Brian Cant, R.I.P.

Here is a box,

A musical box,

Wound up and ready to play.

But this box can hide

A secret inside.

Can you tell who is in it today?


There is a new resident in Camberwick Green tonight, living near the bus stop to Trumpton. Mr Cant, the gentle genius, will fit right in.

Uncollected Thoughts: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

You know what to expect when you go to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie: just leave your brain behind and settle back to enjoy furious, breathless pace, a barrage of high-quality CGI and, if it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy, a barrel of laughs. So I had a great time this afternoon, hiding from the stifling heat in a cinema in which there were about a dozen people and I, in row D, the most advanced.

Actually, the best bit of the film was the opening scene, by which I don’t intend to slate any of the rest of it, but it had me laughing my head off. We open on a planet known as The Sovereign, populated by gold-skinned, gold-haired, very religious and self-satisfied douchebags, led by Ayesha the High Priestess (played by Elizabeth Debicki, of whom I was not previously aware, who made a serious impression on my, er, sensibilities).

The Guardians have been hired to prevent an incredibly large space squid from stealing certain valuable McGuffins, I’m sorry, batteries. Everyone’s getting prepared, including Rocket Raccoon, who’s hooking up the sound system for some more Seventies tunes, when Drax the Destroyer protests. For once, Peter Quill, Star-Lord, agrees, at which point the monster arrives and the battle commences.

But we don’t get to see it. Instead, the camera focuses on Baby Groot, the living tree whose sole line of dialogue is the Librarian-like, “I am Groot”. Little Groot fiddles with the plugs, connects them at the third attempt and, with the battle raging above, around but mostly behind him, proceeds to dance, adorably, laughably, obliviously, to The Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mister Blue Sky’.

Now ELO are far from my favourite Seventies band, and indeed ‘Mister Blue Sky’ is the very song that saw Jeff Lynne and I part musical company irrevocably, but here is little Groot lost in the music whilst bits of the fight fly, crash and blast past him, and all he does is dance on, and the camera never pans out and it’s all so ridiculously silly that you can’t help but be in a good mood for the rest of the film, none of which quite comes up to that but hey, you can’t be sublime all the time.

It’s a high speed, slambang affair, hopping like mad, during which Quill discovers that his missing father is actually Kurt Russell, no actually Ego, the Living Planet, an immortal Celestial. Quill’s immortal too, as long as he doesn’t quibble with Daddy’s plan to expanding himself so that he isn’t just this planet anymore but the whole goddam universe. Which, naturally, he does. Quibble, I mean.

It’s save the Galaxy time, folks! After they’ve done it twice, Rocket reckons they can put their price up.

As for the rest, there’s plenty of colourful character, patented quipping, genuinely funny interactions and lines, the wringing dry of every piece of fun possible, and all of both highly professional and highly effective. If you go in expecting to be entertained , along with being run through the odd emotional gamut every now and then, you’ll be fine. Expect great significance or moral ambiguity, and you’re better off going to see the film next door.

There’s more room for Karen Gillan this time, as Nebula, though she’s still blue and bald, though after a sisterly chat with Gamora, the Galaxy’s Greatest Assassin, not quite to psychopathic. And Pom Klementieff puts in a fine turn as the naive empath, Mantis, though the latter’s creator, Steve Engelhart, is righteously distraught that, except visually, this Mantis has no resemblance to his character.

And I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Debicki, haven’t I? Seriously, she’s Eddie Cochran levels of Somethin’ Else.

I’m glad to see she’s going to be back for Vol. 3, in respect of which she appears to be growing a monster and a killer she plans to call Adam. Oh-ho! say all the fans simultaneously: Warlock, we presume.

I’m not going to go into this film in any greater depth because it doesn’t require it. It’s been criticised for not being as ‘fresh’ as the first one, and sure it’s a whole heap of ‘more of the same only different’, but I watched the first one three years ago and I can happily sit down to something like that every three years or so.

And having seen the trailer for it, I am so going to go see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and not just because it’s got Cara Delivigne in it. Super space opera on a budget fit to match the original French comics, which were Star Wars long before Star Wars. I think that’s going to be fun, like this.


Charlie Dickinson of Liverpool wrote this. This whole country needs to read it #Grenfell

Charlie Dickinson of Liverpool wrote this. This whole country needs to read it #Grenfell

Reblogged to Martin Crookall – Author for Sale


grenfell isolationThe text below was sent to the SKWAWKBOX by a Twitter follower. The people of Liverpool have a particular affinity with the victims of the Grenfell fire, because they know what happened at Hillsborough, how the Establishment tried to blame the victims – which they see happening already over Grenfell Tower – and because they know how hard it is to get justice when the rich and powerful close ranks.

One Liverpool man wrote his thoughts on Grenfell Tower, on how it fits in the overall pattern of what’s happened to this country over the last three decades or so. It’s powerful. It’s damning.

And its final lines need to be a wake-up call for a country that has tolerated the Establishment narrative for far too long.

Read. Share:

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Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series – an appraisal

Malcolm Saville enthralling his readers

There is an active Malcolm Saville Society, established over twenty years ago, for fans of his work in general and his Lone Pine Club series in particular. This was not the only series Saville wrote in his prolific career, though by far the longest: The Jillies and The Buckinghams ran to six books each, aimed for the same general children’s audience as the Lone Piners, whilst the Susan, Bill books were for younger readers and the somewhat later Marston Baines series for older teenagers.
But Saville is and always will be remembered for the Lone Pine Club, and for the simple but heartfelt ideals that the Club represented and by which they lived: to be true to one another, whatever happens.
Re-reading and re-re-reading the series this year has been an enjoyable experience, and in general I think that whilst the series went on too long, a number of the books stand up well even today. In the Introduction, I compared the Lone Pine books to those of the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons, in terms of appeal and longevity. Having re-acquainted myself with them, my overall impressions remain unchanged. Though they are the most dated in terms of dialogue and setting, the Swallows and Amazons books are still the finest, and the Famous Five the least fulfilling.
Even during his lifetime, Saville’s books were accused of being out-of-touch, and middle-class. Revisions inimical to the overall quality of the series, and poorly executed, were forced upon him. Later books became increasingly ineffectual as Saville struggled to comply with demands that he reflect the world of the Seventies, demands that were beyond his understanding in the eighth decade of his life.
But what distinguishes Saville’s work from both his contemporaries is that, from the very outset, dealing with boys and girls no more than fifteen years of age, in the middle of Wartime, he was prepared to acknowledge the inherent attraction between boys and girls, and encourage and develop this over a series of books. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Saville wrote for both male and female readers. We may assume, whether that be rightly or wrongly, that the action was the main interest of the boys and the relationships that of the girls.
Either way, Saville’s art lay in making both sides of that equation palatable to their ‘unnatural’ audience, and in making the advent of relationships natural and enjoyable for those who would normally be embarrassed by emotion.
Reviewing each book, you can’t escape from unignorable drawbacks. I don’t mean the overall implausibility of a small group of youngsters getting involved in so many adventures, nor the problems inherent in keeping that group at roughly the same age against contemporary backgrounds that span thirty-five years. This is where Suspension of Disbelief comes in, though the longevity of the series puts as much strain on the Suspension as it does on the Golden Gate Bridge.
No, I mean the repetitiveness: the adventures that, after the first two, War-bound books, never vary beyond criminal gangs, or missing treasures, the inevitable kidnapping, usually but not always of the Twins (in Seven White Gates, the only book without a villain, they get themselves trapped underground instead). Then there are the frequent natural disasters, intended to provide a melodramatic ending. The effects vary, but Saville overdoes the one where underground water forcing itself to the surface, causing landslips.
And few of Saville’s villains are particularly convincing to the adult eye. The longer the series goes on, the worse they get. They bluster, ineffectually, or they get smarmy, thinking they’re winning the kids round. In the second half of the series, a number of villains start to get more brutal, as the senior Lone Piners start to transition into adulthood, becoming fair game, as it were, but Saville’s instinctive distaste for this step shows, and he never convinces that his heart is in what he’s writing.

