s rays filtering through Venus’s clouds, and the forehead bump as being an evolutionary development, forced by Venus’s long days: it contains extra tear-ducts to keep eyes moistened.
The Therons are even responsible for awakening the intelligence of the Treens and setting them, inadvertently, on their path to their particular breed of arrogance and science. Since the disaster on Earth, the two races have maintained a closeted neutrality, using the physical impassability of the equatorial Flamebelt as an excuse for avoiding contact. Nevertheless, the Therons do do some judicious spying from time to time, just in case.
This is all very well, but in their commitment to peace, the Therons have forgotten something, until Dan issues a stirring lecture upon good people’s relationship with the bad. Peace is all very well, but men must take up arms against evil and not simply allow it to propagate. Not for the last time, Earth’s shining example shames more advanced races into recognising their responsibility to fight for what is right.
With Hank and Pierre safe and trying to return to Ranger, Dan’s main concern is to get back to the north and rescue the rest of the gang. To aid him, the Therons arrange to disguise him as an Atlantean. This involves a change in pigmentation to turn Dan blue, and the provision of a wig incorporating an artificial lump: the wig does dual-service as a translator.
So Dan heads back to the Treen hemisphere. Hank and Pierre head back into space, only to discover that ‘Ranger’ is no longer there, having stayed to the utmost limits of its power and rations before returning to Earth. This latter is another of the few loose holes in the plot: if the Therons are as technologically advanced as they are, to the extent of maintaining covert surveillance on the Treens every fifty years or so, why have they not detected Ranger’s departure beforehand?
But Hampson needs this craft to take off and become apparent to the Treens. This evidence of interference from their Southern neighbours outrages the Mekon into starting military action against the Therons. This means that able-bodied Atlanteans are conscripted into armies. And that means Dan will be swept up in that war.
Though his disguise is perfect, Dan’s blown his cover at the first encounter, being unaware of Atlantean ritual. He’s in danger of being speared when his wig is knocked off, revealing his smooth forehead: the Atlanteans immediately equate him with their legendary rebel, Kargaz, who is prophesied will return to lead them to freedom. They keep his secret from the Treens, but it is a narrow thing before the Treens arrived to conscript villagers into an army.
Dan is therefore sent to Mekonta. Unfortunately, his familiarity with straps and buckles alerts the suspicions of the Dapon-in-Chief (a Sergeant Major to his Atlantine socks). Thankfully, the Dapon is a believer in the old ways and as soon as Dan reveals his smooth forehead, he is recognised as Kargaz, and the Dapon immediately surrounds him with a squad of trusted men.
Having arrived undiscovered in Mekonta, Dan is lucky enough that the Dapon’s squad is summoned to act as a guard to the Mekon as he advises the captive humans that their usefulness has now been outlasted and they are to be escorted to scientific enquiry and dissection. Sir Hubert leads the protests, mainly about Professor Peabody, but it is Digby (of course) who sees through the blue camouflage to his Colonel and who is the first to react when Dan decides to take a hand and bundle the Mekon off his flying chair.

