Runway 13 – an Eagle story


Eagle 9-3-63Given that, in one form or other, I have the complete Dan Dare, hunting old Eagle‘s is about collecting the other strips, stories and features published in its long and mostly glorious history.
Naturally, the collector’s thoughts turn to the classic series, PC 49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson etc. But Eagle is more still than these. Though it’s noted as a comic, like the comics of the era, it had prose stories as well.
Sometimes, these were serials/series in themselves. Peter Jay’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook was a long-running school series, and I’ve previously mentioned both Beau Fortune and Horizon Unlimited, products of the Longacre era, the latter of which being an excellent continuing adventure.
But between the end of one and the start of the other of these two series, there were three one-off serials. The third and last of these was High Quest, about which hangs a tale I’ve already told. The first, and longest of this trio, was Johnny Quick, a twelve-part boxing serial that has its merits but, being  about boxing, doesn’t grab me all that much.
Until a few months ago, I was completely unaware of Runway 13, a short serial of only seven episodes. I read it inside out, from the middle, until this week, when I secured the first and, crucially, last parts. I think it deserves a bit of attention.
The first thing I noticed about the story was a familiarity of style and subject. It’s uncredited, of course, but it’s instantly recognisable as by the same writer as Horizon Unlimited. It’s an aviation based story written by someone with a great working knowledge of planes and flying, and it has a near identical central pair, the middle-aged flying veteran and the youthful, eager lieutenant. Instead of Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, think Rudge and Keith Hazard.
Although the title implies some sort of supernatural element, the opening chapter starts with a very brief, wholly realistic report on a plane crash, and sticks to a resolutely rational world all the way to the cliffhanger. Able Fox, a Bactrian jet owned by British Charter Airlines has crashed at Abbaq Airport, in the Nile Valley. Two of its three-man crew are dead, the pilot is seriously injured. This report sees Rudge, the company’s Chief Accident Officer, sent to investigate with his assistant of seven weeks standing, Keith Hazard.
This report may be complicated by two factors: the Bactrians are a newly-acquired and expensive fleet and Manager Eric Bayliss doesn’t want any fault in the aircraft to be found. But the Pilot, Smithson, is Rudge’s best friend of thirty years and he doesn’t want any pilot error to be found.
This is not going to be the kind of cliché story we would have been fed any time in the last forty years: Bayliss makes his wishes known, but they are preferences. Rudge is to report the truth.
Abbaq airport is just a way-station, carved out of the desert, little more than a refuelling post with a nearby town. Rudge and Hazard fly out in a converted Mosquito, arriving in time to speak to Smithson. The pilot has been fatally wounded but, knowing Rudge would investigate, he’s kept himself alive to report. He’s clear, strong, lucid and sane, which makes all the more of an impact when, after absolving the plane, the airport, the weather and the pilot, Smithson’s final words set out coldly the cause of the crash: that another pair of hands, invisible, inhuman, tore the controls away from him and sent the plane into its final dive.
Despite their source, Rudge refuses to believe this explanation. At least, he does so outwardly: Hazard is our viewpoint character for this story, we see and hear his reactions and thoughts, but we only see and hear Rudge through Hazard. Nevertheless, Rudge can’t accept the explanation. It’s superstition, and he is a man of the Twentieth Century, the Age of Machines. The explanation, when it is found, will be rational: it can’t be anything else.
It’s not the plane though, because Rudge and Hazard go over it with a fine-toothed comb and find nothing. It’s not the airport: it might be way out in the arse-end of nowhere, but it has never had an accident before. Nothing in  the way of a solution is coming up. Except that Crosby, the Ground Controller, an experienced South African ex-pilot, without any knowledge of Smithson’s statement, describes the crash as looking like two pilots fighting over the controls.
And then there is the nickname: Runway 13. There aren’t thirteen runways at Abbaq. The prevailing winds are east-west, and the main runway is laid out accordingly. But maybe a dozen times a year, the wind shifts to the north, so a cross-runway was constructed. It got the nick-name of Runway 13 because of the number of accidents during its construction, vehicles going out of control, three workers killed. Smithson’s Bactrian was the first attempted landing on that runway.
Rudge is still fighting any notion of superstition being involved. But the wind’s in the north again, so he and Keith take up to Mosquito to repeat the landing, investigate the conditions. And fifty feet along the runway, another pair of hands tears the controls from Rudge and flies the Mossie towards the ground.
The effect is temporary: it only covers a short range, and because the Mosquito’s a lighter plane, Rudge can regain control and pull out of the dive. So now the cause of the crash is established. Still he resists: they know how now, but not why? What explains what just happened.
Quickly, the story piles on more and more ‘evidence’. Rudge and Keith investigate the trench caused by the Bactrian’s crash and Keith finds the entrance to a tunnel, cold, utterly black, completely creepy. It leads to a burial chamber, complete with Mummy. It is a Pharaoh’s tomb, that of Senruset (a fictional Pharaoh, from 2,600 BC, which would place him at the start of the Fourth Dynasty, in the era occupied by the real Pharaoh Sneferu), and it comes complete with Pharonic curse: upon all that disturb his eternal sleep, ‘I shall reach out my hand from my tomb to punish them’. Senruset’s tomb is directly below Runway 13.
I must be honest and admit that this is pure cliché, 100% through and through, yet I can’t deny its effect, and that’s down to our unknown writer. A similar theme underlay R. B. Maddocks’ Corrigan and the Purple Priest, which I spoke of here, but I find its use in this story considerably more effective.
This seeming degree of ‘proof’ is a facer for Rudge, but the story is quickly, and cannily diverted. The Tomb is filled with an unearthly shriek that sets the Mummy into motion, and which sends Rudge, Keith and the on hand archaeologist Kendrick running in blind panic but, in a foreshadowing of the ending, the noise is an acoustic distortion of the noise of a plane coming in to land. On Runway 13.
This becomes another crash, and three more dead despite Rudge and Keith’s attempts at a rescue. Strangely, however, this latest disaster puts fresh heart into the practical Rudge, by offering an alternate, rational explanation in the face of the mounting superstition.
Also present at Abbaq are two foreigners, a Syrian named Sulim and his shabby Greek clerk. There is a degree of period racism here, automatic rather than directed, as both are, at best, slimeballs. Sulim in particular is full of whining implications. He owns Trans-Mesop Airlines, a rival charter company that is struggling against the likes of British Charter, with its rich resources, its modern jets. If British Charter’s reputation is ruined by this, Sulim stands to profit.
And the second crash? A local sheikh, testing out using his own planes to avoid to exploitive charges of local operators. When Sulim’s Greek is found laughing at the latest crash, Rudge adds two and two together and comes to the kind of four he likes. Sabotage: it’s obvious. None of this superstitious claptrap. Especially as Sulim’s managed to bribe his way in to where the Bactrian’s cargo is being stored and destroy a large part of it.
There’s just one problem with that friendly, comfortable, rational theory (apart from, how did he do it?). Sulim runs, intent on reaching his plane, flying out. Rudge and Hazard pursue. Sulim crashes onto the airport, drives across the runway. Runway 13. It wasn’t sabotage, not any kind of sabotage we recognise in the Twentieth Century. Another pair of hands rips the wheel out of Sulim’s as he drives over Senruset’s tomb. The car crashes. Sulim dies.
Everything points one direction, the one direction Rudge is still resisting facing. Keith Hazard’s convinced, he’s scared down to his spine of what’s below Runway 13. Rudge still won’t bend, won’t report back, won’t commit to paper what they’ve found out. And suddenly there’s another plane coming to Abbaq. It’s from British Charter Airlines. It’s carrying a team, including an Air Ministry expert, and Eric Bayliss.
They’re going to do a flight over Runway 13, to see for themselves. They won’t listen to Rudge when he warns them not to. And Rudge breaks. His determination not to accept the by-now-horribly-obvious but still unbelievable shatters. He sets off for the tomb of Senruset, with a stick of dynamite, racing the aircraft…
Hazard chases him all the way to the tomb, is there when Rudge throws in the stick of dynamite, but the atmosphere traps them, keeps them from running. Bayliss’s plane swoops, the scream begins, they start to run. Then the explosive goes off and the Mummy flies towards them. They are buried in the collapsed tunnel, but only for a few minutes before both are dug out.
There’s an unusual double-ending. This one is the first, but the episode leaps head three months, to the official report, signed off by Rudge and counter-signed by Keith Hazard. Dryly, technically, plausibly, it places responsibility for Smithson’s crash on unusual and excessive wind turbulence caused by an unsuspected cavity under the Runway, that ceased when the cavity was filled in. It’s a good, scientific solution, Twentieth Century rationality superseding supernatural claptrap. There was no curse. The Mummy was a red herring, a coincidence. This is 1963. The Air Expert signed off on it.
And then we roll back, to the aftermath of the explosion. In the sky, the controls of the Bactrian were torn from the pilot’s grasp. But only for two seconds, until the explosion, and then the controls went free. Everybody landed safely, on Runway 13.
Rudge tells the whole story, just as we’ve learned it, and everyone believes it. The Man from the Ministry does put forward the air turbulence theory, agrees to work it into a scientifically established rationalistic explanation. And it could be so, could be the real cause of everything, it’s been a fact all along, just misinterpreted. But even the expert believes in the curse.
The last paragraph belongs to Keith Hazard. When he leaves Abbaq, he takes with him a gift, an ivory talisman, a good luck charm taken from the entrance to the tomb of Senruset itself. Because Keith Hazard, man of the Twentieth Century, former RAF pilot, knows that the world contains things of which to be afraid. And that you can never have enough good luck talismans.
At seven episodes, Runway 13 barrelled along without stopping. It stayed strictly within its linear story, except for that curious double-ending, and as a result, it felt substantially shorter than its immediate successor, High Quest, which was only one episode longer. That serial, though comparatively tautly written, was nevertheless by another writer, but the guy behind this was given a broader canvas to paint on with Horizon Unlimited, and brought to it his love and knowledge of airplanes and flying, and good, two-fisted adventure.
Overall, Runway 13 doesn’t stack up against High Quest, and that’s not just the nostalgia of reading High Quest in 1963 talking. In a way, that makes it more impressive, that a story written over fifty years ago for 7 – 10 year olds should, of its own making, entertain and interest a 60 year old.
But this is Eagle we’re talking about. Even in the beginning of decline, it still produced stuff like this, from an anonymous staff or freelance writer, working to commission, no doubt. Some of Eagle‘s serials were by professional book writers, named authors. At least two of Eric Leyland’s Flame series of boys thriller novels were first serialised in Eagle, as was a Biggles adventure, and Mr Anonymous was certainly a better writer than either of them: and yes, I do include the semi-legendary Captain W. E. Johns.
To read it for yourself, as with High Quest, you will have to haunt eBay for the right copies of Eagle, volume 14, issues 3 – 9 inclusive (for High Quest you will need issues 10 – 17, and for Horizon Unlimited practically the next year). It’s not a major work. It’s half a century out of date. You’ll need a mind attuned to that era. But if you have that, it’s half an hour well spent.

