White-Out on Kinder Scout


Imagine this under heavy snow

A discussion at work about the weather conditions today has brought back another snow memory that I’d forgotten for quite some time.

This one goes back to 1983, when I was going out, for several months, in a desultory, going nowhere manner, with a young lady who I initially met at work, and who I continued dating after I changed firms.

I’d not long since connected with Linda, an old friend from childhood, who was now married, to an ex-Army PTI turned Sports Centre Personal Trainer. All of us enjoyed fell-walking (well, you know that about me anyway), so we agreed to go down to Edale as a foursome one Sunday morning.

It had snowed overnight, and conditions on the ridges didn’t look propitious, but we decided to change into our boots and set off. First up was a stop at the Visitor Centre, where Ray filled in a route card, setting out where we were going and when we expected to be back.

This surprised and amused me, having never done anything like this, before or since in the Lakes. It became a minor bone of friendly contention between Linda and I over the years as she thought I was being derelict in never leaving any information behind about where I was going, and me pointing out that there were no such Visitor centres in the Lakes, there were so many different places from which my walks started, and that I was not prepared to leave a note on the windscreen of my car, saying, in effect, that I wasn’t going to be back for six hours, during which time you can rob this vehicle with impunity.

We were ascending by Grindsbrook Clough, which was then the official start to the Pennine Way at the Edale end, but which was closed to walkers some years later, on safety grounds I presume: I do not know if it has ever been re-opened.

Grindsbrook Clough is a narrow, curving channel into the bulk of Kinder Scout, initially relatively level but soon winding upwards in quite a steep fashion. I have an image of approaching the ascending section, the sides of the Clough closing in, the snow clouds down on the higher section, a dark roof.

We scrambled up to the edge of the plateau and stopped for a consultation. It was truly white-out conditions, visibility limited to at most ten yards, and less for me because I’d had to take off my glasses and stick them in an anorak pocket because they were filling with snow. There was nothing to be seen except snow: all arund, all underfoot.

I say a consultation, but it was mainly Ray and Linda. It was agreed that we would walk on to some prominent landmark on Kinder’s wide top, the name of which I have long since forgotten. Personally, I would not even have gone as far as the edge of the plateau in those conditions, even though Grindsbrook Clough was an unerring route and we’d got that far with no difficulty, but everyone else seemed enthusiastic so, trusting in Ray’s Army training, I raised no objections.

So we set off in single file, Ray in the lead, Linda behind, then Nicola, and me bringing up the rear in the traditional gallant male role. The path wound here and there. I lost all sense of distance travelled. There was nothing to see but the cage of snow, blowing through us.

After I’d gotten thoroughly fed up with where I was, we got to where we were going, whatever it was. There were some taller rocks, in a kind of outcrop that might have been interesting if it was actually visible, but it wasn’t. Linda and Ray agreed that we wouldn’t hang around, and would immediately turn round and go back. As we were still lined up in march order, Ray turned to me and said, “Ok, Martin, you lead us back.”

“You what?” I said, in a rather loud voice. “I have no idea where we are. You get up here now!”

So we went back to the edge of the plateau in the same order, Ray at the front, me at the back and the ladies between. Once more, we twisted and turned in the white-out conditions, and once more Ray led us to the top of Grindsbrook Clough with dead reckoning, and we started down.

I’ve been caught in storms and thick cloud on Lakeland tops, I’ve climbed up through underfoot snow and given up on Pavey Ark because of it, within about a hundred yards of the summit as I learned when I came back, but that blind walk across a part of the Kinder plateau is the most extreme weather conditions I’ve found myself in.

And people wonder why I usually went out on my own, and took my own decisions!

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘The Gates of Bannerdale’


