It Is The Year – aftermath 1


That victory a week ago Tuesday night has taken all the steam out of the football season for me. It’s not all wrapped up, but I can’t pretend to have much invested in the final few weeks. Chelsea are going to win the Premier League and Liverpool aren’t. That makes twenty-five years now, but Brendon Rodgers still believes he’s the man to bring an end to that twenty-five year doubt, without having the nous to understand for a second that, if he gets another chance next season, he’s going to be trying to break a twenty-six year drought.

That’s exactly equal to Manchester United’s drought from 1967 – 1993, and guarantees the fulfilment of a dream I’ve long held, and that I was seriously afraid, a year ago, of being denied, that Liverpool had to go at least twenty-seven years. That won’t be known until this time next year, but if the Universe really does intend to turn against me as it so often does, I know the scores will at least be equal.

And I do have a cause in the Cup Final, after expecting to have to boycott it this year: Arsenal v Liverpool? It’s not possible for both of them to lose. But I’ll be cheering on Aston Villa, not only out of principle, but because an Arsenal win takes away United’s record of FA Cup wins, currently shared. And I hate Arsene Wenger anyway.

But this is the year FC United got out of the Northern Premier League after so many attempts. But there’s one more team will go up with us into Conference-North-with-another-new-name next season, and last night the play-off semi-finals were held. The Ashton derby ended all-square, but Curzon Ashton won on penalties, but the big shock was in the other game. Workington had been going great guns towards the end of the season, whilst Ilkeston were starting to fall away, but the Derbyshire side scored the only goal up in Cumbria to go through to Saturday’s final: Curzon, as the highest placed finisher, have home advantage.

So who joins us? One last issue of interest, and then it will be over for the summer.

