Dan Dare: Operation Darkstar


Thankfully, for the last of the quintet of short stories that Motton and Watson executed between 1962 and 1963, Operation Darkstar was both a change of pace and a significant improvement on what had gone immediately before.
This time, there is no threat to the world. Indeed, Dan Dare and Digby are allowed to leave the immediate environs of Planet Earth for the first time since Odhams were still masters, and not just the Earth but the Solar System.
The cause of this is the discovery of a ‘Dark Star’, i.e. a sun going through its dying phase, transmitting previously hard-to-detect radiation. Professor Julian Egon has discovered such a star, far nearer to Earth than any previously detected, with a single planet orbiting it. Dan is put in command of a two ship expedition to explore the planet and collect scientific date.
Dan’s ship, with Digby and his crew, will take off first, with the second ship following after a fourteen day interval. The commander of the second ship is Captain Egon, son of the star’s discoverer who, in that capacity, requests the honour of being the first man onto the planet. Dan’s perfectly willing to concede that honour (even though Egon’s main objective is glory), but command insists on seniority. This leaves Egon fuming, since he considers himself just as good as Dan Dare, so he engineers an accident which sees Dan laid up with a broken ankle, for fourteen days.
So commands are swapped. Egon takes Dan’s ship, with Digby, who spends the whole time on the wrong side of the arrogant Egon, Dan follows in Egon’s ship. He’s going to be needed to save the day, because when the ship commanded by Egon finds itself trying to land on a sea of oil, Egon’s panic crashes it into the mountains.
Dan’s temporary command includes spacemen Newcombe – an everyday, competent crewman – and Mumper who, as his name gives away, is a constant pessimist and complainer. This ship lands on the other side of the Oil ocean but in a crevasse, where it promptly suffers an avalanche. But on the Dark Star planet, the rocks are amazingly light and friable, there is no atmosphere above two thousand feet and water is at a premium, and has to be boiled down from the rocks.
Dan makes friends with the local natives, who agree to rescue the ship in return for half the water supplies. They also supply a kind of helicopter to take Dan and the crew across the ocean to find Digby, Egon and the others. They have fallen into the hands of another all-purpose dictator, Naz the Tyrant, who is working them like slaves. Egon, unlike Dan, hasn’t yet come up with an escape plan, possibly because he’s too busy eyeing up the waste-products of the water-bearing rock: gold, jewels, precious metals…
But Dan masterminds a rescue and is piloting everyone away, until one last warrior gets on board. His gun is trained on Dan, who calmly plots out for everyone to take advantage of his death to seize control and overpower the alien. This is too much for Egon who, awakened to decency and honour at the last, intercedes to sacrifice himself, dying in overcoming the warrior.
Everyone returns safely, with tons of precious gold etc, but on strict water-rationing all the way back, much to Digby’s consternation.
Operation Darkstar is a simple, straightforward story, with a slightly predictable cad-redeems-himself twist at the end. It’s got its flaws, mainly in the unexplained areas: where is the Dark Star, how far off, why are the two ships setting off at fortnightly intervals, and there’s a Hampson-shaped hole at the end the size of a Jumbo Jet in the way Dan flies back to Earth, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to go on eking out a vanishing water supply on a dying world whose atmosphere is shearing away, and instead of trying to assist, he runs off with the money.
But apart from that, it’s harmless, inoffensive and not actively stupid.
Watson had kept the faith. His commitment to Dan Dare had provided a rallying point for the strip’s readers. There was something worthwhile to keep coming back for, every week, so they kept coming back, and they kept demanding Dan be restored to the cover, be restored to colour. They were almost on the point of being rewarded.

