Give a Dog a good name


I’ve already related how I came to discover Pavlov’s Dog via an enthusiastic NME review of an import copy of their first album, Pampered Menial by Max Bell that, for the first time, convinced me without hearing a note that I would love this music. But this was 1976, and I knew of nowhere where I could hear the album, or even buy it.
A second album and review followed, in the Autumn: At the Sound of the Bell. Same circumstances, same reviewer, same enthusiasm for a different sound, same conviction that if only I could get to hear this band, I would hear something of tremendous value.
Then in, appropriately, late November, I chanced upon a second hand copy of Pampered Menial and chanced the last £2 of my birthday money on it. Time for a single play before rushing off to Chester for the afternoon, to Law College, enough to bemuse but oddly intrigue, and I spent the evening getting familiar with an album that bore out my instinctive response to Bell’s panegyrics.
And, a couple of weeks later, I used the first of my Xmas money to buy  At the Sound of the Bell. I gave it the usual immediate spin, listening for scratches and scuffs, clicks, sticks and crackle, the standard paraphernalia of buying a vinyl album that I haven’t had to worry about since going CD in 1987. And it did sound different, worryingly so, and I fretted a little until Xmas Day and I could start to get to know it, and to love it too.
Two reviews, two albums, all in the same calendar year. Then nothing. No more reviews, no more releases. No news of anything in the NME, not even by Max Bell. I became resigned to the fact that Pavlov’s Dog were to be no more than the thickness of two single LPs, a tiny fraction in the rack of my collection, eighteen songs and that’s it, finito benito.


It was years later, another decade, before I thought I knew more. I was listening  to Radio One, just about, and a song came on, and I turned to the radio in shock and surprise for surely that was David Surkamp’s voice! But it wasn’t Pavlov’s Dog, not with music like that it couldn’t be. So the band had definitely broke up, and there definitively was to be nothing more.
I was both wrong and right: this wasn’t David Surkamp, but rather Geddy Lee, and Rush, a voice all but identical to Surkamp, but the Dog had split by then, though not without a greater legacy than I knew. Suddenly, an album appeared in another Stockport record shop that I patronised because they were good on stuff like Joy Division, and I fancied the blonde behind the counter: Hi-Fi Demonstration Record it said, on a cover mocked up like those old stereo demonstration records Dad had bought to test out the stereo on the new radiogram. Ian Matthews and David Surkamp, it said. The blonde said that it was something they were considering whether to stock or not, but I suppose I must have been a lone vote because, despite my assuring her I’d buy it, the shop decided against.


The ‘album’ was actually a live 5 track 12” EP of the kind becoming very popular as limited recording cost first releases by hopeful bands (like R.E.M. and Chronic Town), but, unknown to me for many years, Hi-Fi went on to record a full-scale LP before splitting.
But the biggest news was a question for Fred Dellar, who wrote the NME‘s question page, still in 1981, revealing that the Dog had split up but that, the most cruel news of all, before doing so, they had recorded a third LP… that CBS had refused to release because neither of the first two had sold.
This was crushing news, to know that a third album existed, a third set of songs, that I would never get to hear. Remember that this was 1981, and that despite the indie-label era inaugurated by punk, the majors still had absolute control over releases. A third album…


