Dan Dare: Rogue Planet

The first reprint

There isn’t a moment of pause between The Man from Nowhere and Rogue Planet. They merge, seamlessly, into one another, the change in story-title the only distinction. Rogue Planet is, however, the finer story. It is not a prelude but a conclusion, it is a major undertaking, dealing not only with the ending of a war between planets that has lasted for tens of millennia, but it is the overthrowing of slavery, the establishment/reinforcement of civilization. Taken all in all, and having regard to the continuing excellent art throughout this story, it’s possible to argue that Rogue Planet is the high point of the entire Dan Dare saga.
That’s not a universal position: more prominent Dan Dare fans and commentators than I, such as Alastair Crompton, author of Frank Hampson’s biography, holds writer Alan Stranks in a degree of contempt, for slowing the pace of Hampson’s stories down, but I cannot agree with him here. For Stranks, in this story, handles brilliantly the most serious weakness of the entire set-up, namely the Earth Cryptos expedition itself.
As I’d already mentioned, Earth really pushed the boat out on this aid mission to the Crypts, sending three men and a boy to hold off a planetary invasion. We know that they’ll succeed, but Stranks’ great gift is that he makes that outcome appear utterly plausible.
The action is non-stop: the Crypt ship has been shot down, its passengers and crew have escaped in individual rescue-torpedos and these come to ground on Cryptos, in the jungles of the Wilderness of Wex. At least, that is, seven do: the capsule containing Flamer Spry cannot be found. We don’t for one moment, believe that Flamer is dead. Frank Hampson is not going to kill his audience’s eye-level character, nor is Hulton – or any other publisher of boy’s comics in the mid-Fifties going to allow the death of a thirteen year old boy to happen. Over their dead bodies, so to speak. But Flamer is conspicuous by his absence, and Stranks/Hampson have the courage of their convictions to allow six full months to elapse before returning him to the story.
So that makes just three full-grown Earthmen to throw back the Phant Invasion. But Dan and Co have landed in the Wilderness – and Hampson’s depiction of Cryptos, with its alien flora, fauna and geography, is lush and gorgeous – and this means that they can operate as a guerilla force, unsuspected by their opponents.
There’s the beginning of the Invasion on the ground, guards and patrols in the woods, and nothing but compliant, passive Crypts. Which is where Stranks makes the single, most important point of the whole story. The Phants – facially modelled on the horse as Crypts are on the cow – are a warrior race, but they are not fighters. Once every 10,000 years, their forces invade a planet that has never raised a finger to stop them. Their soldiers are slaughterers, and nothing more. They simply don’t know how to cope with an enemy that fights back. Literally.
So, despite the smallness of their numbers, Dan, Dig and Lex are more than a match for any Phant patrols. Even Lero is moved to grapple with a Phant, preventing him from raising his weapon.
And in this early, exploratory stage of the plot, Stranks introduces what will prove to be the critical element that will allow this tiny band to change the history of the Rogue Planet. It’s a very simple thing: with Earth-supplies in very limited quantities, Lex O’Malley offers himself as a guinea-pig to test the Phantosian food-capsule, which sends him into a psychotic rage…
But the three Earthmen are far too few to take on the Phant camp, where Cryptosian slaves are being herded, for transport to Phantos. Dan swears a vow that he will rescue them all, but in the meantime, all he can do is to undertake a recce, in Phantosian uniform. Which goes badly, because of Stripey.
It’s an interesting question: why, having been so hard upon the inclusion of the fatuous dog, Sir William Tell, in The Red Moon Mystery/Marooned on Mercury, do I find it possible, even easy, to accept Digby’s new animal adoption, Stripey? What is the difference between the left over pooch on Mars and a docile, mammalian Cryptosian animal, with zebra-like stripes and an elephant’s trunk, and why isn’t the latter just as objectionable?
I don’t have a logical answer. There are significant differences between the two: the dog was just a stupid mutt with no idea of what was going on whilst Stripey is a cheerful, inquisitive and intelligent animal with a personality of his own, which helps a lot, and the much-improved art from the relatively crude early-period Hampson does much to establish the improbable little creature as an asset in his own right.