The Long Mynd, and one of its ‘gutters’

For the most part, Saville deals with the advancing background by ignoring it. Mystery at Witchend causes the most problems by pinning the Lone Piners to the War. It takes eleven books and fourteen years for the only mention of Tom losing his parents in an Air Raid to appear, and in Not Scarlet But Gold, it is Jenny, who did not appear in that first book, who is the only one who can ask Alf Ingles what it was like in Shropshire during the War with any plausibility.
I’ve admitted to being troubled by having an entire State Forest appear between a summer adventure and a Xmas one, whilst Miss Ballinger apparently undergoing arrest, trial, imprisonment, release and establishing a very successful fashion house between Easter and a foggy London winter is impossible to accept.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Saville wasn’t insistent upon a higher degree of realism in his settings. He can invent Witchend and Seven Gates, Onnybrook and Barton Beach, even Trader’s Street and the Gay Dolphin, but in all other respects he portrays Shropshire and Rye as they are, places his readers can visit themselves, and imagine themselves into the stories.
Because the stories take on this tangibility, unlike Blyton’s generic countryside, or Ransome’s Lake being a pot-pourri of real places drawn into a fictional conglomerate, the reader is being invited to see the stories on a more realistic level. And because Saville recognised, from the outset, that his children could be and would be more than just sexless figures interested only in the thrill of the adventure, the Lone Pine Club books encourage the reader to take them more seriously, more concretely.
In re-re-reading the series with the advantage of First Edition texts, I’ve eliminated from my reviews the original references to the time-flux in the relationships between the Lone Piners. It isn’t of any significant bearing on any of the stories, and I intend to look at it separately at some point, but Saville’s inconsistency reaches its peak with Jenny, who starts off three years younger than Peter in Seven White Gates only to beat her to her eighteenth birthday by Home to Witchend.
But in keeping the children the same age throughout (roughly) up to and including Not Scarlet But Gold, Saville was obeying the wishes of his readers, who he always encouraged to write to him, and whom he always answered personally. What changes in that book is that Saville is now prepared to complete what his writing has implied for over a decade and a half, and to have David and Peter recognise how much they have always meant to each other, and after that the senior’s ages can be allowed to creep up, until they officially become eighteen year olds, and adults
The biggest accusation against the series, and the one to which Saville’s fan club reacts most aggressively, darkly muttering ‘political correctness’, is that the books are out of touch and the children too middle class. Frankly, when two-thirds of your cast go to boarding schools, I don’t think you can afford to kick against that suggestion.
I’d be more inclined to respond by pointing out that the Lone Piners between themselves treat each other absolutely equally. There’s not the tiniest suggestion that Tom or Jenny are inferior to their friends because they are working boys and girls: Tom’s duties on the farm and Jenny’s duties in the Post Office are only an issue insofar as they restrict their freedom to go wherever they choose. This confines them to the Shropshire books: their one escape, to Devon, is brought about by an awkward contrivance.
And I would also be defiant about it. The Lone Piners are products of their time. They’re not working class or street kids, nor are they worse for not being so. Times and tastes changed, and the publishers’ reactions to that were stupid and hasty. The books palpably suffered from Saville being forced out of his natural instincts.
The problem was that he lived longer than Ransome and Blyton. Blyton was a book machine, a force of nature who could roll over anything her publisher demanded whilst Ransome, though surviving to 1967, had ended his career two decades earlier: his books were established.

Devil's Chair

Considering the Lone Pine books as a complete story leads inevitably to considering the long-lasting relationship between David Morton and Petronella Sterling. Their’s is not the only relationship, but it is the primary one. The books may begin with David on the first page but the Club begins with Peter, a recognition Saville makes increasingly formal throughout the last half-dozen books.
She arrives from nowhere, the girl on the pony, the Shropshire girl, at one with the land and the birds and animals. She accepts the Mortons utterly, the self-reliant girl who has, until now, had all she ever needed, but has now found what she never knew she wanted, a family to wrap around her.
Except when she is unsettled, by the threat to her lifestyle of having to leave Shropshire, by David’s and her own adolescent awkwardnesses and the attentions of a handsome young man treating her in the way David has not yet thought to do, Peter is utterly straightforward, complete from the beginning. All she has to do is grow and the only growing she needs is age.
Though it would be easy to see her as an idealisation, Peter is completely grounded. Everyone loves her, everyone relies on her, everyone trusts her, and in turn she gives her friendship instantly and unquestioningly to everyone (once she is completely assured that Penny Warrender has no designs on her David). She is a very natural, very open woman. She is brave, even when a situation has her scared. When others are in danger, she acts instinctively and instantly, before anyone else. She trusts in David Morton absolutely, and has done from the very beginning, and except when the two of them have their utterly natural difficulties, transitioning out of childhood into adulthood, he is worthy of her trust.
For several books, starting with The Neglected Mountain, we are constantly assured that very soon people are going to look at her and see a very beautiful young woman. In Not Scarlet But Gold, she has become this, and this book is the most complex and fulfilling work of the series.
But once Peter declares her love and is answered by David, she begins to fade. Once she’s officially on the road towards engagement, marriage and motherhood, only her beauty matters. She loses her enthusiasm for justice, she allows herself to be left behind continually, and she is even lowered to the indignity of being kidnapped. It’s as if Saville can no longer see her as a rounded, forthright young woman, but only as a figurehead. She loses so much by it.
The relationship between Tom and Jenny seems to emerge out of nowhere. She doesn’t appear until Seven White Gates, where she has only a couple of minor scenes with Tom, and is mentioned in passing as hanging adoringly on his every word afterwards: we don’t even see them being introduced. But by their next appearance, they’re as acknowledged a couple as David and Peter, having formed a good and reliable friendship with overtones of an early affection on both sides between books. It’s only natural, not just because they are of a similar age and have no other options to pair off with, but also they have much in common. They go to local schools (we assume Tom does have some schooling) and without the Mortons around, they have only each other for friends. Just not close, literally.
But though Tom and Jenny’s relationship is kept more low key, with Tom frequently shown as a little embarrassed by Jenny’s open enthusiasm towards him, it is still a two-way thing, and just as real as David and Peter. Tom, after the early books, does display a certain slight distance from the Club, because he is a working man, but never from Jenny. The pair go through their final tribulations during Man with Three Fingers, where Tom briefly kicks against the restrictions of his limited life, and Jenny, for all her determined love for him, acts at her most juvenile over what she perceives as threats to the future she dreams of, but once she is assured openly by Tom that she is his girl, she crosses the bridge into adult acceptance that she cannot be the only thing in his life, and that it is more than enough to be the main thing.
Jon and Penny are a completely different kettle of fish. They arrive as an established pair, cousins in fact but virtual siblings. They are very different characters, and by no means compatible in the way that the other pairs are. If they hadn’t already formed a bond, it would be very difficult to imagine the two taking to each other.
Jon, tall, fair-haired, intelligent, lives with his mother, who was widowed in the War. Penny, a year younger, with coppery curls, has lived with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, for years because her parents live and work in India. That background is apt for the time of their introduction, but once India has achieved its independence, it’s an anomalous situation that gets increasingly anachronistic, but which Saville maintains, presumably because bringing Penny’s parents home would split the pair up.
Penny, who is a true redhead, volatile, effervescent, flirtatious, open, looks up to and worships her elder cousin who, in turn, looks down on her and treats her for the most part with casual contempt and mockery. Partly that’s down to sibling rivalry, but that’s not enough to excuse the way Jon treats his cousin. Penny’s affection for him, and her reliance upon him, is obvious, but it’s not reciprocated in kind by Jon, except in very rare moments. And he’s inordinately slow to see how Penny feels about him.
His callousness comes to a head in Mystery Mine, when no sooner do he and Penny arrive in London than he and David unapologetically decide to shove off alone and leave her with no-one but the Twins and Harriet for company. He never sees just how rotten he’s been.
Saville ultimately hamstrung himself by making the Warrenders cousins. He lived at a time when there was a stigma about cousins marrying, based on the incest taboo and a mistaken belief that the proximity of genetic structure among cousins was guaranteed to produce physically or mentally disabled children. The Warrenders appeared when Saville had no intention of letting his children grow up to the point where that became a realistic factor, and their familial ties made it impossible for him to be comfortable with allowing them the same freedom.
Like David and Peter before them, they have their breakthrough in Treasure at Amorys. The book is not quite as unequivocal as it could be, and I find it significant that the edited-down Second Edition ruthlessly eliminates every single instance of the pair being romantic. But that was as much as Saville could bring himself to do: Rye Royal marks time, they are excluded from Where’s My Girl? on fairly specious grounds, and their appearance in Home to Witchend is marginal, and perfunctory, distinguished only by Jon giving Penny an out and out snog, with no words said.
Saville even wanted to throw Penny into Dan Sturt’s arms, which would have been a major disaster.


