Tales of the Gold Monkey: e13 – God Save The Queen


After last week’s schtumer, I was a bit fearful of what we’d get next from Tales of the Gold Monkey, but the show was pleasingly back on track with its deliberate box of Saturday morning Cinema cliches.

The Queen of the title is indeed British but she bears no relation to our own dear Queen. She is the Queen Victoria, a luxury cruise-liner, holder of the Blue Riband (fastest crossing of the Atlantic) and the biggest thing in boats. And Jake and Corky are tailing it in the Goose, delivering an aristocratic passenger to join the liner en route to Sydney, Australia.

Just before they arrive, a bomb goes off on the Queen Victoria, bringing it to a halt in mid-ocean, killing one crew-member. Strangely enough, no sooner is he piped aboard than Lord Hedriks (a nicely judged, underplayed performance by Roy Dotrice, all British reserve and conviction) displays complete knowledge of an incident that literally happened only a few minutes ago. But then, why shouldn’t he? He planted the bomb. And two more: one set to go off in a few minutes, as a second demonstration, the other in six hours, which will destroy the ship. Unless, that is, he is given $18,000,000.00 in Royal Jewels…

You see, there’s a passenger on board, one Edward, Duke of Windsor, abdicated King and Emperor. And Lord Hedriks is a cashiered, disgraced ex-Army Officer who has only retained his title because, in 1938, there was no way of removing it. And he’s bitter enough to want to sink the ship, it’s Royal Passenger and all his aristocratic hangers-on anyway.

Where does that leave Jake, Corky and Jack? Well, they’re initially held under suspicion of being henchmen, until their bona fides are established via Louie, back on Bora Gora, but after that they become the vigorous American refusal to bend to a crook, in the face of effete British capitulation. Or, as Captain Townsend puts it, refusal to risk the lives of the 3,000 souls on the ship.

Of course, it’s all veddy British calm, stiff upper lips all over the place, though it’s done with an air of decency, and almost affection, none of the maliciousness we’ve seen since Alan Rickman turned up in Die Hard. It also means the American idea of British accents turning up everywhere, in which the only lower class accent is grating Cockney (sometimes you can long for a bit of Lancy, though none of the native audience would ever understand it).

In order to stretch the episode out and run through the six hours deadline, even though the Home Office in Britain capitulates faster than you could get a radio wire to the Home Country, Jake and Corky go on the run round the ship. After all, Hedriks’ escape plan is for Jake to fly him out of there in the Goose, and nobody imagines Jake is going to fly back…

Corky winds up in the engine room, mistaken for a stowaway by a pair of black grease monkeys with outrageous Jamaican accents and a decent line in sarcastic patter (grease monkey, for the younger among you who may no longer be familiar with such terms, is nautical slang for the engine room crew, and has nothing to do with race at all). He’s been led there by Jack because, you know, that’s where the bomb is and small, one-eyed terrier dogs can sniff these things out…

Jake, meanwhile, runs around a lot on deck, among the generally toney passengers. At one point, he strips down to a mere towel (but he keeps his socks and boots on: why do they always keep their socks on?). Grabbing a handful of suits off a trolley, he invades a cabin only to find a young, single, female passenger (but of course) who, after throwing a flower vase at him (we are milking the cliches today), takes heed of his manly hairy chest and his dropped towel (he has still got his jodhpurs on beneath) and melts into his arms for the kind of kiss that Sarah would kill to get).

After Jake spills the beans about the bomb, Melodie agrees to get him an introduction to the Duke of Windsor or, as she calls him at the last moment, Uncle Eddie: well, she is the Duchess of Fitzhugh, eh, what? It’s a fun, buoyant performance by Kathryn Leigh Scott, better known for her association with the vampiric soap opera, Dark Shadows.

We’re now running towards the end. Corky is captured, Hedriks threatens to make him fly the plane and Jake comes in out of the cold. It’s at this point that our savvy pilot gloms that Hedriks has no intention of handing over the bomb, he wants revenge rather that $18,000,000.00 in jewellery (maybe he should be taken on one side whilst the idea of priorities is discussed rapidly?).

Jake, sussing out that the bomb’s in the engine room, belts Hedriks on the chops, scuffles a bit, and then tells the Captain to tell Hedriks Jake’s getting the bomb. As expected, His Lordship turns up in the engine room to tell our hero exactly where the bomb is because it’s now too late to escape. Everyone will die. Except that, after all his banging on about precision, military timing, being British, etc., thee bomb doesn’t go off when it should do.

Hedriks is flapping somewhat but intends to trigger the bomb by hand. He gets Jake to remove it from its casing (although its being in its casing is where it’s been most precisely calculated to set off the chain reactions that will destroy an 18 deck, thousand feet long liner), which enables Jake to throw the bomb at him, knock him out and then throw the bomb overboard, all in the nick of time. Phew!

