Dan Dare: The Earth-Stealers

                                                                                      A Don Harley panel

And this is an undeniable nadir.
The Earth-Stealers is a horrible mess from beginning to truncated end, thirteen weeks of which not a panel can be justified, a story whose provisions and effects disappear utterly the moment the next story begins, and which is an insurmountable block in any attempt to collate the various Dan Dare stories into a coherent chronology.
Nor does it have any artistic highlights to at least leaven the criticism, for it is presented throughout in the horrible split-cover fashion foisted on Eagle in the latter weeks of The Platinum Planet, complete with the airless five tier cram on page 2.
Dan and Digby, in the Zylbat, return from years away in deep space to find the Earth surrounded by clouds so that it looks like Venus. Under the cloud cover, they find that the planet has drastically changed: Spacefleet HQ is under water, so too is London, capital cities the world round are deserted and English country villages have turned into swamp and jungle in the tropical heat. In fact, the whole of Earth’s population has vanished.
Finally, our heroes find a remote settlement high in the Andes, only to find themselves shot at when they climb over its wall. The camp belongs to Earth Reclamation Ltd, and the pair are brought before its Director, a South American looking type called Malvol, whose assistant looks like an ex-Nazi concentration camp commander (and probably is).
This is where we get the explanation. During the years of Dan and Digby’s absence (and we are given no clue as to how many years that is), Earth underwent a dramatic increase in temperature and expansive climatic change, shortly followed by a virulent but unexplained plague, which decimated population, so Earth’s Government gave up and evacuated the planet to Mars. Malvol has been given the job of investigating if it’s going to be possible to come back, with a bit of work, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s planning on taking over for himself.
You may well be asking yourself, What the F? (sorry, the Reverend Marcus Morris may be long gone but we’ll have no language like that around here, even though it’s by far and away the most appropriate). This is a large chunk of hindsight, given the years we’ve been exposed to theories about Global Warming and the long term gradual effects of what man has achieved in a considerably more polluted world than that of Dan Dare, but just how bloody long are he and Digby supposed to have been away for?
Climate-changed planet incapable of supporting life, AND a devastating plague all at once? Evacuation to Mars, which is incapable of supporting human life outside of its luxury and limited dome accommodation? Are you serious about this? Giving a private, commercial organisation the contract to see if the planet’s fit to move back to when half of it is still underwater, and lions have shifted their natural habitat to Surrey?
There isn’t an ounce of this that’s remotely plausible, and since we all know that Dan’s going to expose Malvol as some kind of would-be dictator anyway, there is no remotely conceivable way of getting out of this situation for as long as the Dan Dare series lives. The storyline is beyond a joke.
As is the incredibly perfunctory ending. Dan and Digby escape in the Zylbat and head towards Mars to verify this idiot tale. Malvol frames them as having the Plague, which at least results in the unloved (by me) Zylbat being blown to pieces. We don’t get to see anything on Mars that would remotely make the background credible, just Spacefleet’s new HQ and Acting-Controller Burke, late of the Security Division (Sir Hubert went off on a deep space mission shortly after the Zylbat first disappeared: nothing comes of that, so maybe a search for him might have been the next storyline if something bigger hadn’t intervened).
Burke’s suspicious of Malvol but hasn’t a shred of proof, so he lets Dan and Digby ‘escape’ in an unguarded two-seater, to go back to Earth and get the goods for him. En route, Dan catches up on the papers, and discovers a series of discouraging reports from one of Malvol’s experts, our old friend Lex O’Malley.
Sure enough, once Dan tracks Lex down, the Irishman confirms that his reports have been altered for the worse, obviously by Malvol. The Earth is a lot closer to being rehabitable than Mars thinks, despite the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen with Dan. It’s a long time since these friends have seen each other, but Dan hasn’t a word of friendship for the bloke he took to Cryptos: just a business call, no fraternising.
As for Lex, we have some spectacularly poor scripting from Eden, who can’t write a line of dialogue without lapsing into stage Irish cliché in word or accent. O’Malley was never remotely like this, which is not Irish but Oirish: Eden’s ear is horribly tin in this respect.
Anyway, the reason Malvol’s gotten away with everything so far is QX, which is not a forerunner of Spike Milligan’s anarchic BBC2 comedy series’ but a drug that renders Spacefleet visitors from Mars very suggestible about what they think they see, hear and, on this occasion, do. Malvol’s ready to take Mars over militarily, with a flotilla of Spacefleet ships to carry the bombs.
Until Dan and Lex pour all the QX away down the sink. Then it’s just a matter of telling everyone to pretend to be drugged until Malvol is off-Earth and neutralised, whereupon they all beat the living crap out of the would-be dictator and his Nazi aide. End of story.
I’m not going to go on about this story. What I’ve said so far is sufficient to describe the tale. But Eden is not solely culpable for the abrupt, oversimple ending. Elsewhere in Eagle, series’ were coming to sudden endings, stories were cut short. Odhams had owned Eagle for two and a half years, but now it was their turn to be bought out, this time by Longacre Press. Odhams’ name would return to the comics, as an imprint, later in the decade, but Longacre were going to put their own stamp on Eagle, and it would be the biggest upheaval the comic ever experienced.


