The Odd Days


These are the odd days, the last few before the day itself; slow and pointless and in the way.

Sunday will be my seventh Xmas in this pokey little flat, and it will be the a repeat of the previous six. I would call it almost a ritual, except that it is too relaxed, maybe even chilled, to assume such proportions. But at some point on Xmas Eve, hopefully relatively early, I will shut and lock the door behind me, throw off the world and, save for excursions onto the internet, will neither see nor speak to any other person until Boxing Day. And then only to buy the newspaper.

Not everybody could handle Xmases like that, but then I’m not everybody. I have the complete freedom to do as I choose, without responsibility to or from anyone else, and I will exercise that freedom by doing exactly the same things every year.

I will wake when I wake, and I will lie in bed, warm and tired, for as long as I want. When that is done, I shall unwrap my presents, unwrapping here meaning taking them out of the various packets, envelopes and boxes wherein they have been received, from Amazon and eBay, this past six weeks. Books, CDs, DVDs.

Sometime around 2.00ish, or maybe later, the turkey will go in the oven for however many multiples of twenty minutes, turn and turn about, its size requires. Based on that, I will, at different intervals, put in the vegetables, prepare the stuffing and the gravy, to cook for the requisite times so that all will be ready at (roughly) the same time. A massive leg, some slices of breast, the bacon off the wings, a couple of bangers, the plate piled high as I can get it without gravy running off in protest.

I have a hankering for jam sponge pud and custard for desert this year – I have never been able to eat  Xmas pudding, or Xmas cake – though I imagine that, as usual, dessert will effectively be my tea, later in the evening.

All the Xmas presents have been bought. All the Xmas food has been bought, apart from the jam sponge pud because I haven’t yet found any that amount to more than two mouthfuls, and those genuinely last minute things like fresh bread.

And that’s what makes these the odd days. Because there’s nothing to do. My regular TV programmes are into their several Xmas breaks. This year’s Festive TV is completely unappealing, nothing – literally – until Sherlock, and that’s after New Year’s Day. There’s no football, no cricket. I am going to no parties, for no drinks. I am working all week, and it feels peculiarly hollow, especially as the day nears, and most solutions are now going to have to be postponed until after Xmas.

There’s no engagement, no involvement, just a handful of days to be passed through on the way to something better. Xmas holds no religious significance for me, and it never really has, for all that I used to believe, vaguely, in God for most of my life. I am now, and for several years have been, an atheist, so really the season is now one of material pleasure – in the turkey I’m going to stiff myself with, the books I’m looking forward to reading etc. – and the pretence, at least and however falsely, that we can be good and nice and decent to each other.

For a couple of days. Until we are let off the hook, and can go back to being utter bastards again, the way we seem to like it (see all political developments in this country, and overseas, in 2016).

It’s just a question of getting there. Which means going through the odd days, the ones with no meaning except the passage of time, from minute to minute and hour to hour.

I’ve started so I’ll finish


Just last week, I announced that I was committing myself to the long overdue transcribing of my first completed work of fiction, thirty years ago, under the title of The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel.

This was intended as a project for 2017, but then I had to take a day off work to be there for the delivery of a set of new pans (I lead a romantic, exhausting life), so I decided to make sure in advance that the paperwork was all in order. This meant hauling the ring-binder down from the top of the bookcase, industriously clearing it of the dust and crap of the accumulated years (I also need a vacuum cleaner that works) and checking that everything was there, and in the right order.

There was a bit more to it than I’d remembered. I’d completely forgotten that the project included a Prologue, and that I had, after the First Draft was done, attempted at least a partial Chapter 1. And, having clearly recalled that I’d written the whole book using a very nice and comfortable blue ballpoint pen, I was disturbed to discover that it had actually been begun with a black fibre-tip pen that I remembered with particular fondness for its smooth and even flow.

And since that didn’t take half as long as I feared, I decided to  try a test page.

What was it like? On the physical level, pretty painless. Given that there aren’t any meaningful, easily detectable natural breaks in the flow, I adopted a somewhat unorthodox approach.

The book was written in longhand on A4 lined paper, narrow feint, written on both sides of the paper. Just transcribing a single sheet at a time means I’m ending (and beginning) in the middle of a sentence, but on the other hand, it’s easily manageable. I’ve been doing this for five days now, and it’s working out at an average of about 850 words a sheet, and 35 minutes of typing. Of course, that was when it was 99% narration, but my first sheet of dialogue and conversation still came out at 790 words, and took not much less time to transcribe.

Looking at the sheer volume of paperwork, my guess is that at this rate, it’ll be mid-summer 2017 before I finish, but (so far as I know) I have time.

What about the other side of it? I’m transcribing the works of a version of myself who’s thirty years younger than I am, and whose mind – and whose writing – worked in different ways. How does it feel (as Bob Dylan once so sagely put it)?

It’s certainly not as bad, or as odd, as I was anticipating (so far). ‘He’ is quite a different writer from me, flatter and more serious. ‘He’ has an eye for concrete detail that I’ve rather let slip in the intervening years, but ‘he’ is also prone to overwrite, not in the bad, florid sense (not all the time) but rather out of lack of self-confidence. ‘He’ writes as if he has to nail everything down so that the audience will see it.

To my surprise, there are lines, and even paragraphs, here and there, that show a genuine ability with words. In the main though, it’s pretty workmanlike. I’ve not come across anything (so far) that makes my brain itch to change it on the spot, so transcribing is not a problem. There’s a lot I would change if it were already complerted, mostly drastic cutting, but more interestingly is that I am seeing other angles, other possibilities that ‘he’ wasn’t aware of, that would make a big difference to the story. And I’m already getting curious about where these might lead.

