Deep Space Nine: s04e08 – Little Green Men

Hot guest star. And Nog.
Hot guest star. And Nog.

The episode title filled me with apprehension, which the open rapidly converted into dread. I really do not like Quark as comic relief in small doses and the prospect of an entire episode based on Armin Shimerman being Quark to the nth degree is more than somewhat unpalatable. I just can’t be objective about such things, and what few good things there were in this week’s programme were pretty much lost on me.

Basically: Nog’s induction to Starfleet Academy is due and he’s going away, breaking up the easy-going relationship with Jake that’s sustained both boys for so long, a moment that was touching. Quark is still violently opposed to the idea, but volunteers to take Nog, and Rom, to Earth in his new personal space shuttle, the repayment of a debt by Cousin Gailo.

The ship is perfect in every respect but one: the controls have been sabotaged to stop it ever coming out of warp-drive. But Rom’s mechanical genius enables hiom to get round that, using the shipment of contraband Kemocite that Quark is smuggling. There’s an unfortunate side-effect: the ship is blasted back four hundred years in time, and crash-lands on Earth. At, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Roswell.

What followed was, if I could have gotten over my prejudice, a pretty good encapsulation of American Cold War paranoia, militarisation, suspicion, you name it. And the programme was almost gleeful in its swipes at such crude and primitive hu-mon traits like Atom Bombs and smoking (everybody was like chimneys!). The military was paranoid, the scientist thoughtful, his nurse/fiancee equally open-minded, as well as being as beautiful as they only ever were in B-movies (she was Megan Gallagher, who appeared in s02e04, and whom I clearly recognised, though I had to check to remind myself that she’d been a late-series cast member in Hill Street Blues).

But Quark was being Quark, and having no regard for the established timeline in plunging forward with the idea of advancing earth four hundred technological years overnight (it’s never that simple), and created a vast, Quadrant-wide Ferengi economic Empire with him at the top.

Fortunately, the Alsatian dog hanging around the Military base like he belonged turned out to be Odo, who’d stowed away, suspecting Quark of malfeasance. He ends up helping the Ferengis to escape, with the aid of the Farseeing Scientist and the Beautiful Fiancee, not to mention a handy A Bomb test and Rom’s mechanical genius.

So Quark has to sell the shuttle to pay for salvage and tickets home, Odo arrests him for smuggling, despite all the Kemocite having gone up in a blaze of glory, and despite the good bits, I heaved a sigh of relief. Next week’s episode has got to be better. I just don’t like Quark.

Resurrecting Ghosts

In December, I announced that my latest literary project was to transcribe my first novel, written thirty years ago (literally: between January and April 1987), which only existed as a manuscript first draft in a very fat ring-binder.

The novel, which never had a name, was in the classic tradition of being semi-autobiographical. It was a fictionalisation of a two-year period in my life when I had lived away from home for the first time, during which I had fallen in love with someone who didn’t love me, but to who I was a close friend during a year when her boyfriend/fiance was out of the country.

It was an ideal, self-contained subject for someone who’d never even got close to completing an extended piece of work, and whilst the preparation was long-winded and awkward, the actual writing turned out to be relatively easy. I was producing two chapters a week, and proving to myself that I was capable of consistent, disciplined writing, driving forward a relatively complex story, and reaching the end.

That was invaluable in itself: every writer needs to hit the incredible words ‘The End’ at some point! But more than that, and this was at least a subconscious intention behind the entire thing it exorcised a ghost that I had been carrying with me since the original events upon which the novel was based.

Which was the main reason that the novel didn’t go any further forward. There was no second draft: the impulse was gone, fact translated into people and places and events that hadn’t actually happened, but which represented various elements in my life during those years. It would be over a half decade later before I again wrote something of that length, this time directly autobiographical, by which time I had learned how to redraft, and revise.

Occasionally, down the years, I’ve thought of typing up that book, but never followed through. It’s the best part of those thirty years since I last read it, during which the ring-binder has been stashed, visible but out of the way, on top of wardrobes or bookcases.

But in the past few years, I’ve struggled to write fiction, and thus I decided to finally undertake this project, to give the book a more permanent form of existence, instead of only a wodge of handwritten, narrow feint lined sheets of paper in a ring-binder. And I announced it to make sure that I actually went ahead and did it.

As I’ve already said, it’s been a fascinating experience. I began by setting myself the target of transcribing one sheet – that is, two sides – per day, on which basis I estimated it would take me until June or July to complete. Then I started doing two pages a day, one before my shift, one after, and the odd extra sheet at weekends, and now I’m almost obsessive about it. I am midway through Chapter 15, of 23, the opening chapter of the third and final phase of the book, and I am writing several sheets a day. At this rate, it’ll be finished before the end of March.