Stripey, with friend

However, it’s Stripey’s natural curiosity that proves to be Dan’s undoing, following him into the Phant encampment, only to be picked up by a Phant bully, who threatens to cut his trunk off. Dan jumps in, causing a commotion that draws the attention of the Phant High Command, Military Commanders Square, Circle and Triangle and Supreme Commander Gogol, a nine feet tall giant.
Despite a few judo tosses to establish who’s who when it comes to grappling, Dan is overwhelmed and taken back to Phantos for dismantling. You see, the Phants are not aware of any intelligent life beyond Los-system so the strange looking, aggressive creature is clearly some form of robot built by the Crypts to do their fighting for them, and as such has to go before the Mystic Orak – the root force behind Phant civilisation – so that he can be disassembled…
Digby’s first instinct is to rescue his Colonel, and it takes O’Malley pointing out that he might be ignoring Dare’s final orders to do so. But dutifully, he and Lex are lead, by Lero, to the centre of Crypt civilisation, across a planet that is, in all aspects, beautiful, a luxuriant land of incredible flora and fauna, all of it alien and yet all of it perfectly believable and natural. In many ways, this I think marks out Rogue Planet as Hampson’s artistic peak.
Dan, meanwhile, is taken (with the concealed Stripey) to Phantos which, in appropriately symbolic fashion, is a far plainer, far more barren world. Once he reaches Phantos, he is dragged before the figure that commands the whole of Phantos society, Orak, the mighty Robot-brain (It must be said that, whilst Stranks could pull together long, complex and enthralling stories, he was less than imaginative when it came to names – the sun Los, the Tengam drive, the great Kra that rescues Crypt civilisation: on that level Orak(le) is positively stunning).
By the time Dan is dragged before the uncomprehending Orak, genuinely a robot brain, but still the arbiter of Phant Society, he’s at last growing weak from lack of food, the team having been on restricted rations after losing their supplies when the Crypt ship was shot down. He’s left alone during Orak’s ‘Hour of Silence’, only to be rescued from the least likely quarter: Flamer Spry.
As I said above, Flamer’s been missing from the story for just over six months, but Stranks/Hampson have judged their moment perfect;y. In story terms it’s only been a matter of weeks, if as much as that. The shots that damaged Flamer’s escape capsule knocked it off course, causing him to land on Phantos instead, as indeed did the Crypt ship. Flamer’s managed not only to keep out of sight but also retrieve the rations from the ship, so Dan can recover his strength, awaiting Orak’s ‘Aqua-Test’, to be followed by… dismantling.
It’s a clever twist to have the Phants as vulnerable to water as we are to fire, but it requires a lot of scientific speculation to justify it, and when put into practice, it does give the story some problems. On a planet that’s as scientifically advanced as Phantos, it’s a little jarring to find that the ‘Aqua-Test’ involves tying Dan’s arms behind his back then lowering him into a countryside river.
Equally, neither Stranks nor Hampson seems comfortable about the implications. It’s one thing for the story to joke that Flamer has converted one of the weapons into something deadly dangerous to the Phants – a water pistol! – but when the time comes and Dan needs rescuing from Gogol, it is Stripey who intervenes to give Gogol a trunkful of water smack in the face, causing instant collapse. Gogol has obviously been killed before our very eyes, but neither Dan nor Flamer react to it, nor will they acknowledge what has happened. But Gogol is clearly dead: he has no further role in the story despite being supreme military commander, if anyone wants to argue the point.
Dan and Flamer’s next task is to steal Gogol’s ship to rejoin Lex and Dig on Cryptos, where, in accordance with orders, they have been designing a building military defences in the wake of seeing the Kra leave for its 1,000 year journey through space. This has unfortunate implications. Dan and Flamer have prisoners on board, Circle and Triangle (Square has been shot dead by Dan, resisting kidnap). Now, overflying the city of Chakra, in a Phant ship, they get shot down by one of Dig’s missiles, crash-landing in the bay and having their tables turned when Circle and Triangle grab the guns.
Never mind, Dig and Lex are boating out to rescue them. What follows, much as I love this story, is one of the most completely fat-headed scenes Frank Hampson and his team ever drew: Dan and Digby are captives. As Dig and Lex approach, they shout out that they are captives, that there are Phants on board controlling them, and to shear off. Digby and Lex have even seen that there’s a Phant on board, via binoculars. And they come sailing blithely on, deliberately dropping themselves in it. I despair, at times, I really do.
So the two Phants have all four Crypt ‘Robot-Things’ under guard. They may have to get through an entire nation of Crypts but their entire history demonstrates that they don’t even need two Phants to cow that many Crypts. They come ashore at Chakra, smug and secure, except for having been so close to water for so long. Circle takes his mask off, and Stripey promptly sprays him in the mug, killing him instantly, though again this is not acknowledged as such.
The creators are into their endgame now. Lex’s violent reaction to the Phant food-capsule earlier has given him a theory. Both types of food-capsule, the purple Phantosian and the yellow Cryptosian, have been analysed and found to consist of different nutrients. It’s possible that it is the diet that is the direct cause of Phant aggression and Crypt fear, so Lex has had the Crypt scientists knock up a batch of Crypt capsules in purple. They feed these to Triangle, and within 24 hours he is as docile and peaceful as any Crypt.
What remains is to switch the entire Phant food production to Crypt capsules, first for the invasion force on Crypt, then on Phantos itself. There are twists and turns and obstacles to be negotiated, not least of which is Triangle himself, so far converted to the cause of peace that he’s almost become a hippie who can’t help himself from trying to convert Phants to the cause before altering their diets.

From the colour rough to the finished page

At last though, the plan succeeds. Orak is exposed for what he is, an outmoded robot created by the cultish warrior-priests, the Kruels (Stranks: tsk, tsk), the Phants turn peaceful, the Kra is recalled and Lero sets off to commit suicide in space.
He’s relieved of this obligation, imposed by the mores of Crypt society, by Dan’s forgiveness of his most serious crime: he has lied to a friend. And it is a most serious lie, with massive consequences, one whose truth Dan keeps to himself until the team is en route home for Earth. I wonder when this idea was devised, and whether it was intended from the very beginning of The Man from Nowhere, when the scope of the whole story was taking shape, or whether it was a late inspiration, a bridge to the forthcoming story of what Dan and Co will find on Earth when they get back.
Because when they get back, they won’t have been gone for a few months only. Because Lero lied, because the Crypts haven’t conquered ‘faster-than-light’ propulsion. Because the ‘acceleration/deceleration’ chambers are no such thing, but instead they’re suspended animation chambers. When Dan and Co return to Earth, in the final panel of the final page, they will have been gone for ten years…
What awaits them is, of course, the third book of The Man from Nowhere Trilogy and we’ll come to that next time out. But before we leave Rogue Planet, I must yet again praise the art as, for me, the finest period in the strip’s history. It’s not just the detail, lush and brilliant as it is without ever once overriding the central image of each panel. It’s not just the skill and deftness with which Hampson composes first his pages, then his panels. It’s not just the invention that creates alien worlds, truly alien worlds, that glow with life, that look real, that look lived in, that make you want to climb inside the panels and go exploring yourself. But perhaps above all of this, it’s the colouring. Each page is a riot of colour, bright, harmonious, three-dimensional. Cryptos becomes that very real world. Hampson renders his heroes in contrasting colours that identify them wherever they are: Dan in his Spacefleet green uniform, Flamer in Astral blue. Lex, with his Naval Cap and his mariner’s rollneck thick white jersey, and Digby, caught in civvies, a red and yellow check shirt and white beach shorts.
Much of this has to do with Hampson reaching his artistic maturity. But much is also due to the presence of Don Harley, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and also to a tightly organised, largely settled studio that, though still working hard, was not pulling the same kind of twenty-four hour grind of old. The studio was working, and Hampson was able to rely upon them. He had a writer he could trust, who enabled him to devote more time to his art, and more time to Dan Dare’s future, both on and off the page.
So much so that his mind started to turn towards not drawing Dan Dare…


Uncompleted Stories: Anonymous TV Play 1972

Dawn Addams

I’ve still one more comics series to cover in my Uncompleted Stories strand, but in the meantime the random access butterfly of memory has alighted upon a TV recollection that, in a back-handed way, falls into this category.

I’m talking about the kind of television programme that disappeared from our screens decades ago, the hour-long one-off TV play. Usually, when TV plays of this ilk come up, the mind turns to the BBC and its various Play for Today strands, but ITV contributed this particular effort.

I’m not sure exactly when it was broadcast: my memory suggests that it was probably 1972, but it could have been a year either way. I have no recollection of it’s title nor, with one exception, any of its cast. But I do recall that it was broadcast at 9.00pm.

This is significant. 9.00pm then, as now, was the watershed. For most of the Sixties it had been my bedtime, and whilst I was old enough now to be allowed to stay up until 10.00pm, it was still the witching hour as far as my ten-year-old sister was concerned.

The subject of the play was, to put it simply, Sex, a subject about which I was, simultaneously, highly interested and horribly ignorant (the story of my life, basically). My attention had been drawn to this play at the weekend, when the Week Ahead reviewer was gushing about it, or at least about its star, Dawn Addams, doing a ‘reverse-strip’. Ms Addams was a popular glamour girl in the Sixties, and would have been 42 at the time the play was broadcast, though she seems to be all but completely forgotten today.

