Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury


All was set.
With The Red Moon Mystery rolling towards its end, Frank Hampson began preparing for its sequel, which would see Dan, Digby, the Professor, Sondar, and an Atlantine Cadet, Urb, survive the fireball of destruction that accompanied the Red Moon’s explosion to find themselves stranded, believed dead, on the innermost planet, Mercury.
He had already requested Walkden Fisher – famous for the weekly exploded drawings in Eagle that turned thousands of boys’ minds towards engineering – to make model Mercurian landscapes for him, to use in depicting the planet nearest the sun, though Hampson had not liked the results, which did not match his inner visions. And he had already decided that once Dan and co had survived their landing, courtesy of the Mercurians themselves, they would discover an old enemy plotting revenge: the Mekon.
Then disaster struck. Hampson pushed his studio hard, but he pushed himself even harder. He’d had to step back a couple of times during ‘The Venus Story’, missing the last four weeks. But now the self-imposed workload caught up with him with a vengeance. An inner-ear infection, destroying his balance, coupled with a diagnosis of exhaustion resulted in an order of bedrest, and no activity under any circumstances. Dorothy Hampson enforced this, but only two weeks into the story, Marooned on Mercury had lost its creator.
So far as the art was concerned, there was a simple solution. Harold Johns, Hampson’s good friend and senior assistant, took over principal art, working in close collaboration with Greta Tomlinson, with whom he’d already formed a fruitful working partnership, on Rob Conway and on at least one Dan Dare short in an Eagle Annual. As for the script, the Reverend Marcus Morris turned to the seemingly unlikely figure of the Reverend Chad Varah.
Varah had been a friend of Morris for some years. Like Morris, he was the Vicar of a Lancashire parish, in Blackburn, and a founder of Morris’s Society for Christian Publicity. He is remembered for something far greater, as Founder of the Samaritans, the charitable organisation that provides an outlet to talk for people who are desperate, lonely and suicidal. But at this early stage of his carer, Varah also had a sideline as the writer of short adventure stories for boys, several of which had been published in the early days of Eagle. In the circumstances, given the short notice, he was the best available choice.
Whatever Hampson had planned for Marooned on Mercury, assuming he had anything planned as yet, was all in his head and Varah had to hit the ground cold. As for Johns and Tomlinson, they were more than grateful for Fisher’s models.
The major problem with Marooned on Mercury is that Varah simply did not have Hampson’s gift for making it up as he went along. The actual story has nothing intrinsically wrong about it, although there is a continuity error (albeit one that can be loosely explained). But the actual week-by-week tale is choppy and disjointed, as if Varah was not able to sustain extended elements of the story in the way Hampson had with the two previous tales.
Varah’s story is that, when he escaped from Venus following his overthrow, the Mekon sought refuge on Mercury, where he has dominated, but not enslaved (presumably due to lack of resources rather than intent) a basically pacifist society. Among the Mekon’s resources are a group of Earthmen, in fact the Captain and crew of Kingfisher, the impulse drive ship destroyed in Eagle’s second issue, now revealed to have survived and been prisoners in Mekonta throughout ‘The Venus Story’ (improbable as it is that the Treens/Mekon would have kept this secret). The Kingfisher crew are unaware that they are working for the Mekon: they were released from prison by Treens claiming to be rebels against the Mekon and are working towards rejoining a war they don’t know has been won, to oppose him.
On Mercury, the Mekon has discovered a plantform harmless to Mercurians but fatal to Earthmen and Treens. From this, he has synthesized a gaseous substance he calls Panthanaton (Latin: All-Deathbringer: the Mekon has clearly studied Earth languages and would no doubt have got a First at Cambridge).
His plan was to use Captain D’Arcy (D’Arcy?) and his crew to fly a spaceship to Venus, relying on their being allowed through the planetary defences, and, when low enough to do so, detonate a Panthanaton bomb that will kill everyone on the planet.
Now that Dan Dare is (almost) in his hands, the Mekon intends to coerce him into being the pilot instead: with Dan at the controls, all security measures will open up, and the Mekon can reclaim his crown.

A Mercurian City

That’s the overall story. It’s decent enough in itself, not that it isn’t easy to pick holes in its logic at significant points, but in this clear and concise summary, we see into the heart of Marooned on Mercury‘s central failing. The above is an outline: it’s a four paragraph summary of what will be revealed to the reader over 35 weeks. It says nothing of how the story is to be told, of what will happen, of the journey the characters will go on.
Hampson made The Red Moon Mystery an attractive, taut, compelling story by moving the action through various stages, each logically flowing from one to the other. Varah lacked that capacity. Marooned on Mercury is choppy and bitty, a process emphasised by his almost immediately splitting the party into three pairs (Dan and Sondar, Digby and Urb, the Professor and the friendly Mercurian they nick-name Samson: I am still ignoring that damned pooch), all of whom are following different paths underground, continually running into obstacles they have to pass, the story cutting from one to another.
In fact, there is more running down corridors than in an entire series of Doctor Who.
The hodge-podge nature of the telling is best exemplified by the swing-bridge, an improbable underground bridge across a bottomless chasm encountered by Dan and Sondar, who use it to cross said chasm and strand a pursuing Treen squad on the other side. As such, this is a minor incident, until, that is, Varah switches to Peabody and Samson, who encounter the self-same swing-bridge and this time have endless difficulties getting across it, as if Varah had suddenly realised he’d missed a trick in not complicating Dan’s path.
Dan and Sondar’s crossing leads directly into the sudden appearance of Captain D’Arcy.
D’Arcy and crew are perhaps the hardest thing to swallow in the entire story. In isolation, there is nothing exceptionable about their role in the story. But the whole point of Kingfisher in ‘The Venus Story’ was that the ship exploded in deep space, outside the anti-impulse wave barrier protecting Venus, in space. The explosion was brutal and sudden and the implication was that all the crew were killed. No explanation is given as to how they survived, or how the crew were extracted from the wrecked Kingfisher (which was under astroviewer observation from Earth) without anyone noticing.
And it’s worth remembering that, when they were captured, Dan and Digby were treated as the first Earthmen to come under Treen hands for experimentation: they are only allowed to attempt to rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor on the basis that this would double the number of subjects, yet all the time the Treens are supposed to have a dozen Earth specimens locked up in a Mekonta prison, just cooling their heels. It doesn’t really sit.
The more obvious error is in calling Kingfisher’s captain D’Arcy, when he’s Crane in ‘The Venus Story’, though this is perhaps surmountable. Crane is referred to by his surname in the earlier story, in accordance with military form, and it’s possible that when Dan calls him D’Arcy, he’s greeting a personal friend who he addresses by his first name, making the character Captain D’Arcy Crane.

