Martin Aitchison: Luck runs out


To the already overlong list of those we have lost this terrible year, yet another name has to be added. Artist and illustrator Martin Aitchison died on 21 October, a month before his 97th birthday, but I have only learned of this today from his belated obituary in the Guardian.

Aitchison worked for Ladybird Books as one of their most popular and reliable artists between 1963 and 1987, and was one of the two key artists on their Key Reading scheme series (also known as ‘Peter and Jane’) which helped teach so many children the fundamentals of reading.

But to me and those like me, we hold Martin Aitchison in esteem for the years he spent, from 1962 to 1963, as one of Eagle‘s regular and magnificent artists, primarily for the series that ran second only to Dan Dare in the readers’ estimation, ‘Luck’ of the Legion.

Aitchison, who had already contributed to Eagle‘s sister paper, Girl, was hired to draw the series from scripts by its creator, Geoffrey Bond. The new strip was originally intended as a 12-part fill-in, but instead the initial story ran twice that length and Sergeant Luck and his close comrades ran for over nine and a half years.

The series – a French Foreign Legion tale, set in an amorphous pre-First World war era – began with the elevation of the blue-eyed, fair-haired Englishman Corporal ‘Tough’ Luck to Sergeant, and his immediately being handed a mission to take a platoon to a remote and supposedly haunted Saharan fort. Immediately, he selects the fresh-faced Belgian, Corporal Trenet, as his second-in-command, and though Trenet is seemingly killed partway, he appears, deus ex machina-like at the end, sporting a small black moustache (covering a facial scar from his shooting) that changes his aspect completely, to become just as much a stalwart as Luck himself.

The team was soon increased to a trip by the addition of the Italian Legionnaire 12345, Aloysius Bimberg: fat, scruffy, hungry, decorated with curly moustaches and a permanently battered kepi. Bimberg was comic relief, but he was an essential part of the team, mostly brave, and frequently essential to missions that spanned every part of the globe to which the French Empire extended.

Like his fellow Eagle artists, Aitchison’s work was brisk, clear and detailed, sensational without being sensationalised. Though his research was not as comprehensively accurate as others – his tribesman apparently wear Saudi Arabian robes rather than the Algerian or Moroccan robes that would be appropriate – his imagination conjured forth exotic settings that nevertheless convinced the reader to the same extent as Frank Hampson regularly achieved on Luck‘s only better.

Needless to say, given the era, the strip is imperial in tone, though not directly racist. unsurprisingly, after ending his connection with Eagle, writer Bond emigrated to Rhodesia, a year before the white Government declared UDI, and became involved in Government broadcasting. Bond himself survived to a good long age, dying in 2009 aged 90.

Whatever we may think of the politics of Luck of the Legion now, it was undeniably popular, enough so that Bond wrote as many as six Sergeant Luck novels (two illustrated by Aitchison) which fetch pretty prices today. As much of that success is down to Aitchison’s art as Bond’s writing, especially as Aitchison had to work in a format no other Eagle artist had to cope with: instead of a vertical full or half-page, Aitchison’s work was stripped in two rows across the centre-spread, sharing the spread with, and sitting beneath the famous ‘Cutaways’, and not even getting a full half-page depth!

When Luck was cancelled in 1961, Aitchison remained with Eagle, drawing the short-lived Danger Unlimited, a contemporary thriller set in Jamaica, starring two young Queen’s Messengers recovering diplomatic papers stolen from them by force. When that ceased, Aitchison, who had also worked for Eagle‘s junior brother paper, Swift, moved on to Ladybird, a trail followed by Frank Hampson himself, and later Frank Humphris, artist on Riders of the Range and Blackbow the Cheyenne.

Truth to tell, I had no idea Aitchison was alive, but seeing his name, and seeing one of his Ladybird paintings, in today’s paper fills me with sadness. Though he lived to a great age, we who loved Eagle, who thrilled to Luck, Trenet and Bimberg, not to mention the unending stream of pets accumulated by the little fat man, mourn his passing.

We will not forget his like, though they are no more.

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SOTS on a Saturday


I’m listening to Sounds of the Sixties at the moment, as I’ve invariably done on Saturday mornings for the last fifteen years or so. I’ve said things in the past about the decline in quality of the programme since the change of Producer in 2008 and, whilst there no longer seem to be the same degree of pre-Beatles dominated shows, and the practice of ending the show with big band stuff every week has been long abandoned, it’s not the attraction it used to be. But it’s still Saturday morning, and a comfortable introduction, and I still never miss it if I can help it.

Today, however, and for the next few weeks, we do not have our old mate Brian Matthew presenting. Brian is feeling ‘under the weather’ and in his place we have Tim Rice, who has dome this sort of thing before.