Under normal circumstances, there would have been no chance of watching the play at all. But after Dad had died, his elder brother had made a practice of calling round one night in the week, to check we were all well, and the play was being shown on the night of his visit. He and my mother would be sat in the breakfast room, talking and smoking, leaving the television free for someone who was quiet and unobtrusive and who shut the lounge door behind him.

It turned out that Dawn Addams wasn’t the star of the play, and that her ‘reverse-strip’ was simply her putting her clothes back on again (having already donned bra, knickers and black slip – shameless hussy). The reason for this was not because it was the dawning of the day, but because she had not long since emerged from the bed of the play’s central character, a middle-aged businessman, with a middle-aged wife, to whom Ms Addams was both next-door neighbour and mistress.

Nothing special lay behind the affair, though the play son established that the businessman’s wife was getting a bit frumpy, and conscious of it. I recall one scene of him staring at her fixedly, which she misinterpreted as him looking at her neck: this sent her anxiously to the mirror, checking it for sagginess, whilst pointing out that this was more or less to be expected.

The businessman was screwing Addams’ character in a flat he owned, whilst covering up the time the affair was occupying by claiming to be on a health kick, that involved long swimming sessions (necessitating quick dips after assignations in order to maintain that essential faintly chlorine smell about the body, instead of his mistress’s no doubt sluttish perfume).

But something he said or did – maybe a lack of chlorine at the wrong time? – aroused the wife’s suspicion and she started asking awkward questions.

Mr Businessman got a bit nervy, especially after Wifey found out about the flat, and decided to bring in two of his underlings to blow an almighty smokescreen across Wifey’s path. He engineered her discovering the time of his next assignation, but instead of her leaping out and finding him in a compromising position with Dawn Addams, he intended her to discover his assistant and his secretary, both in their early twenties, in a compromising position (what they think about being in a compromising position with each other in the first place was not explored in any depth, though there was, IIRC, a hint that they were wearing compromising positions out off their own bat already).

So the scene was set for Wifey to be humiliatingly embarrassed. Out she leaps. The pretty, long–haired blonde secretary is indeed compromised, her zip-fronted dress unzipped to the waist, though not showing anything more that the material of her bra between her delightfully perky breasts). ‘Ooooh,’, she squeals in a totally wooden and unconvincing manner (I do not now recall whether that was good or bad acting on her part), and exits the room at a rate of knots, leaving embarrassed Young Assistant behind to explain to Wifey that her suspicions are indeed unfounded, that Mr Businessman uses this flat for work but, being kind, and of a generous heart, has lent it to Assistant and Secretary to enable them to shag each other’s brains out.

That there may be flaws in this scenario, such as why this pair should be given the afternoon of a working day off to roger one another, naturally goes by flustered Wifey. She’s made a fool of herself, and she’s shown herself up as a frustrated old bitch untrusting wife in front of these two young people. It’s awful. It’s also dreadfully misogynist, but then again we are talking 1972.

But. We have now arrived at the point where the writer throws in the twist that nobody’s been expecting. Wifey’s horribly embarrassed, and also ashamed, but she’s also conscious of one other thing of which she’s guilty. Here’s this perfectly nice, handsome, virile young man and she’s responsible for denying him his expected afternoon between the sheets. It’s up to her to make that up to him – despite her neck – so, where Dawn Addams started off the play by putting on her clothes, this much less famous actress starts taking off hers.

But. There’s another twist, only this one isn’t on the screen. I mentioned before that my sister’s bed-time was 9.00pm. However, like me, she had been unobtrusive and unnoticed and had quietly curled up in a corner of the lounge and was watching the play with me. I could, and probably should have pointed out her bed-time and, when this got the expected refusal, shopped her to our mother, but I was anxious not to draw attention to myself for the duration of the programme. And now she was curled up watching what  was clearly going to end up being sex, and in pretty short order.

What else could I do? I was big brother. I had duties. Despite my urgent desire to see what happened (was a bit of genuine nudity, or at least an exposed bosom going to appear before my wondering eyes?), I had to get up, switch off the TV and tell Mam that she was watching something she shouldn’t be watching, thus telegraphing that I was watching something I shouldn’t be watching (despite being six and a half years older than my sister, our mother drew little or no distinction between us for the purpose of unsuitable programmes).

So she went to bed, and I went to bed, and the programme wound on to its end without me there to see what the hell happened? It wasn’t reviewed and it certainly wasn’t repeated, and thus it has remained forever Uncompleted in my eyes.

Of course I speculated. Given the nature of the twist, it wouldn’t have made any sense on a comic front for Wifey and embarrassed assistant not to have actually got it together, and for him to find the experience unexpectedly enjoyable, leading to the situation where both husband and wife are having affairs. And if I were in charge of writing the ending, a frustrated and jealous husband would have lost his relationship with Dawn Addams, who had more or less disappeared from the story by this point, leaving his sexually revitalised wife having her bell rung.

One thing that was significant about this play was that it was the first time I recall a story playing with the idea of older women having sex with younger men. This was such an unusual thought in mainstream TV in the early Seventies that it wouldn’t surprise me if the story might have ended with the young man being so embarrassed at being in bed with an older woman that it had ended horribly, but that kind of ending would be massively out of step with the feel of the play that I can remember.

June Ritchie

Later in the Seventies, there was another ITV play, this time on a Sunday night, this time watched in its entirety by the three of us, which entered into that similar territory. This also was promoted on the strength of its leading actress, in this case June Ritchie, making a return to acting after several years out of the business, and gracing us with a bath scene at the outset (unfortunately, Ms Ritchie being a more than splendid sight in her early forties, opted for the traditional TV bath, heaped with opaque suds). The doorbell rings, Ms Ritchie answers it in bathrobe and towelled hair, only to find a young man in his mid-twenties bearing a knife…

Despite the rather rapey aspect of the set-up, and much of what followed, the play was something of a comedy. The young man was an assistant to Ms Ritchie’s businessman husband, who had, that day gone off to a weekend conference, taking with him his secretary, the young man’s girlfriend. Morosely, the young man had decided that, if his boss was going to spend the weekend screwing his bird, he would spend the weekend screwing the boss’s wife.

It was a two-hander play where most of the writing was in the dialogue. Ms Ritchie, who didn’t take kindly to the thought of sleeping with some snotty-nosed kid almost young enough to be her son, kept a dialogue going to persuade him out of his disgusting plans, that is, until the half-way point when, she having gotten the knife off him (and gotten dressed by now), the thrust turned towards her semi-psychotic threat to kill him and plead self-defence to the Police, he having forced his way in with intent to rape.

