Crisis at Old Trafford – the next stage

For the third time in seven days, Manchester United have gone goalless, and for the second time in four days, they’ve never looked like scoring. This afternoon was not so dreadful an experience as Wednesday night’s game, but that’s solely due to my approaching the game with drastically lowered expectations. And thanks to  such lowered expectations, I got all the way into the closing minutes of the game without once having uttered the traditional words, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Rooney!”

That was brought about by our supposedly world class leader receiving the ball approximately twenty-five yards from the goal and taking so long to sort out which foot he was going to use to kick the ball who-knows-where that he let two Crystal Palace players come at him from his blind side and take the ball off him without a fight.

That’s practically all I can remember from the recently-finished second half, except that for some reason, Ashley Young got booed by the home support every time he got the ball, which started from his first touch.

The first half was marginally more memorable. United hit a comfortable passing rhythm that kept Palace away from the ball, but it was possession without purpose. It was as if there was an invisible barrier across the pitch, twenty-five yards out from goal, and that as soon as any United player felt its influence, they were compelled to turn round and pass the ball back.

There was a telling exchange involving Schweinsteiger, assessing the position and playing the ball to Rooney, who promptly kicked it straight back to him, which must have had Schweini wondering why he’d bothered in the first place. So he passed it to Anthony Martial, who promptly kicked it straight back to him. Realising that he was getting nowhere like this, Schweini recalibrated his sights and picked out a forty yards crossfield ball to Darmian, presumably on the grounds that at least it wouldn’t be winged back instantly to him.

It was like that a lot of the time, but the moment that will be picked out, we hope, came in the 31st minute. There was a scramble for the ball, which ran loose in space for Martial to surge in from the wing, where he is still being absolutely wasted. There was a gap, and Rooney was pointing, so Martial hit this brilliant pass. It split the Palace defence, and it wasn’t even hit hard, but try as he might, Rooney didn’t have the speed to catch up to it and the keeper beat him to it.

He’s only just turned thirty. It was pitiful to watch him chugging after the ball, unable to catch up to it.

So that’s now 300 minutes of football in which United have looked less likely to score a goal than I am. There was this great shot of Louis van Gaal in the dug-out, staring wide-eyed at the pitch, unable to believe what he was watching. Now you know how we feel, you useless lump.

These players can play, most of them anyway. They need a manager who can release them, who’ll tell them that it’s ok to play forward passes, to go at defenders whole-heartedly, even to shoot, which is getting to be a bit of an alien concept at Old Trafford right now.

Oh, and Rooney/Mata, a word in your shell-likes: that free-kick gimmick where one of you runs over the ball and lets the other take it? It’s not going to fool anyone unless sometimes the one who runs up first takes the kick. Otherwise, it’s just a complete waste of energy. And patience.


In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld 2 – The Globe

The Science of Discworld 2 (henceforth known by its sub-title, The Globe), is much better than Science of Discworld 1. This is because Terry Pratchett’s part of the book is occupied with a much more compact story, with a dramatic unity lacking in the first volume, and also making for better and more frequent jokes.
Literary readers will immediately sniff out that the story revolves around William Shakespeare, so it’s not giving anything away to admit that, rather than a participant in the story, Bill the Bard is actually its solution.
It’s all down to the Elves. Somehow, they have made it out of their parasite universe, through Discworld and into Roundworld, accidentally dragging with them a group of Wizards out on a team building exercise. Rincewind, as Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, keeps Roundworld on his shelf and receives the message from Ridcully about getting in here, in order to get them out.
Of course, by the time Rincewind and Ponder Stibbins get into Roundworld, courtesy of the Librarian and the mysteries of L-Space, the Wizards have settled down in Elizabethan times, made friends with Elizabeth’s chief magician, Dr John Dee, thoroughly confused him by telling him there is no magic (which, after all, is the case on Roundworld, due to its lack of narrativium), and have decided not to let the Elves get away with it.
Except that sending the Elves back where they came from, in the pre-history on Roundworld, leaves a world of humans without intellect, curiosity, intelligence or initiative. The Elves are necessary for the development of humanity as a species. Unfortunately, if left unchecked, humanity will not get off Roundworld in time to escape the destruction that was established in Science of Discworld 1.
So it becomes the job of the Faculty to work out a away of allowing the Elves to kickstart fear, curiosity and intelligence, whilst preventing them from scaring the human race into oblivion.
It’s in these various attempts that the meat of the story exists, including Pratchett’s exposition on what is becoming a recurring theme in this mid-period Discworld books, namely the separation between the space outside and the space inside a person’s head, and how much the latter becomes a fundamental part of our ability to be what we are.
The Elves stay mostly offstage in this story, unlike in Lords and Ladies, save only for the Queen, who is not at all changed from her role in the earlier story. She remains arrogant, convinced that the Elves have succeeded, and for the same reason, namely the belief that they cannot be defeated. This means that she is completely blind-sided by the attack that is made entirely out in the open.
And of all people it’s Rincewind who knows how to defeat the Elves permanently. What Roundworld needs is its greatest playwright, William Shakespeare: to be born, to survive, to leave Warwick, to enter the Theatre (the achievement of which being the responsibility of the other Wizards, continually shifting things about to create the only line of alternate futures that produces this outcome).
Because Bill the Bard will write, and the players of the Globe Theatre will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And by doing so he will place in the minds of Men an image of the Elves that will grow to become the only image of the Elves, which will supplant and thus deplete the image of the real Elves that they have thus far maintained.
The Wizards take the battle away from the Elves, away from every battlefield on which they can fight, by removing it, oh so very gently, onto the one battleground they cannot attend. And without ever knowing how, they lose. What Humanity becomes survives long enough to leave the planet on cue…
It’s an ingenious solution, though not an original one. Neil Gaiman had long been close friends with Terry Pratchett when The Globe was written, and in issue 19 of Gaiman’s comic, Sandman, Dream of the Endless engages William Shakespeare to write a play that will retain the memory of Oberon and Titania, not to mention Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, on a plane from which the host of Faeirie has departed.
A different story, a different purpose, a different end. But not a different idea.
Yes, The Globe is a much better book, because Pratchett is allowed to tell us a story instead of a history. He’s given space to do it properly as well, none of those ‘chapters’ that barely extend over the page, so that not only does he get a decent run-up at the gags, the story is far less choppy to read, even when you’re cutting Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s bits out.
And I know I’m denying the whole purpose of the Science of Discworld books by doing so, but if the science interests you, feel free to hang back and read it. I have the book that has been my favourite of all Terry Pratchett’s novels to reconsider next.