Malcolm Saville gradually aged the Lone Piners, over the last half dozen books, until the series ended with Peter’s coming of age, at eighteen. The last Bannerdale book, The Gates of Bannerdale, takes a leap forward over its first quarter, which disguises the fact that, by the time Bill Melbury and Penny Morchard embark on the story that will, subtly, between the lines, determine their future, our friends will no longer be children, but adults: young adults, responsible for themselves.
And though it might be seen as a retrograde step for the series to end as it began, with the discovery of treasure hidden centuries ago, I agree entirely with Jim MacKenzie’s argument that it is not the silver and plate that is the treasure, but the truth and the honesty that it brings to both Bill and his unlikely partner, the initially unscrupulous Snaith.
The Gates of Bannerdale is the fulfilment of Bill’s ambition to go to Oxford University (Geoffrey Trease’s alma mater) for which he will need to qualify for the Scholarship without which the cost will be way beyond him. Tim has joined the Police Cadets, Sue is engaged to Johnny Nelson, but Penny arrives at the station when Bill leaves for Oxford and his examination, with a sprig of white heather for luck. She claims to be collecting a parcel for her father, and it’s all a coincidence, and Bill is still so obtuse that he believes this.
The first section of the book deals with Bill’s first visit to Oxford, to sit for the Scholarship (in Classics). He finds himself opposite Gardiner (later to be named Paul), an amiable young man whose background couldn’t be grander, a family steeped in theatre and diplomacy, a major Public School, but who couldn’t be more straightforward, unlike other representatives of such class.
Bill does have to go through things like examinations, and an awkward interview with the Warden et al of Hereford College, his choice of destination, but apart from that, this part of the story is just a love letter to Oxford, so much so that even someone like me, with a lifelong inexplicable preference for Cambridge, drinks in everything of which Trease delights with a sense of the devotion he feels. How this would have gone down with me as a youngster, I have no idea: I suspect I would have been bored to death!
It’s a Schol. or nothing (Bill could not afford Oxford on any kind of fee-paying basis). Bill expects it to be nothing, but the glad tidings are announced to him by Mr Kingsford, in Assembly, before the whole school, and with the whole school’s cheers (and these are not only for the half-day holiday Bill has won for them!).
Relief follows, though Oxford is as yet a long way off, with the rest of the year to go through, and then two years of National Service (this last book was still only published in 1956). But first, there’s an unusual scene, one of those few ones that Bill is not privy to, between Penny and Miss Florey. On the surface, it’s a conversation between a Head and her pupil who has declared an ambition as to her academic future: Penny wants to try for Oxford herself, and is ready to put in whatever effort is required.
The subtlety is that Bill is not present, and the larger context of the book makes it plain to us that Penny has not revealed all this to him at the time, nor has Miss Florey spoken of it then, for it is entirely private. Only when we start to ask ourselves just when, and why, Miss Florey would have related this to Bill, do we begin to see an underlying structure to the book that Trease never brings to the surface.
This is where that National Service plays a valuable role. Bill and Penny are of different ages – seventeen months separate them – and in different years. The era in which young British males had to go through National Service slows Bill down enough for he and Penny to go up together. In the meantime, throughout his posting overseas, he and Penny trade regular letters and his fellow servicemen refer to her as his girlfriend, but even then Bill can’t see it. In fact, he can’t see it as being anything but ridiculous that the free-spirited and independent Penny would be a ‘girl-friend’. Sometimes, you do rather want to slap him around the head!
Once Bill and Penny are both in Oxford, they’re immediately separated: Penny’s College is in North Oxford, well away from Bill at Hereford, and the press of settling in and getting to grips with their respective courses allows them little time to get together. Bill is delighted to discover himself opposite Gardiner again (though he doesn’t learn his new friend’s first name until Penny uses it), and his first renewed contact with Penny is via a fortuitous encounter with her new friend, Carolyn Staveley, a robust and attractive blonde with those really old-style glasses with little horn-wings that can’t help but conjure up an appearance both neutral and silly.
Bill spends a surprising amount of time with Carolyn for the duration of the book whilst, being Bill to the hilt, never once thinking of her as a girlfriend or in any romantic light whatsoever. And he barely sees anything of Penny, who sees rather more of Paul than Bill. Of course, the theatrical connection to Gardiner’s family underpins Bill’s response to that, but his description of their relationship does sound like boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, so would Bill and Carolyn’s if we weren’t seeing that through Bill’s eyes.
It does make you wonder just how Carolyn feels about the friendship, but Bill’s reticence on such subjects means that that book will remain forever firmly shut!
However, there is a significant exchange that those who are used to reading between Bill’s lines will seize upon. With the traditional First of May looming, Bill proposes hiring a punt and making up a foursome with the girls. Casually, he leaves it to Paul to speak to the girls, but, much as he likes the idea, he’s oddly reluctant to do so. Indeed, without explaining why, he’s insistent that the suggestion would come better from Bill, at least, so far as Penny is concerned… It seems that Paul is aware of something that Bill isn’t, something to do with Penny.
Indeed, Carolyn is Bill’s ‘partner-in-crime’, so to speak. Whilst Trease continues to be thoroughly lyrical about Oxford at every turn, in a way that he has never extended to his fictional version of West Cumberland, he does introduce a mystery for Bill, on behalf of the old gang, to resolve.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly for some, it’s a reversion, or maybe a regression, to the first book: a lost Treasure, to be discovered. Trease approaches it as a different tack, making it a mystery to be solved, with the slow uncovering of clues that eventually point to the hiding place from which the silver and plate of Hereford Collage is re-found after three hundred years.
The impetus for this is a book. Through Paul Gardiner, Bill meets Snaith (whose first name, Roland, is not revealed until the penultimate chapter). Snaith is the epitome of a whiz-kid, a self-promoting, witty, intelligent but cynical man on campus, an instinctive controversialist. Snaith plans to write a book, to coincide with his graduation, a biography, of Richard Talbot, former Master of Hereford, Master during the Civil War when the College silver went missing, presumably captured by the Roundheads and melted down.
Snaith sees Talbot as a rogue, trying to play both sides off to his own advantage, and plans a cynical, debunking biography. Bill disagrees, partly out of College loyalty, but largely because he cannot see anything but intelligence and integrity in the former Master’s portrait. The two enter into a rivalry over their respective interpretations.
What makes the book succeed over its mundane notion is that the evidence Bill first uncovers supports Snaith’s theory but that, after an initial prompting from Carolyn, he accepts that integrity, and a loyalty to the truth, demand he make it available to Snaith.
And whilst Snaith initially doesn’t seem to be the sort to reciprocate, he too is a man of integrity, and when the evidence begins to swing in Bill’s favour, he’s unhesitating in bringing it forward. From rivalry, the pair become effectively research partners, leading to the astonishing realisation that the silver may still be hidden, and the discovery of clues that suggest its hiding place.
This is where both strands merge. The presumed hiding place is behind the panelling in the current Warden’s rooms, but the Warden, Mr Withers (based on an actual Don Trease had to work under in his days at Oxford), is obstructive and dry.
As well as his studies and his detections, Bill has joined the Dramatic Society, and is to play Ariel in an open-air production of The Tempest, whose finale ingeniously uses the College Lake to create the effect of a galleon, ‘sailing’ away with Prospero et al on board, whilst Bill as Arial, runs out across the water (boards placed a couple of inches under the surface) to make a mute, unavailing appeal for his master’s return. Trease makes it sound wonderful, and the effect on the audience is exactly as you’d expect, but its point for the story is that Paul has arranged a small but significant role for Penny, of all people, as a living figurehead to the ‘galleon’. It calls for no acting, merely maintaining a fixed position, but when Bill expresses his surprise, Paul has to remind him, with justifiable tartness, that ‘Penny is one of the most striking girls in Oxford’.
It’s a reminder that Bill needs, and during the first performance, he admits that the sight of Penny is so astonishing that he is grateful not to have to speak the next line, because it would have been driven out of his head.
It’s about time that he realised what the rest of us have already worked out, but being Bill, it has to be virtually rubbed in his face, and acknowledged without acknowledging it openly.
Penny’s appearance brings Bill to something of his senses about her. Typically, his approach is almost accusatory, asking why she’s been avoiding him all year. It’s a stupid, short-sighted and hurtful thing to say, and Penny is nearly in tears explaining that she has been obeying what he wanted.
Penny came to Oxford to be with Bill, yet on their first proper social meeting, she and Carolyn invited to tea with Bill and Paul, the latter expounds on treating University as an opportunity to grow, to meet new friends, have new experiences, and Bill takes this up, enthusiastically, and naively, going to the lengths of saying that, no matter how important they may once have been, you can grow out of friends.
Poor Penny, hit by that, has kept her distance in obedience to Bill’s wishes. Only when she is forced to explain this to the dear old fathead, and he hears how close it comes to bringing her – Penny! – to tears, does he finally realise everything. And though he isn’t going to put it into words, it is, finally, everything.
But there’s a resolution to be reached, and for it the old gang and the new gang (with the sad exception of Cadet PC Darren, T.) have to band together. Bill invites his mother and Susan, plus the Drakes down to Oxford, to see the city, to see the final performance of the play. Bill takes his family punting, feeling good and relaxed and happy, and not only because he has finished his exams, and they are there…
Tea for all, with Paul and Carolyn, is interrupted by Snaith with the final evidence that the missing silver is walled up in Withers’ rooms. How to get at it? It’s the girls who plot, relying on Withers’ one known human interest/weakness: he is a fan of dowsing.
So he’s eager to admit a professional dowser (Mr Drake, playing his role superbly) to his rooms, where the hazel wand finds more than the gold watch planted for the demonstration. Of course, Withers is too smart not to realise there’s been a deception involved, but the rediscovery of the long lost silver prompts him to forget that side of the matter.
The treasure is found, but most importantly, so is the truth about Talbot.
The title of the book comes from a new geographic feature Trease has never previously mentioned, which he openly admits has been pinched from real-life. The famous Jaws of Borrowdale refers to a point just south of the head of Derwentwater, where the valley narrows, between Castle Crag and King’s How, until there is almost no room to get through. Trease imports this to the mouth of Bannerdale, where it stands as a symbol. Gates open to let people in, and they close to keep them there, but gates also open to let people out, and it is time for Bill and Penny to go out into the world. Just as, in the closing chapter, it is Sue and Johnny Nelson’s exit from their old lives, when they marry.
And the old quartet are there at the end, as they should be. Bill to give his sister away, in the place of their forever absent father, Penny to be her bridesmaid and Tim to be Johnny’s best man, for the symmetry of it (Johnny’s elder brother, who didn’t return to Black Banner Tarn Farm, doesn’t get a look in). The most overt moment of the book comes when Tim complains about the obligation to kiss the bridesmaid, and Bill smoothly offers to take his place… We assume, from the look he gives Miss Morchard as the story and the series ends, that it wouldn’t be their first.
A wonderfully naturalistic series, that leaves readers wanting there to have been more books, rather than wishing that not quite so many had been written.

When it Snows…


Though the current, Siberian-influenced weather has been predicted to be devastating along the east side of the country, we on the west side of the kingdom (or at least the Pennines) have not escaped.