Friday Night Football: Same Old Story


Big Dion at the Dell: Manchester United’s first ever Premier League win, 1992

Much is being made of the fact that Friday Night Football is coming to our television screens (if we have Sky TV), in the form of Manchester United vs Southampton, and the fans are protesting.

Basically, I’m on their side. The new contract, allowing for ten Friday night Premiership matches in 2016/17, means that live televised football now takes place on every single day of the week. Fans who go to games are, once again, getting screwed in the process: there are hundreds of regular Southampton fans who turn up for the away trips to Old Trafford who are being forced to miss the game, because the last train back home leaves 35 minutes before the final whistle.

And it takes me back, back to 1992, when the newly-formed Premier League, signed up to Sky for the first time, went to its first Monday night game. Which was the reverse fixture, Southampton vs Manchester United, at the old Dell.

There wasn’t half the screaming then, even though the traveling United fans were in the same boat as the Southamptonians will be tonight. Not all of that was down to the classic lack of sympathy the vast majority of fans have towards United, nor the jokes that it made no difference, they all live on the South Coast anyway. It was more that those who could afford Sky, or were prepared to put up with going down the pub of an evening to watch, were happy to have more live football available.

Those of us who remember the antediluvian days, pre-the Premier League, pre-Sky, will remember that it had taken until the back half of the Eighties to get live League football on TV. The two networks had different times: ITV’s like matches went out at 2.00pm on Sunday, the BBC’s at 7.30pm on Friday night. The incredible finale in 1989, the post-Hillsborough Liverpool v Arsenal game that decided the League on the last kick, was on BBC1, on Friday night.

And it’s not like we’ve not had Friday night Football since then: Sky have been running Championship matches in that slot for ages, without the same kind of fuss.

So whilst I support the aggrieved fans, I can’t share the outrage which, though entirely valid, is being expressed not in a losing cause but in a cause lost twenty-four years ago. In a way, I’ve almost admired Sky for nailing its colours to the mast in such a forthright manner, by selecting as its debut Monday Night Match a game that so inconvenienced the away supporters. It stated, plainly, that it’s attitude was FTF – Fuck The Fans. And it’s been that way ever since.

Tonight’s selection is probably not a deliberate reminder of that initial game – it’s probably far more to do with Jose Mourinho’s first competitive match as United manager at home, and the first start of the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba – but by its nature it’s a doubly-symbolic gesture. Who gives a toss about the Southampton fans? Certainly not Sky’s TV audience, who see themselves as the fans whose interests have to be put first: there are many more of them, after all, and those primitives who still, bizarrely, want to go to live games, should get over themselves and their sense of entitlement.

Either way, I shalln’t be watching. I’ve made my position plain in respect of Mourinho and there’s going to be precious little live United TV for me this season, not until semi-finals at least. Anyway, I’m going out for a meal with my mates tonight.

Friday Night Football is here to stay. It’s not like it’s a breakthrough, the way Thursday night football was. It’s been around before, when the balance was more finely set. When there was a balance. If it makes Sky money, it’ll stay.

And FTF. Especially the ones getting out of Old Trafford at about 10.00pm tonight and making tracks for Southampton. You – and we – are on the wrong side of history. We are the army of the defeated, who don’t know when to stop fighting, eve when stopping fighting, forcing football to be played in empty grounds, without sound or atmosphere, is the only weapon we have left in our hands.

The ultimate weapon, the Deterrent, the Nuclear Option.

The one thing we could never do.

Safe traveling.

 

A-Level Results Day Reminiscences


The cliche. It wasn’t like that in real life.

Even though it’s forty-three years ago, I remember mine vividly.

We’d been on holiday in the Lake District two years earlier, when the O-Level results were published and, coincidental or otherwise, I’d fallen ill with headaches and nausea that very day. Being unable to go to the school to check, I’d left a stamped postcard with my subjects written in a neat column, which the school then filled in and sent to me at home.

My first check, however, was in Thursday night’s Manchester Evening News when we got to Droylsden, coming home.  Not having read the MEN in decades, I don’t know if the practice continues to this day but, that long ago, they would publish all the O- and A-Level results, school by school, name by name, in close-set italic type: just the name and, in brackets, the number of passes.

Having been rushed out so quickly, the printing was sometimes not of the best. I’d taken eight O-Levels and I had duly passed eight. Or was that a smeared three? In a situation where paranoia was hovering eagerly, it was impossible to tell with certainty, and I had to wait, fretfully, until we drove home to Burnage and the postcard confirmed that I had passed all eight subjects, with a range of grades from 1 to 6 (Grades 7 to 9 were fails).

The better scores were where I wanted them to be, and the lower half were in the subjects I was keen to drop: Physics and Chemistry, French and German. I’d scored my sole Grade 1 in my favourite subject, History.

Choosing A-Level subjects was both easy and difficult. I wanted my top three subjects, History, English and Maths, but at A-Level level, this was rather a crossing of disciplines. The Grammar School system at this stage separated itself into Arts and Sciences strands, with the two meant to be parallels. But I didn’t have a third Arts subject I felt comfortable with, given that I would be doing double periods, two hours at a time, on it every day.

Nor did I have any career in mind. I had no idea what I wanted to be. Given my lack of any discernible practical skills, much to my good-with-his-hands Dad’s disappointment, it would have to be an office-based job, and between them my mother and uncle suggested Solicitor and Accountant. Neither of these filled me with great enthusiasm, but then again, both seemed perfectly possible subjects for me, so I said ‘Why not?’ and it was settled. I was not a decisive person when I was fifteen, basically lacking any confidence in my ability to take the right decision, not to mention having never been allowed to take a decision for myself yet.

So Solicitor it was, with Accountant as a back-up, which meant I needed to include Maths in my courses, no matter what opposition the school put up, essentially arguing that the clash of disciplines could – or rather would – hinder my progress in both. But I had no other subjects that would suit and so my choices were respected. And they were my choices. To a degree at least. But if my mother had objected, they wouldn’t have been.

Of course, the Maths was a mistake. Not for the reasons the school put forward, the switch from Arts to Science strands and back never had any noticeable effect on my work. No, it was the unforeseeable one that, essentially, I was a good Maths student to O-Level but beyond that I’d hit my peak and was starting to struggle.