Crisis of Faith redux

If they had a choice, they’d face the other way

There have been a number of times this year that I have inveighed against television series that have been tedious, boring and unedifying. The un-missed Fortitude springs to mind, as does the current, thankfully short-lived run of Arne Dahl.

But the televisual crown for most desperately dull two hours plus of my life 2015 was decidedly won on Wednesday night.

There’s no point in checking the channels for what programme has caused this outbreak of despair: I was watching a live stream of the Manchester United vs Middlebrough League Cup Fourth round tie.

The dull statistics are that the game ended goalless after thirty minutes extra time, after which Middlesbrough won the penalty shoot-out 3-1. The plain fact is that this was a tedious, sagging, dragging unadventurous game in which United demonstrated all the plentiful faults of their style of play under Louis van Gaal, and the whole thing was boring as hell.

Back in March I wrote a piece about how I had lost faith in van Gaal and his approach to United and their play, a loss of faith that I temporarily recanted when United went to Anfield and bossed Liverpool out of the game. I have maintained a reserved position subsequently, as United have had a more successful start to the new season, including topping the table for a week.

No more, though. This being a League Cup match, United did not field a full-strength team but, with the possible exception of striker James Wilson (an England U-21 international) and midfielders Andreas Perreira and Jesse Lingard, the eleven was composed of first team was composed of first team players. The side even omitted Wayne Rooney, whose performances this season have been primarily dreadful.

Yet it was clear from about a quarter hour in that United, as so often lately, had no idea of how to score. From about fifteen minutes in, United looked like a team that would need the penalty shoot-out just to stand a chance of scoring at all.

Objectively, it was an improvement on my previous expression in disgust: several players, Carrick in particular, were actually threading forward passes, and between opponents less than ten yards apart. But, this distinction aside, it was the same slow, measured approach, enabling Middlesbrough to organise an already well drilled defence, and the instinct in any situation was to play the ball back, far more often than trying to make progress.

James Wilson cut a lonely figure up front. In all the games I’ve seen him, he’s a striker who needs service and he was getting nothing. Andreas Perreira, plying on the left, was neat and clever throughout, constantly feeding balls into the box, every single one of which were either catching practice for the ‘Boro keeper, or were heading easily clear by the defence.

When Wilson came off at half-time, this was apparently due to injury but at the time it looked like a tactical change, to bring on someone with the ability to create something for himself.

On the bench, United had a strong, in-form centre forward who could do that. Instead, van Gaal sent on Wayne Rooney. When he did send Anthony Martial on, there were twenty minutes left and Martial was sent out to the left wing, with United making most of their plays down the right flank.

I’ve been concerned about Rooney’s form for several seasons by now, but this year it has become critical. The amount of passes made under no pressure that go to opponents. His immobility. His inability to take a ball past another player. These are matters of major concern, and to be frank I’m not concerned about why any more. Putting it plainly, Rooney is fucked and he isn’t going to come back from this.

By about fifteen minutes from the end, I was loudly wishing for a goal, scorer immaterial, to avoid having to endure another thirty of this: I was denied. By the end of extra-time, I was past the point of any interest in United having been denied a late penalty for handball, and utterly drained of the even minimal interest that ought automatically to be associated with a penalty shoot-out. Defeat came as neither a surprise nor a pang. Middlesbrough weren’t really dangerous, but we looked incapable of scoring ever again.

It was noticeable that of United’s four kick-takers, the three established veterans all blew it and the only one to put even a penalty away on the night was the youngster Perreira.

United have put in some decent performances so far this season, but there is still very little to suggest that the long term success enjoyed under Alex Ferguson is anywhere in sight. To put it bluntly, even when we play well, we play like shit, draining the heart and spirit of the supporters. If money, principles and the Glazers were suddenly no consideration, I would still not go back to Old Trafford: pay to watch that? Kindly perform an act of travelling fornication.

So count me back in the anti-Van Gaal camp. There’s a long way to go and under him we’re traveling in a different direction, towards a destination that will include neither trophies nor glory. The season can be written off now: the League, the Cup, the Champions League, all of these are meaningless. Other fans taunts, bitter and jealous in the face of our two decades of glory, contain more than a morsel of truth.

We have players who can make Old Trafford into a joyful, excited,exciting place to be again, who can win, and win in style. But we have a manager who can only dampen and mis-direct them into a cul-de-sac of drabness. And we desperately need to sell Rooney now, whilst there are still people stupid enough to buy him.

What’s the Dutch for ‘Bugger off, van Gaal’? Sodemieter uit, Louis.