Then, at the Victory Cocktail Party, when Captain Townsend is toasting Jake for being unable to hear a slur against the Royal Family without poking Hedriks one in the face, our boy gives the big reveal: he only did it to snatch Hedriks’ pocket-watch and set it forward a few minutes, to make him think the bomb hadn’t gone off on time and rattle him…

Look, I’m well aware it’s hokum, and if I wanted to be inveterately British about it, I could list a dozen or more instances where the show gets things wrong about us, the Monarchy, the Army, etc., but this isn’t the point. The show deliberately plays fast and loose with veracity. It doesn’t go as far into spoof as it easily could, preferring to lay the comedy and the very gently mockery very lightly upon a dramatic structure, but it likes its source material. It is free from contempt about it.

Which is why I give it a pass. Of course it’s a nonsense, but it’s a nonsense that never tries to pretend it’s anything more than a nonsense, and the fun is rollicking if rather unreal.

Where I would criticise is in things like the treatment of Sarah Stickney White, who is laughed at all the time, and worse, in this episode allowed only a token appearance, back on Bora Gora, carrying shopping parcels and talking to Bon Chance Louie. She’s once again wasted, especially when all this scene does is to serve up a punchline about yet another aspect of Louie’s past history. An egregiously missed opportunity, I keep calling it.

But I am reassured that the rest of the series won’t necessarily be a decline into poorly-thought-out stories. At least until next week.

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Terry Pratchett is finally gone


Before he died, Terry Pratchett requested that all his unfinished work should be laid in the middle of a road and crushed out of existence by a streamroller. Last week, as several major outlets have confirmed, that very thing happened. We have seen pictures of the hard drive, before and after.

As a writer myself, albeit on a level from which Pratchett is barely visible, I understand, and approve completely, and I honour and celebrate the men and women of principle who were responsible to fulfill his wishes, and have honourably followed those wishes. As a reader who has loathed and despised Literary Necrophilia throughout his life, who believes passionately in the primacy of the author, the original author, and nobody else without his or her explicit approval and permission, I say again, all honour to those who have been faithful to the wishes of the only person with the right to decide.

But as a reader, and a fan of Terry Pratchett since almost the beginning, inside I weep, for those lines, those oh-so-Pratchett lines, those concepts and ideas, situations and insights into that vast array of friends I can never visit again. Not a word more of His Grace, the Earl of Ankh, Sam Vines, the Eternal Copper, to choose just a single favourite.

There is literally nothing left, nothing that can be produced from an archive, or a folder or a scrap of paper. Terry is finally gone in every possible sense, and I mourn again, just as much as I did over two years ago, for him and them and all of them, and the coldness and emptiness of the closed, barred and bolted door back into Didscworld.

Deep Space Nine: s05 e09 – The Ascent


Nice background

This is the only other episode I remember in advance, this and the cliffhanger ending to the season. I remembered Odo and Quark crashing onto a barren planet and having to cooperate to save each other, despite their position as enemies. I didn’t remember the circumstances, and I didn’t remember the B story, featuring Jake and Nog, nor that there had even been a B story. And having watched the episode again, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why I retained even a small part of this so long after, because apart from the gorgeous mountain scenery, I didn’t think much of the A story at all.

Let’s dispose of the B story first since, relatively humble as it was, it had the greater possibility for actual change. Nog has completed his first year at the Academy and is now doing a year’s Field Studies on DS9 (a rather short-sighted and implausible choice:  surely he’d have been better tested somewhere he wasn’t already familiar with? But let that pass.) Jake seizes this as his chance to leave home, room with his best friend, grow up.

Grow up in this context means the chance to turn himself back into a lazy, selfish, indolent kid. Jake’s a slob (he’s a teenager, it’s practically second nature). But Nog’s a serious Starfleet cadet, obsessed with duty, discipline, order and keeping the place clean, whilst Jake is almost willfully slobby to spite him. My first reaction was that he was OTT but then I remembered my own exposure to boys of that age…

The two quarrel and split up. Rom and Sisko commiserate over how each of their boys could learn from the other, so Sisko forces the pair to live together and, almost out of embarrassment, they start to compromise. It’s an unconvincingly quick lesson-to-be-learned, but it creates a set-up to which the show can come back as part of its structure.

The A story, however, carries little such prospect. Basically, Quark has to be delivered to a Grand Jury on a planet eight days distant, and an unpleasantly gloating Odo insists on delivering him personally. Now you know my opinion of Quark, but even with that, Odo’s triumphant sneers were off-putting.

They were also ill-founded. Odo’s assumption that Quark has been got at last, and is going down forever is completely wrong-headed: he’s a witness, not a defendant, in respect of the Orion Syndicate, who’ve planted a bomb on the runabout. Odo’s Ferengi ears pick up its hum in time for it to be transported off the vessel, but the runabout is still badly damaged by a secondary explosion, and crashes on the nearest planet, which is barren, lifeless and cold.

