The Infinite Jukebox: The Chieftains’ ‘Mna na h’Eireann (Women of Ireland)’

I don’t understand this music.

I’m not Irish, I have no Irish in me. It isn’t in my heart or my soul, or in my deepest memories that spring from race and place and culture. I’m always and forever an outsider, a visitor looking on as if watching a ceremony he’ll never understand. This is music played in a circle, the musicians facing inwards, and those for whom it is played are within that circle.

If I analyse it, it’s a single, lamenting melody, sweet, brave and complete, played over and over, as instruments join and leave, a complex of sound, in, around and between that slow tune that you might think easy to learn.

But long before that last whistle carries the melody to its final, extended note, my cheeks are wet with tears, because something responds, to beauty, to sorrow, to myth and legend, and finally to exclusion.

The Infinite Jukebox plays music like this, sometimes, in the lateness, when all is still. And my yearning joins with this.

American Gothic: e17 – Learning to Crawl

Don’t worry, he won’t shoot

At this point in the series, and this remove in time, it’s impossible to know what was being produced to complete an order doomed to a premature end, and what is being made in furtherance of an overarching story, to be developed to an even deeper extent in season 2.

‘Learning to Crawl’ is an episode that looks, feels and plays as part of an overall scheme that is not prepared to end in five weeks time. It’s an episode that starts to change the terms of the series, and an episode that takes advantage of the removal of Dr Matt – who was directly involved in standing between Lucas Buck and Caleb – to tip the balance towards the former. It’s an episode about corruption.

It begins with Caleb, helping clean up the Sheriff’s station, accidentally electrocuting himself. He has an out-of-body experience, watching himself in the hospital, and meets Merly, there to welcome him. But Lucas Buck is also there, driving a wedge between Caleb and his sister by telling the boy what Merlyn hasn’t: that he has a choice, to stay or go back. It’s in his hands. Merly is driven to want Caleb to die aged ten because she’s afraid to let him live to make wrong choices. I mean, Buck as good as says that being like him is a bad choice, but what other choice would a ten year old boy make? Caleb takes Buck’s hand, and lives.

The rest of the episode is a chilling, slow expansion on that choice.

Without Dr Matt, without Billy Peale having quite settled in to his role as new protagonist for the Sheriff, and having made a conscious rejection of Merly, Caleb goes off on a fishing jaunt with Lucas, to the nearby ghost town of Simpsonsville. En route, the Sheriff can’t resist pulling over Selena Combs’ bright yellow sports car to fuck with her, leading her to think Billy Peale is standing her up for their symphony concert date that night to join the fishing party.

However, and this is an unfortunate contrivance that has to be ignored in the face of the quality of its development, the cabin Lucas and Caleb are heading towards is being used by a little family trio of kidnappers, who are holding a Cigarette company CEO as hostage. There’s the wild, stupid ex-con Cody, his wife, the even more vicious Jeri, and his somewhat ineffectual younger brother Ted (guest star Ted Raimi, son of Sam and future recurring character in Xena, Warrior Princess), who we later learn is shagging Jeri.

Whilst Cody and Jeri wait in vain for the pick-up of the extra ransom the idiot Cody is demanding, our CEO behaves with considerable stupidity. Used to obedience from all around him, he tries to control something he can’t control, won’t listen when Ted warns he’ll shoot him if he keeps running away, and gets shot in the back. The brief role put me in no sympathy with the ‘innocent’ victim who thought he was a Master of the Universe, even tied up, blindfolded at gunpoint.

Anyway, it’s completely thrown the weak-willed Ted so that when Lucas and Caleb arrive at the cottage, and are held at gunpoint, it’s easy for the former to face Ted down and take the gun off him. Cody and Jeri arrive to find the hostage situation reversed. They’re both stupid enough to believe that their having guns makes them in control of the situation, and they’re not. Lucas Buck is all set to manipulate all three players, playing them against each other, using the respective urges for money and love off, all for the purpose of providing an object lesson to Caleb. Caleb is shown how to control things, is lead towards the idea that love is meaningless, selflessness is stupid and control and its concomitant, selfishness, are the sole object worth attaining.