Dan Dare: The Gates of Eden

A great gift

The advent of Spaceship Away was a godsend to many, not least those who had dreamed of working on their own Dan Dare stories. One who was far more advanced than most, and far more qualified, was Tim Booth, writer, artist and musician, who approached Rod Barzilay with a story he was writing and drawing. Barzilay approved of it, and Booth’s The Gates of Eden debuted in issue 9, running for 39 episodes.
I love it. There are reasons why I shouldn’t, and I’ll explain these, and it’s something Frank Hampson would never have countenanced, for many reasons, and it’s not as if it has a proper ending, except in the closing of a door to something way beyond the Dan Dare series. But I still love it: for the imagination it displays, for the long periods in which it focuses on Hank and Pierre and their continual banter, and for its art.
I didn’t really care for Booth’s contributions to Green Nemesis. He’s not as precise an artist as any of the ‘professional’ stable, his work is frequently fussy and over-detailed, and his colouring is far too Sixties psychedelic to be wholly suited to Dan Dare.
But for The Gates of Eden, Booth adopted, and primarily hewed to a simpler, more direct style, with more naturalistic colouring. In some ways, it’s like a cartoon version of Hampson’s style, and the early style at that, which befits a story that slips into continuity between The Venus Story and The Red Moon Mystery.
And Booth is to be congratulated lavishly in one tiny aspect at least: he is the first and only Dan Dare writer or artist to show Albert Fitzwilliam Digby speaking to his wife!
Booth takes his time over the first half of the story. He’s not just preparing for the dramatic aspect of his tale, he’s enjoying himself filling in details of Hampson”s world that were left to our assumption. I do have to criticise one immediate detail, which is that The Gates of Eden begins in 1998, and one of its preliminary details is Dan being taken off a mission to the Asteroid Belt to supervise the first full Venus Food Run: given that the Venus Story ended in 1996, that’s an awfully large gap for a planet so desperate to escape from reliance on food blocks.
But Dan, and of course Digby, have to go to Venus, leaving Hank and Pierre, that pair of puzzled pilots, to go it alone in the old-fashioned Nimrod. Their mission is to identify suitable asteroids for Impulse Wave Relay stations to be built upon, extending Earth’s space-shipping range. En route, picking up newly-designed spacesuits, they bump into the designer, Professor Peabody, with Tystar, the young son of the Theron Volstar. These two will also have a part to play, when things hot up. Take note that the ship they are travelling on is the Milton Caniff.
Meanwhile, the ‘Frogboy’ and the ‘Yankee Palooka’ fly on to the Asteroids, the latter toting a ukelele/mandolin on which he sings, badly and, if the picture in his cabin is any evidence, a bit of a torch for the fair Jocelyn. And the two ‘copains’ go about their mission, but Pierre the more sensitive of the two, has the feeling that they are being watched, and he is, of course, right.
On Venus, the urgent reason for Dan to supervise this Food Run is carefully revealed, and it is a genuinely touching moment. There is a symbol of Treen/Theron co-operation, designed and constructed in secret: nostalgia overwhelms as Sondar and Volstar present the Pilot of the Future with his personal spacecraft, the Anastasia.
And there’s a perfect excuse for a first mission, as radio contact is lost with Hank and Pierre in the Asteroids. Dan and Digby take their new craft (about which Dig has doubts, given the number of windows that will have to be polished) and set a course.
En route, two things happen: first, the Milton Caniff goes missing, with young Tystar and Earth’s premier food expert, Jocelyn Peabody aboard, and the Anastasia is overtaken, swept up and given a lift by an American crewed Rescue Fleet commanded by Colonel Estev Cyonna.
Yer what? Estev who?
This is a moment to step away from the story and address some of the issues that ought to disqualify The Gates of Eden from consideration.
Those whose knowledge of comics, strips and cartoonists stretch beyond the purely British world of the Eagle ought to have recognised the name Milton Caniff as being the highly influential master of the adventure strip, the writer and artist of the legendary and rip-roaring Terry and the Pirates. Caniff was a master of chiaroscuro, an artist dedicated to realism and accuracy, one of the most influential American strip artists of the Twentieth Century.
Personally, like many, I prefer the dozen years Caniff put in on Terry to the near fifty he spent on his second great strip, the one he left Terry to create and, more importantly, own. That was Steve Canyon, and if you jumble the letters of the improbable Estev Cyonna… And within Booth’s style, he is drawn to be Canyon.
I’ve not the least objection to that, but I feel that, as a matter of consistency, I ought to. It’s not just Caniff and Canyon, but there are spaceships of all sizes and dimensions, such as the rock-crusher Bo Diddley, the Little Eva, Miss Liberty, Crazy Horse, Dixie Darlin’, the Thomas Pynchon. Admittedly, the list of ship names also includes the Lancastrian but that’s very much an exception. Booth peppers his strip with American names and icons, all of which should be thought of as inimical to the atmosphere of so British – so English – a character and series, as Dan Dare.
That’s not all, but we’ll return to that subject after another section of the plot, this time the ongoing mystery of what is happening to Hank and Pierre.
They are being watched and, what’s worse, whilst investigating one asteroid’s possibilities, their ship is taken, leaving them in desperate straits with only a few hours of oxygen each before inevitable death, long before Anastasia could possibly reach them.
Only death is not inevitable. Hank and Pierre have been led, and where they have been led is into the interior of the asteroid, where they find a strange, unmanned base. It’s accessed through a mysterious, yet familiar to Pierre, set of numbers: 21 – 12 – 1918, it’s got breathable air and it’s got a doorway out into the open. It leads to Eden, a planet of natural goodness and beauty, an idyllic yet empty world that proves to be populated by robots fighting an automatic war.
Just what the heck is going on?
