Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 5 & 6


Prime Minister and eminence grise

1864 just gets better and better by the episode, which makes blogging it harder and harder. There are an abundance of riches here, in all the three principal elements of the story, and the greatest difficulty is to find a way of describing what is being done without descending into endless gosh-wow.

Take episode 5, to begin with. It begins once more with Claudia reading Inge’s words, a reflective moment in her diary that once more refreshes us as to where things stand in what might be called the soap-opera strand. She loves both Laust and Peter, but is pregnant and disowned by her family. It’s Laust’s child and the concealment of their sexual relationship has caused Peter to become estranged from both, which has  separated the brothers in the stage of the War.

Claudia, who has violently lost her nose-ring in her attempt last week to con money out of the perverts in the pub, is by now fascinated by this tale, but the Baron distracts her from it momentarily by displaying to her two sabres, and showing how easy it is to determine if they have been used. One is shiny, pristine, razor sharp: it belonged to his grandfather, the traumatised, cowardly Didrich. The other is stained with uncleaned blood, chipped and blunted where it has cut into bone and metal buttons: this belong to Dinesen, who survived the war completely unscathed, the man soldiers should stand next to.

Whilst we digest the information that Didrich is the Baron’s grandfather, and recall that last Saturday he called Inge his grandmother, and muse on that will mean, Claudia’s voice draws us back into the War. It’s like an abstract of what happens, a non-cohesive account of this phase, Peter’s group have stayed behind to disable the abandoned Dannevirk, and must now run north toward Dybbol with the Prussian Army at their heels, Laust is far ahead, under Didrich’s command.

Both undergo traumas in the swirling snows that make so much of the episode look as if it is filmed in black and white. Laust loses a cannon which runs into a lake. Didrich insists he and his squad retrieve it and not leave it, frozen solid, for the Prussians. Laust has to jump into the lake, which is pitifully stupid, and which gets him nothing but a fever that seems bound to kill him. Peter’s squad is forced to confront Prussian officers. Dinesen saves them from certain death, but Peter is forced to shoot a hussar, who collapses onto his bayonet: the man hangs there, staring into Peter’s eyes.

And around them, bits of the war take place, the reality of war, of death, dismemberment and destruction, not the increasingly blind fantasy being pursued by the fanatical Mrs Heiberg and the increasingly absurd Monrad. The disowned Inge heads south with the gypsies, including the mute Sophie, whom she discovers is also pregnant, by Didrich’s rape. Inge has no idea, but Sophie’s brother Djarko knows the truth: it’s a horrifying shock that he rants at Sophie, calling her a whore, for being raped. Nineteenth century morals: so wonderful.

But in a series that’s been so resolutely down-to-earth, whose depiction of the horror of war has been admirably practical, unafraid of the truth without wallowing in gore, there’s an odd moment midway through this episode in which things start to take a strange turn, that continues to lightly brush the remainder of the hour. Inge and Laust communicate telepathically in their non-sleep, Laust sees visions, Monrad curls up on his desk like a fearful child, and Larssen sees his squad through to safety by overcoming a German squad by what is probably hypnosis (or animal magnetism, as it would have been then).

This episode ended with the beginning of bombardment, the warfare of the trenches unleashed on Dybbol. For the Danes there will be no hope.

Moving on to the back half of the series, the ‘action’ stays in Dybbol: we do not even approach Copenhagen save by morse, when the Government refuses to allow the Army to retreat further, despite the inevitability of massacre – the bombardment has extended to the town of Sonderburg as well. The Army’s new General-in-Chief has been appointed because he is a weakling who will follow orders: knowing that everyone under his command will die, he refuses to countermand the stupidity.

Inge and Sofia arrive in Sonderburg and the former finds Didrich. But the coward lies to her, telling her that both Peter and Laust are dead. In the latter case, he’s all but correct. Didrich piously explains to the coma-overtaken Laust that he’d lied to spare Inge the sight of seeing her lover like this, but then gloats about ‘looking after’ a dishonoured whore.

There’s a timely interlude where, the German’s having introduced a military band to their trenches to improve their soldiers’ morale, and wind up the Dane’s, Peter’s squad is sent out under cover of darkness to slice sentries’ throats and gun the band down. Unfortunately, success goes to Alfred’s drunken head the next day, when the band is silent: climbing out of the trench, he celebrates, but gets both hands shot off by snipers.

He is rushed to the hospital, where Inge and Sofia have argued their way in as nurses. In an almost unbelievable moment, Inge and Paul literally brush shoulders, but they are turning in opposite directions, and neither sees the other.

This scene immediately prefixes the strangest moment so far: Larssen enters the closed off sector where Laust is waiting to die, straddles his chest, forms the fingers of his hand into a pyramid and plunges it into Laust’s chest, above his heart. Blood runs, Laust spasms, but Larssen withdraws a lump of ice which he first holds above Laust’s mouth, dripping meltwater from it, before dropping it in. He tells Laust that he’ll be well now, and as the pisode ends, a fully healthy Laust returns to duty.