I woke today to white roofs, coated cars and foot-marked pavements in my side-street off the main road, and twelve hours or so later returned to the same thing, only thicker and darker.

In between, the snow has flurried, thin and thick, in short bursts of only a few minutes each time, but not beginning to stick until after dark, when temperatures fell further.

Snow always casts me back to two memories, a few days apart, neither of which have anything to do with my childhood in Openshaw and Droylsden, when it seemed to snow more often, more deeply, more regularly than at any time since, when my only concern was the thrill of rushing around in the snow, woolen mittens quickly turning wet as I bundled up and weakly threw snowballs, wondering how soon I could get Dad to haul me or push me or send me flying on my little wooden sledge.

No, the snows of childhood are always the deepest and the best of your life, before you learn of any doubts or risks they bring.

But my twin moments of recollection were much later than that, though still decades ago. This was January, 1979, the infamous Winter of Discontent that brought down Jim Callaghan’s Government according to legend, the first winter I spent in Nottingham.

I had already been put out by the weather. I’d got ten days off over Xmas and gone home, my hi-fi and stuff collected and driven to Manchester, on the pretext that it shouldn’t be left for burglars, but really because I wanted my music. But snow had descended before New Year’s Eve, there was no way it would be safe to drive back, so on New Year’s Day, I packed up all the clothes I could carry and set off by train, Manchester to Sheffield to Nottingham.

Though it’s not one of these automatic memories, I remember trekking across Nottingham City Centre, from the railway station to where I could catch my bus, following the shortest route, still and quiet, on thin but packed snow, and no-one else about in a darkness that seemed only half-lit. Though the rest of my clothes arrived in a brown-paper parcel half a week later, my hi-fi and my evening entertainment took nearly three weeks before my mother deemed it safe to drive.

And then there was this Wednesday. The snow already lay thick in the City Centre streets, black and slutchy in the middle of pedestrian ways, piled and dirty against walls and under shop windows. There was a blizzard that day, the air thick and blurred with heavy, swirling flakes, the skies drawn together as if what light there was came up from the ground until it could climb no higher.

On the tannoy, at 12.45pm, there was an announcement that, in the current conditions, the office would close at 3.30pm, not the usual 5.0pm, but that any member of staff concerned that they would need longer to get home safely should  leave when they thought necessary. Hardly had the last echo faded away than one woman was in her coat and belting off, but in her defence, she did live some distance outside Nottingham, in the country.

There were two of us, me and my fellow Articled Clerk, who lived virtually opposite each other, on Woodborough Road. We walked in and back together, five days a week, and it took us only twenty-five minutes, so we had no chance of slipping out early.

By three-thirty, there had been no let up in the snow, and everywhere was full of fallen white, with more descending every second. There was a bus that passed both our homes, that we sometimes took, and though we’d have had to queue, we might have taken refuge there. But we lived up the only hill in Nottingham, and after a brief consultation, we agreed that neither of us fancied being on a bus trying to get up Woodborough Road, so we’d walk it.

Up Mansfield Road to begin with, right at the lights opposite the Newcastle Arms, a little dip to that first long, sustained climb. And now we were walking into the wind, the snow blowing directly upon us, and I remember, oh how I remember, doing the decent thing, the noble thing even, and telling her to move behind me, a couple of paces back, and I  took the brunt of the blizzard and sheltered her, Wenceslas-like, all the way up the hill, not able to talk, not able to turn around, like Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld.

At the top of this hill, the gradient eased, a long section that rose quietly, but still I sheltered my friend, until we were opposite her bedsit, and mine was a hundred yards further on, at the foot of another, steeper rise towards Mapperley Plains. Appreciative, she invited me in for a coffee, and of course I accepted, because I never turned down a chance to sit and talk with her.

So, Wednesday. On Saturday, United were playing away at Nottingham Forest, and a mate of mine, coming over from Manchester, had got me a ticket. We would meet up somewhere before the match, he’d hand it over, I’d give him the money for it. Except that so much snow had already fallen that, at 10.00am on the Thursday – over 50 hours before kick-off – it was called off.

(Glyn posted me the ticket so I could still go, though the re-arranged game was further postponed when United had to fit in a Cup Replay, and was finally played the Tuesday after Easter Monday, when I was back in Manchester for the week. Our friendship broke down round about the same point, and I did not see him again for four years, by when he’d completely forgotten I still owed him for the unused ticket.)

So on Saturday, instead of worries about Glyn finding whatever meeting place we would have chosen, and fretting about the likelihood of the Police marching all the United contingent straight to the station and forcing us onto the trains, over my desperate protests that I lived here, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and indulged myself with a long lie-in. When I drew the curtains, the world was white.

It had fallen, long, until everything I could see was indeed deep and crisp and even. No footmarks in the courtyards behind Alexandra Court. No movement, no sound. Just big, fat, full snowflakes, drifting down through the breezeless air, still, silent, unhurried, filling the air and covering the ground and the heavy, white-headed trees. It was beautiful, and curiously unreal, and I stood at the window and just watched it fall, as if it could do this until Eternity got bored and changed to the other channel.

An hour later, I went out in it, down the road for my newspaper. Nothing was different. There were few footmarks even on a decently busy road, for the snow slid into these and filled them unhesitatingly. These were indeed the snows of childhood, of memory and imagination, pure white, clean and tidy. I remember to this instant the crunch of my shoes in the pavement snow, pressing and compacting it, and the dry whisper of the flakes, brushing against the umbrella held over my head, as they slid past me. I collected my paper, tramped back, went inside, but if the walk out had been five times as long, I wouldn’t have cared or begrudged the extra time spent out there, in time suspended and not really real.

That long transport into the heart of the snow our childish hearts respond to, oblivious of the harm and the threat, and my Wenceslas ascent, keeping the worst of the snow off someone I would have made far greater sacrifices for, Wednesday and Saturday of a long ago winter when our world, our country was not as it is now: when snow falls, I am always transported there when snow comes down. Old times are always still alive in some part of us, though probably not so easy of access.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e10 – The Magnificent Ferengi


The man’s a star

Lads, it’s Quark.

Only it’s not just Quark, it’s Rom and Nog, and Moogie, and ex-Liquidator Brunt, and two semi-new ones in Leck and Gaila, with one previous appearance behind them each. In short, it’s Ferengi after Ferengi after Ferengi, as far as the eye can see, and you know what that means to me. I do try to approach each new episode with an open mind, but this one has been shut so long, the hinges have rusted in place.

Basically, the Dominion capture Moogie and Grand Nagus Zek wants Quark to get her back. It was going to be Zek himself but Wallace Shawn wasn’t available. In compensation for that, we do have Iggy Pop playing the part of the Vorta Yelgrun, and stealing the show with his crooked grin and the unavoidable aura of dementia underlining the character’s physical stillness. He was brilliant, the test of it was crap.

It’s difficult to watch a ‘comedy’ episode when you don’t find the characters funny at all. Basically, Quark assembles a team of Ferengi to rescue Moogie. They’re useless at the rough stuff, so instead Quark negotiates a prisoner-trade for the Vorta Keevan (see s06 e02), to take place on Empok Nor, the lop-sided DS9 look-alike station (the name of which is curiously never mentioned in the episode).