In Praise of Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

Sometimes, tiny little details that appear to be insignificant at the time assume a greater prominence later on. Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld novels were published by Colin Smythe Ltd, but their success meant that Pratchett would need a larger publisher, and Smythe became his agent instead, whilst the hardbacks started to appear from Gollancz SF. Yes, SF.
Suddenly, however, with Guards! Guards!, the actual books went up a size, larger, wider, thicker, as if representing a more important, more prestigious approach to Pratchett’s work. That it happened with the first book of the City Watch strand is probably no more than a fortuitous coincidence, and not a subliminal recognition that the most important and serious of Pratchett’s various series was coming into being.
Certainly, Pratchett himself didn’t know at this stage what his book would lead to. Though not to the same extent as Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, Guards! Guards! is an off-key introduction to Sam Vimes and the veterans of the Night Watch that, in two respects, doesn’t quite ring true with what the characters go on to become. Indeed Pratchett, in a short preface, makes it clear that his only thoughts at this time were to pay homage to the cannon-fodder, the common guards whose usual job is to rush the hero and be beaten, and give them the centre of the story for once.
The plot is surprisingly simple. A mysterious individual manipulates a group of malcontents and losers into magical rituals that summon a real dragon into Ankh-Morpork for increasingly longer periods. His intent is to put forward a young man, posing as the long-lost King, who will ‘defeat’ the dragon and then rule, under the plotter’s advice of course. The plot develops a serious flaw when the dragon decides to stay on and rule itself. The only people to take the threat seriously are the overlooked, mocked, derided Night Watch, which includes among their minuscule number the real heir to the throne. With the aid of one of the city’s leading swamp dragon breeders, they succeed in seeing the threat off, leading to an improvement in their standing.
That’s far from all there is to it, but on that relatively straightforward foundation, Pratchett starts to build some of his finest characters.
The Night Watch, at this time, consists of three people. These are the drunken Captain Sam Vimes, the fat and bumbling Sergeant Fred Colon and the petty pilfering Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Until very recently they were four, but Sergeant Herbert ‘Leggy’ Gaskin made the mistake that the Night Watch work so assiduously not to make, and actually caught up with the villains he was pursuing, and so after the funeral, they’re all that’s left.
But they’re also soon to be restored to four, thanks to the arrival of Constable Carrot. Carrot is a dwarf, not that you’d think to look at him, given that he’s six foot six inches tall, with bright red hair and his muscles have muscles on them. Carrot’s an adopted dwarf, you see, culturally dwarfish but physically human, survivor of a cart wreck that left just a baby and a functional sword. He also has a birthmark on his upper arm, shaped like a crown.
Carrot, we are led to believe, is the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork, not that he’s aware of this.
Four of them, four no-hopers, Sad Sacks, in an unwanted organisation, in a city that has privatised crime and has thus done away with the need for Policemen.
Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs arrived perfectly whole and entire, a double act as perfectly tuned to one another as Morecambe and Wise in their prime. Pratchett got them 100% on their first outing, and if they haven’t gone on to develop, it’s because they’ve never needed to.
The slow, bumbling Sergeant with the low level sense of entitlement about freebies due his rank, comfortable, rotund, pretending to knowledge and understanding he clearly lacks, and the dirty, semi-simian Constable, perpetually smoking dog-ends, the petty pilferer and trier of unlocked doors, wiser in some ways than his superior but still unfathomably ignorant would be unbearable in real life.
But in fiction, they are a comic team who are ultimately completely endearing, because under their frailties, Colon and Nobbs are honest (to within a given value for honest) and they are loyal and, when push comes to shove as it does in Guards! Guards!, they are true, reliable and even brave (no matter whether it’s artificially stimulated).
To an extent, Fred and Nobby don’t get to play their best role here. In future books, their double act is enhanced by the added dimension of their being the past, the link to the bad times for the Night Watch: here they are the Night Watch in the bad days, and their story is of their following Captain Vimes’ example and starting to take being the Law seriously.
And then there’s Lance-Constable Carrot, the six foot six red-haired dwarf who radiates an air of absolute simplicity: well, no, not quite here. For most of this book, what Carrot radiates is naivete, and there’s a very big difference.
The problem is that there’s no-one to see through Carrot’s surface in Guards! Guards!, not like Angua will in later books, and without that kind of insight, Pratchett is limited to only showing the surface. True, Carrot starts to grow in stature towards the end of the book, when his natural charisma and innate leadership qualities come to the fore, unconsciously, but at this stage, that’s just a function of his barely concealed status as the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork.
Though it comes in handy at the end, I tend to suspect that Pratchett introduced Carrot’s heritage as an ironic counterpoint to the villain to defeat the dragon by producing an ‘heir to the throne’ of his own, an irony multiplied by the fact that it is he – Lupine Wonse, the Patrician’s secretary – who signs Carrot into the Night Watch that he, uniquely, is eager to join.
No-one, especially in the Watch itself, can understand why, especially not drunken Captain Vimes.
I believe, and I am very far from being alone in this, that Sam Vimes is Terry Pratchett’s finest creation. He is, very simply, The Decent Man. To the depths of his soul, beyond all his self-recognised failings, prejudices, shortcomings, angers and his burning desire to arrest the whole world for doing things wrong, Sam Vimes is the most honest, most principled person you will ever find. And he is all these things and believable as a person at the same time.
Just as with Carrot, I don’t think Pratchett saw this in writing this book. The intention was to honour the cannon-fodder, to put them at the centre of the story, and it’s very noticeable that it would take another seven books before he brought back the Night Watch, because I think the possibilities of Carrot and, especially, Vimes, needed that time to grow into the futures that aren’t really visible to them from here.
At the moment, Vimes is a drunk. He has no family, no relationships, nothing outside the Night Watch, which, as he is all too aware, is a joke. The news that someone wants to join the Watch, instead of being pressed into it, is incomprehensible to him. His life is empty of anything with any significant meaning, except a bottle.
What kick-starts the astonishing transformation in Vimes? The Dragon: or rather it’s a coloured silhouette on a wall, in the Shades, of four thieves who made the mistake of attacking the wrong victim. Because inside Vimes, forgotten for many years, is a Policeman. And, in the face of all opposition, from above as well as below, Vimes sets out to solve a Crime.
And in doing so, it brings the Captain to the home of Ankh-Morpork’s leading swamp-dragon breeder, who can give him very cheerful, jolly-hockeysticks professional advice about dragons, in the form of Lady Sybil Ramkin. And that starts another story for Sam Vimes…
For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on the main story, on the transformation of Sam Vimes. It’s a classic arc, the seeming no-hoper who, in a time of crisis, demonstrates an unexpected competence, even genius. Because drunken Captain Vimes is, despite his fears otherwise, a Policeman. Suspicious of others, determined to put a shape on things, but committed to the notion that those who do not have power, or privilege, status or wealth, should not have their lives destroyed for the whims of others.
Pratchett presents Vimes as the Copper Incarnate, though we’ll see this more in later books. Despite the fact that, except for comic purposes, Politics plays about as much part in Discworld as sex does, I think that Vimes is also the pure Socialist.
In the end, the Dragon is banished, the day is saved. Vimes is going to marry Lady Sybil, Carrot promoted to Constable. The tradition of rewards begins in comically minimal fashion. But in essence nothing changes, which supports my instinct that Pratchett intended nothing more than a one-off. Thankfully, he didn’t leave it like that.
And let us not forget, when we’re concentrating upon the Night Watch, that this is the book in which we first see, in all his glory, Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and guider of that city into a future more complicated than any might have imagined at this point in time.