It’s an astonishing moment, yet whilst seeming so completely inimical to what 1864 has been thus far, it does not seem wholly implausible, and I want to see where this element is going.

Because episode 6 has thrown in a twist that may yet be a derailment for the whole series. Instead of our usual start at the old Baron’s decrepit home, Claudia has gone to her home, to her mother, still pitifully mourning her dead son, Sebastien. The woman can barely function, but Claudia manages to direct her to her purpose. She believes there is a trace of Gypsy in their heritage, which her mother confirms comes from Claudia’s dad’s side. There’s an old album of photos, but these contain more than just photos, but also old letters. One that Claudia reads is about war: she is shocked that it mentions Laust. Moreover, it is signed Peter.

At the end, she takes these to the Baron. There is an old photo, of a couple, with children, a very old photo. The woman is Claudia’s Great-great-great-grandmother. We recognise her as Sofia. The Baron, being blind, asks Claudia to describe the man to him. He recognises every word but we don’t need them. Even through the full beard we’ve already recognised him as Peter. The Baron is almost crying as Claudia, still puzzled, ask what it means. It means we’re related, he says.

This I’m not sure about. More than the unbelievable, this is perhaps a moment too far to accept. But there are four more episodes to go, and I’ll await the end before I seek to judge.

It’s not the end though, not quite. The last word goes to a peace conference in London, presided over by Palmerston, who, gently but frankly, tells the Danes they are doomed to massacre. When the stiff-necked Lundby marches out, insisting that God will intervene since the Danes are in the right, the resigned Palmerston politely asks the German, Moltke, if the inevitable can be done gently. Moltke asks if he has ever heard of a gentle war.

The ungentle battle comes next week. And apparently I’ve got it wrong with my assumption of ten episodes: 1864 weighs in with only eight. It’ll all be done by this time next week.

The Infinite Jukebox – Teenage Kicks


Some records never age. The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ was released in the summer of 1978 as the title track of a four track EP released on the local Derry label, Good Vibrations. The ‘Tones, John O’Neill and his brother Damien, Micky Bradley, Billy Doherty and Feargal Sharkey, sent a copy to John Peel, at the BBC in England, and followed it up with phone calls, badgering him to play it. He did. He fell in love with the record, and it’s opening lines decorate his gravestone.
He played it on his show one night that summer. I don’t remember when, but I listened to his show every night, and it was still every night because they hadn’t yet taken Friday off him and given it to Tommy Vance, and I heard it and I fell for it too.
That was thirty seven years ago this summer, by one, outmoded and illogical method of calculation, which is more than half my lifetime ago, and that’s simply not true, and not possible, because every time I hear Doherty’s two-beat drum intro, I hear a song that I only heard for the first time Thursday last week. The Infinite Jukebox is blessed by such a record.
There are better Undertones songs, ones with clearer and more distinct melodies, with a better production than the thick wodge of sound that goes into ‘Teenage Kicks’. But there is nothing that so distils the Undertones into two and a half minutes of pure bliss, teenage hormones furiously throbbing, the line between nervous innocence and rampant lust so finely straddled.
A teenage dream’s so hard to beat. What other dreams are so powerful, balanced between desire and fear? Another girl in the neighbourhood, wish she was mine, she looks so good. I’m gonna call her on the telephone, have her over cos I’m all alone. The every day, the utterly mundane turns into moments of shining gold and the music reflects that directness, the raw power of the dream.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
And this came from a quintet of teenagers in a troubled city in Northern Ireland, a city whose own name symbolised the conflict raging on its streets, a conflict that gave the Undertones’ home the nickname of Stroke City, and they ignore all this and focus on the one thing on their minds. John O’Neil’s words and music are simple and direct, and they have never lost their meaning, because they speak of yearning, and the music churns and roars, Billy Doherty’s drums keeping it anchored to earth.
It has the raucousness of punk, and something of the attention to melody re-introduced by the Buzzcocks, but not quite yet unleashed. It’s about being sixteen, sixteen forever, forever drowned in wanting, in finding a focus that underneath isn’t focused at all, because if she’s not the answer to the dream, someone else will be, but for here and now, at the heart of this urging music, she is the only one there is in the world.
And there’s even a guitar solo, twiddly, plangent, constructed out of just a few notes, and gloriously it’s not where you expect it to be, two verses, middle eight, solo, third verse, but it comes right at the very end, when there’s nothing left to say, and only an impression to create, as jangling as your nerves.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
All right.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAtUw6lxcis