It didn’t help that, alone amongst all the teachers in the Sixth Form, I didn’t get on with the Maths teacher (who was nicknamed Katmandu Pete after he’d taken a Summer holiday there). We’d never crossed paths during my first five years, and he was simply disappointed in me. Subsequently, I was told that my name had come up in the Masters’ Common Room when the School had been advised that my Dad had died, and several of the teachers were very sympathetic, and hoped that it wouldn’t throw me off track. Katmandu Pete had asked about me and been given rather glowing reports, so when he finally had me to teach, just as I was starting to hit the limit of my Maths skills, I fell far short of what he’d been led to expect.

And as our Maths group consisted of only ten pupils, there was nowhere to hide.

(Actually, I do have one pleasant memory of Maths in those two years, being the only time I punched someone in class and got away with it completely. With only ten of us in a standard classroom, we naturally gravitated into widely-spread pairs. I sat by my mate Zack, who sat on my right, further away from Katmandu Pete’s desk. Somehow, Zack had managed to get my right wrist and twist it up behind my back, where Katmandu Pete couldn’t see it. I lacked the strength to break free, and it bloody hurt so, once I’d been released, I sat there seething and determined on revenge. In a Sixth Form Maths Class where I was so much more visible than my so-called mate. I waited, however, my lightly balled right hand on the desk, resting easy, watching and waiting until, at last, Katmandu Pete turned back to his desk. In that split second, when he was looking the other way, I lashed out, without the least warning, swinging my right arm round as hard as I could, and smashing Zack in the face. Long before Katmandu Pete looked back, I was sitting angelically in my seat, hand on my desk where it had been when he looked away. If he’d heard the impact, I don’t know. He didn’t show the least suspicion. I got totally away with it. Zack didn’t even try to get his own back. And he never tried that again.)

We were doing four subjects for A-Level, with General Studies imposed on top of our three course choices. This was a woolly, wishy-washy course, which offered a single period every day, that might be about anything, since its principal purpose was to act as a relief from our specialisations. It was a pig of a subject, simply because it had no structure or defined theme, which made it simultaneously, a terrible paper to sit – because how could you study for it? – and a doddle. We used to say that you got a C if you wrote your name on the paper, a B if you spelt it correctly, and an A if you used your ruler to underline it.

Midway through the Upper Sixth, and very aware that I was losing ground in Maths, I asked to drop the subject. I had an offer to go to Manchester University, subject to me getting a B and two Cs (the par line) and I was justifiably confident of achieving that with History, English and General Studies. The additional ten hours per week could be put to further study on those subjects. And I was serious about that: I genuinely was not thinking that I could breeze around, do nothing.

But my mother was having none of it. If there was a way of talking back to my mother, of standing up in the face of her decisions, I never found it. I didn’t get to drop Maths.

So I took all the several papers, and one more. In History, my mate Glyn and I were the two acknowledged leaders. To be fair, it was a triumvirate, including Steve B., who was every bit as smart as us but who doomed to exam results that didn’t reflect his standard, because he was painfully slow at writing and never finished a paper. Glyn and I were aware of the Special Level papers, which lay over and above A-Levels, and pressed our History teacher – who was also the Deputy Head – to be entered for that as well.

‘Bill’ was very reluctant to do so. He had put twenty-three boys into S-Level History at one time or another, and only one had passed, and he only got a Grade 2 (at S-Level, there were only three results: Grade 1, Grade2, Fail). The odds were against us and he didn’t want us having extra pressure at such a vital time. But not only were we both eager to test ourselves, we could deal with that objection very quickly. The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum as the A-Levels and the single exam was a whole week after the last of our A-Level papers so we could treat that completely separately.

As to the papers themselves, I have only two memories, both involving History, and I’m not even completely certain that the first of these involved the actual A-Level paper, or maybe a Mock, or midterm paper. Basically, there were two exams, one on British History, the other on European History. We had to answer four questions out of six in a three hour period. I turned over the European paper and scanned the questions, quickly finding three I could do confidently (one was my pet question: I had already written that essay for a) homework, b) a midterm exam and c) the Mock A-Level paper: I could have written it in my sleep by then).

But I was immediately concerned about which of the three remaining questions I would have to  answer. The actual choice I put off until I’d written the first three essays and the choice became imperative.

I can’t remember the selection, but the most probable choice was a question about why a certain Treaty had failed to prevent the War of the Spanish Succession (think Duke of Marlborough, Battle of Blenheim). I hadn’t a clue about the terms of the Treaty, but I did know the causes of the War.

So I started off by arguing the proposition that the (undetailed) Treaty had failed to prevent that War because that had never been its aim. I put it that Treaties in that era – i.e., prior to the Twentieth Century – were not seen or intended as peace-making, but were rather an exercise in aggrandising the victor at the expense of the loser by landgrabs etc., the intention being to put the victor into a better, stronger place from which to fight the next war. The War of the Spanish Succession began because…

It was an argument that we had never been formally taught in class, or even debated, and I still think it was a nifty little trick to shift the question onto the grounds I could fully answer, and as we’ll shortly see, the examiners must have shared that opinion, or at least applauded my cheek. But there was this moment, with about fifteen minutes left and me deep in my explanation, when ‘Bill’ came wandering past, looking over people’s shoulders at what they were writing.

We were conscious of him doing that, and he was no real distraction. He’d read a few lines, show no reaction, and go on to the next boy, leaving you in peace. But on this occasion, he leaned in and did a double-take. He studied my paper over my shoulder for several seconds then, instead of strolling on to the guy in front of me, he strode to the top of the Hall, picked up the paper and studied it intently, obviously trying to work out which question I was trying to answer!

I don’t say that it didn’t disturb me at all, but I don’t remember being that concerned. I knew what I was doing, and why, I was in full flow and closing in on the end of my essay and if I’d made a complete cock-up, it was too bloody late to scrub what I’d been doing and tackle an even dodgier question.

My other memory is of the S-Level paper, a week after it was all over. It was a hot, sunny day and, as Glyn and I were the only students, we were taking it in the Technical Drawing Room, sharing the room with the guys taking that A-Level.

The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum, but it was broader-based and more interpretative: it was another three hour paper, but we were required to answer only three questions out of four. The exam began: Glyn and I turned over our papers, scanned the questions and simultaneously looked up and at each other. Our expressions were identical: oh well, it was worth a try.

Afterwards, we compared notes. Glyn claimed to have written the same answer three times whereas I had written two of my three answers not based on the course we’d studied for the past two years but rather the political background gleaned from two series of Dennis Wheatley novels (Roger Brook, on the French Revolution, and Gregory Sallust, on the failure of Appeasement, a part of the course we’d never even reached). Oh well, it was worth a try.

The results were published on a Wednesday in the middle of August, as the O-Level results were published on the Thursday of the following week. By a weird coincidence, it was the day of my Dad’s anniversary, three years since he had died. Mam was taking us out for the day, to Southport, but first we visited the Crematorium and then, on the way back, we called into the School for my results, which had been posted in the Secretary’s window from about 10.30am.

Mam drove down the drive and across the front of the school. There was room to park beyond the Secretary’s Office and the main entrance. She’d barely brought the car to rest, had not had the chance to even put the handbrake on and I was out of my seatbelt, out the door and striding back towards that window. What ever the results, I had to see them for myself first, had to know what I’d done before my family knew anything of it.

I still remember striding out in the sun. As I approached, I saw four or five of my classmates sat on the grass, talking. As I came up, they turned towards me and, in unison, they began shaking their heads, sucking in their breath and going ‘tt tt’. It was enough to tell me that I had done alright, but I didn’t give them any attention until I’d gotten to the window and seen the results. Three As and a D (Maths, what else?) Gloriously more than I needed for Manchester. A Pass, a result. That made it ok for Mam and my sister to have a look.

Funnily enough, I have no memory of her response, except that it would have been positive. Now I knew the result, and knew that the next three years of my life, at University, were set up, it was the chance to chat with my classmates – who had just been through the exact thing I had, who were justified in relaxing and celebrating – which mattered. I’d always been younger than all of them, always felt myself inferior to them despite being overall one of the smartest in the Year, from the start, but this was one of the few occasions on which we were genuinely equals. We’d been through the mill together and we’d come out on the other side.

It was an odd measure of togetherness, given that we had already been a group for the last time. I had close friends I’d continue to see, at least for the rest of the decade, but as classmates, yearmates, we’d already split apart and I was only ready to admit myself as their equal after it was all over.

I’d have liked to have stayed and talked longer, but I had a mother and a sister waiting to scoot off to Southport, so we got back into the car and headed off towards the East Lancs Road.

Oh, and those S-Levels? We’d passed, both of us, Glyn with a Grade 1, I with a Grade 2.

Two brief codas. The following week, we were off to the Lakes on holiday, the week of the O-Level results. Nothing to do with me but, by coincidence, on Thursday, the day of those results, we set off on the same walk as two years previously, when I’d fallen ill whilst out walking for the first time ever. Maybe it was psychosomatic, because I was aware of the connection, but I fell ill, headaches and nausea, for the only other time whilst out walking.

