In Praise of Pratchett: Soul Music

After four totally top Discworld books in a row, personally I find Soul Music a bit of a come down. There are a variety of reasons for this, some to do with the book itself, some that are purely personal reactions, which is hardly surprising if the subject is something so subjective as music.
Structurally, the book is another of those that present parallel strands that are primarily separate but which intersect on the way to a climax that draws both stories together. In the one half, we have the arrival on Discworld of the local equivalent of Rock’n’Roll, which involves Mustrum Ridcully and the Faculty, not to mention an unusually diverse band of musicians: human, dwarf and troll.
In the other, we have another of Death’s forays into existentialism, and the need for someone to sit in for him, this time introducing Susan, Duchess of Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabell, from Mort, and, in defiance of all known laws of genetics, Death’s grand-daughter (also to be his co-star for the other books of this sub-series, where she will be considerably more palatable than she is here).
But that’s one of the issues with Soul Music: too much of it is made out of pieces from previous Discworld novels. The Band with Rocks In is a re-mix of Moving Pictures, down to the enthusiastic exploitation by Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler and the presence of some overwhelming animistic force that smells very forcefully of the Dungeon Dimensions.
And Susan’s story is a re-run of Reaper Man, and Mort, this being the third time now that someone’s had to stand-in for Death and do a pretty poor job of it.
I’d also like to mention here that it’s not until I’ve chosen to re-read the Discworld series with a critical eye that I realised just how often Pratchett throws in the Faculty, from the moment Mustrum Ridcully debuts: they’re in every book since Moving Pictures, with the exception of Witches Abroad and Small Gods, and this hot streak hasn’t ended here. I had not previously appreciated just how much Pratchett enthused about them.
Turning to the stor(ies), let’s go first into The Band with Rocks In. This consists of the random assortment of Imp y Cellyn, of Llamedos, a small, rain-sodden analogue of Wales, harpist. dwarf horn-blower Glod Glodsson and troll rock hitter Lias Bluestone (who will take the impeccably trollish stage name of Cliff – cue obvious ‘joke’ about how someone named Cliff will never last in the music business).
Imp’s beautifully made harp gets accidentally smashed when Cliff sits on it so he gets a guitar from one of those shops, that have always been there, only not necessarily yesterday. It’s a place where musicians are forced to pawn their instruments and no-one seems to be too bothered by the fact that this guitar, rough and primitive that it is, has the number 1 chalked on it.
But there’s a spark as soon as Imp picks it up, only it’s that kind of unhealthy spark that signals that Imp isn’t playing the guitar, because it’s playing him. And so Music with Rocks In is born!
Indeed, shortly thereafter, Imp supposedly dies, except that he lives on, because he’s got the music in him. It’s just like something from the Dungeon Dimensions, an expectation that Pratchett plays with throughout the book (mainly through Ridcully), though in the end it turns out to be the heartbeat of the Universe: not so much the Big Bang as the Big Chord.
This side of the story plays with rock cliches such as Live Fast, Die Young, and the Faculty turning into teenagers, though not of a particularly modern or even contemporary kind. Which is where one of my personal problems with Soul Music rears its head.
It’s simply a matter of age. Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and grew up during the formative years of rock’n’roll, whereas I date from late 1955 and I’m post-Beatles Boom. Soul Music recapitulates the birth of Rock’n’Roll, and the reactions that surrounded it, something which creates no emotional resonance for me. Imp y Cellyn turns out to translate roughly into Bud of the Holly.
And of course there has to be the equivalent of a punk band in there, in the hapless quartet of Jimbo, Crash, Noddy and Scum, who have no musical ability nor see any need for any when the right look will do. It’s a condescending portrait at best, and it gets up my nose. Though you wouldn’t think it to look at me, now or even then, I was into punk, which was one of the most exciting and enthusing musical times of my life, and I’m one of those who isn’t ashamed of it, or revisionist in any way, and this portrayal offends me.
Which may well be why, ultimately, the Music with Rocks In half of the story doesn’t really gel for me. It never quite takes on a convincing shape, especially as even Pratchett admits it’s music that’s not meant for this Universe. Discworld is a pre-Industrial society, and Rock’n’Roll is a city music. It never feels at home, and it’s significant that it has to be banished without trace for the book to end.
To call something both an alien incursion and the rhythm of the Universe at the same time is a feat not even Terry Pratchett can pull off.
As for the other half of the series, Soul Music introduces Susan, who will go on to co-star with Death in the remainder of his sub-series. Properly, she’s Susan Sto Helit, Duchess of Sto Helit, though here she’s a skinny sixteen year old at a sensible private school. And she’s an orphan.
That’s because she’s the daughter of Mort and Ysabell, and her state of orphanhood (with, apparently, no other relatives, no guardian or, frankly, anybody) is due to Pratchett’s understanding of the conditions imposed by the end of Mort. When Death turned over Mort’s lifetimer, he didn’t grant him a life: that moment was, by cold logic, the exact midpoint of Mort’s life, and the time of his death was not merely fixed, as is everybody’s, but known to the Duke, unlike everyone else.
And that this has to happen, that Mort cannot live beyond a fixed point without becoming immortal and thus inhuman, is one of the underlying themes of this side of the book and, in the case of Mort’s choice – and Ysabell’s decision to share that moment – is one of the few really successful moments in it.
Susan is relevant because Death is going through an existentialist ‘What’s it all about, really?’ phase, immersing himself amongst humanity and trying to forget in all the old, classic ways. But if he’s not there to do The Duty, someone else has to and, in defiance of all notions of genetic heredity, and the lifelong efforts of Mort and Ysabell to make her entirely human, Susan has to take over for her ‘grandfather’.
And she’s going to be every bit as bad at it as her father was, only, instead of Mort’s essential ineptitude and generous nature, Susan is wielding the cold fury of her Common Sense.
Because Susan’s a sixteen year old girl, and she’s the worst kind of sixteen year old girl (Rhianna Pratchett would have been sixteen during the time this book was written, but I’m going to assume her father wasn’t drawing from life). She’s supercilious and self-centred, uncaring of anything that she isn’t personally interested in, treating everything else with the towering contempt girls that age spray. It’s stupid, and people are stupid. And Susan is only to willing to use the special abilities she’s already ‘inherited’ from Death to indulge herself in what I can only see as her ignorant prejudice.
(She gets better after this, but in this book, she’s a horror).
And as Susan Death, she’s going to make changes. Just letting things happen like that is so stupid. She’s going to see that the good people don’t die, just because it’s their turn. They’ll be left alone and it’ll be the bad guys who get it.
Being a sixteen year old girl, Susan takes a personal interest in Buddy, assisting the Music in keeping him from the harm intended by the Musician’s Guild, and generally making everything worse until the only way out is for Death to wake up to his responsibilities and play the empty chord, the one that will wind the Universe down unless the music gives Buddy/Imp back…
So Susan learns a lesson about the universe, and Imp comes back in a new role, though since it’s as someone working down the chip shop, it seems he’s progressed from Buddy to Elvis, only without the Music. A Happy Ever After ending is implied, though not committed to.
As for the rest of the book, this is where Pratchett introduces the Canting Crew, the quartet of Beggars consisting of Foul Ole Ron, Foul Ole Ron’s Smell, Coffin Henry, Arnold Sideways and The Duck Man, who will meander through a few books. It’s also the first appearance of Unseen University’s High Energy Magic building, complete with students and the first tubular construction of what will be named Hex, which will play a much more consistent role from hereon.
So, a blip, in my terms at least. But only a blip.

