Collecting Eagles

Just you wait…

It’s just over two years ago now. I was still in the relatively early stages of a blog series about Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future, reading and studying all the official stories in the canon created by Frank Hampson, a genius son of my home city, Manchester. I wasn’t rushing things: the early stories ran for anything between six and eighteen months at a time, which was a lot of reading. Still, it took me the best part of six months for the penny to drop.

I’d been introduced to Eagle in late 1963, less than halfway through the long decline, but I’d become a Dan Dare fan just like all the other little boys who’d preceded me in the dozen plus years the comic had then existed: just one front page, and we were gone.

From the first week of 1964 until about two months after its ignominious end, merged into Lion – which had begun as a cheaper, tattier knock-off of Eagle – I got it every week, apart from that one when the newsagent forgot to deliver it. I had a complete collection from that point on.

A long time passed. The comics went to the children’s hospital, I went on to other things. I proved to be one of those who still loved comics as an adult, though mostly American ones. But there were those landmark Dragon’s Dream collections of the Man from Nowhere trilogy, and Alastair Crompton’s magnificent The Man Who Drew Tomorrow that didn’t quite make it to publication before Frank Hampson succumbed to cancer, that reminded me.

And there was the fellow fan who, long long ago, alerted me to Manchester’s Central Reference Library having bound editions of Volumes 1 to 10 of the Eagle, 1950 to 1960. Dozens of Saturday afternoons I spent, reading, researching, making notes with the ambition of writing a book about Dan Dare.

It would have been possible, even relatively easy, to have bought back issues in the Eighties, complete volumes in one go, instant collections. I had the money, but not the room, so I let the opportunity go.

When I did start to collect old Eagles, it was the early Nineties, and I had a plan. Since Volumes 1 – 10 could be read any old Saturday afternoon, I would focus on everything after, try to build a collection of Volumes 11 to whenever Dan Dare went into reprint (Volume 17 no 2, incidentally). My main source was Sheffield’s Old Magazine Shop, from which I returned with treasures. I would drive over on otherwise unoccupied Saturday afternoons with my scrawled out list in hand, and once I started following Droylsden, every away game that saw me traveling through Sheffield included a visit, no matter how depressed the market was.

Sometimes I’d dig a bit further back, if something particularly cheap turned up, but the objective was still Volumes 11 onwards. Anything more was just a pipe-dream.

Then along came a wonderful wife and three brilliant step-children, and old freedoms to splash my money on whatever frivolity I chose became a thing of the past. I had no regrets. She was with me when I passed through Sheffield, but the stays were shorter, the searches more desultory, the collection no longer growing.

Like I said, with life much changed, I was several months into writing my Dan Dare series when the penny dropped. I did an eBay Search for Eagle comics. I wrote about the experience here.

That was just two years and one week ago today. The ease, and relative inexpensiveness, of collecting started that old ambition of collecting Volumes 11 – 17 in full. And, who knows, maybe, in time, working a bit further back, those late Fifties volumes where I had some issues already.

I’ve still not been back to re-read the bound volumes at Central Ref. I searched ‘Eagle Comics’ on eBay at least twice a week. Once you strip out the results that obviously don’t relate to my Eagle, there’s still somewhere around 4,000 items whenever you search, so I go through the first ten pages, make a note of when the last item is due to end, and re-search when that item will be on page 1 instead of page 10.

And slowly I extended my ambition. Maybe, if I was patient, if I kept my eyes open and didn’t overextend what I could afford, maybe, just maybe I could, perhaps, one day, get a complete collection? It’s a pipe dream.

Well, guess what, people? Today I have added three more issues to my collection. They’ve yet to arrive so they don’t get knocked off the list until they do, but once they arrive, my Wants List is in single figures.

That’s right. I am nine issues away from a complete sixteen year run of the Eagle. Nine issues. Nine.

Of these outstanding issues, six come from volume 1, and I am currently Watching four of them. One is No. 1, which I do have, but in such a ratty state, I will still be on the look-out for a better copy. One sold today on eBay, for nearly £80: far too rich for me, unless, until it’s the only one left and then… I’ll think about it.

And there’s maybe a dozen or so that are complete, where the Centrespread is missing because someone extracted it for the Cut-out, and there are people who sell just these on eBay, so when I have that unbelievable collection, I will make a list of incompletes and maybe I can mix-and-match.

And then a long, leisurely sitting back and reading, without having to leave the flat on Saturday afternoons. Then we’ll see some real Nostalgia.



Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Saucers over the Moor

08 - Saucers over the Moor

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

After the highlight of The Neglected Mountain, it’s a shame to have to describe its successor, Saucers over the Moor, as a failure on some fundamental levels. That’s not to say that the book is a failure, because it isn’t, and there’s some very good stuff in here, among the Club members, but the subject Saville chooses is in the end too contemporary, and too serious for his gang of children.
Saucers marks a change of direction for the series. The first and most obvious change is that, after an introduction in Rye, it is set on Dartmoor. Indeed, out of this and the next five books, the Lone Piners travel to unfamiliar territory four times. And though she’s spent an offstage holiday with the Mortons in London, this is the first time Peter has appeared outside Shropshire.
Though we’re not fated to spend our time in or around Rye, the book starts in the tradition of a Warrender story, with Penny coming home from school for the holidays. For once, Jon is to follow, but there is an unnerving experience for her: her parents have written to confirm that they are coming home for six months leave. She has not seen them in three years, and eagerness is inextricably mixed with trepidation after so much time.
Before that, there’s the usual dubious guest to the Gay Dolphin, a Mr Green, an elderly man excessively protective of a mysterious hand wound, who is a birdwatcher. Now I am sure that there are people in the Lone Pine Universe who do genuinely watch birds for the enjoyment of it, but by this point readers have been conditioned to suspect every birdwatcher they encounter and Mr Green is no exception.
And there’s a moonlight walk for the Warrenders, through Rye, until their reverie is interrupted by an eerie, whining noise, and a strange small object in the sky. Jon becomes fanatically excited, demanding his mother and cousin sign affidavits as to what they have seen and heard. Because this is 1955, and Britain is gripped by the first great UFO craze, and Saville is fixing his book in time by making Flying Saucers his theme, and showing Jon as, of course, a committed believer in their existence, ready to rubbish anyone who doubts: ‘all intelligent people know’.
But there’s another witness in Rye. He looks like Mr Green.
Saville omits Penny’s reunion with her parents, confining it to an emotional, but partial recollection by our favourite redhead and jumping ahead to the other Warrenders’ attraction to the West Country that leads them to take a six month lease on King’s Holt, on Dartmoor, a house big enough for Penny to invite not only Jon but all of her friends. Tom and Jenny can’t get away, obviously, but for once Peter accepts the invitation, and so the Warrenders head west, picking up the Mortons at Exeter station, with the Twins going on by car, and David staying behind to meet Peter, and hire bikes to get them to King’s Holt.
Peter’s excited to be here, to be seeing Penny and Jon again, to be in fresh country, and of course to be meeting David, though this isn’t openly acknowledged by either.
At this point, enter Dan Sturt. We’ve already been introduced to Dan, son of a widowed mother who has opened a successful cafe, The Moorland Pixie (ouch), in Princeton. Dan’s a very junior cub reporter, only a couple of years older than the Lone Piners, and he’s desperate for a major story to give him a reputation to come back to after he completes his imminent National Service.
He also steals Peter’s wonky bike to pursue his story and has the double cheek when he returns it to complain to her about the faulty brakes, and show interest in her in front of David!
Needless to say, when everybody’s settled in, and there are some mysterious comings and goings that are entertaining the Lone Piners’ minds, including the presence of Mr Green, the gang team up with Dan, who supplies the other half of the equation: that there is a secret Government Installation on the Moor, near the headwaters of the stream on which King’s Holt is sited.
Let me break off here and explain why, in my perspective, Saucers over the Moor fails.
It’s not just that Flying Saucers ties the Lone Pine Club inextricably to one time, when these were a public concern (in the Foreword to the truncated Armada Second Edition, twenty years later, Saville almost shame-facedly apologises for having written about something that means nothing to the modern audience). It’s not just that the Lone Piners are dragged into a Science Fiction story, whose ending, claiming that Britain is about to announce it has developed a fully working Flying Saucer, was unbelievable at the time and ludicrous by the time the next book arrived.
But by making so large a concern the subject of the book, Saville took it out of the Lone Piners’ hands before it ever started. Secret Government Installations, International Spies, an actual Helicopter Fleet swooping in to the Moor: this is beyond the range and the abilities of a group of middle-class children, no matter how inventive and observant they are.
It’s one thing to have to hand over to the Police to actual sort out the messes they expose, but when it’s practically the entire Armed Forces…
The point of a children’s adventure series, and one that takes place against realistic, visible backgrounds, is that the stories have to be in proportion to the characters. They have to be within the Club’s ability to deal with them, and Saville loses sight of this right royally in Saucers over the Moor.
Nevertheless, behind this, there is much good, and some bad, in this story. Most of the former is, as usual, in the friendship that runs through the Club, and in the genuine enjoyment they take in each other’s company: remember, Penny and Peter have not seen each other since The Secret of Grey Walls, however long ago that may have been in Lone Pine time. And there’s a pertinent contrast between Jon, full of his assertions that flying saucers are real, and that everyone of any intelligence or sense knows this, and Peter, to her roots the country girl, attuned to the land and things of it, and instinctively hating and fearing such things.
But just as the effects of The Neglected Mountain are seen in Peter and David’s actions towards one another, Saville takes us another step forward in the relationship of Jon and Penny. Yes, their conversation between each other is still mostly barbed and bantering, and yes, Jon is still almost cruelly offhand to his devoted cousin.
However, when the Club are locked in, and Penny, volunteering despite her fears because she is the smallest and lightest of the seniors, is let down in a sling made of curtains and has to face Green alone, Jon reacts to her scream of fear by racing down the stairs and knocking Green cold with a punch to the jaw.
On the other hand, whilst the Twins don’t get kidnapped in this book, there’s a particularly egregious act of stupidity to get over. Green tries to persuade Peter and Mary into his car but the former very sensibly refuses. They then phone Penny at King’s Holt, who sends Dickie to the main road to watch for Green passing, but he, in a completely idiotic move that casts real doubt on the advisability of including him in any adventures, gets into Green’s car, thinking he can track him and that Green can’t do anything to him anyway: Hello? How many times have you been tied up before now?
It’s not even as if the escapade is worth it. Dickie’s recovered offstage, with nothing lost or gained, save several unnecessary pages and the usual melodrama.
In a somewhat conservative move, given how Saville has previously shared out adventure without concern for gender lines, the boys are given the meaty adventure of trying to find the Secret Station, at which point spies, helicopters and guns start to flood the story until the children have to be locked up for their own safety, and that’s by the good guys! This is what Penny escapes from, leading to Jon’s temporary adoption of the White Knight role that we understand is actually a deeper recognition of his role in Penny’s life.
But by this point the game is up, bar the shouting, and a fighter plane shooting down at least one helicopter as the attack is foiled, but that’s a long way away from King’s Holt. Donaldson mops up with explanations, which basically confirm everything the Club has guessed, and Dan gets his story (subject to Secret Service vetting, naturally…). And there you go.
It may have been very exciting to my pre-teen self, but from a more adult perspective, it’s a completely unsatisfactory ending, because the Lone Piners are so thoroughly removed from it, even in space, and that promised unveiling of Britain’s own Flying Saucer in tomorrow’s press is beyond a step too far for even a kid’s credibility.
Saucers was the last of the Lone Pine books to appear with illustrations by Bertram Prance. In the early Seventies, those book re-issued in edited paperback form from Hamlyns, as opposed to Armada had new, and frankly bland illustrations added to them, usually involving some form of close-up that blurred any illustrative capacity at all.
Of the four odd venues for the Lone Piners, Dartmoor had the distinction of being the only one to which they returned, very late on in the series. There would be no mention of Flying Saucers in that story.

