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.

The Rainbow Affair – A Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel

Poignantly, in light of our collective loss of Robert Vaughn last week, a belated self-birthday present arrived a day or so ago to remind me a little of how much fun The Man from U.N.CL.E. could be.

One thing that American TV has always done far more often than British TV, where Doctor Who is the only example I can recall, is the licensed novel. Take the characters off the small screen and run them through original stories, written quickly and simply by professional authors. Star Trek has done this even more than Doctor Who, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was very popular in the licensed novels game, with a different writer every month.

This isn’t news, of any kind, nor is the fact that half a dozen such novelisations were written by the late David McDaniel, a writer of SF and spy thrillers, with a good, smooth, inventive approach to these fast and cheap books. He wrote the middle of the three The Prisoner novelisations, and his second U.N.C.L.E. book was the best seller of the series.

Only a couple of months ago, in one of my prowls around the internet, I learned about the above U.N.C.L.E. novel and it’s extra interest. ‘The Rainbow Affair’ was the only novel set in England, but it had an extra cachet over and above that distinction, one that made it a rarety, and expensive to collect.

And then a copy appeared for about £6.00 so I bought it and it arrived this week, and I read it and enjoyed it immensely.

The story is well and professionally told and McDaniel captures the personalities of Messrs Solo and Kuryakin quite convincingly, though alone among the writers of such novels, he doesn’t indulge in the usual level of flirting from Napoleon. The plot is simple, and seemingly a bit below U.N.C.L.E.’s usual level of interest, as Ilya Kuryakin makes plain from the outset. In England, there is a master-criminal, Johnnie Rainbow, a planner, organiser, leader, mastermind (the then-recent Great Train Robbery is attributed to him). Bank robbers are certainly not U.N.C.L.E.’s remit, but THRUSH are looking to take Johnnie Rainbow under their wing, absorb his organisation, and his organisational capabilities into their organisation, and our two heroes are despatched to step into the way of this goal.

They will, of course, have the full cooperation of Scotland Yard (newly decanted into New Scotland Yard and still feeling its way around a bit) which is good but only up to a point, that point being that Scotland Yard is absolutely convinced that Johnnie Rainbow does not exist and never has existed outside of pulp fiction.

Nevertheless, Johnnie does so exist, and at the end of the day he has no intention of allowing his perfectly-sized and, in its odd way patriotic, kingdom to be subsumed into anything so cold or inhumane as THRUSH.

What makes this book special in any way? There’s a hearty dose of cliche, right from the start, with London socked in by a pea-souper of the kind that were  becoming non-existent in 1967, and from the opening chapter you wouldn’t imagine there was a single Englander not dropping their aspirates in an impeccably Cockney accent.

But the delight of this book is in the inside joke, as McDaniel throws in near-anonymous references to British thriller characters from books and television. At various times, one or other or both of our heroes find themselves passing the time with – or simply passing – The Saint, Steed and Mrs Peel, Miss Marple and Father Brown, and of course a very elderly gentleman who has retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs.

The first of these characters, the recognition of whom set me off into a delighted peal of laughter, was a Police Detective described as a large stomach with a red face following it, who is named only as Claude. You can work that one out for yourselves.

There are opportunities missed. There is no room for a pixie-ish man with a soup-bowl haircut, brandishing a recorder and hanging around a police telephone box, nor an Edwardian-caped gentleman with a sword-cane, but I think I’ve spotted everyone (the one from the Goon Show was indecently explicitly identified).

Though I am suspicious of the young woman on the motor-cycle, who prefers to be called Joey, and who does an awful lot of running around for her Aunt Jane. If she isn’t some sort of adventurer in her own right, she damned well ought to be. And if she is, could someone drop me a hint in the comments?

No, though the book would not be unfairly characterised as a cheap pot-boiler, it was cheerful and expert and fun, and well worth its time for its shameless drawing together of so many disparate worlds into a temporary continuity, and I recommend the book happily. And dedicate to the memory of the late Mr Vaughn, who is not in the least shamed by it.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e17 – Visionary

(I can see for) Miles and Miles

Before watching this latest episode, I was considering whether or not I needed a break: I’m personally not in a good space and last week’s Quark-centred episode was a serious trial. Deep Space Nine to date has not been the experience my recollections of twenty years gone led me to anticipate, and perhaps it might serve a purpose to suspend this series of posts after season 3 is completed. Let me refresh myself, regain a bit of enthusiasm.

