Merry Kirstymas!

They say it’s only the fourth time there’s ever been a Chart published on Xmas Day itself and I can believe it: all those long years of no chart in Xmas week, the Number One getting an automatic two week stint – so that’s how ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Mull of Kintyre’ did it: cheats.

It’s also going to be only the second time since Simon Cowell took out a private purchase of the Xmas No. 1 that it isn’t going to be the X-Factor winner at the top, and that can only be good. Part of the fun, when it was still fun, was the uncertainty. Is it going to be Justin Beiber still, or are we going to see the NHS Choir at no. 1. Less than a minute until we know, as I type…

And ‘A Fairytale of New York’ peaks this year at no. 13.

(And the Choir did it: good on Justin Beiber – and those are words I never thought I’d ever type – for urging his fans to buy it instead of him).

Marry Kirstymas, everybody!

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 3

Lost 70s Volume 3 consisted of 21 tracks. It differs from all the other albums in the series by being deliberately planned chronologically (slips excluded!). It starts in 1970 and works its way through the decade to 1979, though the middle of the decade is hardly represented. There’s one genuine hit on it, and another that just crept into the top 30. The majority of the tracks on Volume 3 were ones I knew quite well, a lot of airplay but nothing in terms of sales.

This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.

She lets her hair down (Early in the Morning): The Tokens

There was this spell, at the very beginning, the first few months of 1970, before I started to get any kind of musical appreciation in my head. There were a lot of songs played on Radio 1 that weren’t making the charts, and from which I remembered certain lines, certain sounds, but not the artists. The Tokens were from the early part of the Sixties, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight/Wimoweh’ was their biggie, but they were still going by 1970, and this gentle song of unrequited love, with its twin titles, stuck with me. The girl walks past the guy’s house every morning, early on, her long hair let down. He watches her, he loves her, one day he might have the nerve to speak to her, but for now all he can do is look and dream, in super four part harmony. I got to know the feeling very well over the coming decade (except for the harmonies).

Belfast Boy: Don Fardon

I remember hearing this as a news feature, a novelty idea, a song about United’s mercurial star, Georgie Best, rather than as a song that got Radio 1 airplay. I mean, how uncool, a song about a footballer, a sportsman, even such a hip one. It did sell well enough to reach no 40, but Fardon had to wait until the end of 1970 for his commercial breakthrough, with the flat and drab ‘Indian Reservation’. As for ‘Belfast Boy’, it’s actually quite a good pop song, with a springy bass-line and a roaring chorus that could have been adapted effectively on the Stretford End. The words are straightforward: the subject may be a novelty, but the song itself isn’t. Though it has to be said that the line about ‘You won’t have long in the limelight’ missed the point by a mile. No, this deserved better, and if treated as just a song, I’m sure it would have done better, but ironically the very idea doomed it to obscurity. Georgie, Georgie, they call you the Belfast Boy. Some of us still do.

Tears in the Morning:     The Beach Boys

This, on the other hand, was a song and an artist whom I remembered very well, though I recall it being a Radio Luxemburg song, rather than Radio 1. The turn of the Seventies was a time in which a great many pop stalwarts lost momentum and success, in a more collective manner than seemed ever to happen on the change between other decades. Pop bands went heavy in some form or other, went progressive, or just stopped having hits. The Beach Boys had coasted into 1970 with the old folk song, ‘Cottonfields’, but ‘Tears in the Morning’ was a slow ballad, a deep and mournful sound, full of harmonies that had nevertheless lost all their lightness. It was a song of regrets and loss, and the Beach Boys were never associated with that. It didn’t sell, and with the unworthy exception of ‘Lady Linda’ in the Eighties, they never would again in England. I lost track of it for a long time, but I never had to search for who I remembered.

The Singer: Raymond Froggatt

I listen to this song now, having only caught up with it in recent years, over thirty since it came out in the summer of 1971 and I got hooked on it, and it got played only a handful of times. I listen to this now, and I hear nothing but flaws in it. It’s pompous and sententious, it’s slow and sonorous, the words are pretentious. It’s a particularly turgid form of British country rock, complete with women choirs providing back-ups. There’s every reason for me to write this off as the difference between the teenage and the adult me. Yet when I hear it, it still pushes that fifteen year old’s buttons, in the way it did in 1971, straining through the fuzz that was Radio 1 MW reception in the Lakes, to hear every last note. It still trips something that that kid responded to. It reminds me that some things are frozen inside me and some areas of the past are not past, but still alive and occasionally far too close to the surface. I will sing of fools and kings and you will sing along.