Original art

The Earthmen try to get away with the Mekon as a prisoner, using the Treen flying chairs, but the Mekon’s superior brain power overrides the controls and dumps them all in the lagoon. He escapes, but Dan and Co get away with one of the Telezero Reflector ships, taking off for Theronland, under pursuit and fire.
And that is the whole of Dan Dare’s interaction with his arch-enemy in their very first encounter: fifteen minutes, maybe twenty tops. It’s a surprise to realise that all those years and hatred turn upon so short, and indeed tangential a meeting, but from this point onwards Dare and the Mekon are eternal foes.
The raid is succesful in freeing the prisoners and escaping. Though the Reflector ship is shot to pieces, it lasts as far as the Theron border, where the escapees are rescued and enough of the plate hull of the Reflector ship stripped by the Therons to enable them to proof themselves against the Telezero ray in future. And there is a moment of sadness and gallantry, as the wounded Dapon, symbol of a race that has been enslaved for thousands of years, pilots the doomed ship back to Mekonta to destroy its base, sacrificing himself in the process.
Dan’s rescue brings the story to an interesting point. In Mekonta, the enraged Mekon opens war upon the Therons for their interference, and advances his plans to establish a base on the Moon. The materials have been prepared, though the Earth prisoners refused to record personal messages, except for Digby.
But Dig is only playing on his image as a bumbling coward, concerned only for his comforts: he volunteers a personal message to his Aunt Anastasia in Wigan, comparing his conditions on Venus to that week on holiday in Sunnymouth.
The Treens land on Earth, disrupting a village cricket match, and are advancing negotiations for the base they want for a spearhead, when Digby’s message get to his Aunt Anastasia: ‘Just like Sunnymouth’. Which brings Miss Digby marching into Spacefleet HQ at Formby, ‘to speak to the manager’ and tell him that Albert Fitzwilliam Digby’s only experience with Sunnymouth, when he was mistaken for an escaped murdered and kept in prison all week. The Moon-bound Treens are intercepted and imprisoned and the day saved.

Aunt Anastasia

Back on Venus, the War takes an unexpected turn. The Venus Story has been adapted twice, for a 1977 paperback written by comics scripter Angus Allen and a 1980 four-part BBC Radio 4 serial starring Mick Ford as Dan. Both adaptations abandon the story at this point, preferring flashbang endings to the actually completion of the story as devised by Hampson.
Admittedly, on the surface, it’s a bit of an absurd resolution, but as explained in the story it’s not only completely logical but also the only practical approach.
With both sides earnestly jamming the other, electronics on Venus start to fail. Whilst they can, Dan’s party head back to Earth, with Sondar for the Treens, and representatives of the Therons and Atlantines, to seek aid from Earth, despite its gaping technological inferiority.
But that’s where Earth’s strengths lie. Remove electronics from the equation and all that is left is force of arms. And whilst the Treens have rationalised itself, eliminating animal life as useless, Earth’s sentimentality and love of ritual has led them to preserve their horses. And everybody knows that in a fight, cavalry beats infantry hands down.
So, strange as it may seem, Earth can tip the balance by transporting mounted troop: ceremonial army units, mounted Police, cattle herders (cowboys to you and I). It’s an unlikely and motley army, but it does the job: under cover of their attacks, Dan leads a sabotage team into Mekonta that switches off the Treen jamming, and ends the war. The Mekon, not for the last time, beats a strategic retreat.
Earth wins the War, but the only reparation it demands is complete disarmament. The food it has needed all along is a matter of request.
And with this demonstration of the moral principles that Marcus Morris as a Reverend of the Church of England, and Frank Hampson as simply a decent human being were out to propagate through Eagle, the first and longest Dan Dare story came to a satisfying end with that most apt of comics conclusions: a feast!

Considering John Crawley


1981 was a fantastic year for imaginative fiction. Not only was this the year Gene Wolfe published The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of his four book series The Book of The New Sun, but it also saw the appearance of Little, Big, John Crowley’s fourth novel and a landmark work. Like The Shadow of the Torturer, Little, Big was a work that transformed its author, that marked Crowley, like Wolfe, as a writer who had suddenly leapt into the first rank of authors whose work was immensely subtle, powerful and influential.
I’ve been collecting Crowley’s work since Little, Big, though it rarely if ever is published in the UK. Indeed, I’ve recently acquired, though not yet read, his most recent book, Four Freedoms, an historical fiction set during the Second World War that represents a departure from his usual field. It was published in 2009, so the fact that I only found out about it this year demonstrates how little publicised Crowley’s work is over here.
As a preliminary to reading that, I’ve decided to re-read all of Crowley’s works and, as I have done so previously, write about the books that have made his name.
Crowley, an academic and a documentary film writer outside of his career in books, has hardly been prolific: in the thirty years since Little, Big, he has published only seven novels including Four Freedoms, and his writing career has been dominated by the four volume Ægypt series, which itself took twenty years to complete.
Indeed, his most prolific period was in the years leading up to his breakthrough novel, with three nominally SF novels published between 1975 and 1979.
The last of these, Engine Summer was the only book by Crowley that I had read before Little, Big: I had enjoyed it, been intrigued by it, but it could not hold a candle to ‘a book that, all by itself, calls for a complete redefinition of fantasy’, as Ursula le Guin famously reacted to Little, Big.
Crowley may not have written often but, from 1981 onwards, what he has written demands thought. This is not going to be a quick process.