The twist turned out to be that, eventually, Ms Ritchie’s control of the situation slid bed-wards and the two ended up naked and giggly between the sheets and quite clearly getting each other’s rocks off, the young man having persuaded her out of her initial refusal to believe that her hubby could be cheating on her with a slip of a secretary. That’s when he called from the conference, having sent the secretary home for the weekend. An amused and naked pair gaze at each other over the total misapprehension that has lead them to bed together – and then falling into each other’s arms, obviously ready for a second go.

To some extent, because of the similarity of the two plays, my memory of the mood of the earlier, the ‘unfinished’ play, may be coloured by the plainly comic tone of the later. Still, it remains an Uncompleted Story from my point of view, because it’s ending forever has to be made up by me.

Is This The Year? – update 8

A waterlogged pitch at the Tameside Stadium did for FC United’s game today, with the visit of Stourbridge postponed until Tuesday 21 April. The weather also did for Ashton United at home, so this gave the other two challengers a chance to cut into FC’s lead. It looked good at half-time, with Ilkeston’s game being goalless, and Workington 1-0 down at home to Buxton, but I’ve been fooled too many times already by juicy half-times scores. Indeed, Ilkeston went on to a 2-0 win to cut the gap to us to only 4 points, but FC are back to having two games in hand over the Derbyshire outfit. Buxton, however, did us proud, scoring again to take all the points in a 2-1 win. Overall, no change, except that five wins from the remaining eight games will now eliminate Workington. No midweek game again for FC United, but Ashton and Ilkeston both play away on Tuesday night, so expect the next update then.  Edited to add: Though the fixture isn’t on the Northern Premier League web-site, FC United are actually playing on Wednesday night, at Whitby Town (lovely place to visit but perhaps not on a midweek evening), so expect a plethora of updates across the next ten days.

Rainy Day Martin No. 2

The Langstrath Valley, in better conditions

It’s pouring with rain outside as I write, a Saturday morning shift without customers ringing in to solicit my assistance. On the over head screens, Grand Prix practice has been suspended because it’s pouring with rain on the track, and I joke about not having realised the GP was taking place in Manchester. My boss nods, and claims they’re heading down Deansgate at this very moment.

Rain of this kind, deep, sustaining, always triggers a degree of melancholy in me, that goes back to summer holiday afternoons in my bedroom in Burnage, staring out of the condensation streaked window at puddles goring in corners of the back garden, or earlier, sat in the lobby of our terraced house in Openshaw, playing with the front door open as it sluices down on the Croft opposite, a playground of higgledy-piggledy lock-up garages that sustained a thousand hide-and-seek games.

I’ve written before of rain in the Lake District, holidays affected by the endless draining of grey, absorbent skies, no fells to be seen, no walking permitted, traipse round the shops instead.

But I’ve been out on the fells when it’s rained, been caught in the midst of things, hood pulled up, kagoul and waterproof walking pants struggled into, cold, with the light faded and the clouds down above, and nothing to do but head back to the car.

Sometimes, as when I climbed Great Gable, from Honister, on the last day of the holiday the rain was some kind of obscure valediction, coming on as I reached the edge of Gillercomb and began the steep, spiralling descent alongside Sour Milk Gill, my hood thrown back deliberately, letting the rain soak my hair, my head, trickle in cold moments down my neck. Or that desperate scramble under the cliffs of Stirrup Crag, to reach the top of Dore Head on Yewbarrow: unable to climb the fell itself, one of those few failures of objective that I experienced, and the long, slow descent down Over Beck and back along the Wasdale Road.

I have always loved the solitude on the Lakes, the freedom to move at a pace and in a direction of my choosing. Times when the rain closes in only emphasise that feeling: I am completely alone, wrapped in myself, enclosed. No-one else is stupid enough to be out here doing this. And the rain turns that solitude into something with an edge: if I slip, I fall, I injure myself, the chances being increased with the rocks and the fellsides so slick underneath my boots, it will be a much longer, more unpleasant time before someone comes to help me.

Yes I still love the memories of those days in the wet. Gable and Yewbarrow I’ve written about, but there were other days. I set out to climb Eagle Crag, in the junction of Greenup Gill/the Stonethwaite valley and Langstrath, by the adventurous, direct route that Wainwright depicts. It was a dull day, though the clouds were high enough that Eagle Crag would be able to slip under them, and I ascended by an increasingly thrilling and risky way that did much to convince me that my years of caution about tricky routes had not been as necessary as I had believed.

Once on the ridge, I could not resist the chance to follow the same to Sergeant’s Crag, the other, higher rampart of this long and uncharacteristic shoulder of High Raise. The further I worked my way along the ridge, however, the more the clouds closed in, until rain and the little summit I searched for, and found almost by accident, came almost together.

Short of turning round and going back – and there was no way I was going to descend from Eagle Crag by that route, no matter how fresh it was in my memory – I’d had no fixed plans about descending from Sergeant’s Crag. As far as paths go, there are none: the ridge turns upwards, flat and dull, rising a long way to High Raise, and the only routed descent into Langstrath at this point is from Stake Pass. But I wasn’t going to start wandering in indefinite country, with the rain coming down and the clouds following it. So I negotiated a way down the front of the Crag, avoiding its rockier face, and picking my way down, carefully, on slippery and steep grass. There were no paths to guide me, but I kept my concentration, scanning the slopes before me for gathering steepness that might lead me to downfalls too sheer to negotiate.

The floor of Langstrath, in its glacial width and flatness, was clear below, and I could watch the distance above level ground steadily diminish, until the ground under my feet began to ease, and I was crossing to join the broad, secure path back towards Stonethwaite.

It was the first time, and the only time to date that I had walked in Langstrath. I had seen Bowfell at the head of Langdale, at the head of Eskdale, but never in its third aspect, from this wide and lonely place, and I was denied again, the clouds curling down the fellsides and rendering the mountains invisible.

There was still a long walk back: Langstrath, or Long Valley, is not named such without a reason. The rain was steady now, and my hood was drawn about my head, and I had removed my glasses so my vision was blurred. What might have been tedious in the sun and the dry was, instead, purposeful in the rain: I was walking to get out of the wet. When the chance came, I crossed the beck and completed my walk through woods, descending towards Stonethwaite, still carrying my glasses.  There was a flash in the branches, a red blur, gone long before I could jam them back on my nose, never to return. That was my first sighting of a red squirrel.

It had rained so hard on me that, when I returned to my Keswick guesthouse, I hung my waterproofs in the bath/shower, to drain and dry.

Saturday morning thoughts on a quiet shift: I’d rather be in the Lakes when it rains than be anywhere else, but I’m a long way away right now, and that silence where the only sound is the rain pattering on your kagoul hood is denied to me still.