It became a legendary goal for me, an unattainable grail, until, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Liverpool, at the end of the decade, I attained it. A limited edition bootleg LP, The St. Louis ‘Hounds’, pressed up after the theft of the mastertapes. Its existence was known by then, but I’d stopped reading the NME years before and missed a revelation that would have only made me miserable in trying to locate this treasure.
So, after thirteen years, I had the third album, and it was good. By then, I’d converted the first two albums to CD, a clunky, chunky, double-CD pack taking up a lot of unnecessary space, given that the combined length of the two LPs would have still left space on a single compact disc.
So that was the end of the story, save for getting hold of Hi-Fi’s Demonstration Record which, to be honest, had long since gone out of my head. I don’t know what prompted my memories of it, but something did, and I managed to get hold of a copy, and learn of the hitherto unknown studio album, Moods for Mallards. Wandering around record fairs, asking sellers, I learned a lesson: Pavlov’s Dog were a cult band, but Hi-Fi were a genuine obscurity. Despite including ex-Fairport Convention Ian Matthews as well as Surkamp, ever record dealers had never heard of them.
They weren’t even typical of the Pavlov’s Dog sound that, so improbably, I still loved, being more of a rock-oriented outfit. But as long as it had Surkamp’s voice…
There was a minor diversion sometime in the Eighties or Nineties, I can’t now remember, when I’d gotten onto the mailing list of a rarities specialist, probably because I was still in pursuit of Joy Division obscurities (that were affordable). On one list, something came up under the name of Pavlov’s Dog 2000.
I raced to buy it but on receipt, it proved to be a five track EP, very badly produced, that proved to be a project put together by Mike Safron, the band’s original drummer, who’d only played on Pampered Menial. It had no Surkamp, no relation to the band’s sound and it was crap, and I successfully argued to send it back and get a refund, because the whole thing was a misrepresentation.
However, if you wait long enough, stories never end. On Cup Final day, 1996, I got into London for 9.00am to give myself time for a shopping spree down Oxford Street way. In the big HMV, on a whim, I wandered over to the P’s, to look up Pavlov’s Dog. It was an absurd notion, to think that maybe the third album had been put on CD, and to think of it being in the HMV shop if it had. And it wasn’t, though a CD version would turn up, titled Third, with a revised track-listing, not all that long after, from a German label.
But there was something else: Lost in America. A fourth album, a contemporary album, recorded by a reformed band with a new line-up, but a line-up which included both David Surkamp and original member Doug Rayburn. It’s a disappointment in comparison to the earlier trio of albums, the band having adopted a more conventional Adult Oriented Rock approach but, hey, that’s Surkamp’s voice and there’s one real killer track on there in You and I.


I was still looking for Moods for Mallards  and still drawing blanks, but in the late Nineties, that quest came to an end in the most unlikely circumstances.
I was working for my most hated employers and every Friday would see me head home via Manchester, spending an hour among the life-restoring atmosphere of books, in Waterstones, to be followed by a Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Price deal on medium pizzas that saw me through Friday and Saturday tea.
For some reason, in early December, I was in Town on a midweek night, and browsing in the big HMV Store on Market Street. There was still a tiny vinyl section at that time and I was in the Hs, looking for the recently released Half Man, Half Biscuit album. For some reason, call it an affectation if you wish, after they had reformed I was still collecting albums as LPs, not CDs. And I was thumbing through the albums when I caught sight of a garish, yellow on blue title bar reading Moods for Mallards.
A smile was already crossing my face, amusement at the thought that someone else had used the exact same title, before I looked at the left hand end of the said bar, to a little black circle in which it said, in white lettering, Hi-Fi.
This was utterly unbelievable. A rare album by a band so obscure, not even specialist record-dealers had heard of them and, over a decade after its release I find it shrink-wrapped in the big HMV Store in Manchester? I still cannot think of any explanation that makes sense. Yet the proof was in my hand, and I was paying for it at the till.
As this was December, I decided to make the album into a Xmas present for myself, and left it in its shrink wrap. It was the evening by the time I got to Moods for Mallards, carefully unwrapping it, laying it reverentially on the turntable and pressing play before returning to my chair and my wine. Before hearing a scraping, screeching sound with only slivers of music.
I raced back to the hi-fi, lifted the needle and spun the record off the deck to look at it. It was not so much warped as corrugated, almost a third of its circumference bent into a succession of waves by the record having been left too close to a heat source at some point. It was, literally, unplayable. I took it back and got a refund.


It was not until the Twenty-First Century, and the internet that I finally got a playable copy, with little difficulty. And, with the perversity that so often stalks me when it comes to music, having bought the record for its connection with the Dog and David Surkamp, my favourite track turned out to be one written and sung by Ian Matthews, Throw a Line.
In the end, a year or so back, a CD collection of the complete Hi-Fi, with a couple of rarities was released, and after all that chasing, I replaced both records.
The revived band, having recorded Lost in America as far back as 1990, seemed to have been very much a one-off thing, and as I was paying no attention to any kind of music press, I wasn’t hearing anything, except in occasional dribs and drabs. There was a Surkamp solo single that I nabbed via eBay, a strange, slow, draggy version of Louie Louie that I really wasn’t sure about, and then a solo album, Dancing on the Edge of a Teacup that I held off sampling, because this was now when money was tight and eBay auctions or seriously reduced second hand prices on Amazon was the order of the day.


I did download a superb track off YouTube, a majestic, powerful song credited to Pavlov’s Dog, Life in Imperfect Times, a true throwback to their classic sound, though I eventually learned it was from Surkamp’s solo (which is sub-titled ‘The Pavlov’s Dog Trinity Sessions’).