This song cannot be heard on YouTube

Here comes that rainy-day feeling again: The Fortunes

I knew of The Fortunes from their two big 1965 hits that got an awful lot of airplay as oldies on Radio 1. There’d been two smaller hits that I didn’t learn about until buying Simon Frith’s Rock Files, the first of the books to compile chart hits. Obviously, they’d continued to release singles, all in the same smooth, orchestra-lit pop harmony vein, without hitting the charts again in the intervening years. Whether they got airplay or not, I don’t know, but this early 1971 single did. It even got the band back on Top of the Pops. It’s a good, strong-melodied, light track, ideal for my slowly-developing tastes. It still got the band nowhere, but it helped create a new buzz that contributed to their scoring a long-awaited top 10 return later in the year with the execrable ‘Freedom Come, Freedom Go’. This was always tons better.

It never rains in Southern California: Albert Hammond

Though I didn’t know it, I’d already heard a lot of Albert Hammond’s music by 1972. He’d been one of the main writers behind Oliver in the Overworld, the musical serial in the ITV kids programme Little Big Time, a Freddie Garrity vehicle (tapes wiped to general regret). He’d have a minor hit in 1973 but this song got a massive amount of summer airplay without going anywhere. It’s got a gorgeous melody, superb production and, in contrast to the light, airy, near-seamless music, a tale of despair to counteract. They guy’s headed out to California, where it never rains, to break into the Business. He’s failed, he’s busted, he’s broke. The endless sun mocks him. That such a light, almost weightless sound, such pure pop could be a vehicle for such pain was a revelation that might have had something to do with the song flopping. It still has the sun in its face now.

Skyline Pigeon: Elton John

This is included here as a bit of an anomaly. I don’t remember hearing this version at the time, but I was familiar with the cover by a semi-progressive band called Deep Feeling, which got a fair amount of airplay without going anywhere, and which will take its palace elsewhere in this series. It was many years later before I even knew this was an Elton John song, the best part of a year before he broke through, in January 1971, with ‘Your Song’. The original doesn’t carry with it the nostalgia effect, and that allows me to look a bit more dispassionately at the words, which are… strange, to say the least. Elton takes on the persona of, well, a pigeon, and a pretty awful life it is, people making you fly all over the place for them and as for this burning metal ring… In the end, it’s the ‘before-he-was-famous’ element that confirms this track’s place, the gulf between this and what time was very shortly going to bring.

Chicago: Graham Nash

Another track that got a lot of airplay in 1971 without selling. I think I remember more vividly the ones that didn’t make it that year than the ones that did! I knew Nash from C,S,N & Y, and ‘Marrakesh Express’, another much-played oldie (when I say that I learned about Sixties music from Radio 1 in the Seventies, I am not joking). This was a bouncy, up-and-down little song summoning the counterculture to Chicago to change the world. It’s sweet and terribly naïve and the relevance of Chicago in 1971 escapes me, fascinated as I am with contemporary American history. 1968 I could understand, vividly. Then again, Nash’s oblivious earnestness wouldn’t rule this song out as being written that year and refused by The Hollies.

I saw the light: Todd Rundgren

Like Red Herring’s ‘I’m a Gambler’, this was a perfect pop single that the record company threatened to keep on re-releasing until it was a hit, and again the Great British Record Buying Public stolidly refused to play ball. Which only goes to show how bloody stupid and bloody-minded they were in the early Seventies. Much was made of Rundgren playing and singing every part on this track, when rather more should have been made of how ebullient, loving and soaringly delightful it was. Rundgren never made it with the Great British Record Buying Public. Just imagine how better the world could have been if we did make songs this great into massive hits?

No Matter What: Badfinger

A rare but palpable (Top 5) hit. Badfinger were just one of many bands hailed as the new Beatles, especially with Paul McCartney’s backing, but everyone remembers their first and last hits and overlooks this one, in the middle. It’s decidedly Beatle-esque in voice and guitar, the latter a welcome change from the piano-led ‘Come and Get It’ (which time would prove to be a carbon copy of McCartney’s one man demo). Times were changing. The charts in the Sixties were littered with one-hit wonders covering the more commercial tracks off each new Beatles’ album. With the Fab Four gone, the copyists had to come up with their own songs. Badfinger were good enough to do so.

Never Met a Dog (that took to me): Vinegar Joe

A bloody brilliant blues song, one that’s in total control from start to finish, ballsy strut-stuffing. It sounded a natural for big things and the band were sure to make it big. You can tell it just by listening to this track. But Vinegar Joe went nowhere. It broke up when their two lead singers decided to quit and pursue solo careers, at which they proved to be very successful, with music that didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the raw swagger of the band. I speak of course of Elkie (Pearl’s a Singer) Brooks and Robert (Addicted to Love) Palmer. Who’d a thunk it?

Black Water: The Doobie Brothers

It’s 1974 now, and the Doobie Brothers are getting late night airplay on the new commercial station, Piccadilly Radio: ‘Long Train Running’ and ‘Listen to the Music’. They’re not Radio 1 music, which was irredeemably square in the face of the new stations, Johnnie Walker the only exception and he wasn’t going to be around too much longer. It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea either, to be honest. But ‘Black Water’ was different. It wasn’t a single over here, only in America, so it didn’t get that much airplay, but it was a gentler, looser sound, and slower rhythm and I couldn’t get enough of the bit where the band went a cappella. Thirty years later, I could download it and burn it and listen to it properly.