These lessons are given even sharper point by the arrival of Selena, thinking Billy’s there and intending to confront him. Though the point’s never made, the fact Lucas has effectively manipulated her to be present to provide an ineffectual counterpoint to his education of Caleb, added to Gary Cole’s continuingly awesome depiction of Buck as cool, detached and concentrated, suggests that the stumbling upon Ted and co might not not be the coincidence the show presents it as being, though the episode cannily doesn’t devote even a second to this possibility.

No, the lessons pile up for Caleb. Ted’s a broken reed, blaming CEO Ralston for his shooting: ‘look what you made me do’. Cody’s prepared to sell out his wife and brother for the money. Jeri is driven to kill him, believing Cody knows about the affair when he knew nothing at all (stupid to the last). Selena tries to keep Caleb on the straight and narrow, warning that Buck destroys peoples hopes, dreams and fears, that he’s trying to teach Caleb to hate people, though her hotheadness enables Buck to talk through her.

And even this last lesson has to be abandoned when a half-crazed, injured Jeri seizes her in daylight and puts a gun to her head.

By now, the dice have started to roll. First, Buck sends Caleb out top talk to Jeri, facing down her threats to shoot him, to plant in her head the notion that Cody knows. Then he begins to teach Caleb how to focus his thoughts, use the very same supernatural abilities Buck has, to force visions on Jeri that play on her paranpia and fear overnight.

It’s begun. And over the remaining five episodes, this strand will develop. May God have mercy on Caleb Temple’s soul.