Advertisements

In Praise of Pratchett: Small Gods


This book marked a sea-change in my Discworld collection.
Up to this point, I’d been buying Pratchett’s books in paperback, putting up with the six month delay from first appearance to when I could get hold of the next story when Corgi reprinted it. Until I did some work for a mate who, as a gesture of gratitude, bought me the latest Discworld book in hardback, that being Lords and Ladies.
Now, as I have mentioned from time to time, I am something of an anal retentive when it comes to collections. Mixing hardback and paperback was not really psychologically acceptable, nor was jumping about in a series that I had already been reading in chronological order for half a dozen years. Besides, the last one was still not out in paperback.
So I went out and bought the hardback of Small Gods. After that, there was no going back. Patience was one thing but the kind of wait this would mean for the fifteenth Discworld book in paperback? No way. I set about replacing the first dozen with hardback copies. I even joined a book club for the introductory free offer that could net me five Pratchett’s for a pittance (the fact that I could also get Tolkien’s Morgoth’s Ring for a fraction of what I would otherwise have had to pay meant I would come out ahead on the deal no matter what other crap I might be required to buy. Though I’d baulk at calling A Brief History of Time crap, not that I understood it).
Small Gods, like Pyramids before it, is one of those non-series books, its protagonist’s story complete in these pages. And indeed, despite a reference to the Century of the Fruitbat, Brutha’s life takes place many years and decades before the generally contemporary Now of all the rest of Discworld.
In the immediate aftermath of Terry’s death, a great many people pointed to this book as one of his most important, and most insightful, although I have never known the reasons behind this true claim be debated by anyone outside the circle of Pratchett fans. For the theme of this story is Religion, as well as Gods, and Pratchett makes it amply clear that the two are not merely very different, but that there is an unbridgeable disconnect between them.
Nor, in either aspect, does Pratchett offer any great inducement to believe in either. No, Small Gods is deeply irreligious, heavily (but not heavy-handedly) humanist, and excoriating in the anger that ripples through it from start to finish.
The actual story is relatively straightforward, though it is extremely difficult to relate it without launching into the issues Pratchett takes as structural to any discussion of God/religion. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to outline the plot as a precursor to making Pratchett’s points for him.
The story is primarily set in the country of Omnia, on the south side of the Circle Sea, a semi-desert country that is home to Omnianism, the worship of the Great God, Om. Though the choice of Om as the God’s name hints as cultures that incorporate meditation, Omnianism owes a lot to Catholicism, in having an Inquisition, the latter being headed by the Exquisitor, Deacon Vorbis, a man frequently described as having the mind of a steel ball, a man who will turn a tortoise on its back, wedged to prevent it from righting itself, just to see how long it will take to die.
Said tortoise is, in fact, the Great God Om, trapped unknowing this past three years in a tortoise’s body and only lately returned to consciousness of who he is after being dropped by an eagle onto the kitchen compost heap. More pertinently, he’s been dropped within the presence of the Novice Brutha.
Brutha, who has been terrified into worship of Om by his deeply religious grandmother, is an oddity. He can neither read nor write, has no abilities or purpose, is fit for nothing and is even physically awkward and a little unprepossessing. He has two things going for him: a perfect memory that Brutha doesn’t even know is perfect in every degree, and that he is the only one left in the whole of Omnia who still believes in the Great God Om.
A lot is happening. Omnianism is awaiting its Eighth Prophet. An heretical movement has formed claiming that the world is not a sphere but a disc carried on the backs of four elephants, themselves on the shell of a colossal turtle (which is true but far from the point). And War is brewing with Ephebe, over its martyring of an Omnian Missionary (which we will learn is completely untrue, but is even farther from the point).
When Vorbis learns of Brutha (who cannot get anyone to believe him when he says the God is speaking to him), he takes the rapidly promoted Sub-Deacon to Ephebe, to use Brutha’s eidetic memory to get out of the impassible Labyrinth and lead in an Omnian army, enabling Vorbis to take over Ephebe.
The disturbed Brutha finally rebels when Vorbis orders Ephebe’s legendary library be burned. Brutha memorises it, an incredible feat, with the intent of preserving it. Pursuit follows, until an intervention by the Queen of the Seas causes a shipwreck that leaves Brutha, Om and a catatonic Vorbis stranded in the desert. Brutha insists on getting Vorbis back to Omnia, where the truth can be both revealed and seen to be revealed, but fails to realise the depths of Vorbis’s insanity and his craving for power.