And there was another new album by the Dog, in 2010, Echo and Boo, and assorted Small Tails, which was another victim of economic straitenedness, until last Xmas when, flush with eBay sales, I treated myself to a double splash, and found both albums to be worthy additions to the canon.
By then, however, that third album had finally been released officially, under its original planned title, Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried? (a reference to the band’s violinist, Richard Nadler, who went under the name of Sigfried Carver). And with no less than ten bonus tracks. Sigfried restored the original running order from The St. Louis ‘Hounds’, and included sleeve notes from Surkamp that made it plain how much he’d hated the record, but here it was, with demo tracks, live recordings and some never-released songs.


I fell upon it with glee, and even ended up replacing that clunky double-CD of the first two albums as these two were also re-issued with bonus tracks. Lost in America got the same treatment, though I’ve yet to upgrade to that, nor acquire the Live and Unleashed CD, featuring the current version of the band on stage.
But it’s thirty-nine years since Max Bell’s two enthusiastic reviews, and it’s still not done. All this reminiscing has been sparked by the chance discovery via Amazon, and the deliberate acquisition of another Pavlov’s Dog album, The Pekin Tapes. No, not another new album, the very opposite of it. The Tapes are Pavlov’s Dog’s original first album, recorded in 1974 when the band was in its infancy, and then Steve Scorfina and David Hamilton also shared lead vocals on songs written by them.


Five of the tracks survived onto Pampered Menial, where they got polished into the hurricane-loud and dramatic versions I’ve been familiar with so long, under the production of Sandy Pearlman and  Murray Krugman, the Blue Oyster Cult producers (Scorfina was an ex-Cult guitarist). Another, Carver’s Preludin and Exordium in E. Minor, runs to its full eight minutes instead of being cut down to about ninety seconds for Pampered Menial, whilst the ‘new’ tracks are simply nothing at all like the band I’ve long known.
As a bonus, there’s an even earlier set of four tracks from 1973, the very earliest demos known.
And that’s not all. Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried? has been re-mastered and re-issued with the original planned running order and different bonus tracks. The re-mastering is reputedly superb, having been made from the original master-tapes which have re-surfaced. The only comment on Amazon recommends buying it to keep alongside the original release.

And then there’s Of Once and Future Kings, another new CD, another live performance, but of the classic band, mastered from tapes of a live radio broadcast, which is an absolute must for me, being as close to time travel as I’m likely to see in my lifetime.

Once upon a time, and a very long time it was, it was two albums in a rack, a tiny slice of space. All That There Was and All That There Would Be. After all, this was a cult band, and cults aren’t meant to be wide and expansive. But it isn’t like that any more. Someday Soon I’m going to have a CD collection that runs almost into double figures and takes up considerably more room on a shelf than I’d ever have imagined. All for a cult band. I shake my head in wonder at the vastness of it all.

 

Dan Dare: Operation Fireball


Motton and Watson’s third story ran for a comparatively expansive twelve weeks. It was back to the world-menacing disaster formula of Operation Earth-saver, though this time the menace was not world-wide but confined to the Atlantic Ocean, and consisted of an unquenchable fireball the size (and heat) of a small sun, floating on the water and bringing heat-related catastrophe firstly to Florida and the Caribbean, and then spinning on its tail and beetling off in the direction of the English Channel.
Dan and Digby are there for the start of things, pulling routine freighter escort duty on a Mars freighter which bursts into the eponymous fireball almost as soon as they set eyes on it, but spend most of the story in space, on Mars, at the Parelli Cobalt Mine, digging into just what the miners have been digging out of the Red Planet that is so volatile.
The story may be set in space but, in what has already become a formula, Motton keeps cutting back to Earth for the latest update on the Fireball, and who and how it is threatening. And he also has an odder, more lightweight excuse to flick back to the mother planet, because he’s started his story with a class of schoolboys (led by a pretty class mistress) getting Digby’s autograph and constantly asking for the news the spaceman had promised to give them.
The culprit in all this is Mr Cragg, the Parelli Mine Manager. He’s not evil as such, not in the positive sense of von Malus, he’s just a greedy, self-centred bastard who’s discovered a source of incredibly profuse gold and diamonds that he’s intent on converting into unlimited personal wealth.
Excuse me, but this is Mars, isn’t it? Red planet, population extinct, wiped out by the Red Moon, we’ve been here before. Suddenly, it now houses a secret underground population of midget Martians, looking nothing at all like Dortan-uth-Algar’s people, who use some kind of strange solution siphoned off the sap of an underground fungus which is incredibly corrosive and dissolves rock into the aforementioned gold and diamonds.
At least, that’s what I think it does. I’m not certain, because Motton gets lost in the middle of his story. The cargo that’s blossomed into the fireball is Cragg’s secret stash for himself, which is presumably gold and diamonds, not things noted as being particularly flammable, and he seems to be discovering the sap-solution along with Dan and Digby, so he can’t have sent any Earth-side before now, but it’s the sap-solution that is both volatile enough to explode into another fireball, and yet at the same time be exactly what’s needed to put the fireball out.
This I don’t understand.
Either way, Cragg gets his comeuppance in the shape of his own mini-fireball, which is what serves to alert Dan and Digby as to just how bloody dangerous this sap-solution is to move around. The second half of the story is of them flying it, incredibly gently, back to bomb the Fireball, put it out and save the day.
The story ends with the class arriving for a full debrief from a fagged-out Digby, Dan gently ribbing him about the price of fame and then discovering they’re all after him: they all got Digby’s autograph in episode 1!
As for the miniature Martians, you can forget about them. After all, Motton, Watson and Longacre did, immediately, as you’d imagine. Apart from recording that Keith Watson’s art is again sensational in its use of black line and grey wash, that’s about it for this one.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man


Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.

Daylight on Saturday: a novel of an aircraft factory


A few weeks ago, discussing John Crowley’s Four Freedoms, I referred to an obscure, long out of print, long-forgotten novel of J. B. Priestley, Daylight on Saturday, on a similar theme, the recollection of which overshadowed my ability to enjoy Crowley’s work. The novels have nothing in common save their setting, which is that of a munitions factory during the Second World War, but the love I’ve long had for Priestley’s book made it impossible to approach Crowley’s novel with a completely open mind.

There’s a world of difference between the two books, on every level, and not merely the contrasting backgrounds of America – free from direct assault from either protagonist – and Britain – victim of air raids and attacks, close to the edge of the battlefield. Curiously, both writers go for a similar type of background: Crowley’s factory-cum-mini-city is in the midwest, between the poles of each coast and its differing characteristics, whilst Priestley’s factory is in the Midlands, an often neglected region because it is neither the North nor the South.

In their differing ways, the settings represent neutral areas, between extremes.

But the two books couldn’t be more different. Priestley’s was written on the spot, as it were, in the middle of the War when no outcome was yet known or knowable. And it is confined to the factory itself, every page taking place within its walls, every character seen only in relation to their role in the factory, in the urgent need to work for a victory that, with all due respect to Americans, is far closer to them. Crowley writes from the future, looking back, recreating an era and an atmosphere. Priestley writes from within, reflecting what he sees about him.

Daylight on Saturday is, unavoidably, a less literary book. Some might call it a potboiler, though I think it’s far better than that. It certainly has its propaganda aspect, but then Priestley was a passionate Englishman who gave greatly of his time and effort to what could support the war effort: his Postscripts series, a weekly talk on BBC Radio, was one of the most popular programmes in the War Years (until it was stopped because it’s political stripe did not match that of Churchill).

But it’s also a social document, a record of what people did and thought during wartime. That alone lifted it far above one of Priestley’s other wartime novels, a thriller entitled Blackout in Gretley, in which wartime England was no more than a backdrop – an accurate one, naturally – to a story whose sole intent was entertainment.

Since you’re highly unlikely ever to find a copy of Daylight on Saturday unless old copies still exist, in bookshops of the mind that rarely exist any longer, I’d better be more forthright than usual about the contents of the book. The title alone sets a tone for the story: just as the action takes place entirely within the factory walls, so too is everybody’s lives. Literally, they only see daylight on Saturdays, for their working day at the time of year this is set begins before and ends after dark.

The factory is building planes, or rather parts for planes. It is full of men and women doing repetitive, unending tasks with complex, noisy machines, working with different levels of skill and competency at things that, in another, better day, they would never have gone near, never have had to go near. For women, it is an entry to a workforce that was previously all but banned to them. Over and again, just by showing you people doing these things, Priestley emphasises that the war has changed things and, even once won, it will continue to change things in a way no-one expected. The genie is out of the bottle, the worms are out of the can, look at it as you will, there will not being a going back, no matter how much people expect and want it, to before.