Dukinfield 2015

                                       “And I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills”

Another year and it’s time to go to Dukinfield Crematorium again, and speak whatever words come into my mind to the air above the plot where my father’s ashes were sprinkled, so long ago that any physical trace of his presence is itself long washed away.

I still do this, throughout three-quarters of my life, even though I am nothing like the nervous, uncertain boy, barely becoming to be a teenager, that I was when last he saw me. Only that part of him that remains alive in my far-too-old memories truly exist to hear each year’s explanation of who I am, and what, and where.

This year the thought has struck me: what do people think of the fact that I do this, after what is now forty-five years? What do I think of it? Is there supposed to be some kind of moratorium, some Statute of Limitations, so that after the requisite years you can stop, you can say that you’ve fulfilled all that is expected of you, and you are no longer bound to go through this ritual?

If there is, I refuse to recognise it. As long as I am fit and able, and physically available, I will come to Dukinfield on this day, will make this the very first day I secure each year when holiday entitlement is released. He was my father, and by all the things I heard of him from those who knew him longer than I did, there is an awful lot of him in me, even though he has been the longest and most devastating gap in my life.

What I do at Dukinfield, in the last place he physically was on this Earth, is the closest thing possible to the conversations I never had, that were taken away from me when he was taken away by cancer and cigarettes.

If this had not happened, he would have been 87 this year, a year younger than his own father reached, and long since older than his elder brother.

It’s impossible not to spend part of this day in another time. There are things I remember about that day, a host of details that play and replay each time I reach this time of year, that I could never forget eve if I desperately wanted to. Yet almost every other part of that day is a complete blank. I went to a football match the day my Dad died. It was Droylsden’s first game of the season, and I’d arranged to go with my old school-mate Steve, and my Mam insisted that I still went, to take my mind off it, so we went together, and it was a 3-3 draw, and don’t ask me if it worked that day because I haven’t the faintest recollection of anything but the score.

Ironically, I was thinking of doing the same thing on this anniversary, not for the first time either. FC United of Manchester are at home to Tamworth, in their new ground, Broadhurst Park, in Moston. It’s their third game in the National North and the club are still looking for their first point. And it’s bright sunshine, like it was that day. But the occasion is weighing heavily on me, and I’m more than merely lethargic, and emulating the events of 45 years ago that closely does not appeal.

So I went to the Crematorium, and I stood and talked, and what I talked about is between me and my father, and no-one else. It was sunny, like it was that day, and the trees were in full leaf, obscuring the low hills that stand behind Dukinfield and Ashton, the hills to which, as the Book of Remembrance has it, he lifts up his eyes. That space at the bottom of the right hand page of the Book has been filled now, two names added, but the second book, behind, still offers virginal pages. As always, long may that stay the case.

Then Manchester, via Ashton and Droylsden, places with which he was familiar in his life. Sometimes, he hovers just behind me and I silently try to explain the differences between then and now, imagine what it would be like to have made that leap in an instant, instead of one day at a time, as I have done.

All the the buses make me wait, refusing to arrive when due, so that it’s a long time before I get back. FC United have gained that first point, though it was 1-1, not 3-3, and they did it without me. I’ll get to Broadhurst Park this season. I’ll be back to the Crem in another 366 days (it is a Leap Year next year). Au revoir, Dad.

New Tricks: Farewell Gerry Standing

                                                                                  Last Man Standing

I really do think the BBC have made a colossal blunder in cancelling New Tricks after this series, but then their recent history has just been one colossal bollock after another. Dennis Waterman has now departed the series, the last original member of the cast, paving the way for Larry Lamb to step in as Ted Case, who we met during the course of tonight’s episode. It’s now a completely different programme, a superb example of refreshing and renewing on the run, so to speak, and it doesn’t deserve to die.

There was almost no humour in this episode, and a deadly seriousness throughout the complex story that crossed two eras in unravelling the death of a Police Inspector in 1982, and the true role Gerry Standing played in his death as opposed to the framed-up appearance that Gerry had actually killed someone.

The episode led with a funeral, with Steve McAndrew, Danny Griffin, Sasha Miller and Deputy Commissioner Strickland in attendance: in short, the whole of UCOS bar Gerry Standing. It was too obvious a signal, it couldn’t be Gerry’s funeral, it wasn’t going to be decided on a cheap death. But as the hours shortened in which UCOS could retain control of the case, and in which Gerry, with Danny in tow, raced down the vital evidence that laid everything bare, whilst the official investigators, Sasha and Steve, ran up against further, cleverly implanted, frames, the more and more it became impossible for this to be anyone else’s ceremony.