In Praise of Pratchett: Equal Rites


I remember looking at Equal Rites in hardback in Waterstone’s and almost choking with laughter at its first two pages. I remember buying the book in paperback, six months later, and being dreadfully disappointed throughout.
After The Light Fantastic, this was something of a blow. Indeed, over the first half dozen Discworld books, which frequently fell under discussion on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Crown & Anchor, a consensus grew that the odd-numbered ones were pretty crap, but the even-numbered ones were the business.
The pattern’s still there to be seen but, on re-reading the book these many years later, I think it’s due for a decent reappraisal.
Of course there are things wrong with Equal Rites, the biggest one being Granny Weatherwax. It’s her first appearance, but it’s not Granny as we know her. This village witch might have the same temper, and the same attitude to ignorance on her own part, but she uses magic an awful lot more, and more overtly, and she’s far more ignorant than the Granny we know and love. And the finale is completely wrong, and Pratchett was very wise to completely ignore it in all future books.
However, Granny is not the nominal star of Equal Rites, but rather its main supporting actress. The book is about Esk, or more formally, Eskarina Smith, aged nearly nine, wizard.
But Esk, being a girl, can’t become a wizard. True, she’s the eighth son of an eighth son, or rather she’s the daughter of an eighth son, with seven elder brothers, and besides, the dying wizard who has come to pass on his staff can’t wait long enough to check on the baby’s gender.
Esk therefore has the talent (and the staff) but not the training, and she isn’t going to get the training because, well, it’s against the lore. Women can’t become wizards, they have to be witches.
So Granny takes Esk in to train her, except that it doesn’t work. The wizard magic from the staff is too strong. It won’t let witchery take hold. Granny holds out against it for as long as she can, but the end is inevitable: a long and eventful journey to Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University where, exactly as expected, the very idea of Esk as a wizard is poo-poohed. Worse than that, it’s patronised.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a way into the University, which is round the back, through the laundry and the head Housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow. Esk can clean and sweep (actually, the staff does that) and can attend lectures. Only, she can’t read, and nothing is being explained to her, so it’s all going nowhere.
Until we come to Simon.
Simon is a trainee wizard, met on the journey to Unseen University. He’s the archetypal wimp, with a stammer and terminal hayfever, but he has a highly advanced brain, and the wizards flock round him. The only problem is that use of magic – any use but especially the high level use this entails – draws the things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are constantly attracted to the Universe of warmth and light, and who can make their way in via minds like Simon’s. And Esk’s.
To rescue and restore the souls of this young pair, the staff is needed. Unfortunately, in a fit of fury, Esk has thrown the staff away, and it’s sulking. To save the day, Granny has to team up with Archchancellor Cutangle (who she knew as a child and quasi-courted) to bring it back.
Mission accomplished, everybody relaxes a bit. Simon comes back without his stammer, and with a new theory of magic that will turn on the idea of not using it, as opposed to actually using it.
Pratchett will adopt this as a general course in the future, but for the moment (as we’ll see in Sourcery), that theory is far from his plans.
The other angle, which Pratchett afterwards drops like a stone, is the idea of a potential future relationship between Cutangle and Granny. The experienced mind rejects the very thought, and especially the idea that Granny might be a handsome woman (in any light!). No! No!
At the end of the day, Equal Rites takes a fantasy cliché and gives it a slight twist by changing genders, and then sets out to explore the effect. A dozen, even a half-dozen books later, the concept would have been manna to the mature Pratchett, given the male/female assumption/opposition inherent to the idea, and we would have seen an immeasurably better story. But 1987 was too early for Pratchett to realise the potential of his cute little notion.
However, as I said, it’s a better book than I’ve long given it credit for, despite the false start with Granny Weatherwax. Pratchett would iron out the true Granny for her next appearance, whilst Esk would disappear without a trace, until very very late in the sequence. Simon disappears completely. We’re still a way from the proper Unseen University, (“Oook!”) saving only the presence of the Librarian. That would take a lot longer to pull properly into shape.

Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s I’m a Boy


This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

Well, would you credit it? Just last week, Brian Mathews gave me an excuse to talk about the Who’s less-than-subtle ‘Pictures of Lily’, leading to a comment about the fact that I’d have another piece to write when they got round to playing the band’s ‘I’m a Boy’, a number 2 in Britain earlier the same year, and it’s only the penultimate track on today’s programme.

Like ‘Pictures of Lily’ and to an even greater extent, this song is even less of a double meaning. It only goes and sets things up in its first verse in a way that only the deliberately naive could mistake. There are these four little girls, you see, called respectively Jane Marie, Felicity, Sally Joy and Bill.

And this little girl is not the tomboy kind who runs around in dungarees, Wilhemina who’ll only answer to Bill. No, this is the real thing. The other (little girl) is me – and I’m a boy.

And a very confused little girl, sorry, boy, is Bill (I’m a headcase) as his mother practices making up on his face (just how little a girl is he supposed to be?), dressing him up in skirts and filling his hair with hairpins. But Bill’s insistent that he’s a boy, and it’s just because his mother refuses to accept that she has given birth to a child made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails, and insists on him living the life of the one that’s made of sugar and spice and everything nice (yeah, right, has anyone here ever had a younger sister?)