Which brings me to Richard and Mary, the Twins. Everybody’s favourites, except me. I wish I could somehow contact my younger self, the boy who read these books at the age they were meant for, and ask him what he thought of them, but I have no recollection whatsoever. As an adult, however, I would cheerfully consider drowning them!
To call them rude is to ignore such words as appalling, impossible and uncontrollable. They are absolutely paranoid, egomaniacal, obsessive and unashamed liars, and they are supposed to be heroes? They are also stupidly reckless and ignorant, completely uncaring of the effect their idiot propensity to get themselves kidnapped by the bad guys, over and over and over and over again, has on the people who love them, God knows why. And they never learn a single lesson, regarding themselves as complete heroes, the only people who ever solve mysteries, and completely justified in doing whatever they want.
By the time of the final book, the Twins have been allowed to age for the first time since between Mystery at Witchend and Seven White Gates. It makes no difference. They promptly go off on their own, into a ‘secret’ valley, and come close to being affected by another water-forced landslip. This whole sequence is artificial, lacking any real connection to the story and included just to give the Twins something to do. It’s pure formula and it’s tedious in the extreme, but it also serves to expose the Twins’ essential weakness, that they are not fit for anything else. They do not grow because the remotest sign of growth debars them from their fixed roles, and there is nothing for them to grow into.
With everyone turning adult, the Twins take it into their head to create a New Lone Pine Club, one that will belong to them and will be in their image. Harriet will transfer over with them, and Kevin and Fenella, the daughter of Reuben and Miranda who at last finds her voice in this book, but the new club will include Nicholas Whiteflower, who has appeared in one book, written twenty years before, which shows the extent to which the barrel is being scraped.
Apparently, after Home to Witchend, Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book and started to plot one out. Thankfully, it never materialised, especially if it would have featured the New Lone Pine Club, because the thought of an adventure in which the Twins are the club leaders is too horrifying to bear. Unless Harriet planned a very early coup, I could foresee nothing but disaster.
Ah, Harriet. Poor Harriet. I had no real recollection of her before re-reading the series, which is a shame, because she is an absolute delight and deserved better treatment from Saville. She only appears in four books, but despite being just twelve years old, far closer to the Twins than any of the rest of the Club, she is self-reliant, and competent. Harriet accepts her place as the new girl, but stands up for herself. Her high point is Not Scarlet But Gold, where she is the moral centre of the story taking place around David and Peter, and she is the dominant figure in Strangers at Witchend and it does her a disservice to have her so taken up with the hapless Kevin Smith, to the point where her last scene is her bursting into tears at him going away.
She is even more badly served by Home at Witchend, where she doesn’t appear until almost the very end, and then as an adjunct to Kevin, who gets dialogue where she doesn’t. A really good character, mostly wasted.
I’ve already said enough about the adventure story aspect, and the villains, but Miss Ballinger and her gang, the closest the Lone Piners come to arch enemies, deserve separate mention. They appear in five stories, to varying, mostly decreasing effect. By the time of Treasure at Amorys, Ballinger herself is almost wholly eclipsed by the idiotic and unstable Les Dale, who is a prime example of late series Saville villain, who cannot be taken at all seriously. By the time of her last appearance, in the wrap-up Home to Witchend, Miss Ballinger is a busted flush, old, near-blind (though still somehow active as an artist), and an underling to someone who we have to pretend is Slinky Grandon, even though he bears no more relationship to Grandon in word or action than Jeremy Corbyn does to Theresa May.
But whilst this is, frankly, poor, I do have to praise Saville’s his handling of Ballinger’s final scene. Alone, abandoned, her glasses stolen, she is so helpless she doesn’t even know she is speaking to David Morton, but at the last she achieves a curious kind of dignity, that hints at what else she might have been, but for her greed and callousness.


Overall, the Lone Pine series stands up decently well. The books are flawed, especially later books, written when Saville was being accused of being out of touch, and too middle class, accusations that, to be fair, are largely true. Yet the series started with the right impulses behind it, and never lost sight of these, and they were ideals worth adhering to, and I am in something of a minority in my response to the Twins.
What Saville did do, and did well, was to develop the natural connections between the senior Lone Piners. Bonds were formed from an early stage, were maintained and grew, ripened, deepened, until in two cases they ended with engagements, and the confidence of lives ahead. Speaking as a pre-teen boy, in the Sixties, I can testify that selling this was no mean feat.
I acquired a set, of mis-matched paperbacks and occasional hardbacks, cheaply, mostly Second Editions. On two occasions, I had to pay extra for the superb, restored and complete GirlsGoneBy editions. These inspired me to re-collect the set through those publishers, so that I now have a set of handsome, matching editions. This year has been the year in which I returned to the Lone Pine, and for all the things that the critical adult eye sees and cannot ignore, it has been a delight.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e02 – Shanghaied

You can never assess a new series from the Pilot. It’s had all the resources thrown at it, and months of preparation, and it’s usually an extended episode as wall, so the proof of the pudding doesn’t begin until the series proper starts, the regular shape of the episode is first established, and you get to see how cast, crew and writers cope with producing episodes on a weekly basis.

In that light, ‘Shanghaied’ got Tales of the Gold Monkey off to a bright start, with a fast-paced adventure, with plenty of twists, that allowed the three principals to showcase what they’re going to bring to the series.

Did I say three principals? Make that four, although Jack the one-eyed dog played less of a leading role this week.

The show made a bold move by laying its Saturday Morning Cinema Action Hero, Jake Cutter, low with a recurring bout of malaria right from the start, and keeping him weak throughout. This enabled the plot by first isolating Corky so that he could be shanghaied, requiring the struggling Jake to find and rescue him, and then by facilitating Sara Stickney White’s determination to join the chase by undermining Jake’s refusal to take her with him.