So, the big 2017 literary project has gotten an early kick-off and is so far going well. Your services as an audience, in holding my face to the grindstone, have already been successful. There should not be any need to copious progress reports but, if anything interesting crops up along the way, I’ll keep you posted. Thank you for your contribution.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e23 – Family Business


Three Ferengi
Three Ferengi

I was tempted this week to just say, it was about Quark, and leave it at that, especially after the last few weeks of strong stories. And I’m certainly not going to say much about it because I can’t pretend to be interested in the story, or its entirely predictable dynamics.

Basically, a Liquidator from the Ferengi Commercial Authority (FCA) walks into Quark’s and shuts the bar. Quark’s mother, Ishka (played under appallingly bad make-up by Andrea Martin) has broken Ferengi law by earning profit. She’s also taken to wearing clothes, speaking to men and never chewed her sons’ food for them. If Quark can’t get her to confess, she’ll be sold into indentured servitude and he will have to repay her profit.

At first, this is supposed to be a mere three bars of latinum – it’s the principle of the thing – but in reality, Ishka (or ‘Moogie’ as Rom insists on calling her, the Ferengi version of Mummy) has crated a massive business fortune, far greater than Quark’s.

He’s prepared to shop her until Rom defuses the situation by lying and claiming Ishka will split her profit with him 50/50, which changes everything. Rom bags heads together, Quark accepts that his business acumen comes from his mother, female though she might be, and the thing is wrapped up by Ishka agreeing to confess and relinquish a third of her profits, though the FCA believe it to be the lot.

Ho hum.

In another setting, I might have been able to pay attention to the story, which could have come over as a witty undermining of an horrendously repressive society that makes Saudi Arabia’s attitude to its women look open and welcoming but, to adapt the famous team talk given by Alex Ferguson prior to a visit from Spurs, ‘Lads, it’s Quark.’ I simply cannot take Ferengi stories seriously, and especially not Quark so this was a bust of a week for me, as will practically every other week where he is the focus.

Given that the rest of the cast have to be given something else to do, no matter how irrelevant they are to the main story, there was a brief and equally unimpressive understory carrying directly on from last week’s gesture at match-making by Jake. Captain Kasidy Yeats is on the station and Jake wants his dad to meet her. The entire station staff know this and are waiting for it to happen.

At least it wasn’t strung out unnecessarily long by Sisko digging his heels on. He does go to meet Kasidy, aka  Penny Johnson, whom I know better as Penny Johnson Gerrald, for her role as Sherry Palmer in the early, good, 24. They agree to meet for raktageno, but things aren’t going that well. Sisko clearly fancies her but she’s bored, until they seriously bond over, get this, baseball! Her younger brother plays it, on the opposite side of the Federation , and has sent her an audio-commentary of his team’s latest game, so she and Sisko go off to listen to it.

It’s really not much, is it? Then again, you’d have probably needed an understory of War and Peace dimensions to make this episode work for me, so why don’t we just give up on this one and let Xmas play through?