The crash had destroyed pretty near everything it’s possible to destroy whilst leaving the craft more or less intact. The mis-matched pair have no rations, one survival suit between them and a subspace transmitter that, to penetrate the planet’s atmosphere, they have to lug to the top of a very high (and spectacular) mountain.

It’s a basic throw-enemies-together-and-make-them-work-to-survive plot, with overtones of Beckett’s famous Waiting for Godot and and underlying exploration of what it means for Odo to be a solid, which we haven’t really seen much of yet this season. The pair set off for the top of the mountain, quarreling every step of the way, giving each other as good as they get.

And it gets a bit tedious a bit quickly. The problem is, this is a genuinely desperate situation, but neither character can get over their basic, and openly admitted hatred for one another. This goes especially for Odo, and even more so when, after a schoolyard shoving match, he falls and breaks his leg. Quark refuses to abandon him, makes a crude travois to drag him on, carries the subspace transmitter on his back and still Odo bitches and whines incessantly: way to motivate, Odo, smart!

Even at the last, when an utterly exhausted Quark has been provoked into going on alone, Odo cannot help but be snotty about him when recording what he thinks will be his final message. It’s petty and ungracious, and even after it’s interrupted by the transporter beaming him aboard the Defiant, Quark having succeeded, Odo comes over as preferring to have died rather than having to vary his opinion of Quark to give him the most infinitessimal amount of credit.

You can call it completely characteristic of Odo, you can point to it as an example of frozen thinking, unbending prejudice, you can even invoke the irony of Odo’s life depending on his worst enemy and suggest an underlying comic aspect to it all, but none of those elements worked for me this time round, and I have forgotten what effect they had on me twenty years ago. All I could see was two characters forced into a life and death situation in which they had to depend on each other and who couldn’t for a moment step outside of their mutual differences to recognise that. Especially the self-righteous Odo.

This effect was made all the more imposing by the episode’s possibly best scene. Stuck on the planet, Odo is still hounding Quark over his connection to the Orion Syndicate and why he’s not part of it. Apparently, the Syndicate charges a high membership fee, and in an orgy of speculation about how and why Quark didn’t pay it, Odo concludes that Quark couldn’t afford it, that for all his criminality, he just couldn’t get the money together. At which point, Quark spits back with the devastating rejoinder that Odo had spent ten years trying – and failing – to get the goods on a complete nobody, so who’s the bigger failure? We all know the answer to that.

But in the end it all meant nothing, because the status quo had to be maintained. Maybe this’ll get mentioned from time to time, Quark remind Odo of how he saved him. But a genuinely life-changing experience will change nothing, which is why I now shake my head at this episode, and if I last twenty more years will endeavour to remember it for the mountain and not the story.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the New Sun’ overview


I said, when writing about The Shadow of the Torturer, that I was witnessing a writer vaulting into the very first rank of SF writers, and so it was. I didn’t need more than the first volume to see that, in the formation of the sentences, the creation of so many voices, places, themes, concepts. The Book of the New Sun is an extraordinarily rich tale, an epic demanding of the name. It may never have been a best seller, outside of the specialist SF charts (The Claw of the Conciliator reached no.1, which for the second book of a tetraology, without beginning or ending…) but it has never been out of print and whenever polls are taken of the greatest such books of all time, it is outvoted only by the obvious choice of The Lord of the Rings.
It is not as well known as Tolkien, but it deserves to be. Tolkien wrote only one story: Wolfe wrote multiple stories, including those you can’t see, unless out of the corner of your eye, when you go, hey, wait a minute, what did he mean by that, didn’t he…? So when he did that, and she said… That couldn’t have been him. It just couldn’t. Bloody hell, was it?
Don’t worry: with every Wolfe story, short or very long, there will be an equivalent of moments like that. Repeatedly.
The very first thing that needs to be emphasised about The Book of the New Sun is that its narrator, Severian, is unreliable, as is, in varying ways, every narrator in Gene Wolfe’s works.
Severian has an eidetic memory: moreover, not only does he not forget, but he is incapable of forgetting. His memories are eternally with him, almost to the same level as his perception of current events, even to the point where they can be sufficiently real that he can mentally lose his place in his own history.
This might seem to make him the ultimate of reliable narrators, able to recall dialogue word-perfectly. But two things marr that assumption.
Firstly, Severian is a liar. He admits to this in various places, and recounts many instances when he deliberately lies for his own advantage. That he is open now, in his memoirs, to the facts and specifics of his lying does not absolve him. It’s unlike the Flashman Chronicles, where the old rogue explicitly states he is breaking the habit of a lifetime and telling the unwhitewashed truth. We simply do not know whether Severian can be trusted to tell us the truth even now: after all, this is an account that, by the end, is to be committed to both the future and the past.
Secondly, and more disturbing, Severian lacks perception. He is blind on so many occasions to things that the reader – if he or she is thoughtful and thorough – can discern. He frequently analyses situations without getting anywhere near to the truth.