Priestley opens the book with a bravura sequence of eight chapters. The whole story is told from multiple viewpoints: all the important characters, and there are neither stars nor heroes within, become eyes for us to see through, several times over, and there is a continual interchange between our understanding of what is inside a person and the visions others around them have of them.

But Priestley sets things up by applying this approach to a daisy chain. A succession of characters lead us first one way, then another, their viewpoints interlocking to inform us of all we need to know, the baton passing in turn from our inside man or woman to someone encountered near the end of their chapter, who will in turn take us in a different direction, until we have seen enough to understand where we are and who we are dealing with.

The order runs through James Cheviot, general manager of the Elmdown Aircraft Company Limited, Bob Elrick, its Works Supervisor, Joyce Deerhurst, a rather nice and genteel machine worker and former milliners’ assistant, Alfred Cleeton, the foreman, Edith Shipton, Women’s Welfare Officer, Nelly Ditton, a former country girl and machinist, with a lop-sided face, Sammy Hamp, odd-job man, and Francis Blandford, Progress Development Manager.

There are others seen along the way, who form a vital part of the narrative: Stan Ogmore, charge-hand, shop steward and communist, Gordon Stonier, a machinist who is steadily going insane, Blandford’s assistant, Maurice Angleby and his secretary (and cousin), Freda Pinnel, and we see through their eyes at different times.

We see through many people’s eyes, including those of a pair of ageing music hall comedians, ding a Worker’s Playtime show in the canteen. Everyone goes to build up a mosaic image of this place at this time, what people think, what they expect, what they love and hate.

But it’s a moving mosaic: this isn’t just a portrait. The factory isn’t doing well. Production is dipping, despite everything everyone can do to try to push it back up again. Things are so dire that, in a few days time, a Ministry Delegation is coming to inspect the factory, a delegation consisting of a career Civil Servant with absolutely no qualifications to assess what he will see, and a former assistant manager of the factory, sacked for incompetence. There are difficulties regarding supplies that force Cheviot to tour subsidiary operations, creating an absence that has disastrous results.

If there is a hero, or at least a central character, it’s Bob Elrick. He’s a passionate, aggressive, bad-tempered, hard-drinking man with a temper that usually denies him allies at the wrong moment. He’s convinced that the factory’s trouble is the war, the absence of news, the absence of some sort of development that will involve and excite the workers, be it good or bad. Elrick harks back to Dunkirk, when he personally worked like a trojan, driving, directing, urging, performing miracles, and it’s not to difficult to see that he personally is lacking something like that, some crisis, some reason, need, excuse to hammer at things at full bore.

He’ll be proved right too, before the book ends. In the background of the news, there is a clash going on in Africa, at a place called El Alamein, where a glorious victory and an upsurge in morale will change everything at the factory.

But Ellrick’s frustration with life, his gut-deep opposition to the snobbish, aristocratic, autocratic Blandford, who sees society as permanently stratified and everyone below him as disposable, his choleric inability to use his advantages over Blandford to his advantage, his growing obsession with Joyce Deerhurst, who’s totally in the wrong place, become the story of his gradual, but inexorable downfall, a common man’s tragedy.

There are other stories. The shy, unpretty Nelly grows in confidence and stature as the book progresses, picked to go to London to appear on the radio opening her up and starting a confidence that she’s never before been allowed to develop. And Angleby, who starts as a protege of Blandford, seemingly no more than a conscientious and dedicated worker, lifting himself up by his bootstraps, who grows rapidly to become Elrick’s replacement as Works Supervisor, and more than a match for the haughty Freda, who initially planes to give him nothing but acid condescension, but who learns that she herself has depths and qualities never dreamed of.

There’s Gwen Ockley, a gifted, intelligent mechanic, veteran of the pre-War days, lost in a hopeless love for Bob Elrick, there’s recent arrival Arthur Bolton, cousin of the wife of Edith Shipton’s married lover, a man frozen inside by the loss of his entire family to a Nazi bomb, to whom Edith, in trying to explain herself, starts trying to transfer her feelings.