At least Bill has a clear image of his natural, as opposed to his enforced gender and wants to spend his time doing manly – sorry, boyly – things: cricket on the green, riding bikes across the stream, cutting himself and seeing his blood, getting muddy. But instead, whilst the other little girls are putting on frocks, plait their hair, painting their face, he’s being forced to wear a wig.

It’s all very cheerful and upfront and in that sense jokey, so that people don’t really stop to recognise that Townsend is writing about enforced transvesticism, the abusive enforcement of an unnatural gender identity upon a child, with the inevitable long-terms psychological effects, and that’s not necessarily a laughing matter, or even a sing along with the chorus one, come to that.

But the ultimate joke might be that Townsend is burying a genuine issue beneath this seemingly absurd setting. For we only have Bill’s word for the fact that he’s a boy and not a girl all the time, a girl perhaps suffering from body dismorphia and desperately seeking to escape from her own physical form into a fantasy of being a boy, or potentially being transgender.

So what does lie beneath the superficial surface of this song? And what more serious issues might lie beneath the superficial surface below the surface? Some songs are never as simple as they sound.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #23


A year ago, I swore off blogging the new volume of Astro City. I was sick of writing blogs that amounted, in different ways, to saying that there’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t do for me what it used to and I don’t know why. And I really didn’t like writing blogs that said ‘this one is shite’.

That didn’t mean I was giving Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross up. I’ve continued to enjoy the series, even if it still hasn’t given me any highs to compare with those of earlier years. It’s by far and away the best superhero series I’m following, and I’m not saying that just because it’s the only superhero series I’m following. Even with both eyes shut, I can still see that there isn’t anything at DC, or Marvel, that I want to share house space with.

But I couldn’t resist blogging this issue, for one very simple reason that absolutely deserves celebration, and that is that although we are only months away from Astro‘s twentieth anniversary, this is the very first issue 23 the series has ever had!

And this is definitely one for the deep fans here, the veterans who can go back to John Broome issues of The Flash in the early to mid-Sixties, the ones who hide inside the kid they once were but who still respond to the sheer goofy glee of a talking gorilla!

This is Busiek’s affectionate tribute to The Flash of the Silver Age, to Barry Allen and his battles with Gorilla Grodd, and hidden Gorilla City and wise King Solovar. It’s a subject that’s pure comic books in a way Astro City never has been so far before. It’s a bouncy, absurd, fun idea that will be kicking back and refusing to lend itself to any kind of co-option into a world where such things can believably exist.

For Gorilla City, see Gorilla Mountain. For hidden in deepest Africa, see a cloud-covered Savage Land type zone in Antarctica. For discovery by The Flash see discovery by the elder generation of the First Family (the only false note in my mind, a Marvel archetype discovering a DC trope). But whilst Gorilla Mountain remains defiantly insular, a military society, highly trained, there’s the one outsider: for Grodd, see Steek. But Steek doesn’t want to take over the world with the force of his mind, he’s just a kid who’s into the music, a cool cat… er, silverback ape who wants to throw down with the kids and beat the hell out of a drumkit. That’s why he wants to be called Sticks.

(I should just mention that at this point I am energetically suppressing any thought of any previous passionately drumming gorillas because, like all right-minded folk, I cannot stand Ph*l C*ll*ns.)

But there’s a problem. Even in Astro City, a talking gorilla can’t just go around minding his own business, People assume he’s a superhero. The Press want to interview him as a superhero. Villains want to kidnap him for his superheroic powers. Even Reflex 6, who are currently down to five members, want him to tryout to bring their numbers up to scratch.

But Sticks doesn’t want to audition to join a superhero team, he wants to audition to join a band and play music. Can he do that if nobody will leave him alone?

This is the first part of an as-yet undefined multiparter, so we’re a long way from whatever answer Busiek has in mind, but I had fun with it, and I’d love for one of those good old-fashioned completely unexpected but unexpectedly obvious solutions to hit this one out of the park. But it’s the best issue 23 Astro City has ever had, and it gives you a good feeling that issue 24 won’t let the standard lapse.

Sandman Overture – no 5


sandman_overture_5_b

Forget what I said last time (it was so long ago, I have). Let’s have the rant again, in a resigned, dispassionate, purely factual manner. Sandman Overture, the story that immediately preceded Neil Gaiman’s ongoing Sandman series almost thirty years ago, was announced as a six-issue mini-series, appearing bi-monthly from November 2013. That means its final issue was due to come out in September 2014. This is still only the fifth issue which, according to the original schedule, is almost eleven months late. Good going DC/Vertigo. Good going Mr Gaiman.

And I suspect that I may not be the only one who does not find funny the indicia note that Sandman Overture is published “monthly”. If there is one thing I will not be doing during the month of June, it is reviewing issue no. 6.

So, what have we here? Funnily, I didn’t need to re-read the story to date to check where we were starting, because I could remember. Last issue, Dream visited his father, Time, before confronting the Mad Star, as a result of which he was condemned to a Black Hole, whilst the Mad Star started burning the Universe down.