Given that Matthew is now 88, and has just become BBC Radio’s oldest regularly scheduled broadcaster, this isn’t a surprise. Indeed, I confess that I detected a bit of a tremor in his voice last weekend, as if his voice was weak already. But it’s an unpleasant reminder that the show depends so heavily on his voice, its even, avuncular, knowledgeable, enveloping, smoky tones, to create an atmosphere that’s at least as vital as the music.

Matthew is a consummate professional, relaxed and natural. Tim Rice isn’t a broadcaster of that level. He’s stiff and stilted, without any flow of words, the rhythm of each sentence broken by brief but noticeable pauses every six or seven words. And besides, he doesn’t sound like Brian Matthews, and Sounds of the Sixties doesn’t sound like Sounds of the Sixties.

So for all my gripes about the programme, I want to wish our old mate well, and see him back as soon as possible. Because without him, and he can’t go on forever, much as we might wish it, and we’re reminded of the dreadful toll 2016 has taken by the announcement this morning of Fidel Castro’s death, only two years older than Brian Matthew, without Brian, the programme stops being compulsive listening. Saturdays would change.

Good health, Mr Matthew. Hurry back.

Just One Damned Thing After Another – Jodi Taylor


This is not the cover of the paperback I read
This is not the cover of the paperback I read

I like books and music. Living on a limited income, and with negative equity to repay, I haven’t really got the space to take a moral stance towards Amazon. Of course, this comes with a drawback, in the form of endless e-mails pointing me towards books and records that Amazon’s algorithms are convinced I will like. Well, those algorithms are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard 95% of the time, and the other 5% turn out to be books and records I have already bought: in some cases, through Amazon itself a few years earlier. Still, it proves that the system works, for a given value of ‘work’.

Every now and then, however, I do get tempted. Not, in this instance, by an e-mail, but by one of those ‘If you like this…’ recommendations that litter up the place when you’re browsing relatively aimlessly. I’m not even sure what I was looking at now, but about five to six weeks ago, I caught sight of this book series, ‘The Chronicles of St Mary’s’, by Jodi Taylor, of which Just One Damned Thing After Another is the first.

The description sounded promising: St Mary’s is an historical research institute where the historians go out and get their hands dirty, traveling in time to different periods to work out exactly what happened. But history is a dangerous, not to mention slapdash thing, prone to kick back at any moment. The Chronicles are narrated by Alice Maxwell, aka Max, and were pitched as being exciting, funny and highly entertaining (on Amazon, the last goes without saying).

I read very little SF/Fantasy outside my select group of favourite authors (one of whom has more or less given up writing fiction), and don’t really have much interest in expanding that circle, but something about the set-up and the description attracted my interest and when that happens, my instincts are usually pretty good. Courtesy of Stockport Library, I have now sampled the aforementioned Book 1, and am prepared to comment upon it.

The one-word review is ‘disappointing’. Everything needed for a successful series of books is there, but despite the near endless potential, it just doesn’t coalesce. There’s nothing bad about the book, enough to put me off reading any further, but I am hoping that we have a case of early Pratchett here, where the author takes a couple of goes to fully realise what they’re trying to do. So I’m looking to borrow the next book, in the hope of improvement.

The set-up is that Max is a historian who owes her profession to crucial support from a School teacher who showed faith in her as an adolescent where her entire family – not otherwise mentioned – were abusive and destructive. Max is a loner, frequently drunk, passionate, celibate, a walking disaster area, but very intelligent albeit completely unfocused.

Until, that is, said Head Teacher, Mrs de Winter, recommends her for a post at St Mary’s Institute, an Historical research Unit attached to the University of Thirsk, which turns out to be the hands-on unit I have already described. It’s incredibly super-secret, ramshackle to an improbable fault at the same time as being very highly-organised, and responsible to some ultra-secret Government department, of which we see nothing.

Max has to get through four years of training to qualify, during which her intake of twelve is reduced to three. She sort of partners with the snide and highly intelligent David Sussman, who goes on to betray her and St Mary’s (and get wiped out all but offstage almost immediately) as it is revealed that there is an alternate organisation with access to time travel, that is running it for profit, without thought or concern for the effect on history itself.

Taylor’s writing is vigorous but uncontrolled. There are funny moments, but for the most part they don’t quite work because she’s not able to draw the humour out. Max herself is something of a problem: she’s writing after the fact and therefore in knowledge of what is to come, and she’s not above dropping hints about future fates, but these come awkwardly and inconsistently. There are lengthy passages about projects in which everything is calculated to the nth degree, but multiple, multi-disciplinary experts, until it’s impossible for anything to be unforeseen or go wrong.

But they always go wrong, with a decreasing amount of dramatic impact that could have been circumvented by playing up the comic aspect of preparations never being effective. Taylor hasn’t yet got the knack of balancing the two aspects of the story.