Needless to say, at that point the series delivered up a stone cold winner that absorbed me from start to finish, that was superbly written and acted brilliantly by its principals, and which did not once allow me to second guess its course or outcome.

An unusually lengthy open started in media res, with Chief O’Brien having just taken a mild radiation jolt and being confined to light duties. It’s a busy time, with a Romulan delegation just arriving to collect every scrap of Federation intelligence there was about the Dominion (and being very Romulan about it, of course), whilst a damaged Klingon ship fetches up at DS9 for repairs.

Enough meat in there for a story in itself, but that wasn’t what ‘Visionary’ was going to be about. With everything thus set up, we wound up back at the Chief, trying to get darts established at Quark’s before slipping into a fugal vision, of himself in the future, arguing with Quark on the promenade. That this wasn’t just an hallucination was evidenced by the fact that Future Miles could see Current Miles…

This was only the first time-shift. Bashir and Dax, between them, determined that the Chief was suffering from a minor degree of radiation poisoning that was being activated by temporal surges emanating from an invisible quantum singularity in orbit about DS9. As science goes, it was plausible and authentic sounding (a nice change) so let’s ignore the mechanics and follow the timeshifts, because these started to multiply.

Each jumped Current Miles five hours forward, to wherever Future Miles was, and each time Current Miles was physically transferred temporally, in fugues that lasted only seconds in Current time. Each one grew increasingly dangerous for Future Miles: badly beaten and threatened with a knife in a bar brawl at Quark’s, killed by a laser concealed behind a seemingly innocuous panel, dead and autopsied after an unexpected radioactive isotope raddled him, and evacuating DS9 in a runabout whilst witnessing the station exploding into smithereens.

And each jump caught up with itself five hours later, with the effects of each jump either avoided or eradicated by Current Miles’ enhanced knowledge.

Meanwhile, what might have been used as an A plot continued. The Romulans treat everything and everybody with suspicion, appearing to suspect that all manner of collaboration with the Dominion is going on. The Klingons bullock about drunkenly. The Romulans, purely without evidence, suggest Odo fancies Kira, the very idea of which sends the Major into an undiplomatic fury, expostulating to the Constable about how ridiculous the accusation is: fortunately, Odo is spared answering by a security crisis.

But this is no A plot. Everything is woven skillfully together. The Klingons are an intelligence squad, sent to spy on the Romulans, and are neutralised by Odo. The Romulans…

Ah yes. O’Brien returns from the fugue that reveals to him DS9’s imminent destruction. He has no information as to how, why or who, but with Bashir’s assistance in preparing a precisely calculated radiation dosage – a much higher, pain-inducing and potentially fatal dosage – O’Brien makes a calculated, sacrificial shift of only three hours.

In ever increasing pain, he and Future O’Brien get to the bridge, just in time for it all to be revealed: a Romulan Warbird uncloaking, attacking the station. The desperate throw has succeeded, but there is a fatal flaw. The radiation has proved fatal. Current Miles is dying, too weak for the reverse trip. In a beautifully executed twist, a wonderfully ironic step, Current Miles saves Future Miles a final time, by forcing on him the device. It is Future Miles who returns to the Current moment, to save the station, and to take over Current Miles’ life.

The Romulans are escorted off the station, under threat of a 50 photon torpedo assault on their cloaked Warbird. Their motive was entirely rational: if the Dominion are the greatest threat to the Alpha Quadrant in centuries, then that threat can be eradicated by removing their access to that Quadrant. Attack and collapse the Wormhole, destroy DS9,  which can be painted as a victim of accidental collapse, end of threat.

If there was a flaw in this episode it was, paradoxically, not in this episode. Future O’Brien feels out of place, as if he is living a life different from the one he should be doing. Bashir, common-sensically, points out that he is Current Miles, only with a few extra memories, memories that he doesn’t bother pointing out extend less than five hours hence.

It’s a moment of strangeness that draws us into contemplation of what O’Brien has gone through, with his strangely convoluted timepath, with its succession of false starts, each witnessed but then overturned. No wonder Future Miles feels out of place, and ever so slightly unreal: after all, since he went through being Current Miles, he has seen himself die three times, and even though it belongs to a fractal timeline now removed, he knows that the third time was real. Who couldn’t help but be disoriented?