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

The third Bannerdale book is the last of the series to be set wholly in West Cumberland. It’s an absolute delight, even more so than its predecessors, drifting gently in its final quarter towards the foiling of a low key but personally significant crime, whilst spending much of its time dealing with the parallel ambitions of its two most important characters, Bill and Penny.
As is the pattern, as opposed to a formula, Trease keeps his intentions close to his chest whilst dealing with naturalistic scenes from the lives of our little gang. It’s almost Xmas, and the book starts on the last night of the Grammar School Shakespeare play, which this year is The Merchant of Venice. Bill Melbury, a new member of the Dramatic Society this year, is playing a small part, the performance of which is not made easier by the fact that this is an all boys School and, in accordance with headmaster Mr Kingsford’s firmly held beliefs, it is being performed with an all-boy cast, with Tubby Taylor as Jessica, with whom Bill is supposed to elope.
With his mother and sister Sue in the audience, not to mention Penny Morchard, and the girls’ Headmistress, Miss Florey, Bill has a lot on his mind but things go decently well. But the year after next, the play will be Romeo and Juliet, and Kingsford is adamantly opposed to any suggestion that the Schools join forces!
Typically, having established that, Trease lets it go for Xmas. For once, he inserts a clever bit of foreshadowing, with Bill doing some part-time work in Mr Morchard’s bookshop to earn Xmas money. He has a difficult encounter with a youngish woman who he suspects has helped herself to a particular new book. Though she tries to bluster out his challenge, Bill bluffs her into handing the book back, establishing her guilt.
More importantly, in the longest run, he is seeing a bit more of Penny, whose uncertain cookery cues up the next chapter. In the meantime, he’s asked to deliver an envelope to her secret Xmas stash in her bedroom, and takes the opportunity for a good look round, reassuring himself that it’s only the writer observing what the room tells him about her character. As if.
And Bill is nursing a secret with regard to his writerly ambitions, for he has submitted a book of poems to a London-based publisher who is always open to new writers…
This initial phase leads to an invitation from Mrs Melbury for Penny and her father to come to Beckfoot for Xmas. It’s out of character for Mr Morchard to agree to go away from home at all, but it is Bill who silently recognises his concern for Penny and his willingness to disrupt his own preferences to provide her with some joy. And it leads to one of the most delightful scenes in the entire series when Bill, playing Father Christmas and distributing gifts to everybody’s stockings, gets trapped in his sister’s bedroom as the two girls wickedly start a conversation pretending no-one else is there, forcing him to remain hidden at the foot of their bed. His revenge is subtle.
And Xmas Day is signified by a letter from London, offering Bill his dream of publication. Subject, that is, to his paying £100 to defray printing costs…
You and I and we, not to mention Mrs Melbury and Mr Morchard, instantly recognise it for what it is: a scam (one that the young Trease fell for, in real life). But Bill, who is still only a Lower Fifth schoolboy, facing the gratification of a dream with which I can identify absolutely wants to take the chance, before it may be withdrawn.
In this, Penny is his biggest booster, spreading the word around and securing Bill’s fame amongst everyone. And she plays an even more important role, once Mr Morchard’s friend in publishing gently but thoroughly explodes Bill’s naivete, by clearing the way for him, so that nobody compounds his embarrassment.
This is even more impressive from the girl who cannot always conceal her own bitterness at the denial of her own dreams. Bill has his writing, Sue her future as a farmer’s wife (and we already know who will be her partner), Tim his Police career. But she’s the girl with the most natural ability amongst all of them, and her path has been pretty comprehensively barred to her.
All of these pieces go together to create the springboard for the book. The freezing winter has made Black Banner Tarn a popular place for ice-skating, sledging and even some nascent skiing. Penny can’t do any of these either, but she can plant an idea that will be fun of itself and also be the thin end of a wedge that might just get that future Romeo and Juliet to become a joint production.
Penny’s notion is an impromptu show for Twelfth Night, boys and girls from both schools coming together of their own volition to do a show.
Everyone gets involved: Penny directs, Tim is lighting and electrics, Sue Wardrobe Mistress, and Bill’s recent shame is overcome when Penny quite easily talks him into writing a revue. It’s a success, and fun for everyone and in seeking a way to make it go on, Penny comes up with the ingenious idea of the Black Banner Players, that is, a mini-troupe of those enthusiasts, putting on shows in the local villages and hamlets, where entertainment is hard to come by.
The first ‘engagement’ is in Gowderdale, across the ridge on the other side of Black Banner Tarn, in the Village Hall. Miss Florey attends, to witness proceedings, and to give our four principals a lift home afterwards, though that plan is thrown into disarray by torrential rain that sends the beck flooding over the bridge.
There are, before this, two big surprises, one each of unpleasant and pleasant. The first comes when Bill recognises a member of the Gowderdale audience as the woman from Mr Morchard’s shop, whose name transpires to be Gloria Minworth. The other consists of Mr and Mrs Drake, two elderly actors of the old school, who’ve loved every minute of the show. They invite our friends, with Miss Florey, back to their cottage, where they obviously live in deep poverty, though they’re both spry and happy, and provide hospitality to the benighted travellers.