Seagull: Rainbow Cottage

In 1975, Rainbow Cottage, a long-standing, continually gigging band, like many others working their socks off every night, came as close as they would come to ‘stardom’ with this single. As is the case with so many tracks in this series, it got airplay but no sales. A follow-up got a lot less attention, even from me, and it was back to the road. ‘Seagull’, the second song in this compilation to be about a bird, was way out of step for this year, even this decade. It’s light to the point of insubstantiality, the instrumentation is nondescript and covered up by minimal strings. It doesn’t fit. It’s the inverse of those odd Sixties-recorded songs that feature here because they’re indelibly associated with the Seventies. In some ways, liking it  was an early nostalgia for that period when I was trying to decide just what kind of music I liked.

Shoes: Reparata

Most of us only knew Reparata from the old ‘Captain of your Ship’, with her Delrons. ‘Shoes’ was a hit in the making from the off, all over the air, it’s underlying rhythm and little bouzouki bursts making up for its lack of a chorus, its story of a big, glorious wedding, it’s growing tempo and excitement, it had everything. It got into the top 50, reached no 43, stalled and died. I was used to this by now, finding songs that to my ears sounded like guaranteed smashes, but which  the Great British Record Buying Public ignored, but this time round it didn’t seem to be my eccentric taste, everybody loved it. The answer, I found out, decades later, was a complex legal action over the Reparata name. ‘Shoes’ was sung by Mary O’Leary, the original Reparata, but one of her Delrons was now Reparata with the continuing band and sued… The single was pulled from the shops, the Great British Record Buying Public who wanted to buy it couldn’t. There’s a momentum to these things. The time is right and that’s right now and right now it wasn’t there.

When an old Cricketer leaves the crease: Roy Harper

The vast majority of Lost 70s tracks are singles, because the series is made up out of my memories, created in days when music radio was an endless, addictive companion. Eight minute long, slow acoustic numbers, full of cricket positions and metaphors, and underpinned by the not-yet-quite-fashionable ‘authenticity’ of a brass band do not get released as singles. Roy Harper was a serious musician, and this a serious, wistful, elegiac lament for the loss of something never defined, expressed in terms that are superficially fanciful, but ultimately utterly English. A lament for (better) times lost? Why in these years of the most right-wing doctrinaire incompetent Government should that strike any chord with me?

Dancing the Night Away: The Motors

Roy Harper represented the old Seventies, the ‘Sounds of the Seventies’ Seventies, the kind of lost music that inspires this series of CDs. For the rest of this disc, we shift to the new Seventies, the punk(-inspired) era. Music of energy, pace, drive. Like much of the rest of this set, The Motors don’t belong to the main punch of punk, which was too vivid, too stormy and, for me at least, too memorable to warrant inclusion. The band emerges out of the ashes of Ducks Deluxe, one of the mid-Seventies pub rock bands who laid the groundings for punk. It’s closer to straight rock than punk, a bit clunky, a bit unwieldy, but marking a definite change in musical attitude that I was steadily growing to like throughout 1977. Of course, the follow-up, their biggest hit, ‘Airport’, with its clean lines, its underlying synthesizer, was pure pop, with only the energy of punk to differentiate it, and that was that as far as The Motors’ serious reputation was concerned, but this was a building block in changing my musical tastes for the rest of my life.

California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys
Holiday in Cambodia: The Dead Kennedys

Let’s take these two tracks together. The Dead Kennedys were a Californian band who got closer to the heart of British punk in that brief time than anyone else that side of the water. In their extravagant front man, Jello Biafra, they had a great singer and a man fueled by the same rage as the No Future kids of England, but whose rage was attached to a great satirical spirit. ‘California uber Alles’ is full of anger at their home State’s coolness, it’s growing reputation for mellow, it’s seemingly spaced out Governor, Jerry Brown. We are the suede denim Secret Police, we have come for your uncool needs. ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ probably needs no explaining. Biafra was called ‘sick’ at the time for the subjects of his songs, but the vitriol that runs through them, the well-directed sneer that is in no way casual make these two of the most powerful singles ever released in succession. If the band could never match the intensity of this quite again, it’s maybe not surprising.

Eine Symphonie des Grauens: The Monochrome Set

The Monochrome Set were new wave rather than punk. There was a strong experimental element to their music that was art schoolish in many respects, and I was not the only one who, when Franz Ferdinand made it big in the 2000s, saw a direct link. ‘Eine Symphonie des Grauens’ was really the only Monochrome Set track I liked, a bizarre compilation of song fragments strung together with seemingly little care for continuity, but centred upon a chorus that, despite the deliberate constriction of its melody, still riveted my attention. An unforeseen gem.