Considering John Crowley: Endless Things


Endless Things was published in 2007, and is officially the final part of Ægypt. It appeared twenty years after the story first began to see print, and thirty years after the themes and concepts came to John Crowley, in and around the year during which most of the work takes place. Crowley acknowledges in its pages that with this publishing, Ægypt is as close to complete as he can make it.
I have never known quite what to make of this book, and still don’t. From first seeing it, from the cover which, unlike the ornate art of its predecessors, consisted of a photograph of ancient books on groaning shelves, and the words beneath the title ‘A Part of Ægypt‘ – a part, not the final part – this book has never seemed to fit, never seemed to be truly part of the series I had then been reading for twenty years.
Nor does it provide an ending. The Solitudes, Love and Sleep and Dæmonomania progressed in multiform fashion, interweaving a number of stories, divided between, but not exclusively linked to a quartet of characters: Pierce Moffatt, Rosie Rasmussen, Dr John Dee, Giordano Bruno. It is as if all those stories stop, completed insofar as they have any resolution, at the end of the third book. What goes on does not feel part of the same story, its links principally being Pierce alone. But Endless Things – whose title echoes no prior work – is the final book to a different tetraology, the first three books of which I have not read.
Even the very mood of the book feels different, the tones, tempos and atmospheres of the first three dissipated, and the prose here is simpler, plainer, shorter. The best way I can think to describe the effect is to compare it to the James Bond series, continued by multiple authors after Ian Fleming. No matter how skilled they are, how authoritatively they ape Fleming’s mannerisms and modes, you can tell, on a single page’s reading, that they are not Fleming, and this is not true.
As I’ve said, the book is now almost exclusively about Pierce. Dr Dee is dead. So too is Bruno, burned at the stake but herein resurrected temporarily in an absurd and disbelief-shattering fashion by Pierce in an attempt to extend Fellowes Kraft’s unfinished book. Rosie Rasmussen flits in and out but, other than her marriage to Spofford, is now no more than the Director of the high-functioning, indeed flourishing Rasmussen Foundation. Rose has disappeared, and so has Mike Mucho, dismissed without trace, leaving no real legacy for their periods in the story.
The first book covers Pierce’s trip to Europe on the Rasmussen Foundation grant. He tries to follow Kraft’s long ago footsteps, but the journey is hopeless and helpless. Pierce is falling in upon himself, his book abandoned, but in execution and concept, his ‘quest’ for the Foundation unpursuable, Pierce himself rapidly developing into the most hapless, inutile human being imaginable, a state in which he remains until the end.
This section is interrupted with faint indications of a future, Pierce in a monastery, the reader meant to anticipate his future in a return to the Church and a complete withdrawal from the world, although the withdrawal is only temporary, a paid-for retreat to try to make Kraft’s book publishable, for Pierce’s destiny is to marry and adopt and adapt.
There’s an account of Kraft’s own journeys, and then that extension of Bruno’s career: foreshadowed elsewhere in references to donkeys, he escapes his execution by projecting himself into a donkey, a talking donkey at that, a move so horrendously stupid that on first reading I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust. But, as with so many little moves in the final stages on Dæmonomania, this is officially rejected, never happened (leaving me wondering why bother including this whole interlude at all).
Pierce returns to Blackbury Jambs and the Faraway Hills for the last time, not to stay but to merely give a broken account of his complete failure to do anything, before he vanishes, seemingly doomed by his own inadequacies. But, in need of a car, he ends up bumping into Roo, properly Kelly Corvino (even more properly Roseann Kelly Corvino, another example of the influence of the Rose, though this revelation is not made until the final few pages of the book).
Roo, whose nickname is a homonym link to the Crow family perpetuated in her surname, comes out of left field, in every way. She has no connection to the community of people with whom Pierce has been involved in Blackbury Jambs (save only for having slept with Spofford once, another piece of information not disclosed until very nearly the end). She’s loud and abrasive, she and Pierce argue frequently, she has no artistic, esoteric or hermetic interests, and she takes Pierce out, away and forward from everything that has gone before, removing him from all semblance of what we have been following as ‘the story’ since the opening pages of The Solitudes.
It is as if Aragorn, after the Battle of Helm’s Deep, walks away from it all, marries, settles down and becomes an accountant, and Tolkien chooses to follow him rather than go on with the rest of The Lord of The Rings, which peters out except for a couple of letters from Frodo, many years later.
Because, once Roo comes into the story, not only is Blackbury Jambs left behind but so too is the year (1977) in which this story is happening get left behind. The book extends through Pierce’s future over the next decade: marriage, Pierce’s return to teaching, Roo’s training as a nurse, their adoption of two girls from another country.
Behind the scenes, the Foundation flourishes, grows ever more corporate. Rosie hires Pierce to re-read Kraft’s last, unfinished book, which is what sends him into that misleading retreat in the Monastery: eventually, Pierce concludes that the book is finished, he just hadn’t read it properly all the previous times.
We move ever onward. Still a child, Sam sings a wordless song at her mother’s wedding, that we are told is the final end to the changing age that has been taking place throughout this story. The 1989 revolutions, the collapse of the Berlin Wall are fortuitous evidence, unhappened when The Solitudes was written/published, of the new age arrived, when there is no longer more than one history of the world. Ægypt stands revealed as Egypt.
To be honest, I find much of the final third of the book dull to read. It has disconnected itself so thoroughly from the other elements of this story that my interest attenuates and dwindles, waiting only for the pages that constitute Crowley’s ending, leaving an ending that I will not get to read, an ending to everything in The Solitudes, Love and Sleep and Dæmonomania, because that ending will not be written.
Mine is, I am aware, a minority opinion. I have never read anyone else who has criticised Endless Things in this way. Indeed, I have never read critical reaction to it in itself, other than as a part of the whole, seen entire and praised as such. But it’s a tremendous disappointment, a terrible flatness, knowing as I re-read the other three that there is nothing but suspension to come for me. Ægypt is essentially endless.