This issue, Dream visits his mother, Night, the whole Black Hole thing being just the quickest way to reach her realm. Unfortunately, his master plan has been the fallible and naive one of getting Mummy and Daddy back together again, so that everything will be right again (I am not misrepresenting this plan in any way), and when Mummy won’t play, Dream has no plan B.

Fortunately, though he pretends the whole thing was unnecessary, he is rescued by a summons from brother Destiny, who has found a sailing ship in his garden that doesn’t belong there (it isn’t in his Book!) but does belong to Dream, who he requires to take it away. Dream doesn’t recognise it, but that’s because it’s been built by the Dream of Cats, who has been saving the odd person here and there as the Universe burns. Now it’s up to Dream to explain why they’ve been saved…

So, once again we have a fragment of activity, insufficient of itself to create a satisfying comic book, taking up a few more indeterminate steps towards the end. It is, naturally, superbly written and brilliantly drawn, but it is also not worth it on its own. If ever the final part is published, and the story can be read at once, the whole thing will probably be brilliant, but I have long since wished I never started reading this series issue by issue because, when the Distinguished Thing is finally here at last, I suspect it will be several years yet before I can read it without being reminded of this ghastly farce.

And if Gaiman ever agrees to do this again, with any other outstanding Sandman story he may discover the urge to tell, I will avoid the fucker like the plague until I hold the Graphic Novel in my hands, and even then I might wait for the paperback, because all the credit at the bank’s been used up, and I’m not doing this again for anyone.

 

Dan Dare: Trip to Trouble


To give them their due, Odhams did genuinely think that Dan Dare had gone stale, and that what was needed was an injection of action: shorter stories, less characterisation. Trip to Trouble was produced to those specifications and no doubt they were satisfied with the outcome. Unfortunately, it’s proof positive of exactly how wrong they were.
Trip to Trouble (a title of such horrifying stupidity that is unmatched in the whole cycle) lasted only sixteen weeks, and rounded off what would now have to be referred to as the Terra Nova Trilogy. It was meant to cut off Frank Hampson’s ambitious sequence as briefly as possible, and if realisation of intention is a mark of artistic success, then it’s a masterpiece. As stories go, it’s a shallow flop.
We’ll not hold this against Eric Eden this time, as he was probably working to pretty tight instructions, but as we shall see, he would fail to rise much above this perfunctory effort.
Having learned that his Dad had moved on from the first Novad continent, Dan has an inspiration. McHoo confirms that an inflatable life-raft was among the emergency gear carried by the Galactic Pioneer and that the Galleon has a similar one on board. So Dan and Dig in Anastasia, with Lex O’Malley on hand as naval expert, track wind and water currents to identify the approximate shoreline where Captain Dare would have come to land. They then drop Lex, in the inflatable, to complete the journey. Except that Lex is promptly captured by a gun-shooting powered boat and taken ashore.
When Dan and Digby land, to plan a rescue, they are surrounded by rebels who speak a few words of primitive English, and taken to their leader, Calo, who speaks perfect English, for he, like the Novad tribe elder, knew Captain Dare.
And that’s where the bad news kicks in. We’re only five weeks into the new story, and Calo confirms Captain Dare is dead: dead, not only off-stage, but aways off in time, ten years ago, Dan’s whole expedition both a failure and a complete waste of time before it even began. And Odhams, having delivered such a casual brush-off, compound their callousness by delivering these sad tidings in the Christmas week edition of Eagle: Christmas: Goodwill to all men: Rebirth. Some things just suck.
But let us not fret over this news, there’s action to supply to the readers. Dan, after taking a couple of moments to absorb this loss with the stoic, stiff-upper-lip of the true-born Englishman, dedicates himself to a tribute to his father. They are in the land of Lantor which, for over a decade, has been under the control of the neighbouring country of Gan, and its brutal absolute Dictator, the Grandax. Calo leads the Lantorian rebels, and Captain Dare died, shot in a failed uprising. So Dan will now lead a successful uprising.
And it really is as mechanical as that. Three men overthrowing an overwhelming force takes eleven weeks. First they rescue Lex, then they eliminate the Gan air force, then they capture the Grandax, which leaves a power vacuum with no-one psychologically able to replace him.

