The Tempus Trilogy – an Omnibus


 

Trilogy

Once more into the publication breach, dear friends!

As I did with the three Richard and Susan novels, I’ve now combined the three Tempus books into a Hardback Omnibus, available via Lulu.com here.

This stunningly attractive book (thick enough to stun a hare if thrown with the correct force) is a must-have addition to any bookshelf, and will retain its value as long as nobody goes and writes in it, least of all me. The unsigned ones will be the rare ones, people, the token that people who bought them hadn’t got their arms twisted up behind their backs at the time.

Seriously, this is a good fun collection, and I could do with being discovered, so what say you take a look? We’ve got over penurious post-Xmas January by now, we’ve been paid again and the snow means you’ll not be going very far, so invest in some reading time.

Thank you one and all.

A Snowflake of Continuity


It’s been snowing most of the morning, to add to a good base layer established overnight. Thick, soft whispering, idling flakes, drfting down without wind, showing chicken feathers (thank you for that image, Stephanie). I’ve yet to go out in it, but I’ve already drifted in my mind to past displays.

It’s the snows of childhood, of a depth a texture that always takes me back to Nottingham, and 1978/9, the Winter of Discontent. I remember a similar scene, when I lived at Woodborough Court, on Woodborough Road, halfway up what was practically Nottingham’s only hill, leading to Mapperley Plains. Looking out the window at the peaceful silence and calling it the snows of childhood then (and I a tender 23 years old, and young for my years).

When I was a child it snowed every year, and it snowed properly, storybook white and thick, even in the back-street terraces of East Manchester. And despite the industry all around, it never got dirty or slushy, and Dad would push me around on my toboggan, in search of a slope to slide down, like the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, or the Famous Five in whichever book they had snow. When I was a child it snowed, and we loved it, because we were unaware of the hazards, the difficulties it could cause.

That Saturday on Woodborough Road took me back. It snowed on: I remember the exact sound of the flakes whispering on my umbrella as I tramped down to the newsagents for my newspaper. But though it soon got dirty enough in the streets of the City Centre, the snow stayed snowed for weeks. I went home for Xmas, but had to struggle back by train on New Year’s Day, met with surprise at the office the next day by my boss who didn’t expect me: travel was so bad round the country, he assumed I’d still be stuck in Manchester.

United were playing away to Forest in mid-January, and my mate Glyn had got me a ticket in the United end, with the travelling Red Army. I was concerned about after the match, visions of the Police escorting the United fans to the station and forcing us all onto trains, ignoring my pleas that I lived in Nottingham! But it snowed again, and the match was called off – at Thursday lunchtime, over 48 hours before kick-off. (And when it was finally played, at Easter, I was on holiday in Manchester for the week!).

I remember one midweek day of serious blizzards, snow furiously sweeping, high winds driving it everywhere. The bosses took the decision, and it wasannounced over the tannoy at 12.30pm that the office would shut at 3.30pm, but that any member of staff who believed they needed extra time to travel home could leave when they thought best. One woman was out of there immediately, though she did live in a rural area outside the city. Sharon and I, who lived almost opposite each other, had no excuse to depart any earlier. When we got out, with the snow still pouring down, we decided not to chance the bus, not going up Woodborough Road, and we tramped home up the hill. The wind blew the snow steadily in our faces, and I chivalrously did the Wenceslas bit, walking a couple of paces in front of her, shielding her from the worst of the weather.

It’s peaceful and calm outside now, and tempting to while away a day off inside. I’m certainly not going to struggle to the launderette with a bin-liner of dirty clothes, not in conditions like these, but I have to go out, to the main road: repeat prescription to collect, food shopping to tip up. The scrunch of snow compressing underfoot will immediately take me back to that long ago winter.

Snow has a continuity of memory: we skip from snow times to snow times, free from the intervening years and months. 1976 will always be remembered as the Year of the Great Drought, but it had other extremes of weather as well, as it wore on, or at least in the North West: impossibly thick fog in November, forcing the abandonment of the meal I had planned to celebrate my 21st birthday, and thick snow the next month. Glyn and I were at Law College near Chester, driving in every day for six months, and I vividly recall giving a classmate a lift home to an isolated college, slowly forcing his car down snow-choked tracks, with the risk of being rendered immovable.

My firm’s Xmas Dinner in 1982, the last Xmas I was with that lot: running the ladies from my branch office hither and thither on flat, white, sometimes glassy snow, the car’s wheels spinning in place, but we made it to everywhere that we needed to get and I ended up running sweet Roshan home miles out of my way (straightfacedly lying that it was on my route), and getting the Xmas kiss I’d been hoping for (two in fact). Poor Roshan, ended by cancer less than three years later, such a loss.

Then there was the Friday lunchtime I nipped into Manchester for half an hour and took over two and a half hours to get back. I worked in Prestwich, Partner in name only, miserably loathing my job and counting off the days of my contract like any prisoner in Strangeways ticking down their sentence. The City Centre was fifteen minutes away by car, and several times a week, various combinations of us would race off for half an hour well away from the office.