And then there’s Stonier. Who is mad, mad with a kind of religious fervour, hearing voices in his head, from the machines, especially the new one, that squeals and screams, with all the cutting edges over which blood must flow, and Stonier can see the young woman with the lop-sided face who has been chosen as the sacrifice, who works opposite him every day…

Elrick finally loses it over Joyce Dewhurst. He’s already been replaced by Angleby, but Cheviot had other plans to use Elrick to advantage, but Elrick knows it’s too late, you can’t take Elmwood out of him. His clumsy, obsessive lunge at Joyce destroys all that, destroys his future and then Stonier grabs Nelly and starts dragging her to the machine, but Elrick intervenes, at the biggest cost of all…

Yes, go on, say that the ending’s melodramatic, that it’s just a means of closing off a story that, without it, might have lacked a satisfactory resolution. But Priestley takes Elrick’s final moments off-stage, lets them be relayed afterwards, with commendable brevity, concentrating upon the aftermath for everyone. And in a way the ending is a triumph, for the horror of Stonier, the fear for the naïve Nelly, who nevertheless could contain more in her than she even hoped to dream, has been a steadily growing theme for so very long that it’s deflection is in itself a victory. A war victory, at cost, great cost.

For a very long time, John Boynton Priestley was a great English author, and he was decidedly English, a native of Bradford, a Socialist at heart, a man with certain quasi-mystical appreciations of Life and of Time. I know of him long before I read him, out of the library, beginning with a piece of whimsy entitled The Thirty-First of June. Reading out of the library, I went through most of his contemporary novels, many of which were undercut with a bitterness at the age, with what he saw as the perversion of England’s character by various influences, mostly those of cheap Americana.

Even then, there were still great books: 1968’s The Image Men, a great, sweeping, scathing attack on advertising, hypocrisy and politics, 1965’s Lost Empires, an evocation of the Music Hall days. But the best ones were older ones, closer to their time. My favourite remains 1948’s Bright Day, which one day I’ll talk about in more detail, Priestley’s own favourite until The Image Men, and all the way back to the book that made his reputation, The Good Companions.

I began to collect his work, which is what led me, after several years of diligent examination of second hand bookshops, to Daylight on Saturday. Eventually, I read it all, most of it in old hardbacks that are now all the evidence that the books existed, because unless a true, universal print-on-demand service comes into being, no-one will reprint such books, and not this moment of a specific, thankfully gone time.

Eventually, I kept a handful. I wanted to read them all, but over forty plus years of writing there were those that were better than others, and I kept the ones I knew I would want to re-read. Some good books went because, at the end of the day, I had better ones to keep: The Good Companions is structured around three completely disparate persons coming together in an unanticipated exercise, and Priestley used that formula a few times over, on books that were good, but not better.

There’s a case for ignoring Daylight on Saturday as a minor work by an author who, like so many others, has ceased to matter since his death in 1984. It’s not a case that will ever influence me.

 

As an addendum to the above, a quick check on eBay reveals a dozen available copies of Daylight on Saturday, not to mention myriad others of Priestley. You may wish to indulge…