The Gan forces retreat to Gan, the Grandax mounts a final attempt to overthrow the rebels, but sends himself to his death instead, and that’s it. All done and dusted, wrapped up, and let’s go home, all traumas forgotten, Dan wholly unconcerned as to his father’s fate and the absence of so much as a grave to mourn at. At a conservative estimate, the complete overthrow of Gan takes about seventeen hours.
Next stop Earth, and Frank Bellamy’s chance, a mere six months into the year-long contract he’d signed to draw Dan Dare, to put into place the changes for which he had been hired. To foreshadow these, the final panel features some thinking heads, musing on what they’ll find when they return after so long an absence. Sir Hubert, The McHoo, the Professor (making one final appearance), Digby and Dan. No Flamer Spry: given his total absence from the series until it’s very last panel, It’s tempting to ask whether he was actually left behind on Terra Nova? It would explain a lot…
In his justly-lauded Sandman series, Neil Gaiman, in one of its early issues, came up with a throwaway idea that is still a mark of sheer genius. Dream’s realm contains at its heart a castle that is infinite and meandering. Like all good castles, it contains a library of extensive proportions. But this is the Library of Dream, and as befits such a thing, it holds not only every book that ever was written, but every book that was ever dreamt of, every book that it’s author thought of, or planned, or imagined, or left unfinished except here. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lost Road exists there in full. Charles Dickens’ The Return of Edwin Drood is complete.
I would dearly love to spend a day (or a night) in the Library of Dream reading the real Terra Nova cycle, as drawn by Frank Hampson.

The Infinite Jukebox: Something in the Air


Expect there to be a lot of Sixties music on the Infinite Jukebox. I might have missed the decade musically, all but the last ten days of it, but I listened to Radio One throughout the Seventies, and one couldn’t do that without developing a pretty detailed grasp of the music of that era.
Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was a three week number 1 in the summer of 1969, a classic One Hit Wonder from a band that took its name from perhaps the least important member, and which wasn’t really a band at all. Indeed, I doubt I ever heard the single at the time, and I first got to know it well by taping it off Terry Wogan’s show, back in the day when large swathes of Radio One’s airtime was still being shared with Radio Two, and he cut the song well short, as he usually did back then: try listening to a song all the way through on Wogan’s show. But I loved the song, and I was one of the few who wanted to hear more from Thunderclap Newman, and in a poll for the greatest number One single of all time, this has my vote firmly in its back pocket.
Though they toured, briefly, as a five-piece, Thunderclap Newman were effectively a three-man operation, though ‘Something in the Air’ was recorded as a four-piece, with a guy named Bijou Drains on bass and arrangements. Well, for this recording he was named Bijou Drains, though most people knew him as a boiler-suited, arm-swinging guitarist with a big nose, who wrote songs for the Who under the name of Pete Townsend. And there were those who were convinced that Thunderclap Newman were a pseudonym for Townsend.
But there was an Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, who was a jazz-loving piano player, with a heavy pair of hands, who worked as a GPO Engineer, dressed like someone twice his age, and refused to get into the music business because he wanted to make sure of his Post Office pension.
And there was Jimmy McCullogh, who was from Glasgow and could play guitar like both an angel and a devil, which was seriously impressive since he was only 15.
And there was John ‘Speedy’ Keen, drummer, singer with an extraordinary nasal whine, rock’n’roller, Who roadie, Townsend’s chauffeur, best mate and Best Man at his wedding. Speedy wrote songs. He was the only guy outside the band to write an original song that The Who had recorded. And Townsend wanted to showcase his mate’s songs, one of which was ‘Revolution’, that is, until the Beatles recorded their song of the same name, which meant that Speedy’s song had to be re-named ‘Something in the Air’.
What a title! In just four words, Keen captured something mystical, the sense of possibility, the atmosphere of change.
The words of the song are simple enough, three verses and choruses, in which only the first line changes. Call out the instigators because there’s Something in the Air/We got to get together sooner or later because the Revolution’s here. And you know it’s right. We have got to get it together, we have got to get it together now.
But the music surrounds it with the haze of summer, McCullough’s twelve-string guitar filling the air, filling the sky, Speedy’s simple yet expressive drumming controlling the movement, Thunderclap’s piano as yet an understated, rhythmic underpinning. It feels like summer, it tastes like summer, with that something more somewhere out there, beyond the reach of the senses but forever on the edge of them.
Lock up the streets and houses, Keen wails, before going on to repeat the lines we’ve already heard, his falsetto yelp filling us with anticipation and desperation both. We have got to get it together, now.
Then the music dissolves, and as if from a different recording studio, from a different session, another song entirely, Thunderclap inserts an astonishing, tub-thumping piano solo that takes the song over, takes it somewhere else, fills the ears with mystery. The others clap, loud, the percussion for this session as the music spins and whirls into itself, the sound dying down as the strings begin to soar, such a soaring, louder, higher, more insistent than before, as McCullough’s guitar and some understated horn rising from the mix underpin Keen’s final, pleading howl. Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re going to blast our way through here. The time’s come, the moment when it depends on faith, courage and despair, when we decide who wins and where history will go next.
And you know it’s right.
Again and again, the horns spiraling, we have got to get it together, we have got to get it together. Now.
And then it ends (though it didn’t that first time, when I taped it off Wogan, who faded it at the end of Newman’s implausible solo). Did we win? No, not in real life. But in the four minutes of genius that Speedy Keen wrote and Pete Townsend constructed, the Revolution is still alive, the summer is hot and the air is pregnant. All we have to do is to get it together. Now.