Nor can she, at this moment, maintain a coherent storyline. The book covers years of Max’s life, without the passage of time ever really being experienced, and the various stages of the story have no real flow. They’re just episodes with no links or continuity.

These are all things that can be resolved. Look at the difference between The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Taylor has come up with a very good basic idea, and practice can only help sharpen her imagination and her skills.

There is only one aspect to this book that I do seriously question. Max discovers that one of the senior team, Chief Leon Farrell, is interested in her, and this eventually ripens into furious sex and love. Farrell, she learns, is from the future, here to try to secure St Mary’s history from interference by their unscrupulous profiteering rivals. In his future, Farrell has lost both his wife and his two young sons.

A major expedition to the Cretaceous period goes wrong and Farrell is among those left behind. The disaster leaves Isabel Barclay – who hates and is jealous of Max – in charge and she not only forbids a rescue mission but sacks Max on the spot, leaving her stranded and bereft of anything. She is also pregnant with Farrell’s child, a fact she only learns twenty minutes before she miscarries, through neglect of herself.

Max does succeed in rescuing Farrell and the other stranded characters, and exposing Barclay as an enemy. Her reunion with Farrell is glorious but, against the advice of the medical officer, she does not reveal her pregnancy to Farrell. Who therefore learns of it via Barclay, who gives it the worst possible spin.

His anger and despair is so great that he says unforgivable things, truly unforgivable things, things you can’t take back, things you can’t forget, things that are a permanent canker in the soul. Yet within literally hours the pair have apologised to each other, and said that they love each other, and it’s all over, all forgiven, all is well.

I’m sorry, but no. That’s the point Taylor has misjudged completely. No-one can hurt you like someone you have loved and allowed to see all the places where you can be hurt, soul hurt. That’s what love is. It’s giving someone the key to everything, trusting them to the ultimate degree. Betraying that degree of trust is betraying everything. You can’t some back from that, not all the way. Not with words and rarely with actions. Taylor glosses over something that can’t be glossed over.

But that’s the only place where there is such a grievous error. The rest of the book is enjoyable and the potential underlines everything. Taylor seems to be perfectly capable of improving enough to make the most of her idea, and I’m hoping to soon discover that she began that in book 2.

It would help her immensely to have at least threepence halfpenny spent on the paperback cover, next time.

The Death Penalty


Cases that try your belief

I am and have been a lifelong opponent of Capital Punishment. I do not believe in the cold and deliberate taking of life. I do not believe in the taking of life, period, but I recognise that there are circumstances where it is necessary: to protect oneself and, sometimes more importantly, to protect others.

It’s a stance combining with simple, instinctive belief and, in the case of death sentences, the grounded fact that I do not trust myself with the power of life and death over anyone, so I’m sure as hell not going to trust you.

But as I grow older, the more I find cases where my principles are tested, where the urge to say that a particular killer or killers should be disposed of, grow more frequent.

Today, Thomas Mair, who killed the MP Jo Cox in June, was found guilty of murder, as indeed was inevitable. He has been sentenced to Life, the mandatory sentence, and given a ‘Whole-Life’ tariff. He will die behind bars.

There cannot be any doubt that this is right and proper. But in this instance, and for all my principles, I cannot help but think that the old fashioned verdict, that he be taken from here to a place of execution and hung by the neck until he is dead would have been far more appropriate.

Traditionally, those words were accompanied by ‘and may God have mercy on your soul.’ I do not believe in God, but if I did I would also say that this is a case where those words should not be spoken. Let the Devil have him, and be damned, without mercy or reprieve.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e18 – Distant Voices


Ages well, doesn't he?
Ages well, doesn’t he?

I’m a tough audience at the moment. I might be bingeing certain series on DVD  to avoid being caught with my thoughts, but we’re not talking about mindless rubbish here. I have not had a television set for seven years now, and I have broken the habit of TV, the habit of switching on and watching what happens to be there instead of choosing only to watch what is of interest.

Though I’m a long way into this Deep Space Nine watch-through, it’s still the nearest I let myself come to dull, predictable, lazy episodes, or ones that are flat and banal, as the Quark-centric ‘Prophet Motives’ of a fortnight ago demonstrates. But last week’s O’Brien-centric ‘Visionary’ was one of the strongest episodes I’ve seen, and the standard was kept up by this week’s Bashir-centric ‘Distant Voices’.

I was a little bit suspicious of the quasi-comic open, which featured the Doctor and Garak lunching. It’s a couple of days to Bashir’s birthday and he’s being grumpy about it because it’s his thirtieth and, well, you know. Their conversation is interrupted by an unusually subdued Quark, introducing a Lethian who wants to buy some biometic gel, for purposes of a McGuffin nature.