But the closing credits run, and we know that that utterly fascinating state runs away with them, never to be referenced again. Such a shame.

However, that’s next week’s episode. I have a week’s reassurance that this is all worthwhile, still, and thoughts of a sabbatical go onto the back-burner. Excellent all round.

Non-Days Out and Letting Go Of The Past

Having missed out on my annual November outing to the Lakes, I had some modest compensation in the form of a trip out to Hazel Grove this morning.

No, of course I didn’t. It’s one thing to give up on Sounds of the Sixties on a Saturday morning, knowing that the i-Player is always there to catch up upon, but it’s an entirely different thing to hop out of bed just as the programme is about to start, and be back home before it’s even finished!

Like my recent outing to Wilmslow, I was off to Hazel Grove for a purpose rather than riotous living. Yes, it is some time since I last stopped off there, but though it’s apparently quite a nice place, and a bit of a good address, 99% of my previous visits to Hazel Grove have been passing through on the A6, on the way to or back from further and better destinations.

But hey, I’ll take any chance to visit strange parts, ok?

Nevertheless, the sole reason for hitting Hazel Grove was to collect three folding crates, offered via the Stockport Freegle network (don’t trash unwanted items, recycle them to people who can use them). And what did I want three folding storage crates for?

It’s been a good year for collecting the Eagle. So good, that I need to find something better to keep these copies in, given that I now have less 130 copies in total to find. The storage crates would be ideal: sturdy, stackable, durable.

The lady who was offering them needed them to be collected early: 9.00am if possible, 10.00 am at the latest as she had to go out. So I promised an early arrival, even though I would be traveling by bus both ways.

It was a miserable morning, grey, dreary, damp, uninviting. The meteorological equivalent of my current and long term mood, not that’s encouraging. The vagaries, a word which here means utter crapness, of the 203 worked in my favour for once, for two came close after one another, the second meaning that I didn’t have to stand around in the drizzle for long.

And there was just enough time for the paper before hopping into the 192, but when that service runs every three minutes, the likelihood of delay is correspondingly diminished. I was in Hazel Grove and collecting the crates practically bang on the dot of 9.00.

Hey, plenty of time to explore! Except that it is still grey and miserable, and Hazel Grove isn’t open yet, and all it is is the A bloody 6, so I crossed it, walked halfway towards Whaley Bridge, or so it felt, to catch a bus back. I made a careful assessment of what, if anything, I needed in Stockport, and was lucky enough to practically walk straight onto a 203 – y’see what happens when I have literally the entire day to wait for a bus – and get back home for 9.55am. As I said, five minutes before Sounds of the Sixties was due to finish.

I’ve now spent the best part of forty-five minutes sorting out my more recent purchases into order, then integrating them into my existence collection and stacking them in the storage crates, which are exactly as economical of space as I hoped they might be.

And out go the old boxes, except for the one I’ve had since the early Nineties when I first started picking old Eagles up from The Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield. And that’s where letting go of the past comes in, not that I am sentimental about these. But the two oldest boxes, the Soreen boxes with the broken handles, are old with a capital L: I have been storing comics in those for over fifty years. They are actually older than some of the Eagles they have been holding.

So that was my latest Trip Out, my Real Life Adventure. Rounded off nicely by the acquisition, via eBay, during the writing of this piece, of one more Eagle. Nicely enough, it’s the one that was published on the very day I was born, sixty-one years and one day ago.

It’s going to be easy now to drop it into its place when it arrives.

Robert Vaughn – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. no more

A couple of nights ago, a couple of mates and I were reminiscing about the great American TV shows, the sitcoms and the thrillers, of the Sixties. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came up – of course The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came up, how could it not? Steve mentioned that the recent film remake was rubbish, and we all agreed that you can’t remake such things. They were of their time: the people, the actors, the atmosphere. You can’t recreate that, not now.

And two days later, Robert Vaughn is gone, Napoleon Solo as was, slick as all get out. He’s opened Channel D for the last time, and is no longer there to remind us of just how much fun, how good a formula network show feeding off the spy bug could actually be.