Leo Baxendale: School’s Out Forever

No fan of comics, no matter how much they are removed from their childhood enthusiasms, can let the passing of Leo Baxendale go by without a formal salute. Baxendale, from Lancashire, was one of the greatest artists to work on the_Beano of legend, not to mention the even more anarchic comics of the Sixties, such as Wham and Smash. He worked on classic series such as Lord Snooty, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum, not to mention Frankie Stein and his icnic Uncle, Grimly Feendish.

But Baxendale’s immortality is secured by his having been the creator of the Bash Street Kids. I can’t type those words without images tumbling through my head.

Cartoonists tend to live long lives, and Baxendale’s reached 86 before succumbing to cancer, which really ought to learn to be more discriminating.

Baxendale’s brand of anarchy was tolerated by my parents as long as it was confined to the Beano or the Dandy but they objected to the likes of Wham and Smash, for which I had to rely on my mate Alan’s weekly order.

Despite that, I still grew up a happy absurdist, for which I can thanks Spike Milligan and the Goons. Lots of others got it from Leo Baxendale. All of us mourn the passing of a genius.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Neglected Mountain

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

Though Malcolm Saville had promised his readers that the Lone Pine members would not age, that the years would pass around them, The Neglected Mountain saw the series undergo a structural change that future books could not ignore, though it would be many years yet before he was prepared to take the inevitable next step.
By doing so, The Neglected Mountain became one of the stronger books of the series, and one that, when I came back to it, I remembered more clearly than any other than, possibly, Mystery at Witchend. It’s not just the underlying advancement: in almost every respect this is a most vivid story, and the unusual structure of its opening chapters ensures a higher degree of focus than its relatively short plot requires.
Saville achieves this by starting at the end, the end, that is, of an Easter holiday in Shropshire that everyone has thoroughly enjoyed, despite it being adventure free. Thus the spotlight is immediately on the friendship between the six characters, just as it’s being broken up. Though everyone feels it, it’s hardest upon Jenny Harman, the lonely romantic who misses everyone more than the others because her own life, even with her father home unscathed from the now-receding War, is emptiest.
This mood sees Jenny at her most talkative, about the Stiperstones that hangs over her, the cruel terrain that she admits she calls the Neglected Mountain. David’s inclined to be slightly patronising, in consequence of his unimaginative denial of any psychic atmospherics, but Peter, who shares Jenny’s fears, defends her friend staunchly.
And Saville is ready to underline the purpose of the book by introducing Trudie Whittaker, pretty vet’s daughter from Bishop’s Castle, who has this very night agreed to marry Charles Sterling. So, when a spluttering plane awakens Peter in the night, it’s hardly surprising that David is similarly awake, in a crazy mood, and inviting her to sneak out with him, following the plane up the the Devil’s Chair.
Peter assumes Tom would be a better companion for David, though she doesn’t refuse him, and she fails to interpret his lack of a reason for choosing her for what it is: David is beginning to appreciate being alone with Peter, and he is beginning to recognise her qualities, both internal and external. This is the first book in the series to tell us that, one day soon, people will look at Peter and see she is a very beautiful young woman, and it’s significant that this realisation comes from David himself.
This moonlight expedition ends abruptly when the pair see the fire of the crashed plane on the Long Mynd, which sends them hastening back to get it reported to the Police. Then camp breaks up, everyone separates until Summer (David and Peter’s affinity is further established when they both say, “Twelve weeks,” at the same time) and Peter canters home to the shock of a perfect stranger, complete with lack of memory, sat in Hatchholt, saying that for all he knows, he could be Peter’s father.
Saville then, very cleverly, both focuses on and distances the event by having Peter relate it in an episodic letter to David that never gets an adequate reply, but which begins with a personal section that, without being in any way romantic, illustrates how Peter confides thoughts and feelings in her ‘special friend’.
And so we get to Summer, and Witchend, and nothing in particular to do with the non-adventure difficult to impress on the rest of the Club, and Peter obscurely annoyed with David for not taking the letter seriously, and for losing the newspaper cuttings she sent him as part of the mystery. Never does she bring these up without reminding David he has lost them.
But they are to spend more time together very soon. The Club plans to travel to Bishop’s Castle for the Fair, meet Trudie, search for the Gypsies and ‘race’ against each other in pairs along specially designed courses set by Mr Morton. The Twins, determined to win, assume the boys will go together as will the girls, and don’t see the rather nervous glance Peter and Jenny give each other at the thought!
That’s not the plan though. The Twins set off last, by bus to Ludlow, and a brief encounter with Mr Cantor, whose cover they promptly blow. Before them, Tom and Jenny bike to Clun and visit Alan Denton at Bury Fields, and David and Peter – the latter in the frock her father has just bought her, as opposed to her usual blue shirt and jodhpurs – first of all, on foot across the Mynd and the Stiperstones. A day out for a couple who are increasingly starting to act like boyfriend and girlfriend without actually acting like that kind of pair!
It’s gentle and light-hearted, and enjoyable to see the boy/girl pairings given a little room, and Saville certainly seems in no hurry to get to the adventure, but just as in the various journeys to Clun in The Secret of Grey Walls, each pairing has experiences that fold together to uncover the coming action.
The Twins encounter a wild-haired young man who takes an inordinate interest in Macbeth, Tom and Jenny find Alan Denton’s sheepdog, Lady, who is blind, temporarily, and meet Reuben and Miranda and learn that someone has tried to by Fenella’s nondescript puppy for ten shillings (50p, but a much larger sum of money then), whilst Dave and Peter meet a young Barton Beach boy whose puppy had disappeared and is locked into a small, rundown cottage at the foot of Greystone Dingle. It takes Charles Sterling to put into words what only David, so far, has seen: each story involves dogs.
And Mr Whittaker, the vet, confirms there is a spate of dogs going either blind or deaf for short periods, but recovering unharmed.
Since being kind to animals is part of the Lone Pine Club’s oath, everybody is determined to get to the bottom of this. There’s an early success as Tom and Jenny, delivering a telegram to Mr Robens of Greystone Cottage, free young Johnny’s puppy. The telegram summons Robens into Shrewsbury to the Doctor, and that’s where the Club is bound, to try to contact Cantor (whose real name is revealed to be Green, though Saville will forget this detail before Cantor next appears).
Paths cross, and the Lone Piners manage to identify Robens and the Doctor as the pair Peter met at the end of the Easter holiday, and Saville gives us a scene featuring the two baddies to establish who they are and what they’re about: Robens is a highly-strung young scientist under the thumb of the ‘Doctor’, aka William Harris, a professional criminal coercing Robens into creating a solution that will put guard dogs to sleep without hurting them.