Bashir refuses. The substance is both dangerously unstable and highly Restricted. But when he returns to his Infirmary, he finds the Lethian ransacking it. He tries to fight him, but is incapacitated by some form of electrical discharge through his head, emanating from the Lethian’s hands. Cue theme music.

The Doctor awakes to a strange situation. Lights are flickering, comms are down, all electrics are non-functional and no-one is around. What’s more, Julian has suddenly started to silver at the temples. That it’s some form of hallucination or fugue is obvious, with the Doctor’s concern about aging somewhere at its root, but the situation is unusual, with no immediately obvious pattern.

DS9 appears to be deserted, but there’s noises in Quark’s. He’s cowering behind the bar, terrified, whilst something out of sight is wrecking the joint, bit by bit. Quark is pure fear, to the slightly annoying point that, whilst he clearly knows who is doing all this, it’s all ‘he’ and not the name.

Nevertheless, that’s the last weak moment. ‘He’ is the Lethian, and he is destroying DS9. It’s a crisis situation, made worse by Bashir periodically hearing whispering voices that no-one else can hear. Only when he runs into a bunch of the others – The Chief, Odo, the Major, Dax – does it begin to start making sense.

Not at first, because they’re all shouting and suspicious of one another. The Chief’s turned into a cowardly pessimist, Odo into a paranoid, the Major is all shouty and Dax just wants to blaze away with a phaser. But the Chief manages to repair a comms panel, and Bashir’s voices come through loud and clear.

It is an hallucination, brought on by the Lethian’s telepathic attack. Julian’s body is dying – represented in the hallucination by his ongoing aging – and the others aren’t real. They are aspects of his personality, clothed in the bodies of those close to him, representations. Some are negative, others positive. Dax is his confidence, Sisko his professionalism. But the Lethian is taking and destroying these manifestations, slowly stripping his mind. And the Doctor is aging ever more rapidly.

I have got to say that, once past the superficial and unconvincing graying temples, the make-up showing the successive stages of Bashir’s aging was superb and completely convincing, aided by a magnificent performance by Siddig el Fadil, who brought an increasing frailty to his part that echoed every chronological shift with exactitude, and ensured that at no time were we dragged out of the story by any discernible artificiality.

The whole hallucination echoed Powell & Pressburger’s legendary A Matter of Life and Death, in that to survive his real life organic degradation, Bashir had to win his hallucination, by restoring the station. By the time he reached Ops, there was only one personality left, Garak, physically helping him after a fall and a broken hip. And Garak was being intensely negative, undermining and denigrating all Bashir’s efforts as impossible.

Because ‘Garak’ was the Lethian: in Bashir’s brain, accessing all his memories, reminding him of all the times he’s given up, not fought for what he wanted, settled for less. He can’t succeed now.

But he still can. As Bashir’s physical prowess has grown increasingly limited, his will has only strengthened, until its something unbreakable. He gets to the Infirmary: Ops is the centre of the station but this is his centre. His defiance is unbreakable. The things he could have done but didn’t have only led to his being where he is, and that is where he belongs and won’t exchange. He restores the lights, quarantines and sterilises the Lethian in his mind. And wakes up in his body.

The episode ends with Bashir and Garak once again enjoying lunch, but with Bashir considerably more sunny than at the start of the episode. What pint being grumpy about being 30 when you’ve discovered what it’s like to be 100+? Garak, however, is concerned, as any friend would be, that Bashir’s mind picked him out to be the Lethian: the traitor, the underminer, the destroyer. The Doctor attempts to reassure him that the Garak of his hallucination was not the real-life Garak, but the tailor remains unconvinced. Which lead to the best closing line of the entire DS9 to date and an out-loud belly-laugh. Bashir sees Garak as untrustworthy.

“There’s hope for you yet.”

A Very Sherlock Xmas


That’s about it, actually. The BBC aren’t releasing their Xmas schedule until next week, and it’s not going to be full of innovative material, but it does include a ‘festive’ edition of Sherlock, so unless we’re talking about a repeat of the last one-off, get ready to clear the decks.

Ninety minutes of great TV is better than none.

Atkin and James: How to discover erudition in music and words


This began as background to an Infinite Jukebox piece, but rapidly began to outgrow the dimensions of that theme, so I decided upon a full-length reminiscence, about the strange ways in which you find the music that defines you.

As I’ve mentioned before, due to my parents’ aversion to pop, I missed out on practically the whole of the Sixties, musically, hearing only what percolated onto Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice on Saturday and Sunday morning. Until the last ten days of the decade, when I woke up on the first day of the School Xmas holidays, automatically switched my little bedside cabinet radio on, and discovered Radio 1, which I began to devour daily.