The thing is, I’ve got hooked on the story! I want to know what happens next! If that sounds weird to you, then so be it, but I am reading something I wrote thirty years ago and which I have barely even scanned since, and apart from a few ‘highlights’, I have no memory of how I treated my history.

I’ve limited myself to a chapter at a time: hence the urge to hurry through a transcription, because only once that is completed can I take the next chapter out of the binder and read another portion of the book!

As I’ve already observed, I have had a mixed reaction to the actual writing. This is a thirty year old piece, just under half my lifetime gone, and in many places it is exactly as I feared: clumsy, overwritten, repetitive, so many chances overlooked for a richer, better reality, a thicker story. I keep wanting to change things.

But at the same time, there are more good things in this book than I feared. Thirty years ago, this is still me, and there are lines of demonstrable quality, and subtleties of expression, which hint at deeper things than are exposed on the page (or, at least so they seem to me, who knows about the subtleties of the real thing). I am still recognisable in this prentice work, very much so.

What I am doing is transcribing, literally. Some errors are being corrected, silently, as I go along, but otherwise I am just copying myself. But at the same time, I am seeing many chances to rephrase, to add, to hint and suggest at lines of development that will feature in the now-inevitable second draft, and these I am interpolating, in a different colour font, so that I can pick up on these later. Slowly, a partial skeleton of a different version of the book is being built.

When the transcription is complete, I plan to create duplicate documents, a kind of definitive ‘first draft’ text, which I shall publish privately through, for my benefit only. I will then start to rewrite, with the intention of completing a book that I will publish through Lulu for general access. If anyone is in the least bit fascinated by these necessarily cryptic accounts, I hope before 2017 is out to give you a chance to read the book.

However, there is one aspect to what I’m doing that I had not foreseen and which, had I realised, might very well have made me reconsider this project. I spoke earlier of the first draft exorcising ghosts, very effectively. What I hadn’t realised is that immersing myself in this book might have the effect of resurrecting those ghosts, still with the power they exerted all that time ago.

I have been drawn nearer to those days than I have been for a very long time. In a way, the world of the story has taken over from the world of actual memory, which is now close to forty years ago and therefore dim. But these fictions have drawn me in, and even if it is reminding me of the version of that relationship that I created between Steve and Lesley in my book, rather than the one between myself and that lady who I won’t embarrass, even this far removed, those feelings were powerful and it is dangerous to be so reminded of them.

I have gotten so absorbed in these hybrid creatures that I have begun to speculate about what happened to them after the story ends: does this relationship thrive, does that survive, does this character go on to be successful: where are they all now, in my fiction and in their own lives?

And then there’s me. I may be Steve in this book, and he’s an improved version of myself, because I couldn’t be that indifferent to art as opposed to reality, but there’s a hell of a lot of me in him, and it’s a me that I would really rather not have been, and which I am still, to a degree that frightens me. Some of his dialogue, his musings, could come out of my mouth now, in my years of depression, and it’s horrifying to realise that there are aspects that I have still not grown out of, even this far removed.

But it’s too late now to go back. Things learned cannot be unlearned, except by unusually precise traumatic amnesia. I have raised my own ghosts, and I can only hope that they can once again be captured by print, even if it takes two books to do so.

It was Alan Moore who put it perfectly: when you open a can of worms, one thing is certain: you need a much bigger can to put them back into.