Cheap Cumbrian Thrills – a few additional notes

Re-acquainting myself with the library last month, for the first time since before Christmas, my eyes happened to light upon Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud, the sixth and, to date last, in his Lake District Mysteries series featuring Historian Daniel Kind and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary Cold Crimes Squad.

Thinking it was a new book, I thought I’d give it a peruse, but I had in fact read it before, but simply not commented upon it. Feeling in the mood for a bit of malicious chastisement, and suffering from sufficient a degree of anal retentivity as to be faintly disturbed at leaving one book out, I thought I’d pass a few comments on the same.

It’s possible that this may be the last book of the series: after all, it ends with the two will-they-won’t-they-oh -get-on-with-it protagonists finally planning a shagging weekend in Wales after assiduously spending over two-thirds of the book avoiding each other rigidly on the grounds that now all complications keeping them from getting it together have been erased that they aren’t actually interested in each other at all. So, bang goes the sexual tension, which is more than the sexual tension had been going in the first place.

Plus Hannah’s publicity-seeking Deputy Chief Constable has legged it out of the Force, no longer blocking Hannah’s route to further promotion.

And, on a more sobering note, the present day murder victim is Hannah’s best friend and polar opposite, Terry, her face battered in in a brutal crime intended to echo two similar incidents – one deeply historical – which have given rise to rumours of a ghost. The killer is the least likely person, naturally, until a motive common to the present killing and the one of five years ago with which Edwards opens the book, presents itself as the closing pages approach.

The setting for this crime is once again Ullswater, in the shape of a fictional peninsula on the east shore of the lake, south of Howtown, which forms an effective closed community, inhabited by flamboyant, arty types. The book’s title is not linked to any pseudo-Cumbrian place or thing, but rather the brutal crime, which is less offensive, but mostly the book’s plus points are negativities: that it doesn’t try too hard to persuade you that it is taking place in the Lakes.

The same old criticisms apply: a complete absence of sense of place (it takes a bit more than placing Helvellyn ‘opposite’ and having Hallin Fell ‘loom’ over the scene at convenient moments when the latter is only a small fell to begin with and far too far north of Helvellyn to be in any meaningful sense opposite). Nor does anyone in the book talk remotely Cumbrian. But I repeat myself. And really, the out-of-place names for places and things are just trite this time instead of unreflective.

As a by the by, this is not the only crime fiction story I’ve read of late to set itself in the Lake District. When I’m after undemanding, easy-to-read fiction that I can just breeze through without being tempted to blog, I’ve read several of Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series: polite, mid-Victorian crime, very professional, slightly formulaic stuff whose selling point is that the crimes are all, in one way or another, connected to or facilitated by the burgeoning rail network of the 1850s. Former Barrister Robert Colbeck of the Metropolitan Police is the go-to guy for any train crime, much to the disgust of his stuffy, ex-Army Superintendent Mr Tallis and his home-loving, train-fearing Sergeant, Victor Leeming.

Marston’s most recent contribution to the series, which now includes a dozen novels, is a collection of short stories, a dozen indeed, spanning the whole country and including, in one tale, Ravenglass Station. Now that’s what you call personal, not merely on behalf of my spiritual county, but my great grandfather, who was Stationmaster at Ravenglass Station. Probably not quite as far back as the Railway Detective’s celebrated visit, but that’s not the point.