In the morning, Bill is shocked to find their nearest neighbour, in the cottage opposite, is Miss Minworth.
Trease now develops two interweaving storylines, both with Bill at their centre, both relating to his writing.
On the one hand, which he’s determined to keep to himself after his experience in publishing, Bill has sent a short story to the BBC Children’s Department for consideration on Children’s Hour. The response, from Celia Bridgewater, North-West Organiser, states frankly that it’s too long, but invites him to the BBC’s Castle Eden studios to discuss the matter further. Bill, once bitten, many time shy, is dubious until the other side of the story makes a trip to Castle Eden, and its much better-stocked library, an end in itself.
Because the Drakes have been clearing out ancient, historical papers and documents by burning them but Bill, fascinated by history, has bagged them for study. One is written in a code that Tim is getting nowhere cracking until the pair realise is actually an historical form of shorthand.
Bill’s accompanied on the train by Penny, looking at her most attractive, meeting her Manchester aunt to go clothes shopping, or so she says. There’s no-one he’s more likely to confide in, but he’s only prepared to talk about the library trip. Still, the thought of being seen, and assumed to be with Penny is pleasing, for now.
And the trip is successful in more respects than one. Bill comes back with the key to translate the journal, which he will soon realise is a pungent, elegant account of life in Cumberland during the Jacobite Rebellion, and full of publishable interest. And Celia Bridgewater has encouraged him to turn his story into a radio play, and given him several very practical pointers on how to do so. Though Bill, being Bill and unable to help himself, fears he’s blotted his copybook by suggesting an actress to play one of the roles: Penny, of course.
It is therefore all the more crushing to find, on the return to the station, Penny laughing and joking with a handsome young man from a Castle Eden school, who looks nothing like a Manchester clothes-shopping aunt!
Even more so than in Under Black Banner, Bill is gripped by the green-eyed monster. His mother tries to reasonably point this out, including the fact that Bill wasn’t being honest with Penny over his reasons for travelling, but even this doesn’t make him realise what’s going on inside himself.
Time and preoccupation – with school, with the tea garden, with the Black Banner Players and a new resolution to work hard for the Oxford Scholarship Kingsford believes him capable of – forces Bill to put his upset at Penny out of mind, especially as, when he finally gets round to translating the Jonathan Ashton Journal, he realises its significance. And if it could indeed be published, and provide even a little income for the Drakes, that could make a big difference to their lives. Everything looks possible – until the Journal goes missing!
Bill is convinced it’s been stolen, and by Gloria Minworth, an opinion Tim echoes, and one the Drakes would like to share if only Miss Minworth hadn’t got a watertight alibi: she was staying in a different village on the night of the ‘theft’. But Bill remains suspicious, especially as the self-centred Gloria has now been unveiled as a writer herself. Tim steps up to the plate, and with Bill as his Watson, quickly establishes that Miss Minworth’s ‘alibi’ is by no means unshakeable.
With Penny added to the mix, and the Drakes deploying their old skills, a trap is laid, the word dropped of another notebook, containing the key, and with all the gang bar Sue lying in wait, Gloria walks straight into it.
In a funny way, Bill relates to her more when she says it wasn’t just the money, but they wouldn’t understand. He does. It’s the boost to the literary reputation that she wanted, as much as anything. Instead, that goes to him, as translator and, but for his youth, editor of the book. Despite all the Drakes’ efforts, he refuses any share of the proceeds, but he does accept becoming their heir in the copyright, after they have gone. It’s a fitting reward for his literary efforts, and his honesty and faithfulness.
And besides, Bill has a double reward all of his own. The BBC commission his play and, what’s better, even before he can recommend his loyal friend, Penny is commissioned to act in it: her trip to Castle Eden was to audition for Celia Bridgewater, her only realistic prospect of an acting career, and like Bill she wanted to keep it to herself to avoid pity in the event of failure.
Indeed, for a moment there’s trouble brewing, when she thinks she’s only got the part on Bill’s influence, but his delight for her is as much as his for himself. The last night of the Black Banner Players’ first season has come to a glorious conclusion!
Though Trease would use this book as a stepping stone to the fourth in the series, and the Black Banner players would, in effect, be the bridge, the twin successes of Bill and Penny would not lead anywhere. Indeed, though Bill will offhandedly mention difficulties over a second play, and then lead us to assume his school commitments, and that mentioned Scholarship, put the advancement of that career into suspension, the only other reference to Penny’s radio acting is a lament that even this becomes impossible, once television begins to dominate.
But the next Bannermere book would leave West Cumberland behind, and take our gang of friends sur le continent.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e09 – Statistical Probabilities