Lamb turned up as the only honest copper in a team that should have been investigating graft and corruption, to hand over the vital files that cleared Gerry, but also to provide the clue to the one piece of evidence that Gerry had been keeping back: that he had framed the dead Inspector Ackroyd as being an honest rather than bent cop, about to cough on the Chapman family.

Gerry had even warned Ackroyd, told him to get out, had believed all along that he had done so, until the body emerged. He had been responsible for Ackroyd’s death, and in the face of the danger it could bring to him and his family, Gerry stood up and made a statement.

It might be cliche, but within the parameters of the story, there was an inevitability to it all, leading at last to the turn of the key in a car’s ignition and the bomb that blew it all to blazes.

So it was Gerry’s funeral after all, except that there was something false to it. Gerry had known all along what he was doing, with his refusal to go into Witness Protection, because it would have destroyed his daughter’s life by having to drag her in with him. Strickland ended up going to Gerry’s gangster pal, Tommy Naylor, for help, but Gerry already had it sewn up (it’ll be interesting to see if Naylor ever pulls in that favour: he’s going to have to do it fast if he wants it).

Because the bomb went off and the car blew up but Gerry wasn’t in it. Can’t leave his old mates to mourn, so the funeral gets interrupted by a tweet with a photo of a red Mustang on a Brooklyn Street, with the Last Man Standing behind the wheel: no wonder his Caitlyn wasn’t looking that upset during the funeral.

So go it then, Dennis Waterman, a consummate performance to the last, and New Tricks is completely retooled and ready for a future that’s not got much left to it. No longer Insubstantial Airfill: this has now got ballast.

Dan Dare: The Wandering World

The One Who Is Obeyed

In a manner that hadn’t been seen since Trip to Trouble, or perhaps even the transition from The Man from Nowhere into Rogue Planet, The Wandering World ran directly on from the last page of Operation Time Trap. Like its predecessor, this was a story that I knew only partially for half a century. There were pages from this story in the bundle bought at that Bring and Buy sale, though from the first week of 1964, I had Eagle on weekly order. The only gaps in the story throughout all that time came near its beginning.
But ultimately I got the complete story, which contained the last pages of the original Dan Dare run that I had never before seen. It’s a fine and private irony that my first and last Dan Dare pages should have been so close together in publication.
The new adventure starts with a dramatic aerial shot of the Tempus Frangit blasting off from Meit’s North Pole. They were indeed close enough to the exact Pole and escape into space, beyond two suns. There, Banger executes the Time Jump to take them home. His calculations have been thorough and precise, he has allowed for every pound of weight, and the removal of every ‘gift’ donated to the Meitians, the Jump will be to an exact position within Earth space. Except that he hasn’t accounted for the stowaway, Xel, and his weight.
And the Tempus Frangit arrives in the Solar System at the right time. Or rather, just outside of it. Beyond the orbit of Pluto (this was before the Kuiper Belt was discovered, indeed before Pluto’s main moon, Charon). They do not have enough fuel to return to Earth down the entire length of the Solar System.
Xel immediately makes his presence known – and felt – attempting to take over the ship. But he quickly realises this is a waste of time if it effectively cannot go anywhere. The impasse is quickly forgotten as sensors pick up a nearby object, what appears to be an artificial world, of immense clustered bubbles broken up by gaping pits that emit blazing radiation. Xel abandons ship to search for something more promising on this satellite/moon/world, with Dan and Dig closely behind, hoping to get to the native people – assuming there are any – before Xel creates a terminally bad example.
What they find on the Wandering World is something completely unexpected: the Mekon.
Whereas, on his last reappearance, Dan and Digby greeted the Mekon with nothing more than the generic “You’re supposed to be dead”, I’m impressed by the fact that David Motton has them reference The Solid-space Mystery.
Indeed, there’s a definitely understated continuity between the two adventures. It puzzled me for years why the Mekon is alone, with a perfectly constructed Treen spaceship, but without any Treens to carry out his bidding. But then when we last saw him, he was ejecting – alone – in an escape capsule from the Solid-space satellite, which was then promptly destroyed with no survivors.
It still begs the question of how he’s gotten from a satellite between the orbits on Mercury and Venus to the far side of Pluto, unaided, though he’s done a world class job on getting the native Navs to duplicate Treen construction.
What is most important is that the Mekon not only has a functioning spaceship, he has fuel for it, and enough to fill the Tempus Frangit‘s tanks as well. Unfortunately for the latter’s crew, he has the local population, the Navs – spindly, blue-skinned, hairless humanoids – under his complete control, and now he has an uneasy ally in the form of Xel.
As a newly introduced reader, completely lacking any knowledge of the series’ history, I spent my formative years thinking of Xel as Dan Dare’s primary adversary. He’s a constant presence throughout the trilogy of stories of which The Wandering World is the middle part, and he has a further role to play as villain in the future. But even at my young age, the contrast between Xel and the Mekon, their alliance a triumph of circumstance above nature, was fascinating to contemplate. Brutishness versus brain. Strength against feebleness. Bull-headed attack against thought and planning.
The Mekon was always the more deadly of the two, and where the Earthmen are incapable, ultimately, of overcoming the Stollite Emperor (though Dan does, incredibly, succeed in knocking him out, temporarily), it takes the greater villain to put Xel out of action with sufficient permanence to permit the story to proceed to a denouement.
The Wandering World is an intriguing conception. The Navs are survivors of an unspecified civilisation (from within the Solar System? From without?) that destroyed itself, leaving only those who were aboard a fantastic sky city, a metal construct powered by great nuclear engines. Over an unspecified period of time, the city has both wandered and developed its surface of bubbles, initially a kind of detritus generated by the engine, but now home to the Nav civilisation and its curious flora and fauna.
Dan and Digby, with Banger, explore the Wandering World until they reach the bubble where the Mekon has taken control. He has enlisted the Navs on a basis of lies about his role in the Solar System, and promises of giving them a planet of their own one he is ‘restored’, but they are quick to turn to Dan’s assistance when he puts them right.
But they are even quicker to turn against everyone when the matter becomes a three-way argument between the Earthmen and the two villains. “A plague upon both your houses!”, they cry, expelling the massive bubble from their world, leaving a massive hole, but dispensing with the threat for (their) good.
This is just what Dan and Co needed. The last few seconds of the Tempus Frangit‘s fuel is used to close in on the Mekon ship and its spare fuel. The Mekon is captured, Xel is incapacitated and the voyage home to Earth is before them.
Going by my personal impressions, The Wandering World is not as good a story as Operation Time Trap. It’s a less active adventure, with a stronger element of exploration: Dan and Dig see several of the bubbles and face various perils that have no direct bearing on the spine of the story, where all the actions of Operation Time Trap are focused upon the menace of Xel and the need for escape from Meit.
But it’s a strong, solid story, and if not up to the level of prime Hampson, it’s a far more worthy substitute than the pallid efforts of Eric Eden’s period as writer. Though it does have advantages that were denied to him, in that the overall story, from the Tempus Frangit‘s blast-off from Earth until it finally turns for home spans almost a full year of story. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen something with that scope.
And there’s still a direct follow-up to come.