It’s the first scene in the series that is not viewed through the presence of one or other of the Lone Piners, but from here on it will become a standard practice, and not always as a short cut to identifying the villains and their scheme to us.
But despite all this, there’s a cunningly maintained air of frustration to this day. The Lone Piners are dependent upon Charles Sterling, who has by now completely lost his American tone of voice, and his preoccupation prevents the Club from making any kind of progress, because he just can’t take their concerns seriously.
Then everyone returns to Seven Gates to discover that Macbeth has gone missing, and we the readers know that Robens has him. And we also know that he has discovered the old mines, the underground lake and has established a makeshift laboratory under the mountain.
This enables Saville to bring everything together, building into a heart-stopping climax more forceful than anything before because this time there will be genuine danger, and there will be serious injury.
This part of the book will be driven by Peter, disgusted at how the Club let itself be squashed by Charles, and organising two search parties to find Macbeth. For once, and to everybody’s benefit, the Twins are separated, as David will not allow them to go on their own after two plainly dangerous men (a moment of genuine sense that, sadly, does not make the least impression on the pair). So Mary accompanies him and Peter, up Black Dingle, across the top and down into Greystone, whilst Dickie goes with Tom and Jenny to stake out the cottage.
And we go with the first trio, in search of a little black dog who could be anywhere if he isn’t already dead. Saville paints a vivid picture of Mary’s misery, cutting through the often-pantomime reactions of the Twins when it comes to their dog, and David muses, not for the first time, on the qualities of Peter, until she begins to blush at his stare.
But at the former HQ4, they find evidence of Robens’ presence. They go inside, until they find his lab, beyond the underground lake. Then they hear him coming.
Peter leads the way, scrambling up a bank of rough stone at the back of the cave, hoping not to be noticed. She’s still in her frock, an oddly feminine detail that comes out in Bertram Prance’s illustration. But she’d led them into danger. The stones are shifting, starting to slide. Mary, at the front, slips and is held by David. Peter, at the back, is also holding him. But the rocks are sliding behind her as in front, into a hitherto undiscovered cave. What lies there, how deep it is, what state it’s in is unknown, but Peter realises that David cannot hold them both, though he will strain every muscle to do so, and Peter sees his first duty as being to his sister, the little girl. With a whisper to hold onto Mary, she lets go and falls.
Saville cuts quickly to her waking up, with only a few, almost vague words as to what has gone on between, and those relating only to David’s thoughts, which are filled with Peter and the unexpressed fear that she may be dead. She comes to in pain – she has struck her head, causing a concussion, and broken her ankle – but with David already beside her, supporting her, talking to her, pleading that she say something, that nothing matters unless she’s alright.
They may only be 16 years old, in an era when for most children 16 was still a part of childhood, a long way from love, romance and relationships. They haven’t the words for it themselves, not now or for a long time yet, but this is the moment at which indecision is taken out of David Morton and Petronella Sterling’s hands. Their conversation throughout the book has overflowed with nuance, undercurrent and things they are not yet ready to say even to themselves, but this moment when their relationship was nearly severed forever is a crossing for which there is no going back, nor any will to go back.
After that, everything else is unimportant, and indeed Saville treats the mopping up as perfunctorily as it requires. Robens comes round to the side of the angels, shops the Doctor to Cantor, burns his notes and helps organise the rescue party to get Peter to hospital. All of this is told in retrospect, at the inevitable party, as Peter, leg in plaster, comes back from hospital. Details are shared: David tells Mr Sterling what Peter never would, of her sacrifice for him and Mary. Everyone fusses around the girl who wants nothing more than to not be made a fuss of, to forget the horrible experience – but not all of it.
And Saville concludes the book with the more sensitive Mary, the only witness to the things David said in the dark, underlining what he has done: when Dickie muses at how strange it is that so many people have been wound in together, and that it feels like Peter belongs to ‘us’, she assures him that, oh yes, Peter will always belong to them, and gently mocks him for his lack of perception.
That lack of perception may well have applied to some of the audience, still fixed upon the Lone Pine books as exciting children’s adventures, throwing boys and girls not too dissimilar to them in age into bringing down crooks. But The Neglected Mountain, in the guise of that format, has successfully and memorably told a love story, and a story about sacrifice made in the name of that love, without ever once using the word for anything but the relationship between a little girl and her dog.
By doing so, he reset the series at a higher level. The Lone Piners continued not to age, except in the flux that seemed to continually rearrange the months between them, and the years continued to roll past them, as the next book will amply demonstrate. But David and Peter were now a couple, over and above their Captaincy, and no book with them both in could or did avoid that recognition.

Deep Space Nine: s04 e17 – Accession

Gimme that old-time religion…

Another strong episode though, given that it dealt with religious themes, one that gave me considerable pause for thought. And a B story that was, in its own way, a bit disturbing and which could have done with a bit more room in which to breathe.

It’s that which starts the open, suggesting a domestic, character-driven week to follow. The Chief and Julian return from overstaying in another of their regular holosuite sessions (Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain) with little time to clear up the Chief’s quarters before Keiko returns from her year’s expedition. Miles is looking forward to his family’s return, but is taken aback when Molly tells him that Keiko is pregnant. He doesn’t seem especially pleased.

Oh-ho! thinks I, she’s been gone a year, she’s got pregnant on a one-night visit to DS9, has she? I bet she has, I bet she has! But that’s not the route the B story took. At first, O’Brien tells Julian that he was looking forward to some serious me-time with Keiko, romantic stuff, dating, now Molly’s a little older, but no sooner is that raised than it’s dropped completely, and the story turned along the lines that O’Brien has had so much fun roistering around with Julian – stopping off for a beer in Quark’s, darts, the holosuites – that he doesn’t really want to give that up.

It’s a sad story and it remained unresolved, except to the extent that Keiko, who has results to analyse and reports to write and can’t be doing with having her husband under her feet all the time, manipulates both Miles and Julian into meeting up for the good of the other.

I found that incredibly cynical. The only solution is lying? Manipulation? Sneakiness? Or maybe a married couple, who love and understand each other, could have sat down, talked, been a bit honest and achieved the same result without games being played? It might not have made for such ‘good’ television in the eyes of those who make it, but it would have made for better television for me.

Still, that’s the B story, and the A story is what brings us here. From Keiko’s return in the open, we switch to Sisko and Kira dealing with reports, interrupted by Sisko fulfilling one of the obligations created by his status as the Emissary, to bless a Bajoran wedding. Uneasy lies the head that wears the entirely dubious intensely religious status of a religion that’s not yours, eh? But a light-ship of nearly 300 years vintage drifts out of the wormhole, bearing a Bajoran, Akorem Laan, a poet who went missing 200 years ago.

Akorem has spent all that time in the Celestial Temple, though to him it has been merely days. He has been healed of life-threatening injuries, and sent back. He has fulfilled the prophecies. He is the Emissary.

At first, Sisko is delighted to step down. He never wanted the role, never felt comfortable with it, found his status intrusive. Stepping down to only have to worry about the Klingons, the Dominion and the Maquis feels like a vacation. At this moment, I’m not sure whether Sisko has been aware of the extent of the power he’s wielded, or rather not wielded as Emissary. It’s possible he hasn’t, because as a Starfleet Officer he’s entirely too rational a creature for religion. If that’s so, he’s about to learn otherwise.