Ol’ Greenbean is back!

The encounter is fraught with suspicion. D’Arcy initially attacks Dan, seeing him allied with Sondar, believing him to be in league with the Mekon. An uneasy peace is maintained between the two sides, for long enough that Dan begins to come round to accepting the honesty and probity of D’Arcy’s Treen colleagues, that is until Peabody and Samson catch up and remind him that the very first thing the original Treen party had said to Dan and Co when trying to collect them was to present the Mekon’s compliments…
At least the Kingfisher crew aren’t traitors. The moment they learn they’ve been tricked, they turn on the Treens with a vengeance.
Once everybody’s on the same page, they shoot off into space but, thanks to the use of the Mekon’s magnets, only into the Mercurian equivalent of geosynchronous orbit where, for several weeks, Dan and his arch-enemy play a waiting game.
This section of the story is, for me, even more problematic than the earlier episodes. We now have everyone in the same place, and no more corridors to run down in separate directions, but Varah shifts things into philosophical areas.
It’s now settled that the Mekon wants Dan Dare, and Dan Dare only, to drop the Panthanaton bomb on Venus. D’Arcy and his crew were an expedient, but would be subject to challenge due to their long absence (and the fact that everyone’s thought they were dead since 1995), but no-one would even think to challenge Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot. Knowing what price Dare places on his word of honour, the Mekon rationalises that he only has to get Dan to promise, and his plan ins secured.
So the next phase of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the Mekon’s forces and one ship, with limited air, food and other resources, trapped in orbit, with the aim of forcing Dan into a promise that will save his friends.
From an adult perspective, Varah overcooks the story. It takes a long time for Dan to come out with the only possible answer, that he cannot possibly place the lives of Digby, Peabody, Sondar and Urb above those of millions of Threens, Therons and Earthmen on Venus. But Marooned on Mercury‘s original audience, the seven to twelve year olds of the first half of 1953, would have been reading their first philosophical dilemma, and perhaps the additional time Varah gives to what, ultimately, is a simple answer, serves more than just the need to perpetuate the storytelling.
Having set things up as turning upon an ethical decision, it’s a shame that Varah then blurs the moral lines in a way unexpected of Eagle‘s ethos. Dan can’t get down from the sky without the Mekon allowing him, but he must get out of the sky and back to Mercury if he’s ever to overthrow his archenemy’s plans. It’s Catch-22, and Varah’s solution is for Sondar, not being affected by the moral convictions of Earthmen, to secretly signal that Dan will indeed do the dirty deed, to break the impasse.
And Dan, discovering that the Treens are expecting him and are indeed willing to lead him to the Panthanaton bomb storage centre, decides to go with the flow and allow the Treens to think that he has given his word, whilst planning all the time to break it the first chance he gets. Please bear in mind that this ethical cross-wired conundrum has been cooked up by a Church of England Vicar: no wonder I turned out an atheist.
However, we are now set up for the end-game, which consists of Dan, with the Mekon having arrived to personally direct his hated foe into the biggest single crime in the Solar System, grabbing a Panthanaton bomb and threatening to kill all of them: it’s worth the sacrifice of his own life to end the threat of the Mekon for once and for all.
With the Mekon temporarily stymied by the Panthanaton bomb, Dan takes the chance to use the Treen controls to contact Earth and signal their survival and the need for an Earth presence, extremely rapidly. By a convenient coincidence, this call comes just as Sir Hubert is unveiling a memorial to the gallant Earth heroes who sacrificed themselves to dispel the menace of the Red Moon (and if that feels oddly remote, remember that, although this took place nearly nine months earlier for Eagle’s readers, in the context of the series only some two to three weeks have passed, making the ceremony almost premature).
Dan’s family is represented by Uncle Ivor, Digby’s by Aunt Anastasia. What should we read into this? In time to come we will know that Dan’s father is believed dead, and it is clear that Lady Jean McGregor Dare must also have passed on. That no other Dare family member is present to pay their respects suggests that Dan was an only child, which sits awkwardly with the introduction of a nephew, Alastair, in the first Eagle Annual short story, running in the first Interplanetary Olympics. A decade later, Dan will also acquire a second nephew, Nigel, but never a mention of a brother to have fathered these close relatives!
And I once again find it notable that neither Mrs Digby nor any of the four Digby children are here to honour the head of the household: I said it before and I’ll repeat it, amicable separation and Digby spends all his time on duty because he hasn’t got any money left for himself once he’s finished paying ample maintenance!
It’s going to take about a fortnight for the Earth fleet to reach Mercury, though it’s a little strange to have that estimate coming from Uncle Ivor, an archaeologist lest we forget, rather than someone from Spacefleet.
Meantime, Dan and Co are still up the sharp end, with the Mekon out for revenge. It’s time to appeal to the Mercurians to rise up against their oppressors. But the Mercurians, for all that they are surprisingly strong for such skinny folk, and fond of bangs and crashes when they travel, are pacifists by nature. The Mekon is a pest, but he’s a bearable pest, is their attitude, and none of Dan’s rhetoric, so effective on the Therons, has any effect. Until the Mekon arrives in his fleet, guns a-blazing, resorting to brute force and ruddy ignorance. And then the Mercurians retaliate, bouncing into the sky and stripping down the Treen ships in midflight. This is rapidly followed by a multifarious Mercurian march cross-planet, aimed at the Mekon’s base, though it arrives just in time to see the Mekon making another tactical retreat.
Thus Sir Hubert arrives to find a peaceful planet, and Dan and co can go back to work.