The plot was simple: a mysterious sea captain, with a supposedly English accent and a hook for a right hand, plies Corky with drink, his true weakness, knocks him out and shanghais him into the islands with the aid of a crew of Malay cannibals. Abel – or Sean Phillips as his real name is belatedly revealed to be – is in the slave trade but his ship, up a river on Matuka island, is paid up due to engine failure. Corky may be an aircraft mechanic – and former Chief Mechanic for Pan American as we discover, in those distant days before his alcoholism became the problem it is – but he’s the nearest and best option.

We’re reminded of Corky’s problem in an opening fever dream, a ‘memory’ of Jake fighting in China with the Flying Tigers (as I said before, a gross anachronism, Gold Monkey being set three years before they ever formed). Jake has Jack and Corky with him in the cockpit of his fighter plane, the latter constantly guzzling beer, hemmed in by so many bottles that, when they are shot down, and Jake parachutes out, cradling Jack, Corky can’t move and opts for another bottle, as the plane smashes into a hillside…

It’s both premonition and a reminder of how Jake feels responsible for his pal, and how he’s trying to control Corky’s drinking, to eventually get him off the sauce.

So Jake goes in pursuit, with the concerned and jealous Sara as his co-pilot. This is enforced by Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar and local magistrate. Sincce the pilot, Ron Moody has given way to Roddie MacDowell, slimmer, slicker and a bit more natural in his overt Frenchness. We learn that Louie has been imprisoned on the notorious Devil’s Island, that he likes to seduce women of a certain age, and that he is the nearest to Authority on Bora Gora.

We also learn that Bora Gora is within the French Mandate, but Matuka is in the Japanese Mandate, and that to enter into Japanese airspace without permission is to invite being shot down as a spy. “But Jake,” Sarah reminds him, ” I am a spy.”

One thing this show doesn’t short its audience on is flight scenes. The thrill and edginess of flying a beaten up flying boat with dubious engines, improvised turn and bank indicators and being shot at by Japanese Zeros, or Zekes as Jake and Corky automatically call them, is an intrinsic part of the show, and the seat-of-the-pants era.

Meanwhile, Corky arrives at the imobilised Pandora and learns his task. Jeff Mackay is brilliant in his role as a character who is simultaneously a figure of (unfair) fun, with his dodgy memory and his anxiety, a pathetic and helpless near-drunk, the cliched sidekick who can’t match up to the hero, and yet someone with his own degree of principles, and Mackay manages the task of balancing these elements extremely  well.

Getting him out from Jake’s shadow was a brilliant move. Corky is trapped, reliant on his pal’s rescue, but his immediate response on learning that the Pandora is a slaveship is utter disgust and a refusal to cooperate, though his resistance is quickly overturned when Sean threatens to have a girl slave crushed to death in front of him.

Having evaded being shot down whilst passed out, with Sara taking the controls and being assisted by God, Jake lands on Princess Koji’s island. Willie is there, in the other wooden hot tub, and the two have already drunk a toast to the ‘dead’ Jake and celebrated his ‘resurrection’. Strange behaviour by enemies, especially as Willie is convinced Jake is an American spy, but sobeit for now. Koji’s response is easily explained by her amused wish to shag Jake’s brains out: she rises naked from her tub in front of his eyes, to the shock and disgust of the jealous Sara.

But Koji can identify Ahab/Sean, and find his whereabouts, arrange for Jake’s legitimate  flying permit in the Japanese mandate, and accompany him to the rescue, convincing the local Mud People to join the raid. So Jake buzzes the ship several times to create a distraction, the Mud People swarm over the sides, Corky is nearly squeezed to death but the salves rescue him, and in a slightly perfunctory ending, the moment Jake comes face to face with Sean, he shoots him (in  self-defence, naturally) and kills him. So the last minute sting, that Sean was Koji’s half-brother, falls flat.

Our final moment is with Corky. He has his Mud People attractive young former slavegirl all over him, contentedly smearing mud gently across his face to cool him down and generally giving all indications of that pleasurable kind of fascination that promises a near future meeting of bodies – and all Corky has eyes for is the bullet-holes in the tail of the Goose, and how Jake’s been so irresponsible as to let her get shot at!

It’s a good start. The third test is how well the series is sustained, how strong the theme is, and can the standard be maintained? It’s as inconsequential as all get out, but the object is purely entertainment, and excitement on a child-like level, and that’s not always a bad thing, as The Undertones once reminded us.

More next week.

Deep Space Nine: s04 e24 – The Quickening

Doctor and Patient

Maybe it’s just the coincidence of approaching the end of a Deep Space Nine season so shortly after the current television season has finished, but I find myself wanting to get season 4 over. Episodes like this one are either a symbol of why I want to get to the end or else a sign of my own staleness.

‘The Quickening’ was basically a two-hander featuring Doctor Bashir and Jardzia Dax, that developed in its last ten minutes into a Bashir solo. Because of the unwritten law that everyone in the cast had to appear, we began with a completely irrelevant, stapled on half-open, so that Odo, Worf, O’Brien and Quark could have a line or two to speak that was so bloody irritating in itself, even before it became totally out of keeping with the episode as a whole that I refuse to even credit it, and a coda with a word or two from Sisko that at least followed the story. Kira fared slightly better: she was the third member of the expedition into the Gamma Quadrant, but she got despatched into hiding from the Jem’Hadar for most of the episode.

I’m only going on about this for so long because I’m getting increasingly irritated at watching stories that are at least perfectly decent being bent out of shape, in an obtrusive manner, just to cram in an otiose line or two from a cast member not required for the story.

It put me in an awkward mood to begin with, which was then exacerbated by the lead-in to the plot. Kira intercepts a distress message from a planet under attack that turns out to be 200 years old. The attack was by the Jem’Hadar, punishing a world that had defied the Dominion by seeding it with a fatal virus that affects the entire population by causing facial and body lesions that, at an unpredictable point, turn red, causing indescribable pain and inevitable death.

The planet’s civilisation has collapsed, it is a ruin, it’s entire existence focused upon death, or rather escaping the death that follows when the lesions quicken.

This is what Bashir and Dax discover when they beam down, although it hurt the episode, at least for me, that they appeared out of nowhere, as complete strangers, dressed radically differently from everyone else, and nobody noticed. The absence of an reaction didn’t sit right, and was yet another example of weak, lazy writing, ducking logic in order to get to the ‘real’ story and thereby undercutting its reality.

At first, that story seemed to hold a tinge of more Federation cultural imperialism. A woman quickened, and Bashir and Dax help her to Trevean, who appears to be revered in the way a Doctor in a plague camp might be. Only he’s not a Doctor in Bashir’s terms because all he does is give those who have quickened a swift-acting poison, and a speedy and relatively pain-free death, as opposed to the drawn-out and agonising one imposed by the virus.

Bashir is convinced he can cure the plague: after all, he’s already saved one plague-ridden planet with just one hour’s diagnosing. He and Dax set up shopped, aided by the heavily-pregnant Ekoria, a sweet and gentle guest appearance by Ellen Wheeler. Trevean (Michael Sarrazin) hangs around making vague threats about liars and what happens to people who arouse false hopes that are never followed up on.

Bashir fails. He seems to be making progress towards a cure but the plague then rapidly and violently mutates, in response to the electrical fields generated by his equipment. Trevean has to step in rapidly to administer his potion, wiping out the entire clinic except for Ekoria, who is unaffected for no better reason than that the plot requires it.

Dax, who has spent most of the episode with her hair distractingly down for no reason other than to make her look different, goes home but Bashir determinedly stays, with Ekoria as his only patient, grimly clinging onto enable her baby boy to be born. There’s a twist coming, we know there’s a twist coming, and even before it’s somewhat blatantly foreshadowed by the total absence of all that antigen from Ekoria’s body, the ending is obvious. Ekoria gives birth, but dies almost immediately. But she lives long enough to see and understand that her baby is born free of the plague: Bashir has inadvertently created not a cure but a vaccine.