It is Vorbis who is to become the Eighth Prophet, his ‘truth’ that will move Omnianism forward, and Brutha who will be the first sacrifice of the new era. But a well fore-shadowed twist of fate ends Vorbis’s reign and restores the congregation’s belief in Om, just in time for Brutha to face a combination of armies whose shared purpose is to wipe Omnia off the map.
And thus Omnia is saved, Brutha becomes, rightly, the Eighth Prophet and, in himself, changes the course of both the religion and the history so that it doesn’t end up the way it was written in the books of the History Monks but, as in Mort, something a lot easier on people.
Even that deliberately simplified account of the story still ends up spilling too many of the beans, but now’s the time to be explicit about each of the deadly points that Pratchett enumerates.
The Great God Om is the God of a fantastically powerful religion, but three years before, indulging the urge to manifest himself as some kind of powerful, symbolic animal, a great horned bull, he found himself capable only of becoming a tortoise, and one that has no inkling that it is or was anything greater. Not until he is dropped near the one person left who believes in him, who believes in Om, the God.
Because Om, the God, has been replaced by Omnianism, the Religion. Day by day by month, year, century, the shell of the church, the structure of the buildings, the hierarchy of the officiants have been constructed, have grown around the God, drawing off belief, syphoning it off for the benefits of the Church, for the values of the minds that constitute it.
Until only one person, an overgrown, uncomprehending, useless boy remains who believes in the God, because he’s too dumb to know any better. Because that’s what religion does, it replaces the seeming source of its power with something self-sustaining that services the interests of its priests before it comes anywhere near considering the welfare of its adherents.
Pratchett doesn’t just show this, he says it, explaining it for us as if we are too dumb to understand, which, on the evidence of the last several millennia, is probably true.
But he doesn’t stop there. Vorbis is busy constructing a truth that he takes care to describe as fundamental, meaning that it’s a big, fat, stinking lie. It’s not just the persecution of those who speak only the literal truth about the Discworld’s structure, as long ago Galileo Galilei was persecuted for pointing out that the Earth went round the sun, it is demonstrated by Vorbis in a greater degree.
First, his own putting to death of the unsuccessful, indeed mocked missionary, Brother Murdock, is perverted into a cassus belli against Ephebe, a war already lost presented to Omnians as an ongoing campaign.
Then Vorbis steps in to steal Brutha’s crossing of the desert to launch himself as Prophet in order to yet further advance a truth that lies only in his own head.
Pratchett’s anatomisation of Religion is of a thing corrupt, on all levels, something that no person with any genuine sense of truth, decency or justice could have any truck with, and though this takes place in a fictional world subject to rules and conditions that are sketched out as a deliberate joke, on this occasion the mirror he is holding up to our world and our lives and our religions is not distorted, but plain and unblinking.
Nor do Gods do any better. For Om, the Great God, even at the height of his power, as Omnia discovers it believes in the God himself, is still utterly dependant upon human beings. Because Gods are created by men, who put a shape upon the merest atom of potential, the grit in the oyster upon which the nacre of the pearl, belief, is layered. Om is Great, but the whole point of the book is that he has one believer, ONE believer, and unless he is within a certain range of that last believer, Om does not exist.
Gods are not real, they don’t exist, they are creations of Man, things that are given shape in the insides of our ignorant heads. Om doesn’t love his worshippers, he doesn’t want to do anything for their benefit, he only thinks of himself. Gods take, not give.
It takes Brutha to change what seems to be inevitable, to divert the tide of history, and he does so by changing Om into a religion without a God, a religion without a Religion. Man creates his own Gods, and this unique individual orders his to do his will, not His.
It’s a stunning, powerful book. Those of a religious bent, who believe too much to accept or understand what Pratchett is saying, will have to work hard at not reading this properly to enjoy it. To me, and thousands others, it is an expression of thought that does the world a very great favour by being so open, so clear, so identifiable, and so funny.
One final, almost irrelevant point. I compared the book’s ending to that of Mort, where a pre-ordained, dictatorial future is displaced in favour of peace, harmony and the business of people going about their own business and not dying in hordes. Small Gods introduces the History Monks, and especially Lu-Tze (and his sweeping brush). Not, on the surface, as we will get to know him, but already subverting history to the benefit of the common man.
And not for the last time, even as Brutha’s long life ends with a final act of beyond the grave compassion fit for what religion should be about, if only you can get it away from Gods.