In Praise of Pratchett: Men at Arms

It took Terry Pratchett seven books to get back to Sam Vimes and the Night Watch, which reinforces my opinion from reading Guards! Guards! that he had no intention of them turning into series characters. Tribute to the cannon fodder, wrap Vimes up with a marriage, toy with the joke of Carrot as the long-lost heir but both ignorant of it and, fundamentally, too simple, job’s a good ‘un.
But there was always too much potential in Vimes for it to be left like that, too much more that was possible for Carrot. Vimes had the soul of a Policeman. And Carrot couldn’t be as simple as that, except perhaps on a deliberately maintained surface…
And with one more book, shuffling similar cards and laying them out in a slightly different pattern – plot to assassinate the Patrician instead of plot to overthrow him – Pratchett bought himself into the hottest streak of all the hot streaks that run through Discworld and all its forms and folk.
The biggest difference between the two books is that, no matter how wonderful it was, Guards! Guards! was essentially a static book. Vimes’ tacit understanding with Lady Sybil, Carrot’s promotion from Lance- to full Constable, and that’s it. The Night Watch ended the book the same as it began, as a small collection of misfits, disregarded, laughed at, ignored. And Ankh-Morpork went back to being what Ankh-Morpork was before.
Though the bones of the concept are the same, though the aim is to put a King back on the throne – albeit this time the actual ‘real’ one – Men at Arms is a book about growth, about transition from an unsatisfactory state to one that might, tentatively, be thought of as an improvement.
It’s about switching on the light inside both Sam Vimes and Carrot – one seen from the inside, the other from the outside – and watching them change; like flowers at last exposed to sunlight and water, both expand into their natural, hitherto unseen even by themselves, personae.
And the Night Watch grows too, throughout the book. It grows in size before the start, with Carrot promoted to Corporal and enough new recruits to almost double the Watch’s size, even if they are only Affirmative Action hiring, pressed on the least important institution in the city: one dwarf, one troll and one w… woman.
Actually, we’re not going to do that, are we? We know that Angua is actually there to represent the Undead, in the form of werewolves, the least objectionable Undead you can have if Captain Vimes has absolutely got to have one. Pratchett doesn’t conceal it all that long from the readers and, by the end of the day, it’s only Corporal Carrot who doesn’t know until it’s very nearly the worst moment.
But I’m thinking mainly of the final scene, which replays the one in Guards! Guards! where Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs ask for a comically minuscule reward for saving the city. This time it’s Carrot, the new Carrot, and on top of the trivialities he starts with, echoing Colon and Nobby, there’s the demand for a real Watch, a Watch, not a Night Watch and a Day Watch, a serious Watch with men, stations and resources.
In short, into the city of Ankh-Morpork, whose principle appeal is that, as Pratchett takes care to emphasise in the opening third of the book, it ‘works’, Carrot intends to insert a Police Force and with it its concomitant principle, Law. Instead of the Patrician’s carefully constructed array of absurdities that wouldn’t for a second ‘work’ but which represents the precise balancing of forces against forces so that everybody cancels everything out, we will have a force whose primary purpose is to benefit and protect that one class of person in Ankh-Morpork who is not otherwise represented: the ordinary person.
That’s one hell of a step to take.
As it moved onwards, the City Watch strand began to focus more and more upon Sam Vimes, but at this early stage, whilst it’s his transformation into a Policeman that first starts to shift the ground under everyone’s feet, Carrot’s transformation is perhaps the bigger, bolder and more expansive of the two. When anything resembling Law and Order breaks down, it is Carrot who, though a lowly Corporal, takes over, has officers senior to him saying Sir and following his orders. It’s because he’s the King, we know that, but it’s a case of the finest and best aspects of Royalty and ultimate command flow backwards into the form of someone who is genuinely a Good Man.
And a simple one too. Pratchett makes much of this, primarily using Angua as a commentator to make the point, which is that whilst Carrot is simple, it is some kind of super-simplicity which conceals a breadth of incredible knowledge and understanding, both of situations and of people that, armed with his natural charisma, enables him to rally and direct people.
Later books will speculate that Carrot is not as apparently oblivious as he seems, but Pratchett took the wise decision never to take us into Carrot’s head and show us only the same surface the rest of his characters see. And the thing about Men at Arms is that this surface arises, burnished and complete, in one fell swoop. Which is precisely why Vimes dominates later books, because he is here just beginning to grow, and from here he never will stop.
Because what Vimes is doing is growing into himself, into what he always was beneath the surface but never got the chance to explore, because the Night Watch was a joke, because the Law wasn’t in the Patrician’s – any Patrician’s – plans. Vimes starts to grow as soon as he faces the prospect of leaving the Watch, of joining the rich he instinctively (and in many ways rightly) hates, of having nothing to do and nothing but luxury to spend his time in.
As soon as he is forbidden to investigate this latest series of murders, Vimes reacts as Vetinari expects from him, as he has, quite secretly, been conditioned to do. He starts to turn into a Good Policeman, the good copper that, very early on in the book, both Pratchett and Vimes say he’s not. That’s a journey with a long trajectory, but Vimes moves far enough along it that, at the end, he is able to resist the most evil force on the Discworld, the Gonne.
Ah yes, the Gonne, the Discworld’s first, and only, piece of personal firepower, the invention, naturally, of Leonard of Quirm, introduced in this book. My one criticism of Men at Arms is that Pratchett imputes sentience to the weapon, to the extent that it ‘talks’ to those who carry it, acting independently of their will and inducing them into ‘conversations’ with it. That’s one flawed step to me, a stepping back from what Pratchett otherwise anatomises as the true corruption of such a thing: the sense of individual power it gives, the ability to act as a God. If the Gonne speaks, or even thinks, it removes the true evil into the weapon, not where it properly sits, with the wielder. Vimes resists, after a struggle. Carrot doesn’t give it a moment’s thought, literally.
Elsewhere though, Pratchett’s deconstruction is on fine form. He shreds the aristocracy and their assumption of self-superiority, and his attitude to the idea of kingship, which will be yet further expanded upon by Vimes in the future, is strengthened by having Carrot, who is King, equally aware of its flaws. It does help that I share his beliefs absolutely.
And upon such subjects, I want to end with a quote. It’s an absolute gem of encapsulation, touching unfathomable depths in human psychology with an economy of words that is astonishing. In the light of the Election this year, it is as painful as it is perceptive.
“People ought to think for themselves, Captain Vimes says. The problem is, people only think for themselves if you tell them to.”