I wanna destroy you: The Soft Boys

I maybe only heard this a couple of times, enough to be captured by the gleeful title line, and its almost shrieking harmonies, and I didn’t get to know it well until download, many years later. The Soft Boys were an early vehicle for the wilfully eccentric Robin Hitchcock, of whom I have a cassette of live songs with his band The Egyptians, recorded by my old mate John M. Hitchcock is very clever, has an absurdist sense of humour and the deadpan seriousness of the true absurdist, yet capable of creating songs of breathtaking simplicity, beauty and joy, such as ‘Arms of Love’, recorded by R.E.M. ‘I wannna destroy you’ is an embryonic example of Hitchcock’s abilities, an inverted love song that doesn’t quite coalesce but is sustained by the sheer poise of its title line.

Summer Fun:     The Barracudas

To end in not quite serious vein. I never heard anything else by The Barracudas than this energetic pop punk outing, which crept into the bottom of the charts in the late summer of 1979, peaking at no. 27. It was described then as surf-punk, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a Beach Boys summer song with a punk edge, as threatening as the waves on Southport beach, but overflowing with that classy pop energy that we do so well. Even the silly intro, a spoof on American radio commercials with an announcer who can’t pronounce Barracuda, hasn’t outlived its welcome, but  when you get a song with such perfect ‘ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba’s as this, it’s so hard to screw up.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine s01e12 – ‘The Vortex’


This latest episode was virtually a two-hander, centred upon those two enemies, Odo and Quark. Indeed, in its early stages, it looked like it was going to be a second successive Quark-oriented story, with Odo no more than the crusty, ever-suspicious Constable we’ve seen him be so far.

Instead, the story used a situation set up by Quark’s constant finagling to bring Odo to the fore. It even threatened to shed a little light upon the shapeshifting Constable, although in the end this was a false expectation, used as a deliberate lure, leaving Odo as unexplained as ever, but not unchanged.

The set-up was that Quark had done a deal to buy a valuable objet d’art off a pair of Miradurian twins who had acquired it in less-then-legitimate circumstances off owners who hadn’t intended to sell. Unfortunately, but typically, Quark had also done a parallel deal with Croden, a drifter from Rocar in the Gamma Quadrant, to steal the objet, and thus reduce Quark’s cost of acquisition to the price of a flight back through the wormhole.

It all goes horribly wrong when the Miradurians attack Croden, who kills one in self-defence, resulting in his arrest by Odo (who’d been posing as a glass): Croden recognises him as a Changeling.

From there, Croden’s situation rapidly gets complicated. The Federation/Bajorans plan to try him for homicide. Ah-Kel, the surviving Miradurian, now incomplete at the loss of his twin, demands to kill him. And when Sisko and Dax contact Rocar, it turns out to be a violent and insular people who want no contact beyond the handing over of the Enemy of the People, right now, for execution.

Odo has no time for Croden. He is a killer, not to mention a thief and a liar, which is all that counts in the Constable’s book. He refuses to give his prisoner up to Ah-Kel’s revenge and has no qualms about dropping Croden in it on Rocar. But Croden claims to have met Changelings, and Odo, who has no notion of his origins or his people, who is utterly alone in the Alpha Quadrant, is nevertheless drawn, against all his professional and personal instincts, to the possibility that Croden can introduce him to a colony of Changelings, in the Gamma Quadrant.

Croden even has a ring, containing a quasi-organic substance that can change shape (into a key). It is, fancifully, almost a cousin…

All of this is a teaser for the audience more than it, on the surface, is for Odo. He might be intent on returning Croden – who seems to be more of a political exile than a criminal one – to Rocar, but we know he will end up investigating these only too tempting claims.

Pursuit by Ah-Kel forces Odo’s runaround into the Vortex where Croden claims the colony lies: but it is a lie. Changelings are a myth on his planet, and he has not met any in real life. Instead, he was angling to rescue his daughter from where he’d left her in a stasis-chamber. But in the final analysis, Croden demonstrates his good side. He rescues Odo when he could have left him to die, and Odo repays the favour. Not just by getting them out safely whilst leaving Ah-Kel and his crew to immolate themselves through their ignorance of local conditions but by beaming Croden and his teenage daughter aboard a passing Vulcan vessel, and safety.

Odo heads home, with only the shapechanging key as a reward.

Overall, a pleasant but neither deep nor significant episode, delivering neither insight nor change. One step up and one step back. It’s hard to find much more to say about it. It feels like an episode that doesn’t really have all that confidence in the concept of Deep Space Nine, in having a fixed, permanent background enabling longer, more significant stories. Just this week, a work colleague, explaining why he didn’t like DS9 from the start, described it as like a Hotel in space. I don’t agree, but I can see the point of his criticism: the focus is still upon individual stories with little relevance forward or back, but the emphasis is not on the stories the visitors bring with them.