On Fridays, I’d head for the comics shop, Space Odyssey’s branch in the old Corn Exchange, for my week’s titles. I set off in cold, overcast conditions, alone for once, picked up Starman 5, the only title out that week, and returned to the car, astonished to find that in the quarter hour I’d been in the basement shop, the snow had begun to come down hard. Cars were already queuing onto Bury New Road. Within minutes, we were at a virtual standstill.

I let the engine run. I read my comic, several times. We’d inch forward with paralysing slowness. There were no side-streets to turn into, no alternate approaches to try, and this was before I had a mobile phone to alert the office where I was. Though I’m pretty sure they’d guessed.

It was unbelievable how rapidly this had happened. When I did get the chance to turn off, try to circle round, I found it fruitless. Roads were thick-packed, traffic not even fast enough to be crawling. It took me over ninety minutes to find a call box and ring in, and another half hour plus on top to get close enough to Sedgley Park to park and walk. Had I not had my briefcase in the office, with things I wanted, and this Friday, I’d have just gone home instead. And once I did make it, I collected my things, turned round and left, straight into conditions that were easing sufficiently that I got home in less than twice as long as I normally would.

The Lake District looks brilliant in snow, not that I’ve seen it so that often, and I’ve walked in it even less. One holiday, at an Easter of a late snow year, tramping to the top of Lord’s Seat from the Aiken Beck plantations, then coming within a hundred foot of the summit of Pavey Ark, via the North Rake, before demonstrating good sense and turning back. Snow and fellwalking and me don’t realy mix.

Snow times share the same continuity. I’m going to be sure to carry plenty to keep me occupied on busses that may be as slow moving as the Starman 5 day (and good grief, that was twenty years ago now!). Once more into the scrunch, dear friends, once more into childhood and the memories that wallow.

A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 1


A long, long time ago, I can still remember…
This begins with not remembering, not remembering something I used to know, that I’d held in mind for four decades and which, I suddenly found, had slipped out of my mind.
But this is the Internet Age. Whatever you want to know, whatever you need to remember, just go on-line: the information is out there, somewhere.
Except that it wasn’t. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to be reminded of, was something sufficiently obscure that, as yet, no enthusiast with access to the Web had yet seen to post details. Even though a person very famous in his field was involved, directly, no accounts of his career, of his achievements, made more than the most fleeting of mentions of this topic.
But that’s the thing about the Internet: all the information is there because someone with enough passion and eagerness has chosen to upload it. Part of this story is that someone turning out to be me.

Given my general left-soft-liberal political leanings, I imagine that you’d be surprised to learn that I practically grew up on the Daily Express. My parents had the Sunday Express delivered each weekend, and my grandparents in Droylsden (where we went for Saturday dinner, week-in, week-out) took the Daily. Not that I actually read the paper, as such in those days. Once I became interested in football, and cricket, I’d start to read the Sports pages. But in the Sixties, when I was a kid, the Express interested me only for its cartoon strips.
Not Rupert the Bear, unless perhaps when I was very young, too young to remember. And certainly not the interminable Gambols by Barry Appleby, which ran on the back page in a solus.  But in the Sixties, the Express had a cartoon page that was the envy of Fleet Street, featuring Gun Law by Harry Bishop, the strip version of the TV Western, Gunsmoke, Sydney Jordan’s classic Jeff Hawke at its peak, as written by Willie Patterson, and James Bond, adapted by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak. What a line-up! There wasn’t a paper in the UK that coud better that combination!
So each week at Droylsden, I would gather together a week’s papers and catch up on the stories in each of these three strips.
This line-up ran throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, and was only broken when Jeff Hawke ceased in 1974. It was the beginning of the end of the great daily adventure strips, and both Gun Law and James Bond would themselves be cancelled, in quick succession, in late 1976. By Xmas of that year, the Express’s cartoon section would consist entirely of humour strips. The first strip to make this breakthrough was Spare Ribs.

Spare Ribs was a gentle, office based daily humour strip, set in a London Department Store and centring upon the daily life of four young secretaries. It was written by Frank Dickens, who was already famous for his Bristow office-based strip in the London Evening Standard, which has since gone on to be the longest running UK strip produced by a single creator, and was drawn by Don Roberts.
I don’t remember much about the strip from the days it was running. I liked it, and enough to have decided that I would like to have kept it, clipping it out each week. But I’d decided that too late for the first few weeks, and as I couldn’t have a complete selection, I decided to wait, and buy the strip when it was complied in book form.
That intention demonstrates not only a serious liking for the strip, but an optimism that not so much bordered on naiveté as shared an Open Border Pact with it. This was the mid-Seventies, and the number of British newspaper strips being collected could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Daily Mail‘s Fred Bassett, The Perishers from the Daily Mirror and the terminally unfunny Gambols appeared regularly. But if the Express had never thought, in all those years, to capitalise upon its big three adventure strips, what likelihood was there that Spare Ribs would be thus honoured when it had run for long enough?
Sadly, that never became an issue: one weekend at Droylsden, I collated the papers and was shocked to find that, without warning or explanation, Spare Ribs was gone. In its place was tEMpS, a humour strip on a similar basis, but this time written and drawn by Dickens, and frankly it was awful. All the wit of Spare Ribs, all the elegance of Roberts’ drawings, the easy, written humour were sacrificed to accommodate Dickens’ primitive cartoons of short, round, wholly unrealistic figures, with very little room for dialogue.
Thankfully, the previous week’s papers had not yet been thrown out, and I was able to clip and keep the last week of continuity. A pitifully small representation, but all I was ever going to see of a strip I’d really enjoyed, and that deserved a far longer run than it received: not even a full year.