Because Akorem is a Bajoran of two hundred years ago, long before the Cardassian Occupation destroyed the d’jarra, the heavily-mandated caste system, family-based, that herded Bajorans into limited ‘natural’ roles. Major Kira comes from the caste that does art. And Akorem the Emissary is certain that the message of the Prophets is that restoring the d’jarras will restore Bajor to its former peace and prosperity.

The prospect worries Kira, but she believes. Despite the sickening evidence of seeing herself being deferred to because she is of a higher caste, despite her evident lack of any artistic skill, she starts looking for a replacement First Officer to take over her duties. This leads to a touching moment when Sisko tells her that she may find someone to take her place, but she can never be replaced.

Sisko is seriously worried. Caste-based systems are rightly banned by the Federation, though Akorem isn’t too bothered: he has the offstage backing of Kai Wynn to reinstate the d’jarras whether it means being refused membership or not. Ironically, that’s not good for Sisko’s career: Starfleet have never approved of him being the Emissary but his relinquishment of the status has more or less directly meant his mission to aid Bajor into the Federation is a failure. He ain’t smelling of roses just now.

Oddly enough, I was debating cultural imperialism here only two weeks back, taking a negative view of Sisko’s interference with the Klingon ritual of Mauk-t’Ovar, and Sisko’s attitude to Akorem’s promulgation can be seen in the exact same light. But there’s a difference between a cultural imperative imposed between individuals in a living culture both accept, and the resurrection of a planetary wide system that not everyone embraces, and that those who do accept by imposition. Akorem talks of legal sanctions forcing the Bajorans into these castes, and his chief disciple, Vedek Porta, considers it only right that a member of an ‘unclean’ caste should be killed for not knowing his place.

That’s the basic problem with castes: they’re non-negotiable, inescapable, restrictive of people’s individuality and their ability to develop, and there are always those at the bottom end who have to take all the shit because that’s what they’re there for.

Sisko cannot intervene or force Bajor to reject the Emissary’s pronouncements, much as he or we might wish it, but he can reclaim the role of Emissary. And the only way to do so is for he and Akorem to enter the Wormhole and seek the Prophets.

It’s a weird, disturbing experience. The ‘Prophets’ take familiar forms. They refuse to give answers, and leave the disorienting impression that this is because Sisko and Akorem wouldn’t understand: they are linear, they live in time, the Prophets outside of it. The Prophets are ‘of Bajor’, as is ‘the Sisko’. The only clear outcome is that the Sisko is the Emissary, and Akorem is a messenger to him from the Prophets to encourage him to understand that, and that he has a role to play.

Thus dismissed, Akorem wishes for death, but Sisko intervenes. Akorem is sent back to his proper time, without memory, to conclude his life as he should. Sisko returns to being the Emissary, this time with a greater acceptance of his position, which I assume will be reflected in later stories. For the first time, he’s committed. And he’s aware of the tremendous power he wields, though I suspect he will in future consciously not wield it.

I have my problems with religion, having taken nearly sixty years to become an atheist, and I have reservations about this story on the grounds that I don’t accept the Bajoran religion, despite acknowledging its influence. The Prophets -its Gods – are aliens of a different order to us, which makes them not-Gods, notwithstanding their power.

But this was an excellent story (the B story aside). Richard Libertini was good as Akorem, though the producers wanted David Warner for the role (and he wanted to do it but was persuaded out of it by his wife because he was on vacation) and he would have been brilliant. Camille Saviola makes her final appearance as Kai Opaka, or rather her seeming. And Rosalind Chao is always an adornment.

Book Making

It’s been some time since I last published through Since The Revenge of the Purple Puffin in 2012, there’s only been two books, both based on existing writings and both which, for differing reasons, I’ve made Private Access, meaning that only I can see them on, and only I can purchase actual copies.

Having been so fallow for so long, it’s mildly amusing to record that I have now published three books in the last ten days. They’re all Private Access again, for various reasons.

The first of these, completed over the Easter weekend, is obviously The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical Novel, the proof copy of which should be arriving any day. It spurred me on to complete a project I have been adding to in a desultory manner for several months. I’ve written several series on this blog where I’ve taken an author and reviewed his career, book by book, and I decided it would be handy to have these all compiled.

Given the number of times I’ve done this, I decided to make this a two volume project, given that I had over 500 pages without having included Christopher Priest, George MacDonald Fraser or the current Lone Pine series.

So I added in the final author for Volume 1, and started down the Book Creation path again.

It wasn’t quite as bad as with the Novel because I’d had a bit of practice by then, and I also worked out a technique that drastically speeded things up by avoiding the worst and most finickety problems, and got it all worked out yesterday, though I was going to hold off with my proof copy until I’d been paid again.

Until came up with a 25% off voucher, valid only today, which had me quickly ordering it, an even more quickly completing the next of such volumes, which is devoted solely to the Terry Pratchett Discworld series of last year. That proved to be even quicker to prepare and steer through the Creation process, and the 25% off came in equally handy.

I’ve three more similar projects in mind, all of them compiling blog-series of greater or lesser length, all of which I’ll get to fairly quickly, before I forget any of the techniques I’ve learned.

It’s a bit mechanical, but the process is simple in itself. First, I need to prepare a print-ready copy, setting things like Font, Font size and removal of Orphan/Widow controls. I prepare documents in Arial 11 point on my laptop, but don’t like the look of that in print, so I use Palatino Linotype, or Garamond Light for the books themselves, still 11 point.

Since I’m assembling these volumes from existing separate pieces, the easiest approach is to set the Lulu Template to the Orphan/Widow controls and them cut and paste each article in order, having temporarily converted the source document as to Font and paragraph indents. I then insert a Manual Break so each new ‘Chapter’ starts on a new page, discard the changes on the previous document, and repeat on the next.

It’s repetitive, but in the end you will end up with a camera-ready master document, ready to upload to

This is where it gets complicated. Because even though you are using the Lulu Template for the size of book you want, when it makes a print-ready copy, it will tell you it’s had to adjust the document you’re uploaded to the size specifications of the template you’ve actually used!

However, a bit of practice making nearly perfect meant that, instead of having to download multiple Print-Ready copies (which are a complete pain in the arse to check) to ensure that there are no unsightly and unprofessional Widow/Orphan blanks at the ends of pages, I managed to get the Discworld Book complete in two passes, because all that had happened was that, in four instances, the revised layout had brought the Manual Breaks right to the start of a page, so there were blank pages between chapters. I quickly worked out how to eliminate that issue in the Upload copy.

And after three recent goes at the Cover Creator, I reckon I’ve sussed how to get through that efficiently.

But none of these volumes are available to such of you, if anyone, who might like to own one. Whyever not, you might think, given that the sub-title of this blog is ‘Author for Sale‘ (emphasis added).

Well, the Legendary is an officially unfinished first draft printed up as an anomaly. I’ve begun working on the revisions that will, I hope before the year is out, making it a publishable book. The Literary Criticism volume includes my Peter Tinniswood series, which included extracts from each book, which are obviously copyright to Tinniswood’s estate.

In the context of the blog, which is free for all to see, I’d argue that these are fair use quotations, appearing in the context of reviews. If I start reprinting them in a book for which I’m asking payment, that’s a usage I’m not so confident of defending. Besides, who’s buy a book that really only contains material freely available on-line for the price only of an Internet search?

The same and more goes for the Discworld Book. An entire book, devoted to Terry Pratchett’s creation? Without the consent/approval of his Estate? Oh no, not trying that one on. It’s not respectful, anyway.

For my own use and purpose, that’s different.