For much of 1970, Radio 1 Saturday mornings followed Junior Choice with Kenny Everett, a two hour slot full of Everett’s zaniness and unpredictability – which amused me enough then – which extended to a playlist that, whilst playing lip-service to the top 30 rotation, enabled Everett enough of a free hand to include records of his own choice that no-one else was playing during the week.

One such was “The Master of the Revels”, an odd, slightly rumbly song, sung by a singer with a distinctly English sound to his voice, that used a slightly arrhythmic beat to drive forward a complex, yet defiantly simple melody to words about someone who, if I properly understood it then, seemed to be about organising amusements. It was piano-led, and supported by an instrument I didn’t then recognise as being a clarinet, an unusual combination for that year, when the ‘Underground’ was the big thing. It stood out.

The singer was a former Cambridge University student from Bristol, named Pete Atkin. The lyrics were by a mature student from Sydney, Australia, whose identity as a lyricist would go on to surprise a lot of people (though far from enough) once he became famous for being Clive James. Back in 1970, the name, even if it had been mentioned, which I doubt, would have meant nothing to me, and would stay that way until he started presenting Granada’s Cinema, three years later.

“The Master of the Revels” got played most Saturdays, I liked the sound of it, and it was reportedly starting to get some commercial transaction when Everett made that joke, the silly, irreverent, meaningless one that got him abruptly sacked by the forever hidebound, authority-beholden BBC, and the nascent pop career of Pete Atkin vanished, never to return. That was forty-six years ago.

There was more to Atkin and James’ career in popular music than just that, but the only other Atkin song I heard for several years was “Girl on a Train”, a song from his first album, performed on a very early version of a video for The Dave Cash Radio Programme, a brief and unsuccessful 1971 attempt to put a pre-teatime pop half hour onto TV, in the slot later more successfully occupied by Lift-Off with Ayshea.

I was next reminded of Pete Atkin in 1973. I can’t remember the order in which such things happened but, variously, I saw adverts in the New Musical Express for the re-issue, on RCA, of Atkin’s first albums, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger and Driving Through Mythical America (in very drab and dull sleeves, replacing the rather more attractive covers of the original Fontana releases), Noel Edmunds, on his Sunday morning show, began featuring Atkin’s third album, A King at Nightfall on a near weekly basis, and “The Master of the Revels” was reissued as a single.

It didn’t get any more airplay than it had in 1970, but this time round I bought it, with the 50p record token I received from the BBC for my losing appearance on Johnnie Walker’s ‘Pop the Question’ (that was my second day: I received a £5 token for my winning appearance on the Tuesday: it’s significant that whilst I remember choosing to spend the smaller token on the Atkin single, I have absolutely no recollection of what I bought with my Champion day winnings).

The song Edmunds mostly favoured from the album was the uptempo, aggressive song Atkin made of James’s elegiac words for “The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley”. I wanted to tape it, but the last time Edmunds featured the album, I ended up getting the song “Carnations on the Roof”, a rather drabber and duller affair lyrically, but whose words came closer than many others before or since to touching my own life, and the still-raw loss of my father.

But though Edmunds’ patronage was more intense than that of Everett, in practice it was equally brief. Atkin faded back into the static, so far as I was concerned. There was another single, in 1974, from the album The Road of Silk, that I heard maybe twice, and a bit more airplay for another single the following year, off Secret Drinker, which I heard often enough to distinguish that there were album and single versions, with a slightly dubious line of lyrics ‘cleaned-up’ for the latter (you do not include lines like ‘this city has been ours since Christ knows when’ in songs you expected Radio 1, or even worse, Commercial Radio to play. Not in 1975 you didn’t).

Five albums by this point. I’m stepping out of my personal time-line for a moment here, as I wouldn’t learn these things for nearly another decade. Five albums: two on Fontana, re-issued on RCA (with a sight change of track-listing on the first album re-issue). All named after title-tracks, though curiously these were never prominently placed on their albums, with only one of the five coming from side 1, and even then it was the last track on that side, and three of them in the back half of side 2.

By 1976, Atkin and James were unhappy at their management by RCA: by the lack of promotion, by the lack of pressings. Tours would create a demand for albums that then went begging because copies weren’t in the shops. To complete their four album deal, Atkin and James put together Live Libel, a somewhat lumpy album collecting in one place a dozen of the lightweight, spoof, parodistic songs Atkin would toss in here and there, to lighten his act. It’s uneven, at best, but it got RCA off their back.

Except that this was 1976. Punk was the coming thing. The musical tide was changing. And a singer/lyricist combo whose musical roots included Tin Pan Alley, French Chanson and heavily allusive, dense literary words were the wrong act to go looking for a new recording deal that year.