The Flashman Papers: 1860 – Flashman and the Dragon


By the time the Eighth Packet of The Flashman Papers was released to an adoring public, George MacDonald Fraser had been writing about Harry Flashman for over fifteen years. In addition to eight volumes of the Papers, Fraser had also written two lengthy non-series novels, two collections of short stories, a non-fiction history of the Anglo-Scottish Border Wars, six filmed screenplays and an indeterminate number of unfilmed screenplays, not to mention a number of BBC radio plays. Flashman and The Dragon was published the year he turned sixty.
How long the Flashman books might continue was clearly a question of how long might Fraser last. Even before the Eighth Packet, enough additional adventures had been referred to keep him busy for decades. Only in the latter half of the Seventh Packet had Flashman’s memoirs extended beyond 1858, and Flashy had been notably in action up to and including the start of the Twentieth Century.
But series’ are difficult things to sustain. On the one hand, they must grow and develop, as humans do, constantly presenting new challenges, new aspects, new challenges and solutions, but on the other hand they must operate within (sometimes narrowly) prescribed lines: the audience constantly demands ‘more of the same only different’ but it is the ‘more of the same’ element that concerns them most.
From the appearance of Flashman and The Dragon until the final Packet, in 2005, the penultimate book of Fraser’s life (not counting Captain in Calico) only four further Flashman books were published, one of which being a ‘fix-up’ consisting of three short stories of differing lengths. The longed-for American Civil War novel was not among them. And it has to be admitted that there was something of a decline after Flashman and the Redskins: not a major decline, like the latterday Peter Tinniswoods, or the last two Robert Neills, to refer to previous posts here, but enough to be perceptible. And it starts here.
Flashman and The Dragon sees Sir Harry Flashman (notwithstanding that he still hasn’t been officially knighted by little Vicky) in China, being unwillingly attached to Lord Elgin’s expedition to Pekin as part of his intelligence staff.
It’s March 1860 and Flashy is in Hong Kong, waiting for his boat home to Elspeth, who he hasn’t seen in over three years (and Jo Flashman was born in 1858? Hmmm.) Immediately, there’s a change of atmosphere to the series, as Fraser, in an extensive first note, makes a not very good job of explaining things.
Up till now, Flashy has usually been very good at context, and setting up where, what and how when he starts his account but in this instance, short of that reference to three years, there’s nothing. Fraser devotes his footnote to the fact that this mystery is a mystery: Flashman was last seen leaving India for home about eighteen months previously, but here he is, and what’s more, despite never having been to China previously in his memoirs, he’s familiar with the country and speaks fluent Mandarin.
But, having suggested prior time in China, Fraser undercuts himself by suggesting that, based on a mention of being acquainted with the American Abolitionist John Brown (having not seen anything such thus farm, I can only assume this came in the newspaper story, Flashman and the Tiger), our boy may have been in America in 1859.
The Tenth Packet will confirm this was the case, but at this moment, what the footnote makes all but explicit (for the first time) is that Fraser doesn’t know and hasn’t decided on Flashman’s career in this period, and admits us all to the almost certainty that Flashman’s life and career is, largely, being made up as he goes along.
There’s another change in tone in the opening sequences. Flashy specifically identifies himself as being in his prime at 37, a Colonel with six years seniority, in short an individual of experience. He no longer automatically runs away from trouble, though that’s still his first instinct. Now he stops to think, and we’re not far into the book when our antihero actually runs towards a fight, recognising that the only safe outcome is to attack and win. And it’s not the only time. Flashman is caught behaving like a practiced, skilled and properly military British Army officer.
Though he’s unusually cagey about how he comes to be there, Flashman pens this latest memoir with a fairly full, for Flashy, political analysis of the China Problem. On the one hand, General Hope Grant is arriving in under a fortnight to escort Lord Elgin to Pekin, where the decadent and horrifically brutal regime, under its rarefied Emperor, will be forced to recognise foreigners as equals, as opposed to subhuman barbarians. On the other, the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest rebellion in world history, is still going on after ten years, is supported for its pseudo-Christian aspects and may well be the next Chinese government.
But Flashman, with his usual flair for vicious amusement, is concerned about filling the ten days before his sailing (two days before Hope Grant gets there and grabs him for his staff) is potting the seduction of the beautiful bounteous blonde Mrs Phoebe Carpenter. The circumstances are a bit out of the ordinary, however.
Firstly, the lovely Phoebe is not merely married, but married to a Christian Missionary with ambitions to build a church in China, and secondly, in order to raise funds to build this church, the Reverend and Mrs Carpenter require someone who is a fluent Chinese speaker to escort a boat upriver, and successfully deliver £16,000 of prime cut, prepared opium.
Given that there’s 10 per cent in him for him, not to mention a cast iron case for the buxom Phoebe sharing her favours on his return, and anyway, everybody in Hong Kong is in opium, the place exists because of it, Flashman is happy to keep his hand in, and he does a bloody good job at it, far better than the ship’s young American Captain, Fred T Ward, can do, at least at this stage of his impressive career.
There’s just one problem. Actually, as usual there’s more than one but the main one is that the carpenter’s boats aren’t carrying opium, but instead rifles, intended for the Taiping rebels. Flashy gets alerted to this when his Chinese jolly-girl wakes him up pleading for a pipe (she is not what she seems). This is where flashy thinks quickly and, given that the small convoy has attracted the attention of the Royal Navy, our hero pulls a quick Beauchamp Comber, claiming to have been on the side of the angels all along, undercover.
That it works is, astonishingly, because Flashy decides at the last minute to attune his lie as closely as he can to the truth, because he’s been conned twice by a woman – the jolly girl is actually a British agent!
Basically, what we’ve had is a bubble adventure, just to set things off and demonstrate again how Flashman’s eagerness to pursue womanflesh still trips him up. The whole adventure brings him to the attention of the authorities, after which there is no going home. Prime Minister Palmerston himself has issued orders attaching Colonel Flashman, believed to be travelling in China (how did they know that?), to Hope Grant’s intelligence staff.
The stage is set, but there is a wait until Lord Elgin is due, and Fraser diverts Flashman onto a different path to fill in the intervening time. And of course it’s the Taiping Rebellion.
By 1860, the Taiping Rebellion had been going on for a decade, causing more and bloodier slaughter than any other in history. The Rebellion had taken Nanking round about the time the memoir starts and are threatening a move on Shanghai, Britain’s principal Treaty Port. Elgin’s Pekin Expedition intends to force the feeble, debauched yet ultimately god-like Emperor to sign the Treaty he has agreed, China being the most insular country on other, seeing everywhere outside China as barbarian vassal states. Britain cannot come to terms with the Taipings, cannot even be seen to be talking to them.
So Flashy the undercover intelligence star is sent to meet with the Taiping leaders to persuade them not to attempt Shanghai. It’s a fraught journey, only completed with the assistance of a group of bandits led by the formidable Szu-Zhan, a six foot six tall woman of immense strength who damn near carries Flashy off.
But arrival is even more fraught as our hero finds himself a ‘guest’ of a strange, cruel but horribly efficient army, led by the fanatical Loyal Prince Lee, who makes it plain that the Taipings are coming to Shanghai and Britain should get off its ass and join forces because they are going to overthrow the Manchoos. Flashman will be sent back to deliver that message as a courtesy – two days ahead of the army.
The same message is delivered by Prime Minister Hung Jen-Kan, a much cannier individual, with clearer eyes, who arranges for Flashy to go two weeks ahead of schedule. Because Jen-Kan knows what Flashman will report back of his meeting with the Taiping leader, Hung Hsiu-chuan, once an inspirational leader but now an irretrievable madman that Britain cannot and never will accept. Jen-Kan doesn’t doubt the Taiping’s eventual victory, but doesn’t mind delaying it by allowing Flashman to warn the British and enable them to repel his political rival, Loyal Prince Lee.
In due course that happens. Flashy’s route back crosses the path of Fred T. Ward for a last time, risen to command the force that will eventually defeat the Taipings, the Ever Victorious Army that Ward moulded and, after his death, was led to ultimate victory by General Gordon, he of Khartoum infamy (who turns up in a minor role late on).
But what is disturbing is that all this story is delivered in footnotes and appendices. No sooner is Flashy in Shanghai and alerting the Commissioner, Parkes, than he’s shuffled off to join Elgin and General Hope Grant on the road to Pekin, and that’s it as far as the Taiping Rebellion issue goes. Yes, it just vanishes, as if it had never happened. Fraser even comments on this in a footnote, about how uncharacteristic it is of Flashman to not even mention that Shanghai repelled the Taiping Army.
We’re used to a Flashman Packet containing in effect two widely disparate tales: Flashman at the Charge strings together the Crimea and the Russian invasion of Central Asia, Flashman’s Lady adventures in both Borneo and Madagascar, and Flashy isn’t one for looking back once the danger has been outrun, but even on a first reading, this felt wrong. Plonking Flashman into two theatres may have been common practice but, whilst previous examples had at least an organic element to it, this was too obvious a contrivance to be passed by without the effect jarring.
Having grown bored with travel by sea, Flashman disembarks within sight of the army and treats himself to a leisurely ride. This enables Fraser to place him at the scene of a famous, but now forgotten event, the killing of Trooper Moyes. This came about when a party of horsemen  under the Mongol War Leader, Sang-Kol-Insen (immediately dubbed ‘Sam Collinson’ throughout the army) captured two British soldiers and demanded they kow-tow. Famously, Moyes refused to do so, facing the Mongol with utter contempt, and being executed.
Fraser not only drops Flashy into the scene, as an unknown, out of uniform officer who is knocking head like a good ‘un, but stores up the scene for future difficulties, as the other survivor, Private Nolan, recognises him subsequently and is slimily determined on a spot of blackmail. Until Flashy uses a fraught situation, when he and a number of troops are captured, to deliver Nolan to an horrendous comeuppance that’s not entirely undeserved.
Militarily, there’s not much to say about the March on Pekin (sometimes referred to as the Second Opium War), given that it was led by one of Britain’s most competent fighting Generals, and Flashman has a safe and secure time of it, Nolan excepted, until the Chinese unexpectedly renege on their promises of safe progress, etc., and fight back. We see the experienced and skilled military side of Sir Harry, and doesn’t it seem strange, but he too is captured, a capture that means torture of the most vile and inhumane.
First though, the Taiping element must have its parallel, as Flashy, converted into a filthy, unshaven, ragged barbarian to suit expectations, is dragged before the Emperor to confess. The Emperor is, in a different way, equally as unimpressive and abhorrent as Hung Hsia-chuan, but a bit more intelligent, so the whole thing is a complete bust. Until the Imperial Concubine, Yehonala, blitzed to the max on poppy smoke, takes a fancy to see a barbarian for herself.
And, having seen said hairy, smelly and more than half-naked barbarian, she insists on seeing the one bit that’s covered up. And once seen, she needs must sample it. Flashy gets ’em, everywhere.
The thing is, Yehonala, having enjoyed Flashy as much as she has, decides to keep him. Not merely for filthy disgusting pleasure, but because the Yi Concubine, who is already doing everything she can to see the Emperor off, happens to be the mother of his only son. And equally happens to be a determinedly intelligent autocratic woman with designs upon complete domination of China. Which, incidentally, she will achieve for over thirty years. Yehonala has plans to advance this, which involve saving Flashy to get her in good with the British.
So Flashy undergoes two months imprisonment in palatial luxury, not to mention unending abuse of his person, his major fear being in case he lets slip that he speaks Mandarin, and has understood every word of  Yi’s plans, especially those parts that she wouldn’t want the Brits to know.
In the end, Flashy gets free when the British Army attacks Pekin, though he regrets the ending of this interlude. Yehonala ranks for him alongside Lakshmibai, Lola Montez and Elspeth as the most beautiful women he has ever seen, and she is among that few for whom he has felt anything other than lust. But it’s a timely and necessary departure, and he damned well knows it. And it leads to an exposure of feeling Flashman has never allowed himself before. Welcomed back by Elgin and everyone around him, seeing their genuine concern, Flashman gives in to the stress he has experienced and, in his own words, “I blubbed.”
There is not much left now but what is left is clearly Fraser’s entire purpose in writing this book. After careful though, Lord Elgin has to decide upon a punishment for the Emperor and the Manchus, that will not merely fall upon them alone, and not the peasants, but will be seen to do so, and be known. It is a controversial decision, one that is still debated today, and one which would change the course of history in ways that we are experiencing today, and that we cannot see the end of in 2016.
I’m speaking of the destruction, the burning, the looting, the devastation of the Summer Palace. Fraser, and Flashman, give it full measure, airing all the arguments for and against, bringing all the personalities and the motives into play. Flashman even has the temerity to twit Elgin over history’s response to him. But his own emotions, though ever directed towards himself, nevertheless betray that even Flash Harry has been moved by the beauty of the Summer Palace, and has a pang for its memory, which he will never relinquish.
The sequence is a fitting end to the story, and it is by far the best thing in it, but it’s not a Flashman ending. So there’s a short coda, in Singapore, waiting for his boat home, just as when the memoir begins and, in perfect parallel, Flashy once more encounters Mrs Phoebe Carpenter.
Circumstances are a little different: for one thing, she’s playing waitress in a bar on the shady side of town, where Harry was lured to the ninjas in Flashman’s Lady, she’s wearing a most low-cut dress and claims that the Reverend Carpenter has abandoned her. Flashy has no compunctions about blackmailing her into bed in order to keep him from peaching to the authorities, but once again Phoebe takes him in. She brings him back to her residence, which is actually a very successful brothel, run by the Reverend Josiah. And as Flashy is trying his hand at billiards, with a bottle of house brandy, a naval type enters the room, exactly as Flashman starts to feel woozy and wobbly…
So we end as we begin: from having no idea where Sir Harry has come from to be here to the same lack of knowledge as to where he’s going to be going after this. Except that it’s not back to Elspeth…
When first I read Flashman and the Dragon, I assumed Flashy was being shanghaied to America, to turn up in time for the start of the American Civil War. However, a reference elsewhere to Flashman accompanying the Prince of Wales during ten weeks of military training at the Curragh, in Ireland, that has been dated to July 1861 means that that couldn’t have happened, and wherever he does go, Flashy is not long delayed in being restored to Elspeth’s arms, and sundry other parts of her body.
Howsoever this came about, we are never told. It may seem befitting to have both ends of the memoir match, but to me it weakens the story to have it so firmly detached from Flashman’s Chronology, without connective tissue before or aft. It escalates the impression of a contrivance to a level not previously experienced.