There’s a long way to go yet, and let us not forget that this was made in 1993, for a target audience used to single episode series with little or no overall story: Twin Peaks was a couple of years in the past, having failed to make more than a short term impact on audiences who expected to be able to miss a week or two and miss nothing. I know DS9 gets better. I’m hoping it starts to show why before we get to the end of season 1.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Flamin’ Groovies’ ‘Shake Some Action (Demo Version)’

Have a listen. Listen to this. Is this not brilliant? Is this not full of life and fire and drive? Is it not the most perfect track with which to begin a CD? Does it not lead you into the expectancy of great, uplifting, exciting music?

I vaguely knew of the Flamin’ Groovies, by repute, a band tied to the early energy of rock’n’roll and the British Invasion. This was the first thing by them that I heard, some unknown day in 1978, when I was living in Nottingham and into punk, and I bought the single cheap down the market in the Victoria Centre.

It doesn’t say (Demo Version) on the label, but that’s the only way you’ll find it on YouTube. If you just search for ‘Shake Some Action’, you’ll get the version that’s the title track of the album, the one produced by Dave Edmunds.

That, you’d think, would be a perfect match. Edmunds, with his impeccable record of recreating the sound of the rock’n’roll that fascinates him. And there are half a dozen tracks on the album where he gets the sound absolutely perfect.

But what he does to ‘Shake Some Action’ is heart-breaking. It’s not the addition of some totally redundant guitar-chopping at the start of the song, it’s the total draining of any energy in the track, the weak, stifled, blurred production, and the slight but significant slowing of its tempo.

The Flamin’ Groovies attack the ‘Demo Version’ from the opening crash of guitars. ‘Shake! Some Action’s what I need/to let me bust up at full speed/and I’m sure that’s all you need’. It’s brand new in their hands, they know how great it is, they can’t contain themselves from the thrill of playing it.

On the ‘finished’ version, they’re a tired band going through the motions of a song they’ve played a hundred times too often. How anyone – how the band, how Dave Edmunds – could have listened to that version and thought it better than the ‘Demo’ – how they could have heard the ‘Demo’ and imagined it could ever be improved upon – is one of the Great Mysteries of our Times.

And ‘Shake Some Action’ is one of the eternally fresh, eternally burning Great Singles of our Times.

(It also has, not that this is necessarily relevant, one of the all-time great b-sides of Rock History, which showcases where Edmunds got it right).