So the Atkin/James pair went their separate ways, James into his writing and his slowly-growing television career, Atkin into carpentry and, a decade or so later, Radio production, first for BBC Bristol, latterly Radio 4, where he was the Producer for the epic and highly-regarded This Sceptred Isle series.

That takes care of Atkin and James for the next twenty-odd years, but what of my personal progress towards their career?

Between 1978 and 1980, I was simultaneously living in Nottingham and being mainly enthused by punk and new wave music and its various offshoots. I was beginning my turn as part of that floating array of John Peel show listeners, those who listened along for the years in which his eternal search for the new and the interesting coincided with your own ability to stretch parameters. Had I been of a mind in the early to middle Seventies, I would have been exposed to half a dozen Pete Atkin sessions, but that wasn’t the case.

But I was a member of Nottingham Library and, unlike Manchester when I left it, there was a music section, and whilst most of it was undiluted crap, that wasn’t always the case. For instance, in 1979 there was The Master of the Revels, a Pete Atkin album, a compilation. This was my first extended exposure to Pete’s voice and music, and Clive’s lyrics and I ended up recording the whole album, bar one track (which one I found not up to my aural standards I can no longer remember, nor even guess which it might have been).

It was not until I returned to Manchester in 1980 that I first began to investigate Clive James’ writing. Inevitably, it was a library copy of the second of his collections of Observer TV reviews, rapidly followed by its purchase as a
Picador paperback, not to mention that of its predecessor and, as soon as it was published, the third and final volume. Really, the story starts here: having discovered how much I liked James’s work, for its wit, for the underlying erudition, indeed for the worldview that lay beneath it, much of which I found I shared, although my aphoristic encapsulations of such beliefs were never as pithy as his, I turned back to the Pete Atkin albums.

They were, of course, deleted. However, my interest in comics led to my tentative introduction to MAD – Manchester and District – an informal group of SF/Fantasy/comics fans who met Tuesday and Thursdays nights in the Crown & Anchor, a real, old-fashioned, Real Ale, spit’n’sawdust pub back of Piccadilly, though in reality it was more spit’n’holes in the floorboards. And John, who introduced me, turned out to have all the Atkin albums and be perfectly happy for me to borrow and tape these. Three C90 cassettes, which lived in my car and which accompanied many a long drive I took on behalf of my firm.

Gradually – it took over a decade – I got the vinyl myself. The first three, or rather the last three, came easy and cheap, but it took a long time, and a bit more cash, to get hold of A King at Nightfall. And the first two took longer still, with Driving Through Mythical America only available as an RCA re-issue. Both these last two came through mail order lists, which was what we had to do before the internet, and eBay.

But that was the end of the story. I had all the albums now, myself, and the cassettes for the car, and I knew all the words. Car journeys were sing-alongs, unconsciously echoing Atkin’s phrasing, intonation and even accent, to the best of my limited ability to duplicate a note. And I had it on the authority of a music teacher mate that I was not tone-deaf, as most people would have assumed from hearing me, but rather tone-dumb, as in I knew the sound I wanted to make, I just couldn’t hit it. Not consistently. Far from always. But sometimes.

Six albums. A fair deal, lots of other artists don’t get that many. But of course it was an ended story. I was lucky enough to make a Clive James signing session at Sherratt & Hughes (Manchester’s pre-Waterstone’s premier bookshop, though personally I always preferred Willshaw’s on John Dalton Street) one workday lunch. I took along the gatefold sleeve to Live Libel, with the sleeve notes of its collection of ‘insufficiently underappreciated artists’, got that signed, asked if Clive was still in touch with Pete, learned he’d become a carpenter.

Clive James kept writing books. And appearing on television. I don’t listen to Radio 4 more than occasionally, to comedy shows, so I never knew about Pete Atkin’s involvement in This Sceptred Isle. This time, more than a decade went by.

Fittingly, it happened in Waterstone’s. I was in there a lot during the Nineties. I was working for a firm I loathed but couldn’t leave, and I had a Friday ritual of heading for the bookshop straight from work, wandering around in a civilised atmosphere for an hour, releasing some of the tensions, then hitting the nearby Pizza Hut for their Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Price offer on takeaways. It would be neat to assert that this was one of those Friday evenings in the summer of 1996 but I really don’t recall. Either way, I was tripping down the stairs to the ground floor when my eyes were distracted by a name on a poster: Pete Atkin.

I was enormously delighted to learn that the man was not only still playing, but that he was headlining a small folk festival at Monyash in Derbyshire, not a million miles away for a man with a decent car. But delight was short-lived when I checked the date, which confirmed that this event was scheduled for the previous weekend. Nevertheless, there was a contact number which I copied down, and rang the following day. And thus I learned of Smash Flops and Midnight Voices.