The last Hampson page

In all of this, I haven’t, thus far, mentioned the art. It goes without saying, and this is no insult to Harold Johns, that the best art in the entire story is in the four pages directly drawn and supervised by Hampson himself, before succumbing to exhaustion. These are also, in terms of what we’ve already covered with regard to the story, the most fast-paced and story-dense four pages of Marooned on Mercury.
Unlike Hampson, Johns – whose signature on the work appears only once in the entire story – was grateful for Walkden Fisher’s models. Hampson had already designed and depicted the Mercurians, so he and Tomlinson are left with little in the way of innovation.
They’re solid and competent, and of course, just as when they were mere assistants, they’re drawing in Frank Hampson’s style, so there are no major differences in the art. What proportion of the Dan Dare audience actually noticed is impossible to say but based on my own experience as a comics reading kid a decade later, I suspect it would have been very small.
But to the adult eye, the change in artist is unmistakeable. It’s not immediately noticeable in backgrounds, in landscape or technology, but it is in faces and, as the story progresses, in figure scale. At this stage in his career, Hampson’s art still contained an identifiable element of cartooning when it came to faces, but Johns’ style exaggerates this back towards the very early days.
His scale is off, too. The Studio research materials contained style-sheets and figure guides including relative heights, enabling characters to be depicted in proportion to one another, and these distinctions are maintained, but there is a general shrinkage of everyone vis-a-vis their setting. Bodies are shorter and stubbier: not by any pronounced degree, but by enough for it to be noticeable.
Digby, who was closest to being a cartoon to begin with, is even more unrealistic throughout the story, and suffers the indignity of having his face drawn in different styles at different times. He’s never not recognisable, but the eye halts far too often for comfort. The effect is like seeing a different actor taking over an established part.
I don’t know just how long Frank Hampson’s illness remained debilitating, but by the time he was fit again, Marooned on Mercury had progressed so far that, rather than re-take the reigns with the concomitant disruption of rebuilding the story into something more impressive, he chose not to interfere but instead concentrated upon Dan Dare’s next adventure.
This fourth story, the second longest single story in the entire canon, would take Dan and Co deeper into space than they had ever been, would introduce another race of aliens to the teeming life of Earth’s Solar System, and demonstrate another step forward in Hampson’s evolution as an artist. But Hampson’s health would still play a crucial part in the telling of this story.