Proper Nostalgia, not like this stuff you get today…


By now, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll have worked out that I’ve been into comics for a long time, and that I’ve got a fair few things collected. These include the complete 12 book Hawk Books ‘facsimile edition’ Dan Dare, but whilst Hawk Books were complete, their Dan Dare wasn’t, with several stories left out. By one means or another, I’ve got those covered too, don’t worry.

I’ve even been lucky enough to get my hands on a complete set of the Heros the Spartan stories drawn by the superb Frank Bellamy, not to mention other collections of Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art – including an original 1950s compilation of The Happy Warrior, the life story of Winston Churchill. And I wouldn’t do without these.

But sometimes there’s nothing to match the pure nostalgia of going back to the originals, to those massed piles of weekly comics that, once upon a time, were awaited eagerly, their publication day a touchstone of a small boy’s week: if it’s Wednesday, that means Eagle, and I’m going to be off in my own little world, or in reality several little worlds, as by a page, or two, half a dozen stories resolve cliffhangers, risks and dangers, half a page cartoon strips give me a giggle, and then it’s seven days of waiting and wondering over again over a new set of cliffhangers, risks and dangers.

The comics came in, and in the end they went out, off to the children’s hospital for boys and girls who were ill and in need of entertainment to have their turn. I never expected to read them again, but then I didn’t know I was going to be one of those who never lose their enthusiasm for words and pictures in combination, for the serialised adventure, for imagination and danger and the marvellous.

For various reasons, it’s been a long time, a very long time, since I last added to my collection of old Eagles. I did brilliantly in the Nineties, largely through The Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield, just outside Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s home, and I have a story about that very first visit that you can read here, but even before money became a premium issue, the source seemed to dry up.

On the other hand, there’s always eBay, and on impulse I did a search the other week and found a seller with seven lots to sell, each four or five issues, Volume 11, nos 1-34 in total, complete. With a starting price of 99p a time, and the prospect of combined postage, not to mention a decent bonus for once, this month, I entered the fray, winning four of the five I was after. The parcel arrived this afternoon, and I’ve spent the evening reading my nineteen purchases. As they were meant to be, one issue at a time.

Volume 11 was 1962. It’s an odd year in Eagle’s history, insofar as my personal recollections are concerned. The glory days of the Fifties were over, those long years of the unchanging Dan Dare/PC49/Riders of the Range/Luck of the Legion/Jack O’Lantern/Harris Tweed/Storm Nelson and the Silver Fleet/The Three J’s: the Hulton decade in all its glory. This I knew from months of research into the bound Eagles, Volumes 1 – 10, in Central Ref.

Nor is it the Eagle that was to be, that I discovered towards the end of 1963 and began getting weekly from New Year, the years of Dan Dare/Heros the Spartan/Blackbow the Cheyenne/Mann of Battle/Cornelius Dimworthy/Horizon Unlimited.

No, this was an inbetween year. Not only had Hultons gone, but so too had Odhams. Longacre Press were now the publishers, and they were determined to complete Odhams job of killing off the Eagle of the glory. They’d gone, all of them gone, the classics, even the still-hard-to-believe latecomer, Knights of the Road, about a pair of lorry-drivers. No, Longacre wanted so badly to stamp their authority on ‘their’ Eagle, that they had thrown-out almost everything on their takeover. And by everything, I mean everything.

Only two strips survived the transition. One of these was obviously Dan Dare, but Longacre wanted the strip dead: off the cover, out of colour, other things that I’ll go into more detail about when I get to the Dan Dare stories of that era. The only other survivor was The Wanderers, Eagle‘s first ever venture into a sports strip, the newest feature in the comic: it was never going to be one of the top notch football strips.

What then has been the order of my reading? With Dan banished inside, Longacre used the cover for teasers for what was inside, three panels hinting at three features. Suddenly, Eagle had gone big on adaptations: Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and the Lost World in colour, Max Brand’s Vengeance Trail, a Western, in black and white. A page of The Wanderers, two of Dan Dare, with Keith Watson newly hired. There was a surprisingly moving one page strip, Only the Brave, that each week presented a different hero, a real-life person who had acted bravely in one circumstance or another, winning themselves the George Cross. These were quiet, undramatic retellings of the ordinary, everyday, courage and dedication these people had shown in saving others lives, or confronting injury or death.