The Infinite Jukebox: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times or more before you really hear it. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe‘s been around since 1968, a no. 12 in Britain not coming close to the song’s four weeks at no. 1 status in America, and I’ve heard it many times: that lilting, almost awkward acoustic guitar, Gentry’s husking crooning bringing out the Southern accent, the strings austere and distant, sparing.

It’s an oddity of a song, an improbable hit, hard to imagine coming out of nowhere with it’s near stop-start rhythm, its lack of a chorus, its downplayed melody, it’s unlyrical lyrics, spinning out the chatter of a meal, somewhere out in deep rural America, the Mississippi Delta, a million miles away from anything you’d ever consider remotely sophisticated.

But if you listen, and if you hear, Ode to Billy Joe is a very chilling song, a very scary song, a ghost song with an immense void at its heart, something that you sense might be understandable but which, by the end, you realise you just don’t understand at all.

Gentry sings from inside herself, a young girl, still in her teens, coming in for midday with her Mamma and Poppa and Brother, fresh from a morning chopping cotton, to news, delivered casually, that Billy Joe McAlllister, a young man from Choctaw Ridge, has killed himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

The conversation meanders. Poppa comments that Billy Joe had a lick of sense, but his main concern is the ploughing he still needs to do in the Lower Forty. Mamma thinks its a shame. Brother recollects childish pranks involving he and another friend and Billy Joe putting a frog down his sister’s dress at some old Show.

It’s the first suggestion of a link between the singer and Billy Joe, but she says nothing of her own, as little snippets pass harmlessly between the family, drawing together a connection that we sense lies at the very heart of things, about why Billy Joe has killed himself.

But it’s a void, a ghost story. All we have are guesses. The girl knows something, but she’s not going to bring anything to this dinner conversation, not now, not ever. Ever. And that’s what is so disturbing. Something happened, and we sense ourselves at the very edge of a tragedy all the bigger for remaining undefined.

Perhaps it’s something mundane, something down-home and simple and trite, but it’s still cost a life and we will never know why or how. Just what was it that was thrown off the bridge the other day? A film was made, an entire film, to give an explanation to this song, and the film-makers chose to make the thing into a doll, the girl’s doll, thrown away in a psychological attempt to make her grow out of childhood. But that was the film-makers’ interpretation, because we just don’t know. There are no answers, only an impenetrable shadow, but what led up to Billy Joe’s death becomes a curse that causes the collapse of this family in which Miss Gentry shelters her secret.

Within a year, Brother’s married and moved out a ways, Poppa’s died of a fever and Momma’s been broken by it. The girl is still silent, but she’s drawn back, time and again, to Choctaw Ridge, picking flowers and dropping them into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

These are real places, names. They don’t merely exist, they are the geography of Bobbie Gentry’s childhood. Knowing this raises the fears another notch. It’s just a song, a slow, quiet, gentle, song, with something concealed in the heart of it that we will never know, for certain. And what if it’s real? What if it’s not only a song?