The Enhanceds

I was all set to dislike this episode, a combination of feeling under par from a cold that’s come back after I thought I’d finally shifted it, and another of those occasional bouts of burn-out I get (I am never going to tackle a project of this length again). And for the first few minutes, one of the guest stars was well on the road to being even more irritating that Quark at his Quarkiest.

But the episode turned itself around, and turned me around, and I ended up enjoying it, even though I felt it bottled its message in order to give itself an ending that wasn’t totally depressing.

Basically, this episode feeds off last season’s revelation of Doctor Bashir’s genetically enhanced nature. A quartet of enhanced humans, who cannot pass for normal as he did, and who live in an Institution, are brought to DS9 for therapy with Julian. They’re portrayed as weirdos: Jack (Tim Ransom) is hostile, nervously aggressive, superior but paranoid, Lauren (Hilary Shepherd Turner) is a smouldering sexpot whose always lying down, showing off her long legs in bright red tights, Patrick (Michael Keenan), in his fifties, is a big baby, and Sarina (Faith C. Salie), who never speaks, is practically catatonic.

We’re talking wilful eccentricity here, with Lauren as the slinky cliche and Jack, jumping up and down, talking incessantly, biting his nails, going ‘mm, mm, mm’ ALL THE TIME as the blazing irritant.

But when they watch the broadcast from Cardassia, of Gul Demar’s challenge to the Federation to enter into peace talk, the instant insight the three vocal ones have into his demeanour, unraveling the entire story of his killing of Ziyal down to the relationships of all the parties without an atom of knowledge, impresses Bashir, who wants to see ‘his’ people better integrated and become useful.

The enhanced become a think-tank, analysing the peace talks, uncovering the Dominion’s longer-term plans, becoming incredibly useful and, since they’re actually using their intelligence on something that demands complex thought, growing happier, calmer and less flamboyant. For a given value of flamboyant, that is.

Unfortunately, as they build their analysis further forward, the group comes to the unwelcome conclusion that the Federation cannot win the Dominion War under any circumstances. There will be defeat, on the backs of 900 Billions deaths on both sides, five generations of Dominion occupancy and then, spreading from Earth, a resistance that will unite the entire Alpha Quadrant in a New and greater Foundation, defeating the Dominion and bringing peace for 10,000 years.

Funnily enough,no-one outside the enhanceds, which now incorporates Bashir, is inclined to surrender and let history take its inevitable but incredibly long-distance course. Our good Doctor gets incredibly depressed over the non-enhanceds inability to accept inevitability. But when Jack comes up with a plan to hand the Federation ship movements and strategies over to the Dominion, in the form of Demar and Weyoun, accelerating the defeat and reducing the casualties to a mere 2 Billion (hey, it’s an 898 Billion improvement!), he refuses to let them commit treason.

So Jack belts him in the jaw and knocks him out.

Then comes the bit we have to have but which cuts across the entire point of the story so far. Bashir awakens to find himself tied to a chair with only the fair but silent Sarina for company. Playing on the fact that he can see she worships and adores the volatile Jack, and that if they go down for treason she’ll never see him again, he gets her to untie him (apparently, Sarina would have spoken as she did this but the scene got cut for tine) and the plot is foiled.

The enhanceds are sent back to the institution, but everybody’s all friends before they leave, even the furious Jack.

But the cop out is this, and it’s taken from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (which I read a good forty years ago), which has been the inspiration throughout, and it’s that this kind of future analysis can only predict large scale movements, and it cannot account for the random actions of a single individual. Sarina is the case in point: Jack’s plan to give the information to the Dominion failed because he didn’t/couldn’t predict her actions. Ergo…

I mean, we weren’t going to get out of here without something like that, and the solution is really only a restatement of the old ‘For the want of a nail…’ parable. But after going to such lengths to portray the future as resolved beyond measure, the lone man theory doesn’t really stack up against it. What we’re saying here is that the inevitable interaction of social and political movements can be derailed irretrievably by one person. Well, sure, if you believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted entirely alone…

But it doesn’t wash with me today. So, though I ended up enjoying this episode more than I expected (and found Faith Salie far more attractive than Hilary Shepherd Turner, but then I’ve always been awkward like that), the ending didn’t convince me. No doubt it’s foreshadowing the end of season 7, but I will get there in my own sweet time, providing I don’t burn out, or get this blasted cold too many times before then…

The Infinite Jukebox: Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’

On the Infinite Jukebox, one song often leads to another, especially if you use YouTube in between. The ‘la-la-las’ of Stevie Wonder led me to the ‘la-la-las’ of Amen Corner, which is another example of that lovely Sixties song enthralled by the ecstacy of pure love.