The one was a Pete Atkin web-site, the other a mailing list, both the creation of Steve Birkill, a recording engineer and long-term Atkin fan who’d brought Pete to Monyash in the first place after learning he still played occasional gigs, and who obtained permission to create an official web-site. Birkill attracted the lost legions – well, not legions, but lost anyway – who’d loved Atkin/James in the Seventies, the appreciative minority that clung to their half dozen albums and still played them. Sometimes they’d found fellow aficianados, had shared the love and the arguments about what Clive James was actually saying here. Many of them had, most improbably in all the circumstances, turned their children onto Atkin/James. Now, they had somewhere to gather, to share memories and, in a way that was still small but which was firmly based, revive a career.

It was, in short, a fan club in all but name. I have always been chary of fan clubs: every fan club’s welcome pack should include an absolutely massive pair of perspective-broadening glasses: but this was an intelligent, thoughtful bunch. What else could you be if you loved Pete Atkin’s music and Clive James’s words.

I might have missed Monyash, but by joining Midnight Voices I became entitled to purchase a very limited double-CD recording of Atkin’s performance, 100 copies of which only a handful remained. It was a delight, not least for the fact that there were performances of over half a dozen songs unrecorded in the Seventies. And some of those songs – ‘History and Geography’ and the startlingly enormous ‘Canoe’ stood out – were as good as and better than anything that Fontana or RCA had seen fit to issue.

It was the purest expression of what the internet can be. In reality, Atkin and James’ audience was barely bigger than it had been twenty years earlier, when the pair had earned more in royalties from a single Val Doonican cover of a single song than they had from the entirety of their recording career. But it was a focused audience, invested in the music in a way that RCA could never have been.

There were more gigs by Atkin and, because I was now inside the circle, I learned about the one at Buxton Opera House in plenty of time to buy a ticket.

It was a Sunday evening, of a day when United were on Sky, playing away somewhere, so I went to my Aunt and Uncle’s to watch the game, then drove across unfamiliar routes to join the A6 south to Buxton, taking with me my copy of Live Libel, hoping to get Atkin’s signature to pair up with that of James that I’d secured a dozen years previously.

At the Opera House, I got a very pleasant surprise. Atkin wasn’t alone: Clive James was also on stage, mostly sat in an easy chair whilst Atkin played, switching between acoustic guitar, electric piano and grand piano, chatting to the audience between songs. There were Midvodians there, identifying each other, putting faces to mailing list names. I wasn’t an active part of Midnight Voices yet, still feeling lost and overwhelmed by such intelligence and literary interpretation, so I was left alone, but I was there for the music, and to be able to sit and listen, so long after the fact, after the era, was simply delightful.

There was at least one more ‘new’ song, that is, one of the many written but never recorded, but that I’ll come to under the Infinite Jukebox.

After the gig, I waited at the Stage Door, among another dozen or so determined figures, got my signature, had a brief but friendly chat.

The following year, Atkin played another Monyash festival. I missed it: it clashed with one of the days of the Old Trafford Test against the Australians and I had tickets for all five days.

In the meantime, Pete Atkin once again had a music career.

With a demonstrable audience behind him, the first step was making the albums available again, this time on CD. The first two were easy, and SeeforMiles records released them on a single CD, but the other four were contracted to RCA, who proved uncooperative. Their attitude, as was reported back to us, was: “Why should we licence you to reissue these albums when we could do it ourselves and keep all the money?” “Are you going to reissue these albums?” “No, we won’t make any money.”

But eventually, after another couple of years, RCA bent, and the other four were released. Since then, this set has been deleted as SeeforMiles went into administration in 2007, but another, and better curated set, including demos and a couple of single versions, plus the last two Live Libel tracks that got squeezed out for space reasons (one of them Clive James’ own vocal on a wicked parody of the Telly Savalas version of “If”) restored.

Once the back catalogue had been thus resolved, Atkin was free to think of new music. There had been a big build-up of songs in the Seventies that had never been recorded. Smash Flops had snippets from the demos made for the sadly-mythical seventh album, and the revival of interest had seen the duo come up with a couple of brand new songs. Atkin, who sidelined as pianist in the Bristol-based alt-country band, The Shrinks, had access to Lakeside Studios, and began privately putting together some demos, trying to order the material.

Partway through this process, Atkin began to realise that these works were not demos and that, subconsciously, he had been collating the backlog in order to clear the ground for a future in which there could be new songs. Forming his own, mail-order label, Hillside Music, Atkin broke the news to Midnight Voices that there would not just be a seventh album after all, but simultaneously an eighth: The Lakeside Sessions: Vol 1. History and Geography and Vol 2. A Dream of Fair Women.