Considering John Crowley: Engine Summer

British SF paperbacks had some awful covers in the Seventies

John Crowley’s third novel, Engine Summer, was my first experience of his work, before the breakthrough that would come from his next book. I read it from the library in Nottingham, twice at least, in its year of publication, 1979: on one occasion, it was my evening’s entertainment on one of those long Friday night coach journeys home to Manchester, every six weeks or so.
As such, though it does not in any way match up to the levels Crowley was to establish in his next book, Engine Summer was a clearly better book than his first two efforts, and I did acquire a cheap paperback copy for a time, before getting the Three Novels oversized compilation that included The Deep and Beasts.
Re-reading it, what struck me most was how much it reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent Always Coming Home, though that is completely unfair to Crowley, who was writing a half dozen years earlier than Le Guin’s classic anthropological novel, making it at least possible that Engine Summer may actually have influenced her!
The story is set is a distant future, on a planet we are left to assume is Earth, in, by the same assumption, California. It is the story of Rush that Speaks, primarily by way of a lengthy recounting, interrupted at certain points by questions from an unidentified second party. The account is, in some form that we do not understand until the very end, a recording on a series of crystals, each bearing eight faces or facets – though only four facets are used on the Third and Fourth Crystals.
Rush that Speaks begins deep in his childhood, in the Coop of Little Belaire, which occupies a quiet, wooded river valley. A Path runs through Little Belaire, which is a community of truthful speakers, founded by Saints: Saint Andy, Saint Gary, Saint Olive, Little Saint Roy, whose lives are the stories that underpin Little Belaire and the way of life it has developed.
As the story slowly elongates, we learn certain elements of background. That at some point, the Earth of this much-removed future has suffered some sort of event, referred to only as a Storm, which has destroyed Western Civilization. Though the remains of the old culture – the practitioners of which are known as angels – still exist, here and there, there is no true memory of them. All forms of power have expired, and people have learned new ways of living, based upon beliefs and assumptions rooted in a lifestyle that has yet to come into existence.
Rush that Speaks is a part of this world, and the First Crystal is taken up primarily with his description of life within, in terms that are natural to him but which leave the twentieth (and twenty-first) century reader to try to take in, indeed to imagine, what all these things relate to.
Saints and Angels. And the Path. And the Long League. Doctor Boots’ List. Snake-hands. Cords. Like Le Guin so soon after him, but unlike, in that Le Guin – daughter of anthropologists – couched the story of her character Always Coming Home in so much detail (that in the terms of Engine Summer would be comprised of snake-hands) that we learn to understand the Kesh as much as if her book were a study of a Nineteenth Century Indian Tribe.
Crowley’s approach is much more surreal. Though at no point does he explain more than a fraction of the atmosphere he creates, though he provides little in the way of links, hinting at the possibility that the ‘history’ of this book does not exist in any coherent form, nevertheless, the dream-like sensation of Engine Summer is in no place jarring, never inconsistent, never tangible but never beyond the sense of recognition.
Not much happens over the course of the First Crystal: not much happens over the course of the entire book, for Crowley is not that kind of writer. At the beginning, Rush that Speaks meets Once a Day, a girl of similar age to him, though of Whisper Cord and not his own Palm Cord. Rush falls in love, without defining it as love: indeed, the pair are far too young for that definition, being between their first and second seven years: 10, at the most is my guess.
So, not love, but inseparability for what feels to be eternity to Rush that Speaks, until the black-hatted traders of Dr Boots’ List arrive on their annual visit, and when they leave, Once a Day goes with them.
As much as there is a story, the remainder of the book is of Rush that Speaks’ efforts to reunite himself with Once a Day. She doesn’t return to Little Belaire so, eventually, Rush leaves the coop to find her. He’s barely started moving when he stops, joining the household of a contented couple and their twin sons. After a prolonged stay with them, Rush winters with a supposed Saint, in the trees. Blink is not a Saint, but rather extremely shy and reclusive, but provides Rush with a home, until the following year, as we would term it (for Rush, the calendar, and the seasons, is determined by the character of the time so that a ‘year’ may have two Novembers and no September, if that is how the weather falls).
Leaving Blink, Rush moves on, but again not very far before he falls in with Dr Boot’s List and finds Once a Day again. Amongst those who are not truthful speakers, he feels a degree of fear, is threatened over the risk that he will betray their hidden camp. Gradually, however, he settles into their ways, so much so that, when the time comes, he requests and receives a Letter from Doctor Boots
It is not a letter but an experience, a seemingly empty experience, involving scientific equipment – albeit equipment couched in fantastic and mythological terms, such as the silver glove and the silver ball – though it is enough to change Rush. What is worse is, once he emerges from his Letter, he learns that Once a Day has left, refusing to return whilst he remains. He is welcome to stay, he will not be forced to leave, but the List want Once a Day to come back.
So Rush leaves, stealing away, intent on a return to Little Belaire. Before he can approach the Coop, he encounters Mongolfier, a seeming clown with an umbrella, though a hero to his own people, who are direct inheritors of the past that Rush and his people ascribe to the Angels. Rush’s story is recorded by Mongolfier, who answers certain question, providing information that only unsettles. It is recorded on four crystals, of which two use only four facets.
Rush himself, or that aspect of him that is a series of interactive crystals, is a story without an end. His return, his reception, his life is an impenetrable mystery to ‘him’ and his ending is a horror in which he begs to be released.
Looked at closely, it’s very easy to argue that Engine Summer is a very poor book. Nothing happens, nothing is explained. It is heavy upon atmosphere and mystery, without providing anything but the tiniest of clues to help resolve or explain. We see all things through the eyes of Rush that Speaks, who is less of an unreliable narrator than he is simply an unsatisfactory narrator. He fails to understand what is around him, but fails to observe things that would allow the reader to draw conclusions that lie beyond Rush’s reach.
Once a Day is an enigma, an unknown quantity. What causes her to turn so solidly against Rush is a question for which there are no clues. Curiously, it’s far from a surprise when it happens, but Crowley offers nothing by way of explanation: the reader has to make this up for themselves out of whole cloth.
So why then is this book so fascinating, so absorbing? Part of it lies in the language it uses: Crowley’s style is slow, and intense, constantly turning in on itself to debate. There’s an element to it of ‘stream of consciousness’, in that he is forever sliding into thoughts and reflections, philosophy and musement, though it always remains highly organised.
But what makes Engine Summer stand out is that it paints a picture. Like Always Coming Home, it opens up our eyes to a future that has been broken off from our path, to a way of life that has developed, evolved, from the absence of things that we take for granted. It has separated itself and the way people think, the assumptions upon which their lives are based, have changed.
Sometimes we recognise a connection: engine summer is a simple corruption of Indian Summer, that late-flowering, late September burst of good weather that follows on from calendar summer, and the title hints towards a certain impermanence in this world. Sometimes Crowley dangles what seems to be an obvious connection: four dead men, carved into a mountain is surely Mount Rushmore and the Presidents, but the four dead men of this story turn out to be something very different.
Crowley’s decision not to explain is surely wise. This world is seen from within and the reader explores it as a stranger, with no more information than its inhabitants, without a deus ex machina who comes along with a magic decoder ring at the end. The ring explains little or nothing: it makes us see this world as being contained in a bubble. Who knows if it even still exists?
Good as it is, Engine Summer remains ‘prentice work, but it’s the last of Crowley’s books that can be described so. When he next appeared, it was with something strange, wild, unprecedented, something that will still being read in another century.

Doctor Who : The Last Christmas – Uncollected Thoughts

I’m not showing a picture of the Doctor or his Companion

Oh dear. And it was all going so well, right up to the last moment, when…

Actually, strike that. It wasn’t going at all well. This year’s Doctor Who Xmas Day special was, and let’s be honest about it, a mish-mash of styles, trying to marry up industrial strength whimsy in the form of Nick ‘Santa Claus’ Frost, complete with two self-aware elfs and a battery-powered Rudolph, and Xmas horror in the form of Dream Crabs who weren’t even pretending not to be a direct rip-off of Alien. It can be done and if anyone could do it, you’d have bet on Moffat.