I kept those half dozen strips, taking them out at intervals to read through that last, representative week. I still have them, somewhere, but that’s where this story begins. Spare Ribs was, as I said, about four young women, secretaries all, and I remembered their names and characteristics long after the strip had faded into oblivion. Until, a few months ago, I realised that I had not looked at that handful of clippings in several years, that whilst I certainly wouldn’t have thrown them out, I had no idea where to find them, even in my pokey little flat and, worse of all, I couldn’t remember the names of the two principal girls of the strip.
So I turned to the Internet, and Google. A search against Spare Ribs produced nothing in relation to the strip, not even when paired with Dickens and/or Roberts’ names. Dickens is obviously famous, and has an official site as well as other sites referring to his work, but Spare Ribs is not even mentioned on any of these. A search against Roberts turned up a short biography of him attached to the sale of some original art, which mentions his collaboration with Dickens on Spare Ribs as if it were well-known. But nothing and no-one, as I pointed out above, could give me any information about the series, and it certainly couldn’t fill that gap in my head as to the names of the two principals. There were four girls: the two ‘junior’ stars were Maisie and Kelly, but who were the other girls?

If you can’t find it on the Internet, you have to go back to more basic forms of searching. In the past, researching background elements for novels set in past years, I had spent time at Manchester’s Central Reference Library, poring over microfilm copies of old newspapers. Central Ref had been closed for refurbishment for years, but now it was newly unveiled. Spare Ribs had run in the Daily Express: how else to find out about it than to go and read the Daily Express?
This was not as simple as it sounded. The old Central Ref had metal cabinets all round the Reference Library: if you could find a free microfilm viewer, the microfilms were there to be unspooled and read. Now, though, it was necessary to book in advance, by at least one full working day, and specify what you wanted to read so that it could be brought in from off-site in readiness. The second problem was that I didn’t know exactly when the strip had run. Less than a year, certainly, and from one year into another, of that I was confident, but of which two years I was far from sure. In the old Central Ref, it would have been simplicity itself to grab single reels from enough Decembers until I tracked the series down, and then back-calculate to find an approximate start date, based on the strip numbering. Instead, I had to ask for the December microfilms for four years – 1974 to 1977 inclusive – in the hope of finding which one was relevant.
I knew it couldn’t have been as late as 1978, when I was living in Nottingham and not regularly spending Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, and I doubted it would be as early as 1974, but included that year because it would have been frustrating to have to make a second visit just to date the series if my memory was that far out. However, I found the strip at my third attempt, in December 1976, giving me a running time of 1976/7.
What then? I could use the strip numbering to make a rough calculation as to when Spare Ribs had started, though getting to grips with the strip from its beginning would have to be a matter for my next visit. I hadn’t thought much further than the dating exercise but the afternoon was young yet, so why not take the opportunity to read the strip for the first time in nearly forty years. And answer the most important question of them all. Would I still find it funny?

Consider the circumstances. When Spare Ribs had originally run, I was twenty, turning twenty-one, at Law College cramming for my Solicitors’ Part II Final Exams, unaware that I was about to start almost a full year of unemployment as I struggled to get the necessary Articles of Clerkship that would enable me to qualify. I’d spent three years at University, but whilst living at home, depriving myself of the social benefits of the process. I was young and naive and I liked my entertainment light and simple.
And here I was, looking at the back-end of my fifties from a closer range than I felt comfortable, after a series of reverses that had thrown my life off the course of many years. I was many times more cynical than my young self had been, prey to depression, my tastes jaded by over-exposure to things light and simple.
Other than those half dozen clipped strips, I had not looked at Spare Ribs in all that time. I was only too aware that memory might be lending a golden glow that made the cartoon something more than it had been, that the humour might have evaporated along with my naïve young self, that it might well be too much a product of its times to be funny in these later days. Was I expecting too much? Would this be nothing but a deflating experience?
Actually, no. Debbie (Debbie! Of course!) was interested in the new Xmas temp but unable to tell if he was tall, dark and handsome, given that he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit and beard. Her colleague (no, she wasn’t named in any of the five weeks continuity I had available, but her name was Suzi) was gently mocking of Debbie’s eagerness/desperation towards her non-existent relationships, and I was smiling, and giggling again (or as much as one can giggle when in a serious Research Room at a serious Library).
It had held up. I was going to enjoy these re-readings.