In Praise of Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

There was no Discworld book in 2008, Pratchett taking that year off to publish Nation. For those concerned as to the potential effect of his Alzheimer’s, this was a splendid rebuff, for Nation  was one of the finest books Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and if it had been the only book he had ever written, he would still be entitled to be regarded as a first-rank author.
We returned to Discworld the following year with Unseen Academicals, a story bringing together the Faculty, social growth and change and the sport of football. On a first reading, I thought this book was one of the all round funniest Discworld books in years, though part of that could be attributed to my desperate need for humour and lightness in a time of great upheaval and depression.
What’s certain about this book is that it’s a much smaller and more personal matter than any book for quite some time. Pratchett has been dealing, in one form or other, with great social themes for a very long time, and whilst that aspect isn’t entirely ignored herein, a book whose major concerns are the fashion industry, street football and the personal relationships of two young couples is something of a holiday.
Where Unseen Academicals does line up with Pratchett’s more ‘traditional’ concerns, it is in the small, seemingly helpless form of Mr Nutt, of who, or rather what he is, and upon his absorption into the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork.
Mr Nutt is, as we discover about two-thirds of the way through the story, an Orc. That, in itself, is a very specific borrowing from Tolkien, unusual in Pratchett’s work (when approached on a serious level): his interpretations of fantasy have otherwise always stuck to the traditional characters of oral storytelling history.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs were an invented race, akin to the Goblins, a corruption of the Elves into nasty, brutish, violent, hateful and irredeemable creatures: they are damned as a race in a manner that we would nowadays equate with racial prejudice, except that they are specified as a race deliberately corrupted to be such things.
Such things don’t exist in Pratchett and Discworld. Nothing and no-one is beyond redemption, and the last years of his life and fiction revolved around the bringing of outcasts into the brilliant circle of reasonable and responsible life, as functioning citizens who are ‘just like us’, to put it very crudely. Orcs are hated and feared in Discworld as they are in Middle-Earth, and the consensus is that such few of them as are now discovered to have escaped extermination should be wiped out, finally.
But there is Mr Nutt. He is a candle dribbler, a quite specialised albeit ultra-lowly position at Unseen University. He is small, skinny, fearful, yet highly, almost excessively competent and intelligent, whilst being ignorant in most respects of ordinary life. There is a mystery about him from the start, known to only a few: he comes from Uberwald, where he was once chained to an anvil for seven years until freed by Pastor Oats (the Omnian priest of Carpe Jugulum), he is a ward of Lady Margolotta and in Ankh-Morpork only Lord Vetinari and Archchancellor Ridcully know what he really is.
Though the mystery intrigues, by the time we are let in on Nutt’s nature, we have seen enough for us to see him as Nutt, not a crazed, indefatigable, destructive killing machine. His frantic need to accumulate worth is gradually growing into an acceptance of having worth, he’s a deep thinker, quoting continually from all the best German philosophers, and he’s training the Unseen Academicals, the University’s revived football team, to take on a joint Ankh-Morpork side in a game that’s assumed the dimensions of a social test. But more of that later.
What bemuses me somewhat is that, whilst the idea is great and glorious, it’s also a curiously narrow and private idea. We’ve gotten used, down the years, to Discworld being a funhouse mirror, in which the distorted reflections of our own society create far more revealing and fundamental portraits of what is wrong about the way we live.
We’ve seen dwarves, trolls, even vampires find a place in a society that reflects our own, inner need for things to stay the same and be recognisable, and to learn from those who are different in order that we continue to grow. The redemption of the Orcs via Mr Nutt is a metaphor for tolerance and understanding, but it’s entirely too personal. The Orcs are just too extreme a race to reflect ourselves: we don’t recognise in them aspects of ourselves that we need to learn to deal with. And they are too much a private conception, they belong to Tolkien in exactly the way that everybody else belongs to Humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s not long enough since The Lord of the Rings was first published for them to have disassociated themselves into the collective mythology.
I’m not decrying the story, but I don’t think it has the universality that Pratchett wanted for it.
Nor am I wholly convinced by the story’s upfront theme. So far, Discworld has never seriously subscribed to the idea of sport, at least not as something for the unwashed masses to become involved in. The nobs, the movers and shakers, that’s a bit different. So you can say that in introducing football, Pratchett is for once operating on a very democratic level.
In essence, the story is this: Ponder Stibbins, in his new role as Master of the Traditions, discovers that it is imperative that the Wizards play a football match within a very short space of time or lose a bequest that funds 87% of their food bills. Facing the threat of a cheeseboard with, at most, three choices, the Wizards decide to play.
At the same time, the Patrician has decided that it’s time to absorb football officially into the life of the city, despite his personal aversion to it. It’s supposed to be banned, but as long as it keeps to the side streets, a blind eye (though not an uninformed one) is turned.
But this is not football as we know it. It’s a street game for indefinite numbers, a pushing, shoving, clogging business that’s closer to fighting than football, in which the ball is rarely seen by anyone, least of all the spectators, and which Trev Lively’s late Dad, Dave (who was kicked to death in a game) is an imperishable hero for his unheard of lifetime achievement: Dave Lively scored four goals.
What football is about is The Shove, the packing of the street by the masses, crammed in, surging to-and-fro, hither-and-yon, come together in a mass mind, if mind it be called. It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty brutal, but the point is made, more than once by one of the book’s three main viewpoint characters, the Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugarbean, that it’s by and for and of the people: it’s their own thing, created without influence or order from those above who believe the common people to be incapable of running their own lives.
Because Vetinari is about taming football, domesticating it, turning into something resembling the early days of Nineteenth Century football: a better game, a better spectacle, but defanged: better for the lower classes. It’s an unusual viewpoint for Pratchett to allow, and it’s one for which he has no answer, save for the practical one that the Patrician is a Tyrant (and besides, some kind of football Goddess also has a vested interest in this).
Between this unanswerable point, and the inexorable adaptation of Vetinari’s new Football, there’s a curious dichotomy that undercuts the book. It’s compounded for me by the fact that, though he can write with understanding about allegiances and their competing natures, I don’t get the feeling that Pratchett likes Football or, deep down, understands it as we fans understand it. He feels much more at home with Vetinari’s caustic denunciation of all physical activity, early in the book, than with the game itself.
All of the above deals primarily with the abstract themes in the story, and yet the book remains more a story of private concerns, which is down to the four, seemingly insignificant people at its heart, who bridge both strands and keep them related.
I’ve already mentioned Mr Nutt, Trev Likely and Gloria Sugarbean, and the fourth of these is Juliet Stollop, aka both Jools and Jewels. Nutt we know about. Trev is his workmate and, technically, superior, but he’s a lazy sod, a likely lad, and street-wise kid, but without any evil in him, not like his fellow fan, Andy Shank.
Gloria knows Trev well. She’s a cook, a very gifted cook, as she needs to be because she’s also very fat: not Agnes Nitt fat but enough to make her sexless, as in who’d-want-to-do-it-with-her? She’s very common-sensical, very practical, and she’s also a crab bucket, though at first she doesn’t know it, then doesn’t understand it, but when she gets her head around what it means, she’s smart enough to change.
She’s best friends with Juliet, who also works in the Night Kitchen. Juliet, in complete contrast, is a gorgeous, tall, slim, long-legged, blonde-haired knock-out. She’s also pretty dumb with it, her head filled with the Discworld equivalent of Hello and OK. Juliet is a natural model, a role that she discovers by chance when she’s picked out by the Disc’s first great fashion designer, Pepe. He’s the one who calls Glenda a crab bucket, not directly as such, but rather as being the product of a crab bucket.
And slowly, Glenda realises what that means, and how she is one, and that whilst Juliet is never going to become an intellectual, the main reason she’s as hopeless as she is is that whenever she struggled at anything, Glenda didn’t act like a friend and show her how to do it, she acted like a mother and took it off her and did it for her.
But Juliet’s found her niche, and Trev’s in love and wants to live up to her, and Glenda’s insistence on being helpful has done much for Nutt’s worthiness, so much that four friends become two couples (though without anything more raunchy than hand-holding for Glenda, which may be just as well, given that Nutt is, after all, an Orc, but Glenda’s still a fat girl. Only the normal sized Trev and Juliet get to kiss. Sex just isn’t a thing in Discworld, it’s somewhere locked, barred and bolted away, only allowed for those who are physically normal).
So there are three things in one in Unseen Academicals, even if a couple of them don’t quite add up. And Pratchett does get in one shot that is firmly on his best form: Tolkien’s Orcs were corrupted from his Elves, but Pratchett’s are corrupted from Men: no other species could have that viciousness and imaginative cruelty inherent in them to begin with.
One final point, one thing that, for me, stuck out and worried me as to the possibility Pratchett’s Alzheimers was already affecting him. I mentioned Andy Shank. He’s another in Pratchett’s seemingly unending line of bastards, cruel, bullying, tormenting bastards, vicious and violent and unhinged. Andy’s a psychopath, one of those who prods and pushes and taunts and drives others into snapping,  but who is always innocent. There is no reasoning with him, no lever with which to divert him. Like others in the series, he can only be stopped by being put down, and this is made explicit, several times.
But all Pratchett does, in a sequence of false endings in homage to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s most famous line, is send a harder man after him to blind him. The unstoppable Andy lives, and that’s so not Pratchett, so not Discworld at all. It’s a soft ending in a series never afraid of hard endings. It was a palpable doubt.