Honestly, Marston must have done no research whatsoever into Ravenglass Village, because the kind of community he plonked down for Colbeck to investigate made Edwards’s efforts look like a documentary. If you’re going to be that casual about your subject, bloody well make something up instead, so it doesn’t matter.

Oh well, at least I’ve got that off my chest.


Life of a Mountain revisited

Back in January this year, the BBC aired a beautiful hour long documentary, directed by Terry Abrahams, about a year in the life of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and I watched it and raved about it here.

At the time, I mentioned that this was an edited-down version of the original film, available on DVD in a two hour length. I have now put my hands upon this DVD and watched it, and I can only recommend it all over again, only even more.

For anyone who loves the Lakes, this is an absolute must. It’s gentle, thoughtful, unpretentiously lyrical, and the filming is some of the most beautiful and enthralling I have ever seen about the Lakes country. Abrahams has imposed no personal vision on his film, nor given it any set course. It’s organised around the four seasons, and these four sections can be viewed separately, but who, given the possibility of 126 minutes of heavenly absorption, would want to watch only a part?

Given that this is just over twice as long as the original, it’s strange to report that it doesn’t feel as if there are masses of additional material. With the exception of another interlude with the Wasdale shepherdess at the end, book-ending her introduction to the televised version, the additional material is mainly more of the same things, more conversations with the natural talkers I referred to previously, relaxed, delighted just to be where they are, as much a part of the landscape as the mountains we return  to, over and over.

My two criticisms previously are resolved in the extended original. Whilst the film itself is still Wasdale oriented, there is much more material on the Eskdale flank of the mountain, and the music, second time round, comes over as much more in tune with the whole piece. It seemed nothing like so obtrusive, and it was a fitting companion to such scenes of beauty, grandeur and enthrallment.

It was interesting to contrast pronunciations. The proper pronunciation of Scafell Pike was spelled out to be with a long ‘a’, Skaw-fell, echoing the former spelling of the title, which is what I was taught as a land, though a majority of those referencing the name did so with a short ‘a’, as in Scar – fell. On the other hand, I have always been brought up – by a Cumbrian grandfather, no less – to pronounce the valley as ‘Wast’l’, whereas people who ought to know were universally pronouncing it ‘Wass-dale’.

Too late to unlearn now.

Lovely film, and a poignant reminder of places to return to and places still to go. Worth every penny you pay for it.


A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #24

Having celebrated Astro City‘s previous issue for demonstrating the series’ long overdue longevity, it fels incumbent to review the second half of the story, just to record how disappointing it was.

The set-up, if you don’t recall, was that Sticks, a soldier from the secretive Gorilla Mountain, had escaped and come to Astro City to pursue his dream of becoming a drummer in a band, but found this impossible due to the hassle of people wanting/expecting him to use his ‘powers’ as a superhero.

How does Busiek square this circle for his forlorn talking gorilla? Initially, Sticks succumbs to the inevitable and joins the hip, young team, Reflex 6, but after six months he leaves: it isn’t what he wants, it’s not what he is. He tries to go back to his human friends and their band, but it’s just the same as before. Moping on a rooftop, he meets Samaritan, who offers help: there is always a way. At which point, Sticks gets an idea.

This is a familiar moment in an Astro City comic, when this month’s central character is struck by inspiration and comes up with an ingenious plan, and mentally we sit back, waiting for Busiek to dazzle or amuse us with the lucidity of his idea. Except that the great idea of Sticks of how to live his life and pursue his dreams without everybody on his back, trying to force him to become a superhero and fight is… to become a superhero and fight.

Granted it’s as Tuxedo Gorilla, an immaculately dressed gorilla in a tuxedo, complete with anti-gravity spats, and Sticks is working solo, off his own beats, but it’s still a very disappointing conclusion if the only way you can prevent being a round peg stuffed into a square hole is to become a square peg. I mean, Martha Sullivan (who’s mentioned in passing) has superpowers but hasn’t had to take up superheroing.

As for the music side, that conclusion is also pretty banal: Sticks forms a band with other superhumans who are interested in music. I hope they’re happy.

What depresses me about this issue, whether Busiek intends it or not, is that it’s message is that being superhuman trumps everything, that all your choices in life are suborned into being a superhero, that all individuality is overridden. I’m not happy with that.