A brief speculation on Flashman’s career: Part 2 – 1847 to 1854

The next period of Flashman’s career occupies a relatively short space of time, but a tremendous number of events, as recorded in the Second, Third and Seventh Packets. It runs from Flashman’s return to London in ‘late 1847’ recovering from his wound, to his arrival in San Francisco in September 1850, at the (temporary) end of his American adventures.
Despite his long separation from Elspeth, Flashman finds London uncongenial, thanks to the presence of his in-laws, especially his father-in-law. Hence, when he receives a letter inviting him to supply a personal service to an unknown titled lady in Bavaria, complete with generous expenses, he overcomes his suspicions and travels to Germany.
There, he learns that the mysterious Countess is actually Lola Montez, mistress to the King of Bavaria, and seemingly having forgiven her resentment at Flashman. However, she is acting in concert with Flashman’s other victim of that time, Otto von Bismarck, now Chancellor of Prussia, and commencing the long process of manipulation that would lead to the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. Flashman is framed on a trumped up charge of rape, forcing him to agree to Bismarck’s scheme
As a forerunner to the infamous Schleswig-Holstein Question, Bismarck is focused on the tiny Duchy of Strakenz, whose young ruler, Duchess Irma, is shortly to marry Danish princeling Carl Gustaf. But Carl Gustaf has apparently contracted a sexual disease and cannot marry until he is disease-free. Since Flashman is his virtual double, he will marry the Duchess in Carl Gustaf’s place.
To Flashman’s dismay, the plot is a set-up, with the intention that he be killed and framed as an English spy. he manages to escape Bismarck’s men, but is forced into rescuing Carl Gustaf from execution. This accomplished, he is allowed to ride for the border but, being Flashman, he rides via the Treasury and removes as much as he can carry.
Flashman’s escape route takes him back through Bavaria, and into the 1848 revolution, which overthrows both the King and Lola Montez. Flashman hitches a ride out of Bavaria with Lola, only for her to rob him of his ill-gotten gains. Flashman returns to London empty-handed, in time for the Chartist Riots.
These frighten his father-in-law John Morrison into wanting to raise a group of MPs to protect his interests. Flashman is amenable to becoming an MP, especially if it will keep him away from battlefields, but on his ‘launching’, he encounters an old enemy that he has cheated, who retaliates by framing Flashman for cheating at cards.
Flashman compounds his disgrace by attacking his former friend, and almost killing him. He is rushed out of the country by Morrison, under the control of Captain John Charity Spring, a defrocked Oxford Don and a near-madman. His ship is also in the Slave Trade, which Flashman doesn’t learn until it is far too late.
Spring’s ship stops first at Dahomey in West Africa, to buy slaves from King Gezo. His attempt tp buy one of Gezo’s Amazon, in exchange for the ship’s cabin boy, has consequences in both the short and long-term. Second Mate Beauchamp Comber is fatally wounded n the escape. before he dies, he confesses to Flashman that he is a Navy Officer engaged in spying, and entrusts his papers to Flashman. When the ship is taken by the American navy, Flashman uses these to impersonate Comber, taking in everyone except an obscure member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln.
‘Comber’ is much in demand but Flashman’s biggest concern is having to testify in New orleans, against Spring and his men, which will lead to his imposture being detected. He takes refuge in a whorehouse, playing up to its Madam, the mature Susie Willinck, who arranges passage for him on an England-bound ship. However, ‘Comber’ has been watched by the Underground Railroad, who want him to escort a slave north to freedom. Lacking alternative, Flashman has to accede.
Unfortunately, his charge is unable to play the part of a slave, leading to the pair’s exposure. Flashman escapes by diving into and swimming the Mississippi, after which he takes a job as a slave overseer at the Mandeville Plantation, under the name Tom Arnold. This cushy berth is disrupted when he is caught screwing the owner’s wife, Annette Mandeville, and is punished by being sent into slavery himself, in the Deep South, where he will never be found.
Flashman travels with another slave, Cassieopia, who assists him in overcoming and killing their guards. Under the name of James Prescott, Flashman takes Cassie north on the Mississippi towards freedom, but is careless enough to get the pair turned round and heading south again.
They are forced to run across the ice to the north shore, chased by slave-stealers, who wound Flashman in the buttocks, and are only saved when Lincoln faces the stealers down.
But ‘Comber’ now has to return to New Orleans and testify. Being Flashman, he steers between all the traps, telling the ‘truth’ but not incriminating Spring or himself. Having put up the backs of the US Navy, Flashman offers Comber’s papers to spring in return for passage to England.
Unfortunately, despite his protestations of a higher moral code, Spring tries to play Flashman false, starting a brawl in which Spring runs through a planter who has recognised one of Flashman’s aliases. With spring on his tail, Flashman tries to hole up with Susie Willinck again, but is shocked to find her closing her establishment, intent on transporting it across the continent to California, and the Gold Rush. Susie is willing to take ‘Comber’ with her, as her husband, and to dope Spring and ship him out of the way, to South Africa.
Flashman ends up in nominal charge of the Willinck wagon train, heading westward under the guidance of Richard Willens. They encounter Indians on a couple of occasions, the second group have cholera. Woollens is affected and Flashman has to lead the train. They are forced to take refuge in Bent’s Fort, a famous trading post that has been abandoned, and only the intervention of a band of trappers saves them from massacre.
The caravan travels as far as Sante Fe, where Susie decides to stop for a couple of years. This does not suit Flashman’s plans so he sells one of the whores, Cleonie, with whom he has been sleeping, to the Indians, and sets off on his own. Unfortunately, he falls in with an infanmous band of Scalphunters and is forced to join in one of their raids. This captures several Indian women, who are to be enjoyed before being killed and scalped. Because Flashman prefers not to crudely rape his woman, who happens to be the daughter of Mangas Colorado, the mountainous leader of the Apaches, he is spared, and ends up going through his third bigamous marriage in the last twelve months, marrying Takes-Away-Clouds Woman.
After wintering with the Apaches into 1850, Flashman takes advantage of the first Spring raiding party to break away. He is pursued relentlessly, but is rescued by the intervention of the legendary scout, Kit Carson. Carson secures Flashman’s safety and, in slow stages, he is able to make his way to San Francisco by September, in order to depart America.