 

Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 3 & 4


                                                                                   Laust and Peter at war

Oh, but this really is superb.

The 2014 Danish historical drama about a part of European history that most will find obscure continues to demonstrate that intelligent writing and first class acting are unmatchable when it comes to drama, and that it is increasingly shameful that Denmark can do this so regularly whilst the UK TV industry can only achieve anything comparable in tiny bursts of intensity, usually relating to serial killers and/or violence to women.

Two further episodes in, we are starting to get a clearer grasp on the structure of the series. Now that Peter and Laust Jensen are enrolled into the Danish Army, the two historical periods have merged (except in Inge’s opening sentences each week, harking back to their idyllic youth, now gone beyond retrieval), and the contemporary frame of the nose- and lip-ringed Claudia and the old Baron is starting to come into some kind of focus.

Let’s deal with this first. Peroxided Claudia starts off episode 3 in unsympathetic mode, chewing gum and listening to deafening modern-type music whilst stealing graveyard flowers from one grave to put on another, but then it’s off to the Baron’s place. She finds him in very hostile manner, this stemming from deep shame at having shit himself in his bed, and the camera doesn’t shrink from showing this. But, despite her disgust, Claudia actually gets down to cleaning him off and, impliedly, changing his bed and cleaning his sheets before resuming her reading of Inge’s diary (albeit with a purloined jewelled bracelet in her back pocket).

Indeed, the thoroughly modern girl is, despite herself, getting involved in the story, and particularly that of Inge and Laust. She’s desperately demanding to know the ending, do the lovers get together? The Baron’s need for sleep cuts off that spoiler, but she and we do learn that Inge is his grandmother.

Then, in the second half of this double-bill, the Baron goes off on a ‘youngsters-of-today’ rant that’s amusing Claudia until he turns to war, warfare and the basic weakness of Danish youth as opposed to the ‘real men’ of the past, forgetting until a fusillade of fucks comes from the girl that her brother has been killed on service with the current Danish Army. His contrition is real and his apology genuine, though Claudia doesn’t get to receive this until she has tried to pull a sordid scam on three creepy blokes in a pub, and got her nose busted for it.

Though the soap-operaish relationship is the link between the two eras, it’s very good to see how small a role it plays. A lot happens over these two episodes, none of it dwelt-upon at unnecessary length. Though Inge puts on the front of loving both the Jensens equally, and they too agree rules that forbid either to send her letters without the other first reading them, Laust and Inge are soon going behind Peter’s back, guiltily but unstoppably. And there’s one further element: he’s got her pregnant.

Then there’s the complication of Didrich, the Baron’s son, who (in his own, dangerous head at least) also loves Inge, but is reduced to demonstrating by forcing silent Sofia, the gypsy’s daughter, to put on one of Inge’s dresses for him, and then raping her, an attack she will not reveal for decades.

Revealing her pregnancy is an eye-opener for Inge. Since it is not Didrich’s child, which would be alright, her mother disowns her and throws her out. And a letter in camp handed to the wrong Jensen brother spills the beans and leads to another disowning, Peter of Laust.

Where all this will lead is interesting from the very little amounts of attention being given to it, but I am now utterly fascinated with the picture of a forgotten war. Episode 3 deals with the descent into war, with King Frederick frustrating the Prime Minister Bishop Monrad’s insistence on war by dying, but the idiot Monrad just goes on to manipulate his successor, King Christian over the fact that he’s German-born and needs to put his people at risk of death and destruction in order to prove he really has Danish interests at heart…

The instrument of war is a new Danish constitution that claims Schleswig as part of Denmark, in breach of all the treaties signed after the Three Years War. Denmark expect support from England but in a beautifully played serio-farcical scene, Queen Victoria (the inimitable Barbara Flynn) and her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston (James Fox), England agrees that it cannot possibly send men or weapons, though it will send sympathies. And I was howling with laughter when Palmerston took time to carefully explain the complexities of the Schleswig Question (what about Holstein?!) with the exact story I mentioned last week.

The Constitution produces the desired effect: Prussia and the German Confederation declare war on Denmark. A chance to emulate the glories of 1848! Except that that’s really not going to happen, and we’re told this in no uncertain symbolic terms at the start of episode 4 when the Jensen brothers’ platoon sets off for War, singing jolly War songs, following their aged Captain on his horse, until he dies of old age in the street and the horse leads them all into a back courtyard.

Really though, the symbol runs jut ahead of the reality as the troops arrive at the great traditional impregnable fortress of the Danevirke, only to find it decrepit beyond belief, with no barracks. Oh, and their new Captain is Didrich. From there it can only get worse, and that doesn’t even happen until after the happy-go-lucky boys get to see what war is really like, with the unflinching eye of the camera ramming it all home to the audience in a totally matter of fact manner.