When a Sweatshirt was a Turban

                                                                          Allen Crags from Esk Hause

Rain, cloud, snow and wind: what other extreme weather experience can you have out on the fells? That leaves sun, or heat, and I’ve a story to tell about that as well.
Ordinarily, this wasn’t a problem. I scheduled my holidays for April and September, just outside the holiday season either way, spring and autumn, away from the extreme weathers, and I nearly always got what I planned for.
Besides, if the day happened to be sunny and hot at valley level, it was rare for me not to find cooler air and breezes once I got above a thousand feet, where even gentle ones were all that were needed.
But I did get caught out once, and it could have gone very badly.
This happened in 1990, at the beginning of my April week. For reasons I can no longer recall, I had booked a very late holiday, late enough for the latter half of the week to roll over into May. That made it a good fortnight later than my normal practice, and there was a consequent effect on the base weather conditions, for this was to be a very sunny week, more so than I usually got.
In keeping with my usual practice, I motored up leisurely on Sunday morning, booked myself into Bridgedale, in Keswick, and spent the afternoon stretching my legs on something local and low, just to get warmed up. I can’t now remember why, but for Easter Monday I had chosen an unusually strenuous walk for so early in the week.
My plan was to drive down to Seathwaite, park as close to the farm as I could manage, climb Esk Hause via Grains Gill, and return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell massif, over Allen Crags and Glaramara.
This was going to be a day of firsts: though I had been to Seathwaite previously, I had not been as far as Stockley Bridge, nor had I seen Grains Gill or Esk Hause, and it went without saying that I had climbed neither fell before.
I’ve returned from Stockley Bridge a number of times and, fittingly, it’s still a rough, undulating walk, but on a morning approach, contemplating the steep-sided valley ahead, it’s a rousing start.
At Stockley Bridge, which shows not the slightest sign of being almost washed away in the great flood of 1966 (in which we were caught, driving home from a week in the Lakes in the most appalling, drenching conditions that I remember of my young life), the path crosses the infant Derwent and divides into two famous paths, both of which will take you onto a glorious days in the fells. Directly ahead, scaling the fell-side in well-graded sweeps, the scars of the clumsy walkers now healed, is the main route to Sty Head Pass, but on this occasion I turned left, for the only time, into the narrowing valley ahead, with Great End dominating its ultimate skyline.
Though I’ve since descended Grains Gill on a couple of occasions, this was still the only time I’ve used it in ascent, much to my regret. Of highways into the hills, it ranks amongst the finest in the Lakes: straight and narrow, rough underfoot but without danger for the experienced walker, between high fell walls and heading directly for Great End’s terminal cliffs.
The day was hot, the Gill enclosed, though strangely I cannot remember conditions being particularly onerous, or experiencing any difficulty in proceeding. The sun was high and hot, unusually so for early April. The serious mistake that I had made was that this wasn’t really the best walk for a Monday.
This was only the second walk of the year, and the first had only been the afternoon before, on Gowbarrow Fell, an overland stroll on primarily level ground from The Hause, on a route subsequently locked, barred and bolted against walkers. It wasn’t much preparation for a rock-based walk encompassing two fells over 2,500′, in the Scafell range.
As Grains Gill progressed, the valley narrowed yet further, the gradients increased and the path crossed to the left side of the gill. I was now moving into more enclosed surroundings, as rock gathered around me. There was certainly no breath of air on this section, and I toiled upwards, focusing my attention upwards, on the figure of a walker making a direct assault on Great End, carefully picking his way up virgin slopes, looking to find a way around/through the cliffs.
Where he went, I don’t know, because I finally emerged onto the Sty Head – Esk Hause path and turned left for the latter, turning the face of Great End between me and this intrepid scrambler, doing something I’d never have the nerve to do.
The path I’d gained would, I knew, bring me only to the wall-shelter, the highest point on the west-east route from Sty Head to Great Langdale that, before Wainwright came along, was what was usually spoken of as Esk Hause. Properly educated years before by The Southern Fells, I was after the real thing, the Head of Eskdale, and the easiest way to do this was to break off along the ‘short cut’ path, angling upwards across the base of Great End. It was a graceful, stony, well-graded route that I thoroughly enjoyed, and it emerged at the top end of the wide plateau of Esk Hause, by the cairn that is the crossroads for so many routes, all of which save only the unmarked descent into Eskdale I would go on to walk in one direction or another.
I then descended from the watershed to the wall-shelter and contemplated what I should do next.