The most obvious evidence of this second trait is Jolenta. It is blindingly obvious to any reader of the narrative that she is the waitress from the cafe, persuaded by Dr Talos to go into his and Baldanders’ act, but not until all her glamour has been removed, and she is dead, does Severian finally understand who she is, and even then he does not understand the cause of her death. Because her physical appearance has been changed, he is unable to link the ‘two’ women, even when the vestiges of Jolenta’s glamour start to be stripped away.
Do not trust what you read.
Wolfe distances himself from Severian by claiming to be merely his translator. The accounts that are about to be sent out into the void at the end of Citadel are drawn back our era as the ship weaves its way in and out of time, and Wolfe has been requested to use his skills to translate from a language that is millennia from coming into being. (Ursula le Guin would claim a similar role in her utterly magnificent Always Coming Home, several years later).
In ‘translating’ the account, Wolfe explains that he has made a deliberate choice to take words whose usage has slipped beyond obscure to represent creatures, roles and standings of this unimaginable future. The old words convince us by being an authentic language, where most made-up tongues, Tolkien the philologist aside, fail to convince, and Wolfe is endlessly inventive in matching these ancient terms with what he imagines the future will bring in terms of genetics and evolution.
Words such as optimates, and my personal favourite, fuligin, the colour that is darker than black, enrich the impression the story gives of being an elaborate, ornate fantasy, whilst all the time it is rooted in the hardest of SF.
More than any other of Wolfe’s works, The Book of the New Sun repays careful, and repeated re-reading. But even as the reader reads the first time, there are moments of clarity in which it’s possible, even easy in places, to see connections to which Severian is oblivious, to understand that his analysis of situations is completely wrong-headed. Even the surface warns us of tricks and traps and hidden pockets. Before we reach the conclusion, we are on the look-out for what Severian does not tell us, what he does not see himself.


This isn’t a Reader’s Guide. I’m not going to deprive you of the enjoyment of reading and deciding about the understory for yourselves. But I am going to give you a clue: whenever Wolfe introduces an unnamed character, it’s a signal that he wants you to work out for yourself who this person is, and what their relevance is, and where we have seen, or heard of them before.
Take, for example, the matter of Severian’s sister. Now, if you read carefully, you will become aware that during the course of the narrative, Severian – who is, by the fact of his being taken up by the Torturers, an orphan – meets every member of his family, up to two generations before him. Of this surprisingly extended family, there are only two who he recognises as such.
But Severian does not speak of, let alone confirm, that he has a sister, who is almost certainly a twin. The clues are widely scattered, but they point to the same implication. Who, then, is Severian’s sister? Conventional wisdom, i.e., the majority opinion, points to this being Merriam, the trainee Witch, who is the assistant to the Cumaean, and Wolfe has half-confirmed this as a possibility.
Robert Borksi, one of Wolfe’s most enthusiastic analysts, has come up with another possibility, perhaps more outlandish in its initial plausibility, but which includes a key factor consistent with Severian’s relationships with the female members of his family, which certainly isn’t present with Merriam.
Think about it when you read.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what to say without giving away too much that will spoil a new reader’s enjoyment. My blogs on the individual volumes have given away much more about the story than I would normally do, though what I have said has barely scratched even the surface of the surface, and I have taken care to do no more than hint at a fraction of those hidden connections that transform the epic into a another tale entirely.
My personal advice, though perhaps it’s not entirely apt for a first reading, when you will want to swallow as much as you can, is to read lowly, and to visualise what Wolfe describes. The pictures are wonderful, and the book takes on more dimensions than you will otherwise understand.
Though I don’t watch it, I have long since thought that the producers of the Game of Thrones TV series could do far worse than look to The Book of the New Sun as a follow up. They could never do justice to it, not to its interior and its subtleties, and some of the Wolfe’s trick and traps would be exposed too openly if we were to see the people who recur, but the production levels available would make a grandiose spectacle, and I would love to see Nessus, and Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms, and Dorcas, and the Sanguinary Fields, Lake Diuturna and the mountain carved in Typhon’s likeness…
It might not be the Book and the whole Book, but it would be a glory to see.
But the best pictures are inside. Read and enjoy. Read and imagine. Read…

Twin Peaks – The Return: A Mighty Moment


For the last sixteen weeks I have been watching series 3 of Twin Peaks. I have been enthralled by every second of it, even when it’s been at its most deliberately slow. I have not commented about it because I still have no idea what is going on. Just being on the ride has been enough.

Then, not quite halfway through episode 16, of 18, Coop woke up. Dale Cooper came back, all smart, neat, controlled and in charge. He’s on his way to Twin Peaks, but before all that, he stopped in the doorway of a hospital room, smiled and said, “I am the FBI”.