But not this year’s Moffat. Not after the disaster of a one-year-too-many series which has gone overly loud on the emotional moment basso profundo pedal time and time again, and wasted the opportunity that always exists with a new Doctor.

That Moffat had lost that fine touch was obvious from the opening scene of Santa knocking down a chimney stack, the elves bickering, the reindeer running riot and Clara standing there in the snow earing nothing but pyjamas and dressing gown (which she was to wear for the whole episode), open-mouthed. In the snow, falling like a cartoon. And not feeling the cold in the slightest.

After that, the second-hand horror hardly had a chance, and that was before we got to the Polar expedition scientist Shona. Shona – twenty-something, with a pronounced Lancashire accent and heavily into Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ which was only thirteen years older than she was – was played by Faye Marsay, and played to perfection. If this were a previously undiscovered episode of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV from 1986 or thereabouts.

The Earth’s under attack by these Dream Crabs, who cause people to live in their dreams until they die. That meant that, whenever somebody woke up, they were still asleep and dying, until the Doctor finally got everyone to realise they were dreaming and wake up, by flying away on Santa’s sled. Except for the one who spent more time guzzling on a turkey leg than anyone outside a dream state physically could: he died, but that was all right because nobody gave a damn about him, or the fact that a living Dream Crab remained behind, temporarily sated and looking for another victim. Missed that, didn’t you, Moffat?

Clara’s dream as, of course, Xmas Day with Danny. She’d already drawn the Doctor’s attention to the fact that Danny hadn’t survived, the lie on which the series ended with she and the Doctor separated, and this Xmas idyll – he’d got her all the right presents – allowed Clara for the only time ever to be what she wanted to be: relaxed, in love and content.

And Moffat struck gold in this scene: Dream-Danny was so beautifully dreamed by Clara, so exact, that the moment he heard that he was a dream and a dream that was killing Clara, he ordered her out, sacrificing himself again to ensure that she would live.

It was a beautiful highlight, which made the ending turn out so appalling. Everybody’s waking up to grossly disintegrated Dream Crabs (except for the poor, dead sod that Moffat forgot after he’d served his purpose as cannon-fodder). Except for Clara, who wants a few more minutes… So theDoctor has to turn up in her real-life bedroom, to pry the rubber mask off her face and reveal… that Clara fell into her dream sixty-two years after she last saw the Doctor.

She has no regrets. Well, not many. She travelled all over. She taught in every country in Europe. She lived a full life. There were no more men for her after Danny: well, there was one who matched up to him but, well, you know… (break out the sick-buckets, please). Jenna Coleman’s time, which has been the subject of no litte debate, is clearly up.

Except, and I am typing this bit from within the sick-bucket itself, the Doctor suddenly wakes up with a faceful of disintegrating Dream Crab again, races off to Clara, sonics the Dream Crab off her face and fuck all that misleading shit, she’s still young, and lovely and, do you know what, despite everything that’s happened, perfectly willing to reject every atom of character, personality or believable response to the trauma she suffered over Danny, cos she can still go surfing the Universe of Time and Space.

It’s unbelievably glutinous and unforgivably false to anything resembling human emotion. My response, the moment the Doctor woke up a second time (in defiance of all story logic, such as it was, that had been established) was an out-loud, “Oh, fucking hell, no.”

And that’s me and Doctor Who  done. Call me when Moffat leaves, because until then I m just not interested any more. Marry Xmas.

Good or Bad Omens?

Alan Moore’s position on adaptations of his comics stories/series has developed down the years into a simple, unbending refusal to get involved with them. Similarly, Dave Sim has discarded any attempts to convert Cerebus or any part thereof into films. Both operate from the fundamental position that their work was conceived as, by and for comics, and that the mere attempt to translate them into an entirely different medium immediately destroys the work, by shaping it into a form that does not share the characteristics of the comic book form.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman do not share that reservation. The latest demonstration of this is the BBC Radio 4 six-part adaptation of their jointly-written novel, Good Omens, originally published in 1990. The series is being broadcast nightly throughout this week, at 11.30pm, though it began with a double-episode last night, the two episodes being available here and here on the BBC i-Player for those who are late tuning in.

The book is brilliantly funny and, as is usually the case with anything written by either of this pair, is also brilliantly wise and level-headed. I must have read it at least a dozen times since it first hit paperback and it’s still as fresh as new each time I delve into it again. It’s one of my favourite books.

The radio series falls flat on its arse.

I’m sorry to have to say that. I’d love to spend the week enjoying hearing the story take wings, and getting thrillingly involved in the absurdity and the terror of the tale: which, for the uninitiated, is about the End of Times, an eleven-year-old Antichrist and an Angel and a Demon who find themselves in peculiar agreement about not actually destroying anything at all, when it comes down to it. But two episodes in, I can tell that it just doesn’t work: actually, I didn’t need as many as two.

This is not due to any lack of talent or inspiration in the adaptation, nor to any real failing among the actors (though I’m not convinced by either Mark Heap as the Angel Aziraphale or Peter Serafinowicz as the Demon Crowley), but simply down to Moore’s stricture. This is a 300 page novel, featuring more two dozen characters in substantial roles, virtually none of whom can be subtracted from the plot without leaving it unworkable, set against a background of supernatural dealings and the machinations of a plan developed over millennia. It is an information and character dense story that the novel can explain its its own time, at satisfactory length, whilst entertaining the reader immensely. Very little of which can be left out.

And adaptor/director Dirk Maggs is required to represent all of this in six thirty-minute episodes. Three hours, in effect.