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P10. ’emerged after four campaigns’: the fourth of these pre-1860 campaigns is the First Sikh War, yet to be told.
P43. Flashman relates his nastier experiences of the past three years, but all of these relate to the Indian Mutiny. There is literally nothing of the intervening eighteen months.
P78. Flashman recites another litany of experiences, coming out of sleep into waking. These include the mealie bags at Rorke’s Drift, in the Zulu War and, a first reference, the morning Flashman was due to go before the San Serafino firing squad. This is usually attributed to the Maximillian business in Mexico, the only known case of Flashman going before a firing squad, and no doubt is connected to Flashman’s famous medal, the San Serafino Order of Truth and Purity (4th class).
P83. Scenes of ruin: Flashman mentions Gettysburg, a famous American Civil War battlefield.
P123. A fuller description of life in Nanking under the Taiping is given in Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life, in one of the Volumes not impounded and destroyed by Disraeli’s bailiffs.
P186. Flashman compares notes on places where he has surrendered, including Appomattox, which indicates that he arrived as part of General Lee’s party.
P193. And a recollection of moments of brilliant inspiration includes the first mention of Flashman convincing Jefferson Davis he’d come to fix the lightning rod…
p196. Flashman gave technical advice to GeorgeBernard Shaw on the writing of his only Western play, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet (1909).
p225. Flashman on his first exposure to the Summer Palace recollects other, natural scenes of great beauty, including dawn over the South China Sea and cold moonlight on the Sahara. The South China Sea has been mentioned before, but Flashman’s journey into the Sahara is another unplaced mystery, though it must surely relate to his service in the French Foreign Legion, whenever this was.
P287. Flashman reminisces of moments of peace at the end of great adventures: three we recognise but the fourth is of “sitting alone with the President of the United States at the end of a great war, listening to him softly whistling ‘Dixie’.”