What’s going on is a cyborg-Treen, Syndar by name, vat-brother to Sondar and so valued by the Mekon that, when involved in a bad crash, he was rebuilt with robotic parts. Let’s be honest, if it was hovering near the margins of an authentic Dan Dare story, at this point Booth takes it outside the line and keeps it over for almost everything that follows. The Mekon repair a damaged Treen? No, he wouldn’t, under any circumstances.
Syndar conducts Hank and Pierre from Eden to Isshka, a primarily water planet, via some form of telesender. They are greeted by a mermaid, or rather Professor Peabody, with Tystar. Forget Tystar, the Prof looks like she’s never done before, with a grin on her face far more sexy than any look managed during Eagle‘s run, and she changes out of her wet-suit on-stage, revealing a fetching pink slip. No wonder Hank closes in for a hug. And good old Jocelyn is definitely on-side with what’s going on.
Then, with Dan and Digby being led carefully to a rendezvous at Shelter, a secret asteroid base constructed and run by the man behind all of this, we get the great revelation. And it’s Bob Dylan.
No, it’s actually former Earth scientist and spacepilot John Henry Hibbings, who prefers to be known as Mr Jones (as in you don’t know what’s going on, do you?) and in both the visuals and the dialogue, the Dylan references pile up so thickly you could pick them up in lumps. And is not the title of the very story a not-in-the-least coded reference to the man?
Let’s cut quickly to the chase. Dylan/Hibbings has bummed around in space since the Sixties. Early on, he found some crystals with power over space, time and dimension. He has learned how to master them. But the longer time has gone on, the more he has sensed something dark, dense, distant, a threat of immense proportion. That’s why he’s gathered the Venus team, minus Sir Hubert, together. It’s a repeat of what the McHoo will do in Dan’s future, collecting an unparalleled Space Exploration Team. Will they help him?
Unlike McHoo, Hibbings/Jonesy will not force a decision. Should Dan and Co refuse, they will be returned to those places in space and time where Hibbings first interfered, without memory, to live out their lives as they choose. With Tystar absenting himself from decision-making, it becomes a matter of democracy.
There are two in favour – the Professor, already enthralled with the possibilities of discovery, and the ever-adventurous Hank – and two dead-set against – the disbelieving Pierre and Digby, who has taken against this ‘snake-oil salesman’ on sight. The final decision falls to Dan. As it must always have been, and by this I don’t mean the future we already know of, he turns it down. He’s younger, less convinced, lacks the personal elements of his lost father and McHoo’s fait accompli, but it’s down to his duty, to his Controller, to Spacefleet, to the people of Earth.
So Hibbings keeps his word, and everyone goes back, without memory, without trace (save for Hibbings’ compulsion to re-string Hank’s rackety old mandolin). What remains is the successful conclusion to the Venus Food Run and a soiree hosted by Jocelyn, at which Pierre re-finds the mysterious numbers, that mean nothing to anyone save Digby who, metafictionally identifies them as Frank Hampson’s birthday.
Where do we start with all the ways in which this is absolutely wrong for a Dan Dare story that seeks to ground itself in the authentic canon? I’ve already alluded to the overt Americanisation of things, the worship of Caniff and the utter wrongness of Syndar, but the biggie is of course the presence and tutelary spirit of Mr Robert Allan Zimmerman.
Booth’s fixation with Bob Dylan practically takes over the strip. This buttresses the Americanised aspect of the tale but also gives it a distinct leaning towards the Sixties, when Dan’s proper metier is the Fifties.
Then there’s Eden, and the opening of the gates to a wider world, to more universes that Dan’s own. Booth even uses the word Multiverse to describe what lies beyond, a word that I at least cannot hear or read without instantly thinking of the Justice Society of America and DC Comics. It’s wrong, completely wrong, and it has the unintended effect of diminishing Dan Dare by making his Universe one among, well, a Multitude.
None of this is appropriate to a series whose basis lay in hard science, in plausibility and realism. So far as what Booth introduces here, it is advanced science of a kind indistinguishable, in Arthur C. Clarke’s saying, to magic, and so in Dan Dare terms it is magic, by virtue of not having any rational explanation, such as Impulse Waves, or Nimbus Drives.
Of course, there is another interpretation of this final phase of the story. It can be cast into symbolic terms and read as a metaphor for Frank Hampson’s desire to extend Dan Dare’s reach, into American newspapers, into animated films, to take Dan into a world wider than that occupied by Hulton Press, where stories may well have had to be retold in a different manner to his art boards. Though the analogy is weakened by it being Dan himself, supported by the solid, stolid Digby, who rejects such an expansion.
As for that metafictional ending in which the characters themselves disclaim any knowledge of their creator, let’s adopt Dan’s final verdict and not go there, just not go there.
Yet for all that I said I loved The Gates of Eden, and I still do. That’s why it appears here in this series, on an equal par with the official canon. The only part of it that makes me truly flinch is Peabody’s overt sexuality, because it’s just wrong for Dan Dare’s world (and besides, forget this anonymous Jack Gurk – Professor Jocelyn Mabel Gurk? No way – if there’s any marrying to be done, it should be with Dan, there’s definitely a story there in getting him to come down off his Confirmed Bachelor perch and recognise what good things could ensue).
As I said before, I recognise the people. Booth’s story and setting may be wrong, but I believe it’s Dan and Co who take part in it. And I will forgive much for Booth bringing Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and his wife and four-times mother to his children together at long last, even if it’s over distances counted in the millions of miles, via a viewscreen, Earth to Anastasia. “’Ullo monkey, how’s tricks?” she says, getting a word in edgeways before Aunt Anastasia starts hassling Digby about wrapping up warm in space.
There’s a long overdue world in that greeting, and enough to let us all know just how the Digbys keep their marriage on track when he’s never home. That’s the real Gates of Eden.