Saturday SkandiCrime: The Bridge 3 – episodes 9 & 10

I’m not sure I have the words for this right now, but then I’m not sure I will have the words ever. What follows is an exploration of an experience that is I think unquantifiable.

The third series of The Bridge came to an end in a manner that verged upon the melodramatic, as opposed to the tragic inevitability that drew the second series to a close. There will be those who will criticise certain elements of the final half hour, and I suppose that if I were capable of objectivity at this point, I might join in such carping. In working its way to the still point that came to exist between Saga Noren and Henrik Sabroe there were things dismissable as cliches, and as unpardonable sentimentality.

But to paraphrase myself some thirty years ago, there are many things that are foolish and fallow in and off themselves that are given strength by context, and by the end I was as deep within The Bridge as was Emil Larsson in his painting that, at the last he attempted to recreate in the deaths of Freddie Holst, Jeanette’s baby and himself.

Yes, Emil Larsson was the murderer, leaving me exposed as right about it not being Creepy Annika and wrong about it being the miserable bastard Claes. Now was the time for the plot to be worked out, and the story burned with a clear light as all the red herrings, the misleading actions, the characters whose relevance to the story turned out to simply be that they were too near at the wrong time, were left by the wayside and episode 9 became a linear, focused story at last.

The opening scene relieved me of my worst fears: Jeanette gave birth, naturally, and the baby was taken. Yes, she was left to bleed out to death, and would have died but for Freddie having placed a controlling tracker in her mobile phone and found her just in time. But when you consider where they could have gone with the extraction of the baby – I am minded of issue 87 of 100 Bullets at this point – this was far less gruesome to watch.

So the hunt was on for the missing baby, and for Creepy Annika, and suspiciously missing Claes, whilst the Police tried to keep Freddie, in his monomania about his son, from throwing himself into the hands of the killer.

Police, in this instance, included Saga, whose suspension was almost laughably short. Speaking of laughably, Linn the Troll actually put the idiot Rasmus up as her replacement, which Henrik treated with the appropriate contempt and, as soon as it was ‘all resources’ had Saga back immediately.

As an aside, I had a hope that Rasmus would confound expectations and prove to be competent, but no, he was still crap. And Saga’s distrust of his combing of the scene of Jeanette’s discovery led to her and Henrik going back and finding a padlocked room, inside which a drugged Creepy Annika was held. This led to her and Claes being cleared in pretty short order and Annika being pretty swiftly punctured by the news that Claes had not reported her missing but seemed rather relieved that she’d gone! There are times when you really don’t want Saga to learn any social niceties, though she was sweet in her awkward apologies to John over his daughter being wounded, and even bought the girl a self-help manual to help her cope with crises!

With all leads cut off, Morton Anker came back into the picture, having tried to get into Fredie’s some months back with a friend who didn’t show. That re-directed suspicions back towards Freddie as an absentee father, which in turn led to investigations at an artificial examinations clinic. No, there were no records for Creepy Anna’s mother Renata, and without a name, the only way to get information was with a code. A code… Henrik’s got one of those and it opens the door. To donor Freddie Holst and mother Anna-Marie Larsson: mother of Emil, who, we rapidly realised, was so far out of sight of sanity that even Jodrell Bank couldn’t locate the echo of him.