And Trevean, after being a slightly low-key heavy throughout, turns saviour, begging to be shown how to administer the vaccine to every pregnant woman. No-one alive will be saved. But within a generation, the plague will be eliminated. It’s a win, but not enough of one to console Bashir, as his distracted response to Sisko’s congratulations shows us.

So. If I were rating episodes, I’d give this a C+ as it is, with prospects of it having been a solid B if not for the strictures of the time. Tighter writing, dumping everyone but Bashir, Dax and Kira, with maybe Sisko to round things off, either tone down on Trevean the threat or else make that a bit more actual, these would have made this a much stronger episode, and me a lot more convinced today.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Home to Witchend

20 - Home to Witchend

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on second thoughts.)

There had to be a Last Book. And it had to do the proper thing by David and Peter by securing their future together into the timelessness that followed. And it had to settle Tom and Jenny. And Jon and Penny, though in the end Saville couldn’t bring himself to do it, leaving their outcome to our imaginings, which all ended up in the same place anyway.
From Mystery at Witchend to Where’s My Girl? there had only once been as many as three years between Lone Pine Club books, but six years passed before Home to Witchend was published, the only one in the series to appear as an Armada original. The state of publishing ruled out Children’s Hardback Fiction, though this has happily more than recovered since.
And these were not happy years for Saville, whose preferred title, ‘Where it all began’ and others were rejected, as was the notion of creating a light-hearted tale with the Twins at the centre. In this, I’m wholly in agreement, and not just because of my by-now clear antipathy towards the younger Mortons. No, it had to resolve the future of the adult Lone Piners, it had to have Witchend in the title, and it had to recall old themes and recycle old formulas. And involve absolutely everyone.
Though a couple more books remained, after Home to Witchend, Malcolm Saville wrote no more fiction. The Lone Pine Club thus were first and last, and best.
I’ve criticised the last couple of books, and though many Lone Pine fans judge this final story a perfect send-off, and I’d love to welcome it as such, I’m afraid I cannot. There is much that is wrong about Home to Witchend, almost too much to detail without making this into an all-out attack of a kind it doesn’t deserve. But though Saville was still driven by the urge to write children’s fiction, this book is a sad indication that he had gone beyond his time, that he was, by now, old-fashioned, and sufficiently aware of it to make his attempts to reflect the book’s present day ill-suited.
The story is built upon Peter’s coming of age: her eighteenth birthday is only a week away when the story begins. David is planning to make this the most brilliant day she could have. It’s all he’s thinking about, and it’s clear that Saville would prefer to have the same single-mindedness, but an Adventure is required, even though it is almost completely against the spirit of this book.
What is it be? Foil a criminal gang, or find a Treasure? The former is the least obtrusive, and if we are adopting that course, who else should it be but the series’ most inveterate villain, Miss Ballinger, even though her hereditary foes, the Warrenders, are barely in evidence.
Times have changed. Ballinger, who is now in her sixties and pretty well down on her luck, has changed her name again and is making a living of sorts drawing personalised greetings cards. Val, her once and former ‘niece’, has dumped Les Dale, and shot up from ‘twentyish’ to ‘thirtyish’. Reading between the lines of what Saville doesn’t quite say, she’s already starting to lose her looks.
The pair have been summoned to work in a relatively menial role for the former ‘Slinky’ Grandon, now calling himself Thomas Seymour. Tom is in charge, affluent, successful, self-confident. Along with the name change, he doesn’t look, act or even talk like the Grandon we’ve seen so often already and once he’s named Seymour, the name Grandon is never used again. Other than the old connection, there is no point whatsoever to this completely new figure being linked to ‘Slinky’.
The name of the game is forgery: ten pound notes. Ballinger and Val will take a remote Shropshire house as cover for the actual forging by two foreigners, Josef and Jan, and will assist in distribution. There’s a neat symmetry in the choice of house: it’s Appledore, which has gone unmentioned since Mystery at Witchend, but which is once again a pretty nest of thieves.
This particular circle cannot properly be closed, however. Home to Witchend is full of footnotes referencing old adventures, as Saville leads us down Nostalgia Lane, but David and Peter’s previous acquaintance with Appledore has to be left in the shadows: the exposure of a German spy ring cannot be allowed into the past of a girl just approaching eighteen.
Curiously enough, that’s not a serious problem. The Lone Piners’ improbable and elongated history has to be accepted for what it is: it is harder to relate Miss Ballinger and Valerie’s years in their ‘profession’ with the scant period since Penny Warrender was a schoolgirl.
Ah, the Warrenders! They come in at chapter 3, which reveals Penny to be manager-in-training at the old Dolphin, receiving a warning from the Police and the inescapable James Wilson about the passing of forged notes. Jon’s still at Sussex University, though we don’t know what he’s studying or what he plans for his future. As for their future, when Jon turns up at the station and Penny is there to meet him, he kisses her ‘as she’d never been kissed before’ but she doesn’t say anything (Penny? Just been thoroughly snogged and doesn’t say anything? Penny?)
But that is all for them. They will turn up at the end for the party, but only to make up the numbers, of no more relevance than Alan Denton. The same goes for Tom and Jenny: he, the working farmer, spends most of the book working whilst Jenny is also limited to a single chapter, most of which she spends as a chatterbox. She’s got out of Barton Beach at last, assistant in a Shrewsbury bookshop, and somehow or other she’s managed to get to be a few months older than Peter. One day I’m going to draw up a chart of the Lone Piner’s flexible ages!
At least Tom and Jenny get an ending. They too are engaged, though they’ve kept their commitment secret so as not to steal David and Peter’s thunder at the latter’s birthday.
It’s a shame that Saville’s conservatism and his Christian beliefs couldn’t, in the end, accept that there was neither bar, stigma nor danger to cousins marrying, and make it the triple celebration it deserved to be. It’s better though than the alternative that, for a long time, he wanted to cook up, which was to hand Penny over to Dan Sturt, amid declarations of eternal brotherhood from Jon. That wouldn’t have washed for a moment, always assuming Saville could have persuaded his audience to believe Dan’s fickle heart after his passionate lusting after Peter, but the truth was his audience would have flatly refused to accept Penny and him, and he was persuaded of this.
As for Harriet Sparrow, I am frankly disgusted at her treatment in this book. She does not appear until the very end, joining the party alongside Kevin Smith, who isn’t even a Lone Piner (yet). All Saville can say about his sturdy little girl, with the straightforward heart and her splendid solidity is that she is a lonely girl, and he can’t even give her a line of dialogue: that goes to Kevin instead.
So the book, like Sea Witch Comes Home is eventually only for the Mortons, among whom Peter is now counted in anticipation of her formal attachment to the family. And Peter does not come out of this book too well.
In a way, the last three Lone Pine books are, cumulatively, a left-handed justification of Saville’s decision to write for children, because once he allowed the senior Lone Piners to evolve into adults, he had no idea what to do with them. Peter suffers the most: once she becomes the beauty she was always destined to be, once she sets definitive foot on the road to becoming a wife, all her other characteristics, her steadfastness, her tenacity, her clearheaded directness, her determination to see justice done, have disappeared, as if they have drained out of her. Her beauty becomes the only thing we are allowed to see. She can’t even have faith in David’s dedication to her, which is about as obvious as the Long Mynd to everyone else. When he takes his only step towards the Adventure that threatens to distract from his plans for Peter’s wonderful time, she lets him go off on his own without an explanation. Is this the girl who found her way through her own confusion to insist that he would not go into Greystone Mine without her? Not for me.