Dan Dare: Operation Time Trap

A page it took fifty years to read

watsontimetrapA year had gone by, a year of short stories in black and white, hidden on the inside. But Keith Watson’s determination to hold the fort, to give the Dan Dare series the best of Hampson-standard art, to satisfy the reader’s anticipation, had given the readers something to cling to.
And the readers had done their part, pressurising Longacre about the series, continually asking for Dan Dare to be put back on the cover, put back in colour, in enough numbers, consistently, that Longacre had to admit defeat on all fronts.
Operation Time Trap is where the tide turns, where it starts to flow back towards something like a peak. It won’t ever get far enough up the beach to match Frank Hampson at his peak, but this can joyfully be said to be The Restoration. Back on the cover, back in colour were just the symbols, but with this story, Motton and Watson were freed from the restriction to short, thirteen week or less stories, and the ban on recurring characters was also lifted, equipping Dan and Digby with a new supporting cast to last them almost to the end.
Even better, Operation Time Trap would not merely run 28 weeks but, in the grand Hampson tradition, its ending would segue into the next adventure, and that would lead directly to a third, giving Dan and Co a year of continuous adventure.
But though the point was won, especially with regard to longer, more flowing stories, Longacre had merely compromised, not acknowledged defeat. The new format for Dan Dare did not kick in until three B&W episodes had appeared, and there was still a surprise to come: colour covers maybe, but only the cover – to be done poster-style, with two small panels in the bottom right corner, balancing the yellow-backed Eagle and Swift logo box in the top left corner – but inside the art was still black and white and grey, and there were one and a half pages of it.
One has to wonder why. Why, if the concession was to be made, hold it back until a story had already started? Was it really that impromptu a decision, or was it some feeble attempt to demonstrate that the editor was the one in charge here, no matter what the readers said? And why this unheard of, hybrid format? Was it hedging their bets? Leaving the door open to taking the series back into pure black and white again when they said it wasn’t popular enough? We don’t know, and it’s too late now for more than speculation. But I think the questions imply their answers.
There was one more thing. Watson had done marvelously in black and white, but, being colourblind, was handicapped by the return to colour. So he hired an assistant, an airbrush specialist, to colour these expansive, impressive covers. For the fourth time, no less, Eric Eden was back on the series from which it seemed he could never get away.
When it comes to the story, it’s time I acknowledged that a lot of Dan Dare fans are critical of David Motton’s scripting, regarding his dialogue as unrealistic and stilted. I’m biased by this being the Dan Dare I grew up upon, but I can’t agree. I’ve already spoken about his more descriptive writing in captions, and he’s certainly on top form in the first episode, succinctly setting up the situation and three new characters, in economical stokes.
Operation Time Trap was still on two internal B&W pages when it started, but the astute reader could have drawn from it the inference that the story was about to expand. That opening episode sets up Dan’s new mission, as pilot on the test run for the Tempus Frangit, and the giant, jet black ship, primarily spherical, is given impressive prominence in the opening panel. And the mission involves not merely space travel, but traveling in time as well, a new theme.
Plus Motton introduces three new crewmates, taking care to establish their characters in a manner that we have simply not seen over the past twelve months.
First is Colonel Wilf Banger, Engineer, Scientist, Designer and Builder of the Tempus Frangit: bull-headed with sweeping black moustaches and a bull in a china shop approach to problems. Then there’s his long-term assistant, electronics and mechanical genius, Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob (in later stories, the quotes that imply this is a nickname will be dropped and Nutter will become a genuine first name) who’s no respecter of ranks when his Colonel is in the wrong. And lastly, in all respects, was Major Spence, receding hairline, plump, little moustaches: a fussy, nervous administrator, a stickler for Spacefleet Rules and Regulations, whose value to the expedition – or nearly every other adventure – was impossible to discover.
Incidentally, the Major did have a first name, being Shillitoe. This was not disclosed at first, though it did come out in the first episode, and it would be mentioned only once again.
(Which was more than could be said for the meaning of Tempus Frangit. This was only ever explained in that first episode, which I didn’t read until the 2010s. Of course, the Latin translation was fairly simple, if you’d studied Latin which, apart from the Latin-tagged concepts I needed to know as a Solicitor, and some classic classical tags, I didn’t. I was finally clued in by a fellow Eagle fan at a Manchester Comics Mart in in the early 1990s).
So, the first Time Jump begins. Dan pilots the Tempus Frangit to the pre-determined point in space and Banger engages the Jump, much to Digby’s misgivings about the physical effects of the journey. But the Earthmen’s first shock is that they arrive in a region of lightless space, with no stars visible at all.
Unable to navigate, Banger engages the reverse jump, but the Tempus Frangit goes nowhere: it is held by some kind of magnetic lock.
Use of the short-range astroscope identifies a strange binary sun system with a single planet, Meit, on an eccentric orbit around/between the two suns. Dan reconnoitres the planet without finding any signs of civilisation, though it’s clear that the land is unstable, racked with earthquakes. Eventually, he lands the ship on an island the size of Sicily, only to find that it is made of concentrated, matted weeds that roll with the tidal swell, though they do support the spaceship.
The native Meitians are friendly, though they insist on gifts from their visitors, gifts that ‘give a man dignity’. Dan and Co quickly realise that there is another spaceship already on Meit who have already provided the Meitians with an invaluable gift – instant translators. And Cob quickly picks one apart to discover that it’s also a complex tv and radio surveillance device, which is being watched elsewhere.
There isn’t long to wait before the other visitors to the planet make themselves known. They – or rather he – is  Xel, the One in One Thousand Million, the One who is obeyed, leader of the Svallokin Empire of Stoll. His ship landed on land and has been wrecked by an earthquake, and he demands two places on the Tempus Frangit to escape the planet. Dan must leave two of his crew behind.
That’s never going to be an option, though everybody but Dan does discuss it as if it were a serious proposition. It never would have been, but Dan has already seen Xel for what he is: a tyrant, a brutal dictator, heedless of others lives: he is not putting anybody into jeopardy for someone like that.
Thus a mini-war rages between the two spaceships. The Meitian wise man confirms that it is possible to escape Meit’s magnetic grip. Xel has the wise man kidnapped to prevent him revealing to the Earthmen where and how they can escape Meit, though the wise man’s young assistant, Noli, confirms that it is from the magnetic north pole on midsummer’s day, between the two suns.
Xel temporarily gains control of the Tempus Frangit, at least until the ocean swell incapacitates the Stollites through major seas-sickness. Dan and Digby take one of Xel’s bubblecraft to locate his wrecked spaceship, trying to rescue the wise man and regain the Meitians’ goodwill and cooperation. They are captured, and Xel intends to enslave them, as he has his own, nasty, brutish, short, silver-skinned people.
But Digby saves the day with his usual luck: he’s earlier fallen into a food vat and, in climbing out, bent a feed pipe so that it spewed on the floor, instead of into the mix. That proved to be the drug by which Xel maintained his hold on his slaves. They run riot, rebelling against him, and he is forced to flee, with Dan and Digby (plus wise man) in pursuit.
The threat appears to be over, and Dan and Co can concentrate on floating the island to the North Pole. They are not aware, however, that Xel has stowed away on board, intent on taking the ship, but not until he has killed Dan Dare with his bare hands.
With the conditions getting ever colder, and the remnants of the island freezing and cracking, it becomes a slow-motion race against to get the Tempus Frangit into exactly the right place. Dan is forced to act when the ship is less than 100 yards from the exact point…
And the adventure went on, with a new story, The Wandering World, picking up the following week, directly from the cliffhanger of that take-off.
Incidentally, as an eight year old unused to words beginning with an X, I pondered over how to pronounce Xel’s name and in my head sounded it with an X, as in X-L, or excel, a word I was many years away from encountering. Not until much later, and exposure to xylophone, or Xavier, did I come to realise that, phonetically, it should be ‘Zel’. But that little mental stutter is forever there, and I still stumble in my head over the One in One Thousand Million, X-L.
I have mixed feelings about trying to analyse this story. This is where my relationship with Dan Dare and the Eagle began. Among its pages are the Eagle‘s Dad bought for me at that long ago Bring and Buy Sale. They leap out at me when I read the story with all the force of fifty years of memory.
In truth, this is a difficult story to read. For nearly fifty years, I knew it only partially, without beginning or end, a heavy weighting towards the middle and end, but with one sole b&w episode, and now I read the complete story at last, I find it hard to accept the additional episodes that complete and make sense of the tale.
It’s as if they are not quite real, as if they are an incredibly good pastiche, but still pages that have been made up afterwards, to fill in gaps where the ‘real’ pages have been lost forever.
Ultimately, the fifty-nine year old Crookall can’t override the eight year old boy who first read parts of this story and was so thrilled and excited by it that he wanted to read this every week. The best I can do by way of an objective assessment is that Motton and Watson took full advantage of the freedom from restrictions to broaden Dan’s horizons immeasurably.
Time travel. Distant galaxies. High peril. Strange planets with unusual natural laws. And a new recurring enemy who was in many ways the opposite of the Mekon, but no less evil and no less deadly. To a boy ignorant of Dan Dare’s past, this was glorious fun and astonishing adventure – and the rest of the comic wasn’t bad either!
It was indeed the beginning of a new era: a silver age of excitement and imagination.