So why tell you all this? Just that it feels good to know that my bookshelf is expanding again, and that I’ve mastered the techniques that will go into producing the book I hope to have out there before this year ends. That’s going to feel even better.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Elusive Grasshopper

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

And so, duly foreshadowed, The Elusive Grasshopper returns us to Rye, though not before a massive detour to Paris, and the end of Jon and Penny’s French Exchange visit. Saville retains the structure he used for The Gay Dolphin Adventure, this time holding back the Mortons even longer before bringing them into a story already well in motion.
Saville uses this long lead-time to bring in two guests, the elegantly chic Arlette Duchelle, who is coming to Rye with the Warrenders for the other half of the Exchange, and James Wilson, crime reporter for the Clarion, of whom we will see much more.
We know, from Lone Pine Five, that Jon and Penny are in France to improve their command of the language, though we are little surprised that Jon already knows it fluently, and Penny hasn’t progressed one whit in the three weeks that they have been staying with Monsieur and Madame Duchelle – themselves no English speakers – and their daughter Arlette.
Arlette, sixteen but, being French, looking twenty, is pretty, always beautifully dressed and speaks good but not perfect English. She’s something of a stereotype, but affectionately so. Saville is clever here in not giving any details of the past three weeks, because you just know that Penny has run the gamut when it comes to this pretty, mature, effortless young woman who can carry out long conversations with Jon that Penny can’t follow, let alone join in. It tells us more about Arlette than words can do that Penny’s only jealousy is the momentary one of Arlette intruding on the life in Rye that the redhead misses so much, but being Penny, she relents a moment later, and is enthusiastic and welcoming of their young hostess.
Who will repay her by being almost as enthusiastic about a Lone Pine adventure as Penny herself!
Just as Jenny Harman infused the previous story, Penny is all over The Elusive Grasshopper, with her enthusiasm and energy, her refusal to be condescended to or put down without spitting back, her rushing into assumptions and her surprising maturity and fairness, especially in the face of the continuing casual behaviour from her cousin, who is no nearer to understanding her than ever.
Or perhaps he’s beginning to learn: we start with the Warrenders alone in Paris, on l’Avenue de l’Opera, enjoying a drink outside a cafe and talking of Rye. Jon has bought Penny a present: a necklace of green beads. They’re cheap and ordinary, but they match the green sleeveless dress she is wearing, determinedly holding up the honour of English girlhood, and for Penny they’re a significant gift: the first time Jon has treated her as a girl as opposed to a cousin. It’s a bigger step than he realises, but it’s one the intuitive Penny recognises.
The moment is also significant for another reason: Penny’s chatter about Rye causes a man sat behind her to start and turn round. Jon recognises him: he is almost certain that it is ‘Slinky’ Grandon. And Grandon, coincidentally enough, is on the train with them from London to Hastings, with Arlette proving her value to us forever by following him when Penny begs, without question or hesitation.
Once in England, and despite Fred Vasson’s refusal to chase cars, the Warrenders discover that Grandon is being met by a large, shapeless woman who, despite her now gingery hair, is immediately recognisable as Miss Ballinger. Thus the telegram we read in Lone Pine Five is despatched.
But it’s a long time before the Mortons appear, and this gives Jon and Penny a long run at making progress. Fortunately for all, Arlette is determined to do as many English things as possible, and to explore a country so different to her own, so the trio wind up crossing Romney Marsh and ending up at Dungeness, and the halt there for the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Miniature Railway.
Incidentally, it struck me here that the Lone Piners are forever biking to different places – how else could they get around? – only to promptly complain about cycling, and abandon their bikes to come home by another form of transport, the bikes to be collected the next day (when and by whom is never detailed: I envision a fleet of bike-retrievers following them around…)
Whilst Jon is fussing over the miniature engine, he’s approached by an elderly birdwatcher, seeking directions to the nearby bird sanctuary. When the birdwatcher returns, his binoculars case is unusually heavy and he unusually protective of it, though the binoculars are round his neck, and as he hasn’t gone off on the direction of the sanctuary at all, the suspicious Jon leads the girls to the nearby, bombed out schoolhouse, where Arlette finds an unconscious man on the floor…
This is James Wilson, a young, self-confident man in his mid twenties, whom we have met as a guest at the Dolphin. Wilson is full of questions, and has distinguished himself by admiring the chic Arlette and patronising Penny: this really is not a safe thing to do.
It’s not Penny who has brained him, but the birdwatcher. Wilson is nosing about Rye and the Marsh on the trail of modern day smugglers. The Warrenders immediately offer their knowledge and assistance, though unfortunately Wilson only takes Jon seriously, even though Penny spots a crucial piece of evidence: Arlette has her photo taken by the engine for her parents, but the photographer has sample photos up, and in one of them Penny spots Ballinger and Grandon in the background.
Despite Wilson’s appalled reservations about bringing in even more children – and this is before he’s met the Twins – the Lone Piners are called in. It’s still pissing down in Shropshire, and Witchend is being closed. Once again, only the Mortons respond: Peter refuses to further abandon her Dad, Tom’s back to the farm, and Jenny is not a middle-class boarding school girl whose educational year doesn’t start until October. On condition that Arlette is neither abandoned nor browbeaten into ‘adventure’, Mrs Warrender agrees to take responsibility.

So enter the Mortons, who accept Arlette as a kind of auxiliary member immediately. She clearly likes David – it is probably a very good job Peter has stayed behind – but when forces are divided to try to track down Ballinger and Grandon, she goes to Hythe with Penny, David with Jon, and the Twins on their bikes to look at the nearest villages.
The Twins are still very much the Twins. There is nothing so outrageous as their kidnapping of Percy, but they are full of their belief that they are the be-all and end-all of the Club, that only their ideas count, and that the seniors are deliberately excluding them. It’s a recipe for the inevitable trouble.
Wilson, meanwhile, has spotted a swimmer coming ashore with what will prove to be watches, smuggled into the country to avoid Purchase Tax. Unfortunately, he has also been seen and is ambushed and knocked out, requiring Jon and David to rescue him. And just as Wilson is proposing to take what he’s got to the Police, the Police approach him.
Once again, the adults are moving in, but the Twins are still out there on the loose and, needless to say, it is they who get the lead on Ballinger, thanks to the mistreatment of a maid who has run away after being beaten. Between Judith, who describes two very familiar women, and an elderly lady leaving her only home, the Twins are able to track Ballinger and her ‘niece’ Valerie to a house-cum-shop called the ‘Grasshopper’. There, Ballinger is conducting a successful and legitimate business in buying up good quality second hand furniture for sale to Americans, and running her smuggling racket behind the scenes.
Needless to say, and with a stupidity that it’s hard not to condemn, the Twins ignore the fact that they are only ten years old, presume their invincibility despite past experience, and go in and get themselves captured: you’d think David would have leashes made for them, perhaps in tartan to match the one sported by Macbeth.
Once the Police are in on this, there really isn’t any place left for the children, but that is the one taboo in a Lone Pine book. David, with Wilson and Arlette, tracks the Twins to the Grasshopper and rescues them, whilst Jon and Penny, whose adventure this is supposed to be, get left behind unjustifiably. And Penny is busy letting Jon know what she thinks of him for allowing this when the cousins are summoned to the Police. And why? The Warrenders are to be taken on the Police raid to bring in the smuggling gang.
This is one of those points where the adult me parts decisively from the youngster who was thrilled at the adventure and sees it as only what’s due. In the child’s vision of what is right and proper, Saville is acting correctly. Jon and Penny are taken by motorboat along the coast to Dungeness, whilst the main body of coppers arrive in an unmarked, unlit miniature train. This detail tickled young me pink: I have still never seen this railway but was already a devotee of its Lake District equivalent, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway.
There’s no earthly reason why the Police might take two teenagers on a raid like this, but it’s painted as a treat and thank you for putting them onto busting a lucrative smuggling ring. This time, Ballinger, Grandon and Valerie are taken into custody, with the Warrenders as witnesses, and we see that Jon and Penny both are too sensitive to gloat: indeed, neither can take pleasure from the ruination of their enemies.
It’s fitting that the story should end with them, and though David and Peter are the couple who, rightfully, are the heart of the Lone Pine series, Saville is generous with his belief in commitment between people who care for each other. There is a brief moment during the raid when Jon, leaping out of the motorboat to help drag it up the shingle, is pulled back by the undertow, and Penny screams. At the very end, Jon asks her why she screamed and Penny, fingering the beads he gave her, takes a long time to answer before claiming it’s a stupid question: ‘a wave must have splashed over my boots’.
There’ll be more to say about this subject in relation to the next book, and Saville cleverly leaves the subject hanging, cutting for the last lines to David asking Arlette how she likes England after these nasty event, and the French girl replying that she likes it ‘ver’ ver’ much.’ A stereotype to the end, Arlette, but a nice one, and decidedly unFrench in her easy adaptation to the Lone Pine way of spending holidays, and it is a shame that Saville never brought her back again.
Apparently, at one point, a story was mooted in which Jon and Penny would take the Mortons on a holiday to France, where they would once again team-up with Arlette, but that never got further than the mooting stage. Given that Saville did take the Jillies abroad once in their six book series, albeit without their constant attendants, Guy and Mark Standing, it would have been at least fair to treat the Lone Piners once in twenty. I can just imagine Jenny Harman’s awe…

Saturday SkandiKrime: Department Q – A Conspiracy of Faith

This was the third and, to date, most recent Department Q film, first broadcast last year. Given their popularity in Denmark, and the existence of at least four more adaptable novels, there’s every reason to anticipate that this won’t be the last, and on the evidence of ‘A Conspiracy of Faith’, I’d welcome it.