They do a deal over the handover, which is jeopardised when Rom accidentally reveals that Quark is cheating everybody else, claiming Zek’s reward to be twenty bars of latinum when it’s really fifty. In the resulting uproar, Gaila tries to shoot Quark but kills Keevan. However, Nog manages to Frankenstein him long enough for the trade to take place, the two Jem’Hadar guards to be killed and Yelgrun taken prisoner.

And for Quark and Rom to feel good about themselves, since it is now obligatory for any episode in which Quark appears in any degree of substance for him to behave in a more un-Ferengi-like manner, to show he has depths. I won’t comment further.

No, sorry to anyone who loved this, or loves Quark, for me it was just a waste of bloody time, amplified by such things as padding out the exposition by having Quark and Rom crawling along ducts, or engaging in endless running down corridors on Empok Nor, presumably to keep the episode from running short. This was the worst episode since the last Quark-centric one and it’ll be the worst episode until the next Quark-centric one, and can I go now, please?

New Novel: Final Cover


I’d like to express my thanks to my work colleague Lee Thompson for designing such a fantastic cover for my new novel, Love Goes to Building on Sand.

A revised version of the book has been created incorporating this superb work, which incorporates a lot of subtleties about the contents that Lee was unaware of when creating this piece.

And as none of you have yet got out and bought it from Lulu.com (hint, hint), you can now get the final version.

Thank you, Lee

Film 2018: Picnic at Hanging Rock


I’ve been thinking about this film for several weeks now, but the conditions never seemed to be propitious. It’s not so much the frame of mind to be in before sitting down to watch this classic film, but rather the state of mind it induces, and which then persists past the end of the film.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was directed by Peter Weir, only his second full-length film. It catapulted him, the film and Australian cinema in general into the international spotlight, and remains Australia’s most popular film ever.

The film is, should you wish to try to pin it down to genre, an historical mystery. It’s based on Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel, which blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (the story is not a real-life event). On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the pupil’s of a private school, Mrs Appleyard’s College, go on a Valentine’s Day picnic to Hanging Rock, near Mount Macedon, Victoria. Three girls, and their Maths teacher, go missing. Extensive searching, both organised and private, finds no trace of the missing women, though one is later found, and rescued, though without any memory. The College attracts a negative reputation, and ends up closing. Another girl ends up dying, as does Mrs Appleyard.

That’s all there is in terms of plot. Ms Lindsey originally wrote a chapter ‘solving’ the mystery, albeit in somewhat abstract terms, but was sensibly persuaded against including it in the original novel: twenty years later, it was published separately, but still remains excluded, and rightly so.

But Picnic at Hanging Rock is not about story, though in its depiction of the after-events of the disappearance there is a cold inevitability about what follows. It’s about time, and place, and atmosphere, and in the film’s first half, about a sense, palpable from the opening scenes, of young, pretty girls, opening Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to one another, a pervading, unexpressed sexuality that flows from the screen. Unexpressed, not repressed, I say: though the girls’ natural exuberance for their age is repressed, as would be the case in a school devoted to turning out young ladies (on the picnic, the girls are given permission, in light of how hot the day is, to remove their gloves, but only after passing through the town of Woodend), but their sexuality is completely unconscious.

Anne Lambert plays the leading girl, Miranda, a fair-haired, open-faced, beautiful young woman, a school favourite, and the object of a serious crush by the dark-haired, thin, orphan girl, Sara. Just before she disappears, she is described by Mam’selle as a Botticelli Angel, and Lambert is glowing and beautiful enough to justify her role as the Golden Girl, to suggest someone too ethereal and lovely to live on Earth, a girl who might be snatched by the Gods of old.

Sara (Margaret Nelson) is excluded from the picnic because she is in trouble with Mrs Appleyard. We’re not told of the reasons but later we learn that Sara, an orphan separated for some years now from her brother Bertie, is six months in arrear with her fees, and that her Guardian has not responded to correspondence in all that period, so we assume she was cut because of this financial liability.

Weir recreates the time immaculately – the place itself is naturally unchanged – and there is never a moment when we do not believe it is 1900. Hanging Rock is still, serene, yet somehow foreboding. The Director keeps returning to rock formations that suggest facial features, and to rock towers that are definitely penile-shapes. The heat is soporific, and it is a credit to the actresses that, clad in long, white, high-necked, long-sleeved cambric dresses, over corsets and black stockings, they look cool and only marginally troubled. But no-one moves fast, in fact most of them sit, or lie, elegantly, in recumbent poses. Heads lie in other girls’ laps,tendrils of hair are gently stroked, or flowers drawn across brows.

In the midst of this, Miranda wants to go for a walk with Irma (Karen Robson) and Marion (Jane Vallis). Edith, a dumpy, whiny girl, (Christine Schuler) asks to go with them. Though they have been ordered not to explore the Rock, not even its lower slopes, due to the danger, they make their way through the forest and higher, through rock formations, and passages and level gullies that turn the Rock into a maze (throughout the film, Weir sites shots from inside crevices, or in narrow side-gulleys, showing people pass, creating the sense that someone, or some thing, is watching).

In the forest below, they pass, unaware, before the eyes of young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), visiting his Aunt and uncle, whose upper-class and decidedly English world is stultifyingly inert, mentally and physically. Mike is talking to his Uncle’s decidedly working-class Australian valet, Albert Crundell (John Jarratt), himself an orphan, with a kid sister he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a definite homoerotic undertone to their friendship, equally unconscious but based in repression, that parallels the atmosphere created about the girls.

Miranda and Co. climb higher. They are overcome at one level, perhaps by the heat but we have now become absorbed into the film and the sweeping abruptness of it suggests something more than mere physical intensity. Even the awful Edith is affected. They sleep and then, led by Miranda, who is becoming more unworldly by the moment, they all wake up together. The three beautiful girls remove their shoes and stockings (there is a particularly individual close-up shot on one girl, in which the camera pans with the stocking and the accumulating folds as it is drawn down, rather than the bare leg being exposed).

And there is a final moment when Miranda, seeming almost to be in a trance, leads Marion and Irma upwards through another crack in the rock, in which they disappear, leaving Edith to scream and scream in hysteria and run away, and Miranda softly and wonderingly says, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

Weir then cuts to the College at night, the overdue return of the carriage, Mrs Appleyard’s stern disapproval, Mam’selle’s disheveled panic, Sara’s silent misery, and the news that, unseen by all, the veteran Maths teacher, Miss McCraw has also disappeared.

The film changes, the sexuality is dissipated. The disappearance is a rock dropped into a still pond: the second half of the pool the ripple, spreading until it reaches the banks.

There is a major manhunt, beating the brush, calling ‘Coo-ee’, dragging ponds. An abo tracker is called in, bloodhounds. Nothing is found. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) confides in her senior assistant, Miss Lumley, that the College is suffering financially: three girls vanished, three whose parents are withdrawing them, six sets of fees vanished, in addition to the mounting arrears in the case of the Weybourne Girl (Sara).

Mike Fitzhubert becomes obsessed with the missing girls, unable to bear the thought of them being out there. Why does it matter so much to him? Why can’t he put it out of his head, like Albert? He followed them, at first, for a short way, or so he told the Police, though not at first. His obsessions might fit a man who knows more than he lets on, a man affected by guilt, seeking expatiation.

He talks Albert into coming with him for another hunt on the Rock. At day’s end, he insists on staying. Early the next morning he sets out again, hatless. An increasingly desperate Albert finds him, overcome, and brings help in the form of a Doctor. But Mike has a torn scrap of white cambric in his hand, and when Albert retraces the Engishman’s steps, he finds Irma, dehydrated, exposed, but still alive, just.