Appropriately, a horribly drawn out situation leading to a seemingly inescapable last round of deaths was prevented by Saga and Henrik arriving in the nick of time, though Saga was none too quick to keep Emil, killer of Hans, from strangling to death. The final scenes took place on a small, flat, almost deserted island, Sandholm, adjacent to the Oresund Bridge (I now have the dream of one day driving across that Bridge): midway between Denmark and Sweden.

So the plot is done, but we all know there’s more to come. Linn the Troll complements Saga. Saga asks Henrik to come with her to Hans’ funeral tomorrow. Henrik has seen his girls around the house again but not Alice, his wife. Lilian arrives at his home with news Henrik tries to reject, with panicky intensity that sparked tears: a skeleton has been dug up, after being in the ground six years. For all he tries to void listening, Lilian is implacable. It has positively been identified as Alice. But, oh horror of horrors, she is alone. The girls are lost.

Henrik’s manic attempt to reinvestigate the whole thing overnight, whilst stuffing himself with uppers and downers till he passes out, ends with him in hospital. When Saga visits, he admits to using narcotics, non-stop since the disappearance. It’s a crime that will have to be reported… And in the echo Saga faces, she reminds Henrik of why she doesn’t let people get close to her.

But the spiral begins. At the station, Linn reports that Emil is dead, wrists slashed by a paperclip, stolen from the statement Saga wanted him to sign whilst she was distracted. Instead of reporting Henrik, Saga reports herself. Worse is to come: though Linn the Troll generously says she believes Saga didn’t touch her mother, the forensics mean an investigation will be made. Saga is cop enough to know that the evidence is bad for her, though she’s innocent, she’ll be convicted.

Henrik though discharges himself from the hospital. Lillian won’t allow him to work his daughters’ disappearance either officially or by giving him leave, so he resigns from the Denmark Police. Crossing the Bridge, he finds Saga’s desk cleared, is updated by John. He can’t find her anywhere, but she’s down at the train tracks, where her younger sister committed suicide. He finds her there, tries to talk her round, even starts towards her but she pulls a gun on him and, as the train races towards thrm, she moves, and it’s like Holy Mary, Mother of God, Jesus Christ, she hasn’t, they haven’t, no they couldn’t…

And I really feared, but instead Saga is on her knees, weeping uncontrollably, and I nearly was too, and hell’s bells, but she looked a completely different woman with her face that way, and Henrik puts his arms round her…

The very last scene is them reading the Missing Persons’ file. Henrik discovers a clue, a car stolen, not ten minutes from his house. It’s a lead. It’s also a six year old car theft that’s unlikely to lead anywhere. But they’ve neither of them anyhing better to do…

And yes, you can see for yourselves all the things that people will use to tear down this ending, but I can’t go there, I can never be that objective about it. The game has changed, and if there’s to be a The Bridge 4, which I sincerely hope there will, I haven’t a clue where it will go, but I will superglue myself to the screen if that’s what it takes to ensure I see it.

What did you think?

Two Sides to Everyone

Call me a curmudgeon if you will, but in the light of the plaudits pouring in for the late Jimmy Hill, former footballer, manager and broadcaster, there are a few aspects of Mr Hill’s career that come to mind that I personally find impossible to overlook.

Such as his performance as expert during the 1990 FA Cup Final Replay between Manchester United and Crystal Palace. The Final, on Saturday, had been drawn 3-3 and Palace had a good claim to have been the better side and the more deserving of victory on the day. But having tested United thoroughly on Saturday, Palace abdicated this approach in favour of an attempt to kick United – and loan goalkeeper Les Sealey – off the park.

United, to their credit, kept their heads except for a five minute spell around the half hour when it looked like they were going to start handing it back, but they got to half-time, still trying to play football.

And at half-time, Jimmy Hill absolved Palace of any blame, and dragged United into the mire, claiming that these were merely clashes in midfield due to congestion. All accidental, nothing malicious, nothing to look at here.

And another FA Cup, some years later, at Bramhall Lane, where United, having taken the lead, had fallen 2-1 behind by half-time. The second Sheffield United goal was a blatant handball, the ball rebounding off Schmeical and being knocked into the net by the scorer’s forearm. The behind the goal camera made it absolutely plain. Mr Hill? Conceding even as we look at the replay, that there might have been a suspicion of handball there.

Those two examples may be discounted for partisanship, though I’m being completely objective about the true circumstance, especially the Sheffield United game (we lost the tie 2-1, and never deserved to win).

But there’s a rather more serious incident which disinclines me to totally honour Jimmy Hill’s contribution to football, and that was the time when he ventured his opinions on racist chanting directed at black players. In Mr Hill’s opinion, it wasn’t worth talking about: it was no more than if someone referred to him as “Chinny”.

Sorry to bring it up, but that’s what first comes to mind when I think of Jimmy Hill.