We’re on our way to Wembley… the wrong way

Good news and bad about FC United’s FA Cup 1st Round Proper at home to Chesterfield. The good news is purely personal, however.

FC United have been advised by the FA that the game will be played on Monday 9 November at 7.45pm to enable it to be broadcast live on TV (can someone remind me who’s got the rights this year?). Unlike the Saturday, I will be free to go to the game, ticket availability willing, or at least watch it on live TV.

Unfortunately, the move has been made against the Club’s wishes. The full story is here, but for those who want the short version, FC’s stance has always been about putting the supporter back at the centre of the game. This includes NOT moving games from the traditional Saturday 3.00pm kick-off unless there is very good reason for doing so – and TV money does not count as a good reason.

So the club refused, and was ordered to comply by the FA. Then they requested any date but Monday which, being a work day, followed by a work day, causes the most inconvenience and disruption to the supporter: think of Chesterfield’s following, getting to Manchester and back for work Tuesday morning. And the FA insisted: fuck the fans, TV is god.

One thing FC can control, however, is the price. FC also supports keeping ticket prices in line with fans’ means. The entrance fee at Broadhurst Park is £9 but the FA are insisting on £10 – the First Round’s ‘minimum’ price. FC must comply, but out of their own resources, every entrant to the ground, away fans included, will receive a £1 voucher redeemable for food, drink or merchandise inside the ground.

Ever since they formed, I’ve been very proud of FC United of Manchester. Do you see why?

In Praise of Pratchett: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Like many, I was curious to see how a ‘Young Adult’ Discworld book would differ from the rest of the series which, despite the evidence of their popularity with a young audience, would henceforth have to be classed as ‘Old Adult’ in order to retain intellectual consistency. The answer would seem to be that a YA book wasn’t told from a human perspective, but rather a by-and-large talking animal perspective, with the odd human interjection in much the same manner as when Gaspode intrudes his viewpoint into the main series.
In which case, that means that The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the only YA Discworld actually written, because what was meant to be succeeding books in this variant turned into the Tiffany Aching series, and that became a sequel, spiritually, to the now-abandoned Three Witches series, and whilst you might get away with calling the first couple of those books Young Adult, you’re not going to be convincing anyone with Wintersmith or I Shall Wear Midnight.
Of course, there’s rather more to it than that, but we’ll discuss some of those more subtle aspects when we meet young Tiffany herself. For now, let us concentrate on Maurice himself, and those Educated Rodents.
What we have here is a children’s fairy-tale that’s got its feet so firmly on the ground that they may as well be set in stone: archetypal Pratchett territory. As is the concept of a children’s story: Pratchett had already written both the Bromeliad books and the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy by now. It’s also a typically sardonic twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, re-done as a scam.
Take one Piper, actually a stupid-faced kid of indeterminate age, and a pack of rats who have been magically changed so that they can now think, reason, plan, co-operate and, not unincidentally, Talk, and throw in a wily scam artist called Maurice, who happens to be a street cat, and the trick becomes fairly obvious. The stupid-faced kid (whose name is actually Keith) arrives in town on a wave of rats, carefully terrorising everyone, pipes them down to the river – what Robert Browning appears to have overlooked when renewing his poetic licence is that rats can swim – then meets then en route to the next time to divvy up the cash.
This last part is handled by Maurice. The stupid-faced kid (I’ll call him Keith from now on, it’s quicker to type) is only interested in piping, whilst the rats have their own issues to handle, both practical as led by Darktan, head of the Traps and Poison Disposal Squad, and existential, which is the role for Dangerous Beans, the near-blind albino rat who is the pack’s Shaman.
It’s a lovely gag of an idea and the dramatic tension of the story comes in the collision between the rats and a town where the rat-catchers have devised their own scam that’s bleeding the town dry. There’s an even better parallel between the two sides, for just as the rats are following the plans of the devious Maurice, so too do the rat-catchers have someone pulling their strings, only it’s a much more sinister and dangerous boss…
We all know the stories about Rat Kings, don’t we?
To complete the mix, we have young Malicia. Malicia, daughter of the Mayor and niece to the famous Sisters Grim, is a girl of an equivalently indeterminate age to Keith, and a story-teller. By that I don’t mean a liar, although the line between the two is dangerously blurred. No, Malicia tells stories because she’s obsessed with them, and that obsession demands that she turn everything she sees into a Story, obeying the tenets of narrative. She’s incapable at this stage of understanding the distinction between Story and Life.
What we have thus far is enough for a fine and entertaining children’s story from any good author, although this is perhaps a pertinent moment to point out that there is not much in this story, whether it be parameters or particulars, to make it a Discworld story. We’re not in any geographic place that can be identified on the Mapp of Discworld, and whilst the magic behind the transformation of the rats is characteristic of the sort of thing that happens when you live in rubbish tips used by Wizards, the link is too generic to necessitate a Discworld setting.
And Pratchett’s emphasis via Malicia on the contrast between children’s stories and life is itself a contrast to his normal Discworld tactic of emphasising the conventions of Story and its insistence on shaping life around human beings. Given this, it might have been more sensible to write this as a non-Discworld book, like the later Nation and Dodger.
But that would rule out the emotional ending to the story, when Maurice and Dangerous Beans, the visionary, come under the jurisdiction of Death, and the Death of Rats. Two lives are required to keep the books balanced, and two will be taken. But the cynical, self-centred, street-wise and above all feline Maurice, offers a bargain that will have susceptible readers stinging a bit about the eyes.
Only ‘our’ Death could be counted upon to accept such a deal. So Discworld it must be.
This being Pratchett, there is far more to this story than there could have been with another writer. The surface of the tale: the twist on Browning, the danger, the gags, even Sardines, the tap-dancing mouse, these are all things that could have come from another, very talented writer. Only Pratchett could embed within this story, so deeply as to be fundamental, so naturally as to escape polemic, the story of consciousness, of intelligence versus nature, and its absolute need to build a society in which the wants and needs of all are satisfied by co-operation, without fear.
To become what their new-found intelligence can make them, the rats have to change their essential, animal selves, to become more human. What Pratchett understands, and which is so important in these days of self-serving Conservative Government, based on hatred and spite and greed, is that the humans also have to become more human. In this story, an appeal to cupidity is the means to secure co-operation, a truly socialist outcome.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001. By the time the next election comes round, the audience it was written for will be eligible to vote. May the message embedded in this airy, delightful, funny, and seemingly simple book have sunk in by then.