I haven’t been greatly impressed by the first two films – too reliant on cliche, too slow and in the case of Nikolas Lie Kaas’s portrayal of Carl Morck, too one-notedly grumpy – but this one was head and shoulders above its predecessors, with a genuine sense of atmosphere, some superb cinematography, especially in the countryside of flat flowery fields and boundless skies, and in Pal Sverre Hagen’s Johannes, a villain of charismatic intensity.

What’s more, where the first two films were both underplotted, stretching an hour or so’s plots into longer time-frames, it was hard to believe that so much happened in so short a time. There was probably about three hours worth of story presented in 105 minutes, with the least sense of anything being short-changed.

The story began with a message in a bottle, floating ashore after eight years, and opening up the unreported disappearance of a boy named Poul, son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who we later learned, from his surviving brother, Trygve, murdered by an adult, stabbed to death with scissors, with the surviving younger brother threatened into silence.

The bottle comes to Department Q, currently consisting of Assad and the slightly hyperactive Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt again excellent). Carl is absent, on sick leave, a burn-out case. It’s an unusual angle to explore, and his absence, even when present, took the story in a direction I’d not often seen before.

Carl’s got it bad. Assad’s concerned, and so, later in the story, is the representative of the Viborg Police, the authorities where another pair of children have gone missing, kidnapped by Johannes. Lisa, played by Signe Anastassia Mannov, plays only a minor role in the story, but has the feel of a series regular being introduced in a minor role, like Rose last time. As Ms Mannov is exactly the kind of blonde-haired Scandinavian woman I tend to notice in such programmes, that will be no hardship.

Johannes is not merely a kidnapper but a serial killer. He’s clever and collected, posing for years as a family friend to get to know the children, taking the families for everything, but only ever returning one child. He preys upon deeply religious families, often from outre faiths. Magdalene and Samuel’s parents belong to The Lord’s Disciples (who believe Jesus was born in Texas: thankfully, they appear to be fictional). He steals the children on religious festivals.

He also has a slightly older lover in Copenhagen, Mia (played by Lotte Anderson, who we all know) but when it comes to love-making he seems to prefer to make her get herself off, a process that causes him to laugh in a very mood-busting manner.

Johannes is very much in the mold of the extremely clever serial killer, such as Hannibal Lecter. He concocts a complex plan for the delivery of the ransom money by the children’s taciturn but decent father, Elias, that circumvents a massive Police operation to capture him. Elias jumps from the train to confront him, but ends up being stabbed with the scissors – an horrifically graphic sequence, carried out in painful slowness.

Elias winds up in hospital, on life support. His wife, Rakel, blames Carl, who at this point is blaming himself and pushing away Lisa’s attempts to support him. Out of seeming nowhere, Carl senses Johannes is in the hospital (I didn’t get what seemingly triggered Carl’s suspicions, something like an alarm that didn’t go off?). he’s there to finish Elias off, and inject Rakel with something that gives her seizures. She’s found in time to be saved but Elias dies clutching the hand of Assad, who he’d previously been grossly prejudiced against.

The Police surround the hospital but Johannes escapes, by being allowed to drive a car out of the garage. Unfortunately, he’s already killed the young detective, Pasgard, that Rose has shown an interest in, and he’s knocked out and kidnapped Carl, who he takes to the boathouse where the two children are being kept.

As the Police hunt desperately for Carl and the kids, it all starts to come out. We’ve seen flashbacks of the young Johannes, with an abusive mother, screaming at him to read The Lord’s Prayer in Danish, not Norwegian, screaming at Johannes’ older sister that neither of them were wanted. Now we see her throw hydrochloric acid into the face of the girl, Rebecca, blinding and burning her. And we see young Johannes approach his mother, asleep in bed, and stab her to death. With long-nosed, sharp scissors.

In between comes the most horrible part of the film. Johannes explains to Carl what he is doing and why. He is the Devil’s Son, you see. Not his only, chosen son, but one of many, soldiers spreading the Devil’s ‘faith’ as it were. It’s utterly insane, but it arises naturally from the background we are now seeing in full, and Hagen gives it a kind of comprehensible sanity.

Johammes sees himself as a faith-buster. He takes and kills the children of the deeply faithful, he destroys them. They live on, their faith stolen. God did not help, did not serve or rescue. Like stones in a pond, they spread their faithlessness thereafter. He plans to do the same to Carl. Carl might not believe, might regard all religion as stupid superstition, fit only for morons, but Carl has faith. With a terrifying calm, Johannes throws Samuel into the water and holds him under. He lets him up, toying with him, several times, as Carl pleads that he be taken instead, but finally holds the boy under until he ceases to struggle and the bubbles stop.

Carl has had to watch it. He puts his faith in himself, in the Law, in what they do, and he will henceforward have to live with the knowledge that this little eight year old boy was killed in front of his eyes and his being there made no difference whatsoever.

Next, Johannes frees Magdalene and gives her the scissors, asking her to stab him.Whether this was a genuine offer or a trick, we won’t know: she refuses to do it, will not take that step, which disappoints him.

What might have followed is interrupted by the sound of a helicopter. carrying Assad. Johannes runs: Carl gets Magdalene to free him and he immediately dives in. There are bones beneath, but he gets Samuel’s body out of the water, applies life-saving techniques, and with a rush of relief the boy spits water out, and opens his eyes.

Which leaves Assad to hunt down Johannes, in considerable openness, on the edge of water. Johannes strikes from concealment in the reeds, stabs Assad with the scissors, but his leather jacket saves him the worst. The two struggle. Assad gains the upper hand and, calmly, deliberately, holds Johannes’ head under water until he dies.

There followed an odd but very effective coda. Poul’s body had been retrieved and could now receive Christian burial. The service, which failed to impress me, being all about Poul being with God now, appeared to be being held for the benefit of Trygve alone, but at the back Department Q sat in a row: from right to left, Carl, Rose, Assad – and Lisa. A hymn started, not one whose words I recognised, about God and angels. Unexpectedly, Rose joined in in a thin, clear, unashamed voice. Carl looked at her, then dug out what was either a hymn book or a prayer book. His face slowly crumpled, and he began to cry. It was extraordinarily moving.

So this brief series ends, and whereas I wouldn’t bother watching either of the first two again, not even the one with Sonia Ritter, this I would sit down to again, for Hagen’s Johannes, for that affecting ending, and for those big skies, laden with cloud and sun and air, for that brilliant story.

The Infinite Jukebox: Owen Paul’s ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’

The one thing that people who sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop will never understand – mainly because the vast majority of mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop is criminally abysmal at everything but separating young people from their money – is that it is about the most potent force known to man and woman: young love. And in amongst the utterly synthetic crud are songs that, sometimes intentionally but more often not, cross that magic barrier into high and joyous art.

And those of us who usually sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop don’t tend to notice that we’ve met such a thing until it has gone from the airwaves long enough for us to listen to it as something other than an ear-devouring annoyance.

I remember ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’, and Owen Paul, from the summer of 1986. It was the perfect prefab summer song, instantly bringing to mind Hawaiian shirts and beach barbecues, buoyant, effervescent, light as the most uncollapsed souffle and coming with a pre-guaranteed refrain that could have held up twenty tons of concrete. I was conditioned to hate it.

I was in love that year, for the first time in a long time, and to my amazement she loved me too. But she was going away for three weeks in the height of summer, to Canada, to stay with her brother and sister-in-law. I missed her like crazy, life was put in suspension, and in that absence and my intense need was sewn the seed of things that, many years after, would break us apart, mere weeks before what would have been our tenth anniversary.

Owen Paul was the soundtrack of that summer. No matter how much I didn’t listen to the radio any more, I couldn’t escape them, not least on Top of the Pops, which I wouldn’t leave for many more years yet.

When they got back, her fourteen year old daughter wanted to catch up on the music she’d missed. I remember her genuine puzzlement at the inherent contradiction in the song. How can she be his favourite and be a waste of time?

I couldn’t explain it, but I instinctively understood, and even in the midst of hating the song, the writer in me loved the fantastic conception, or maybe I was just listening more intently than I was kidding myself I did. Because he’s having a rush, and maybe he’s kidding himself a little bit too, but he’s young and free and the summer is time that doesn’t matter. Nothing need be done, no responsibilities need be undertaken, school’s out but University’s not here yet, like the summer I had in 1973, the very last time that nothing really mattered. Everything he does, everywhere he goes, is a waste of time because he has nothing but time and it’s the most fun thing ever and she’s the very best waste of it, because her being with him is the way that he gets forty-eight hours out of every day, and maybe he’s not really kidding himself at all, because anything that you enjoy this much is no waste, no waste at all.

And who knows, maybe the girl isn’t going to be a waste of time at all?