David doesn’t want to get involved in the Adventure. He only wants to think of Peter, and spend his time with her. She is merely passive. Tom and Jenny are working. Jon and Penny are too far away. Harriet’s left out. The only Lone Piners who want to get involved are the Twins. They might be ‘nearly twelve’ now, they might be no longer so overtly childish as they were for so long, but nothing’s changed. They are still the same monsters of egotism, paranoia and wilful stupidity that they have been all along.
The Twins can identify Pam the Market Artist as Miss Ballinger, they can listen to James Wilson and Inspector Cantor’s warnings about the forgery gang, but they can’t do anything, they really can’t.
So, to give them something to do, Saville invents another bit of Long Mynd geography in the form of a secret valley, off the tourist track, accessible only by trespass on private ground, known only to the Twins. No sooner have they been told not to leave the Witchend Valley because the incessant rain has made the narrow valleys dangerous than they leave the Witchend Valley for their narrow valley, as smug as ever in their defiance of the bullying that they, as the only ones with any initiative, constantly suffer.
So Saville produces yet another rain-induced landslip, of even more substantial proportions, underground water forcing its way out in a great eruption. It’s an artificial danger: the Twins are already above it, or else it would simply kill them, but it leaves them stranded, it leads to tremendous publicity, Mary’s almost sure she saw a man who might have been caught in the flood, and Richard’s only thought is to keep back every piece of information he can to present it to James Wilson as an exclusive: sod any questions about the man’s safety.
David’s atavistic impulse to investigate Ballinger’s whereabouts can maybe be explained as the urge to keep his younger siblings from an even more intrusive bit of stupidity, but it’s still out of character against his concern for Peter. He finds the near-drowned man, Jan, the highly-strung foreigner roped in to make the forged notes and goes off on one final expedition. It leads him to Appledore, to Ballinger, Valerie and Seymour, and it leads him to the inevitable capture. If it had to be done, surely Saville could have contrived a better outcome than David tripping himself up twice and knocking himself out?
That drags Peter in one final time, the clue provided by little Fenella, the gypsy’s daughter she saved so long ago. They too have reappeared, for a first time since The Secret of the Gorge, though sadly, reflecting the growing mood of the times, they are finding their old roaming life hard to sustain. Charles Sterling, knowing, liking and trusting them, has allowed them to install their caravan at Seven Gates, where Reuben works on the farm, and Miranda and Fenella visit the local fairs.
And the shy Fenella is herself beginning to grow up, and to indicate to the Lone Piners how much she cares about them, and it is she who comes to the rescue, asking among her contacts when requested by Dickie, and coming up at the crucial moment with Appledore. So Peter demands the Police are notified but heads off on Sally one last time, to the rescue.
Where she finds David’s car, burnt out.
You and I know that nothing’s happened, but Peter experiences the worst fear of her young life before she finds David imprisoned in the workshop, where he’s attempting to beat the door down. She releases him, like he has done for her often enough. And they find Ballinger, abandoned by her confederates, imprisoned by her near-blindness without the glasses they have stolen. There’s a curious dignity to her at the last, unaware of who she is speaking to, telling Peter that there is a prisoner who needs releasing all unaware that he is already free. Miss Ballinger accepts her fate.
This calm acceptance is somewhat marred by the fact that Ballinger had a gun in her handbag which she didn’t attempt to use. Saville could not have allowed even her to contemplate suicide, but it’s a dangling detail, the gun in the first act that didn’t go off in the third, a thread that goes nowhere.
So, the gang are wrapped up, offstage, by the Police as usual. Seymour/Grandon has taken Val with him, but their fate is a car accident on the outskirts of Manchester: Seymour is ‘gravely injured’ and Valerie is helping the Police with their enquiries, that age-old cliché.
At last, this misshapen, unwanted Adventure can be cleared offstage and Peter’s birthday – and her special present – can finally taken prominence. Everyone’s agog to find out if David’s going to ask her to marry him. It’s hardly a dramatic point: the drama would have been if he hadn’t, and we as readers who have been here for the long journey from that day on the Long Mynd two years before the end of the Second World War (don’t mention that!) are almost as invested in that outcome as is Jenny Redhead. It’s sweet, touching and very rewarding.
Saville cleverly includes two half-scenes that we adults recognise for what they are but which the youngsters, and especially those of 1978, wouldn’t necessarily understand: David asking for Mr Sterling’s permission to ask for Peter’s hand and Peter choosing the ring that David will give her at the end of all things.
The party is held at Seven Gates, half in and half out of HQ2. Everybody is there, everybody who is family in this extended circle of friends, and everybody who has played a part on the side of the Angels, save for Arlette Duchelle and the Channings, in any of these adventures, comes up to wish Peter well on her great day.
And Mr Morton announces that David is to move his training to Shropshire to be with Peter, and become a country Solicitor in due course, and when they marry, Witchend will be theirs just as Ingles will stay with the next generation of Ingles, and whilst not the least amazing thing about the Lone Pine Club series has been that Malcolm Saville has included the sometimes childish but always genuine affection and love between boys and girls without frightening off his audience, this is really the end of the Lone Pine Club. Happiness is, as always, the enemy that will have its way, and to which we own defeat with joy.
But what of the Twins, and the criminally overlooked Harriet? There’s a final gesture of defiance from Mary and Richard. Kevin will sign his name in blood, to become a new member, and Nicholas Whiteflower, and young Fenella. There will be a Lone Pine Club still, a New Lone Pine, but it won’t be our club and we will never read its adventures (and if the Twins are in charge, I really do fear for them: Harriet will have to take over, pretty sharpish).
Oddly enough, it appears that Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book, and began to plot it, but nothing seems to have escaped as to who, what, where, and personally I’m very glad of that.
I was already twenty-two when Home to Witchend was published, too old for such things but a completist to my boots. Like Mystery Mine I’ve only ever read it with an adult’s eye, and with that eye I can only see how poorly it compares with the rest of the series. In a better world, Malcolm Saville might have written a Last Book much earlier, perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Rye Royal, and found a way to give a fair go to all his Club members.
Then he might have had more chance, perhaps even more freedom from the pressure of contrivances, and old tropes. The Adventure might have been less tired and forced: that bit younger, and less troubled, he may even have come up with something that genuinely forced itself upon David Morton as he rushed around, wishing only to focus on the woman he loves and her happiness, something that threatened to spoil the event if he did not act.
But no. The cards were dealt as they were, and many people were happier with the hands than I am. So let’s bring this to another end, by picturing in our mind the lifelong friendships of those neighbours in an imaginary valley in the flank of a real mountain, David and Petronella Morton, Tom and Jenny Ingles, not to mention their old pals and frequent guests, Jon and Penny Warrender (status undefined). By now, they’re long since old enough that their own children will have outgrown an even newer Lone Pine Club. But, knowing these people as we do, not their friendship with one another. True to each other, whatever happens,

Adam West – The ‘Best Batman’?

In that long lost country that was 1966, a ten year old boy eagerly encouraged his Mum and Dad to stay at his Granny’s long enough for him to watch the first episode of the Batman TV show. I was ten years old and I was thrilled by American comics despite my parents’ distaste for them, and on Saturday nights I got my way and I hung on every brightly coloured black-and-white image.

I remember things: the ‘Hot-Line’, “To the Batpoles, Dick!”, and that moment near the end when Batman did the ‘Batusi’, which went over my head in so many different directions. My Dad’s vocal shock that Nelson Riddle, who’d worked with Frank Sinatra, was involved as musical arranger on something like this. And then it was “Tune-in next week. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

That next week wasn’t next Saturday though, it was Sunday night, and I couldn’t wait.