And I just punched the air, again and again, shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

People do do that.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

 

Another Perspective: Princess Diana, twenty years ago


If I have to remember her…

I am not, and never have been a Royalist. The last Royal Event I remember actually watching was the TV highlights of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, in 1969, when I was only 13. By the time of the next one, Anne’s wedding in 1973, I was at University and ignored the whole thing completely.

When it came to Chas and Di, I took the day off like the rest of the country, but I didn’t watch the wedding, I went into Manchester, which wasn’t much cop as everywhere was shut for, yes of course, the Wedding. She was pretty fanciable, especially that shot where they got her legs silhouetted in that skirt, and in the evening, I joined a mate at one of the many parties going on: sausage barms galore.

But I was already put off by the New Sycophancy, as I termed it. The Royal Engagement gave a massive boost to the Monarchy, which had me looking at it askance. He and especially she was everywhere, and though millions worshipped her every appearance, I was one of those who didn’t think she was that attractive that she should be everywhere I turned. I had my own list of ladies who I’d much rather have seen floating around my vision that frequently.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, it’s twenty years now, this month, and in today’s Guardian there’s a big, frequently glutinous piece by Zoe Williams that I can’t quite class as Crap Journalism because there is a degree of truth to it, but it’s going on and on about how she irrevocably changed the world, or at least this country, and how we all loved her, which has undergone a pretty near 95% level of challenge BTL.

And I remember that week, because I was there, I lived through it, feeling alienated from practically the entire country, and I think the opposing viewpoint to all the gush needs representing.

By August 1997, pretty much everybody had done with Diana, except for the Press, who would print anything they could attach a photo to. She’d taken up with Mohammed Fayad’s son, she was racketing around Europe, the Princes were back in England. She needed something to revive her brand. Death’s very effective for artists and musicians.

On Sunday, I came downstairs mid-morning, having indulged myself with a long lie-in. I’d left the firm I loathed by this point, was working for myself as part of a small, two-partner firm, but I don’t think I’d opened my office as yet, so I had no plans to go in to catch up on work. Sainsburys for shopping was about the limit of my intentions.

After making myself a coffee, still in my dressing gown, I sat down in the lounge and out the TV on, just to see what was on. I can’t remember whether I switched on ITV or BBC, but there was a quiet atmosphere, and an empty podium: somebody was expected to say something. It was Sunday: I’d probably caught the tail end of the religious programmes. I changed the channel, to BBC or ITV, took another swig of coffee, and looked up in puzzlement, because the picture was the same. I flicked backwards and forwards but both mainstream channels were broadcasting exactly the same thing. Some shit had obviously gone down.

By chance – I won’t call it luck – I had switched on only a couple of minutes before Blair read his People’s Princess speech. I watched it all. That’s when I found out. My only reaction was curiosity. Elsewhere, my future wife was watching the same footage: her first thought was that the Royal Family had got her.

All I thought was, I was sorry for her, dying so young, and as someone who had lost their own father at a very young age, I empathised with her sons, losing their mother so young. Poor buggers. I couldn’t wish that on anyone.

But as for her, well, shame but, and it’s hard to avoid using the words ‘so what?’ She meant nothing to me, either way, and I wasn’t that interested, outside of prurience, in the detals then available. I watched to the end of Blair’s speech, emotional and awkward, but no more than half an hour after that. Every channel was still taken over with the same thing by that point, and I drifted off to get dressed and do something more interesting.

I stayed away from the TV for most of the day: I could see quite clearly how it was shaping up. But I wasn’t prepared for the week that followed.

It’s true to say that that week changed the country, and I’m not in the least convinced it was for the better. There was a tone of what I could only describe as hysteria, that I kept well away from. When it came to the media, TV, radio, the press, it was simple. I didn’t watch news programmes, I only read the Guardian, which didn’t go overboard to the same degree that the headlines in the tabloids indicated, but still featured the story every single bloody day. I watched from the outside, as a Republican to whom anything relating to the Royal Family was alien and alienating.

I don’t even remember having any extreme feelings about the country’s seeming reaction. I couldn’t share it and I couldn’t understand it, but people were genuinely grieving, and I didn’t go anywhere near that. Their feelings, wherever they came from, were genuine and I didn’t feel it was my place to intrude on them. Grief is personal.

The first point at which I began to feel that things were going utterly too far was on the Thursday before the funeral. There’d been talk about Elton John possibly re-writing ‘Candle in the Wind’ (which, once upon a time, had been my favourite of his songs), and no it was confirmed and the lyrics were on the front page of the Guardian. I didn’t get more than halfway down the second verse before recoiling in disgust at the glutinous sycophancy of it. I read no more, and swore to myself that I would never listen to the song.