Deep Space Nine s1e04 – “A Man Alone”

Odo, the Constable

One of the weird effects of going back to watch Deep Space 9 in retrospect, as I’m doing, is that I’m far more conscious of the technical aspects of the series.

For instance, I’m much more aware than usual that the early episodes are building-block episodes, designed to introduce the cast to the audience. The Pilot sets up the situation and gives you an introduction to the people, and the early episodes then building stories around each of the cast in turn, grounding them in  our understanding and laying a basis upon which, in the latter half of the season and in later years, the producers can then build developments.

‘A Man Alone’ teased to begin with about who would be its principal character. First, we get the naive, puppyish Doctor Bashir trying to get off with Jardzia Dax and running up against her plain lack of interest in him (not that the Doctor is anywhere near recognising that yet: he’s so inexperienced he sees Commander Sisko as a rival for Terry Farrell’s body.

Simultaneously, we see the O’Briens having a quarrel over being on DS9 to begin with. Keiko doesn’t like it: she’s a botanist, she has no role here, which frustrates as she’s someone who needs to have a purpose, and she especially doesn’t like it as a place for Molly, their daughter, to grow up.

This theme is amplified via Jake Sisko, who has no-one to play with. He makes friends with Nog, son of Rom, a Ferengi (no mention is as yet made of Rom and Nog’s relationship with anyone else on the station, though we do get a first insight into Ferengi business culture, which will eventually lead us to see Quark as other than a crook). Naturally, the two boys get into mischief, are separated by their fathers, and, in a merger of the two strands, wind up not sitting next to each other at the new school opened by Keiko.

But this isn’t what the episode is about, and the true subject of the episode is buried among this early tangle of story-threads. At the bar, whilst the O’Briens argue in obscurity, Odo, the Constable, the Shapeshifter, grumbles with Quark about ‘coupling’. It’s something he doesn’t understand, and there’s a definite misogynist strain to his grumbles about Compromise between couples, which apparently consists of doing what she wants, every time there’s a difference of wishes.

Let’s be charitable and, at this stage, write it down to Odo’s general grumpiness, and also write that stiff-neckedness down to his being the Man Alone, one of a race, daily defying his nature by adopting alien form, with no-one who understands his innermost thoughts and instincts.

Odo’s aloneness is brought into focus by the return to the station of Ibu Dan, a Bajoran smuggler of particularly callous reputation, and a former prison inmate, now released because killing a Cardassian officer is no longer so much of a crime. Odo wants him off the station, orders him off in public, but is overruled by Sisko, as Ibu Dan has done nothing illegal yet.

The next thing to happen is Ibu Dan’s murder in a holodeck suite in conditions that make it impossible for him to have been killed. Except, of course, by a Shapeshifter.

Though even Quark admits that Odo is incorruptible and no killer, the fact of the investigation being headed by its prime suspect arouses a mob. Even Sisko accepts it’s not on, and temporarily suspends Odo, opening up an avenue for the mob to incite itself towards lynch justice.

Of course Odo is not the killer, and it’s Julian Bashir that comes through with the proof. It isn’t even Ibu Dan that’s dead, but it is his clone: specially grown to be killed in a manner that frames Odo, by none other than Ibu Dan himself. Who is taken in for murder, not for the first time, by the Constable.

All’s well that ends well, and we see ourselves out with the first day of School, but not until Sisko’s log observes that though the mob has dispersed, no-one has apologised to Odo. (We are left to assume that Sisko has, but that’s not shown and it would have been better to have done so).

Although in strict accuracy, this is wholly inapplicable to Odo, the episode sets in motion constructing a skeleton for his character, ready to accept flesh over succeeding weeks.

Major Kira last week, Odo today: who will I start to learn about next week on  Deep Space Nine Tuesday?

The Fall Season: Supergirl

Why does every TV superhero’s costume have to be fourteen shades darker than the comics?

There’s been a bit of a wait for this latest addition to the superhero TV genre, with most the rest of the shows three-to-four weeks into the season, but Supergirl is now officially with us and the pilot, though far from flawless, suggests this is going to be an enjoyable series.

It was familiar territory to begin with: the pilot escaped about five months ago and I watched it then and enjoyed it first time round. I haven’t compared the two in detail, but the official broadcast version seems to have added no more than the title card and the credits. So, how did it play?

For one thing, not only does this show have a female lead – which is going out on a limb in itself – but it’s a female-dominated cast. As well as Melissa Benoist, who knocks it out of the park for three-quarters of the episode, both as Kara Danvers and Supergirl, there’s Chyler Leigh as her adoptive sister Alex – a DEO operative and xenobiologist – and Callista Flockhart having the calm-centred, still-faced time of her life as media Mogul Cat Grant.

The producers have played about a bit with the backstory: Kara starts off aged 13, following her baby cousin Kal-El to Earth to act as his protector but by a twist of fate delayed en route for 24 years, by which time baby Kal was a baby no longer and certainly not in need of protection.

The still 13 year old Kara, robbed of her purpose, is adopted by the Danvers (a touching cameo and the promise of a recurring role, the parts being played by Helen (Supergirl) Slater and Dean (Superman) Cain) and despite an ardent desire to help others, had foresworn the use of her powers only to climb the ladder as far as hapless, put-upon, slightly geeky, slightly ditzy PA to the bitchy Ms Grant.