It was odd to come in in the middle, but I dutifully compiled notes about the strips I had before me, taking me up to New Year’s Eve 1976. From there, I back-calculated to establish the start of the strip. Unfortunately, I calculated wrong, working on a basis on five strips a week when there were actually six (Monday to Saturday). At least it meant I have a good look at what lead in to Spare Ribs‘ debut, with as little warning or explanation as its eventual demise.
Two further sessions enabled me to catch up to the December strips, and thereafter I proceeded in batches of a month at a time, intending to keep the process going as long as possible. This worked well until the very end of my fifth session: I was examining the reels for 7 February to 6 March 1977 and was enjoying myself until the very last strip of this batch, Saturday 5 March, stopped me in my tracks.
I recognised it instantly. Each image, each line. It was the beginning of that final week, those clipped strips that are still somewhere here. I don’t know which was worse: that the end had come so soon, or that I would still need to make another trip for a single week of papers.

I enjoyed re-discovering Spare Ribs after all that time, but the research was a time-consuming process, especially when fitting it around my shifts. Visit Central Ref alone means the best part of two hours travel by bus and tram, and though the Library itself has been impressively refurbished, they’re still relying on the old microfilm viewers. These are perfectly usable, but the controls that are supposed to scroll the reels up and down don’t work properly, making it easier – and faster – to wind things by hand. Especially when you get a reel that’s been wound on wrong way round, so the papers are ordered backwards.
As for the microfilms, these are designed to be comprehensive records of each publication, meaning that there are multiple versions for each date: first, second, third and later editions, the variations in the Scottish Daily Express and the Irish: multiple pages to wade through, and quite often the cartoon page appears two or three times over before you can move on to the next day’s edition.
Worst of all, these microfilms have been shot as negatives: I have read the entire run of Spare Ribs in white on black, twisting my eyeballs to try to see Don Roberts’ graceful, indeed elegant art as it was meant to be seen, without ever really succeeding.

And then I found them. It was an accident, in both senses of the word: in tidying a bookcase, I knocked a stack of Doonesbury strips to the floor, and had to re-collect and re-order these. And then I realised: that was where I’d stored my precious handful of Spare Ribs strips. And sure enough, I found them. In black and white, not white and black, and all the better for it, for I can see more clearly how skillful Roberts was with expressions, using minimal lines and the angle of a head to turn cartoon figures into living beings.
Had I been thinking more clearly, would I have gone into such research if I had been able to satisfy my curiosity over Debbie and Suzi’s names? Probably not. But the oversight proved to be to my advantage, in taking me back to the whole strip and reminding me of the fun it represented.
Stand by to share in that knowledge, if you are curious.

It’s that time again – a spot of self-congratulation


As regular readers of this blog will already know, there is one self-indulgent ritual I perform, at a certain interval. By referring to ‘self-indulgence’, I mean that this is not a blog about myself and my life, but instead about my opinions and reactions to things that amuse, entertain and interest me. Of course, blogs are wholly self-indulgent things in the first place: why should you be even remotely interested in anything I have to say?

But the evidence is that people do, on a daily basis, for which I am forever grateful. And I keep pumping out blogposts. And every now and then we pass my personal counter for a landmark which, in keeping with my love of cricket, is ‘Nelson’: 111.

So this is this blog’s Septuple Nelson post, my 777th since first venturing my tentative opinions in April 2011.

I shall do this again in another 111 posts.