Now that may actually be longer by far than The Battle of the Five Armies but it’s still far from enough. There is too much book, and too much for the characters to have to explain to each other (for the benefit of the listener). For instance, episode 2 introduces Famine, currently going under the name of Raven Sable, promoter of foods that actually contain no foodstuffs whatsoever. Where Pratchett/Gaiman can present this as background information, as an insight into something the man as not yet officially identified as Famine is doing, secretively, in order to get the gag in and present us with Raven Sable, Maggs has to have him boast all these things to a subordinate, dramatically changing the scene and the character, to the detriment of both.

That’s just an example of the overt problems of having to get your actors to spell out the narrative background, but the greater problem, overall, is that you are then weighing down the characters’ actions and interactions by clogging up the air with explanations and sucking up minutes of air that would be far better be put to advancing the story.

With so much exposition to squeeze in, everything has to be done faster. Lines bat back and forth, volleyed at speed by a cast that would be a dozen times more effective if they were able to slow down.

If this were television, or film, there would be a better chance of giving the story room to breathe. With visuals, with sight, so much information can simply be displayed, seen and absorbed. There are so many more tale-telling devices open. Radio demands words. It needs voices. The baby-shuffling scene, where Satan’s son gets mixed up with that of an accountant instead of the American cultural attache, works beautifully on paper, and can simply be watched on screen: on radio, it doesn’t work for even one minute.

In short, it doesn’t work because it can’t work, because the book’s qualities are, in this instance, not capable of translation into a radio play, and because we are here short of the kind of interpretive genius who might be able to pull this off (always hedge your bets when it comes to geniuses, since they can do things that ordinary mortals can’t).

I might stick with it, in part for want of better alternatives, but I was already not really listening to about half of episode two, so I might just decide not to bother and stick something on that better uses the possibilities of Radio instead. Such a shame.


Special Places – Burntod Gill

Ever since I broke free from the confines of the family, fellwalking for me has revolved around summits. The long years of collecting the Wainwrights came with an emphasis on always having a felltop as a destination, and on those few occasions when I have set out with no more than the exercise as the point have always seemed to me to be lacking in something, no matter how enjoyable they have been.
Sometimes, though, the best part of a walk, it’s most enjoyable experience, has had nothing to do with any of the summits reached during the course of the expedition, has indeed been far superior to the tops collected en route.
I’m almost inclined to say that about the Corridor Route, on Scafell Pike, but even the exhilaration of that walk across the flank of the massif can’t override the fact that this is Scafell Pike we’re talking about. On the other hand, Lord’s Rake, on Scafell, was my true destination the day I went by that route, having already climbed the fell,
But one day does stand out in memory for having as it’s most enjoyable time an unplanned, and very low-level spell of walking that came unpredictably soon in the day.
My wanderings in the Northern Fells had left me with just a handful of tops in that book. Blencathra would be an expedition in itself, and Mungrisedale Common an unlovely outlier tacked on, just to say that I had been there. But this left Knott and Great Calva: two contrasting fells, linked by a common ridge, but hardly what you’d choose for a walk that has to find its way back to where the car is parked in the morning. But it can be done.
The most convenient base for the walk was the Orthwaite road, verge parking beyond the gate for the farm road into the Dash valley. A path doubles back into the valley on its northern side, offering a choice of routes, high and low, depending whether or not you want to see Brockle Crag on the way. This is not as spectacular as it may be, being more a steep bank of quartz outcrops than a crag in its own right, but my preference for this path led directly to the highlight of the walk.
The lower route is supposed to be difficult to trace now, though there were no such issue the day I came this way. Whilst the Dash bears rightwards towards its spectacular falls, the path wound away left towards the foot of Burn Tod, the immense shoulder of Knott directly ahead.
It opened into an empty, impressive amphitheatre, a place where, if scaled up sufficiently and laden with CGI, it would not be difficult to imagine an army of Orcs marching to lay siege to the Hornburg.
My Wainwright route lay to the right of Burn Tod, closing off this empty bowl, scaling beside Hause Gill to reach the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, but there was an intriguing path not actually marked in the Northern Fells, heading distinctly half-left to where another gill emerged from a narrow defile lying between the bare, steep sides of Burn Tod and Great Cockup. Curiosity drew me along until I reached the bank of the gill, and could see the path snaking along the western bank, into the winding ravine through which the gill bubbled fiercely. A path not noted by Wainwright? I couldn’t resist.
There followed one of those wonderfully absorbing spells where time disappeared out of the window. The path clung to the bank, within the spray of the water at certain points, twisting and turning. There was no crossing the gill, and no escape up either side of this steep-sided course but to follow the gill, upstream or down. And there was no risk that I would turn round and start downstream, not now I had started on this route.
The way twisted and turned, back and forth, allowing me to see no more than ten to fifteen yards ahead at any one time. I was lost without knowledge of how far or short the walk in this gill would be, stepping lively and eagerly all the way. I was enclosed, but felt nothing of that faint claustrophobia from which I sometimes suffer. For the duration, time and the outside world were suspended.
Having not previously connected the dots of the geography between various chapters of the Northern Fells, I had no idea where I might emerge, so it came as a pleasant surprise when the gates of the gill opened out onto broad, wide lawns, directly below the mouth of Trusmadoor, for this was Burntod Gill, and this was a spot I had visited before, when strolling round the Uldale Fells.
I had only to change pages in the chapter on Knott to continue my walk to a summit that could not hope to live up to that exhilarating passage, but there would be no further difficulties in the day, save perhaps a certain dullness.
Across the gill, and onto a long, rising series of well-graded zig-zag sweeps, eating up height on the flank of Burn Tod, until these abruptly levelled out and disappeared underfoot when nearly at the level of the flat top. Knott lay half left, a broad, rounded dome across a sea of thick, tussocky grass, pathless and dragging at your feet as you wade onwards and upwards. There’s an unusual little parapet midway which provides easier walking if you make for it, the grass growing a little less thick and cloying, until beyond, all there is is an uphill walk onto Knott’s broad and flat summit.