But to think that implies that there is a future ahead, when the guy is happily ignoring everything but today, and that’s what this song really captures, a great and glorious and permanent now. It’s about all the things that pass too soon, and I don’t mean 1986 and the woman I missed too much, I mean that time in your life when if it comes good for you, you can live without thought and consequence, and the little ducks line up for you all in a row and if there ever is an end, it is in memories that will warm you forever. Life is nothing but time that’s yours to waste, on nothing but living, and she’s the one who is the best way of wasting it.

Owen Paul, singing irrepressibly, like he can’t contain the fun he’s having, didn’t just record a big hit, didn’t just record a summer anthem to rival those legendary lost Beach Boys classics, didn’t just define his career in three minutes, he tapped into something immortal, and I hear it and yearn for it every time I hear this.

Sun, summer, love, pop. When you get it right, there’s no joy sweeter.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 15

It’s that time again. After fifteen compilations over sixteen years, we have still not yet come to the bottom of my memories of the more obscure Seventies pop music. As always the key to this compilation is that the song has been pretty much forgotten, usually but not exclusively because it was never successful in the first place. There are 21 tracks on this latest outings and, as usual, there’s a rough chronological order to things, and there are a preponderance of tracks from 1971. Honestly, I don’t remember it being this crowded with obscurities when I lived through it.