Amen Corner were a Welsh seven piece – vocals, guitar, bass, drums, organ and two saxophones – who had six hits from seven singles between 1967 and 1969, when they broke up. They were the perfect example of the band signed because of their quality and growing popularity, only to find themselves pressed to abandon the kind of music they’d formed to play in favour of a more commercial sound.

Amen Corner had two very bluesy hits in 1967, reaching nos 12 and 24 respectively, before bowing to pressure and recording a cover of The American Breed’s ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’, in a much rougher, aggressive manner that gave them a big hit and made lead singer Andy Fairweather Low into one of the pretty boy pop pin-ups of the late Sixties, alongside The Herd’s Peter Frampton and The Love Affair’s Steve Ellis. They had another top ten success with the pounding ‘High in the Sky’, before leaving Deram for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, and scoring two more top 10 hits in 1969. The band ended on an unsuccessful cover of ‘Get Back’ (a strange choice given that the song had already spent six weeks at no. 1 that year from The Beatles.)

The first of those two 1969 hits was ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’. It was an immediate (pun) success, charting at no 19 in its first week and going straight to no 1 in its second. It’s the lightest and least typical song Amen Corner recorded, the most commercial, and it’s an instant dream.

It’s about love, and like ‘My Cherie Amour’, it’s that love that is never spoiled by having to deal with the realities of sex.

Fairweather Low lays it out immediately. If Paradise, he says, is half as nice as heaven that you take me to, then who needs Paradise? he’d rather have her. It’s a simple, but heartfelt statement, and the song needs and asks no more. It’s the same idealisation, the same wish dream. A look from her eyes, the touch of her hand, these are all that he needs to send him into an ecstacy.

But like Wonder, Fairweather Low has already said clearly what the song means in the chanted ‘la-la-las’ that introduce it, the band in chorus, overlaid by Fairweather Low’s distinctive teenage falsetto yelp. But where Wonder was wistful and yearning, his love a Goddess glimpsed from afar, never to be touched, Amen Corner are singing with joy and celebration, the ‘la-la-las’ a cry of ecstacy going beyond mere words.

And the music lifts that up. The intro is underpinned by acoustic guitar and unobtrusive rhythm, with the organ joining in and the two saxes blowing a simple riff as Fairweather Low’s voice soars alone into the words. And the band holds itself in, respecting the lightness of the song. They’re solid, and the saxes riff beautifully in the limited role they’re given, but this is about the voice.

And where Wonder lives, breathes and dreams a woman he has never met nor ever will, Fairweather Low’s vision is a real woman, she is in his life, and whilst she’s still on the same pedestal that Wonder erects, he’s within her notice: she sees him, she’ll touch him (probably only his sleeve).

But it’s what he wants, and all he needs. When he sings about Paradise being half as nice as being with her, he’s not speculating, he’s convinced that it will be, that nothing else can compare with the nearness of her. And the song soars, and the band repeat with him those words-that-aren’t-words, and we soar with them.


The video above shows Amen Corner performing this song in 1969. Whilst browsing YouTube, I found the video below. The guy on stage, the old man in the three-piece suit, with the glasses, all but bald, with a fringe of near-invisible hair round the back of his head, doesn’t look like she should be anywhere near a stage. You would look at him for a long time before you took him for a rock or pop star. But he’s Andy Fairweather Low, and he’s going to sing ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’, and the band aren’t going to reinforce his voice, it’s all going to be softer, and slower, without the energy, but after so many years, the idea of being there to hear that song sung again, to be uplifted by it and to be reminded of how once we could think of love, brought tears to my eyes of envy for those who did experience this. Listen and weep for what we once were.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pandora By Holly Hollander