Sunday on the Dodds


Great Dodd – Sunday stroll

Height in a fell is not always what it’s cracked up to be. For every additional foot above sea level that a summit boasts, there’s an assumption that the task of getting there becomes more demanding, requires greater effort, and will be proportionately more satisfying. That’s what you get with Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Bowfell, Blencathra, to name a few. But it’s not a guarantee. Great Dodd, and the Dodds range north of Sticks Pass, may include one of the twenty highest  Wainwrights, but their ascent is nothing more than a Sunday stroll.
I was running out of Wainwrights, happily, thanks to the greater freedom I enjoyed with my Golf. A 1600cc engine made the trip to the Lakes for a day’s walking consummately easy, and on a sunny weekend day, I could be into my boots and setting off into the fells earlier than when I was actually staying in Cumbria.
The Dodds were familiar figures on the edge of sight, great grassy slopes looming above the northern end of the road to Keswick, forming the eastern border of the Vale of St John. Unlike the Helvellyn range to the south, the Dodds group turned a rockier face to the west, albeit only in the form of rock that rises to about 1,600′, above which there is nothing but swelling grass slopes.
The easiest access to the Dodds is via Sticks Pass, the high level crossing between Thirlmere and Glenridding that’s second only to Esk Hause in height, but which is far more frequented as I’ve always been led to believe. As a Pass, that is, crossing from side to side of the range: Esk Hause is so much more popular as a platform to reach the highest mountains than as a crossing from Eskdale to Borrowdale. Given my family history with Passes, it was a given that I would ascend this way.
It seemed very strange to be donning my boots at Stanah. I associate the Thirlmere valley, and its northern offshoots, with rainy-Friday expeditions to Keswick, and with my midweek transfer of base from South to North Lakeland, or vice versa. This valley was for transit, not stopping. I have only ever done three walks from here.
Truth to tell, I remember almost nothing of the ascent. It begins at Stanah and, above the intake walls, follows the line of Stanah Gill zigzagging steeply until above the rocky outposts, when it breaks south, across the western ridge of Stybarrow Dodd. The gradient is easier, the walking untroubled, the direct route up the ridge unappealing, and it’s only a matter of time before you reach the broad col of Sticks Pass.
Even the water race was not the surging thing Wainwright seemed to imply, but a dead-still metal channel, crossed in a step.
The sticks that lent the Pass its name are long gone but, in the absence of deep snow cover, they are no longer necessary. Having taken so long to get to the top of Sticks Pass, it was somewhat ironic that I should have been back less than a month later, ascending this time from Patterdale, as part of the Helvellyn range walk I call the Outer Circle.
Stybarrow Dodd lies due north of the Pass. A track, looking tedious but instead surprisingly easy, leads directly to the official cairn, though the highest ground is another hundred yards uphill.
All walks change once you reach the tops. The hardest work is done, you are elevated, in spirit as well as body. There’s a sense of release, a sense that for so long as you remain up here, you are in another world, one in which the demands of life below are suspended whilst you enjoy the freedom and openness of this other existence.
The Dodds range consists of four summits, though I was only concerned with three today. Great Dodd, the highest point, lay directly north, separated from Stybarrow by the deep cut of Deep Dale, marching eastwards, visible only as a high-sided, grass-lined declivity. But the next Dodd was Watson’s Dodd, lying well west of the direct line of the ridge, overlooking St John’s.
I already knew of its peculiar geography from thirty years of reading Wainwrights. Watson’s Dodd has a front to St John’s, but no back. Away from the valley, twin wings sweep back, forming ridges that rise to Stybarrow and Great Dodd. Long paths sweep effortlessly along these ridges, a flying ‘V’ that flanks a valley that clearly divides the two bigger Dodds. From Stybarrow Dodd’s top, you look at the non-existent back of Watson, like looking behind the Magician’s mirror.
Chris Jesty reports a certain amount of confusion at the end of the paths that lead to and from Watson’s Dodd, but a the time there was nothing to it: just a straightforward walk, veering west, along a wide, level wing, to the summit at the apex, then back again, with little reason to stop, along the other wing, aiming for Great Dodd.
Once again, the path is grassy and looks tedious, but is easy underfoot. As with Stybarrow, there was an official cairn, with a higher point beyond.
All told, though I didn’t have my eye on my watch at the time, I had collected my three summits in a ridiculously short space of time, something between half an hour and an hour. But Great Dodd was above 2,800 feet: to be able to collect so high a fell with so little effort seemed fundamentally wrong. I didn’t usually try to climb fells of that height on a Sunday expedition, when I needed to be on my way home soon after 4.00pm to avoid getting caught up in the tailbacks that could run for ten miles o the way to the junction with the Blackpool Motorway and the trippers pouring home and a weekend’s fun. But height was irrelevant: the Dodds were Sunday afternoon fare.
I could, of course, carry on and collect the other fell in the range, the outlier Clough Head. The whole of the way was clear to see from Great Dodd’s summit: a broad-backed grass ridge, free from complications, free of interest save for the out-of-place rock outcrop of Calfhow Pike, halfway there. A mere stroll.
But a two mile stroll there was also a two-mile stroll back. I hated retracing my steps for more than the most unavoidable of brief distances, and besides there was the seven hundred foot plus climb back up to Great Dodd that, that far into the day, certainly would be tedious, no matter how easy. Of course, there was no real need to regain that lost height: I could contour levelly across the flank of Great Dodd, join my intended route of descent, down the western ‘ridge’. But two miles: and two back: not on, not for me.
A wise choice: Clough Head proved to be more enjoyable as a solo expedition, a stretch-the-legs beginning to a week away than any such ridge route could have been.
So I began to walk west and down, down pathless, thick grass, gradually steepening as I got below the 1,600′ line. Mill Gill lay to my left, but I didn’t seek out its line, which proved to be a mistake. As indicated in The Eastern Fells, I planned to cross the Gill below the ravine and above its steep rock-lined fall. I could pick up a path crossing behind the Castle Rock of Triermain, descend to the road at Legburthwaite.
Instead I missed it. I came down to the intake wall, facing a sign saying that shooting may be going on behind the wall. I turned right, south, hoping to make my way along the wall, bt was soon stopped in my tracks by Mill Gill, impossible to drop down to and cross.
In an ignominious manner, I retreated north, along the wall for about a quarter mile. There was no sound of shooting, and I had lost enough height to be able to see the road across the pastures beyond the wall. There was a gate visible, so I shinned over the wall, made a bee-line for the gate, and let myself out into legitimacy before anyone could see me.
For once, the road walk to the car was fairly pleasant.