And, a week or two later, I had to go into school again for something, I don’t remember what. Whilst I was there, I bumped into ‘Bill’, who was full of congratulations over my results. And who then asked me if Glyn and I weren’t grateful for how he’d pushed us into doing the S-Level exams? I was nearly laughing out loud at the hypocrisy, and for one of the first times in my life, I answered an adult back, reminding him that it was the other way round and that we had had to badger him to let us do the exam.

He looked at me oddly, and said, “You cheeky thing!” I never saw or spoke to him again.

This is what comes back to me on A-Level Results Day, forty-three years later.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e01/02 – The Search, parts 1 & 2


Would you trust your Universe to this pair?

And so we arrive in season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a mighty powerful start it is: long may it continue.

‘The Search’ is a direct sequel to last season’s closing episode, wasting no time in picking up from the near-cliffhanger left behind from the Federation’s first direct contact with the Dominion, the rulers of the Gamma Quadrant. At least, that’s how it seems when we open with Major Kira conducting a meeting on the senior staff, with pessimistic reports on the results of simulations of how DS9 would perform in the event of a direst attack by the Dominion: two hours, tops. The Chief isn’t even that optimistic and, given that DS9 is a fixed space station with limited power, structural weaknesses and total lack of manoeuvrability, facing a highly mobile fleet of warships, he’s not wrong.

However, this is not immediately but two months later. Sisko has been on Earth, at Spacefleet HQ, undergoing debriefing on the Dominion threat. Now he’s back, and he’s brought with him the ‘Defiant’, DS9’s own warship, and a considerable upgrade on its offensive/defensive capabilities, not to mention a considerable upgrade on the series’ ability to move beyond DS9 itself. It even comes with an on-loan Romulan cloaking device, not to mention an on-loan Romulan, T’rul, to make sure that that loan stays nohow permanent.

For there’s a mission, into the Gamma Quadrant, for Sisko to lead and his entire staff to man: a Peace Mission, to find the mysterious Founders and convince them the Federation is not hostile.

Before that gets under way, there’s a brief but telling scene between Sisko and Jake. Whilst on Earth, Sisko has had all his belongings removed from store and brought with him. Jake recognises, before his father, that Sisko no longer sees his home as being Earth, but rather Deep Space Nine.

What else has changed? Terry Farrell has a new, more complex hairdo, and the coms badges have been redesigned to be bigger. Oh, and Odo gets semi-replaced by Starfleet Security Officer Lieutenant Michael Eddington. Of course, he’s only there for the Starfleet stuff and Odo’s still Head of Security for non-Starfleet station stuff, but it’s still too much for everybody’s favourite prickly shapeshifter and he resigns in a huff, giving the lovely Kira a devil of a job to persuade him to join the expedition to represent the Bajoran government.

For all that I’m making light of things, this first half is a very serious episode, and so it should be. This is the series moving into very dangerous and very serious territory and the episode marks this correctly. Even the presence of Quark on the expedition is a logical, and intelligent step, since the Ferenghi contacts within the Dominion – remember last season’s Grand Negus episode? – are the only initial step on the road to finding the reclusive Founders. And, properly, once he has established an in, Quark drops out.

The trail leads to an unmanned relay station, to which Dominion-bound messages are sent. Dax and O’Brien are beamed down and, with suspicious ease, find co-ordinates that that beam back to the ‘Defiant’, just before being trapped and jumped by the Jem’Hadar. Sisko makes the cold but only practical decision to leave them and pursue the mission.

Meanwhile, Odo is behaving very strangely. He’s not merely his usual antisocial self, he’s completely distracted: obsessed with, fixated upon, drawn irresistably to something known as the Omarian Nebula. So much so that, when the Romulan cloak is penetrated, when the Jem’Hadar cripple and board the ‘Defiant’ Odo gets himself and the injured Kira onto a shuttlecraft and makes for the Nebula, leaving Sisko and Bashir behind, fate unknown.

But there’s a reason for this and a reason why this double-episode is called “The Search”. There’s a single planet, a rogue, in the Nebula. It’s a beautiful, pastoral, lovely world. It also contains a thick, slippery looking lake that reminds us of Odo in his liquid form. As it should when four columnar shapes emerge from it and take on the form of humans, their leader a female twin of Odo. This is the planet of the shapeshifters. This is where Odo comes from. This is his home.

So far, a stunningly good episode. But the second part seemed to be completely off. It started with Sisko and Bashir, escaped from the ‘Defiant’ in a shuttlecraft and trying to get back to and through the Wormhole. They’re picked up by a tractor beam and their rescuers are… Dax and O’Brien, happy as Larry and obviously fresh for a trip to the hairdressers in the former’s case. What? How? And there are big things going on back at DS9.

It felt completely wrong. Indeed, most of the entire episode, or the parts set at DS9 at least, felt off, strange, not quite there. Dax and O’Brien, we were told, had been taken to the Founders, who had accepted that the Federation only wanted peace, and negotiations were going on at the station for a Peace Treaty, led on one side by Admiral Nechayev (she may not have been young but Natalija Nogulich always did look good) and on the other by Borath (Dennis Christopher), a Vorta, like Eris in the previous series, who claims to be one of the Founders.

I’ll admit to not being sure whether we were being set up to learn that this wasn’t really happening, or whether the show was just being bloody lazy again and not being bothered to work out a convincing way Dax and O’Brien could have escaped. Even when things got more and more improbable, and the evidence kept mounting up in a way that, retrospectively, looks overwhelming, I still couldn’t be sure that this was the equivalent of a dream scene. Until Garak was killed. Then I knew.

I should have realised much earlier, because things really are badly out-of-kilter at the station. A massive alliance of all the Alpha Quadrant groups – including the Cardassian Empire, but excluding the Romulan Empire, over which T’Rul is threatening war – has come together to negotiate with the Dominion. Sisko is hailed as the man whose mission has brought the two sides together, but he’s excluded from participation in very secret talks. When he protests Romulan exclusion, and the prospects of their response, the Admiral and Borath are smugly boastful about how ineffectual they will be against an alliance with the Dominion.

Things go too fast. There are Jem’Hadar all over the station. One picks a fight with O’Brien (who else?) and beats him up so badly he winds up in the infirmary whilst Eddington intervenes to ensure the Jem’Hadar go untouched. Dax gets reassigned as Science Officer on a Federation starship. When Sisko protests he finds himself jumped to Captain, and told everyone will be re-assigned: the Federation are abandoning the sector: Bajor will be a Dominion planet in future.

It’s all going to custard. T’Rul is killed by the Jem’Hadar, Sisko imprisoned for fighting back. Garak leads Sisko, Dax and the Doctor on a mission in a pre-prepared runabout, loaded with photon torpedos. He is killed, but, in an act of direct mutiny, Sisko fires the torpedos into the mouth of the Wormhole, collapsing it…

But there’s another story going on betweenwhiles (or is it another story?), and that is Odo coming home. His fellow shapeshifters, or Changelings as they call themselves, adopting the pejorative ‘solids’ use against them as blacks But he is ‘damaged’, isolated: he knows nothing of the ‘Great Link’, where everyone liquefies and there are no longer separate bodies and nor are there separate minds. The female Odo partially merges with him, shows him the edges of it.

They don’t like solids though, they have learned to fear and hate them for their aggression. That’s why they retreated to this planet, where they can control, and that’s why a hundred infants were sent out, to learn about the universe outside. Odo is the first of them to return – about three hundred years ahead of schedule.

Kira is delighted for her friend, but also saddened at the thought of losing him. Her efforts to get back to the Federation, find Sisko and Co, are being hindered by a field generated from underground, from a chamber secured by a heavy door. But what need have Changelings for doors?

It depends what’s behind it, and the stories merge when Odo opens the door to reveal the Jem’Hadar. And Borath. And everyone from the ‘Defiant’, including Dax and O’Brien. They’re all under sedation, ‘dreaming’ a Dominion simulation, designed to test the resilience to invasion. Starfleet will not be pushovers, exactly as Borath warned.

Odo is immediately in horror that his people work for the Dominion, but it’s worse than that: the Changelings are the Dominion: they are the Founders. A Universe of order, a universe under control. A Universe that can never hurt them again. That is their goal. They propose to extend this to the Alpha Quadrant.

For Odo there is a choice to be made. He has found his kind, his people. But he is already too far removed for them. He believes in Order, yes, but in Justice, not control. He already has a family. The experiment is ended and everybody returns to DS9: Odo is already among his own.