Saturday SkandiKrime: Modus episodes 7 & 8


The two at the front.
The two at the front.

What began promisingly enough three weeks ago came to a horrendously confused and unlamented end last night, full of loose ends, lost ideas and ridiculously disconnected, disjointed events. For most of its run, Modus has been decently put together modern crime story, but its final episode was a classic example of the writers losing control and having no idea how to contrive a fitting climax.

But lets first address ourselves to episode 7, which did at least have some strong elements to it, though these did not include Cliche One. Yes, we all knew they wouldn’t let it lie, the Ings had it off, starting with Inger Johanne all wet and naked in the shower, and Ingvar, all lumped and naked joining her.

Actually, the wetness of the surroundings was inadvertently appropriate, given that Ingvar’s passion couldn’t ignite a match soaked in kerosene, but that’s hardly the point. The Ings got to this completely unwanted consummation via a genuinely creepy moment, as Ingvar delivers Inger Johanne home, starts to drive off after a scene of truly stunning awkwardness in the car and is stopped by panicky shrieks from behind: as we have already seen, Forrester has just been in Inger Johanne’s home, reading her case files, and has chosen to send her a message by leaving behind Stina’s ‘cat’, the toy police car he took from her in episode 1.

There’s a confused feel about the continuity, early on, with Inger Johanne getting a friendly, fit, blonde uniformed cop to take her down to the subway lair where Fanny lived with the late Harwe, and where Forrester has just spray-painted over his graffitti face, and then she and Ingvar summoning shipowner Marcus back from wherever Marianne the collaborator was not taking him, since he ended up not actually going anywhere, so the National Bureau could offer him security. And Inger Johnanne spots his odd, self-contained reaction to mention of a ‘contract-killing’.

Oh, and there’s a left-field scene of a very attractive Swedish secretary telling her boss that Nicolas Rosen won’t be able to pay for the appointment he missed, because he’s dead. Don’t worry, this won’t be a mystery for long.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, we get a couple of brief scenes with the two kids, Stina and Linnea, not allowed to come home from Daddy Isak and his Mum’s country place and being put under surveillance. It has been a serious error on the programme’s part to remove these two from the story: not only is the plot supposed to be partially about how Stina saw Forrester, but the two girls have been the unalloyed, unequivocal gems in this show and it’s rank stupidity not to make more use of them.

But, wait, soulful and pouting Marcus is about to spill the plot to us, or at least besotted husband Rolf. It’s time for it all to come out, and it has the merit of being unforeseen, at least in this quarter. We’ve been expecting Marcus, heir to a homo-hating father, to be the 1 of 1+5, but in reality he’s not even on the board. Marcus revealed that Nicolas was not a possible affair but Marcus’s brother. Half-brother, that is, completely unknown to either until Nicolas’s mother recently died, having spilled the beans as to his true parentage on her death bed. And there’s a Will. Leaving everything to Nicolas. Everything that Marcus and Rolf own,that is.