Knott (furthest away)

All about is level, sheep-shorn grass. Wainwright suggests that if someone happens to be carrying stumps, bat and ball, the surface would be suited to an impromptu game of cricket, but that suggests he had little feeling for the game, as opposed to his beloved Blackburn Rovers, as any firmly struck shot would have overshot some tightly drawn boundaries and sent the ball unacceptably downhill to allow for the over to be completed.
Ironically, his other suggestion for beguiling the time, for mixed parties only, was also called to mind a few moments later, by the arrival from the north of a young couple. Given that my presence constituted something of a gooseberry, I ought to have packed up and moved on, to allow them their privacy – on a flat, open top a hundred yards wide? – but this was lunch and I wasn’t shifting until I had fed and watered.
There are plenty of ways off Knott, which is rather the hub of the Northern Fells, and it’s a fair stretch to Great Calva, and an ascent of almost 500′ to the latter summit. That kind of height loss is never recommended on a ridge route, where anything much above 350′ of additional climbing becomes more like a new ascent to me. But the ground in grassy and easy, with no undue gradients, and on a walk taking in only two fells, not too burdensome.
The col lies a long way west, requiring a roundabout approach. Knott’s thick grass is easier to tread downhill and I was able to stride out. My memory is a bit hazy on the subject of the weather, for I remember it being dry and exposed on Knott, but I have the distinct impression of thin, enveloping cloud as I reached the boggy bit, just below the summit, suggesting a change in weather on the crossing.
This would account for my lack of memories of the view from Great Calva, a neater top by far, and its unique view along the great Central Rift of Lakeland over which Wainwright enthuses.
I was, by now, some distance from the car, with no obvious or direct route back that did not require retracing my steps over trodden ground. Long and roundabout though it may be, there was a straightforward solution, which was to follow the summit ridge over the south cairn, descend below the cloud-line, and make for Skiddaw Forest below.
The direct line aimed more or less for Skiddaw House, but this would bring me down unnecessarily  far from the head of the Dash valley, so as soon as the slope permitted I angled away to my right, fixing upon a point on the Skiddaw House road just this side of Dead Beck, and picking my best way through the thick, purple, grasping heather that decorates this side of the fell. It made for slow-going, which tends to frustrate me, but the slope was steady, the Road wasn’t going anywhere, and this was the last of the serious walking of the day.

Heather and Great Calva

I’ve always maintain that the worst part of any walk is coming back down the road at the end, and any walk that demands more than a mile of tarmac is a badly-planned walk, but there is no tarmac up here in the hills, just the remarkable emptiness of Skiddaw Forest, broken only by the wind and the scrunch of your boots. The road rose to the lip of the Dash valley before descending in tight zig-zags beside Whitewater Dash, levelling out beneath Dead Crags.
In the bottom of the valley, a convenient farm road enabled me to cross to the north side of the valley and regain my route back to the car.
Not a particularly exciting day, and perhaps best thought of as a perfect example of a contrived pairing of two fells that had not fitted into other, more natural expeditions. Two more of the increasingly shorter lists of Wainwrights. But the day had been made for me by that impromptu diversion into Burntod Gill, by that near-scramble along its bank, the twisting and turning, rising and falling, the gushing waters frantic at my side throughout. Good, hard walking in conditions that others may have shied away from, but for which I was fully prepared, a test to pass with flying colours, a half hour – if it was that – of sheer delight.

Change Still Has To Come

The news has been announced today of the death of Joe Cocker, from cancer, at the age of 70. I’m not going to pretend that it affects me deeply: Cocker’s music, and his gravel-throated vocals, were not really to my tastes, but like so many I love the single that enabled him to give up being a gas-fitter in Sheffield, the 1968 cover version of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, from the legendary Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

There were cover versions galore of Beatles’ songs throughout the Sixties, with many bands owing a brief chart career to being first to release a near carbon copy of a track off the Fab Four’s latest long-player, but the object was to come as close as was humanly possible to reproducing what Messrs John, Paul, George and Ringo had made of things.

That wasn’t what Cocker did. Instead, he ripped up and threw away the jolly, almost oafish sing-along arrangement that backed Ringo Starr’s more or less flat vocals, turning the song into a blues rock extravaganza, with guitar from the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page shortly before that band turned into Led Zeppelin, drums from Procol Harum’s B. J. Wilson, organ by Tommy Eyra, and backing vocals from reknowned session sisters Sonny and Sue.

The two versions are radically different, almost impossible to reconcile as the same song. Indeed, Cocker’s re-arrangement was so out there, it was parodied by Bill Oddie on the classic radio comedy, I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, by applying an identical arrangement to ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba’ Tat’.

After pulling up the song to play on YouTube, I found myself path-tracing: choosing a song from the sidebar, moving from one to another, seeing where the options took me. And it’s brought me here, to Sam Cooke, to this. Go on, play it, go off and listen, for this is more than a song of great beauty, of superb singing, from inside the depths of a man’s soul. It’s a landmark song, a song that, on the eve of change, looked into the heart of the need for that change, and back into what was and had been for far too long.

Sam Cooke came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the South: the South of segregation, repression, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan. He’d originally been a star of gospel music but crossed over into secular pop, scoring an American No. 1 with his debut single, the sweet, smooth, ‘You Send Me’.