In Praise of Pratchett: Moving Pictures


After a trio of excellent books, from Wyrd Sisters to Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures was something of a disappointment. Though it’s a fundamental book in the series, introducing Mustrum Ridcully and practically the whole Faculty of Unseen University, not to mention giving free rein to Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the book still manages to fall a little bit flat. For me, there are three reasons for this.
By this point, with the series passing into double figures, Terry Pratchett had very firmly locked on to what, in a lesser author, would undoubtedly be called a formula. Each book was based around a theme, some aspect of of life or narrative, to which the unique distorting lens of Discworld would be applied, simultaneously breaking it down into all the little absurdities inherent in the concept, and penetrating to the essential heart, the elemental centre that anatomises what makes this thing significant.
The very title gives away that this book is about Hollywood, the Dream Factory: giving the scene of the action the name of Holy Wood is less a punster’s tip of the hat than a feeble acknowledgement of the fact that there is nothing more subtle that can be done with the name.
And that goes for the entire book. Pratchett is parodying the early years of the Movies, the silent era, and whilst he’s his usually imaginative self in converting/paralleling the events of Tinseltown’s foundational years, he’s up against the fact that those years were so unreal in themselves that too much of the time he’s doing little more than follow.
The problem with parodying something that’s already in a high state of fantasy is that there is comparatively less room to manoeuvre before you hit the badlands of outlandish and just too stupid to be believable.
Though Pratchett does get in some degree of analysis of what Holy and Hollywood actually do, the way he sets up his story, there’s no room for any light to go with the extremely deep shade that lies behind this phenomenon. Pratchett builds what motivates Holy Wood into something irrelievably black and dangerous, that the overwhelming innocence of everyone who gets themselves involved can only appear as excessive naivete. And the fact that someone like Dibbler can so quickly become such a big wheel in Holy Wood doesn’t actually suggest it can have any sort of redeeming factor.
The second factor in Moving Pictures falling flat is the absence at the heart of it. I speak, of course,  of Victor Tugelband, student wizard and proto-Rudolf Valentino. Victor is a very clever but fundamentally lazy person who is prolonging his student days in similar fashion to Roger Zelazny’s Fred Cassidy in his 1975 novel, Doorways in the Sand. Victor’s industrious attention to ensuring he neither fails nor passes his exams leaves him short of any other qualities, and his rejection of even the possibility of growth goes hand in hand with that to deprive him of any kind of charisma, other than that imposed on him by Holy Wood’s own brand of magic.
Victor is nothing more than a clothes-horse for Pratchett to hang jokes on, and as for Ginger, his female equivalent, she’s even more of a character-free zone, given that she doesn’t get to have any thoughts that aren’t interpreted through the filter of Victor. No, the second lead in this book, and the one who gets all the personality, is Gaspode the Wonder Dog, a small, cynical, flea-ridden mutt who’s learned to talk, thanks to Holy Wood’s magic slopping around, and who spends most of the book being ignored.
With such a character void at its heart, the great mercy of Moving Pictures lies in it possessing a wonderful array of supporting players.
There is Gaspode, for one thing, who turned out to be so good that, despite taking the magic away from him at the end of the book, Pratchett found himself having to restore the Wonder Dog at a later stage. And Dibbler who, after having played a mere bit part in Guards! Guards!, was swept into prominence here, and who would go on to be a force all by himself for many years.
But the real advance of Moving Pictures lay in its introduction of Mustrum Ridcully as Archchancellor of Unseen University and, by the endgame of the book, virtually all the Faculty, who would come to the fore in later books, as their nascent series merged with that of Rincewind.
Like Drunken Captain Vimes, our first exposure to Ridcully the Brown feels strange. He’s introduced as exactly what he appears to be: a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ countryman who, in an Anthony Trollope novel, would be at the forefront of the statutory fox hunting scene. Ridcully is chosen as a safe (i.e. stupid and easily malleable) pair of hands, a stable figure after a period of crisis at the University, which has been going through Archchancellors like a hot knife through butter.
Indeed, it’s not certain whether Pratchett actually views him as a serious character or whether he’s just got bored with making up new names for identikit scheming/schemed against Archchancellors. This is emphasised by the way that we never get to see into Ridcully’s head at any time but instead view him through the medium of the Bursar, a born administrator if there ever was one.
For most of the book, scenes at the University centre on the Bursar and Ridcully, with only the ridiculous figure of Windle Poons (the University’s oldest wizard) and, in entirely a side role, the fortunate student Ponder Stibbins.
Suddenly, as the crisis reaches its peak, with Holy Wood’s magic gathering its strength, a party of wizards sneak out to go to the cinema. And they’re (almost) all there: the Dean (of Pentacles), the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes: only the Reader in Invisible Writings and the Senior Wrangler are missing.
I have a confession, one that is probably more common than is usually admitted: even after all these years, I cannot tell the Chair, the Lecturer and the Wrangler apart. Nor, other than the fact that the Chair is described as the fattest wizard at Unseen University, is any effort made to draw any distinctions here. It’s the crosstalk, the meandering, ever-distracted conversations that matter.
But having at a stroke introduced a handy supporting cast, Pratchett then demonstrates that there are greater depths to Ridcully than he’d been letting on. At this stage, it’s mainly the fact that he’s actually quite bright underneath, but it’s the first glimpse of the real Ridcully, and it reminds me of Arthur Ransome’s treatment of Timothy Sterling (aka Squashy Hat) in Pigeon Post, as a shy, quiet, absorbed and fairly ineffectual character, until the crisis strikes and he suddenly becomes both calm and resourceful.
It’s a good supporting cast, but in the end it can do no more than huddle, protectively, around the absence at the centre that is the cardboard figure of Victor Tugelbend.
The third element that works against Moving Pictures is, unfortunately, its central menace. Because the danger of Holy Wood is that it works at one of those points where reality – in Discworld terms – is at its thinnest. It seeks to break through, to enter into that reality because, yes, once again, on the other side is the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions. And by this time they’re running a little stale.
Unfortunately, for all its inventive trimmings, Moving Pictures is one trip too many to the well of the Dungeon Dimensions. Been there, did that, wore one of Dibbler’s t-shirts for the very brief time before it fell apart.
Better was, of course, to come, in the shape of five successive crackingly good and very funny novels, most of them tens on my personal scale of Discworld novels. With a score like that, Terry Pratchett could easily afford the odd book here and there which fell flat.