They repeated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the Nineties, I think it was, Friday night, BBC2, perfect for getting in from work, and it was still bloody good fun. Thanks to Robert, and David McCallum, and long-gone Leo G. Carroll.

They can’t make them like that any more.

It isn’t just paranoia: The Lakes 2016

In ordinary circumstances, those of you who follow this blog would have received an e-mail, late this evening, regaling you with the events of my fifth annual Birthday Week Day Out in the Lake District.

At some point, early on, I would have made the by-now traditional, self-deprecating remark about my paranoia about missing the train due to my reliance on public transport. This is the year it stopped being paranoia.

I had the same plan as last year: the early train, change at Oxenholme, bus to Grasmere and at least venture onto the slopes of Helm Crag. How I might fare from there, given my overall lack of energy, the increasing amount of gyp I am suffering from my right knee and the fact that it’s supposed to be snowing in the Lakes was impossible to tell in advance, but if I wound up snug in the Ambleside Tavern, drinking, reading, watching it sluice down like last year, I would at least be there.

When I travel by train, to make the fares manageable, I book well in advance, and I book specific singles, the cost of which is usually pretty much fifty percent of an All Day Return. Of course, these are inflexible: if you miss your train, there’s no waiting for the next one.

I’d packed my bag carefully last night. The train, like last year, was 9.16am at Piccadilly Station, and I planned to be at the bus stop for 8.00am. That would leave me kicking my heels around the Station for at least half an hour.

Unfortunately, I just missed the 8.00am bus. However, I had built in ample leeway, and as my stop is only the fourth outside Stockport Centre, it wasn’t as if the bus had any time to be late.

But the 8.10 bus didn’t show up, and the 8.20 didn’t arrive until almost 8.25. That cut drastically into my overlap. And the rush hour traffic had had so much extra time to build up and every stop was full of queues waiting. We jolted slowly onward. I conscientiously avoided looking at my watch continually, but that meant that when I did check the time, it was horrifying how much had elapsed for how little mileage covered.

Of course, once you’re moving as slowly as that, every little thing that can delay you delays you. The sinking feeling had long since sunk. On Hyde Road, we were overtaken by the 8.30 bus.

When I eventually jumped off the bus, diagonally across the busy junction outside Piccadilly Station, it was 9.15am. Exactly one minute to get across the road, up two flights and round to the furthest platform: there has never been a time in my life when I could have done that. But the train had been five minutes late last year, with all the consequent effects of that, and if it was late this year, I could still get there.

And late it was, but by only three minutes this time. Which proved to be literally ten seconds fewer than I needed: I was charging down the steps to platform 14 when I saw the doors shut. I pleaded with the guard but they were locked and once they’re locked they stay locked until the next stop – in this case, Oxford Road, but I had no hope of getting there in time. So I had to stand on the platform and watch my train and my Annual Day Out leave without me.

And that’s why, instead of being at Windermere at this moment, I’m at home, writing this. Though it’s cold outside, the sky is wonderfully blue, clear and serene, with cotton ball wisps of clean cloud around the edges. I joke with myself about it being paranoia, but it isn’t paranoia this time, and how early do I set off next year? How much time is enough time to get somewhere simple and easy to reach. Do I camp out overnight on a bench at the Station? Do I get my money back for the tickets I can’t now use? Of course not.

Happy Birthday Me.

We can still be decent people

In these times, a story that shows that people can still be decent,and good to one another can be very moving. My admiration goes out to the management and players of Rochdale FC, who won 2-1 tonight away to Hartlepool United in the last group game of the Checkatrade Trophy, whatever that is.

Dale announced seven substitutes but only had six sat upon their bench, the missing member of their team being their no. 55, Joshua McCormack. Joshua is a five year old boy who has an inoperable brain tumour. He has been a team mascot once already this season, but tonight Rochdale went one further. Though he was too ill to be there, Joshua was in the team, and his shirt was on the bench to represent him.

And when Dale scored the opening goal, the side’s celebration was to congregate on the bench, to catch up the no 55 shirt and show it to the sparse crowd.

That we are still capable of incredible kindnesses like that is a very necessary reminder in this new world of unknowingness in which we now stand. To all of you at Rochdale, I don’t know how to say thank you for what you’ve done but I do know that your karma has shot sky high for this.