What a magnificent pair of episodes, probably the best so far since Deep Space Nine was first conceived. I hope that this standard can be maintained. From a very cursory, and unwilling, glance at the next few episodes to come, I suspect it won’t.

 

Back on the Binge


I’m way overdue for the next instalment of my series about Homicide: Life on the Street, which got derailed sometime last year, after I’d finished with the Fifth Season. There’s been all sorts of things taking up my time and my thoughts, several hundred of which you’ve read about here but, on the offchance that any of you care, I’ve been bingeing tonight on the Sixth Season. I have the week off on holiday, I do not have anything but my regular, weekly commitment to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to distract me and I’ve just come off three consecutive episodes and the bug has bitten again.

We’ll soon be there again.

One More Death, One More Bloody Death


To be honest, this is the last day on which I want to think about anyone else’s death, but I have just returned from Dukinfield Crematorium, where I go every year  to feel closer to the spirit of my Dad, and I’ve just got in and practically the first piece of news I discover is that the former Aston Villa striker, Dalian Atkinson, has died, aged 48.

But he’s not merely died at far too young an age, he’s died because he was tasered by the Police.

He died, visiting his 85 year old Dad, in a community where he was known, and liked, and the kids loved him, and the neighbours thought he was great, and whilst it’s far too soon to come to any conclusions, and my instincts and my years in the Law all go against making any statement until I know more, much more, it very much looks as if he died for the crime of being black in the presence of a Police Officer with a weapon.

I mean, it happens all the time over there, doesn’t it, and nobody does anything to stop it, because the people who could do something to stop it are the ones carrying the guns in the first place. And it’s not like I have any particular dog in this show, because I don’t support Aston Villa, and my only memory of Dalian Atkinson the footballer is that he scored the first goal against us when they beat us in the League Cup Final in 1994, the bastard, when Manchester United came closer than anyone ever will to doing the Grand Slam, the Clean Sweep, every domestic trophy in a single season.

But because he did that, and I was there to see it, he’s a part of my story, and he seemed like a nice guy and he loved his Dad, and it’s that day when I think so deeply about mine, and I’m in a raging fury.

Because you know nothing will happen. The guy who did this will be exonerated, will face no punishment, not even censure. They never fucking do. It’ll be the same old whitewash.

And you don’t have to be black in this country to no longer trust the Police. I was brought up to respect them, to trust, to assume they were automatically right and righteous, and I haven’t been able to do that for thirty years now, and all I can think and feel today is that this is wrong, that it’s so bloody wrong and they’ll get away with it. Again.

Oh man, you never deserved this.

Remember him this way.

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 1 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.