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance


It was a nothing Tuesday at work, a morning without distinction, and I took it into my head to walk over to the Virgin Megastore on Market Street at lunchtime and buy a CD. It was a time when whims like that could be indulged, if I didn’t get them too often. It was 1985, and I was still 29.
Having decided to buy a CD, as you do, the next step was to decide which particular CD I would light upon. I was still getting the NME every week, as I had done since 1972, and listening to John Peel’s still-extant evening show, as I had since 1978 when I was first consumed by most things punk, so I was aware of the gathering enthusiasm about this Scottish band called The Jesus and Mary Chain, and had heard a couple of interesting sounding tracks. Their debut album was out that week, or so I thought. That would make an interesting choice.
On the other hand, I had not long since taped Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution” off Peely, and was in the habit of playing it several times over, as loud as I could bear through my comfortably padded headphones, and generally having a good time to it. I was enthusiastic about hearing some more.
Of course, Peely had played Pere Ubu extensively, back in 1978, when he was on five nights a week, and I was living in Nottingham, but I’d never been able to get my head around their ‘fractured’ music, not then. Now I was taken by the thought of picking up their classic debut album, The Modern Dance.
Which to choose? I was still turning the options over in the back of my mind, whilst I got on with my work, trying to decide which I was most interested in. And then it hit me. This was more than a choice between two CDs, but instead a symbolic moment: a life-changing decision.
That sounds ridiculously self-important, not to mention delusional, but my moment of insight was completely true. The Jesus and Mary Chain were the future: if I chose them, I was signalling to myself that, like John Peel and like the audience that I had taken myself to be part of, the key to music was what was new. I would be reaffirming that I was still eager for new experiences, new sounds, new bands who did not sound like those who had gone before.
To choose Pere Ubu was to look backwards, to say that I was no longer driven by the impulse to hear what came next, but that I was ready to broaden and deepen my tastes, to look back at what I had missed in passing. To stop chasing what might happen, but to choose my own interest in delving amongst those things that were already there.
It was a monumental choice to make.
And which CD did I buy? In fact, it was The Cocteau Twins’ Treasure: the Mary Chain CD hadn’t been released yet and the Ubu was deleted. I never did buy the Mary Chain CD, though I taped it once and played it a couple of times. I did get The Modern Dance, when it was reissued in a Limited Edition of 1,000 copies, and I have it still, along with virtually all Ubu’s recorded career.
And that was how I chose in the end: frustrated by unavailability, but deciding that now was the time I wanted to get off the bandwagon and listen around, instead of only ahead.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that my ‘backwards’ movement was to listen to one of the most determinedly original and experimental bands to have existed for nearly forty years. I might have been bent on a look back eight years in time, but in many respects, The Modern Dance is still out there, ahead of the game, all these many years later.
The album starts with a high-pitched synthesizer whine, overlaid with an electronic pinging, over which, after a couple of ambient notes, a guitar riff leads into the explosive noise of “Non-Alignment Pact”. It’s a fairly straight song in itself, underpinned by a solid melody and a choral chant of the title, built on the punky sound of guitars and a busy, solid drum-line, but from the outset it establishes three things that are going to mark out Ubu from everybody else around them.
The first is Allen Ravenstine’s synths. Remember that this album was recorded in 1978, when synthesizers were no more than a decade old, and had been primarily the province of progressive groups and novelty pop bands – Chicory Tip, anyone? Electronic music was simply that: orthodox music performed on electronic equipment.
Ravenstine didn’t play that way. He and Ubu were into the synthesizer as sound, as possibility, as industrial noise and urban landscape, and “Non-Alignment Pact” gives full reign to that. The band play it relatively straight as a platform for Ravenstine to exploit the pure sound, dissonant, unexpected, siren-like in part, of the synthesizer, working to disturb and create an unexpected atmosphere.
The second is David Thomas’s voice. Ubu members have come and gone but the massive Thomas is the only ever-present, the defining sound of Pere Ubu. He gives notice that he’s not going to sing melodies, not going to follow tunes. He sings high, he sings low, he is gruff and hoarse, he is the steel and brick of the city made flesh, cacophony in voice, always aware, never controlled.
And as the band’s lyricist, he is a point of view, a way of seeing that does not and will not look at things from outside, and see them as they seem. “Non-Alignment Pact” is a love song, little though it sounds in the hands of the rampaging Ubu. Thomas wants to make a deal with his girl, ‘get it signed by the heads of state’, ‘be recognised around the world’, but it’s not any ‘I love you’, it’s a ‘non-alignment pact’, co-operation, co-habitation, but not conjoining.
As the song develops into its second verse, we learn that it’s not necessarily a real girl Thomas is demanding terms from. The girl doesn’t have one name, she has thousands: ‘Peggy Carrie Ann and Betty Jean/Jill Joan Jan and Sue/Alice Cindy Barbara Ann’. The stars are on fire, the world’s in flames, the girl is rock’n’roll music and Thomas is declaring Pere Ubu in: but on their own terms. Not to be part of, but not to be hostile. The game is afoot.