Girl Genius: The Cold Equation


                                                                                     Agatha

Back in April, I flagged up the Kickstarter for the latest Girl Genius collection from Phil and Kaya Foglio, and this has duly arrived today. Entitled The Beast of the Rails, this is the fourteenth volume of the series, and the first of Act 2. I’ve been enjoying starting to read this in collected form, as opposed to last year when I read it three days a week on the Girl Genius web-site, which can be found here.

Until that moment when I suddenly flashed what has to be termed The Cold Equation, after a very famous pre-World War 2 SF short-story.

Act 2, or, The Second Voyage of Agatha Heterodyne, is intended to be the middle act of the entire Girl Genius story. Though the Foglios have not committed to anything definitive, the impression has always been given that each of the three Acts will be of roughly similar lengths. Utilising the skills in basic arithmetic that once scored me a Grade 2 at O-level, round about the same time The Who were in the Top 10 with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (a classic, a true legend), I calculate that three Acts of 13 volumes adds up to 39 all told. Meaning that there are further 25 to follow.

The Foglios collect a volume every year. That makes it pretty easy to work out that the Girl Genius story will not be complete, i.e., won’t reach the ending, for another 25 years.

Phil Foglio, it transpires, is almost exactly six months younger than myself. Fortunately, there is a tradition among American comic book artists of living well into your late eighties and even your nineties, which is all very well since Mr Foglio will need to do so if he ever hopes to complete Girl Genius. But what about me?

As things stand, in order to read the end of this story, which I have already been following since its debut in 2001, I am going to have to live until the age of at least eighty-four. Now I’m not going to start going into details but I have strong reasons to suspect that I probably won’t get there. It’s not like I’m looking at any preset limits, and my paternal grandfather did live to the age of 88, but take it from me, the odds are tilted in the wrong direction.

I am therefore reading and collecting a story that, in all probability, I won’t get to finish. I’ve only just realised that tonight. Heh heh.

So, if the Professororae Foglio happen to be reading this, I hate to put pressure on you, but if there’s any chance you could speed up a little, sort of, double, maybe? I think I can hang on for that. If you don’t mind. I am really enjoying this…

 

The Infinite Jukebox: The Angelettes’ Don’t Let Him Touch You


The Infinite Jukebox is not just for great songs, classic performances or emotional favourites. In its banks of tracks are oddities, obscurities and the completely improbable. Such as ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’.

The Angelettes were, and forty plus years later still are, an all-girl band, a quartet of Manchester lasses or rather, assuming my memory is not being too partialised, four teenagers from Stockport in 1972, when this debut single was released.

In my memory, I always link this song to Jonathan King, and a glance at the disc on YouTube that it was written, produced and directed by him: it was the girls’ only release on Decca, after which they signed for King’s own label, UK (which already boasted another Stockport fourpiece that King named 10cc for reasons we shall not, in good taste go into). ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’ can’t be described as anything but a novelty record, in an era when King was already building up a head of steam as performer and producer of a mystifying array of tracks, such as the heavy metal version of ‘Sugar Sugar, attributed to Sakkharin.

The Angelettes were plainly decent singers, though this single goes a long way in not showcasing their abilities. It’s slow from the beginning, based on a cello as the leading instrument, and the song was constructed on a solo lead voice singing awkwardly structured verses to a background of only the cello, interspersed with the band in harmony singing the chorus in a slightly more uptempo manner, to a walking pace beat.

Improbably, the song started to pick up airplay on Radio 1, enough to start a slow increase in sales that saw the single break into the Top 50. But this was still the era of Top 30 radio, and the song was still short of that line when it climbed to no 35. This was enough to secure a Top of the Pops invitation, and an advantageous appearance in the second half of the programme, two slots from the Number One. A leap into the Thirty the following Tuesday was on the cards.

I was interested to see the group. I liked the song, and the knowledge that it was so local a product, and the girls being of my age, had me glued to the screen. There were two disappointments. 1971 had been the Summer of Hotpants and the prevailing fashion the following year was for maxi-dresses, as most frequently seen around the legs of Lyn Paul and Eve Graham of the New Seekers. And this quartet of schoolgirls were not just decked out in maxi-dresses, but in frilly, cabaret dresses horrible years out of fashion and completely wrong on girls that young, turning them all into frumps, proto-Beverleys in Abigail’s Party.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. About sixty seconds in, before the Angelettes had even finished their first chorus, the sound went out, a technical problem, and it stayed out for the rest of the song. It was a disaster. There was no sales bump, no Top 30 entry, just a slide back into going to school. No other Angelettes single was played on Radio 1, not in my hearing.