Insubstantial Airfill: With Regret

For one last time

A year ago, when the BBC’s long-running comedy-drama cop show, New Tricks, started its annual outing, I wrote about it under the rubric above: Insubstantial Airfill: something light, entertaining, but ultimately no more than a pleasant way of spending an hour. I was almost immediately surprised by a series of rather more serious themes and stories, that dialed back on the comedy pedal, and in several cases went into some very dark and serious places.

It was all down to the renewal aspect, with three of the four original cast members replaced, by Denis Lawson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Tamzin Oughthwaite, in order of seniority, and this year the show is losing Denniw Waterman, his character’s name of ‘Last Man’ Standing turning out to be appropriate in real life.

Waterman is appearing in only the opening two episodes of the new series, after which his replacement will come on board – and in my by now usual manner, I have no idea who that’s going to be, and am waiting to find out in the best way possible, by watching the series.

Unfortunately, now that the BBC has made New Tricks something to watch for more than just the whiling away of another hour, it’s also announced that this is to be the last series. And if this opening episode is anything to go by, that’s not just a disappointing decision but a bloody stupid one to boot.

We’re only halfway through Jerry Standing’s exit, but it’s been a complex and decidedly downbeat story so far, further evidence of the changes the new cast have brought in, because you couldn’t have managed this with the overt comedy of the originals. Summarising, a skeleton discovered in the basement of a house being firmly renovated turns out to be former DCI Martin Ackroyd, missing for thirty years. Ackroyd was briefly Jerry’s boss before disappearing, and was supposedly investigating Police corruption. Jerry clearly knows more about it than he’s telling UCOS, and from the look of him he doesn’t want it coming out

The episode bounced backwards and forwards between the present and thirty years gone, a beautifully exact recreation of the look of the early Eighties, down to the film stock, with actors who genuinely look like younger versions of their contemporary selves. Yes, there was graft, yes Jerry was in on it, but only working in secret for Ackroyd, to bring the villains down, and yes, he’s mates with a rival crook, Tommy Naylor, now a high-powered gangster.

In short, Jerry’s innocent, but it doesn’t take much in the way of framing – given his secretiveness about everything – to draw and colour in a picture that has so many guilty aspects. Indeed, the first half ends with Sasha Miller having to arrest Jerry on suspicion of murder.

It’s a sombre episode that you couldn’t have got away with if the team were still Jack Halford, Brian Lane and Sandra Pullman (each of whom get passing name-checks along the way) because you couldn’t have taken it seriously enough. This looks bad, it looks like no way out, and you can genuinely see it ending very badly indeed.

I’ll be watching every episode of this series furiously, since that’s all there’s going to be. Just as New Tricks has grown into something worth watching, it’s getting the chop. Somehow, the BBC can’t do anything right any more.

The Future of Football?

Having just read this piece in today’s Guardian, I cannot resist linking to it:

Apparently, a simulation has been carried on to produce the equivalent of playing Football Manager for the next thousand years, and the two dominant teams of that era are going to be Sheffield United and Burnley. Forget the Special One, Chelsea will pick up only one more Premier League title in the next Millenium.

There’s no word as to the prospects for Manchester United and Arsenal in that time, but some of the other future Premier League winners to come are equally hilarious, and there’s already one BTL comment about how Liverpool will still be searching for their 19th title….