I have them in that format, jumping in quickly to buy them. Not all that long after, they were collapsed into a double CD, though at present they’re once again available as single CDs via the Hillside shop page on Smash Flops.

There was still more. Pete and Clive undertook a national tour, which included Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. The size of the venues depended more on Clive’s name than Pete’s and it was the same as Buxton: songs alternating with readings. My wife and I attended the Bridgewater Hall and had a great time. Among Clive’s readings was a very powerful poem about his mother, ‘Occupation: Housewife’ which began by inducing tears of laughter at great, witty lines, and slid with precision and balance into emotions of such depths as to induce very different tears. Afterwards, my wife got Clive’s Collected Poems autographed for herself.

They took the show to Australia. It’s currently out of print, but Hillside preserved it with a double CD. We saw Atkin one more time, this time on a Midnight Voices event, in Hebden Bridge, without Clive James but still every bit as good. I haven’t seen him since, and it wasn’t that much longer before I drifted away from Midnight Voices: musically, I shared very little else with the rest of the audience, though the flashpoint ended up being more or less about football, oddly enough.

The mailing list operated in two forms: you could opt to have every e-mail forwarded as soon as it was posted, or subscribe to the weekly digest, a week’s worth of postings on a Sunday afternoon. I started on the digest, progressed to individual mails. Somehow or other, football cropped up, and for a brief spell, maybe half an hour, half a dozen of us shared our passions. It brought the roof down, stern warnings about off-topic, apparently people were threatening to resign in droves.

And ultimately, the mailing list was pulled in favour of a Message Board format, where people could pursue what interested them and ignore what didn’t. I was in a minority that didn’t like that: the inclusivity, the sense of a shared audience, was destroyed in an instant, as was the serendipity. You no longer saw everything, you only saw what you wanted to.

Between this, and a couple of run-ins where I was pulled up for off-topic digressions whereas other, more egregious diversions went without comment, I began to feel alienated, and I drifted away.

From Midnight Voices only. There was another CD in 2003, Winter, Spring, this time consisting entirely of brand new songs, with the exception of the painful, and sad beyond belief Holocaust song, “A Hill of Little Shoes”. But when Atkin next came to commit himself to CD, it was in the form of a retread. Midnight Voices, sub-titled ‘The Clive James – Pete Atkin Songbook volume 1’, contained nothing new. It was a revisit of 15 songs from the original sextet (well, quintet: Live Libel‘s songs weren’t touched), rearranged, re-recorded.

It wasn’t what I wanted. Though the post MV albums contained some stunningly brilliant songs, overall I found them less impressive than the original set. Some of it was the production, too dry, too flat for my taste, a lot was the lack of tonal balance (nearly everything was piano based, with little or no guitar to balance it out), even more was how Atkin’s musical sensibilities had developed as against mine. He was a big Steely Dan fan, especially of the later albums, the jazz-oriented ones, whose aural perfection I found stifling and uninvolving. I wasn’t interested in hearing songs I loved as they were reinterpreted in Pete’s contemporary style. Not on record, anyway.

So that was almost that, the story coming to a second end. Clive James’ health issues have come to the fore in the near decade since. In this year of death, it has been a sole consolation that the most expected one of all hasn’t happened yet: it came closer for Atkin, who was hit by a bus in January this year and has consequently lost the sight in one eye. He has since returned to performing.

But there’s a coda. Though I’d long since drifted away from the world pertaining to Pete Atkin, I discovered last year that the muse was not yet stilled. There was one more CD, The Colours of the Night, ten more brand new songs, three old numbers, not previously recorded. It’s been more or less officially billed as the last album.

Of course I bought it. Though it lacks anything that stands out the way certain songs, even after all this time, are points on the album for which you wait each time you play it, I can’t quibble with the production nor the tonal quality, for the instruments are in balance, and no one instrument dominates. And Pete Atkin’s voice is still there, that wonderfully clear, distinct, so-unAmerican, so-unRock’n’Roll, still after forty-five years. Some people just don’t lose it, even after they turn seventy.

I call it a coda. But it’s only a coda if the main thing is over, be it a song or a story. According to Smash Flops, there are still enough unrecorded Atkin/James songs to fill at least four more CDs, if Pete should ever want to. That audience is still there, where it always has been. I don’t know how many of the fans of the Seventies may have gone on ahead, nor how many may have come along to regenerate the love. I just know that the music was brilliant, and the lyrics compelling, and though there may never have been enough of us to make an Army, we were the lucky few who knew and understood, who were touched and charmed and had that unexpected second act.

So maybe there’s a third act? This story has been going for forty-six years and we’re none of us, Pete, Clive or me, dead yet. In a world in which hope and optimism is hard to find and even harder to believe, we look to the dream of more. We were surprised once. Please surprise us again.