Irma recuperates at the Fitzhugh estate. Mam’selle rejoices but Mrs Appleyard is contemptuous of her. For only one to be found is a disaster. The College has become international news and this will only further ensure their infamy. She comes to a decision: the Weybourne Girl must go, back to the Orphanage. Sara, who has taken to her bed, and erected a love-shrine to Miranda, says nothing. There follows a series of night shots, entirely still and peaceful, and Sara’s empty bed. In the morning, Mrs Appleyard tells Mam’selle that Sara has left in the early hours, before breakfast: her Guardian, in a hurry, collected her, mrs Appleyard supervised the packing of her bags.

Albert relates to Mike that he has had a dream of his kid sister, a dream full of light in which she came to him, saying she had come along way to visit him but had to go now. She called him Bertie: do I have to add that one up for you? He’s going to head north, look for her.

Term is over, the girls have left. The gardener unlocks the greenhouse. There is broken glass everywhere, and a hole in the roof, through which he can see the turrets of the upper floor. Parting the plants, he finds Sara’s blood-stained body. Running to tell Mrs Appleyard, he finds her at her desk, in full travelling outfit. She simply stares at him.

A voiceover, seemingly as an afterthought, by the Police Sergeant, relates that despite further sporadic searching, no-news found. The body of Mrs Appleyard was found at the base of the rocks: presumably she had been attempting to climb them.

The ripple reaches the banks, and dies out.

Joan Lindsey wrote an explanation. You can read about it in the Wikipedia entry on the novel if you so choose: even knowing that the original author wrote this, I cannot mentally or emotionally attach it to the story. Something happened, something outside our ken, and no answer can ever stand up to the numinous mystery. Some things are better left unexplained, unreduced to the flat and banal and concrete. Without that, we can imagine, and Weir gives us plenty to imagine. Where, and how, did they go? What more did Mike know? It appears that Sara committed suicide, but did she really jump?

Wherever we turn, there are shadows, even under the glare of the sun. Thefilm is slow, measured, careful. There are no fast movements, save for those of animals. Irma cannot remember what happened to her: when she is reintroduced to the girls, before going home to Europe, she is an alien creature, a woman, not a girl, dressed richly. All she causes is hysteria, accusation, horror.

Though there is also conventional music on the sountrack, Weir makes extensive use of the pan-pipes of Romanian musician Gheorge Zhamfir (whose ‘Doina de Jale’ unexpectedly became a no. 4 hit in Britain in 1976, the year after this film) creating a mournful, unearthly atmosphere, as well as silence. People say little, do nothing. They are still, they look, they think and the camera waits for them. It’s like being in a dream.

The version I watched today is the Director’s Cut, part of the 2008 3xDVD Deluxe Edition. it’s approximately eight minutes shorter than the original Theatrical release, which appears on a bonus disc, and which I take to be the version I first saw on TV, somewhere in the Eighties. At some point, I will watch that version, and if I have anything further to say, I’ll append a postscript.

It isn’t in the Film 2018 repertoire, but one of these days, I’ll write something about Weir’s major Hollywood success, Witness. I have a story or two about that film.

Emma Chambers R.I.P.


I used to watch The Vicar of Dibley regularly, though I can’t for the life of me think why now. Emma Chambers was a regular on the programme, playing the gormless Alice Tinker, with the kind of careful care that told you she was nothing like that in real life. She wasn’t conventionally attractive, but I’d have sat down to talk with her at any time, no matter how patient I’d have had to be with Alice’s dimwittery.

Her family has announced that she’s died at the age of 53, of natural causes. That usually means cancer, though very few people nowadays feel the need to keep that quiet. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that age, which is so wrong and unfair, to her and those who she loved and who loved her. She played someone sweet in nature, and looked as if that was a side of the character she didn’t need acting skills to bring out.

Such a shame.

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Black Banner Abroad’