Dan Dare: The Elephant in the Spaceship

During my post about The Man from Nowhere, I started to touch upon the incongruity of Flamer Spry’s presence on both the undersea expedition in Lex O’Malley’s Poseidon, and as one of the four man Earth Expedition across interstellar space to the planet Cryptos to save the peaceful Crypts from invasion, slaughter and slavery at the hands of their war-like enemies, the Phants. Started, but soon realised that the subject was one that needed to be considered as more than an aside.
Let’s say it bluntly. Under no circumstances, in any kind of realistic frame, should Flamer have gone on the Cryptos Expedition, nor probably on the Poseidon exploration too. He’s a thirteen year old boy, for heaven’s sake, and whilst I can understand and appreciate the commercial appeal of including a member of Eagle‘s audience directly in the story, the fact remains that Frank Hampson never touches on why this young boy should form an integral part of so many adventures.
We should probably gloss over this, and in a lesser series that would be easy. But Hampson has set standards of realism, in art and story construction, that do not allow us to ignore flaws and weaknesses in the logic of his world.
It was one thing for Flamer to play a substantial role in Prisoners of Space. His introduction in that story was logical, well-planned, and the result of a perfectly believable accident that, once it took place, established a situation from which the story-dynamic didn’t leave any room to extract the child.
And it was equally proper for Flamer to be at the Embassy Reception and enjoy recognition for his part in what occurred. Note though that, when the alarm sounded, and Dan scooted off into space with the interceptor squadron, Flamer is rightly not among the crew. That Lex O’Malley, who’s known Dan for maybe a half hour, does go up is another matter and one we’ll return to.
The one big question that’s never answered is just who Junior Cadet nickname-only Spry is in the first place. Flamer appears out of nowhere, along with Astral College and all its other cadets, Senior and Junior, in the first episode of Prisoners of Space. There’s no suggestion that Dan Dare has even heard of him before Flamer’s model rocket ship nearly prangs Sir Hubert, but Dan is sufficiently impressed by the young boy that he ‘punishes’ him by giving him a tour of the real thing. All of this is perfectly plausible, and given how well Flamer conducts himself in difficult circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that Dan should then look upon him as a sort of protegé. In that light, the decision to wangle a place for Flamer on the Poseidon expedition – a non-combat, search-and-rescue mission, remember – is equally understandable and even logical.
It’s what follows that stretches credibility. Dan is off to Cryptos, across interstellar space, with three volunteers, one of whom is going to be Digby. That Flamer should put himself forward as a volunteer is only to be expected. But he’s accepted: a thirteen year old boy on a potentially suicide mission, traveling to avert war five light-years from Earth? Were he and Lex O’Malley the only volunteers?
Consider the circumstances: Flamer is an approximately thirteen year old boy at Astral College, a full-time, military-based establishment. Like a boarding school pupil, he lives in. The College is in locus parentis. In practice, that would mean the Headmaster, and devolved authority to the masters. Ultimately, the responsibility vests in the Controller of Spacefleet, Sir Hubert Guest, who is also the supreme authority on Dare’s Expedition. Sir Hubert’s response is the screamingly obvious one: No. But he is persuaded to relent, and to authorise Flamer’s admission, by a speech from the young man.
What does Flamer say that convinces Sir Hubert, against his own better judgement, to allow him to go? It’s made up in equal parts of positive and negative arguments. The positive arguments are what you would expect in the circumstances: the opportunity, to see, to experience, to grow and to bring back to his classmates everything he learns. But it is the negative argument that is unusual. It’s basically a statement of the complete unimportance of Flamer Spry. Who is he? Nothing but a single Astral College cadet. If he should die, what has been lost? Just one, tiny, insignificant figure, less than nothing in the grand scheme of things.
It’s an impressive moment. I confess that I find it difficult to believe that a thirteen year old boy should have, let alone speak such thoughts. In their way, they speak to a nobility that is in keeping with Dan Dare himself, but which sits awkwardly with so young a figure. Or is it perhaps that, a long way away from what may follow, in the familiar surroundings of Spacefleet, Flamer is suffering from an excess of naiveté that lets him say things that do not suit his age?
But the statement is fateful in calling our attention to the complete blackout of everything that lies behind Flamer’s debut in Prisoners of Space. When he describes himself as nothing, as someone whose death would cause no loss, create no absence, leave no trace behind, it draws attention to that imposing lacuna: who is Flamer Spry?
He must have had parents (we cannot assume anything else without doing irreparable damage to Dan’s Universe, taking it into areas unimaginable by Hampson and impermissible by the Rev. Marcus Morris), but who are they? Where are they? What’s happened to them? And whilst there must have been Grandparents, are there other relatives? Brothers and sisters? Aunts and Uncles? Cousins? Is Flamer Spry really so alone in the world that there is no-one outside of Astral who has any interest in what might be his fate?
Though Frank Hampson began Dan Dare with short biographies of its principal characters, there does not seem to have been anything similar prepared in respect of Flamer Spry. Fans have long since set themselves to create continuities for the Dan Dare Universe, linking stories that were originally planned as one-offs. I am particularly impressed by the efforts of New Zealand Dan fan Denis Steeper in binding together so many stories into a comprehensive continuity.
But when it comes to Flamer Spry, there is no critical consensus among fans as to how his presence in the saga from 1954 to 1960 is to be explained. It’s been tentatively suggested that perhaps Dan knew the Spry parents, and Flamer when he was very young, and that he has taken an avuncular stance in relation to him. It’s a simple construct, and perhaps the Spry parents died when Flamer was young, or are stationed on Mars, or else working in some element of the Service that provides an equivalent to the Twentieth Century manner of getting unwanted parents out of the way, running Rubber Plantations in Malaya, or on diplomatic missions with the Foreign Service.
This might seem to be an awful lot of straining at gnats, but there’s a very good reason to hit upon an explanation of why Earth’s Chief Pilot of Spacefleet hangs around an awful lot with a thirteen year old boy. Because that really is the Elephant in the Spaceship.
Before I go any further, I’d better say that I don’t believe a single word of anything that I’m about to discuss. But nevertheless, certain things come together to make a substantial, if circumstantial case that in the modern world has to be addressed.
Let’s begin with the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, a book written by the German-born Child Psychologist, Dr Frederic Wirtham, and published to great notoriety in 1954, a year before The Man from Nowhere.
Though he was far from being the only moral crusader against comics in the early Fifties, Wirtham’s book has come to be the focal point for that period. Wirtham was a man who was seriously concerned about the moral health of America’s juveniles and who became fixated upon the idea that their comics were the most important single factor in leading them to juvenile delinquency, criminal habits and perverted sexuality.
I’m not going to tackle the book itself, nor any of its specious arguments, but one of the many accusations leveled by Wirtham was directed at Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Wirtham accused the Dynamic Duo of portraying an idealised homosexual life-style, the man and his underage boy spending all their time living in a house with no female element, eating and drinking with sybaritic delight whilst lolling around in silk dressing gowns. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s only a short step from there to cross the Atlantic and look at the relationship between a tall, handsome bachelor man, who has demonstrated a lack of interest in any female company (Professor Peabody). He already spends all his life with a devoted male who has abandoned his wife and children to serve him. And now this ‘confirmed bachelor’ suddenly starts taking around with him a thirteen year old boy…
I’ll repeat myself: I think it’s nonsense. But though I don’t for one moment believe there’s a fire, there is an inordinate amount of smoke to be waved aside.
Go back to the opening episode of The Man from Nowhere. Dan sees a tall, burly, bearded Naval Commander (and what else is the Navy famed for, beside Rum and the Lash?). Dan immediately wants to be introduced to this craggy, ultra-male figure, and before you know it, O’Malley is following him out of his element into space, and Dan is following O’Malley out of his own element into the deeps.
And who are the two less-than-plausible figures who follow Dan into Interstellar Space? Not the devoted Hank and Pierre, colleagues, friends and spacemen, but a Naval officer and a thirteen year old cadet.
Just how much smoke do we have to experience before we cannot help seeing the red flame within?
I know what Dr Frederic Wirtham would have made of it, and the good doctor would have been wrong about it. But in after decades, when we have all grown cynical, when we have become infinitely more aware of transgression being concealed by the face of celebrity or authority, we cannot any longer ignore such signs. Even in the Fifties, the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’ was being used as a code for men whose interest was not in women.
Unfortunately, there’s not an answer, a definitive conclusion to be written. We have a situation that was created in conditions of innocence that have, in changing times, become impossible to maintain without an effort of naiveté. I don’t believe any conscious undertones were intended, and I know nothing about the people principally involved that would suggest any unconscious undertones were involved, but in 2015, we have to face the fact that someone, somewhere, would have called Social Services long before Flamer Spry blasted off from Earth in Lero’s ship.