In Praise of Pratchett: Lords and Ladies

So now I could read the one Nigel bought me as a thank you, and the first words were: “Now read on.”
Actually, they weren’t. Those were the first words of Lord and Ladies, the fourteenth Discworld book, once again starring the Three Witches, but they were also the last words of a prefaratory Author’s Note pointing out that this book, more than others, needed a bit of historical context before we readers started.
Which gets me onto the relevant question of, is this or is it not a sequel?
By some loose standards, nearly the entirety of the Discworld series is made up of sequels, if all you need for a sequel is that the same characters turn up again doing something different. I have already gone on record as saying that the only true Sequel in Discworld is The Light Fantastic, because it follows directly on from The Colour of Magic.
But Lords and Ladies does come close. It runs on from Witches Abroad in the sense that it starts just as soon as Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick (not to mention Greebo) get back from their roundabout trip to Genua, and it’s all about something that happens whilst and because they’ve been gone that they have to put right.
However, that’s not enough for me. There’s no thematic connection between the two books, as in, say Dan Dare’s The Man from Nowhere/Rogue Planet: it’s a what They Found When They Got Back, like Rogue Planet/Reign of the Robots.
Terminology aside, it’s another bloody funny, and cruelly serious book, though in the latter respect, Pratchett’s ‘target’ is something of a strange, and many will think trivial subject.
The ‘Lords and Ladies’ of the title are Elves. They occupy what gets identified, late in the book, as a parasite dimension, forever seeking to break through into the Reality of the Discworld (and that’s a joke in itself). A long time ago, they were banished, kept from returning by a circle of standing stones whose effectiveness comes from their magnetic properties. Whilst the Three Witches were away, Circle Time arrived, when the barriers between the worlds becomes ‘thinner’, and the young girls of Lancre, inspired by Diamanda (real name, Lucy Tockley), began practicing their own, half-arsed version of magic, and inadvertently started the process by which the Elves could break back into Discworld.
Circle Time, incidentally, refers to crop circles, which is another dating factor, this book being published when these strange, unexplained but ultimately mundane features were a serious fad.
The theme makes Lords and Ladies something of a throwback to the early books, a pure fantasy with fantasy touchstones, but immeasurably better because Pratchett is so much better a writer by now, but it does leave me wondering slightly about the point. Because the whole essence of the story is to paint a radically different version of the elves, as creatures of cruelty and terror, whose glamour is a weapon that breaks down human’s minds.
It’s not the flower fairies of Victoriana, and it’s the opposite of the noble, elegant elves of Tolkien, and it makes for a brilliant tale, the first half of which is riven with people’s false but overpowering belief, but given what Pratchett was doing in Small Gods, I can’t help but ask why?
The distinction between the Elves of myth and their reality breaks up the Three Witches almost as soon as they get back. Granny and Nanny are old and wise: they know the reality whereas Magrat would neither know nor understand and their refusal to even tell her infuriates her so much that she walks away.
Besides, Magrat has a destiny, and that is to be Queen. Verence has it all organised, without reference to her: date, venue, catering, guest list, even the wedding dress, tells her about it in brisk, practical manner, not a hint of romance or even affection as soon as she returns. Magrat puzzles over the seemingly magical aspect of that and, being Magrat as opposed to Nanny, never even imagines the real explanation until it drops into her lap, namely, Granny wrote and told him to get on with it.
But there are still two witches in Lancre, or maybe a half dozen if you take seriously any of Diamanda’s coven, which includes Perdita (real name, Agnes Nitt, and destined for a more important role before too much longer). There’s a magical duel that Granny wins by popular acclaim, though not by the actual rules, and Diamanda certainly is not behind the door when it comes to powers, though that’s because she’s being fed by the Queen of the Elves, who has a personal animosity towards Esmerelda Weatherwax from the last time the Lords and Ladies threatened to break through.
And Granny’s strength is not what it might be, for she is subject to distractions. For one thing, she’s practically convinced that she’s going to die. For another, which is probably more important to her, she’s beginning to worry that she’s losing her mind, experiencing vivid memories of a life she’s never lived.
And least important of all, at least to her, is a meeting with one of the wedding guests, none other than the Archchancellor of Unseen University, Mustrum Ridcully himself (with entourage: the increasingly detached from reality Bursar, the young wizard who is the Reader in Invisible Writings, Ponder Stibbins, and, naturally, the Librarian).
Because, long ago, a young wizard courted Esme Weatherwax, when they both were young, though she rejected him, and it’s only Ridcully, full of might-have-beens from the moment he sees her again.
(We’ve seen that before, when Granny was introduced in Equal Rites, but that was Arrchchancellor Cutangle. This version is a much better treatment of the idea, illuminating as to both Granny and Ridcully, then and now, and it enables us to lock away a bit of the earlier book that deserves forgetting).
And that’s where things go wrong. Granny’s got Ridcully’s elephantinely playful post-courtship, Nanny’s being wined and dined by the egregious Casanunda again, and Magrat’s locked herself in with her anger and embarrassment, so none of the Three Witches are watching as the Elves re-enter the Kingdom, bringing with them cruelty and glamour in inseparable manner.
There are three inadequate forces ranged against the Elves: Witches, Wizards and the Lancre Morris Men (there are times when I envy non-English readers of Pratchett, for not having any idea what he’s talking about here). And the Witches have three separate approaches. Granny allows herself to be taken before the Queen, knowing she is beaten but relying on her own weakness to overcome the Elves. Magrat girds herself in armour and exposes her own, shrunken but still whole core of bravery, to bring iron to the Queen.
But it is Nanny who, quietly, and in seriocomic tones, comes to the heart of things in this book. For she leads Casanunda to the lewdly arranged barrows below which the King of the Elves waits, more patient than his Queen, able to outlast the iron in men’s heads until the world changes again. And she calls upon him to intervene, and threatens destructive reprisals if he does not halt the Queen.
And she says the lines that go to the heart of this book, the words that bring everything to one white-hot core, and there’s not the remotest trace of humour in them.
‘I’d be a little bit sorry about that, ‘cos you know I’ve always had a soft spot for you. But I’ve got kiddies, y’see, and they don’t hide under the stairs because they’re frit of the thunder, and they don’t put milk out for the elves, and they don’t hurry home because of the night, and before we go back to them dark old ways I’ll see you nailed.
In a book that has immersed itself so deeply in fantasy and fairytale, these words are the most solid and real, and if Terry Pratchett had written Lords and Ladies in order to provide a reason to put those words in the matriarchal Nanny Ogg’s mouth, whatever he had done would be justified by reason of that truth.
So the Elves cannot win. They cannot stand the iron, and despite her weakness, the iron in Granny’s head cannot be overcome, nor the iron in Nanny’s voice, nor yet the iron in Magrat’s mind, no matter how much it derives from an illusion that shapes the fiction she’s girt about her.
And then there’s a wedding, and after that, for all their shyness and uncertainty and ill at ease, there is Verence and Magrat, King and Queen yes, but husband and wife above all. Discworld’s first marriage: enjoy it, there aren’t any more in the rest of the canon.
This is a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the cover depicted above is that of the hardback. For some reason I’ve never really fathomed, Josh Kirby was asked to paint a new cover, depicting the same scene but giving Nanny Ogg more prominence, for the paperback. It makes more commercial sense, I suppose. But the first version is the better image.