                                                                              Glaramara and Grains Gill
By that time, I did not feel at all good. I was hot and thirsty, there was no wind or breeze to cool me, and I felt not just heavy-legged but heavy-bodied. Under this sun, I had already used up more of my strength than was generally good for me, and the logical, indeed only sensible thing to do would be to head back to Grains Gill and descend.
But I have always been extremely stubborn when out walking. I could be flexible when the circumstances permitted, or demanded,but when I had started a walk, I thought of nothing other than reaching the summit I had targeted, and I did not give up lightly. Before now, I had only turned back once without a top, that being the day of snow on Pavey Ark’s North Rake.
There’d been good cause for that, a practical fear, but this was a sunny day! There was no wind, no rain, no prospect of interference from the weather. And I was at Esk Hause! Esk Hause, that mecca for all true fell-walkers. I could hardly turn round and go back from there with nothing conquered, especially not when Allen Crags was so near at hand, a mere one hundred feet of climbing, on easy ground. I couldn’t give up when I was that close, surely not?
So I headed uphill, though my legs felt like lead, and I duly reached my chosen summit, though I remember nothing of it: Allen Crags, hurrah! What next? Well, I’d only committed myself to climbing Allen Crags, nothing more, so I could drop back to Esk Hause and head down, honour fulfilled. But now that I was here… Well, it was actually shorter, and more direct, to go back over Glaramara, instead of down and around, and given how I felt, surely the less distance I had to force myself to cover, the better. Ok, onwards.
By such arguments do the stubborn convince themselves that it’s right to do what they wanted to do all along.
It was, like continuing to descend directly off Brim Fell when I’d clearly gotten myself into a rough corner, like ascending Dore Head under the shadow of Stirrup Crag, a stupid idea and one that was putting me into peril that anyone with my intelligence would normally shy away from, no problem. I look back at times like this and wonder how someone who was, for so long, unnecessarily conservative about his expeditions could so blithely ignore the obvious signs and plunge on.
And I try not to read too much into the fact that, every time, I got myself out of it, alone, without lingering consequences.
So I walked on, or more correctly stumbled on, along what Wainwright describes as one of the most delightful and enjoyable ridge walks in the Lake District and I cannot remember a thing about it, not even Glaramara’s summit, nor anything of the views, because I was now in a very bad way. My head was aching from the unrelenting sun, my eyes were hurting from the glare, my stomach was roiling and churning, I was horribly dehydrated and sickeningly thirsty, but unable to drink as the only liquid I had on me was a single can of Coca Cola, badly shaken about, warm and fuzzy, that I didn’t dare drink because I would end up vomiting all over the place.
And my legs had no strength and I couldn’t think, because I was using all my concentration to keep  them moving, step after step, without stumbling and falling, because there was a fairly good prospect that if I fell down – or even sat down – I would lack the energy to get back up again. And I had no sense of time, all movement from past to future gone, I was in a bubble of the present, focussed only on the necessity to get down, to get back to my car in one piece.
Medically, I’d gotten a big dose of heat exhaustion that was bordering upon heat stroke. How closely, I don’t know: I wasn’t in a position to observe clinically. My condition was being made worse at every moment by the lack of shade or shadow. Apart from a period in the mid-Seventies when I became attached to a John  Lennon Serious Young Poet Denim Cap, I have never gone on for hats, so I had nothing with which to cover my head. Except the hood of my anorak, and there was no way that I was going to struggle into another layer of clothing, not when I was as hot as I was already.
So I improvised, desperately. I’d set off in sweatshirt over something light, probably a t-shirt, and, as usual, once it had gotten hot enough, I’d whipped the sweatshirt off and tied it around my waist. With my head throbbing from the sun, at some point along the way to Glaramara, I had undone its sleeves and tied it together, over my head, as some kind of makeshift turban that, thankfully, stayed in place more or less, as I forced myself along.
Eventually, I reached the end of the fell, and the path began to seriously descend. It turned outwards, towards the Stonethwaite valley, giving me at last some shelter from the sun as the bulk of the ridge intervened. I still needed to take care: the path was narrow, slightly grooved, and the descent reasonably steep, and it was still all to easy to put a foot wrong.
And my throat had reached the point where, regurgitation or no regurgitation, I was going to have to drink that last fuzzy coke. The whole of my mouth felt as if it had been painted with glue. I came to a halt, cracked the ring pull and chugged it down. The liquid was definitely warm, and there was a strange furry taste to it, as if the bubbles had half-dissolved, and to my amazement, instead of inspiring me to spew all over the fellside, its effect was to settle my turbulent stomach and leave me feeling considerably more at ease than I’d been since at least Esk Hause.
It didn’t make me feel any less wiped out, or my legs less leaden, or the remaining half-a-fellside any less steep, but I got down to level ground in safety. In the Stonethwaite valley, admittedly, not Seathwaite, and the road walk still far longer than I wished to contemplate.
But there was a field path, curling around the toe of Glaramara, avoiding the road and the hard tarmac, avoiding the avoiding of cars, in pastoral silence and solitude and best of all, shorter. It still took me ages to negotiate. I was no longer so bad that I was at risk of falling at every step – the dehydration had obviously been the worst element, and I was ruefully furious with myself that I hadn’t had that last coke ages before – but my legs were still shot and I was rarely more grateful to get my boots off when I reached my car.
I never put myself through that again, though I never again encountered conditions where there was just no wind on a hot day. Instead of carrying cans to drink, I switched to the large bottles, enabling me to spread my hydration out in smaller doses. And I was a bit more circumspect about what I would and wouldn’t tackle that early in the week.
Though I’ve climbed both Allen Crags and Glaramara in clear weather, with the full arc of the view available, I’ve no recollection of either, the latter especially. Nor have I been back. But times will change, and once I am fit again, I’m coming back here. With something better than a sweatshirt for a turban.

The Wrong Leg

Words are very important to me. They are how I explain and shape the world around me, and when something happens that changes the world, or affects me deeply, I am at a loss and off-balance until I can find words that explain it  to myself, and only then can I begin to get a handle on what now has to take place to enable me to function.

For several weeks now, since the General Election, I have been disturbed. To someone like me, the outcome was an utter disaster, and what’s worse, a disaster about which nothing can be done. The things that I believe, that I believe in, have been rejected by the country that I used to love, that I used to understand, in a manner that has decisively ended any hopes I have of seeing the pendulum begin to swing back in my lifetime. The people around me, who have seen five years of the Tories go by, who have seen what they have done with this country, with its people, have allowed the process to be extended, to be worsened and intensified. Have chosen hate and division over decency and compassion.

I find it hard, next to impossible, to engage with the political process any more. Nothing can be done to resist what is already being put in place, with the lying complicity of the foreign nationals who own our right-wing press, who are eager to take away every right we have, whilst ensuring that they retain all those rights and more for themselves. They are in undisturbable power for five years, and they have already demonstratned their intention to use that power to put through change that will cement that class-based, money-weighted power into permanent reign.

And the brainless who believe that the country’s problems are all down to malingerers without legs who aren’t working all hours carrying bricks up ladders are giving away their own entitlements out of a malice so obtuse that it’s staring its own arse.

And I’m trying to find something that defines this feeling of being ultimately lost, of being a stranger in a land where nobody speaks my language, of being at right angles to a current that’s going nowhere except to a waterfall far greater than the Victoria Falls and with less hope of survival when you hit the edge, and nothing seems to explain it. No metaphor, no simile, nothing that defines the state I, personally, am in.