We now reach the most substantial gap in Flashman’s early career. At the end of ‘The Forty-Niners’, he confirms that his American adventures had come to an end, at least for the next quarter century. Most readers have taken that to mean that Flashman does, finally, return to England. I doubt it was that simple.
When next we hear of Flashman, it is early 1854, and he has already assessed the prevailing sentiment of the times and secured a sinecurial position at the Board of Ordnance that he intends will keep him from active service in the War with Russia that he foresees.
This means we have some three years to account for, although on this occasion we have the advantage of one confirmed but unchronicled adventure in this period. We know that Flashman was in Australia during their Gold Rush: officially this could mean any time between 1851-54, but most chronologies I’ve seen agree on dating this to 1852. He plays nap with pinches of gold dust from the diggings, and spends his near-customary time in prison in Botany Bay.
We also have undated incidents in the South Pacific: Christian Missionary in the Fly River country, west of Papua New Guinea, and Lottery Supervisor in Manila, in the Philippines. And we have Flashman’s mention of undergoing a shipwreck and failing to have sex with a fellow refugee in a lifeboat.
Given the distance from England to Australia, and that travel there and back represented a massive commitment in time (the Flashmans take more or less a year from England to Singapore in 1843-44) it seemed logical to me to collate Flashman’s other adventures in the South Pacific into this period, rather than have to find another trip around the world to accommodate them. This means a somewhat erratic course about the South Pacific, which is not an objection in itself, but there is a later placing for one of these incidents that seems to me to make better sense, so I exclude it and suggest the following:
In San Francisco, Flashman seeks passage to England. This would be by ship, either round Cape Horn, or by passage to Panama, crossing the isthmus on foot and catching a shop for England on the Atlantic side. The third alternative, crossing the Pacific and returning round the globe, seems an unlikely choice, given the length of time involved. Of course, he could always have done his usual trick of having gotten involved with a married woman whilst waiting, and having to leave in haste, on which case he may have had to catch a ship heading towards the Far East.
Whatever his course, Flashman takes up with a woman on board but, just when he’s about to commit the capital act in his or her cabin, the ship is either attacked or springs a leak but either way, it is shipwrecked and Flashy heads for the lifeboats. His amour gets there under her own steam, but in a crowded lifeboat, consummation proves impossible.
It may be that the lifeboat comes to land on the South American continent, giving Flashman his experience with hearing drums in the jungle on that continent. However, that I think is pushing it a bit, so: Flashman drifts at sea until the lifeboat is discovered and everybody is rescued (knowing Flashman, by this point everyone may well consist of him alone). But, for one reason or another, the rescuing vessel is heading outwards across the Pacific, and will not take him back to the Americas.
Flashman winds up in Australia , initially at Botany Bay, where he ends up in the lock-up, before going on to the Gold Rush, where he has the adventures Fraser envisioned. After leaving Australia, Flashman arrives in the Philippines, where he is robbed of any gold that he has got away with and earns his passage home by taking on his Lottery Supervisor role. From this successful venture, he finally manages to return to England, after having been absent for four years. His reunion with Elspeth produced their first child, Havvy…
We will never know.

Powerless: The Four Episode Test

The latest of DC’s excursions onto the cathode ray tube (which was a way we had of describing television back in the days when televisions actually still ran on cathode ray tubes, which they don’t any longer) is the sitcom Powerless, starring Vanessa Hudgens and a small supporting cast, which includes Danny Pudi, mainstay of Community these several years.

Powerless differs from its myriad predecessors by being a sitcom, about civilians in a superhero world. It’s set in a Research & Development company in a place called Charm City (an unfortunate choice of names, given that it’s a real-life nickname for Baltimore and so is always putting me in mind of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire: not good, not good at all).