It’s very strange. A new band, an up and coming group of young women, and an accident happens and wipes out the sound for most of their track, and no other part of the show, nor any other Top of the Pops that I ever saw thereafter, and we are talking another twenty years plus. A promising career (maybe) wiped out. We live in an age where it’s too common to impute malice to what could simply be stupidity, see conspiracies in every shadow.

But ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’ was a strange record. We had lived through the Sixties, through tremendous changes in everyday life and thinking. even now we were still in a place where Sixties memories were still fresh and green, and what were this girl group singing about? Yes, they were singing about sex, as rock and pop has done since time immemorial, but ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’, as you may begin to guess from the title, came from a very different place.

In 1961, the Shirelles had sung ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, one of pop’s greatest songs about Sex and the woman’s age old question of whether to or not. It’s about wanting, about wanting to believe the promises that this is about more than bodies and orgasms, but about love and what happens when bodies draw back into two people and what then. A decade ago, the girls of the Shirelles had looked into their would-be lovers eyes, wanting to share everything with them, fearful of trust. It’s always been so with the great girl group pop of that time.

A decade later, here were the Angelettes, sixteen year olds prematurely cynical. In voices that rang with their mothers’ stifling advice, here were girls singing about the nervousness of youth, and first boyfriends, who seem nice, who walk you home, kiss you on the doorstep, and only after that are they emboldened to hold your hand, and then in tones of flat, deadweight cynicism, these teenagers tell you for themselves that he’s only out for sex, nothing more, one-time sex that will ruin your life and if you let him ‘have’ you, you’ll never see him again because he’s got what he wanted.

My mother expressed similar opinions to me about my sister’s boyfriend after she learned that they hadn’t ‘waited’. I thought that awfully cynical then, a dismissal of men having feelings that I instinctively hated, and given that my sister and her husband celebrated their twenty-eighth Anniversary this year, I think I was right.

But that attitude runs through ‘Don’t Let It Touch You’ like the Seine through Paris. There is no relief from it. He talks to you, listens to you, supports you emotionally, shows he cares for you. And back comes that chorus, with its implacable insistence that if you let him touch you, then touching will lead straight to his having you and then he’ll be off, before you’ve even finished quivering, because everything he does, every little gesture of faith, honesty and love he makes comes from nothing but the most cynical lust.

He is trying to see how much you will let him have, and if he has you, he will leave you.

It’s an unbelievably twisted song, especially in the mouths of sixteen year old girls, who should be singing about rather more cheering things or at least should be expressing such sentiments, if they feel them, in their own words instead of those of a grown-up who sounds to have had a particularly bitter experience, to say the least.

I do remember reading, with a certain degree of cynical amusement that was alien to me at that young stage of my life, an affronted letter in the Manchester Evening News from a sixteen year old boy begging radio stations not to play this record as it was making it even more difficult for him to get anything from girls!

And this most unromantic of ditties was the one whose sound, and lyrics, had been cut out of the Angelettes’ Top of the Pops debut. In these days when we all know about Jimmy Saville, it is hard not to wonder about a connection.

Still, the record plays every now and then in the Infinite Jukebox, repository of songs with significance. If you don’t remember it, if you were too young to ever hear it, if the whole thing sounds unbelievable to you, there is a link below. The picture above is of the group in their stage clothing: there is a 1972 photo of the band looking like real teenagers on their website.

The Seventies was a strange time and place. More of its forgotten songs are finding their way onto the Jukebox.