Old Fashioned Girl – John Keen
We kick off with Speedy Keen’s first song after Thunderclap Newman split up, if they could ever truly be said to have been together in the first place. ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ was a great rock song with a screaming guitar and a compulsive chorus. For some strange reason, given that everyone knew him as Speedy, this, and the first album, were released under the name John Keen, with which the self-styled ‘bleeding long-nosed rock’n’roll herbert’ had been born. I have more to say about this on The Infinite Jukebox, here but this is the kind of opener that gets anything off to a good start.
Haunted – Bob Clarke
From the start of 1971, I began selecting a single of the week, a habit I maintained for the next half-decade or so. Without fail, I would pick some new single that had come to my attention and which thrilled me. This was not always the easiest thing to maintain: there were weeks when the selection of new records was extremely scanty, and for weeks when the family had gone away on holiday to the Lakes, where medium wave radio reception was absolutely shit and I barely got to hear any music at all, I had to allow those selections a two week run because I wouldn’t know what to choose the following Monday. And there were plenty of occasions when I would catch a song once, nominate it for myself, and then discover that it was on no-one’s playlist and I would never hear it again. This was one of those songs. I don’t think I heard it more than two or three times at best, ethereal and, so my memory told me, laden with spooky sound-effects. I loved it. For over thirty years, if not even longer, I forgot it completely, then it popped up on a YouTube sidebar. It’s not what I remember, but then I no longer remember anything but the circumstances. Perfectly pleasant stuff. What made me love it is now as much a vanished thing as 1971 itself.
Walk in the Night – Jr Walker and The All-Stars
This is another of those slightly dodgy entries, a track that reached the UK top 20, and one that was very popular for a very long time. But even this seems to have slipped into a kind of audio limbo, not having joined the ranks of those classic Tamla-Motown singles that those with the best of taste revere and cherish. Junior Walker was a sax player, and the band did a lot of backing tracks for Motown, together with the odd single, either a sax instrumental or a song with limited lyrics to suit Walker’s limited range. ‘Walk in the Night’ was a quasi-instrumental, a smooth, easy-loping melody, a gentle dancing beat, with sax breaks flowing smoothly and a bunch of girl backing singers contributing the title line and a lot of ooh-oohing. Smooth as anything, one of those late night dancefloor-fillers, the ideal lead in to the slow snogging session. It remained in people’s memories far longer than such limited hits usually do, and it should never have lost its place.
Sing Children Sing – Lesley Duncan
In the early Seventies, Lesley Duncan was an already successful backing singer and songwriter, whose beautiful ‘Love Song’ had already been recorded by both Elton John and Olivia Newton-John. She was also getting an increasing reputation for her own singing, a deep, near-husky voice on beautiful songs, with messages on ecology that were ahead of her time. ‘Sing Children Sing’ went down a storm with Radio 1 DJs and was played continually. I didn’t like it. It was too downbeat, too dry, too sententious for my then little-developed tastes. It flopped, like many turntable hits that I couldn’t get behind but which, years later, I came to recognise for their brilliance. ‘Sing Children Sing’ came back into my head only lately. I played it for nostalgia and stayed to play it again because its simplicity and its unostentatious vocals proved to be deeply moving. It’s taken me more than forty years to appreciate the quality of this song, and of the late Lesley Duncan. I’m glad I didn’t leave it any longer.
Day By Day – Cast for Godspell
Everybody remembers Jesus Christ, Superstar, but not too many people who weren’t there at the time remember that it was not the only religious musical at the turn of the Seventies. The other one was Godspell, more famous for giving David Essex his start (though let’s not be too hard on it for that). Godspell was a bit more hippy-trippy, crossed with an element of gospel, and wasn’t written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, which gives it a bit more cred, street-wise, but not so much kudos on the longevity front. This was the single, an explicitly religious song, which I hated at the time, but whose energy and enthusiasm and sheer peppiness has evidently bled into my memories and taken up deeper roots than I ever imagined.
What is Life – George Harrison
When the Beatles officially split in 1970, there was a long silence, musically at least. George Harrison was first out of the traps, greeting 1971 with ‘My Sweet Lord’, and rapidly following it with the triple All Things Must Pass album. The rumour was that the album was basically every song Harrison had written that the Beatles had refused to record all at once, and given the general standard of his work after that point, it’s at least an arguable case. I’ve never listened to the album, but if it was strong enough that Harrison could afford to waste a song like ‘What is Life’ on the b-side of ‘My Sweet Lord’, it must have been strong indeed.
‘What is Life’ is George the rocker, hammering out an addictive riff, supplemented by some fierce brass, as he roars into an impassioned love song, or it might be God who he’s enquiring what his life might be without the object’s love. Either way, it’s a fantastic track and I preferred it to the a-side. In the UK, Olivia Newton-John had a Top 20 hit with a cover that demonstrated succinctly what was deemed to be commercial: the riff is flattened slightly, the sound sweetened, the repetitions reduced and a descant tone introduced so that the audience doesn’t get bored. And the love Livvy is singing about is definitely not religious, but romantic (and not carnal). What a waste of a great song.
September in the Rain – Dinah Washington
There have been some oddball choices in this series – Guy Marks, anyone? – but there will be some puzzled faces at this selection. Surely Dinah Washington is not Seventies music? How can she qualify? Do you really like something like this? Well, the answer to the last such question is, yes. Improbable as it seems, much as my tastes and instincts in music are removed from the kind of stuff my parents enjoyed, I love this record. It’s the same as any other genre of music: no matter how unpalatable it may be to your general tastes, something will come along that, for no easily discernible reason, will slide through your prejudices, and I have loved the easiness and freeness of this arrangement, the confident delivery, the wonderful smoothness of its old-fashioned sound ever since I first heard it. In the early Seventies. The song itself only dates from the early Sixties, and for some reason it was reissued in 1972, or thereabouts, and got a lot of airplay, enough for me to hear regularly, so either Radio 1 actually played it or I was listening to more Radio 2 than I remember. Whether this is a Sound of the Seventies or not, it’s a Sound of My Seventies.
Spill the Wine – Eric Burdon and War
One of the features of these later compilations is the number of songs they include that I hated at the time, but have now changed in my attitude to. By 1970, Eric Burdon’s career was in tatters. He had broken up the Animals in 1967, gone from being a Newcastle hard-ass bluesman to a psychedelic flower-power dreamer, and this collaboration with War, a black band themselves moving uneasily between soul and rock, was a shapeless, unstructured thing, alternating between meandering hippy narrative and an impassioned appeal to spill the wine and save/take? that girl. I still don’t understand it. But my ears are now so much more broadly attuned to what I couldn’t understand when I was young (which all you Burden fans will appreciate).
Vehicle – The Ides or March
Now this really is a case of nostalgia above everything. When I was first listening to pop music, in those early days of discovery in 1970, this blast of jazz-rock with its rasping vocals was big on Radio 1, and I hated it. There was this, and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, getting all the airplay but thankfully never selling. ‘Spinning Wheel’ is still far beyond any personal pale, no matter how my tastes shift, but when I listen to ‘Vehicle’, I remember hating hearing it more than I hate hearing it. Do you understand what I mean?
Brown-eyed Girl – Ian Matthews
With the exception of ‘Woodstock’, I was pretty ignorant of Ian Matthews’ career when he came out with this cover of Van Morrison’s justly-celebrated first solo single, in 1976. It’s softer, less distinctive, more orthodox and Matthews’ voice doesn’t have the rasp that Morrison brought to this jaunty remembrance of time and love past, but I still like it. A good song need not only be celebrated in a single form.
Mary Skeffington – Gerry Rafferty
This is the most recent song to arrive in the Lost 70s pot, a memory that floated up out of a short session of skipping through Gerry Rafferty/Humblebums songs on YouTube. I recognised the name, I recognised the song, but that’s about all. I don’t know when I got to hear this, I am not even certain that it was this version that I heard, and I am certain that I thought of it as traditional back then, though Rafferty is the writer and it’s apparently about his mother. All I remember is that I remember this, and it is gentle, fair and takes me back. That I don’t know where it takes me to is no reason to exclude this. (Addendum: looking up the YouTube link has exploded the mystery: I knew it best back then from an album track cover by Olivia Newton-John, played by my mate Alan. Three Livvy cross-overs in one compilation!)
Black-skinned Blue-eyed Boys – The Equal
In contrast, this one has been waiting the longest to be included in a compilation. The Equals, fronted by a teenage Eddy Grant, are usually thought of as a Sixties band, and few remember that, after a succession of singles that only really brushed up against the top 20, this went all the way to the top 10 in early 1971. It’s a splenetic burst of anti-war agitprop, with pop underpinnings, protesting the overwhelming presence of black men in the US Army in Vietnam, and it’s aggression could sustain it for far longer than the three minutes it lasts. It ought to have been more celebrated, but hey, no matter how loose enough now children the Equals were, their time had gone. Eddy Grant had more to offer later, much later.
We’re gonna change the world – Matt Monro
It’s nearly fifty years since this song was on the radio, in 1970, usually on those Radio 1 shows that shared the frequency with Radio 2: Pete Murray, Jimmy Young, Terry Wogan, et al. Matt Monro, born Terry Parsons, was an easy-listening singer, more my parents’ meat than mine, but this is a vigorous pop tune with a striking chorus, and the song has left me confused for that near fifty years. On the surface, it’s a protest song, a bustling story of a morning when women are rising, collecting, gathering to hold a protest in support of peace. Monro names them, several of them, traces their path into a greater flow, but each verse ends with the contrasting figure of Annie Harris, who isn’t involved: going back to bed, going off to work, following dull patterns whilst this tide of female protest builds, drawing all the excitement to it. Come with us, Monro urges, run with us, we’re gonna change the world. But this isn’t a protest song. It never has been, despite the enthusiasm and energy it puts into talking up what the marchers are doing, what they are aiming for. The women are stupid, ineffectual, misguided. Annie Harris has avoided them for good reason. One’s dragged away by a policeman, another has her face slapped (with the underlying implication that it serves her right, the stupid, interfering cow). Meanwhile, Annie Harris is the true hero, she knows her place, she’s in the office, typing. For a moment, she pauses, and thinks of Don, glances at his last letter: ‘Died for others to live better’, then brushes away a tear and carries on, no doubt Keeping Calm whilst she’s at it. He’s the true hero, the man. He gets things done whilst these stupid women merely witter and Annie Harris knows her place. It’s a horrible, utterly conservative, disgusting mess disguised as a jolly paean to the spirit of the time, and the desire to see things improve. How stupid these women are, to think they can change anything. A wierd song, a poison pill, coated with the sugar of an energetic chorus. Fifty years only makes it look more foul.
Peace – Peter
I didn’t have many mates at school, and one of them moved away when his parents went to live in Tenby. His gran still lived about ten minutes away by bike, and he used to come back to Manchester every summer, and we’d meet up, play subbuteo, talk music. I was at his gran’s that Friday afternoon when it got too nice to play subbuteo indoors, so I biked home to get my football for a kickaround, and I saw my Dad for that last brief time, before he went back into the hospital to die in as much comfort as they could find for him. The following summer, Steve C was back. I was listening to Radio Luxembourg in the evenings, but he was tuning in to RNI, Radio Nordsee International, pirate radio whose frequency I could never find. They played this ballad/anthem, and he loved it. I never heard it. It’s here for him, if he ever reads this blog.
Mamy Blue – Los Pop Tops
In 1971, we hadn’t yet quite got the idea of inviting a Europop record back into our homes when we came back from summer holidays. That dismal practice only began in earnest two years later, with the chirpy Swede, Sylvia (no relation to Sylvia of ‘Pillow Talk’), and that act of cultural war, ‘Y Viva Espana’. This early, all we had to put up with was this sententious piece of drippy gloom, with people lazing around intoning various variation of ‘Mamy Blue’ and the word ‘Oh’, whilst the singer practiced his fake sincerity. It was responsible for more abrupt switchings off of my transistor radio than anything else that summer, but, as the years go by it has become… well, tolerable. Nostalgia for lost youth can be a punishing thing.
Amoureuse – Kiki Dee
Pauline Matthews from Bradford had been around for half a decade and more before she broke into the Top 30 with this slow, sensual song about shagging a bloke for the first time. She’d found a measure of fame in 1969 or thereabouts, by becoming the first white English woman to be signed by Motown, but that was all she got out of the deal. To get that far, she’d changed her name to the slightly more poppy Kiki Dee, suggesting kookiness and all sorts of Sixties girl-singer lightness. ‘Amoureuse’ was a world away from all those impressions, intense and rich in sound and voice. It was what Dave Marsh described as Topic 1: do I or don’t I? Unlike the Crystals, Kiki wasn’t concerned about what he would think of her in the morning, but what she would think of herself. Based on a song as smooth and melodic as this, I don’t know if she came, but she certainly deserved to stay.
Heartsong – Gordon Giltrap
An instrumental from a guitar virtuoso that was a minor top 30 hit and became background music for BBC factual programmes like holidays shows for many years. More recently, the BBC started snatching instrumental breaks from songs by Doves, which were a lot more classy and engaging, but this was not a bad little piece of music to have on tap.
Garden party – Rick Nelson and The Stone Canyon Band
By 1972 or thereabouts, there was a big hole in the middle of the day on Radio 1. You had bozo DJs out to promote themselves from breakfast through to about midday, and bozo DJs out to promote themselves from 2.00pm until the end of independent radio 1 transmission at tea-time. In between, there was a massive dislocation of expectations, in the form of ex-radio Caroline DJ, Johnnie Walker. You see, Walker’s USP was seriously unique on daytime radio: he was into the music. The music. Really. You wanted the good stuff, the serious, thoughtful non-bubblegum/boyband shit, you listened to Johnnie Walker. Walker lasted like this until 1976 before moving to America, believing that American radio offered more in terms of the music than Radio 1 offered in supermarket openings. This 1972 single by Rick, formerly Ricky Nelson, about his experiences in trying to play contemporary music to an audience wanting only golden oldies, was a gentle, laid-back country rocker that had a very great influence on Walker. If memories are all I sing, I’d rather drive a truck, Nelson sang. At least we got four more years out of Walker, when we really needed someone like him. I wish I’d realised that I could have had even more from John Peel all that time.
Stay with me till dawn – Judy Tzuke
Another song about a first night spent shagging with a bloke. There was six years and a musical upheaval between Kiki Dee and Judy Tzuke, who looked and sounded incredibly Southern Californian but actually came from London. Musically, Ms Tzuke had written an intense ballad, with heavy strings but otherwise sparse instrumentation, for a voice that occupied a higher register than Ms Dee, and six years on there was no suggestion that this was her first time ever, just her first time with someone she wants to know. It was 1979, the height of New Wave, the death knell for Southern California, even when this wasn’t really from that laid-back state. It was just as gorgeous, and Judy Tzuke made Stevie Nicks look like a mile of bad highway. In the end, Kiki Dee had the longer career: Tzuke never repeated this record’s success. But not many people get to make a sound like this. She has nothing to be ashamed of. And if this was about anyone in particular, then he was one seriously lucky bastard.
Where were you – The Mekons
You can always tell we’re reaching the end of one of these compilations when the punk tracks start to come out. ‘Where were you?’ was much beloved of Peely. The Mekons come from Leeds and they called themselves after the Mekon so that’s two strikes against them already, but the aggressive and scruffy charm of this student bar favourite has yet to be exhausted. They not only don’t make records like this any more, they can’t.
Good Technology – The Red Guitars
This is not a punk record. Nor is it a New Wave record. But it wouldn’t have existed without either form. The Red Guitars came from Hull, and this is a slow burner, building with a seemingly ponderous certainty towards a finale with screaming guitars. It’s one of those tracks that don’t leave any room for a following song, which is why it’s at the end here and why no-one can remember any other Red Guitars tracks.