Saturday Eurocrime – Fulfilment Postponed


Not just yet…

So there I was thinking, it’s November, we ought to be within sight of the usual January transmission of The Bridge, series 3, with some revelations as to how Saga’s devotion to her duty played out for Martin. Something to look forward to for the post-Xmas Saturday nights.

I figured that if I checked up on-line, I should be able to get some idea about transmission dates without causing myself grief by discovering any unwanted spoilers. And that’s where things went horribly wrong.

People, there will be no The Bridge 3, not until the autumn of 2015. Waily, waily, waily.

And the third series will not feature Kim Bodnia although, in a sliver of silver lining, we are told that this does not rule out his returning in later series: a hitherto unsuspected suggestion that The Bridge may not follow the Sandinavian pattern established by The Killing and Borgen in restricting itself to only three series.

There were no hints as to the potential storyline of series 3, which is currently being written, and I wouldn’t have read them if there had been. But we are advised that the series will deal with Saga having to cope with the loss of her only friend.

I’m not going to speculate. I do wonder how the series can proceed without the strong contrast between its two leads. Kim Bodnia’s presence has been crucial to the success of both series to date and given that the fundamental aspect of The Bridge has been its contrast between the Danish and Swedish natures (no matter how little of this an English audience actually discerns), surely there must be a Danish pole of sorts to be inserted.

And we have to wait until after next year’s summer! This is almost as bad, no, it’s even worse than the wait for Cumberbatch and Freeman to become available for the fourth series of Sherlock.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Dolly’s War