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

Dan Dare: The Web of Fear


Keith Watson at home

Take away the continuingly excellent crisp, clean, black, white and grey art from Keith Watson, and The Web of Fear is a mess. In fact, with Watson’s art it’s still a mess, quite possibly the nadir of the Dan Dare series, but at least offers some great visuals. But it’s still a mess, whose only saving grace is that it is so short, a mere ten weeks and it is over.
Once again, Earth is subject to a world-threatening threat. That makes the fourth already this year, and that’s not counting the situation on New Year’s Day, when the planet was still half under water, subject to virulent plague and everybody had over-anticipated Jonathan King and gone to Mars. At this point, the Law of Diminishing Returns has not only set in, but is building a bungalow on an acre plot of land.
And it’s not as if it’s in any way a good, or even remotely convincing story either, full of holes and unexplained things that undermine the plot’s already minimal credibility.
Dan Dare is mentoring Cadet Peter Young, the son of old friends, on his test flight to qualify as a Pilot. Unfortunately, young Young crashes and seems to have blown his chances, but Dan stubbornly refuses to accept his judgement may be wrong.
Whilst he’s debating this, Earth finds itself subject to strange, white drifting webs appearing in the atmosphere, which prove to be lethally corrosive, He and Dig are sent to investigate the Moon, and he takes Young, despite the fact that the cadet has started prophesying doom and destruction over the webs, even though he isn’t aware of it.
Once on the Moon, Young goes into a trance and uncovers a cave full of spiders, which forces the Moon to be evacuated. The spiders stow away on the ships and are carried to Earth, where the threat builds. It gets even worse when Dixon’s Comet arrives and hordes of the things are found nesting in it.
Young isn’t the only Spacefleet personnel to be unconsciously and unexplainedly helping the spiders, just the only one we get to see, but Dan trusts him throughout and is, of course, proved to be right when Young saves him and Dig from being blown up on the Comet by Earth when they’re burning out all the nests. End of story, and good riddance.
This really is an awful story. Motton does nothing to establish his spiders, relying solely on the idea that spiders are inherently creepy, and great big ones from space – think Tarantula, think Black Widow, think Shelob for later generations – are creepy enough for us not to care how they’ve gotten onto the Moon in so many numbers without anyone noticing, from a Comet that hasn’t been around for 500 years.
And there is nothing about how the spiders can dominate the will of people like Peter Young to make them into slaves, especially if the hold can be broken in an instant, when it’s convenient to the story, without anything actually being done.
And there’s this business of Dan’s childhood friends, the Young’s from Little Fletchworth, who come and deservedly go in this story with no other mention. The back story is completely invisible, the only hints being that Little Fletchworth reminds Dan of endless happy days in his childhood. Except that, as we proud Mancunians will point out at every opportunity, Dan was born and brought up in Manchester and I can assure you that there is a complete absence of villages called anything like Little Fletchworth. Not even with high-rise apartment blocks.
In his splendid The Report of the Cryptos Commission New Zealand fan Denis Steeper tries to bring the entire Dan Dare story together into a comprehensible chronology. To do so, he leaves out only three stories, one of which was The Earth-Stealers. The second is this, and he’s absolutely right to do so.