Like Black Banner Players, Black Banner Abroad builds on the situation achieved by its predecessor, but this time it has a very different story in mind. This is immediately signified by the opening chapter, in which Bill Melbury is completely absent, being a meeting between Mr Kingsford, Miss Florey, and the latter’s French teacher, on a year’s secondment, Mademoiselle Labruyere.
This meeting of adults, reconstructed by Bill from a very successful second chapter eavesdropping, sets out what will be a dramatic departure from the series thus far, taking our little group of friends beyond the quiet confines of Bannermere, and out of England, to the South of France.
The impetus for everything lies in the successful Grammar School performance of Romeo and Juliet foreshadowed at the end of Black Banner Players. The County High girls have taken the female roles, the performance has been a success and Kingsford is in a good, but still suspicious mood when Miss Florey requests a meeting.
Mademoiselle is full of praise for the performance, which she wishes the girls of her home lycee could see. It would help them tremendously in their studies to see Shakespeare actually performed, and for a play such as Romeo and Juliet, young players would be so much better than professionals.
She and Miss Florey are here to persuade Kingsford to agree a joint School Visit, to enable the Black Banner Players to perform, in an ancient, open air stadium of great historic depth. The families of the girls will provide accommodation, and when Kingsford uses his line of defence about his boys, the trap is sprung: the boys’ lycee will be equally enthusiastic, and welcoming, and Mademoiselle can guarantee that as her father is its director.
But it’s when Kingsford learns that this will all take place in Provence, with its ancient Roman history, he not only consents, but appoints himself leader for the Grammar School.
For our quartet, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Only Sue demurs, feeling her loyalty towards Johnny Nelson, and regarding her position as Wardrobe Mistress as inessential, but it takes little persuasion from Mrs Melbury to draw her into the trip.
The visit to France, the sights and experiences, these would be enough for a book written in 1954 when foreign travel was such a foreign thing for so many Britons, not to mention children from a poorish area of West Cumberland. But Trease adds another element, a curious angle that underpins the gang’s holiday, a quest, not to find treasure but, in a curious way, return it.
This is the story of Willy the Waller, a relative newcomer to Bannerdale, a simple man and a dry stone waller. In the War, Willy was in France, before the retreat, cut off from Dunkirk and, following his platoon-leader, Mr Briggs, attempting to get out of France into Spain. The pair were sheltered for a time by a peasant woman, Mme Leblanc, who was to help them contact assistance. But by a misunderstanding, Willy and Mr Briggs were separated, and Willy got the idea, wrongly as it turned out, that Mme Leblanc had betrayed them. So he had stolen her nest egg, worth about £50, with which to get away.
It’s been on his mind for years, troubling him that he stole from a woman who had trusted him, who was his ally. As our gang are going to the South of France, he wants them to find Mme Leblanc and pay her back: over the years he has saved over £50 with which to repay her.
It’s an impossible task, and our friends react with differing degrees of interest. Bill, for once, is exasperated and wants to ignore it. But they come around and, recognising what it means to Willy, promise to do their best. Especially as practically the only thing Willy can remember, out of Mr Briggs’ accounts of French legends, suggests they are going to the right area!
The party adds up to twenty boys, seventeen girls and a Head and a teacher from each school. For travelling the party organises itself into four groups of nine, each attached to a specific leader. Bill and Sue, Penny Morchard and Tim Darren all want to travel together, which means in practice the new Grammar School teacher, ‘Cracker’ Crawford. Their set is completed by two inconsequential Grammar School boys, and the Infernal Triangle. These latter are three Lower Fifth girls from the County High, members of the pipe band, Anne, Betty and Carol (or A, B and C as they are quickly dubbed), who prove to be a pleasant addition to the story.
It’s a long journey, and Trease explores every aspect of it, as do the little band under Cracker. Train from Bannerdale to Carnforth, where their reserved carriage(s) are hooked up to a London train. Train from London to the Channel ports, not stopping for this is the service for people going to France. The Cross-Channel Ferry, with everyone tired but excited to see their first sight of a foreign land (like me, en route to Barcelona, for the Champions League Final, on a plane to Spain but nevertheless eager for that first aerial view of land on the other side). Train to Paris, and a chance to explore some of that city, if not the famous sights, as the group walks some of the streets, looks in the shop windows (remember too, that in 1954, Britain was still slowly recovering from the years of post-War rationing: portions were small, and food limited in imagination). A trip on the Metro, from Gare to Gare, with the practical Tim taking charge when Cracker gets left behind at the barrier. And the long, tired, tiring journey to Provence, with Bill in the middle as first Carol of the Triangle, then Penny falls asleep with their heads on his shoulders.
And a last and amusing complication, in Provence itself, when the driver and engineer of the train go on a lightning strike, walking off and leaving the train in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, it’s Bill and Tim who accompany Cracker to the nearest, small town, where a lovingly funny fat Frenchman hires out an autobus to drive the party to Rivacelles, only for the train to be on the move again, without three of the party!
But at last everyone, tired and feeling sticky, arrive in Rivecalles, where Mademoiselle and her father, and the whole town awaits the English visitors (the French welcoming the English? This really is less than a decade since the War).
Everyone is divided up among different families, and the book changes at this point.
Bill and Tim are billeted with the Garniers, and their son, Etienne. Etienne is already prolific in English, and is into photography. He’s as anxious to practice his English as Tim is eager to not practice his French, and the two get along famously, rather leaving Bill outside things.
Penny and Sue are separated, but wind up next door to one another. Though at first, Bill is eager to connect with Penny, and share their impressions of Rivecalles, the girls slip into the deep background, and not necessarily for creditable reasons on Bill’s part.
Because the Garnier’s are also giving a home to Mme’s nephew, Gigi, who is just a little bit older than Bill, who is very blonde and very chic, and who is eager to practice her English and his French.
For all Bill’s bursts of jealousy when it appears Penny’s attentions are being directed to another boy, he is singularly blind to the fact that he is acting exactly the same way.
Gigi fascinates Bill, to the extent that he loses his enthusiasm for how Penny is enjoying her time, to the extent that she, with a burst of understandable cattiness, refers to his new friend as Gee-Gee. And, as Bill starts insisting on dragging Gigi into everything, whether she’s wanted or not, Penny shows what she thinks by diverting herself, Sue and their hosts, Simone and Marcelle, onto an entirely different bus when it comes to a group outing.
Even so, it’s remarkably restrained for the volatile Penny, and Bill doesn’t entirely dismiss her from his thoughts: Sunday evening, everyone gathers in the square, for talk, drinks, boules and dancing. After accidentally asking Mme Garnier to dance, and fortuitously fulfilling etiquette, Bill is free to dance with Gigi. Which involves him explaining why Penny sits there and doesn’t dance.
But even when he’s besotted with another young, exotic, attractive girl, Bill cannot help but project himself, imaginatively, into Penny Morchard’s head, and think about the mask of indifference she wears at such times, and whether that is to protect herself from disappointment, or to protect her friends from seeing it.
Black Banner Players are still, more or less, neutral territory. Rehearsals, preparations, adaptation to the vastly different conditions of an open-air theatre, under the evening/night sky, requires a vast amount of work on everybody’s part, and on the night, in front of an audience that half fills the arena but which is vastly larger than anything the Players have faced before, they are at risk of failure.
Into this, Penny, as the Nurse, is the saviour. Instinctively aware of the required technique, she sets an example that captures the audience and puts heart back into her fellow actors, whose roles are more important than hers. At the end, everything has been a marvellous success. Bill wants to tell her how good she was, and we know what that will mean to her, but he can’t get near enough.
All the more selfish then that, within a couple of pages, Bill is kissing Gigi in the kitchen.
Trease doesn’t tell us that. Bill is much too modest to be open about such things, but it doesn’t take the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to work it out: even Inspector Lestrade can see through this one.
It’s a betrayal, but a betrayal of something Bill is still far from recognising. He may admire Penny, both for her appearance and her spirit, but he doesn’t for a moment understand what lies beneath that admiration, nor is he in the least aware that Penny is growing to see him as more than her best friend’s brother, and a very loyal, very thoughtful friend in his own respect.
The Players play their second performance, unhindered this time by any early nerves. The trip has been a success on all fronts, but there is still one front that needs to be completed.
Despite all that is there to absorb them, Bill and Co. haven’t forgotten Willy the Waller. The set-up precludes much input from Sue and Penny, and there’s an early false start based on information from Etienne that looks promising before bombing. But a combination of unlikely events brings it through triumphantly. Bill realises that the ‘ruined’ viaduct of Willy’s story must be the ancient and famous Pont du Nord, a mad Birmingham artist (who might be a pre-incarnation of Tony Hancock’s character in The Rebel) catches Sue’s eyes with a painting of Mme Leblanc’s cottage, and finally, and unfairly, it is Gigi who sees it from the coach back to Rivacelles.
Only one day remains, and Bill has to dodge through a cycle race to avoid Cracker, but our friends, with Etienne and Gigi, find the cottage, and Mme Leblanc, luckily returning from hospital after a fall. Willy’s debt is repaid in full: more than full because inflation means that £50 in 1954 is vastly more in Francs than it was in 1940.
Most importantly though, the debt is paid. Even more, Mme Leblanc had long since understood, and forgiven and her forgiveness will go back to West Cumberland.
And the Black Banner Players’ have been a success on all levels, even down to the romantic, for Cracker Crawford has proposed to, and been accepted by Mademoiselle, who will after all return to Bannerdale and the girls of the County High.
Even Bill is let down gently, though some of us may feel he doesn’t quite deserve it. On the train, he overhears the teachers talking about how Gigi had been sent to her aunt’s to keep her away from a most unsuitable young man, leaving him to wonder if he was just the rebound guy. Being Bill, he moves out of earshot, not to hear more.
And who is on hand but Penny, forgiving with a bag of peaches, reminding him of what is secure, and rather more important in life. The juice of the pear runs down her chin and Bill offers his handkerchief to wipe it off. If she doesn’t mind it being his, he adds, recognising his fault. Penny smiles and agrees that it probably won’t be for the last time.
Black Banner Abroad was the first of the series that I acquired when I went looking for them, and I read it in isolation. Coming into a series so late, so near its end, was an odd experience for me, but in its way appropriate, for this was how I would experience new children’s series when I was at the age for reading them. In fact, I think the Lone Pine series was unique in being the only one where I began with the first book.
It was enjoyable, and entertaining, even though it was a departure for the series, in setting so small a part of it in the Lake District environment I was looking forward to visiting. The book is, of course, even better once you are aware of all the relationships between the different characters, adult as well as child!
This book, more or less, was the end for Sue and Tim. The next book, the last in the series, will belong to Bill and Penny alone, as young adults, in a world as removed from West Cumberland as is Provence, though considerably nearer to home. And it is the end of the series, though I think a lot of us would have enjoyed a book or two more between first and last. But Trease kept things, and people fresh, and this was our allotment. Enjoy it as it was, and don’t be greedy for too much more.