Oh no, mother, but oh yes. Marcus isn’t the 1+, he’s the guy who took out the contract, whilst in New York, with Nicolas as the 1, who is now troubled by the fact that he didn’t realise there was a + anything to it and now all their friends are dead and he’s responsible for it.

Rolf insists they go straight to the Police, to which Marcus agrees suspiciously quickly (mind you, we’ve seen him start swallowing pills like they were Smarties only to hawk them back up sharpish when little Noah needed a bedtime story). Marcus goes to get his coat. This is the cue for a cutback to Tobias the lawyer (a-hah!) and his shit hot secretary. He’s confirming that the Will is valid so he’d better take it to the Police, and she’s pointing out that as he’s sat on it for three years without even bothering to look at it, it’s going to make him look stupid to produce it now and, given that Nicolas is dead and can’t suffer for it, it’s better for all concerned, here meaning her and Tobias, if some unwitting secretary shredded the document years ago. Bzzzzzzzzz.

All of which diversion is meant to set up the tragic irony of Marcus sticking a gun in his mouth and blowing his brains out.

Is his death enough to end the sequence? With one episode left? I should coco.

So we move into the final episode and all coherence drains away, like the greasy water after washing the pots.

Take the collaborator, Marianne Larsson, who’s busy preparing a get away for Forrester: plane tickets, new passport as Mike Grossman (that couldn’t be a meta-commentary, could it? Perish forfend!), Dallas needs him urgently and Forrester loses his rag,throttles her and disposes of her body in a conveniently unmanned trash compactor. Incidentally, just how and why does a former Swedish cop come to be working with and for the very contract killing organisation her own boss unknowingly hires? You want explanations? Jeez!

Then, in the middle of the night, Stina and her sober little sister, fed up of not even being able to phone Mum (loving parent Inger Johanne cuts off calls rather than speak to the daughters who mean everything to her, and not just because she’s shagging Ingvar again) run away into the forest in the middle of the night, past a police surveillance unit snoring its gobs off, to walk back to Stockholm. Forrester takes off in his car in the night through a forest, a car stops by Stina and Linnea in the forest and they get in, oh lawks!

Don’t worry though, it’s a cheat on the audience, a bit of fake tension set up to try and make the girls relevant to the story but no, they’ve really been picked up by an angel of mercy, a middle-aged woman who plays car games with them, and ferries them round Stockholm until they’re safely lodged with Inger Johanne’s mum.

As for the Ings, they’ve had a lover’s quarrel, and in keeping with the grand passion that Cliche One is, it’s about the case. The Commissioner has called off the Press Conference that was going to make the case public: Fanny’s been picked up, been willfully and pointlessly eccentric whilst having her nails swabbed and scraped and the DNA sent to America has identified Forrester down to the type of underpants he wears, his plane ticket as Grossman has been identified and they’ll take him secretly at the airport. Got all that?

But Inger Johanne is horrified that they’re letting Forrester get away with the last +5 killing. And Ingvar, that personality void, stands convicted of not having the remotest DNA trace of maverick in him; the Commissioner says, and it will be done as the Commissioner says.

I know I took the piss unmercifully about Maverick Mess in Follow the Money but this is bloody ridiculous, and it further undermines the idea of a relationship between the Ings if they can only argue about a professional difference (which is immediately forgotten) and one of them (guess which?) can’t actually manage the energy to argue.

Next comes the revelation that Stina and Linnea are missing. Inger Johanne flies into a passion of fear, runs off in that ridiculously beaten up car that she can only start by hot-wiring. That car has been a waste of space, its only value to the plot being the excuse for Ingvar to give Inger a lift home, and it promptly conks out in the middle of nowhere, for no bloody reason.

Incidentally, Inger Johanne is so frantically grateful that her girls are safe that she can’t be arsed to go and see them. You see, there’s a slam-bang ending coming up, for which our lady star has to be alone, so the show has got to ignore everything about her actual character to force it. This is seriously bad writing, making your characters do alien things, just to force a dramatic climax.

But Forrester’s still got to do his final killing, which is going to be the hot, fit, blonde pregnant actress who’s carrying Rolf’s DNA donation. Forrester practices forcing a car to swerve out of his way on a bridge in the afternoon, and intends to kill Patricia the same way. Except that Inger Johanne phones him up to thank him for his moment of goodness in saving Stina, and to empathise about having an autistic child. At the last moment, in the dark, on the bridge, he swerves.

And then he turns up at Inger Johanne’s pad, intent on killing her instead.

It’s a melodramatic twist, but what can you do? If it’s not Cliche Two, it’s in the top five, and who cares if it’s completely incompatible with the series thus far. But, do you know what? On the one hand, we have a serial killer, an ex-Marine, and outdoorsman, about six foot, powerfully built, solid, good with weapons. And facing him, we have a slim, fragile woman of about 5′ 6″, taken unawares, smashed in the face with two punches, each of which should have incapacitated her, knocked her out, and guess what? She whups him. Of course she does. I mean, he’s a killer, he’s got his hands round her neck, throttling her, like he did Isabella and Marianne, and not only does she get away, but she gets the carving knife off him and stabs him four times in the stomach with it.

And would you believe it, the bastard’s still alive after the Police are called, and Inger Johanne’s not even bruised or dazed or suffered anything but a fetching smear of blood from her nose across her top lip that no-one’s thought to at least clean off, and there’s Ingvar hiding in the shadows, and not even disappearing into them, until his fellow Ing looks up and her face lights up with a look that probably is love but which really ought to be indigestion, because that’s what I got, trying to swallow this. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a half-decent storyline crash and burn as badly as this one did. It’s on a par with Salamander, except that that was crap throughout.