Gene Wolfe’s second novel of 1990 was probably the least characteristic book he has ever written, if that can be said of a writer with the chameleon-like quality of changing style and subject so frequently. On the surface, Pandora, By Holly Hollander appears to be what we would now call a YA story, a murder mystery related by a bright, bubbly seventeen year old girl. The title, invoking Pandora’s Box – a key element in the murder – hints that underneath the Illinois mainstream of the setting is a world of mystery, fantasy and confusion.
But what’s on the surface is all that this book contains. Even though the ‘detective’ in the story is, highly implausibly, named Aladdin Blue, Wolfe produces no genies. Blue, and Pandora are false trails, or they are trails so obscure and subtle that no-one in nearly thirty years had discovered a hint of where they lead.
What Pandora is about is a gentle spoof of Nancy Drew, in the voice of a teenage girl (carried off, for the most part successfully), who assists the ‘detective’ to solve a violent and brutal crime. Holly is chatty, bright but unfocussed, and plays a large part in exposing the real killer, at her own expense, though this latter aspect is something that is largely overshadowed by Holly’s relentless cheerfulness.
Holly is the only child of Harry and Elaine, the latter a very attractive woman much younger than her husband, the Chief Executive of a very successful locksmiths business in Barton, 65 miles from Chicago (though Harry is a 48% minority shareholder who runs the company in trust for his older brother Bert, who is in an asylum after killing his wife). As chairwoman of the local Social Committee for this year’s fair, Elaine has procured a Pandora’s Box, a locked, antique box with something in it, for raffling off. The box will be publicly opened by Vietnam vet and locksmith, Larry Lief, brother to Holly’s best friend, Megan, and lover to Elaine.
The ceremony is marred when a bomb goes off, killing Larry and a couple of innocent bystanders, injuring hundreds, including Holly, who is left on crutches for the rest of the story, just as Aladdin Blue walks with a cane (characteristically, the majority of Wolfe’s heroes wind up lame, a thematic note echoing Wolfe’s own limp from a childhood brush with polio). Uncle Bert, who’s already escaped) is found shot outside the hospital where she’s been taken, the following day.
The Police connect the deaths of Larry and Uncle Bert and come up with a strong case pointing the finger at Holly’s Dad. Blue persuades a second person to confess, setting out an equally strong and convincing explanation, but this is a blind to tempt the real culprit out into the open to claim to have additional information turning the crime back onto Harry Hollander. The real killer, if we can be certain of that, given our residual suspicion that Wolfe has at least another three arms up his sleeve, is Elaine, plotting too get her hands on the Hollander fortune.
The outcome is that, as soon as Holly is fit, she moves out to go live with Blue, his two housemates Muddy and Tick, at a dilapidated old house way out in the woods, where everyone lives in poverty. Elaine faces trial, Harry’s left Illinois and is dating an even younger woman, only a couple of years older than Holly, and can’t even remember Holly’s birthday. Meanwhile, her friendship with Megan has been broken, Larry’s wife Molly has lost her husband, in two ways, and even Blue has let down a woman, an ex-girlfriend who wants him back but in whom he’s not interested.
That’s what I mean about the personal cost to Holly that her manner draws a blanket over. I mean, there’s not a lot nice happens to women in this book. There’s even a breach with Holly’s other best friend, Les, with whom she goes to live for a time before coming to Blue’s: Les is a shadowy figure, never given a description, not allowed a line, even in the one scene where she’s present in the flesh and indeed only once referred to as a girl.
Now Holly is seventeen, a teenage girl who would normally be in something of a hormonal state. She’s not unattractive, but she doesn’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t seem to be interested in a boyfriend, has no sexual thoughts except for the odd ‘swooniness’ about remote male figures on TV but is a constant commentator about other women’s bodies, especially her own mother, who has ‘creamy big ones’.
Except that Holly never describes Les, which can be short for Leslie (male), or Lesley (female) but can also be short for Lesbian.
So I’m beginning to wonder at how all these pieces seem to point in one particular direction, and how Gene Wolfe is a writer who buries things with very oblique pointers and leaves us to ferret them out ourselves.
Then there’s the structure of the story. Other critics have set the events of the book in the early Eighties, though it wasn’t published until 1990. Holly herself, in her foreword, claims that this is not a historical story (now, why would she say that?) though it has taken a year to get published, and she’s had to have the help of a professional writer to lick it into shape, which immediately places Wolfe in the same position of ‘translator’ as he has been for ‘The Book of the New Sun’ and the ‘Soldier’ books.
That imposes a degree of artificiality on what Holly is saying and doing. Her youth and general naivete makes her the traditional Wolfean Unreliable Narrator to begin with, but to know that what we’re reading has been reshaped by Wolfe himself casts doubt on everything.
After that, how can we see Aladdin Blue – that name is so off – as anything but Wolfe himself? After all, he provides the answers, in a comprehensive manner that typifies the Wolfean Analytical Man, who will recur, over and over, forging theories from disparate and seemingly disconnected facts.
And Blue has two live-in friends whose presence is simply presented, with no explanation of how they come to know him or to be pat of his menage, neither do they play any part in the story. Nor do they have real names either. Now presumably they do have names, John Hancocks, but to us they are Muddy and Tick. Muddy cooks, procures food, smokes dope. Tick is fat but doesn’t eat much.
Once again there is this sense that Wolfe is providing us with something symbolic that we’re just not seeing. Or is it all a giant sham? Are we being teased into looking for something on another level that really isn’t there, in a book that really is what it seems, when all the writer is doing is to create a colossal spoof on us?
I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Finally, and this is probably another aspect of the joke, Pandora By Holly Hollander reads like the first book in a series that never existed. It introduces the characters, it creates a set-up, it is the left hand book on a ghost shelf of Holly Hollander Mystery Books, Starring Aladdin Blue. And it’s a one-off that was never intended to be more than this one story.
People don’t tend to take much notice of Pandora By Holly Hollander. Maybe they should start to look into it a lot deeper.