The centrespread was given over to Frank Bellamy’s magnificent Montgomery of Alamein, another real-life story, told with drama, dynamics and incredibly powerful art, and when that was done it was yet another adaptation, this time of the early Hornblower novels.

Dan’s big rival now was Sergeant Bruce, C.I.D., a police series. I was to know it well later on as Can you catch a Crook?, when the hook was that we were told Bruce had seen certain clues in certain panels, and challenged to spot what he had seen. The series was being drawn by Paul Trevillion by that point (though in the mid-Sixties, when the object was to do it even cheaper, Trevillion was alternated with a spanish artist whose clash of styles was quite unbelievable.)

Here, the peg was that Dave Bruce had been transferred up from London to the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and been given the promotion to Detective Sergeant that had previously been ear-marked for local boy Detective Constable Bill Prior. Everybody on the force, including Inspector Wade, resented Bruce, except for Prior himself, so he was always under pressure.

And then there was Beau Fortune. By rights, this should have been a silly mess, the weekly prose story, but it works better than it deserves to from clichéd material. Beau Fortune is a pre-Regency dandy (the series is set mostly in 1805 but could drift around carelessly, episodes taking place in 1803 and 1814 for no apparent reason), an effete fop interested only in clothes. But, known only to his loyal valet Robinson, Fortune is also the mysterious Masked Rider, strong, brave, known throughout the underworld, wanted by the Bow Street Runners but, in reality, a writer of wrongs.

Then there was the half page stuff. Throughout my night’s reading there was Fidosaurus, the Prehistoric Poodle, not to mention the occasional XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U for Useless’, which I probably found funny when I was that age, though why I’ll never understand now. There were even a few left-over Harris Tweed half-pagers, some colour, some black and white, though the once-and-former ‘Extra Special Agent’ is now being demeaningly dubbed ‘Super Chump’.

I can’t let things go without mention of a couple of adverts. One was ‘Mr Therm’, a half-page ad for, well, it’s difficult to say. It’s all about different types of technology, with no linking theme, nor commercial aspect, and it’s done for the Gas Counsel to promote their services, but for this target audience? Sheesh.

But the final biscuit has to be taken by the debut of an advert series that would run for years: Bobbity, Babs & Buster, The Barrett’s Troubleshooters. These half-page cartoons starred a small boy, and even smaller girl and a dog of indeterminate breed who, every week, would start by watching a different type of TV programme only to discover that their favourite (insert blank here) was in trouble, Rapidly kitting themselves out in what gear was appropriate to this week’s genre, our intrepid trio would come through the TV screen to the rescue, which invariably involve Bobbity freeing the TV hero whilst Babs created a diversion by some imaginative use of a Barratt’s liquorice sweet, whilst Buster went ‘Woof!’, after which the TV hero would take them to the nearest sweet shop where they pigged themselves out on even more Barratt’s sweets.

How did I grow up to be both intelligent and sane?

Actually, it’s not the story, it’s the art, which is so awkward and clunky that I could produce something better, and given that Eagle invented the idea of making its adverts into cartoons to fit the comic, AND started off with Frank Hampson himself drawing the Tommy Walls page, this kind of stuff is terribly shabby.