Modus was based on the fourth of five novels featuring Inger Johanne Vik and a different character completely, by Anne Holt. That gives the producers four more options for a second series. If they are wont to do so, I have three pieces of advice. 1. Drop Ingvar. 2. Do a fucking sight better job of it. and 3. Don’t.

 

A Heartfelt Recommendation


On a number of occasions, I’ve called out stories in the Guardian as being crap, but I’d like to draw to your attention a weekly column which is very much the opposite.

Widower of the Parish is a weekly column appearing in the Guardian’s Lifestyle section on-line, and its Family supplement on Saturdays. It’s being written under the pseudonym Adam Golightly, and its subject is living with the death of a loved one.

Adam’s wife Helen died of cancer earlier in 2016, after a long illness in which her forthcoming death was an ever present factor. Adam now has two young children to bring up, and to manage both his sense of loss, and theirs, and ensure that they can grow as unharmed as possible.

The column is wide-ranging, but it is always thoughtful, always full of questions, doubts, fears. It is one of the first things I look for each Saturday, ahead of Clive James’ weekly column, which should show you the esteem in which I hold it.

I just wanted others who might not be aware of this series to know about it. The link is to this week’s column, but all its predecessors can be read on the site. It’s sober stuff but moving, and beautifully written.

Amazon huh?


Yesterday, I received an e-mail notification from Amazon that a book I pre-ordered in April 2016 (Year of Yesh, the 22nd annual collection of Patrick McDonnell’s charmingly funny Mutts: the Mutts treasury has been a Xmas tradition for nearly twenty years now) had been despatched to me and was expected to be delivered today.

At 10.16am, today, I received a second e-mail from Amazon about this book, detailing my pre-order profit: I had ordered the book at the advance price of £14.99 but it had been published at £14.97, and thus I had saved 2p.

Exactly 65 minutes later, I received a second e-mail from Amazon about this book. It apologised for delaying the delivery of my book, confirmed Amazon would refund my delivery charges and basically confessed that Amazon had no idea whatsoever when the book would be available.

Complicating things further, when I checked my Amazon Orders, there was no sign of Year of Yesh as either a fulfilled or Open Order.

So I have reordered the book, for the reduced price of £11.60, inclusive of postage and delivery (though even as I was writing this very line, a fourth e-mail arrived, confirming refund of £2.99 delivery charges but still suggesting that my now-vanished original order will be delivered. Sometime.)

I wouldn’t normally mention this except that Year of Yesh was not the only book I have on pre-order from several months ago. Another such was Rick Geary’s latest Casebook of Twentieth Century Murder, The Black Dahlia. For months this has been set for publication in late November 2016 but, with that date almost on us, Amazon e-mailed me to say that they haven’t had the book supplied. Even up to today, Amazon had no idea when it might be shipped to me.

The fact that it’s been available via eBay for at least three weeks already has nothing to do with this.

So, exasperatedly, I have cancelled that order, and bought the book through eBay with free postage, which will cost me £1.80 less overall, though instead of getting the book for Xmas, as was the original idea, I won’t get it until mid-January.

Amazon, huh?

Postscript: 40 minutes after this post, the original order arrives, bang on time. I have immediately requested cancellation of the duplicate. I wish I knew what’s going on.

Some Books: Michael Bishop’s ‘Who Made Stevie Crye?’ (revised)