The Infinite Jukebox: Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’


This isn’t just a song, it’s a world, a Universe. It’s soft, ungentle, mellow, yet bitter beyond words, though Janis Ian’s voice stays quiet, and patient throughout. But it’s patience in the face of the inevitability, undemanding, uncomplaining, yet quietly determined to take you inside, to show you the life that too many people, overlooked, unthought of, are forced into leading by chances never offered, by love that never even sees you, let alone dismisses you.

‘At Seventeen’ came out in 1975, just in time. If it had appeared a couple of years earlier, I doubt I would never have heard it then, but this was the year Commercial Radio burst onto the scene across Britain, brash and bright and determined to outdo the stodginess of Radio 1 that, seven years on from its inauguration, still hadn’t been accepted by the BBC, and as a consequence was so easy to pass, Commercial Radio didn’t even need to go out of the middle lane.

I mean, they could broadcast all evening, whereas Radio 1 still had this gap from 6.00pm until 10.00pm where Radio 2 took back the frequency, so I could listen to Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio all evening, if I wanted. And in the evenings, when different shades of music were allowed to play, I would hear this song by Janis Ian.

All I knew of her was that, back in 1967, she’d had this surprise hit in America with a song called ‘Society’s Child’, about an interracial relationship, which was a really hot subject back then, and frankly not that much further advanced in 1975: we still had ‘Love Thy neighbour’ on the TV back then. I didn’t get to hear ‘Society’s Child’ then, and not for many years later. Janis Ian had written it when she was 14. By the time it charted, at the third time of release, she was herself 17, but it wasn’t about anything like that experience that she was singing about now. It was long ago and far away, and the world was younger than today, and the combination of that limpid, clear guitar and that quiet, regretful voice led us into a world that many of us had never seen.

This was especially so for the male half of the audience: I don’t doubt that there were hundreds of thousands of girls of all ages who recognised the unfairness of school, of factions and groups, the advantaged looking down on the unadvantaged, the cruelty of the beautiful towards the plain, the desperate loneliness of finding that no-one can or will look at you, or offer to take you out of this prison, even for a night.

But though it was an eye-opener for me, it wasn’t by any means a foreign country. Though the cruelty was sharper, and the hurt deeper, I understood, recognised more of this than I cared to admit in 1975, when I was nineteen. The valentines never came for me, I was always among the last chosen for games of football or cricket, I was just as much the ugly duckling boy as Janis Ian described herself as being the girl. The only difference was that I was spared the pain of never being asked, because I was supposed to do the asking, only I didn’t know how to ask, and there was no-one there to ask.

It was supposed to be easier for girls then, and that’s what I thought it was like, and Janis Ian took me inside a world in which it was just the same and worse. We all want, we all need, but not all of us can have, because there are laws that exist on no statue-books that rule such things out for us, and this song speaks for all of us, because it speaks with both resignation at the knowledge that we are forever excluded, and the clear-eyed determination to explain without accusation how we are thus crippled.

The song drifts. There are distant touches of strings, quiet horn measures, but still it’s that carefully picked guitar, and the unobtrusive, shuffling rhythm that makes four minutes into a life and a lifetime. The meek shall inherit the earth, if that’s alright with the rest of you, but it never works out that way. It’s your earth, and you’ll never remember to make room. I marvel that we don’t scream more loudly, that all we do is quietly remind each other of how we understand, but part of being the meek is that we are not given much to screaming, even in frustration.

It was long ago, and far away, the world was younger than today, and 1975 is certainly long ago, but it’s never that far away, not the lonely evenings spent in my bedroom, listening to songs like this, and never even meeting the girls to whom this applied, seeking that comfort that comes in solidarity, and maybe sometimes finding that we are what each other are chosen for, instead of condemned to. Some songs remain alive, far beyond what you wish for them. In a hundred years time, Janis Ian will still be speaking the truth of many girls and boys. She will still play on, in Infinite Jukeboxes in the minds of those who have never known what a Jukebox was, or represents.

Eagle Volume 9 (1958)


Not the best regarded…

There’s a good case for arguing that Volume 9 is the Last Good Year. Most of Eagle‘s classic features were still in place, though the Dan Dare adventure that dominates the volume does not have the best reputation, and there was unrest behind the scenes, and there was a dodgy turn of events in one of the others.
But still they were there. The only change was the end of Mark Question and its replacement by something even blander and duller. And when all was said and done, this was the last year before The Fall, so let’s look for the good in things.
After almost two full years, ‘The Man from Nowhere’ trilogy came to an end, with initially a small handful of remaining episodes of ‘Reign of the Robots’, destroying the Mekon’s Selektrobot control at the seeming price of Dan’s life. This was followed by the brief, usually overlooked coda, ‘The Ship That Lived’, in which the rediscovered Anastasia is preserved, Dan makes a miraculous, non-medical recovery and the Mekon escapes into the swamp with the aid of the ‘Last Three’, a thread that would take six years to be realised.
The new story, ‘The Phantom Fleet’, has excellent art for the first two-thirds of its length although, despite Hampson signing his name to much of it, a sharp eye shows it to be more the work of his very efficient studio, and Don Harley, than Hampson himself.
Behind the scenes, Hampson was unhappy. Hultons would not support his efforts to market Dan to the American market, or to animated films, nor his desire to withdraw from art and direct his more than capable studio. At one point, he submitted his resignation, and Hultons decided to accept it! But before they could send a reply, Hampson withdrew his resignation.
There are clear and jerky changes in direction in ‘The Phantom Fleet’, and the overall opinion is that it was not going down well. Editorial was unhappy with a second successive story based on Earth and concerning an invasion. Alan Stranks proposed to change the title on the story after episode 28, signalling an extension of some kind, and Hampson himself was not unaverse to getting back among alien scenes.
In the end, ‘The Phantom Fleet’ turns into an inarguable mess. Desmond Walduck takes over the art with thirteen episodes left, the storyline turns into a disaster. Inexplicably, in the middle of this muddle, Hampson returns for three weeks of superior art, but leaves just before the eventual villains appear on the page, and the eventual resolution is a pure accident to which Dan Dare contributes nothing.
Mark Question’s adventures in Comorra speedily reach their predictable end: Mark’s courage inspires Max to discover his own, the twin boy sword-experts defeat Black Franz and his cohorts and the day is won. Unfortunately, King Gustavo dies without revealing what he knows about Mark’s background, and he’s back to London still no further forward. Retrospectively, this adventure is named ‘The Black Valley’.
It’s succeeded by ‘The Lost Clan’, which actually becomes an official title. A faded Highland Games medal sends Mark on his bike to Braeloch in Scotland, in pursuit of the survivors of Clan McDhu. En route, he intercepts a canister of microfilm intended for international spy and master of disguise, Babel, who pursues Mark to Scotland with the intention of killing him.
It’s a simple, but unconvincing plot, which ends with an elderly Laird, a caber-tosser, a poacher and two early-teens (if that) capturing the aforementioned international spy, and the revelation, which falls very flat indeed, that Mark is actually Alistair Colin McDhu, grandson of Murdo McDhu, and that he was born and raised in Australia. Funny how nobody remarked on his Aussie accent before now?
Mark would return in the back half of the Sixties, his adventures reprinted as Mark Mystery – the boy with etc. For now, his slot on page 3 went to Cavendish Brown, M.S., written by Bill Welling and drawn by Pat Williams.
Cavendish Brown is a brilliant surgeon and detective: what? how? why? Don’t ask such questions because no background is ever given. He’s just an effortlessly superior toff, with a butler/valet/chauffeur and he tells the Police, in the shape of Inspector Jason, what to do. Come back, Mark Question, all is forgiven.
‘Eagle Special Investigator’ McDonald Hastings spent the year at home, telling war stories under the overall heading of ‘The Bravest Men in the War’. This was interrupted twice for three part series. The first of these, ‘The Way into Space’ looked at scientific developments along the road of launching a man into space, with particular reference to how many of them had been anticipated by Frank Hampson. The second of these got Hastings to Kenya, but only in the context of a film being made for his regular television spot on ITV’s Tonight, and how the raw footage and commentary was shaped for broadcast.
Increasingly, most issues of Eagle in this volume ran to 20pp instead of the usual 16pp. This consisted of an additional B&W sheet, inserted as pp7-8 and 13-14. Most of these were mainly additional advertising with one, sometimes two pages of content, none of which was especially impressive.
Riders of the Range saw ‘The War with the Sioux’ through to its historic conclusion, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the death of General Custer. It’s an impressive story, drawn with Frank Humphris’s customary attention to detail, and with true likenesses of the real-life characters.