So no, it’s not been one of Eagle‘s great years or even one of my years, but it’s been an evening somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore, and now I think I’ll go downstairs for a while and ask Mummy if I can have a cup of Jusoda before I go to bed, and sit on Daddy’s lap for five minutes, and maybe if the wind’s in the right direction I can hear him, faintly, call me ‘Champ’ one time again…

Dan Dare: The Ship That Lived


At only twelve weeks, The Ship That Lived is the shortest Dan Dare story (excluding annuals) ever to be produced by Frank Hampson, and only a handful of stories, during the year that Odhams spent trying to kill the series would occupy less time than this.
It’s the true end of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, a coda upon personal lines that sits, a little awkwardly, at the end. When Reign of the Robots was first reprinted, by Dragon’s Dream, it was excluded, leaving the Trilogy essentially incomplete, and me wondering what came next, an answer I didn’t get until a long series of Saturday afternoons, a decade later, in Manchester’s Central Ref, studying bound volumes of Eagle‘s first ten years.
To be honest, I don’t really agree with splitting off The Ship That Lived as a separate story. It’s an interlude in the wrapping up process, whose concern is about getting Dan Dare and, of course, the restored Anastasia back safe and alive.
So: Sir Hubert pilots ‘Old Annie’ back with the seriously injured Dan aboard. How serious? Without immediate medical attention he’ll die. As they near Venus, they are attacked by Treen Spacesharks, and Anastasia is damaged. But the cavalry, in the shape of Digby and Flamer, Crusoe and Friday in two Treen ships, drives off the attack, Leaving ‘Annie’ on a crash-landing course, Sir Hubert pinned by wreckage and Dan doomed.
Until orders from his Controller sink into Dan’s subconscious, waking him to pilot Anastasia to a safe landing, albeit in the flamebelt, at risk of both sinking and the Silicon Mass.
Seriously injured? Short of saying “’Tis but a scratch”, Dan’s near-instant recovery to full fitness is absolutely miraculous.
The story then concentrates upon freeing ‘Old Annie’ from destruction, with the aid of lifting machinery from Mekonta. The Ship indeed Lives!
Throughout all this, cooperation is secured from Treen-dominated Venus by the simple expedient of leaving Lex O’Malley behind to dangle the Mekon off a crane, under threat of dropping him on his head (I would really not rather have the image that has just come into my head at that point).
But Stranks and Hampson recognise an imperative. The Mekon cannot be captured, not after this. There will be no Venus Rehabilitation Centre this time, if the Authorities get hold of him, and good villains cannot be allowed to die. Amidst the celebrations at rescuing Anastasia, the overlooked, physically helpless Mekon gets hold of a flying chariot and runs. To Dan and Co, it looks like suicide, sacrificing himself to the Silicon Mass.
Only Digby, and the reader, realise that some strange craft, sent by ‘The Last Three’, has taken the Mekon aboard. It would be three years before the Mekon reappeared, and far longer than that before a different writer, in a different era, would bring The Last Three to us. Frank Hampson would not draw another story with his iconic villain again.
Anyway, now we can go back and conclude Reign of the Robots properly, which is why I think this fragment in a larger tale should not have been separated into a story of its own. Everyone regathers. The Therons resume charge of their hemisphere. Sondar stays to help mop up Treenland, and restore peace. Dan and his extended Co. return to an Earth in which Spacefleet at least is getting itself back to normal, under the likes of Valiant and Straight, with muscle supplied by Selektrobots now under local control. Digby even has one to make his Colonel’s tea in the morning.
Until the next call to action.
As this is such a short story, and therefore such a short post, I’m going to move on to a fairly substantial point. Though it’s the lesser part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, Reign of the Robots is by far and away the biggest thing to happen in the entire series. The whole planet Earth is invaded and, for a decade, subjugated, with incalculable loss of life, and an unbelievably traumatic effect on the lives that survive it to see ‘normality’ restored. In his work on both Dan Dare Chronologies and subsequent fictions, Denis Steeper refers to this period as the Treen Holocaust, and whilst it may seem inappropriate, even tasteless, to apply that word to a children’s fiction, there can be no doubt that it is apt.
Nothing of that appears again in the Dan Dare series. ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’ appear in the first episode of the next story, The Phantom Fleet, but then disappear forever. Stripey is still Digby’s pet in that story. Dan continues to fly Anastasia until the very end of the series. But in every other respect, the invasion of Earth is wiped clean. The Crypt ‘suspacells’ might as well not have existed. The Sargasso Sea of Space, an obviously fertile source for future stories, is referenced in a letter page, when it is promised that a future story will deal with a prominent alien ship. But the Sargasso will only return in ‘fan fiction’, where it will, after many years and indirections, become the raison d’etre for Spaceship Away.
In a series that operates with a certain continuity, it is a terrible, unbridgeable hole.
But how could it have been otherwise? The longer we think seriously and rationally about the ‘Treen Holocaust’ and the effect it would have on Earth, the more we understand how impossible it would be to depict even a fraction of that in a comic paper. But it’s not beyond the wit of either Stranks or Hampson to have included some cursory references to rebuilding Spacefleet, in men or resources. Even the three grown-up Astral heroes, Valiant, Albright and Straight disappear without trace, just when they could have been useful additions to the cast.
Perhaps the creators realised that, in using planetary conquest as a big story, they had gone far further than could be remotely handled by a series aimed at boys aged 7 to 14. That they had bitten off more than they could chew. That heroic fights might best be reserved for saving civilisations on other planets, from which you could come home without having to see what really was meant by reconstruction.
But it was all too late by then, and all that could be done was to turn exceedingly blind eyes, and look elsewhere. After all, it was only for kids, wasn’t it?