Until this afternoon, sat, in all of the banal places I could have been, in the launderette. It’s The Trousers of Time. It’s Terry Pratchett, and that idea introduced in Jingo that, honestly, I’ve never felt was correct for Discworld, because I’ve always instinctively read it as a Robert Rankin concept.

But the Trousers of Time it is. Not Earth-2, that concept that has tantalised and fascinated me since I discovered it in 1966, and which I use constantly. Because the Trousers of Time are so succinct and definitive. It’s an either/or: the world bifurcates like a pair of pants, and the world goes hurtling down one leg but you, you poor bastard, go hurtling down the other.

I’m in the wrong leg of the Trousers of Time. In the other leg, the opinion polls were right, it was crucially tight, but the votes fell out sufficiently well to turf the evil, selfish, divisive, plundering Tory bastards out, and we began to apply ourselves to policies intended to heal and mend, to benefit and uplift, to put money in pockets other than Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers, and that’s the leg I’m meant to be in, because that’s the world I am tuned to, but instead I’ve gone down the wrong leg, and I’m here and now and stuck until I die.

Words are very important to me. It’s important to understand, to define, to be aware. It doesn’t make it any better though.


Dan Dare: The Platinum Planet

                                                                                      The first page

Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.

                                                                               Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.

In Praise of Pratchett: Pyramids

What distinguishes the Discworld series from practically all the others is that it’s not a single series but rather an umbrella, incorporating multiple sub-series that feature separate sets of characters. Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Death, all had appeared so far, and more were to follow, but there is also a non-series sub-series, and those are the ones where the characters don’t recur, where their stories are done and complete in one volume.
Obviously, in the early years, we didn’t know which were going to be which, but Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids is, retrospectively, the first of this indefinable subset. It’s also the one where the seeming convention that the odd-numbered Discworld books weren’t much cop is blown spectacularly apart.
Pratchett himself described Pyramids as ‘Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off’, which is a better description than anything I can come up with. In fact, it not only describes this particular book but it can stand for the series as a whole. It’s not a formula, but a fundamental approach. Future books will engage themselves with a theme, which Pratchett will then exaggerate to such an extent that its most elemental truths will start to shape themselves.
But for now, let’s concentrate on this single book. It stars Teppic, or more properly Pteppicymon, heir to the ancient kingdom of Djelybeybi, a river valley on the south side of the Circle Sea, that is 150 miles long and two miles wide, and stuffed full of pyramids.
In order to further his education, Teppic is sent by his rather doddering and increasingly distracted father, King Pteppicymon XXVII, to get an education in Ankh-Morpork, at the Guild of Assassins. Teppic learns many things at the Guild: style, self-possession, history, geography, an appreciation of the comforts of Western Civilization (Ankh-Morpork? Civilised?), how to kill people in any way imaginable whilst preventing them from killing you, and that he’s not cut out to be an assassin.
This last part is very important.
What Teppic also learns along the way is that absolutely everything he learns makes him less and less fit to become the next King of Djelybeybi, particularly with reference to Djelybeybi’s Gods. And their Pyramids.
This only starts to become a serious problem when Pteppicymon XXVII decides, in one of his less lucid moments, that being a God means he can fly. We then start to see a fair amount of the story through the eyes and ears of his ghost or, this being Ancient Egypt with the knobs off, his Mummy.
Teppic finds himself drawn back to take over as King, and God, to Djelybeybi, full of ideas about modernisation, comfort, and and a gentle acceleration towards catching up with the Century of the Fruitbat. However, he has reckoned without Dios. Dios is the High Priest. Dios has been the High Priest for as long as anyone can remember, indeed for considerably longer than anyone could possibly remember. Dios knows what is to be done, at any hour or indeed minute. And Dios is there to ensure that it continues to be done, despite the quite obvious attempts of the King to insert that hated and impossible word Change into the River Kingdom.
This starts to cause a serious problem when Teppic finds himself condemning his father’s favourite handmaiden, Ptraci, to death because she doesn’t want to be put to death as part of his entourage in his pyramid.
Actually, though Teppic doesn’t know it, the one time he throws himself into his role as king in a way that conforms with Dios’s requirements is when he orders that his father’s Pyramid be the biggest one in Djelybeybi, in fact twice as big as every other one. Because pyramids are dams in the stream of time. And one this size…
First, however, Teppic has to get Ptraci out of the dungeon into which he has thrown her. It’s an easy task for someone with the training of an Assassin, though it’s complicated by Ptraci’s underlying belief that, as a good citizen of the River Kingdom, she ought not to be going against the King’s commands.
It’s a richly comic moment, but it’s also a moment that allows Pratchett to articulate one of his most  serious beliefs, a kind of raging disbelief at how easily humanity surrenders its free will, its freedom to think, and to act for itself. Dictators don’t need guns and ammunition for we have this astonishing willingness to walk ourselves into cells, lock and bolt the doors behind us and resist to the death any idea of escaping.
Over and again, Pratchett will construct situations that demonstrate the bars in people’s heads, with consummate simplicity, relying only on our ability to recognise these things in everyday life to convince us that this fantastic disconnect is hard-wired into our heads. Discworld is less a reductio ad absurdum than an expansio ad absurdum (forgive the cod-Latin, please).
But Teppic has more than the fate of one handmaiden (who happens to be his half-sister) to deal with, more even than his own fate, condemned to death in his own name by Dios, who refuses to accept that Teppic is the King because Teppic does not act like the King. No, his father’s pyramid is far too big, it is storing too much time, and not flaring it off, until the whole thing rotates ninety degrees.
And so does Djelybeybi. Ninety degrees, out of existence in the ‘real’ world, locked into its own time, where the Gods are really real, the Mummys have woken up, and, outside, the River Kingdom that has been keeping the Empires of Ephebe and Tsort from (literally) rubbing up against each other and exciting themselves to War, the River Kingdom is the tiniest crack in the ground, visible only to camels in dire need of water.
It’s an almost identical situation, given the obvious differences, to R. A. Lafferty’s classic short story, ‘Narrow Valley’.
It shouldn’t really matter to Teppic. He’s gotten out at the last second, with Ptraci, and the Discworld’s greatest mathematician, a camel known mainly as You Bastard, and he doesn’t want to be King of Djelybeybi, any more than he wants to be an Assassin. But that’s not the point. He is the King, and that’s his country, and those are his people (not to mention his ancestors). And even the most reluctant of Kings has gotta do what a King’s gotta do, which is to get in there and sort it all out.
And sort it out Teppic does. The River Kingdom returns, Dios disappears to wherever he’s come from, which makes for a curiously circular journey, without a beginning but, at long last, an end, and Teppic abdicates in favour of Ptraci. There’s a new High Priest, also determined to maintain the daily ritual of life, but he’s no match for a former handmaiden who’s heard of Western Comfort and is determined on having it. There’s a pre-echo of Carrot in how Ptraci uses her ignorance to cut through opposition.
She even manages to persuade Teppic to stay in a curious ending that blatantly implies that she and he are going to settle down forever in what is openly going to be an incestuous relationship. It’s a weird, though not jarring ending, culturally apt to the River Kingdom (Pratchett jokes about it happily, earlier in the book), narratively apt given the boy-and-girl-against-the-world relationship of the pair. But it’s still incest, and nobody seems to have blinked an eye at it, ever.
That raises an interesting point. We’re not yet at the point where Pratchett begins to formally incorporate the theory of narrative as a shaping force in Discworld, but in Pyramids we start to see its unnamed outline. It’s an inevitable development: Pratchett began by taking the piss out of fantasy, which can hardly be done without a deep and sharp understanding of the forms of fantasy, its tropes and its stories, and as soon as he began to see the possibilities inherent in that approach, it’s hard to see how else Pratchett might have developed his craft. You can’t set out to paint a picture of Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off without paying due attention to the story shapes that make it thus.
Pratchett had begun to discover the way by which narrativium works. All that remained was to name it.