I think perhaps the only person I spoke to that week who shared any of the public grief was my younger sister, who has always been for more conventional than I in her tastes and opinions. There was certainly no sympathy at Droylsden FC, where I was then involved. We were more concerned with the fact that our weekend fixtures had been postponed en masse, because of the funeral.

That was the thing about that day: it didn’t matter what proportion of the country genuinely mourned Princess Diana, whether honestly or hysterically, all the rest of us were roped in. Everything we could have done instead was taken away from us, as if the evidence of our enjoying our ordinary lives was an insult to the rest of the population.

I don’t suppose anyone knows how many there were of each opinion, whether the majority prevailed, or whether they were oppressed into silence. I’d rather have gone to a match on Saturday and so would everyone else about the club, and I don’t for one moment believe we were unique.

The assumption was made, and we were smothered by it. Years later, the presence of a million people on the streets for the funeral procession of the Queen Mother was held up as evidence that Republicanism would never take hold in this country, but nobody seemed to take account of the plain statistic that for every one person out there mourning, there were sixty who weren’t. What the Press, what the mournful wanted to see, they saw and they validated themselves. No-one will ever know how many, like me, were cowed, or fearful, or just plain keeping out of the way in bafflement.

So Saturday came. I had no interest in the funeral, and I had already decided that thee best thing to do was to stay in most of the day. Though I didn’t usually bother, I closed the curtains, isolating myself from the outside world. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I couldn’t even have begun to pretend to share in the majority’s reactions, I would have said something, more than once, or asked that question that dared not be asked that day, which was, “Why?”, and so I acted with decency according to my lights and kept myself away from people whose emotions were engaged.

It was an odd experience. I was no stranger to occasional days spent holed up hermit-like in my house, but these were always lazy Sundays. Saturday were for activity: the match, an long drives every other weekend, or trips into Manchester, to Forbidden Planet, the HMV Shop, Waterstones. With the curtains closed, in August, and the sunshine cool through them, it was a most curious sensation. I was out of time, out of the timestream, forced out.

The following morning, when the Observer was delivered, I did read about the funeral. I hadn’t intended to, but my eye was caught by the report of the Earl of Spencer’s speech. Reading it, and reading the discomfort it had caused, I was almost tempted to wish I’d watched the proceedings just to see this. It was being billed as a nation-changing moment, that by itself would change the way in which we saw the Royal Family, but that of course was bollocks. It made not a blind bit of difference.

Once Monday came round again, thing went back to normal, except for all the crap in the papers, and in the Guardian about how the unloosing of the stiff upper lip had changed Britain and how we’d be so much better for it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dave (Cerebus) Sim, and his infamous argument about the battle between Reason and Emotion, which has its points if it weren’t for his insistence on defining it in strict gender terms. As the overwhelming majority of articles welcoming developments as making the country a better place to be were and still are written by women, the whole Princess Di bit has to be admitted as evidence in favour of his case, much as I’d rather not.

Twenty years has elapsed, and I’ve sneered many a time at the continuing obsession certain sectors of the press still has with the woman they were hounding and execrating and exploiting almost up to the point where the car entered that tunnel mouth. A conspiracy industry has grown up on the back of that drive almost equal to those surrounding JFK and Jack the Ripper, but though I love a good conspiracy theory without ever actually believing in them, I have never ever been the least bit interested in reading about this one.

As for Elton John, well. Inevitably, the revised version of the song came out as a single. It was released in midweek, a Thursday, when the charts still first appeared on Radio One on Sunday night. I was out that Saturday morning, at the famous Sifters, beloved of the recently famous Gallagher Brothers. Sifters was a cheerful pile-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap second hand record shop, with a sideline in the top 40 singles. During the hour I was there, no two minutes passed without someone coming to the counter or calling on the phone to ask for the Elton John ‘Candle in the Wind’ single. It came as no surprise to see it at Number One on Sunday night, nor that it is still the best selling single in this country.

I’ve never heard it. That may surprise you, but even after twenty years, I have escaped listening to it. I evaded it on the radio, I avoided it in public, except once, in Old Trafford, waiting for kick-off, when it was blared out over the stadium PA, and I found that even sticking my fingers in my eras until they nearly met in the middle could not totally block the sound out and I had to hum, loudly, to myself: la-la-la, can’t hear you.

And it’s destroyed my love for the original, too. The association is too direct.

So there it is: my experience of the country-changing experience. I’m not sure what the point was of writing this unless it’s to evidence that the death of Princess Diana twenty years ago did change this country, but not as those who control the press and feed off the hysteria claim.