Is This The Year? – IT ****ING WELL IS!!!!!


Boy, am I glad that’s over! After making it look like a romp in the fields could be on, FC United of Manchester have put us through the wringer this last fortnight, but not last night (well, yes, last night, but when you win you forget all that, don’t you?). I made a last minute decision that I had to be there, scraped a couple of hours off work, and after a particularly twitchy Tuesday, broke for it to go to the match against Stourbridge.

This is likely to be the most parochial piece of advice I ever give on this blog, but if you have to get from Stockport Town Centre to Ashton, and you are under any sort of time constraint that is measured in less than years, do not for the life of you use the no. 7 bus. How I got there only two minutes after kick-off, I’ll never know after all those cramped back streets, diversions and second gear rambles.

There were more than 3,500 of us at the Tameside Stadium and let’s not pretend that this was a game of any sophistication. It was kick and run, long balls, high balls, throw yourself in at ninety miles an hour. FC got in sight of goal more often but couldn’t shoot straight, one looping header off the bar aside, and it took till the 68th minute to do it: long ball out to the top left corner, the cross back in, not cut out by the keeper and Greg Daniels bundling it into the net off everything.

That set up twenty-odd twitchy minutes, which could have been relieved if the referee had spotted the blatant handball five minutes from time and given the penalty, but it wasn’t needed. Champions then, automatic promotion after all those seasons of blowing it in the play-offs, goodbye Northern Premier League, hello Conference North, and the Football League is now in sight.

Since I had to get home on public transport, there was no time to stand and celebrate. The plan was to catch the Metro into Ashton (2 minutes ride) and a 3300 bus back to Stockport, but of course the Metro had gone, so it was round the triangle the long way, Metro to Manchester, bus home, arriving back a very long time after leaving for work.

Championes, Championes, are we are we are we.