It’s followed by the album’s title track, a re-make of the track “Untitled” from the earlier Datapanik in the Year Zero EP. Ravenstine provides a more conventional backing this time, electric piano under a shuffling beat, Thomas sings about a boy: not himself, someone who’s out to keep up but unable to do so. ‘Our poor boy’ is heading into town but the girl at the show leaves early. ‘He’ll never get/The Modern Dance’.
And the song drops into near silence, a sullen humming, a city soundscape crossed only by a single guitar, occasionally strumming.
Back with the drums, the poor boy is trying harder, ‘Watch real close/Look real fast/He’s in touch/It’ll never last’. Thomas sings: a counterpart vocal caps each line with a chant of ‘Madra, Madra’. The crowd scene comes up but this time Ravenstine follows it with his sonic synth, amplifying and distorting the crowd, as the band start to heave and rock beneath him, bursting out in one final denial. The Modern Dance is something too big to be understood. Only Ubu knows the secret.
“Laughing” begins with a slow, bass-ridden, almost chugging beat, downtone. Ravenstine and guitarist Scott Krauss play over it and the song runs for two whole minutes before Thomas explodes into action, howling the song into life. ‘We can live in the empty spaces of this life’, he declares. ‘If the Devil comes/we’ll shoot him with a gun!’. Then it slows against, hollow and empty, like the life that Thomas and his girl are denying, youth in its ignorant optimism. A snarl and another verse of defiance, but that’s the modern dance for you. In the face of oblivion.
Unlikely as it all seems, this album is about love, love in the city, love in the darkness against the machines that can roll over and tear everything apart at any moment. “Streetwaves” is all attack from its opening moment, Thomas riding ‘a street wave by her side’ but it’s only a moment before he’s chanting ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’.
We lapse against into quiescence, the synthesizer wind howling down empty streets, until the band attempt to reincarnate the world, but the electricity sparks and starks and again it’s ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’ and the ending is sudden.
And suddenly we get the original side closer, side 1, track 5, the biggest, booming, most uplifting song, a real emotional uplift. And it’s called “Chinese Radiation”. It starts real quiet and slow, a guitar picking out an extended riff, Ravenstine doodling in sound. Even Thomas is subdued when he begins to sing. We’ve somehow found ourselves in China, Red China. ‘He’ll be the red guard/she’ll be the new world/he’ll wear his grey cap/she’ll wave her red book’.
Then it stops, and it explodes into the biggest sound on the album. The crowds cheer, the roof is raised, Thomas sings excitedly, finding love and belief even in such unpropitious circumstances, but he and Ubu struggle to make themselves heard under the ecstacy of the crowd that roars and soars. The rally is a hit. Until the slow, dignified end, as Ravenstine pays piano chords, Thomas repeats his early, establishing mantra, and we wonder if there really is anything to love in such times.
What used to be side 2 begins with one of Ubu’s unserious songs, “Life Stinks”. It’s a bunch of rhymes on the sound ‘ink’, howled out gleefully as the band hit fast forward, but there are still those fractures in which everything, rhythm and melody drops away and Ravenstine holds things together.
He’s all over the long intro to “Real World”, but by now we know that any world that is Real to Ubu is nothing we in our sheltered minds will recognise. But this is less a song that another, medium pace, easy-loping Ubu soundscape, built on a prominent bass riff, as Thomas hollers things that he sees, emblematic ideas ‘Out in the Real World/In Real Time’. In the end it’s all ‘Techniramic (sic) heartaches’.
None of which prepares us for the overt beauty that is “Over My Head”. As close as the album comes to a ballad, this slow, gentle, touching song is nearer to being spoken than sung by Thomas, with the band a long way away, guitar and synthesizer playing games of sweetness, with momentary surges that last a couple of seconds, sound tides reaching the beach. Thomas sings of the woman tucking him in at dawn, and how he prays not to sin again. Who she is, and what she sees is a mystery that is over his head and cannot be detected. Sim bayou.
But speaking of unprepared, the album takes a quantum leap to accommodate its penultimate track, “Sentimental Journey”. This is barely a song, more of a playlet, with words murmured not sang by Thomas. It’s a walk, around a house, an abandoned, empty house. At times the band are non-existant, at others they threaten to overwhelm with a collage of sounds that bear little relationship to one another. It’s another track to incorporate sound effects, but this is not the sound of crowds, but of small disturbances, bottles, close to the ear, being kicked, skittering, breaking at odd, unanticipated intervals. The bamd crescendos again, and again, seemingly oblivious to Thomas, drowning him out as he wanders from point to point.
It’s an extraordinary experience in breaking down what can be conceived as as music, and it’s best heard on headphones. At night. In the dark.
It’s such a devastating experience that the final track, conventional as it is in Ubu terms, comes almost as a disappointment. It’s a reassertion of normality, and just as the opening track was a metatextual claim to parity with music, “Humor Me” is an open plea for tolerance, and act of seeking forgiveness for what has come before. ‘It’s just a joke, Man!’ Thomas pleads: Humour me. But one eye is closed in something suspiciously like a wink, and behind that broad and spreading back you can tell that the fingers are crossed.
Of course it’s all a joke. But Pere Ubu aren’t letting on who the joke’s on.
An extraordinary album. Thirty seven years old and we’ve still not caught up.