These are the things I remember,  and I find it telling that after fifty years, that’s what I remember. Wasn’t the villain The Penguin? I can only be 50% sure.

Because, let’s face it, the Batman TV Show of the Sixties was shite, and it was written and acted to be shite, because the people who were responsible for it thought that the original material was shite and that the audience that in any way took this shite seriously was laughable and deserving only of these superior souls’ contempt, which came out in every frame of the show.

Absolutely none of which was detectable by a ten year old boy who was thrilled just to see Batman on TV, Batman, and who was even more thrilled one Saturday morning to go off to the Burnage Odeon to see the Batman film, and see everything in colour (though he was very confused to see Lee Meriweather playing Catwoman, instead of Julie Newmar: mind you, looking back, and even allowing for the fact I was then eleven, I am startled that I noticed).

Understandably, I was the only one in our family enthused to watch Batman. Saturday was one thing: I was far more indulged at Granny’s, and anyway the adults were more into talking than watching the box, but twenty-four hours later, at our home, my Dad said what we watched and more often that not the ITV Sunday night film, which started at the same time, was his choice. I was forever doomed to watch Batman and Robin get into a dastardly trap and never find out how they got out of the cliffhanger.

Years later, however many I can’t recall, I went to the cinema to see a revival of the film. The scales fell from my eyes in such profusion that I could barely see the scree over them. I thought the “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” bit was the nadir, but when we got to Robin’s puzzled, “You mean they won’t be coming back, Batman?” I admit I groaned aloud in pain and wanted to cover my head.

Granada only ever showed the first series. Later, I heard that Batgirl had been introduced into the third series, which surprised me because I’d just assumed they hadn’t been making any more. I was curious, but I accepted that, except in the unlikely event of going to America – and the idea of leaving England was just so outlandish, I never imagined it – I’d never see it.

Once again, let us leap in time. It is the mid-Nineties, I am a responsible houseowner, all sorts of things have happened including Channel 4 and Breakfast TV, and the former are showing Batman, stripped five days a week, at 9.30am. And, what do you know, it’s that third series, with Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. And one of the other things to have happened in the meantime is owning a colour television. And a video-recorder.

It becomes a thing to record Batman, same bat-time, each bat-weekday morning, and watch it when I came home. By now, it’s dropped the cliffhanger bit, the villains get one episode each, and the continuity bit consists of the next villain showing up for the last thirty seconds of the previous episode.

And Miss Craig is a fine figure of a young lady, and I already knew the producers wouldn’t actually let her punch anyone out, especially once Batman and Robin are onscreen, so it comes as no surprise that all she does is ballet-pirouette, and give the occasional ladylike kick, which is not only bloody ridiculous and a complete waste, but which contributes heavily to my immediate impression that series three of Batman makes series one look like ‘War and Peace’.

This is, of course, an initial impression. By the end of series three, the show is making the beginning of series three look like ‘War and Peace’, and Eartha Kitt is no adequate successor to either Julie Newmar or Lee Meriweather.

No, the Sixties Batman TV show was not worth the watching, and my Dad’s refusal to subject himself to it when he had a choice was both understandable and the thing I would have done in his shoes.

You may think that this is a rather mean-spirited way to mark the passing, aged 88, of Adam West, who was both Millionaire Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader, and it may be, but I hold none of this against him, nor do I begrudge the love he had from millions all his life. He did the job asked of him, and there are plenty who could have done a worse job.

And you could say he wasn’t as bad as George Clooney, who really should have known better.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’

The first thing to be said is that, despite the presence of his name on the title page, this is not a Gene Wolfe book. It is a generic, ordinary, unexceptional Science Fiction book. It appears to be a book by someone who wants to write a Science Fiction book rather than a book that he wants to write. Gene Wolfe himself disowns Operation ARES.
Which is a mildly harsh but realistic appraisal. Wolfe’s debut novel, which appeared in 1970, is set in a future America in which societal structure is disintegrating in the face of a long term economic collapse brought about by a popular and short-sighted uprising against science. The Constitution has been suspended, the Army and Police (in name at least) disbanded, the Welfare programme massively expanded, and Science itself is confined to Mars, which is hated and feared and which is trying to get things to start improving on Earth.
The book concerns John Castle, who starts as a teacher and, in a manner that will become familiar as Wolfe grows into his greatness, ascends into a position of great influence based on his generally superior intelligence and tactical awareness. John, who is surprisingly only 22, is already a rebel against the way things are when the book starts. His personal adversary, a man we only know as either the Captain, initially, of the General, in the later stages, is convinced that Castle is a member of, indeed possibly the leader of ARES, the American Reunification Enactment Society (also the name of the Greek God of War, which is not a coincidence: this is an early example of a Wolfean construct/symbol, but definitely early because Wolfe spells it out for us: after this book, it is the reader’s job to make such connections, no matter how esoteric or specialised they may be).
The irony is that, in the latter half of the book, Castle does indeed become leader of ARES, an irony compounded by the fact that ARES does not, in fact, exist.
But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, it is indelibly enmeshed in the politics of its time. What blossoms is an unacknowledged Civil War, in which the Presidency Pro Tem, the ‘official’ government, is supported by the Communist Russians, and the Constitutionalists by the Communist China, all Maoist slogans, running dog capitalist imperialists and mutual suspicion between the two antipathetic Communist states, whose ultimate aim is control over the United States.
Indeed, the abrupt and entirely unsatisfactory ending to the book comes when the two opposing US ‘parties’ decide to collaborate in an effort to buy the time to rebuild America again, by playing off one Communist state against the other.
Yes, this is an unsatisfactory book on so many levels, though I admit that,on this time of re-reading, it gain an astonishing contemporary significance for me, at least in its first half, with its near prescient portrayal of a county whose economy and ability to maintain itself, let alone progress, has been destroyed by a comprehensively stupid decision taken to seize control of the country from its elected rulers, to divert money to the massed poor, by taking it away from Mars, science, manufacture, etc., etc., etc.
As a result, all systems, including power, are failing, the infrastructure is cracking up, wild animals roam at night making things incredibly dangerous, food is being rationed, clothing is shabby/pitiful, graft is rife, and an ineffectual government keeps pretending all is well, and the country is better and stronger for it by a combination of banal slogans and outright lying.
For someone who voted to Remain in the Referendum, the parallels with the Theresa May Party’s Government are too glaring to ignore.
One more glaring difference between Operation ARES and Gene Wolfe’s other books is the complete absence of an unreliable narrator. The closest we come to this staple Wolfean device is in the middle stages of the book where Wolfe simply leaves out sections of a more comprehensive, but unimportant progression. There is no seeming suggestion that the untold sequences have any fundamental bearing on the overall story, or that by these omissions Wolfe is doing anything more than avoiding clogging up the book.
In later books, it is vital for the reader themselves to determine what they’re not being told, as it will inevitably be of significance.
A banal, undistinguished story, told conventionally within the conventions, an inability to escape out of the present political setting despite being a good half-century into the future, if you’re being realistic, reliable narration: the only element of this novel that is consistent with the Gene Wolfe we love is John Castle, the tactically competent man, who knows how to analyse a situation and project a solution upon it.
Having said all that, it should be made plain that the book as published is not as Wolfe wanted it or wrote it. After his publishers set a strict 60,000 word limit, Wolfe’s original submission was 103,000 words and the book completed some four years or so before publication. Furthermore, after Wolfe had edited down the first quarter of the book, the task was taken out of his hands and the word-length over the remainder of the novel achieved by cutting out whole paragraphs until the limit was achieved. Much of the criticism the work rightly receives is undoubtedly a reflection of this process.
No wonder Wolfe wants nothing to do with it.
His next novel would appear in 1972. The contrast between this and The Fifth Head of Cerberus could not be greater, as the title alone demonstrates. It is the true beginning of the career that the wily Wolfe has enjoyed ever since.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: s01 e01 – Pilot

Cutter’s gang

You just don’t get this kind of thing any more.