Considering John Crowley: Lord Byron’s Novel or, The Evening Land


John Crowley’s ninth novel came as another surprise, both for its publication only three years after The Translator, and in still not being the final part of Ægypt.
As it’s title proclaims, by far away the largest part of the book is a pastiche, a full-length, hitherto ‘undiscovered’ prose novel penned by the famous and infamous poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is more than a novel, as it comes with a series of annotations and mini-commentaries by Ada, Countess Lovelace, herself a distinguished if generally unknown Victorian figure: mathematical genius, colleague of Charles Babbage, victim of cervical cancer in her early forties, and Byron’s daughter, who last saw her sire in the flesh when aged two.
The secret in such books lies not merely in the skill with which the writer apes his subject, and I will say now that I am in no position to judge the success or otherwise of Crowley in this regard, but it is also bound up in the story the writer concocts to explain the disappearance and, more important, the ultimate emergence of this literary phenomenon.
It’s this part of the tale with which I intend to start, though it occupies less than a quarter of the pages of the novel.
We meet none of the characters in this part of the book directly: each are represented only by their correspondence, all but a fraction of it in e-mail, some minor, late contributions in letter form.
The principals, in correspondence, are Alexandra Novak (who goes commonly by the name of “Smith”), her lover Thea Spann and her estranged father, Lee Novak (the latter two hold Doctorates, though this isn’t revealed until just before the end). Thea is a mathematician, and Lee is a Film Director and an expert who has studied Byron at length.
Lee, like Byron, has not seen his daughter since she was very young, and is exiled abroad, where he makes documentaries seeking to serve the cause of liberation in repressed countries. Thea is heavily against Smith contacting her father, for reasons that are not disclosed until well into the story, which is because he is a fugitive from American justice, having slept with an underage girl: in short, a Roman Polanski figure.
Let’s park that for a moment. Smith is an editor/researcher for a feminist web-site, strongwoman.org, whose theme is uncovering and bringing to light women such as Ada, who have made great strides in scientific fields in eras where women were not supposed to have an interest in such things. Smith is in London to visit Georgianna, an elderly lady who has volunteered both material on Ada, a pioneer in the very earliest days of what would become computer science, and also financial assistance to the web-site.
To begin with, there are mysterious papers relating to Ada that Georgianna hopes to acquire in strange circumstances: Smith’s role is to more or less pre-vet these for the possibility of trickery.
The majority of the papers relate to Ada’s commentary upon her late father’s almost mythological novel (begun in real life but abandoned unfinished, and burned: Byron’s novel was to have been a product of that famous holiday agreement to write books that led Mary Shelley to compose Frankenstein) but there is one extant page, apparently rescued from a burning that was enforced by Lady Byron.
So the novel exists, and we are reading it, and Ada comments at the end of each chapter, whilst the less frequent e-mail interludes tell of the reconstruction of the book itself from Ada’s encoding of it in mathematical cypher.
Several people have criticised the novel for this section, because Crowley does not set up any dramatic tension over whether or not the book may be found, and its provenance (the two works frequently cited in comparison are A S Byatt’s Possession and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, neither of which I have read). That’s to mistake entirely Crowley’s purpose in constructing his novel thusly.
Byron’s ‘novel’, entitled The Evening Land, centres upon Ali, the half-Albanian son of ‘Satan’ Porteous, Lord Sane, a cold, rakehelling, self-interested figure who is set up to remind readers of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byron himself. Ali, born in adultery, is torn from his native land, and his true love Iman, to become Sane’s heir in England. But Sane is soon murdered (out of chronological order) in circumstances that cast Ali as a parricide, (until his elder half-brother and evil shadow steps forward, much nearer the end, to accept responsibility himself).
Ali’s life and career is framed to reflect that of Byron himself, as Ada’s notes manifest, reflecting themselves the picture of Byron given to her by her mother, who specifically sought to blacken Byron, out of hatred for the end of their marriage.
Smith stands in a similar position to Ada. Her own father, Lee, is an exile, on the run even. But when answers are needed to conundrums and possibilities, Lee is the only Byron scholar Smith knows to whom she can turn for information and advice. And, in a very slow, haltering fashion, towards some kind of r’approchement with a parent she doesn’t know that offers a reverse-image to that of Ada and Byron.
I have some issues with this section of the story. One is in the distant Thea, the mathematician. It’s an odd decision to render almost all this element in e-mails, impersonalising every contemporary thought and movement. Because of the normal way in which they write, Smith and Lee do have components of personalities. But Crowley depicts Thea differently. Her e-mails are unpunctuated, uncapitalised, uninterested. The effect is something of a ‘hippy daze’, creating the image of a person disconnected, unprepared to make the effort to communicate. Whether intentionally, and despite her later help when matters enter her field of mathematics, it creates an atmosphere of total self-absorption. Thea seems utterly heedless of Smith’s aims and ambitions: they are not mathematical, they therefore are irrelevant. What at first seems an affectation rapidly becomes a complete irritant.
Lee, on the other hand, is given plenty of time to establish himself as thoughtful, intelligent, his heart and mind in the right place and, through not trying to get into his daughter’s good books, deserving of doing so. That’s before the details of this heinous crime are revealed.
I have strong opinions on Roman Polanski, and they are wholly negative when it comes to him. This raises a very big mark against Lee Novak. True, the circumstances are different, and the facts are given in such a way as to paint a different picture: no rape, no (enforced) drugs, a truly promiscuous ‘wild child’ who had shagged loads of people. ‘All’ Lee is actually guilty of is sleeping with a willing under-age girl. But then we only get this from Lee himself, without objective confirmation. This is something I find hard to accept, even within a fiction.
But the bulk of the book is made up of Lord Byron’s Novel. How good a pastiche is it? Don’t look to me for an opinion, I’m uncultured and ignorant. It has been praised very highly by people likely to know well enough, and I am not aware of anyone blasting it as weak and ineffectual. The early use of the phrase ‘kick against the pricks’ struck me as anachronistic, but that was again ignorance on my part, since the phrase appears in the King James Bible so is clearly older than I think (it’s about donkeys reacting to drivers’ goads, apparently).
It’s a rollicking, larger than life, ramshackle, episodic and improbable beast of a story, and it doesn’t really end. It’s not the kind of thing I’d read if it really were Lord Byron’s novel, but in Crowley’s hands it is but one level of a layered story, and in context an entertaining read. Overall, my personal response to Lord Byron’s Novel is that it is very clever, too clever perhaps, to have anything but cleverness as its achievement.