As I mentioned last week, Soren Malling joined the cast for this pair of episodes, as Private Johann Larssen, aka The Light Keeper. Why Larssen has this nickname is yet to be disclosed, but he’s already something of a legend, the oldest private in the Army (though he’s promoted to Colour Sergeant before the evening is over). Larssen is the Old Soldier, and I’m prepared to bet that his nickname comes form his ability to just just keep himself but his colleagues alive in war. Malling’s inner stillness and seen-it-all calm is perfectly enacted.

More next week. I am waiting  eagerly.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Light Fantastic


Every year, when I went on holiday, in those days before television in the rooms became standard, I would take away with me books to read in the quiet evenings after a day on the fells. In September 1986, I badly miscalculated my reading times and ran out in midweek.
It was late in the evening, I was in Keswick, the bookshops were closed and I was running round the newsagents/giftshops that were open until 8.00pm, desperate to buy something I could enjoy reading. But I was struggling to find something that appealed.
There was another Terry Pratchett book about, The Light Fantastic, a sequel to The Colour of Magic (literally so, the only Discworld book to follow directly on from its predecessor). I was dubious of it but the hour was getting late. It probably wouldn’t be much cop, but at least I knew I would be able to read it, and besides I could always sell it on. So, better than nothing.
I have never seen such an improvement in a writer in just the space of one book.
At the time, I only knew Pratchett from the Corgi paperback of half a year earlier. I hadn’t even noted the hardback publication date, so as far as I was concerned, the writer had made this quantum leap in the space of six months. I roared my head off reading The Light Fantastic, knowing that I’d have to re-buy the first book.
What made such a difference? I can make a few points now, but essentially it was down to my instinctive impression on that night’s reading, that in the intervening space, Terry Pratchett had sat down and thoroughly analysed his ‘first’ book, seen where it didn’t work and had set out to do it right this time.
That it had taken him three years to work it out, not six months, doesn’t lessen the impact.
The Light Fantastic was in every way a better book. For one thing, it was a single, coherent story that went several steps beyond The Colour of Magic in developing several narrative voices across a number of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are hauled back from their fall off the Disc via a resetting of Reality, whereupon they become the target of any number of Wizards from Unseen University, who want the Great Spell back out of Rincewind’s head.
Which is particularly important because Great A’Tuin, the galaxy-sized Turtle, is gradually swimming out of the Discworld Universe’s space towards a single red star. And people are panicking more than somewhat.
But the book had gained more than a plot, it had gained an authorial voice. Pratchett now sounds like Pratchett. He is still nicking tropes from fantasy fiction, but instead of parodying other people’s works, he’s taking archetypal situations and using them in a basically straight manner, whilst undermining them via the responses of his characters. And his jokes sound like Pratchett.
The version of Unseen University we meet here is very rough-edged, and inherently unstable. Pratchett is still a long way from discovering that the most effective form of magic is the one you don’t do, and the Wizards of this Faculty are still overtly competitive. The entire Faculty, the eight Heads of Orders that Pratchett quickly learns he can do without, are wiped out, Archchancellor Galdor Weatherwax (hmm. Significant name, that) by the Luggage, the rest by Tymon, the ambitious but ultimately grey Deputy.
Tymon is actually the most significant figure in this book. He may be magically apt, but he’s the anti-Wizard, Organisation Man, determined on an efficiency that takes the passion, the satisfaction, the fun out of everything. Pratchett finds his true voice, the true purpose of his talent, in inveighing against him as the antithesis of what is needed to be properly human. He still has to learn to let that voice go, to let the anger within form the solid backbone of Discworld, but this is where it first shows.
The Light Fantastic also introduces us to Cohen the Barbarian. Whereas Hrun, in the first book, is a generic barbarian, distinguished only by his unusually small head, Cohen is a far greater conception, the barbarian who has been a legend so long that he’s grown old in his trade: eighty-seven, bald, toothless and a martyr to arthritis, but still unkillable. In the clash between him and Herenna, the Henna-Haired Harridan (visually a more sensible take-off of Marvel’s Red Sonja), there’s only one winner.
We also are privy to that moment, early in the book, where a ball of wild magic rises through the library, transforming the Librarian into, well, The Librarian. His response is, naturally, Oook.
Rincewind comes out of it seemingly on top, supervising the clean-up at Unseen University, in position to take over as Archchancellor. It was never going to be that way, and Pratchett may well have known that already, but since Rincewind wasn’t going to be used in the next book, it was a sentimental gesture at the time, a tidying-up. Sometimes, writers develop a sentimental attachment to their characters, almost as much as readers do. There’s a scene in a much later book where Pratchett demonstrates by how much he learned to know better.
In short, a vastly better book, and more importantly, one on which Pratchett could begin to build the towering edifice that will become Discworld. It’s less the architecture that we see taking shape, than the attitude of Discworld, that of a world in which a certain literalness will forever undermine the fantastic, putting it into its proper place.
My eyes were now wide open for the next book from Terry Pratchett.