Back in the days when television was decidedly the movies’ low-rent younger brother, every big film would inevitably gather a shoal of television hangers-on within the next twelve months, series that inevitably and with markedly little shame set out to capture, if not the precise film itself, then the audience that lapped it up.

If you hadn’t seen the film, it didn’t matter: I was too young for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid but I lapped up it’s TV knock-off, Alias Smith and Jones (Monday night, BBC2, 8.00pm). I had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I was well aware of what Tales of the Gold Monkeywas trying to do, but I didn’t mind, because it was great, goofy fun, and thirty years later, the double-length pilot film is still exactly that.

I’ve already described the central cast and set-up, but let’s go over things again as set out for us. The film actually starts relatively obliquely, in an island jungle, at a hidden pool beneath a high waterfall. A big monkey eats a fruit. It’s obviously a man in a monkey costume, but its a well-made costume, definitely not cheap, and decently convincing. Enter two unimportant characters, hacking their way through the jungle. They are German officers, as demonstrated by the slightly hackneyed but not overdone accents and the use of terms such as Herr Leutnant. Being of the Master Race, they are contemptuous of mere monkeys and shoot it, bringing down the wrath of an entire tribe of monkeys, who descend and kill them.

We cut to Jake Cutter, playing poker. Stephen Collins looks the part immediately: flying cap, leather jacket, jodhpurs and boots, smoking a cigar, five o’clock shadow on his shiny, sweat-slick face. Among the other players is an unnamed German officer in black naval uniform, complete with monocle, Hitler moustache and, as we will later see, Hitler-haircut. He, played by John Hillerman, better known for Magnum, P.I., will turn out to be a Gestapo agent, as if we couldn’t tell from just one look at him.

Yes, this is already a compendium of cliches, Saturday morning adventure, but completely self-aware and assembled with honest delight.

But creator Belisario (who would go on to things like Quantum Leap and N.C.I.S.) is ready to throw a spanner into the cliche works, by introducing Jake’s partner, Jack, a Jack Russell terrier. Jake consults Jack on his hand and on the next raising of the stakes, by which he means to gamble, not for the first time, with Jack’s artificial eye: an opal with a sapphire centre.

The system is simple: one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’. Jack barks once, Jake fits an eye-patch over Jack’s socket and reveals his hand: three Queens.

He loses. And Jack holds it against him for the rest of the episode, as everyone including the dog squabbles over whether it’s one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’ or vice versa.

The whole idea sounds stupid and there’s grounds for wondering how long the notion can be kept up without becoming intensely irritating, but for the moment it’s simply gloriously silly, with Stephen Collins, to his credit, playing his heart out acting against the dog, who is a superb actor in his own right.

Next we introduce Sara Stickney White, a singer touring the Maravellas (the island chain in the South Pacific where all this is happening). Sara’s having problems with the wanderings hands of Sam, her manager, leading the chivalrous Jake to intervene. Jake, in one of a carefully regulated occasional voiceovers, is a bit of a Knight Errant. On the other hand, in a cheerful undermining of the hero, he’s not the best of scrappers, though he’s gaining the upper hand when Sara chooses to end the fight by smashing a bottle of champagne over, unexpectedly, her rescuer’s head.

Sara, who talks with a British accent despite being, we learn, an American spy, is an independent and resourceful young woman (as well as being a redhead). Her cover is that of a slightly ditzy woman, and it’s not entirely a cover. This is not that encouraging and is definitely of its time: you can’t have a fully independent woman in a boy’s Sarturday matinee story, but Sara is a lot further along the line than she could have been in those days, so chalk this up as positive on balance.

Sam is also an agent, and is shortly after killed by the Monocled man, but by then he’s already abandoned Sara in a huff and Jake is giving her a lift to Bora Gora, where Sam will arrive next. This bit of the story is a touch weak in logic: it’s perfectly in keeping with the cover story but implausible for the pair’s real status as spies working together.

Nevertheless, this is the lead to our full introduction to ‘Cutter’s Goose’, Jake’s charter plane, a beaten-up and patched-up Grumman Goose flying boat. Enter the world of hair-raising flight, though the failure of the port engine en route and the near crash is down to sabotage, not the Goose’s unreliable framework.

The cast of heroes is completed by the bumbling, eager but forgetful Corky, Jake’s mechanic and other best friend, a hopeful but befuddled guy with serious memory problems. The word has rapidly spread that Jake has lost Jack’s eye again, and public opinion sides with the dog, who knows how to best exploit it. Even Jake’s landlord and closest thing to an employer, Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar – more indelible cliches – takes up with the dog. Louie was played with carefully measured Frenchness by Ron Moody in this pilot, but the role was taken over by Roddy MacDowell for the rest of the series.

We’re nearly there now, only the recurring villains to introduce, though in fact they’ve already appeared onscreen by this point. These are the Reverend Willie Tennbaum, a Wehrmacht officer posing as a Clergymen seeking to convert the native unspoilt islanders and regularly conferring ‘blessings’ on the beauteous Tiki. We’re in cliche-land again, and this is frankly rather embarrassingly patronising, though Tiki appears to be even more eager to be ‘blessed’ than the somewhat fatuous Willie.

But Willie is in partnership with the local Dragon Lady, Princess Koji, played by decidedly caucasian actress Marta DuBois, with her fanatically loyal bushido-master servant Todo (John Fujioka). These are obviously set up to be the recurring villains, and as such were credited weekly as cast, though they were strangely underused.

Willie is excitedly tracking down the legend of an island on which there is a 100 feet tall Gold statue of a Gold Monkey (and there you were, wondering what that scene all the way back at the beginning was about). It’s not the gold his Fuhrer is after, rather that it’s actually an alloy of gold and some other element(s) that is incredibly heat resistant, making it vital for Der Fuhrer’s rocket programme…

To cut a long story short, the island in question is Baku, where, in order to avoid crashing, Jake and Sara dumped most of their cargo. Louie wants his Pom Peron 27 champagne, Willie his bibles, Sara to foil the villains, the villains the gold monkey and Jake to find out why everybody’s lying. So everyone converges on Baku, the dormant volcano,just as it decides not to be dormant any longer.

The episode cheerfully throws its brains out of the window and goes for pure, unadulterated danger and excitement, with guns, snakes, deadly Germans, giant monkey guards, tied-up damsels in distress who get soaked, and a last-minute escape with a three foot tall monkey statuette that, when cleaned up and looking glowingly aureate, turns out to be made of brass (the series was originally going to be called Tales of the Brass Monkey, this latter phrase having a somewhat different meaning over there, but was changed for legal reasons).

So a satisfyingly drama-holing ending and a set-up for an ongoing series. And a final scene for the viewer only, revealing that, on the now-live volcanic island of Baku, the monkeys continue to guard something from which the vegetation and debris of ages has been stripped, and which looks uncommonly like a 100 foot tall gold statue of… a monkey.

This was and, with due allowance for its age, still is a good fun 90 minutes, without any pretention save to be a fun way of spending 90 minutes, at which, as far as I am concerned, it succeeds. But we have all seen multiple instances of a self-contained, extended pilot, with a budget to be impressive, proving to be less sustainable on a reduced budget and a weekly filming schedule.

That’s the true test, and that, for the next twenty weeks, is what I’ll be exploring. Thursdays is Tales of the Gold Monkey day.