The last of the series. The pick of the bunch. The top of the list. An enormously complex and controversial film about which there is much to say, which is why it’s taken me so long a time to cut what there is to say about the Archers’ finest production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
This film takes pride of place in my Powell and Pressburger box-set, but I also own it in a single DVD format. This last is the complete digital remastering of the film carried out over three years by the unlikely figure of Martin Scorsese.
At first sight, it seems impossible to imagine such a Director spending such a long period of time on the restoration of a still-obscure British film whose theme, if it can be boiled down to simply one thing, is the nature of being English. But Scorsese, who for all his New York Italian background, is a student and lover of the possibility of film and, from his teenage years, has been properly besotted with an immense, British epic film, that he first saw in a ramshackle, unsympathetically edited black and white version that reduced the story by a full hour, destroyed its elaborate structure and messed with its chronology.
Blimp was first released in 1943, at a near three hour length, a magnificent technicolour event, beginning with a renegade Army platoon upsetting an exercise into the Home Guard’s ability to defend London by refusing to wait until “War starts at midnight”, and circling round back to its opening via a series of long flashbacks covering 45 years in the life of the ‘Blimp’ of the title, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.
A War-themed film made during the War it commented upon, and taking upon itself the provocative title of Colonel Blimp – a notoriously satirical cartoon figure created by David Low – aroused the opposition of the War Cabinet from the moment it was proposed, and the personal and virulent opposition of Prime Minster Winston Churchill, who wanted it banned. Though the Government were unable to prevent the film going ahead, Churchill could and did personally veto the release of the film’s intended star, Leading Aircraftsman Olivier, L.
Without Olivier, the Archers turned to their stalwart and favourite, Roger Livesey, to incarnate the title character, and Livesey turned in his customary brilliant performance in the role, the greatest of his life.
Nevertheless, the film was a commercial failure, and for decades was only available in its reduced form, which cut the film badly both in terms of incident, structure and chronological order. It was not until 1983 that a restored print was made available, returning the film to its original glory, and length.
In the years since, its reputation has only grown but, though critics acknowledge Blimp to be a masterpiece, and arguably the best film ever made in Britain, it’s still barely known to the public, and especially to generations who would find its mixture of manners and morals a very strange thing indeed. That doesn’t make the film any less of an achievement, nor necessarily that they wouldn’t find it to be as fascinating as those of us who are closer to those times.
There’ll be the usual synopsis coming along shortly, but something of the background to the film should be told, to set it in context.
The Archers were a relatively short-lived partnership when the Second World war broke out. Immediately, Powell proposed a propaganda film, made in Canada and aimed at the world which did not yet understand the Nazi menace. Forty-Ninth Parallel was shot along the whole length of the world’s longest open border and follows the attempt of a German submarine crew to escape into neutral America after their U-boat is bombed off the Newfoundland coast. The crew, led by a fanatic Nazi, are a mixture of types, as are the Canadians they meet as they travel westward.
It was a controversial use of material resources in the early days of the War, looking like an obvious boondoggle in difficult times (an impression reinforced when the film’s leading actress jumped ship on the project as soon as she reached the neutral soil of America, sitting out the War in comfort and ease), but it was also effective and its script won Emeric Pressburger the Oscar.
The Archers re-used the theme two years later in One of our Aircraft is Missing, reversing it to present a British bomber crew shot down over Occupied Europe and making their way home. The crew were again a mixture of ages, classes and backgrounds. A line was written for an exchange between the oldest, upper class crewman, and the youngest, working class lad, about how the elder was once like the younger, who cannot see that. It was cut from the film, but an assistant editor commented that there was an entire film in that line. He should know: the assistant was David Lean.
Originally, the film was to be The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy, with Livesey’s character being introduced in 1943 as an incarnation of the great Colonel, who was never seen outside the Turkish Baths, where he was inevitably wrapped in nothing but a towel about his ample waist: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, puffing out “Gad, Sir!” as the introduction to his newest inane comment upon matters political. The Archers were fortunate to meet David Low, the greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century, and receive permission to use the immortal Colonel’s name in the title.
And so to a synopsis, which will be longer than usual, given the length of the film.
It begins at a brisk pace with uptempo music. Orders are typed and distributed by a fleet of despatch riders, riding in formation in leather greatcoats on motorcycles. It’s a superbly choreographed, sit-up-and-take-notice opening, as pairs of riders peel off at junctions and roundabouts until one remains, deep in the countryside, brought to a halt in a farmyard where Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson’s platoon are billeted. An exercise is to take place: the Army are to test the London Home Guard’s readiness to defend the capital: War begins at Midnight.
This exasperates Spud, a response exacerbated by his Colonel’s hand-written instruction to “Make it Real”. The whole point is that it isn’t and can’t be real: the German’s don’t begin and end at negotiated times. Make it Real? Gah!
Wilson rebels, assembles his biggest toughs and starts the war now. He has an advantage, his girlfriend is driver to the Home Guard Commander, General Clive Wynne-Candy, and she’s blabbed the codewords.
The expedition stops at a country pub en route, where Spud is meeting ‘Johnnie’ (real name Angela, but this is War). It starts with a kiss but it ends with Johnnie sidling out of the pub and driving off furiously, leaving an unconscious Spud behind, roaring a splendidly mixed metaphor: “Mata Hari’s gone to warn the Wizard!”
Johnnie gets to London first, trying to warn General Candy, but her lead isn’t enough to prevent the General and his entire Staff being captured hours ahead of time, to the roar of one of my favourite lines in film history: “Brute force and ruddy ignorance!”
Needless to say, the General et al are captured at the Royal Bathers Club, in the Turkish Baths, and the unfailingly polite Candy first appears in all his Blimpian glory, perspiring bald head, walrus moustache, rising belly wrapped in white towel.
The exercise is ruined before it has begun, and the General doesn’t seem to be able to grasp Wilson’s motives in taking independent action, in emulating the enemy. Wilson, who is only infuriated the more by the sight of this ageing, out-of-touch buffoon, snaps back at him in personal tones that he instantly tries to react, but it’s too late. Candy has lost his temper. He advances on Wilson, swinging at him, roaring that the young man is making fun of his moustache but he doesn’t know why (Candy) grew it, making fun of his belly but he doesn’t know how (Candy) got it.
Taken aback, Wilson finds himself slipping as Candy grapples with him. The two go into the bath, Candy’s rant blurring into the bubbles… and the camera passes along the length of the bath to its far end, from which emerges young Lieutenant Candy, home on leave from the Boer War in 1901, newly awarded the Victoria Cross.
This is the true beginning of the film. From here, it will unfold to depict Candy’s life: why he grew that moustache, how he developed the belly. Much later, we will return to the events we have already seen, see how they unfold from the point of view of Johnnie, who is Livesey’s co-star, Deborah Kerr, then a young actress playing three different roles as the story passes from era to era of Candy’s life.
For now though, we have come to the young Candy, in his stylish red uniform, all buttons and helmet and cloak. His course begins in the Baths that will symbolise the man he becomes, an encounter with his old chum ‘Hoppy’ Hopwood, who happens to be carrying on him a letter passed on by his niece’s Governess, whose sister, Miss Edith Hunter, is herself a Governess, in Berlin. Miss Hunter complains that anti-British propaganda, based on the Boer War, is rife, and that it is a pity that someone like the currently renowned Lieutenant Candy cannot come to Berlin to counter this.
Naturally, Clive wishes to do so, though this is in the face of opposition from the Army, who consider that he shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. Impulsively, Clive ignores what is nearly but not quite an order, and travels to Berlin to meet Miss Hunter, who is, of course, Deborah Kerr.
Unfortunately, by the time he arrives, his guns have been firmly spiked by the Embassy, to whom he has reported on arrival. He is not to say or do anything, and that goes for Edith – who has lost her position – too. They meet at a stamtisch, or coffee shop, frequented by the group to which the most virulent of troubleshooters is attached. He is Kaunitz, a rat-like creature familiar to Candy from South Africa. Clive cannot resist twitting him with music that reminds both of them of their shared circumstances. Unfortunately, this draws Kaunitz’s attention and, despite Clive’s efforts to spare Edith the experience, he denounces them to the crowd.
Along the way, Candy manages to insult the glorious Imperial German Army over its connection to Kaunitz, leading to the inevitable demand for a duel to satisfy honour. His opponent, a complete stranger, drawn by lot, is Ober-Leutnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (played by Anton Walbrook, the film’s third star). In order to conceal the basis for the duel, it is put abut that it is over Edith, who finds herself becoming Candy’s fiancee for the duration!
The duel ends in a draw. Theo takes a headcut, Clive a cut to the top lip, which prompts him to grow a moustache to conceal the scar. The pair are removed to the same nursing home to recover, as is Edith.
If I’ve made this section sound comic in any way, that’s because the film, without neglecting the fact that this is a serious subject, also treats the military aspects with an amused and detached eye. Historically, the Nineteenth Century is seen as a Century of peace, bit only because the wars were small and, in relative terms, local. The military spectacle and its insistence on what, a century later, we can only see as ritual, is inherently comic and is treated as such. This section of the film especially is gloriously funny throughout.
Yet it’s completely serious about its central trio. In the nursing home, the two men slowly become the best of friends. Clive’s bluffness, his certainty that, the duel being over, there is no point to further quarrelling, is the primary impulse, Theo’s willingness to learn English (as opposed to Clive’s hearty disinterest in learning German) is well-picked out. Not for the last time, the film mixes its opulent depiction of the times with an underlying absurdity.
But Edith, compelled to remain in Germany as the purported fiancee of Clive, and better placed to speak German and teach English, ends up falling in love with Theo, and he with her. Clive is genuinely and heartily glad of this: his congratulations come from his heart, but in the moment of congratulation, his own love for Edith surfaces. Noble Englishman that he is, he sacrifices himself for her happiness, and returns to England alone. There, he confirms the reality of his feelings about Edith in the most certain manner possible – by taking her sister to the Opera? A disconsolate Clive retires to his Aunt’s home, and sets up a study there.
The years pass by in a beautifully timed progression as Clive fills up the walls with stuffed heads, shot on military expeditions around the world. Though the subject might not be so innocent now, it’s a witty, amusing method of moving through time, especially as Clive’s last trophy is a German First World War helmet!
Time slows again to catch up with Clive, a Colonel, on the Western Front in November 1918. It’s cold, raining, muddy, and he is trying to arrange transport back to Britain, with his driver Murdoch (John Laurie). The ageing Clive is full of the assumptions of a British Army Officer, and finds himself up against both American troops, with their greater informality, and a South African Captain who has captured prisoners from Theo’s regiment. Candy is unable to get an answer from them, but we are left with the implication that answers will be extracted by the South African, by brutality.
But the emphasis in this sequence runs beautifully elsewhere. The General is fed at a nunnery where a group of young English nurses are billeted: one of them reminds him of Edith. Following an almost mystic moment of silence, when the War ends at 11.00am the following day (over Clive’s assurances that talk of peace is nonsense) we learn that the nurses come from West Yorkshire, that Clive has moved heaven and Earth them, and especially Barbara Wynne (Kerr, for the second time), who, despite the at least fifteen year difference in their ages, he persuades to marry him.
The difference between the pair is remarkable. Clive is far too old and too stiff to be the proper husband to such a young woman, but her love for him is true and she demands of him that he shall not change, not until the Floods come and their home, once that of his aunt, is drowned.
Their honeymoon is interrupted by the discovery that Theo is a prisoner, waiting to be shipped home to a beaten country that will no longer be able to afford the Army that has been his life. But Clive is wrong in his assumption that, now hostilities are over, all will be friends again: at the Prison Camp, Theo snubs him publicly and hurtfully, but later, on the eve of being shipped back to Germany, Theo phones Clive and is abducted, briefly, to attend a formal dinner party.
There’s a lovely sequence as over a dozen guests, military, political, trade, respond to Theo’s introduction by Clive in a series of different manners, and an over-abundance of goodwill to the defeated enemy, with assurances that Britain wants Germany’s place among nations restored. On the train, Theo tells his stunned compatriots of this reception and the disbelief his greeting has engendered.
There’s an odd lacuna at this point. Theo’s realisation of just how these fat, complacent, self-deluding Englishmen think sets off the light of discovery in his eyes, as if he is already mentally working out how Germany can take advantage of this. But the point is never explicitly followed up. You could, of course, argue that Nazi Germany, and Hitler, are the point this reaches towards, but it seems odd to deliver such an association via Theo who, as we will soon see, is no Nazi: far from it.
Once again, time flies, this time through a series of invitations, press notices, etc, again from all around the world, that comes to a cold, silent end on a Newspaper acknowledgement of thanks for the concern of friends of Clive Wynne-Candy in his inconsolable loss.
Briefly the animal heads return, to march to the eve of another War, at which point the film reaches its critical moment, in Theo.
The Second World War has begun, and Britain is taking no chances now. Theo is an alien resident in Britain: he is summoned to account for himself, to explain why he should not be placed in an internment camp. On a single chair, in the middle of a busy room that gradually slows to a stop around him, the camera, halfway into the sequence, beginning to creep slowly closer to him, Theo explains who he is and why he is here. He was an Army officer, thrust out of an Army that existed no longer, who retrained as an Industrial chemist. He has lost his wife, lost his children too, but not to death: they are good Nazis: Heil Hitler. Having found his country gone mad, Theo has taken himself off to the country of his wife, a country of tolerance and humanity that has only ever done him well.
It’s a long moment of hush, around which the film pivots, but it would not be enough to spare Theo without the sponsorship of Clive: dear old Clive, unchanged and unchanging, still too naive to see the new era for what it is. And Clive is unchanged for all his years. Shamefacedly, he admits to being in love with Edith, displays a portrait of Barbara that he expects Theo to recognise, though Theo sees only the wife of his later years, who he’s lost. And there is Angela, Johnnie rather, the General’s driver, who runs Theo home at curfew, and who causes him a certain amazement and amusement, for it is Deborah Kerr yet again.
And Clive’s unchangedness brings to an end his army career, when he is prevented from giving a BBC talk in which he was to espouse defeat rather than resorting to the German tactics.
But Clive isn’t finished yet. He moves to the Home Guard, his progress portrayed in a series of magazine covers, , included among them shots of his home destroyed by the blitz and turned into an emergency water tank, until we return to the beginning of the film.
This time we are inside the country pub when Spud meets Johnnie. We follow her to London, racing to warn the General, and again failing. War conspicuously does not wait until midnight.
But Clive, though distraught and embarrassed, is still Clive. He will pull strings to ensure Spud is not punished for his actions, insists upon Spud coming to dinner with him. And he still reacts with joy to an Army band marching. Unchanged, even though the Floods have come
This is a magnificent film, of a kind that will never be made again. Both Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger believed it to be the best thing they ever did, and there are many of their later day  peers who will agree wholeheartedly.
It was unwanted when it first appeared, not least by its Prime Minister (though there is no record that Churchill ever saw the film, relying exclusively on notes as to its composition), For daring to satirise the Army in War-time, for pointing out, wholly correctly, that the British Army has always fought each war with the weapons of the last one, for its temerity in portraying a sympathetic German character, and one more clear and understanding of the modern world than its hero, it was criticised, attacked savagely. It suffered under an exportation ban for four months, which the Archers promptly exploited to the film’s benefit in domestic publicity. And it was still the fourth most popular film of 1943.
America did not see it until after the War, by which time it had already been cut from 163 minutes to 150, and renamed The Adventures of Colonel Blimp, or just Colonel Blimp. Its complex, flashback structure was removed and the film further cut to 90 minutes. Not until 1983 was it returned to its complete form, and since then its reputation has grown steadily. Like Black Narcissus, it is regarded as a masterpiece of Technicolour cinematography.
Michael Powell described this film as “a 100% British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech.” It’s a film to which all nations contributed, and in 1995, it was hailed as “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English.”
As well as being my favourite film amongst the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Archers, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films ever.