(Actually, for all she’s attempting to look and act a bit dowdy, a bit naive, overgrown schoolgirl, Benoist looks utterly charming and delightful. By the end, when her confidence has grown a bit, she’s progressed from unfashionable tops and pants to a quite sleek, cream dress, and looks a lot less interesting.)

The story gets kick-started when a National City plane carrying sister Alex starts to circle the city with two engines on fire. Kara, who’s just been bummed out on a date with a cheap sleazebag, reminds herself how to fly and hauls up into the sky to guide the plane safely down to a splash landing on the river.

The way this is handled is definitely influenced by The Flash, though Kara’s sheer delight at the adrenaline rush of using her powers at long last is the show’s own making. It’s clear that an underlying lightness of spirit will buoy up the show, though there’s also enough serious shit revealed to ensure a constant struggle lies ahead.

This unfolds in two principle areas. Firstly, there’s the aforementioned DEO, or Department of Extranormal Operations, a covert Governmennt organisation set-up after the Man of Steel first appeared, to protect Earth against alien invasion. It’s run by Hank Henshaw (aka, in the comics, the Cyborg Superman, a Reed Richards analogue and deep-dyed villain) who doesn’t trust any aliens. He’s played by David Harewood and he’s a bit of a cliche thus far, not to mention one that sounds almost exactly like David (Diggle) Ramsey on Arrow.

The other is the handy dandy source of special effects fights for the season to come. This is Fort Razz, a piece of Krypton that survived the planet’s total destruction completely intact, and which somehow, conveniently, got pulled to Earth in the wake of Kara’s own craft. Fort Razz was Krypton’s version of a prison for psychotic madmen (and women), all of whom have superpowers on Earth. They’ve been underground for a decade but now they’re starting to plot something.

It’s by far and away the weakest part of the set-up, even if their leader, the General (Zod?) turns out to be Kara’s auntie from Krypton, sister of mother Allura and, since Laura Bernanti is playing both, presumably her twin.

It’s the weakest because it’s a cheap cliche, though the pilot did run it close in what, hopefully, will be a bad turn restricted only to this episode. Big sister Alex, before her DEO affiliation was revealed, did try to stomp hard on Kara’s moment of glory, feeding her the old ‘for your own protection’ line. And when Kara ignored her and got collected by the DEO, Alex was still at it, undermining her sister, belittling her, to the point that Kara did indeed decide she was crap at this and gave up.

Whereupon Alex immediately switched 180 degrees, became all ‘you can do it girl!’ and sisterly support, which came out of virtual nowhere. Left to itself, it would have been just another cliche moment, tiresome but not unexpected, but it had ladled onto it all Alex’s repressed sibling rivalry, about the star of the family being immediately outshone by the ‘new baby’.

It stood out as in total contrast to the rest of the show, to the primarily upbeat atmosphere, and came close to sinking the episode right there.

However, we got through that moment intact, and ready for stronger and more confident displays in weeks to come.

Can’t leave the show without mentioning the two remaining cast members. Mehcad Brooks plays Jimmy, no sorry, James Olsen, expanding his horizons and keeping a friendly eye on the little cousin of his pal in blue (apart from the one mention upfront, the script works overtime to avoid saying the word Superman: that must be one helluva rights issue), and not incidentally jacking up her hormone levels a tad or two.

And Jeremy Jordan plays co-worker Winn, conspiracy theorist, computer wizz, designer of singularly inappropriate Supergirl costumes, confidante and admirer of the geeky Kara before she revealed herself as being more than just a coffee-supplier to the Boss Lady.

It’s not until I turned to the cast list that I discovered Winn’s full name is Winslow Schott. Winslow has been around the Superman universe since 1943 as the super-villain, the Toyman. Hmmm.

Take all in all, Supergirl looks good and looks as if it could get better, especially if it keeps to the Flash end of the spectrum. Melissa Benoist is perfect for the part and she certainly fits the costume which, apart from the above knee-length red cavalier boots, sticks to the classic format. I’ll stick with this one.

We’re on our way to Wembley…

Broadhurst Park, Moston

Well, here’s a thing.

Five years ago, FC United of Manchester, in only their third season in the FA Cup, reached the First Round Proper for the first time. As I have written elsewhere, the Red Rebels were drawn away to Rochdale, a tie that was an eerie echo of my previous FA Cup experiences with Droylsden who, on only their second foray into the Cup proper, had played – and won – at Rochdale in the First Round.

FC United won that tie, but were knocked out in a Second Round replay by Brighton & Hove Albion, the then League One leaders and the highest ranking team in the competition. But they couldn’t beat us at home.

At the weekend, FC played away in the Fourth Qualifying Round to Sporting Khalsa of the West Midland League, three levels down. They win, 3-1, to reach the First Round Proper for the first time since Rochdale.

Once again, the eerie hand of coincidence strikes, for who should they have drawn that once again looms large in Droylsden’s FA Cup history but Chesterfield (read here).

The bastard of it is, from my point of view, that the tie is to be played on Saturday November 7, at home. November 7 is a working weekend for me. I’m not even back in work for another two days to see if there’s a faint chance of there being enough capacity to get that Saturday off.

But, bloody hell, how many times is my personal history going to shadow FC United in the Cup?