Incidentally, whilst honeymooning on Madeira in 2000, we saw a Portuguese language copy of this book on sale in the hotel shop. I was seriously tempted to buy it as a kind of primer on learning Portuguese. Silly idea, as I’ve never since been anywhere they speak the language. Obrigado.

You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those…

An e-mail came round this afternoon, asking for sponsors. This is fairly common in a company our size, with as many agents as we have on this site alone, though a check is kept to ensure we’re not always being bombarded with requests for money.

The reason this one caught my eye is that it told me that three of my team-mates plan to raise money by throwing themselves out of an aircraft at 15,000′ – with parachutes, naturally, though with some of my team-mates I’d gladly contribute if they promised to do it bareback, so to speak. Not only that, but each of the three of them will be carrying someone on their backs (I assume the passengers will also be wearing parachutes, as this could be an intense period if they were to be doing it bareback). If it were me, I’d definitely be clinging like grim death to the female member of this courageous and philanthropic trio, but then I’d welcome a much less fraught excuse to cling tightly to her any time.

It reminded me of the occasion on which I was asked to volunteer for a parachute jump.

I was at my second firm, the one in the centre of Manchester, one of my two favourite employers as a Solicitor. This was the one where everyone, with one exception, was within a dozen years of my age, either way, with the great atmosphere, and the enviable record of sports and games that we played, though these only involved the men.

It was, I think, somewhere in the early summer of 1985 when our junior cashier, Shirley, came up with the idea of a parachute jump, and went around asking everyone if they were interested.

It was something I’d neither done nor considered, and I was interested by the idea. Several people were, and we left it for her to organise.

It never happened. I have no wish to blow my own trumpet but the honest truth was that if I organised it, it happened, and if anyone else did, it didn’t.

One thing that became apparent, several weeks later, when Shirley brought the idea up again, was that I was no longer prepared to do a parachute jump. She was disappointed at my withdrawal and pointed out that I’d been so enthusiastic when she first brought it up.

Where Shirley had gone wrong was obvious: she had allowed me time to think about it. To think about flying along (which I had never done at that point) through the unsupported air, about staring out of a door into the void and the unsupported air, and finally about actually letting go of the aircraft and falling precipitately through the unsupported and unsupporting air.

If she had somehow managed to get me to that open door within half an hour of asking if I would do a parachute jump, she might have been able to do it, though honesty compels me to state that she would probably have been pushing it if she’d given me thirty seconds to think.

Nowadays, and in fact at any time after that little non-escapade, there would be no chance. I would be clinging to the plane in a manner that would make a leech of a limpet look Teflon-coated and I would take large handfuls of the plane frame with me if you ever managed to get me through the door, before which I would have made sure that all involuntary, terror-based projectile emissions had been carefully directed at anyone trying to throw me out.

In short, you are never going to get me up in one of those.

So, whilst I respect and admire my three colleagues and the worthy cause for which they are doing this, I am deleting every possible thought of what they are going to do to themselves.

Better them than me – and I REALLY mean that!