In Praise of Pratchett: Witches Abroad


Just as in the first Three Witches – and given the importance of Nanny Ogg and even Magrat Garlick in these stories, I refuse to call them Granny Weatherwax books – there’s a moment of roar-out-loud laughter, early on, that bespeaks Terry Pratchett at his most hysterically pure.
Let’s not get into why at the moment, but our favourite coven is traveling by water underground, through caverns that have never known the light of the sun, when they discover that someone is following them. A small, grey, vaguely frog-like creature, with pale, glowing eyes paddles a log up to them, grabbing the side of the boat in its long, clammy fingers. “’Ullo,” it hisses, “it’sss my birthday.”
Of course, this is one slightly more for Pratchett’s native audience, but in the wake of a certain film trilogy, there’s probably no-one under the sun who, at that moment, isn’t mentally rearranging his or her map of the known Fictive Universe to attach the Discworld to the edge of Middle-Earth. Though, whilst I am in no position to criticise the man’s sense of humour, I do think Pratchett missed a trick by not having someone say, “Mark my words, yon slimy bugger’s going to cause someone an awful lot of trouble, one of these days.” That’s how I always remember it, even if that’s nothing more than a ‘Play It Again, Sam’.
So why are Granny, Nanny (with her ‘just-an-old-softy’ cat, Greebo) and Magrat on this underground river. Well, yes, there’s a story behind that. In fact, there’s nothing but stories behind that, stories imposing their views upon the world, aided and abetted by someone who is far away in terms of Discworld geography yet far too close to home.
Witches Abroad is the first book in which Pratchett explicitly identifies the force of stories, and how strongly they influence not just the Discworld but also the larger world, in which we read, and dream and act under the influence of patterns of behaviour whose universality dictates our responses. Homo Narrans: Storytelling Man.
Stories, or more precisely, happy endings are the wellspring for this book. Fairly Godmother Lilith de Tempscire rules the distant city of Genua (think New Orleans, turned up until.. you got it) under an iron grip. Its old king is dead, to within a given value of Dead, its new king sleeps in a pond at night (until he gets kissed) and the King’s daughter works in a kitchen whilst her two sisters live in luxury, and her name is Emberella.
Yes, this is a book bound in fairytales, all jammed in together and overflowing, instantly recognisable even when seem from somewhere three-quarters of the way round the back in the Pratchett style.
However, everybody gets two Fairy Godmothers, and Emberella’s good one is Desiderata Hollow, a Lancre Witch who’s been travelling. Or rather, was, because Desiderata is waiting for her last visitor, tall fellow, grins a lot, talks LIKE THIS. Desiderata has never been strong enough to defeat Lilith, but she knows only one person who might be, and who might have a reason to be. The problem is getting Granny Weatherwax to do something she doesn’t want to.
The solution is to leave her Magic Wand to Magrat Garlick, send her on a Quest to Genua (because she’ll certainly go) and order her to forbid Granny and Nanny not to go with her, because that’ll certainly determine them to take a journey that crosses virtually the entire main Discworld continent. Especially when Granny catches a glimpse, in a mirror, of who she’ll be up against.
So that’s why the witches float down an underground river. It’s also why they fly broomsticks for long periods, keep touching down in villages where the two elder witches display the worst habits of English tourists in foreign places (well, not the wanton sex, though you wouldn’t put it past Nanny at times), whilst Pratchett keeps teasing us with what’s happening in Genua, where the voodoo of Mrs Gogol and her zombie servant, Saturday, are awaiting their arrival.
Normally, I’d be critical of such an extended journey, as so often they’re used to spin things out, pad a story to a greater length by delaying getting to grips with the real events, and given that the Three Witches take nothing from their journey that actually gets used in the climactic events, this would seem to fit that criterion.
But I can’t do that here, because the stops in the journey are all part of the book’s theme, yet more examples of fairy-tale settings that the Witches move through and explode, unconsciously a psychological apprenticeship for what Granny at least knows they will consciously have to do when they finally reach Genua. And because they’re all so buoyant and hilarious and so beautifully exploded by the solid reality of the Three Witches, a catastrophe curve in motion, and for the sake of lines like, “Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.”
Once in Genua, the theme becomes even more explicit than before. Lilith wraps the city even deeper in webs of happy endings. Granny, Nanny and Magrat try to disrupt the tale by destroying its basic pillars, but it’s not as if Lilith hadn’t foreseen this, nor had the power to redo it: after all, she knows what to do with a magic wand whilst Magrat can’t get hers to produce anything except pumpkins.
However, if Lilith can alter a frog’s morphogenetic field to get it to convince itself it’s a human, Granny and Nanny can do the same for a cat, and a right piratical human Greebo becomes. Add in the world’s greatest lover, Casanunda (a dwarf with his own step-ladder, as you might guess) trying  to get it on with Nanny Ogg and the whole thing roils in confusion until Granny comes face to face with Lilith.
Or, to give her her proper name, Lily. Weatherwax. As in Granny’s elder sister.
You may call it a cliché, or recognise instead that it is pure Story: the siblings, one good, one evil. And evil seems greater but will be defeated by good. But not for the reason you might expect, that good is good and so it wins but because Pratchett has throughout Witches Abroad been lovingly shaping story and equally lovingly blowing it apart, Granny is the stronger because she is the good sister, and she is the good sister because she was forced to be.
Because Lily stole away being the bad sister. Because Granny had in her heart and her head every bit as much understanding of evil, and power, and self-indulgence, enough to have been as bad as, if not badder than her sibling, but who because of Lily, had to be the Good One, which she has forever resented with the force that makes her stronger than her sister.
So there’s a happy ending after all, but it’s not the ending planned by Lilith de Tempscire, nor that proposed by Mrs Gogol and Baron Saturday, the voodoo woman and the dead king that Emberella doesn’t recognise as her parents. It’s the only happy ending worth the price, and it’s the only happy ending Granny Weatherwax will ever hand out, the one where you get to do it yourself. Without influence, without magic leaning on your shoulder, its very presence turning all good intentions bad. You get your life to lead: how much happier can it get?
So, their foreign holiday ended, the Three Witches head for home, laden down with the usual cheap souvenirs and presents without which it can hardly be said to have been a holiday. But they go the long way round, and see the elephant.

A Literary Quest(ion): Do you remember?


I wonder if any of you can help me.

Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, my Droylsden-based grandparents were devotees of a long-defunct British weekly tabloid newspaper called Reveille. It had been started up in 1940 as a Serviceman’s paper but it was brought into the Daily Mirror stable after the War, and thrived for a long time as a lightweight, pro-Royal Family, entertainment. By the time I became familiar with it in the Sixties, it was in a well-oiled groove, and both my parents and myself would have a read through it during a Saturday afternoon.

I remember few details about Reveille‘s contents, though it did play a part in awakening my nascent sexuality, or at least feelings that were decidedly strange and not entirely comfortable, not at my age. Each week, the paper would print a short story, frequently to do with murders and affairs. I said this was a tabloid paper.

One such story featured a woman’s nude body being found in an apartment shared with the narrator, who was being set up for her death. I have no other recollection of the story, but I can still see the drawing done to illustrate it, of the woman, lying on her back, nude. Not blatantly so, not full-frontal or anything like that, or even especially revealing, but still nude, and despite the arty shading, clearly nude. If you think I’m overdoing the nude-word, please bear in mind that, for a lad like myself who, at best, was just hitting the cusp of teenagerdom, this was territory that I was not equipped for yet. I did contrive, privately, to remove and retain that page from the copy before it went off to whatever happened to cheap newsprint in those days before recycling.

And given that Reveille went in for cheesecake pictures of bright, sunny girls in bright, sunny bikinis, every now and then, in conditions of imperative secrecy, other pages escaped the bin.

But that’s not why I’m writing. Though I remember this story for its illustration, there was another short story in Reveille that had a profound effect on me, independently of any pictures created to break up the columns of type.

I haven’t a clue as to the writer of the story, its title or even the year of publication, which is where I hope to enlist the aid of somebody who might read this blog and recognise what I am speaking about.

I remember very little of the story itself, save its main set-up. It was narrated by a male protagonist who hates and resents discourtesy. He is continually frustrated by bad behaviour: selfishness, obstructiveness, unnecessary anger, snide uses of power, offensiveness, rudeness: every form of grit in the wheels of trying to live a smooth life, everyone who, by their thoughtlessness or provocation, sets out to make the passing day pass for the worse for everyone they encounter.

So he kills one.

It’s over something that might seem trivial in itself, but in which the victim has set out to be mean when he didn’t need to; for the fun of it, because he could. That sort of soul-tarnishing experience that”s only got ever more prevalent in the decades since. But our narrator has had enough, and he kills the guy. There are no witnesses, no trail that identifies him, he gets away with it, scot free, and he even leaves a note explaining why the victim brought it on himself.

Yes, it’s a monstrous, shocking notion. But as the story progresses, the killer finds himself killing others for similar reasons. He’s never caught. In fact, he gets a newspaper name, The Politeness Killer, or something like that. He becomes a subject of conversation at dinner parties, his motives are debated publicly, factions support and celebrate him.

The story ends with the narrator witnessing a scene where an elderly lady commits some kind of minor traffic infraction. She’s all apologetic, indeed trembling, but the traffic cop who’s pulled her up is a nasty brute, who keeps going on at her, relishing his power, humiliating her. Until she takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him. Seeing the narrator watching her, she enlists his sympathy, only half-apologetically saying that her victim deserved it. Then she leaves a Politeness Killer-type note and drives off unconcerned, leading the narrator refllecting on how he seems now to be heading a crusade.

It’s so very long since I read that story that I’d hardly be surprised to learn that I’d got loads of details in that account wrong, that my memory had constructed a shell-format to tie together the tiny, correct elements into something that makes sense. Because that’s the point of writing this.

The central notion of the story, the proposition that the killing of people who erode and destroy the experience of life without justification, for no other reason than their ineradicable shittiness, has stuck with me ever since, a powerful thought that I would never act upon, but which at times comes to me as I look at people who would certainly take a central role in any updating of this story.

Was there really such a story as this? Am I displacing a dark urge, putting it into the hands ad the responsibility of someone distant and strange, who maybe never existed, to avoid responsibility for having these thoughts? Or did some short-story writer of the Sixties really conceive of the Politeness Killer and his controversial attitude to good manners? That’s why I’m asking you: do this story, this notion ring a bell? Is it real? Can you lead me to the writer, the story? Because I really would like to read this story again, to match my recollections with the product of someone’s imagination, that lit a dark torch in my head that burns, dimly, even now.