Considering John Crowley: Ægypt – Love and Sleep

I’ve referred to the Ægypt Cycle as comparable to The Lord of the Rings and The Book of the New Sun, but there’s a significant difference to either of these works. Both LOTR and TBOTNS are composed of separate books, in which there is a sense of an ending, if only a temporary one, at the end of each volume. The more so with TBOTNS, where Gene Wolfe leaves gaps between the ending of each volume and where the next starts.
That isn’t so with Ægypt: More so than any other series I’ve read, despite the great difference in time and place between the concluding scenes of The Solitudes and where John Crowley picks up in Love and Sleep – published in 1994 – there is a sense of continuation, of complete continuity, as if the transition from one book to another is merely the turning of a single page, and not a wait of seven years to see the story continue.
This effect is partially created by the absence of any conventional ending to The Solitudes, any event or an anticipation of a coming event that represents a new phase, but in large part it is Crowley’s prose-style, serene, complex, abstract, but individual, involving, drawing you into a frame of mind in which the many pages are all of one, entire, composition.
Love and Sleep’s title echoes the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream). It is Summer, and it comprises the three Astrological Houses Genitor, Nati and Valetudo.
The book begins in the past, Pierce Moffatt’s past, living with his Uncle Sam and his cousins in rural Kansas in the early 1950s. The family is Catholic, devoutly so, at least among the children, who absorb the lessons of the nuns to such an effect that, when they discover and take in a half-wild girl, Bobby Shaftoe, as in the nursery rhyme, whose grandfather follows an obscure, obsessive Protestant sect, Pierce and his fellow members of a Hermetic gang do their desperate best to save Bobby from the eternal damnation that is sure to be coming her way, she not being Catholic.
This story, including the underlying element of a primitive werewolfism – of soul if not body – on the part of Bobby’s grandfather and guardian, Floyd, runs for the vast majority of Genitor, emerging, in somewhat surprising fashion, in Florida, where Pierce is visiting his mother Winnie, a visit that, chronologically, does not come until the end of this volume, when Pierce had undergone a racking experience.
Genitor = Parents. Nati = Children. Valetudo = Health.
Nati also bathes itself in the past, but this is the further doings of Doctor John Dee and Giordano Bruno – their paths crossing but once and then separating forever. Pierce continues to read Fellows Kraft’s unpublished novel, assessing its value for publication, searching on Boney Rasmussen’s behalf for a secret that may be only a joke, or may be, as Boney devoutly desires, the true secret of eternal life.
But Boney suffers a heart attack, from which he will soon die, trying to bind to his destiny both Pierce – a trip to Europe, to follow in Kraft’s footsteps and learn that secret hinted at in Prague – and Rosie Rasmussen, succeeding to him as Director of the Foundation. By the book’s end, one will accept and one will temporise, strongly minded to refuse an imposition.
There are other currents in the often unseen present. Rosie’s daughter, Sam, experiences brain seizures that might herald a diagnosis of epilepsy. Her still not yet ex-husband Mike Mucho, at the Clinic, The Woodlands, falls under the spell of the charismatic Christian preacher/healer, Ray Honeybeare, and begins urging Rosie towards the continued support of an institute which, in the half-hidden background, is eschewing treatment for faith-healing.
Mike’s no longer seeing Rose Ryder. Pierce steps in there, instituting a relationship, or perhaps only an affair that is based upon a manipulative dominance, displayed in a form of magic that Pierce attempts to conjure from and for his book, though in the end, in Valetudo, Rose’s interests begin to topple sharply towards the Honeybeare sect, and Pierce finds that in trying to impose a dominance on Rose, he has fallen into her spell, of a love that, when it is most needed by him, is no longer requited.
In the middle of Love and Sleep, in an obsession with dangerous undertones, Pierce conjured for himself a son, an imaginary twelve-year-old boy, Robbie, product of an old liaison, come to visit with Dad for the summer. Disturbingly, the relationship is overtly sexual on its first night, at a point where Crowley is still teasing his readership with the question of how unreal Robbie might be, but the magic invested in Robbie is undone and dispersed by the magic imposed on Rose.
Valetudo begins with Boney Rasmussen’s funeral, and the offers to assist/direct Pierce and Rosie’s futures. Slowly, their decisions, their conflicts, begin to define themselves. There is a tangent, a part of Kraft’s book, about the nightfolk, those called upon to do battles, Wolves against witches. A boy goes out on his first hunt, only to be trapped, smashed, in a wolf-trap. Floyd Shaftoe is turned onto his face by a young woman who does not need to be named for us, preventing his soul from returning.
Pierce, in Florida, distraught and devastated by love and incapability, decides to go to Europe. Summer ends, the Fall beckons. Years await us before the third book appears, but when it does, it will appear only as the turning of another page.