Hudgens plays Emily Locke, the new Director of Research & Development, at Wayne Security, an offshoot of Wayne Enterprises, though the Wayne in charge is not Bruce but Van, a long-forgotten cousin created back in 1962 The company produces products that civilians can buy to protect themselves from accidental injury if caught up in superhero incidents (Charm City’s resident hero is the Crimson Fox and its resident villain is Jack O’Lantern, both long standing minor characters).

If the products are any good, Batman nicks them.

Pudi plays Teddy, Ron Funches plays Ron and Jennie Pierson (who isn’t even cast) plays Wendy: these three are Emily’s R&D team. Alan Tudyk plays Van, a self-centred, spoilt, talentless idiot who is continually angling for a move to Gotham: he’s a Wayne, after all.

This leaves Christina Kirk as Jackie, tall, dry, continually wandering round with her hands in her pockets, bored with the nonsense going on around her, and deeply cynical. She’s Van’s secretary and the most interesting person in the show and personally I find her more enjoyable to look at than young Miss Hudgens herself, who is set up to be bright, perky, enterprising, permanently optimistic and the show’s go-to girl for glamour.

I have given the show the four-episode test, having originally determined to give it six, but frankly this is a turkey that should already be making plans to be out of the country at Xmas. It’s basic problem is the one thing that’s always fatal to a sitcom: the jokes aren’t funny. There’s not even the usual, reliable, stream of them battering at your ears in the hope of wearing you down.

In fact, outside of Ms Kirk’s perpetually adult presence, Powerless only attracts on those relatively brief occasions when Vanessa Hudgens combines a very short skirt with black tights, and these moments only last about three or four seconds at a time.

In short, it’s a bust. The characters convince neither as recognisable human beings nor as exaggerated caricatures that make fun of superhero tropes because, as I may already have said, the writing simply isn’t funny for a moment.

It’s apparently ordered for ten episodes, and after the first couple of episodes were slated, last week’s was praised as an improvement. This week’s should send the level spiraling downwards again.

So my advice is not to bother. These are twenty minute slices of your life that should be wasted on something more worthwhile, like filing your tax returns. Unless you’re seriously dependent upon three to four second glimpses of Vanessa Hudgens’ legs in black tights under a short skirt: they are rather fetching, though.

The Last SOTS

Last week’s suspicion proved to be sadly warranted. Anneka Rice gave it away in the closing moments of her early Saturday show: that our old mate Brian Matthews was back on Sounds of the Sixties but for his final programme. As I write, I’m listening to The Beatles’ ‘If I needed someone’, representing that long and glorious A to Z of The Beatles.

But it’s a kind of Greatest Hits show, as a farewell. Matthews’ voice is still recognisable, but it’s recognisably weak, and it’s clear that this is the end of the line.

It’s been a pleasure, these last fifteen or sixteen years, however long it’s been since that early Saturday morning drive to Barrow for a football match, the rain and the rainbow, the two of us finding the programme by accident on the drive, and making it the way to wake-up on Saturday mornings for all the years after.

But the time has come to say goodbye, and thanks for all the memories.

Nothing’s been said as to whether the show will survive if it is to lose Brian Matthews finally, and if it isn’t there next Saturday morning, then I for one will not campaign for it to be restored. If it is to continue, the choice of a new presenter is crucial (and a change of Producer and track-selector might very well help smooth over that transition, hint, hint).

But all these years have shown me how to make my own Sixties, and I have a plethora of home-made CDs doing that for me.

There is a half hour remaining. You’ll permit me, if I slip off to listen.

Injury Time

Throughout that last, dreadful year, when famous and noticeable people seemed to be dying wantonly, ripping apart our cultural background, I lived daily expecting the next name to be Clive James, who has been terminally ill since 2010.

But the Kid from Kogarah keeps doing it. And he keeps writing. Last year, he published another TV book, Play All, about box-sets. Now, sure, it lacked the depth and intensity of a decade ago, but it’s still there. And it doesn’t look as if the sixth and final book of autobiography – the one about the Atkin revival, Midnight Voices, the part of his story where I have a minuscule part to play – is going to arrive.

But Clive James’ first and last love is poetry, and here he still writes, about his condition, about his life. Thoughtfully, intensely, movingly. His collection, Sentenced to Life, is a wonderful book, and everyone, James included, expected it to be his last.

And expectations are once again confounded, this time joyfully, for there is to be another volume, Injury Time, dealing with this further lease of life he is enjoying.

I will be waiting, like all the rest of us. There has never been enough Clive James, and when he does at last leave this place, there will still not be enough, were he to live to a thousand, which, on current form, is not an option that can be wholly discounted.