Dan Dare: The Evil One


With the exception of the traditionally disregarded Underwater Attack, drawn by Eric Kincaid, which filled four undistinguished weeks between the end of the reprints of Prisoners of Space and the start of the reprints of The Man from Nowhere, the shortest Dan Dare story of them all is The Evil One, which ran a mere nine weeks.
Even then, it’s a bit of an embarrassment. Its basic idea – that an advanced alien fleet, known as the ‘Galactics’, pursues a renegade to Earth, threatening to destroy the planet if the malefactor is not handed over, and Earth having no idea who or where he is – is sound, but any merit the story has is swamped by placing the villain’s lair in a fun-fair on Blackpool Promenade.
And of course the innocent funfair owner is a mate of Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, and it’s a bloody good job he is and all, because in a story this short, if Digby hadn’t helijetted to Blackpool to pay a visit, Spacefleet would never have found the Evil One – a renegade Earth scientist by the name of von Malus – in anything like enough time to save the day.
Actually, there’s a little bit more to the story than this, albeit not much. Von Malus doesn’t arrive in Blackpool until about three weeks in and, after capturing Digby and his old pal, Charlie Barker, appears to them as a fifteen foot tall giant, boasting of how he’ll go on indefinitely  and can’t be caught, and how he’s suffered slights and criticism. Motton cleverly does not overtly link this to Dan discovering that in real life von Malus is a dwarf.
However, the ending is decidedly offkey. The Galactics are settling in to bomb Charlie’s funfair when they are drawn off by von Malus’s escape pod shooting into space and fetching up in the Asteroid Belt. In fact, it contains Dan, and is a diversionary tactic (a strange one if it deprives von Malus of his boasted escape route), but it also takes him out of the picture at the crucial moment.
Digby thinking his Colonel is dead, goes hunting in the wreckage for revenge, but has to be rescued by Dan when he gets back, and it’s Dan who tells us that von Malus is dead, killed by a collapsing ceiling very offstage and afterthoughtish.
The only other thing worth mentioning is something Keith Watson would do throughout this period: Dan has to speak to his boss, the Controller and, though he’s not named and not allowed under the ‘no recurring characters’ rule, Watson draws Sir Hubert.
And there’s a nice moment where Dan insists on placing himself in danger, replacing von Malus’s hostages, refusing to count himself as a Spacefleet Colonel as being more important than someone else. Motton places these words in Sir Hubert’s mouth: “There goes a brave man. He has planned and ordered his own death to save the lives and homes of others.” Even in the weakest stories…

You’re a Mutt, Charlie Brown


As I’ve mentioned before, I have Patrick McDonnell’s lovely daily cartoon strip, Mutts, e-mailed to me on a daily basis.

The strip’s primarily about Earl and Mooch, little dog and little cat respectively, who live next door to one another with their owners, but its cast includes a range of animals, each with their own shtick. In many ways, Mutts is a throwback to the early years of strip cartoon humour, in which the skill lay in constantly finding new ways to enliven, refresh and constantly renew the strip’s stock situations.

The best model is George Herriman’s legendary Krazy Kat, a thing of surreal beauty and wit, that found infinite variety in a twisted but touching scenario played out between cat, mouse and dog.

McDonnell’s a big fan of Herriman, and co-author of a superb, profusely illustrated and wonderfully informative book about the cartoonist and the Kat, and this shows in this week’s set of strips. These feature McDonnell’s pair of squirrels, Bip and Bop, whose reason for existence is to throw nuts down onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by beneath their tree, and with some force too.

Not for the first time, the unfortunate bonkees have all been comic book and cartoon characters, drawn with a delightful fidelity to their originals. We’ve had Robin the Boy Wonder, Dennis the Menace (the American one), Richie Rich and Little Dot so far,, and today’s strip features Charlie Brown, whose creator, Charles Schultz, once praised McDonnell by calling Earl ‘a perfect cartoon dog’.

It’s a laugh, like all the others have been. But it’s also a touching thought. Which is why I wanted you to see it as well.

You can find the strip at http://muttscomics.com/#

15-07-10