Peter Tinniswood’s last novel was published in 1997, and after that he wrote only for Radio 4. He was already suffering from the throat cancer that would see his voice box removed, and which would lead to his death in 2002. All these things, and even more so the early work he achieved, make it painful for me to say that his final book, a novel, was completely unworthy of him, his life and his talent. Dolly’s War is a disaster, car crash literature, a book in which the shadow of Tinniswood’s talent is pale and wan and mocking.
The Dolly of the title is Dolly Bradman, headmistress of a private school in Surrey, and the War of the title is the Second World War, in its earlyish stages in the autumn of 1941 when a lone German bomber drops its bombs on the school. As a consequence, Dolly gathers together her staff and proposes to evacuate the school from England to the West Indies. That, such as it is, is the story.
It is broken into three parts: the Ocean journey, in convoy, to St David’s, the school’s residence on St David’s and the planned flight back to England which crashes, leaving the school in danger on an unnamed island in the throes of a war that has nothing to do with the Second World War.
The whole thing is a series of disjointed careers as the school lurches from place to place and disaster to disaster, losing staff and children at various points, but never discovering a sense of purpose or any kind of shape.
It’s a very strange school anyway: it has a mixed intake of genders and ages that appears to be two-thirds female, and a staff of unlikely teachers that seems to be overloaded to the extent that there is something like one teacher for every two children – or ‘shits’ which is the term Dolly uses incessantly to refer to the pupils in her charge.
Dolly doesn’t teach. She has no interest in teaching. She falls in and out of love but never stops drinking excessively. She is a tall, buxom woman in her late forties, with a generous head of black ringlets, a fine figure of a woman. Neither she, nor anyone else in the book, behaves in any manner consistent with this being 1941, because, of course, the whole book is unreal and unbelievable and aimless. It is just a succession of things until it ends, not with a point or a purpose but because the requisite number of pages – too many of them, to be honest – have been filled.
Now you and I know that this does not automatically make a bad book. If the characters are interesting and entertain, and the situations they get into are absorbing, a journey of sorts, a glorified peg, is all you need to tell a tale. But that peg needs a point, needs something to signal an end, a satisfying moment that demonstrates that the story is over, and Dolly’s War fails completely to provide this.
Tinniswood fills his novel with characters who strike exactly one note each. As well as Dolly, there’s her shy, retiring, maiden yet hopeful cousin Celia, the somnolent Mrs Otto, cradling a casket of rotting, scavenged food, Mamselle, French teacher with a cyncial Lancashire background, Major Pickavance, a shortarse in search of a wealthy widow, Mr Dugdale, slowly succumbing to what appears to be Alzheimers, besotted by Natasha, besotted of Delphine, aging.
The boys consist of head boy, the languid, self-entitled, homosexual Lance Egerton, whose throat is slit by a Goanese steward on the voyage to the West Indies, Burnaby the masturbator, who later falls in love with the exotic Samira, and who hangs himself alongside her on her wedding day to an enormous, rich and blubbery Sultan, and the Doucemain twins, who die defiantly when their treehouse is burned down.
As for the more numerous girls, these include the dumpy Delphine with her unrequited love of Mr Dugdale, head girl the beautiful, blonde Natasha, who loves Lance Egerton but gives herself passionately and, initially, lovelessly to the stowaway, Roger Carey, the aforementioned Samira, a quartet of little girls, the innocent but sexy Margot, who dies of fever: no, I can’t go on with this. These aren’t people, these are barely credible as one-note cyphers, and the deaths which occur thorughout the book are meaningless to both the characters and the story. The dead just get to check out early, that’s all.
The only major character from outside the school is Roger Carey. Carey’s on the run from something he’s keeping from everyone. At one point, he claims to have murdered someone, at another to have embezzled millions, but instead he is a moral coward who has run away from the prospect of seeing the woman he loved die of cancer.
He’s also the character who keeps going on, at certain moments, about where he’s seen these things before?
That’s part of the dustjacket blurb, that Tinniswood’s story contains echoes of famous moments in other stories, and Carey is the one who draws our specific attention to what I take to be specific moments. In the final part of the book, there are explicit allusions to Swallows and Amazons, or rather to Missee Lee, and you could certainly argue a case that Dolly and Celia are patterned on a grown up Nancy and Peggy: Tinniswood has form for references to the grown-up Peggy on occasions.
But as an Arthur Ransome fan myself, I cannot recognise anything more that the most fantastically tangential connections between the events of this story and the children’s adventure holidays of Ransome’s classics.
And there’s not a laugh to be had. It’s not like the Winston books, or the later Uncle Mort and Brigadier collections, which are meant to be funny and where what are meant to be jokes are recognisable from where they lie on the page. Dolly’s War harks back, in a sense, to The Stirk of Stirk in being an ostensibly serious story subject to exaggeration in a comic/satirical manner, except that this time the exaggeration has gone beyond anything that is tied to reality.
Books like this can succeed, but to do so they need to create their own, internally consistent world, governed by a logic that underpins the departure from our recognisable world. Tinniswood fails dismally to even approach this state and the outcome is a final book that should have been forgotten completely, committed to the wastebin instead of the publishers’ hands.
Don’t read this. You can find the hardback cheap on Amazon, but even the single penny you’ll be asked to pay is not worth it. If you enjoy his work, if you love his sense of humour, if you are thrilled or in any way excited by his writing, spare yourself. Buy another copy of I didn’t know you cared instead. Petition whoever owns the rights to The Home Front  to release it on DVD (I’ll sign). Download Tinniswood’s 90 minutes Radio 4 play, Stoker Leishman’s Diary and wonder why he didn’t adapt that as a book, because it would have been very good.
Just don’t bother with this book.