What it did was to turn us into two countries, although only one of these is allowed a voice, that treats its opinions as universal when there is no such thing. Perhaps we can remember that when journalists tell us what we ‘all’ think.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’


The Citadel of the Autarch is the final book of the New Sun quartet, and it makes for an unusual and interesting ending to the story, not that it is, wholly, complete when Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen – twice – to go on with his life.
As with the other books, an indefinite period of time has passed since the previous volume, but the impression created here is that this has been considerable less than the two previous lacunae, and there is no similar dislocation as before: Severian closes The Sword of the Lictor by heading off north to join in the War against the Ascians, and he begins Citadel still set on that course.
The final book is a curiously slow and quiet story, with the majority of its action, such as there is of it, concentrated into the middle of the book. Severian begins on the road, still trying to make up his mind, and avoiding parties of soldiers so as not to have that decision taken out of his hands. Growing weak and faint from malnutrition since leaving the mountains, one such diversion leads him to the body of a dead soldier, with food in his pack and part of a letter to a sweetheart.
Not until after he has replenished himself does Severian think of trying the now uncased Claw: his reward, after a delay, is that the soldier returns to life, dazed, confused, silent. Together, the pair seek the Army, and a lazaret where the soldier – whom Severian names Miles – may receive treatment. By the time they arrive, it is Miles who presents Severian for treatment.
Severian stays in the lazaret, under the care of the Pelerines, for several weeks. He becomes the judge in a story-telling contest, between wounded but still ardent wooers of the injured woman soldier, Foila, including a marvelously interpreted story by the captured Ascian, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, told entirely in Approved Words. He tries to surrender the Claw to the Pelerines, but is roundly disbelieved: the Claw is not within its jewel, Severian is clearly disturbed, his whole demeanour and story dismissed by a psychological analysis that is wholly incorrect, but which provides a beautifully ironic counterpart to his own imperception of other matters, not to mention his willingness to lie to serve himself.
Introducing stories into stories is one of Wolfe’s favourite memes, but the inaction covers a long part of the book and it is hard not to think of this section as being a part of the original third volume that required ‘building up’.
That is not to say that the section is uninteresting. Severian is joined by the now-talkative Miles, just before the latter is redeployed. Miles also rejects Severian’s story about restoring him to life, but in doing so he uses phrases that would be typical of Jonas. Severian believes that Miles has been re-animated by the spirit of Jonas, which Miles denies. But when Severian tells him, flatly, that Jolenta is dead, something goes out of Miles’ eyes, and he turns and leaves, silently. He is not encountered again.
Despite the rejection of the Pelerines, Severian is determined to return the Claw. As soon as he is sufficiently strong to crawl to their altar, he secretes the Claw, safely, in a recess, fulfilling his oath.
When he is sufficiently recovered, the Pelerines send Severian on a mission to visit a local archimandrite, or hermit, Master Ash of the Last House, and persuade him to come to the Pelerines for safety from the advancing Ascians. The journey is strange: the Last House is visible but, when Severian deviates from his clearly-marked path, to take a short-cut, it cannot be found.
After a night in Master Ash’s guest quarters, Severian wakes to an unending, unfeatured ice-field. Ash is from Urth’s even-more distant future and his house extends vertically through time, the lower its storey, the nearer to Severian’s present: the ice-field is Urth’s atmosphere, frozen solid. It is a future vastly different to that of the Green Man. Master Ash is safe, and in no need of protection, but Severian nevertheless forces him to leave. But Severian’s present will not lead to Ash’s present: he dissipates into non-existence.
Though his mission is a failure, Severian discovers it has been a lifesaver. In his absence, the lazaret has been attacked and almost razed by Ascian troops. Only Foila has survived from the storytellers, whose work Severian never judged, and it is heavily implied that she will not last long.
Severian goes out to fend for himself. He is picked up by a band of cavalry Irregulars, acquitting himself well in the hazing that precedes acceptance, and demonstrates his quick wits and intelligence over a coachful of gold, but when battle – true battle – approaches, Severian discovers in himself a true fear, one that he must handle.
It is not gone when battle commences, but nevertheless Severian fights hard and well, until he is hit in the leg by the equivalent of a laser beam (it is another of Wolfe’s motifs that his heroes are lamed in one fashion or another and this is Severian’s turn: the wound is permanent). He is rescued in a quite startling fashion, by an intelligent mammoth under the direction of a minor official of the Commonwealth, the master of the brothel, the eunuch that both Severian and Thecla know to be eternal.
But though Severian pretends to hide his knowledge, it is beyond the point of mattering. The Autarch announces himself: Severian is, as he has known since before their first meeting in the House Azure, his successor.
And just as Severian is two in one, thanks to the use of the alzabo, and the lodging of Thecla’s mind and memories within his own, the Autarch is legion in one, containing the thoughts, experiences and memories of all his predecessors, minds that will merge into Severian as his rite of passage.