Some Books: J B Priestley’s ‘The Thirty-First of June’


In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The latest of these books is J B Priestley’s The Thirty-First of June.
Like Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer, this isn’t the same kind of choice that this series represents. Yes, it’s a library book and I borrowed it from a library that, if not actually that in Didsbury, was not a million miles away in space and even less in time. But whilst books in this series have been mainly one-offs, The Thirty-First of June was a beginning rather than an end in itself.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I had something of a restricted childhood and adolescence, and I was closing in on 16, or maybe already there before I was allowed to cross over to the adult half of the library. Once I got there, I had to learn a brand new vocabulary. All my favourite authors lay behind and I had no idea, beyond those books lining the shelves Dad had built in our front room,  which writers were good to read and otherwise.
One of the names of which I was aware was J.B. Priestley, though I doubt I knew anything of why I knew the name. In search of writers to inform me of my tastes, I found up to a dozen of his books on the shelves and thumbed through these, looking for something to trial. I settled upon The Thirty-First of June.
According to his bibliography in Wikipedia, this 1961 novel was the twentieth of twenty-seven in his career, excluding an early collaboration with Hugh Walpole that was primarily a case of literary patronage. Walpole was an established author, Priestley the writer of two relatively apprentice novels: the collaboration was intended to provide Priestley with the money and time to tackle a serious work. It’s outcome was his first acclaimed, and probably most famous novel, The Good Companions, a great and still evocative book.
The Thirty-First of June is by no means a great book, or even a great anything. It aims to be, and admirably succeeds in being a light, breezy, quasi-satirical entertainment, a conflation of contemporary advertising and Arthurian England. What was most important about it then was that it led me to read more of Priestley and, at one point, to have read all his novels and owned some two-thirds of them, after years of pursuit through the second hand bookshops of Northern England.
I still own half a dozen of Priestley’s books, most though not all the heavyweights and classics, but until buying The Thirty-First of June through Amazon, I’d never again read that introductory book.
What do I think of it now? It’s a very slight and slender novel, 168 pages including a dozen or more full-page illustrations (artist uncredited but these are perfect evocations of that Ronald Searle-influenced period, very Fifties), and reading it took me about an hour, which is all the book really deserved. It’s pleasant but it’s empty, and it’s light to the point that only the weight of the paper it is printed upon prevents it from floating away and dispersing.
Basically, the action takes place on the thirty-first of June, a date that doesn’t exist in contemporary London at the advertising agency of Wallaby, Dimmock, Paly and Tooks but does exist in the small Kingdom of Pelladore, a day’s ride from Camelot. It’s an interesting day, the thirty-first of June, indicating all manner of unreality, especially as it seems to still be the thirty-first of June after the night has passed and the following day (the thirty-second?) has dawned.
The story is minimal. In Pelladore, the beautiful blonde Princess Melicent – whose character has been exhausted by the description just given – has fallen in love with the man she has seen in the magic mirror leant her by Master Malgrim the (up-to-date, entrepreneurial) enchanter. In contemporary London, where Progress is demanding that everything be knocked down and something else built instead, artist Sam Penty – another whose character is now completely defined in this description – is dreaming of the ideal model for Damosel Stockings, and has fallen in love with Melicent, who at least has the advantage over Sam of knowing he exists, if not necessarily in her world.
Malgrim, who is after the magically powerful brooch of Merlin, offers to get Melicent to Sam. However, his ancient, tittering, old-fashioned enchanter Uncle, Master Malagram, wants not only the same brooch but also to demonstrate that his nephew is still wet behind the ears. Before you know it, characters are slipping backwards and forwards between London and Pelladore, with a highly improbable equanimity about the completely bizarre world they find themselves in.
Neither Sam nor Melicent has a personality, but then nor do any of the people in this deliberately silly book. They are broad brush characters, one colour sketches with a vaguely satirical intent. Priestley had been writing seriously since the late Twenties. He was a young man prior to the Great War, a lifetime Socialist, a dogged Englishman devoted to his native culture and vocally resistant to the importation of American culture and greatly contemptuous of what England was becoming in the Fifties and, more so, in the Sixties.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking him merely an author out of tune with the times, making sour jokes at its expense, for two of his greatest novels were yet to come, and if one of them was resolutely retrograde, harking back to the Music Halls prior to the Great War, the other was a broad, yet detailed and utterly compelling satire of late Sixties London and England.
But whilst The Thirty-First of June is in keeping with the tenor of his thoughts and writing in those later years, it really is no more than a sketch, a slightly long short story populated by figures who I would go on to recognise as being stock characters in Priestley’s lexicon, who in this book can only gain weight from the recollection of rather more serious representations of the types in earlier novels.
The most vivid of these is the perpetually half-sozzled wheeler-dealer Skip Plunkett, who is a standard Priestley type whose roots go all the way back to the much-travelled (“three times round the world”) Mr Morton Mitcham in The Good Companions. But Plunkett’s a comic exaggeration, albeit a loose cannon deus ex machina that pops up wherever least expected in the minimalistic plot.
I can’t in all conscience recommend the book to anyone who isn’t determined, as I once was, to read everything J.B. Priestley wrote, and not just the stuff where he’s really putting his heart into it. This is no more than a powderpuff amusement, long out of date and lacking in enough body to be useful as an indicator to the times. It could have been covered by a ten minute sketch in The Frost Report with as much depth, and probably more pointed detail. It was reissued, along with another half dozen of Priestley’s lesser work, in 2014, but though it’s an enjoyable experience, and I am even this far on still on Priestley’s side, I can’t for the life of me see why.

Horace and Pete: episode 10


For such a brief moment

I’m glad that I watched this series. It was far from easy, and its ending was as painful as anything I have seen on television in my life. I’d like to thank again Pete L-M for suggesting this. I will almost certainly never watch this again in my life: there are some experiences that do not need to be refreshed and this ten part story, that refused anything easy, is one of them.

The final episode divided itself into two. The first half, the First Act, was an extended flashback, set forty years ago. Louis CK played Horace Wachtel VII, and Edie Falco his wife, Maryanne, Steve Buscemi played the Pete who we would meet at the other end as Uncle Pete.

The action was set around the day Maryanne left, taking with her Sylvie and Horace, but leaving Pete: Pete, Horace’s brother but not her son, Pete, tall, athletic, a source of lightly concealed pride to his otherwise piece-a-shit real Dad: Pete who, in the middle of the night had got out of bed to fill all the glasses in the above-the-bar apartment with water, because it had to be done before sunrise: Pete who was left, offstage, screaming because his perceived Dad was beating him.

It was another world, and God help me, it was horrible. It was brutish and nasty, a place of hatred and anger, of viciousness between people. I lived in that time, that year, I turned twenty-one in its November, I never came anywhere near a world like this New York abyss, this Hell-like place, but there wasn’t a second of it that was wrong, that was an exaggeration or a condensation. At least I have lived long enough to leave that world behind, or to have had that world recede for there are signs it may be returning, in a week where one Presidential candidate advocated the shooting of the other if she should win.

(Apart from anything else, it was truly fucking stupid because the Democrats would still have the White House and the Republicans would be out in the cold, so it would be completely ineffectual too).

And Horace VII was an absolute bastard, a total and utter twat. A petty tyrant, a wife-beater, a child-beater, the enforcer of his will because without it he would disappear up his own fundament. Horace VII made his wife and kids’ lives miserable because he existed on the sense of senseless, aimless power it gave him. Fucking bastard, fucking waste of space. No wonder Horace VIII, Pete and Sylvie became who they’ve been these past nine episodes.