Some time back, I was reminded of books I had read a long time ago, borrowing them from Didsbury Library. It was thirty years and more since I had last read them, and I was curious as to how I might react to them now, whether they would give me the same pleasure to re-read, and to what extent any enjoyment they might give me could be divorced from simple nostalgia for the times they represented.
Originally, there were Three Books, but memories keeps playing its tricks and this is now an indefinite, occasional series.
The latest such is Who made Stevie Crye? by Michael Bishop. It was a later read than most to date, from the late Eighties, in the final couple of years that I regularly visited Didsbury Library before moving across South Manchester to Reddish, in Stockport. I can’t recall what caught my attention, because this is a horror story, and horror is not often my thing.
Bishop, who happens to be one day over being exactly ten years older than me, is a well-respected and prolific author of mainly SF, best known for the Nebula Award-winning No Enemy But Time. Who made Stevie Crye? was his next novel, published in a limited, illustrated edition in America in 1984 and never re-issued in a mass market edition, which appeared in the UK in 1987. I think I only read it once, but certain details, and certainly one scene, stayed in my memory where hundreds of once-read books have sunk without trace.
Stevie Crye – more properly Mary Stevenson Crye, never referred to as Mary, always Stevenson Crye or Stevie, no maiden name given – is the centre and subject of the book. She is a 35 year old widow, who lost her husband, Ted Sr., eighteen months to two years ago. She is bringing up two children, Ted Jr., aged 13 and Marella, aged 8, in a small Arizona town, from the limited and precarious income she makes as a freelance writer. At the beginning, she is preparing a proposal for a book collecting and expanding on her columns about life as a young widow, to be called Two-Faced Woman. The action begins with her electric typewriter breaking down, four paragraphs from the end of her latest column.
The essence of the story is that Stevie, unable to afford the official call-out charges under her Service Agreement, is directed to a local company, where her Excelerite is repaired by a creepy young man. Who causes it to become possessed by a demon.
Ok, time out here. Like I said, I am not an aficionado, nor a devotee, not even an average to moderate reader of horror fiction, so I am operating from a position of ignorance as to the parameters and tropes of the genre, save that I have Stephen King’s extensive meditation on the form, Danse Macabre. But to me, a haunted typewriter spells only one thing,  and that is Spoof.
That, according to all the responses the book has drawn, and indeed the development of the situation, is far from Bishop’s intention, but the set-up is, to me at least, inherently absurd, and it puts Bishop to the task of overturning that instinctive response, and make us take seriously the idea of a writer’s life being taken over by a haunted typewriter. Does he succeed?
So, back to the story. Stevie’s Excelerite snaps a cable, she can’t afford the call-out, and her friend, almost-mentor and constant presence Dr Elsa points her to a local firm for a cheap repair. This brings her into contact with Seaton Beneke, the owner’s 26 year old son, who is exactly the kind of half-formed, socially inept little weirdo that you expect to instantly turn into a stalker, sexually fixated on a lonely older woman. He is exactly that, though not in the sense that you anticipate.
For the moment, it’s the inherent creepiness of his knowing her name, professing to follow her work, thinking she should dig deeper, be more serious. He promises her that he’s put in a little something extra for her. Stevie finds out what that it that night, when the typewriter starts writing for itself.
At first sight, this is a basic horror setting. The typewriter appears to be laying bare Stevie’s dreams, or rather her nightmares. There’s a particularly vivid one to start with: Stevie wakes up hearing Marella, an illness-prone child already, complain of burning up, and when she pulls back her daughter’s bedclothes, Marella’s body has melted away to a skeleton. The highly effective manipulated-photo illustrations by J. K. Potter made that one a queasy affair.
The next one is a little less obviously a nightmare, involving Ted Jr., who turns up, half-naked and impervious to the Arizona winter, in his mother’s bed experiencing a 13 year old’s crisis of future masculinity. He really needs a father’s reassurance, but he’s only got a mother, so Stevie reassures him by mounting him and shagging him, seemingly under the impression he’s Ted Sr., restored to her. How real this is is made obscure by Stevie waking convinced it was a wet dream, but Ted Jr., words in the kitchen at breakfast are sufficiently ambiguous to cover a multitude of sins, incest not excluded. Besides, there’s no suggestion the typewriter had anything to do with it…
Call me excessively sheltered if you like, but this was probably my first introduction to the notion of mother-son incest (Oedipus doesn’t count: all that classical stuff is too far removed from real life, and anyway, it’s not like either of them knew that Jocasta was that literal a MILF). This was the one part of the novel that seriously stuck in my memory over thirty years.
However, Bishop then consigns this deliberately enigmatic episode to the dustbin, with no subsequent reference, consequence or effect, which makes the whole thing come over as just a prurient curiosity, an Obligatory Sex Scene of pointless perversion.
Now that the sinister typewriter has been established, Bishop brings in the unprepossessing Seaton to stalk in person, and introduces his familiar, his pet capuchin monkey, ‘Crets (this is short for Sucrets, which constitutes the monkey’s entire food supply, that and blood sucked from Seaton’s finger.)
Ted Jr. and Marella are hooked on ‘Crets instantly, whilst Stevie objects to the creature but is barred from saying this due to basic politeness. And Seaton, employing his natural inability to respond appropriately to social situations, is deliberately obtuse about buggering off out of it as Stevie is signalling.
By now, it’s evident that Bishop wants us to read this novel as a metafiction, a symbolic exploration of the relationship of a writer to her tools. The typewriter is gradually taking over Stevie’s life, making her into a figure of fiction in her own level of reality, to which a great many reviewers have responded enthusiastically. But its effectiveness depends upon the reader remaining interested in Stevie and her predicament and actually caring if she is a real woman or a metafictional construct and at least one reader simply didn’t.
Nor is it helpful that Bishop’s denouement involves pulling an in-story quasi-rational explanation out of his back pocket. By an implausible coincidence, it turns out that, a decade before, the late Ted Crye Senior conducted an affair with Lynette Beneke, Seaton’s actual MILF mother, Seaton, who not only witnessed their fucking in the flesh but also took so many pictures you could construct a feature film from them, is taking his revenge by punishing Stevie.
Unfortunately, the motive makes no sense, either realistic or stalker-twisted, and the introduction of a concrete grudge flattens what remains of the mystery of the ending, in which Bishop’s sting in the tail is that the supposedly-reformed Seaton has added an army of demons to an entire range of manual typewriters acquired by Stevie on the cheap. The two notions simply do not gel.
Basically, Who made Stevie Crye? does not work for me. I can see what Bishop is aiming for, and that the intention of the book is to make the reader re-read it’s title, and interpret it as ‘Who made Stevie Crye?’, introducing an ambiguity as to the exact nature of the author’s role. Thirty years or so ago, I think that I may have been more impressed by the ambition but in 2016, I am unable to summon any interest in whether Mary Stevenson Crye is a ‘real’ character undergoing an unusual and readworthy experience, or an author’s overt puppet with no autonomous function.
Whatever conclusion I came to in the Eighties has vanished with the more detailed recollections of the book. I know that my present day opinion is exceedingly low.
Charity shop, here we come.

The Reposting Blues


Like any self-obsessed blogger with a small (but perfectly-formed) audience, I check my Stats daily for number of visitors and what posts they are reading. Frequently, I click through to those posts that have had attention, reminding myself of what I’ve written, trying to assess what has caused the attention.

Almost inevitably, I find typos, misplaced punctuation, repetitive terms, the kind of things that always slip through the most rigorous of self-proofing, and I’ll edit and update. But apart from that, I try not to change anything. I hold to the belief that, once it is ‘published’, a piece of writing is completed, and any lessons it holds should be applied to new work.

There is an exception. Two days ago, someone looked at one of my posts from earlier this year in my occasional ‘Some Books’ series that I don’t remember previously attracting attention. I clicked through to read it and discovered that, in addition to the usual typos plus, that the piece was very badly written.

This is just to explain why the post is being re-posted shortly after this appears, having been completely rewritten, and the original, crappy post has been deleted.

Sorry about that, people.