But before all of this can be done, the Autarch takes Severian for a tour of the Ascian lines, by flier. The craft is hit by a bolt and brought down, injuring both men. The Autarch signals for help from Vodalus that he is in a downed craft and that the Autarch is there. It is the Ascians who find the flyer first, but Vodalus’s men are not far behind and take charge of the two men. They are under the command of Agia, who rakes open Severian’s cheek with a palm-held blade, scarring him for ever.
Severian is taken to Vodalus for questioning, whilst the Autarch, though mortally wounded, is cared for. Severian is quizzed about who else was with them. He admits the presence of the Autarch, and denies – truthfully – that the Autarch is him. Agia demands Severian as her reward, but Vodalus owes a debt to him. Moreover, he remains confused, especially as Severian betrays knowledge of the Autarch’s nature that very few have.
Severian remains Vodalus’s prisoner for endless weeks. He is taken to the Ascian leaders, who quiz him to see if he is the Autarch, but he satisfies them that he is not. Nevertheless, he is handed over as a prisoner and held with the dying Autarch. This enables him to complete the ritual as the Autarch requires, and come into his own authority.
Nevertheless, he is still a prisoner of the Ascians, though his status is unknown to them. Not for much longer, as he is rescued by the combination of Agia and the Green Man. The latter has been travelling the Corridors of Time searching for a moment in which he can repay Severian for giving him the means to free himself in Saltus. Agia is acting against the Ascians, whom she will not serve: she has killed Vodalus using one of Hethor’s creatures, and she is taking his place as rebel.
The Green Man also leaves, his debt not yet fully paid. To leave the north, Severian is taken aboard a cacogen craft, led there by two aquastors, in the forms of Master Malrubius and the dog Triskele: shapes taken from his mind and impressed upon the air: Malrubius tells him some of what he needs to know of the purpose of the Autarch.
Mankind has fallen far, far in among itself. Once, it spanned stars, created peoples who rose until they passed beyond this Universe of Briah, into the higher Universe of Yesod. Some remain, acting in gratitude, seeking to assist humanity to raise again. Only when it is ready will a New Sun be sent, literally: a White Fountain (the opposite end of a Black Hole) will be opened in Urth’s Sun, restoring its light and vigour.
It is for the Autarchs, if they choose, if they have the courage, to leave Urth for Yesod and undergo a test. If they fail, as did the Autarch preceding Severian, they are unmanned and returned, unable to create a dynasty. It will be Severian’s choice to take the test, and face his fate.
The aquastors leave him on the shores of Ocean, at dawn, near the mouth of Gyoll. Severian resumes his journey north, but now it is a return to Nessus he seeks.
This is, as Severian notes to himself, the end of his story, but there are other matters he wishes to record. He travels north along Gyoll on a trading ship whose master speaks of strange things on and in the river. When he reaches the abandoned, southern quarters of the city, he leaves the ship for a time, to cross a peninsula of land whilst the ship sweeps around its ox-bow bend.
For he has seen a newly-arrived boat drawn up, and following intuitions that he so recently did not possess, he finds Dorcas, whose journey from Thrax in the north has taken the length of time he has travelled. He sees her but she does not see him. She has found her past, and weeps over the body of an old boatman: the man whom Severian met as long ago as the second chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer, the boatman who ferried Agia, Severian and Dorcas over the Lake of Birds, the old man seeking his young dead wife,’Cas.
Severian rejoins the boat and leaves it at the Citadel, announcing himself as Autarch for the first time at the Citadel and coming in state to the Matachin Tower. He meets with Master Palaemon, who eventually recognises his voice. Word is spreading. Palaemon and Severian debate the Guild, and though Palaemon spiritedly defends it as a good and necessary thing, Severian has decided that it shall end.
First though, he has need of old friends to accompany him, Drotte, Roche and Eata. In ordinary garb, they travel north on Gyoll, until Severian leads them to the Inn of Lost Loves, on the edge of the Sanguinary Field. There he asks for the waiter, Ouen, and quizzes him about his past. About the young blonde woman who so resembled his mother, who died young, in childbirth. About the dark haired exultant, Katherine, who he loved before she was taken. The Innkeeper is taken by the resemblance between the scarred Severian and the older waiter Ouen.
Severian knows who this man is. He intends to take him to the south, to find, stay with and protect his mother.
That is almost all. Severian finishes his tale in the last hours before his flight to beyond the stars, to save Urth. He has thought hard about his journeys, seen the hidden pattern. He is not the first Severian. That Severian had all the adventures, and went to the stars to undergo the test, returned and was buried. Severian has seen his tomb, and played in it within the Atrium of Time.
Then those who wanted to see him succeed walked the Corridors of Time to his youth and took certain actions to ensure their end would be fulfilled. And the result is the Severian who writes these words, who understands why he has been the object of their attention.
He will end the book, to go into Ultan’s Library. In his cabin on the ship he will write it out again, word for word, seal it in lead and abandon it to the void, to where it will go, even into the deep past.
For the last time, Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen. He and his reader turn away from each other, each back to their own life.