Cooke wrote the song in response to hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, to hearing a white singer singing about racism. In part it was inspired by Cooke’s experiences in being refused accommodation at a whites-only motel, but the song, in both its words and its voice rises above a single incident to take into its hands a belief that it cannot be like this for much longer, that A Change Is Going To Come.

After recording the song, Cooke performed it once on TV, an impromptu broadcast at his manager’s urging: the tape wasn’t retained and Cooke, spooked by the music and the vision he’d laid, never sang the song again in his life. He was shot and killed in controversial circumstances ten months later.

In a way it’s as extraordinary as Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’: a very late piece of music that sees the singer in a reflective mode about his life as a black man in the turbulent, Civil Rights Sixties, a song unlike the music he would regularly perform. But whilst Redding looked within, Cooke looked without. For Change was, indeed, about to come, on the heels of Cooke’s death, with the faith and optimism that permeates this song.

But that was fifty years ago, and A Change Is Gonna Come is still not what it should be, which is history. Prophecy yes, for change has come, and we are a world away from the overt, licit racism of those times, but we have not come so far that we do not need to go further yet, and that is without the growing tendency these past four and a half years to want to slide back, to go back to those times and embrace them as somehow good, somehow better. That there were things in those times that were better than those we have now is true: but it was not the racism, the grinding of people into poverty and humiliation because their skin did not look like ours.

Listening to this song fills me with awe. It read the air, it smelled the wind, it spoke of hope in that moment when hope seemed the last thing to have. It still rings with meaning today, and with Xmas about to swallow us up, let’s take time to recall that.

And to hope that we too can say, with true hope in our hearts, that a Change is Gonna Come.

Kirstywatch: it’s Xmas!!!!

So now we know. There’s not to be a return to the Top 10 for Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues, with A Fairytale of New York holding steady at no 11 for a second week, and bloody Simon Cowell walking off with an increasingly irrelevant Xmas No 1 single.

But my favourite track has actually outperformed everyone this year, and not merely the traditional rivalry with Mariah Carey, by being the highest-placed Xmas record for 2014.

So Happy Xmas to all, especially drunks in drunk tanks, winners of improbable bets, sluts on junk in hospital beds, and all those who share their dreams on a cold Xmas Eve.

And the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay…

Spam Attack 4: Make your mind up

After a period of inactivity, I am once again on the track of the spammers and needing to clear off several comments several times a day.

Just as on previous occasions, there is an underlying theme to the majority of the comments that are not sneaking past my spam filter: the internet seems to have collectively decided that what I am currently in most need of is Heating. And Cooling.

Now let me get this straight. At the moment, it is past the middle of December, and after the mild autumn that hath preserved the wasp into senescence, we are now suffering from, in the most part, wind and rain and flaming cold.

So there seems to be a point in bombarding people with ideas about how to keep yourself warm, and it may be that my ever-advancing age is drawing concern from the internet’s philanthropists (though given the rolls of fat around my waist, I’m a bit less in need than most).

But what the hell is the point of advising me about cooling at this time of year? If I want to get a dose of cooling, all I have to do is get out of bed before the central heating kicks in.

Heating and cooling in one post, over and over again. It’s a counter-productive proposition whichever way you look at it, a zero-sum game that only represents the ultimate end of the Universe in the heat-death of entropy.

It’d probably be even worse if I actually read any of them.

Farewell Hereford United

I’m desperately sad to read that Hereford United have been wound up in the High Court.

Let’s pause to savour a moment in the Match of the Day of our mind’s inner television set, as Ronnie Radford collects the ball on a mudtop in the centre circle, scrambles through a challenge, plays a one-two and belts the return ball from a million miles away into Iam McFaul’s net.

As long as we live that moment will be alive, and so too will Hereford. Hopefully, they can return to the field of play to generate better memories for their supporters than today.


Secret Santa

Living alone, as I do and have done for the past few years, makes Xmas and Xmas presents a very simple subject indeed. I have only one living relative in this country, to whom I only speak at funerals, which leaves me only one person to buy presents for.

This is a two-edged proposition. On the one hand, I am absolutely guaranteed getting only things that I want, but on the other hand, I have to forego the simple joy of tearing off the wrapping to find out what that odd-shaped parcel is concealing. This year’s Xmas is contained in a couple of supermarket carrier bags tucked in beside the desk, and an overlarge cardboard box containing the Russell Hobbs Slow Cooker that was my selection from my employers’ annual ‘Xmas stocking’.

The sole exception to this is Secret Santa.

My first experience of this expedient device was back in 1987, when I was working for the first of my two firms in Altrincham. By the time Xmas came around, I had been (secretly) dating one of my colleagues, and it was with a great glee that had to be firmly suppressed in order to preserve our privacy that I immediately went and drew her name!

Not that I need have bothered: all the women in the firm had worked out about us from a very early stage, though in defence of my hopelessly inadequate poker-face, there were seriously extenuating circumstances.

Not that I played Secret Santa for long: three years later, we ‘merged’ with a nearby firm and Secret Santa was just one of many things – our offices, our systems, 95% of our staff – that did not carry over.

Nor did Secret Santa rear its head again at any place I worked until the formation of my current team at my employers, three years ago.

So it was done today, an extremely rare occasion when we could actually get all of us, on our different shifts, in the same place at the same time. I have given out my present, and have unwrapped the only present this year that I did not know the contents in advance. And have demonstrated, yet again, how bloody difficult I am to buy for.

(Actually, when I drew the name of my recipient, I have no idea what to get her, but I enlisted one of our team-mates as my personal Secret Santa Xmas Shopper, resulting in a tasteful collection of little things that she absolutely loved. So that was two presents where I didn’t know what was under the wrapper).

Six days left. Are there any surprises in store?