The Frank Hampson Studios: Bayford Lodge

The set-up at The Firs was impossible. It suited no-one except Hultons, who had their Editor and Art Director/chief draw close to London, but for everyone else it was a disaster that could only get worse.
So Hulton Press accepted the need to establish Frank Hampson’s studio elsewhere in Epsom, this time at Bayford Lodge, a large, detached home that would double as a home for Frank, Dorothy and Peter, whilst providing ample space for the team to work. Not just studio space, for artists and for the ever-burgeoning reference section, but room for the exacting business of posing for photos, taking and developing film that underlay the increasingly rich and detailed art of the studio.
Hampson even had a bedroom floor removed to enable overhead and steeply angled shots to be taken. All in service of a series that he was determined would get ever better. Frank Hampson had ambitions for Dan Dare: breaking into the American newspaper market, for instance, and beyond that the dream of animation, for which his patient, labour intensive studio of assistants would be the foundation.
But Hulton Press completely lacked Hampson’s vision for the possibilities inherent in the series, which would, in turn, lead to frustration and grief.
In the meantime, the work went on. Increasingly, it went on without direct contributions from Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Even at Bayford Lodge, space was not infinite, and the pair would find themselves working from, first, home, and then studios rented by the two to enable them to continue.
Out of sight seems to imply out of mind: Johns and Tomlinson had less and less to do, and they had an offer for outside work that would both occupy that extra capacity and also give them an additional income. Ever-loyal, Johns went to Marcus Morris on behalf of himself and Greta, to seek permission. This was given, although on the strict condition that Johns and Tomlinson’s first duties had to be to Frank Hampson and Dan Dare, to the extent of setting aside other jobs (and contracts) to work for Hulton.
The duo agreed and started on their new venture, but it did not sit well with Hampson, who saw it as the rankest treachery. All considerations of friendship with Johns were forgotten. Within a few weeks, Johns was summoned to London to meet Morris. Tomlinson traveled with him, taking advantage of the break to visit the shops: thirty minutes after leaving Johns at Hulton, she was shocked at his catching up to her with the news that they had both been sacked.
Neither worked for Frank Hampson again.
But the pantomime continued. Eric Eden had tried to debate the workload and had been sacked as the putative head of a conspiracy. Now Hampson wrote to invite him back: there had been a conspiracy but Eden hadn’t been involved. So Eden returned for his third stint on Dan Dare.
For the most part, that left the Hampson studio in a settled state until the end of the decade. Hampson was in control, with Don Harley as his principal assistant – and during The Man from Nowhere Harley’s contribution was so important that Hampson, off his own bat, began to co-sign his chief assistant’s name to the strip. Joan Humphries managed the Studio, Eric Eden was the airbrush specialist.
Other artists would come and go, in junior roles, but these would be the Frank Hampson studio long-termers at Bayford Lodge, until Keith Watson joined the studio in 1958. There were still choppy waters ahead, times when Hampson sought to reduce, even eliminate his own drawing contributions in favour of a role directing those who worked under him, times when Desmond Walduck would return to help out, but Bayford Lodge would be the safe and stable home to all henceforth, and it would remain Frank and Dorothy’s family home long after Frank was forcibly separated from his creation.

Is This The Year? – update 7

Bit of a setback today, FC United only able to draw 1-1 away to Stamford, but not too damaging a result as second place Ilkeston could only draw as well, maintaining that seven point gap and with a game in hand still. Ashton United and Workington were the day’s big winners, both recording 2-0 wins at home, putting them both level with points on Ilkeston, and on the same number of games as FC. Skelmersdale lost again, and between the collapse of their mid-season form and the number of games they’ve played, they are no longer credible challengers. Barring a turnaround that Roy of the Rovers would reject as implausible. Thus, with eight games left and a seven point lead over all three challengers, FC United of Manchester need six wins to secure the Northern Premier League Premier Division title. No midweek games featuring any of the Top 4: tune in next Saturday.