Is This The Year? – update 15


It bloody nearly is! After going behind to Stamford, FC United finally shook off the nervous nellies of the past three games and came through to win by a comfy 3-1. It could have been enough. If Ilkeston, so recently very strong, had taken even as much as a point off Workington, it would have eliminated their prospects, but a 3-0 win keeps them in with the sniff of a chance. On the other hand, Ashton United’s 2-0 defeat at Whitby Town knocks them out of contention at last. So it’s still two points separating the top two, but Workington have only one game left, next Saturday, at home to FC United. It could be a tense title-decider… but FC have one game more to play. On Tuesday night. At home to 14th place Stourbridge. And I’m working…

Dan Dare: Reign of the Robots


Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.

The Elektrobots strike! (original art)

Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.

Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in  Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.

Kickstarter: Girl Genius Book 2, Volume 1


It’s the annual Girl Genius Kickstarter plug, this time for the first volume of Book 2.

Agatha Heterodyne has successfully completed her transition from hapless, headache-prone student to establishing herself as The Heterodyne, Mistress of the family town of Mechanicsburg. But Baron Wulfenbach has frozen the town (and himself) in time in an attempt to nullify the menace he sees from Agatha. Everything has changed across Europa. The Wulfenbach Empire has lost control. Gilgamesh is under a strange form of control from his missing father. And Agatha has set out for Paris, to seek aid in freeing Mechanicsburg. Others have different plans for her…

There’s sixteen days to go and already the project is 98% funded (the last one was 398% funded, so you know it’s going to happen. This is the link, so get out there and treat yourselves. This is the funniest, most wide-ranging series going, a Gaslamp Fantasy offering Adventure, Romance and Mad Scientists!

Read and love.

Is This The Year? – update 14


Not on the evidence of tonight. This is what you call a serious wobble. Had FC won away at free-falling Skelmersdale, and Ashton and Workington lost, we would be even now be in the Conference North. But for the first time since November, FC lost, and their two rivals were heartened by wins, and now it looks a lot tighter than it should have been. Workington have cut the gap to two points, with two to play, Ashton have moved to five in arrear with three to play, like us. We still need five points, just from the last nine now. It won’t get decided on Saturday so I won’t be going, especially since I did my right foot today so can barely walk on it. Oh shit.