And it was immensely instructive to be so forcefully reminded of the difference in ages between these siblings. Horace has been the leader throughout, for all his ineffectuality, with Pete dependent upon him, and Sylvie the outsider. But as kids, I was reminded that these roles and the reversal of their ages. Little Horace, a small, pudgy kid, humiliated by Uncle Pete over the pee-pee baseball incident in front of the whole bar. Athletic, handsome Pete, the elder brother, the icon of potential taking care of his younger friend, so much with-it until that moment of OCD obsession.

And Sylvia, eldest of all, teenager, more than teenager, already sexually active, most directly aggressive because she’s had it longer, had it hard, had Horace VII’s incapacity with women beaten against her for more years, the seeds not merely sewn but growing strong and true, yet crippled.

This young trio were perfectly cast. They were what their adult avatars had been, their adult forms were there in them.

And so to the end of the story. How much of an end it would be was hard to see. This series has ignored convention, so a non-ending was perfectly possible. It’s Easter tomorrow, Sylvia’s got out the old, old decorations but will Horace have them put up? The answer’s no. Horace is not for doing anything, not even that.

But he’s going to have to do something. Pete’s gone, and Sylvia’s going, leaving on Monday with Harold, leaving the bar, New York, everything that reminds her of her life and she wants Horace to do something. Anything. She’s not shown it, but he is her brother, she does love him, and he’s wasted all his life so far. She’s survived the expectation of death and is now going to live. Please, please, please let Horace do something. Let him live. Not just exist.

Horace has no idea what to do. We look at him and we cannot see him changing. He’s dead inside because Sylvia’s right, he has never really been alive inside. Horace won’t act because he can’t act. He can only react, and even then in the most minimalist way possible.

Then Roger, the cop, enters the bar. He tells Horace and Sylvia that there is not the remotest trace of Pete, that after a massive manhunt, there is nothing whatever. It’s being called off. If nothing has been found after so much time, so many men, there is nothing to find. Pete’s gone. Gone. It takes ages to force the word out but Pete is dead.

Sylvia takes it calmly, practically. Horace can’t. He tries to strike back, to blame Roger for giving up. He doesn’t want to give up because to give up is to force an action upon him, to acknowledge a change.

Into this comes Mara. She’s an applicant for the Waitress Wanted. She begins with a hug for the seated Horace. Mara’s a talker, bright, positive, upbeat. She’s a force of nature, interviewing herself for Horace. She’s been around, forever on the go. She’s everything this series hasn’t been, yet you can see her in it. Amy Sedaris, in what is all but a monologue, makes her into the kind of force that would destroy the dark, depressed world of ‘Horace and Pete’ has been simply by not noticing it. She’s a window, a chance, a possibility. She makes Horace smile, she invites him to this party she’s going to in Chicago, she hugs him standing up as she leaves: see you tomorrow, when she starts.

The effect is astounding. Mara’s impact has allowed Horace to accept that Pete is dead, that he will never come back. And in that moment, Pete returns. I had tears in my eyes. He was bedraggled, grubby, windblown, but he was smiling. Smiling ruefully, smiling affectionately. Smiling to be home. Smiling…

Horace welcomes him joyfully. Sylvia is stunned but glad. Horace leads him to the bar, to a stool.  Pete’s still smiling. He hasn’t said anything. There’s a sharp knife on the bar: Sylvia has been cutting limes, for gins. Pete picks it up, steps away. Horace goes towards him, Sylvia warns him, Pete’s turned, the blade invisible. Then the stage lights go out, and Sylvia screams.

It might have ended there. No-one would have argued if it had ended there. Instead though, the lights faded up. The bar was empty, closed, boxes all about. Sylvia’s supervising their removal, dispassionately. Harold is the Greek Chorus, telling us that ‘Horace and Pete’ was open for one hundred years, run by Horace and Pete, brothers. But then Pete killed Horace and had to go aware somewhere. No more than that.

Sylvia’s still leaving. She’s abandoning the bar, leaving it behind. It no longer encloses her and she refuses to concern herself with it. Harold goes out to the van, but as he does a young man comes in. He’s round-faced, with one of those ineffectual fringe beards, big glasses, baseball cap, jacket over checked shirt. Sylvia tells him they’re closed but that’s not why he’s here. He’s never met her before but she’s his aunt. He’s Horace Wachtell XI. He never knew his Dad and he wants to ask Sylvia what he was like.

At first she’s Sylvia, and caustic. Horace XI could have come here any day, his Dad was always here. It’s a cruel riposte, but I for one cannot fault her for it. From his appearance alone, Horace XI spells hapless, hopeless loser in big red letters. He’s too late, he has only come because his Dad is dead, and it’s on him, and if it weighs him down for the rest of his life, it fucking well should. It’s on both. It’s ever just you alone.

Sylvia starts to explain but what can she say? She can’t praise Horace, can’t build him up. He was nothing and nobody and Sylvia least of all is going to pretend he was special in any way when he wasn’t, but her voice starts to catch and she apologises and it comes again and she apologises again and then it’s just a case of sitting doubled over in a chair and crying for loss, loss of everything.

Which is where we leave Horace and Pete, and I’m crying too, because though classical tragedy is defined as the fall of a great one from power and grace, we in these twentieth and twenty-first centuries have learned that tragedy is not exclusively reserved for the rich and powerful, and that we all of us are surrounded by it and we are just as helpless in the face of it as the next man or woman.

Louis CK went massively into debt to fund this experiment, yet one more thing for which he should be applauded. He’s stated that that rules out  a season 2, but he’s also got ideas for it, though I personally cannot see how there is anything left on which a further extension of the story could be built, and I don’t want this series to be marred by anything that cannot stand alongside it on the ground that it and it alone occupies.

Horace and Pete was unique. For me, that’s enough.

Another ‘Eagle’ Weekend in prospect


I’m looking forward to the weekend, not merely because it’s the beginning of nine whole consecutive days off work – in which I plan to do the square root of bugger all, thank you for asking – but because it will be another Eagle weekend. I have been successful in winning a complete volume of the comic via eBay, which should be delivered tomorrow, and I will again set Sunday aside for a leisurely read from issue 1 to issue 53.

I confess that I can’t remember quite how far back it is I first resorted to eBay to resume my long-interrupted quest to extend my Eagle collection (April 2015 – is it that recent?). At first, it was just picking up where I left off in the Nineties, collecting Volume 11 forward, those issues that I had not read on long, fascinating Saturday afternoons in Manchester’s Central Reference Library, the bound volumes of the first ten years.

Since then, I’ve undergone more than a touch of mission creep and, even though I now have barely more than the space I had when I occupied a bedroom in my mother’s house in Burnage and ignored the chance to buy complete volumes for space reasons, I am gently creeping towards the ambition of one day a complete set. Up to, and not beyond the last original Dan Dare strip, of course. There’s really nothing after that to attract the attention at all.

For well over a year by now, I’ve done eBay searches for Eagle at least twice a week. Once I’ve refined the search to what I’m really looking for, there is always 2,500 items or more, so I confine myself to the first ten pages, which constitutes 500 items. This has never amounted to more than the next four days, hence the frequency with which I repeat the search.

Of course, a lot of these items are a waste of my time. Roughly 50% of them, if not more, relate to the New Eagle of the Eighties/Nineties, which I scroll by with great rapidity. And there are over and again whole pages worth of Eagle centrespreads on their own, which again are valueless for my purpose.

Then there’s the guy whose items come round and round and round and round again, with unswerving regularity, always the same issues, time after time, and they never sell. He’s got the two issues from volume 15 that I need to complete that Volume, which will actually give me a complete, unbroken run from volume 11 to 17.

I’ve never gone after them though, and unless and until I win the EuroMillions Lottery on a multiple rollover week, and am possessed of more money than I could ever physically spend in the years left to me, I’m not going to. You see, for each of these two issues, this seller is asking £19.99. On my budget, you can bugger that for a game of soldiers. They’re not even Fifities Eagle‘s, Frank Hampson Dan Dare.

That’s why these items roll around, over and over again. The guy/girl is asking way over the odds and despite no-one ever buying, has not yet awoken to commercial realities beyond adding a ‘Best Offer’. I’d go to a fiver each, but somehow I don’t think that’s what he’d class as ‘Best’.

Mind you, for the Fifties stuff, he pushes the boat out. He’s currently offering practically the whole of Volume 5 at prices of £29.99 and £26.99 per issue. You want Volume 5 at those rates and you’re looking at the thick end of £1,500.00.

Me, I won’t pay it. Not at that price. And because I don’t need to. As you may by now have guessed, that forthcoming Eagle weekend will have me reading my newly-acquired complete volume 5. Which cost me in total, postage excluded, £23.99. Which wouldn’t be enough to buy even one of this guy’s offers.

Unless he was prepared to give me a generous ‘Best Offer’ leeway…