Pursuing Christopher Priest – The Book on the Edge of Forever


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I omitted this work by Christopher Priest from my series last year, partly because it’s a polemical pamphlet as opposed to a novel, but mainly because I had misplaced it. It’s now come to light and, after reading it, I wanted to express a few thoughts about both the book and its subject.
The Book on the Edge of Forever was published in 1994 by Fantagraphics Books, known primarily as comics publishers in America. Though it’s entirely in prose, it was published in a square-bound comic book size, complete with a cover drawn by Drew Friedman, an artist known for intensely detailed, pointillistic art, depicting well-known personalities in a warts’n’all realist manner. In this form, it was an up-dating and expansion of Priest’s original essay, published in 1987 as The Last Deadloss Vision.
It’s a factual story about a book, a book that has never been published and a book that, despite being promised as recently as 2007, is about as likely to ever actually be published as I am to be invited to lead out Manchester United on Cup Final day. Though in a world where Twin Peaks is to return for a wrap-up series, perhaps we shouldn’t be so dogmatic.
The Last Deadloss Vision was a parody of SF’s most famous ‘missing’ book, The Last Dangerous Visions, which was imagined as long ago as 1971 as the third in a trilogy of SF anthologies edited by the noted writer, editor, critic and campaigner Harlan Ellison. The sequence began with the original, influential Dangerous Visions, whose theme was the exhortation to the writers to write powerful, experimental, provocative stories on subjects that the SF field had, to that date, treated as taboo.
Dangerous Visions appeared in 1967, though I did not read it until 1978/9. It was as popular and influential as it was intended to be, and Ellison signed on to a sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions: bigger, louder, containing only writers who had not appeared in the first book, which duly appeared in 1971, though it had much less impact. I read it subsequent to the first collection, but found it far less impressive, less focused and certainly less transgressive.
Ellison’s introduction promised a third, final, master volume, The Last Dangerous Visions: even bigger, even bolder, a kind of uber-collection showing definitively what and where SF was. It would again feature only writers who had not previously appeared in either collection and would be a landmark. It would come out in 1972.
When Priest wrote The Last Deadloss Vision, the collection was already fifteen years overdue. By the time the updated essay appeared as The Book on the Edge of Forever (parodying the title of Ellison’s controversial and famous Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever), the collection was twenty-two years overdue. When Ellison last referred to wanting to get the book published, in 2007, the time had stretched to thirty-five years. Eight more have gone by.
Priest’s purpose in writing his essay was, as he openly stated, to produce a polemic. His intention was to produce a coldly factual account, correctly and accurately researched, that would nevertheless condemn Ellison for not just the failure to produce this work, but for the miasma he has constantly raised about the project and it’s state of health, the ever-changing stories and the constant lies told about the book being ready, having gone to the publisher, being scheduled to be published.
And Priest had some personal experience, having been solicited by Ellison in pretty OTT terms to produce one special story to be included. This happened in 1974, after several announcements about the contents being locked-down. Priest, after some badgering, set aside a novel to write and submit a story: after four months he instructed his agent to retrieve it. He may or may not have been the first writer to pull his story, but he was certainly the first to put it into print elsewhere. “An Infinite Summer” went on to become the title story of Priest’s second collection.
The essay is indeed cool and dispassionate, and Priest records that in the seven years since The Last Deadloss Vision, Ellison had never contradicted nor challenged the facts upon which Priest relied, though he had been extremely hostile ever since Priest withdrew his story.
The Book on the Edge of Forever makes two salient points based upon the factual information put forward at various times by Ellison. The first is that, given the physical scope of The Last Dangerous Visions, it is next to impossible to imagine the sheer size – and weight! – of a book that,  in 1994, Ellison estimated was equal in length to thirteen-and-a-half novels. Could it be economically possible to physically produce such a thing?
And the second is that these stories went back over twenty years then, and thirty-five now. What relevance can they have to the body and the present of SF? They weren’t published when they were reflective of the field, or ahead of it. We as readers, the SF world in general terms, have been denied the chance to absorb these stories, to be influenced in our thinking and our writing by what they would have been if they had come out then.
I only have to imagine what it would mean if Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quartet had been contractually bound into something like this: written 1981-4, still unseen. The effect on Wolfe’s career on having this central work suppressed, the books that catapulted him into the front rank never published.
And the size of The Book of the New Sun is only a fraction of the size of The Last Dangerous Visions. Who knows what writing has been lost to sight for three and a half decades? Who knows what will never be written because this body of work was never there to be read, to inspire and spark?
The Book on the Edge of Forever includes another list of writers, filtered from those announced to have contributed stories. Twenty-three writers who, in 1994, had died without seeing their stories in print. Twenty more years have gone by. Even more writers never saw their work in print.
The Book on the Edge of Forever has been out of print for years but can be found, albeit at enthusiastic prices. Even though it’s twenty years out of date, nothing has in essence changed vis-a-vis the non-appearance of The Last Dangerous Visions so the book’s not out-of-date as far as Priest’s examination is concerned, and the story is fascinating, even to non-SF fans.