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage One – East to South

Windermere from a low level

Back in those dim, distant days when my only knowledge of the Lake District came from family holidays, we would occasionally be tripped up by rainy days. At first, these would only occur on Fridays, which meant the almost traditional drive north, over Dunmail Raise, to wander around Keswick, slickered up in raincoats, before it cleared after lunch and we would park for a couple of hours by the Derwent, down the valley.
A couple of times, however, the rains would come on other days of the week, and on one memorable occasion, my family gave way to my ceaseless clamour to see Lakes I had not previously visited, and we went driving. At first, it would be the old familiar route via the Wycham Valley to the coast, and Ravenglass, as if for Wasdale or Eskdale. But instead, we followed the coast further north, as far as Egremont, and then turned off towards Cold Fell, and the moors to Ennerdale, and beyond that to Loweswater and the Buttermere Valley and, to my astonishment, given how my Uncle guarded his car, over Honister Pass and down into Borrowdale.
I remember this for being my first sightings of Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the efforts my Uncle made to find temporary stopping places that enabled me to take black and white photos of these new Lakes.
This was long ago, and in the years following, I have driven all these roads, and seen these Lakes and Valleys several times over. But I never did the Grand Tour for myself. The days were usually too good not to be walking, and those days when the fells were impossible were so bad for rain and cloud that the Tour would have been no more than driving for the sake of it, with little to see.
For the past six years I have not had access to a car, and once you are reliant on public transport to reach the Lakes, let alone navigate about it when you are there, the Western Lakes and these valleys that face the Irish Sea are far beyond the possibility of visit.
That doesn’t deprive me of the memories, and when fortunes and mobility change for the better, one of the first things I have promised myself is to spend a day doing the Grand Tour. I’ve thought about it many times, and I’ve devised it so that, in a single day, it’s possible to see thirteen of the traditionally Sixteen Lakes, without much backing, filling and contrivance.
I’ve mentioned before that my family used to confine themselves almost exclusively to the south west quarter of Lakeland, from Grasmere round to Wasdale. I’ve always been much more cosmopolitan, splitting my holidays between Ambleside and Keswick when it came to bases, and making sure of going everywhere I could. So many sights of which my family deprived themselves, and I don’t just mean the fells I’ve climbed.
Our tour, my Tour, goes round in a circle. The whole point of a circular tour is that you can join it at any point on its circumference, but my instincts always lead me to start and finish in Ambleside. On the other hand, whilst I tend to the opposite in horseshoe walks, the Grand Tour progresses gloriously clockwise.
Remember, there’s thirteen Lakes to be collected, and the first of these, Windermere, appears almost immediately. On the Coniston road, less than a half mile out of Ambleside, the trees thin to reveal a long vista down the Lake, almost to the islands opposite Bowness. I’ve never seen this view without a forest of white masts and sails.

Elterwater – the Lake that will one day vanish

I’ve probably travelled the Ambleside – Coniston road more often than any other in the Lakes, passenger and driver, enough to be familiar with every bend and bump in the road, enough to drive it in ten foot visibility fog if I needed to. So I know that when the road passes the mouth of Great Langdale, crosses Skelwith Bridge and begins to climb through the trees, that as soon as it emerges into the open, Elterwater is visible below in the lower valley. It’s hard to see, both because the lake has shrunk considerably in my lifetime, from a small, tarn sized lake with facing promontories, to three connected pools that, within the next fifty years, will no doubt seize up and disappear.
It’s also very difficult for a driver to see it, since it lies downhill at a backwards angle on the right, so it’s sensible to pull into the first layby on the other side of the road and get out for a proper look.
Next stop is Coniston, entering the Village from the north. It’s far too early in the day to stop, but at this point I want to backtrack and refer to an alternate start to the route, that sacrifices the distant glimpse of Elterwater for a much more up front encounter with pastoral Esthwaite Water.
Personally, Esthwaite Water has never done anything for me. It’s a secluded Lake that lies among fields and hedges rather than on the fringe of the hill country, and it is the hill country that always enthrals me. Whilst it’s not far away in miles, nor obscure of access, Esthwaite feels as if it is much further away from the fells than it actually is. Bringing it into the walk involves sidestepping the familiar Ambleside-Coniston road entirely, in favour of the road to Waterhead and Bowness.
This has its advantages in extended and more intimate views of the upper half of Windermere, including the classic view of the Langdale Pikes, always looking much closer than they are in real geography. On the other hand, this approach risks considerable delays, both in driving through Bowness Bay and crossing the Lake on the ferry. Especially if you pull up on the Bowness shore just in time to see the boat cranking away on its chains on the slow journey towards the western shore, with the return journey yet to come.

Esthwaite Water – a lake of trees and fields

Once across the Lake, the road winds through idyllic country lanes, the signposts to Near and Far Sawrey invoking the inevitable associations with the late Mrs Heelis – that’s Beatrix Potter to you – and eventually the alternate routes round Esthwaite Water itself, which is calm, peaceful and beautiful, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t below to the Lakes, a beauty from which ruggedness of any kind is absent. You might as well be down south.
Hawkshead lies at the head of the lake. It’s a very expensive place to visit as cars have been barred all my life, and the car and coach parks have set their prices on the exclusive rights basis, and to be honest, even if this is Midsummer’s day and you’ve set off at sparrowfart, there isn’t enough time to stop off and visit, so continue driving north.
This road leads back to the Ambleside-Coniston road, only a couple of miles outside the village. You could still include Elterwater by doing this, and increase the number of Lakes to fourteen, but it really does mean a bit too much faffing around for something that’s supposed to be a roughly circular tour, so let’s not. Instead, a mile or so north of the village, a road turns off towards Coniston, rising gently to cross the low ridge east of the Lake, and descending in steep bends to round the head of Coniston Water, whilst offering some spectacular views over the lake. From the lake head, follow the road on into the Village from the East, to rejoin the main route.
Which, despite the relatively short distance traveled, is a suitable point to say that Stage One, from East to South, has been completed.

Coniston Water in conditions of calm