The Miraculous Fascist

Marvel’s Miracleman 16 cover, sans logo

In my recent post about Marvelman, I avoided any comment about the content of the series. Nor do I intend to go into it in any detail now. However, for the second time I have come to the end of the story, serially, and just as before I find the final issue, the climax, to be a disturbing affair, and one from which, even more now than before, my instinct is to shy away.
Marvelman, like Watchmen, was a product of Alan Moore’s deconstructionist phase of superhero writing. From beginning to end, the story takes a ruthlessly realistic approach to the appearance of superheroes on Earth, as much if not more in its psychological implications and effects. It’s disturbing, and dark, and yet Miracleman 16 (in both its incarnations) is seen as Moore’s paean to superheroics.
If it were just the story, I wouldn’t feel this deep ambivalence towards what happens. The story is a story, a fiction, to be read as a thought-experiment on whatever level the reader chooses to approach it.
The problem is that Moore prefaces the story with an introduction that speaks of a world of gaudy costumes and impossible powers as an ideal, a vision to be desired. Whereas a purely deconstructionist approach would see the eventual ending as inevitable, predictable from the story’s opening chapter, Moore’s effusive introduction slants interpretation towards approval, towards the notion that what happens is indeed a Utopia.
What does happen?
After the death, devastation and destruction shown in the penultimate chapter, probably the single most violent superhero comic ever published, the superhumans realise that they cannot operate in secret any longer. So they take over the world. Just like that. They completely reconstruct the economy, they teleport Earth’s entirety of nuclear material – weapons and power plants – into the Sun. They refoliate barren areas. They re-adjust the atmosphere to eliminate Global warming. They legalise drugs. And they set up programmes by which people who want superpowers can be given them (provided they meet the right criteria).
And Miracleman builds an eight kilometre high ‘mountain of the gods’ for himself, on the funeral ground of London.
It is nothing less than a totalitarian takeover, by Aryan gods. Miracleman even refers throughout to himself and his colleague as Gods, and Miraclewoman is particularly patronising at his residual impulse to consider humans as being something worthy of consideration.
There isn’t much subtlety about it. The ‘Gods’ dismiss the concerns of petty humanity as beneath their notice: they are, after all, doing good for everyone. Firedrake even likens humanity’s free will to a baby about to drink from a bottle of disinfectant: if you don’t take it away from it, it won’t have a future to have free will in. Groups that oppose them are marginalised even among humanity, and incapable of any form of valid or effective resistance, beyond retreat from the world that the superhumans have created.
It’s a comprehensive picture of self-satisfaction and contempt on the part of people who incarnate the ultimate form of Might Makes Right.
This attitude is leavened in one respect only (two if you count Miraclewoman’s single-handed quest to improve women’s sex-lives). You see, Miraclewoman is the God of Love and the most loving God there has ever been, because she’s prepared to share Godhood with humanity, to give it superpowers of its own, until one day we reach the ultimate utopia of everyone having superpowers.
Except that some people don’t want them. Miracleman offers powers to his estranged wife, Liz, prepared to jump her to the head of the queue so she can become ‘one of them’. But Liz doesn’t want it. Some of it appears to be her reaction to the fact that Miracleman – still, in some infinitesimal way, her husband – has started fucking Miraclewoman in public, to which Miracleman responds, with honest puzzlement, that they have ‘abolished’ jealousy and possessiveness, as Liz will understand once she transforms.
But at the heart of it is that Liz does not want to be superhuman.
And neither do I.
When I first read that introduction, in December 1989, I misunderstood it. I read it as coming from Alan Moore himself, in persona propria. I saw it as an external endorsement of the ‘world to come’ as an ideal to be desired. But it’s not.
The introduction is Miracleman’s own thoughts, a preface to the day being celebrated, the fifth anniversary of his re-emergence. It’s a wish-dream, a vision of the future that Miracleman is helping to bring about, that, as the contents of the issue will show, he and his superhuman cohorts are busy bringing about.
But it’s a child’s vision. An adolescent’s dream, a comics-reading adolescent’s wish-fulfilment, to bring about a world that is every bit as fantastic and brightly coloured, and wondrous and exciting, and full of possibilities as a comic book world can be. And it’s every bit as ridiculous, and unreal, and stupid as a comic book world can be. Moore has spent the entire Marvelman/Miracleman run deconstructing the superhero, exposing the reality – physical and psychological – that lies under the surface of those gaudy, naive stories, and here, when he takes us on the final, inevitable step to the only possible end of this story, he prefaces his last chapter with such a paean.
I can’t believe a word of it. Not in December 1989, and even less 26 years and three months later, when I read it again.
There’s a more serious version of this speech delivered inside the story, but this time it’s delivered in abstract terms: all about tearing off the sky for humanity, enabling/encouraging them to look up, towards perfection, instead of into the gutters they’ve stared at all their lives. Oh yes, there’s certainly no doubt that, from Miracleman’s point of view, everything is for the best in the best of all worlds, and humanity will be grateful.
But I’m with Liz Moran on this one. Liz, who refuses Miracleman’s offer to turn her into a god as well, a choice Miracleman just isn’t intellectually equipped to understand. Why would Liz choose not to become superhuman, when she’ll understand that possessiveness and jealousy have been abolished by the Übermensch and public sex in midair is a light entertainment show? What conceivable reason could Liz have for resisting the chance to turning into the type of person who used her body to incubate his superbaby, who was treating as a mere container by said baby, that overrode every independent thought or emotion that Liz felt? How could she not want to be like that?
But it’s more than that. I’m not Liz Moran, I haven’t been used as an incubator by superhumans who think of themselves as Gods. The totality of the totalitarianism that Moore dreams up, where Miraclewoman – the moral example – regards humans as no different to cattle, makes the whole spectacle more and more repellent in every detail.
I can read that opening speech, that I rejected instinctively a quarter century ago, and now see it as just another detail in a story that is as coldly condemning of superheroes as it is possible to be. And I still reject, viscerally, the idea of a world in which everyone can become a superhuman.
Why should that be? I’ve been reading superhero comics for over fifty years of my life. As well as Miracleman, I also bought Astro City  21. They are, even at their very best, still the product of an adolescent instinct, and they obviously speak to some adolescent instinct still in me even as I near the age of 60. But my interest in the superhero life is purely vicarious. I don’t want to be superhuman, I don’t want to live in a superhuman world. I instinctively reject the very thought as some kind of ideal destination for humanity. This story, this ending, forever leaves me cold. It goes beyond what I am able to believe.
I am on the side of the humans and our need to do it ourselves, no matter how slow and painful it is. We are responsible, and need to accept and acknowledge our responsibility and work to discharge it, and make our world better by ourselves and for ourselves. Gods who do it for us rob us by ensuring that we never learn.
Sorry, Miracleman, Marvelman, whoever we have to call you. Superb though your story is, I end by saying the only important thing. Not in my name

Is that what it’s really about? Neil Sedaka’s Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen

Sometimes you can have listened to a song for many many years without realising that you’ve never really listened to it. I’ve heard Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” multiple times, taking it at face value, as a seemingly sweet, innocent, joyful song from the back end of the rock’n’roll era, the bloodless years between the end of the first, raucous, rebellious phase, and the British Invasion spearheaded by The Beatles.

And it was on Sounds of the Sixties today, last track on another of those 1965-and-earlier shows, just a few minutes ago as write, and for the first time, for no reason that I can pinpoint, I’m hearing it with different ears, and getting pretty creeped out about it.

This is supposed to be a happy, welcoming song about a young girl growing up, putting away her early childish and tomboyish ways and taking up the true accoutrements of her femininity, or at least what were thought of as femininity’s true accoutrements in 1962, namely wearing dresses and getting ready for marriage. So, immediately there the song has an atmosphere of patronisation that’s become rather more obnoxious down the years, but that’s not caught my ear this morning.

It’s all about that first verse. Tonight’s the night I’ve waited for/Because you’re not a baby anymore/You’ve turned into the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen/Happy birthday sweet sixteen. Whoa, hold on a minute there, what the hell is this about? This guy has been waiting, and for quite some time it would appear, for this girl to have her sixteenth birthday. And why? What happens when a girl turns sixteen? That’s right, she becomes legal, as that long ago and utterly disgusting website made very explicit, counting down the days to when the child singer Charlotte Church could be fucked without the fucker getting into trouble with the Law.

Just what the hell is Neil Sedaka planning here?

Now, let’s be fair about this. The second verse, without ever being explicit about it, suggests that the singer is a relative contemporary of this innocent young lady. When you were six, he sings, I was your big brother. When you were ten, he carries on, we didn’t like each other. None of that is specific: just how big a brother was this guy? 7? 10? 12? On the other hand, the not-liking-each-other when the little brat was 10 does hint that the gap between them isn’t necessarily that wide, but it still doesn’t rule out the possibility that that extremely creepy first verse suggests, that this guy has been waiting for more than a few years for his chance to shag this fresh, innocent, virginal female flesh. Brrr.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not suggesting that Neil Sedaka has any such inclinations. We go by the words in this occasional series, and the things they reveal, not necessarily intentionally. It doesn’t help that, even in his younger days, when this record was made, Mr Sedaka was not exactly your model pop star. To be honest, even then he looked like your Dad, and to hear such things coming from a man who looks older than he is only strengthens the implications of those crucial four lines.

No, I doubt very much, despite what we have become used to hearing about, that “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” is about an adult planning to take advantage of a young girl just reaching the age of consent. At worst, it was never meant to suggest anyone older than an older teenager preparing to send her knickers to Oxfam. But in these later days, the words have that shadow attached to them, and I won’t be able to think of this song as being innocent next time I hear it.