After two lengthy historical stories, Charles Chilton steered the series back to adventures in which Jeff and Luke could be the centre. ‘The Penny-Farthing Dude’ brought Jim Forsyth back into the series, which segued into ‘Down Mexico Way’, leading our heroes to defend a second Christian Mission, this time south of the border.
In Luck of the Legion, Luck, Trenet and Bimberg continued their balloon journey with the ‘flying Dutchman’, Professor Vanderdecker, who was not all he seemed. Their quest became one for eternal life, as revealed when they discovered the titular Eyes of Horus, but the eternal life turned out to be a source of water: eternal life for the village and the tribe, not any individual.
Then it was back to the Sahara for the relatively routine ‘Scourge of the Sands’, another story about a leader attempting to raise rebellion against the Legion.
Jack O’Lantern ran through the remaining weeks of ‘The Assassins’, a glorious riot of Bow Street runners and thieves’ cant, although the story’s abrupt ending, with the leader of The Assassins falling on his own pistol and shooting himself through the heart wasn’t up to the standard set.
George Beardmore then resorted to another cheap device in ‘Race for Life’, by resurrecting Jack’s evil Uncle Humphrey from the dead and reinstating him at the family home of Brackens. Humphrey’s up to his cheating and conniving self, robbing young Dick Lawless of his prize racer, Diabolus, Jack ends up racing in the steeplechase and winning it, sending Humphrey overseas to escape his debts, but leaving Captain Yorke faced with selling their home of Brackens in order to pay off those for which he has become responsible.
Jack tries to postpone the evil moment by selling his horse, Black Dragon, which gets him involved in the circus in ‘Brotherhood of the Key’, and a story involving treasure and the evil circus clown, Little Caesar.
Now that I’m having the chance to read Jack O’Lantern as a continuous story, I’ve come to respect it as a better tale than I’d previously realised, but those cheap devices referred to above rather devalued it in this volume.


I found The Three J’s rather pedestrian this year, with the various stories adding very little that was new. The same old tropes – especially those of the increasingly tiresome Jacko – were on display in each story, nor did Peter Ling’s imagination run quite so freely when creating the various new boy that give the J’s something to resolve. Willi Jarmann, the semi-sick boy from last year, joins Northbrook only to be renamed Bill, so that has foreign background can be quickly forgotten.
He makes up the numbers for a Northbrook team in a proto-‘Top of the Form’ TV quiz that, despite Ling’s background in television, is not in the least convincing (not least in its scores), is threatened with removal because his Aunt needs cheaper accommodation and then blots his copybook in a somewhat foolish story about ‘Faraway’ Hill inventing some valuable formula by falling in with Fifth Form bully, Bradbury, and becoming a smoker.
Nor is his replacement, jazz-trumpet loving cool kat, daddio, Raymond Key anything to write home about. This is clearly a story written by an adult with no real understanding of teenagers and their growing musical passions (you’ll note it’s jazz, and not rock’n’roll…). I’m afraid the year smacked of a series that was running out of steam, having used up all its ideas. As a prose serial, and not a comic, the lack of innovation is far easier to perceive.
Pretty much the same could be said of Harris Tweed: in fact, little else can be said about it. John Ryan goes back to one-off gags instead of semi-serialised stories, but Tweed also has nothing new to it. On the other hand, Ryan does maintain a level of interest that ‘Simon Simple’ never reached and which it declined yet further from, week by week.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer continued to go strong, thanks to Guy Morgan’s willingness to sail the Silver Fleet to new seas every story and, in the weekly term, Richard Jennings’ vigorous and energetic art. There’s a running theme to the stories in this volume, the ‘Black Box’ giving way to the ‘Yellow Bird’ (a budgerigar, actually) set in the West Indies and seguing into the ‘Magenta Mark’, courtesy of the mastermind behind both threats, the anonymous Nemo.
The ‘He wants to be a…’ series was all but finished now, with only three appearances all year. The George Cansdale/Tom Adams half-page spent most of the year continuing the development of Prehistoric Animals towards their modern day form, but several months in, this became sporadic, alternating with a different series by the same pair, featuring Insects, which was in black and white. There seemed to be no pattern as to which would appear and in some weeks, neither was represented. Ultimately, both series were replaced by a black and white half page featuring dogs, with a variety of artists replacing Adams, whose unsung art was some of the finest ever to appear in Eagle.
What we got instead, inside the back page, was a seriously odd return to Eagle‘s practice of offering advertisers comic strips for their advert. These had been a feature throughout, in corners or one-tier strips, never attracting much attention, unlike the old Tommy Walls’ pages. Now, under the white-on-black banner of an Advertiser’s Announcement, we got a weekly series promoting Gas Central Heating, under the aegis of Mr Therm, a cartoon figure.
It’s one of the most puzzling advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Much of the Volume was taken up by ‘It’s time to learn with…’ which is, and I kid you not, all about redesigning a kitchen, its white goods, cupboards and even a gas-heated airing cupboard, to improve Mum’s daily lot. Unless Eagle’s adult audience was considerably more extensive than suspected, I cannot see the appeal of any of this to an audience of 7 – 12 year olds.
Nor were things much improved, target-wise, by its replacement, late in the year, by ‘Magic in Meter with…’, written and drawn in a quasi-realistic cartoon form by Dennis Mallet, extolling he virtues of gas each week by means of jingly rhyme.
But each week of Volume 9 was decorated on the back page of Eagle by Frank Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art, pristinely realistic, highly detailed and yet imaginatively impressionistic. Once Bellamy got into his swing, without going overboard on lay-outs, he began to vary his pages. He was never less than respectfully accurate to Churchill or any of the many figures who appeared in the story, but once Churchill’s tale reached the First World War, Bellamy never looked back. His battles scenes, in both wars, be they on land, sea or in the air, were breathtaking, his control immaculate and his colours superb.
Once ‘The Happy Warrior’ was complete, at 53 episodes, it was collected as a book, an honour given previously only to the Baden Powell story, and not as quickly. Bellamy stayed on, drawing ‘The Shepherd King’, the story of King David, with rich and flowing colours, stimulated by the Middle East sunlight.
Three Franks, three brilliant artists. It was still a Good Year. But it was the last one.