The Infinite Jukebox: Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’

There was a gentle argument going on behind me at work, early in the afternoon, about music. Both the guys involved are less than half my age, but one of them was saying, “What’s wrong with Motown?” I interjected to state that, depending on which year you select as your cut-off point, there is nothing wrong with Motown.

A couple of minutes later, the argument had narrowed to Stevie Wonder. Listening in, the one further away was specifying two songs in particular that he hated, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’, and ‘I just called to say I love you.’

Once again, I butted in to say that whilst I agreed absolutely on the latter of these two, the Stevie Wonder song that does all the business and then some, is ‘My Cherie Amour’. They looked at me in some bemusement, as if they knew nothing about the song.

How can anyone not know this song?

At work, YouTube is accessible but inadvisable, except during breaks. But I found myself singing the song very softly under my breath, and looking up the lyrics to refresh my uncertain memory. But I didn’t need any memory for that sweeping introduction, those eager la-la-las, establishing both the melody and a sense of yearning that sweeps through the song.

There’s a girl, Stevie’s cherie amour. His burst into French, the language of romance, establishes that his feelings are on an ethereal plane. He doesn’t know her, he’s never met her, never spoken to her, but he sees her and because he sees her, he loves her.

She’s a beautiful girl, and he worships her appearance. But she never notices him. She’s lovely as a summer’s day, but she’s also distant as the Milky Way. He’s been near her, in public, but she’s never noticed him. His dream, his hope, is that someday, she will see him, how can she not realise he is there, surely she will someday pick him out of the crowd, and choose him to share the world she inhabits.

This song is fifty years old, though it sounds like a fraction of that time, if any, has passed. Wonder sings lyrically, and purely. he’s never spoken to her, and it seems that he never can or will, unless she picks him out. There could be thousands of reasons for his inability to speak, for the distance between them that he, alone, can never bridge.

But Wonder’s singing is that of a man in a dream. And dreams can be spoiled by being brought into the real world. She may be a bitch when he meets her, she may reject him on sight. He doesn’t know, nor will he ever know, for she is an ideal and he will keep her as an ideal, never to be touched, never to be kissed or held, unless she chooses him in the same way he’s chosen her, by sight and insight.

All of this is informed by the song. Fifty years on, it wouldn’t be possible. Wonder would be thought of as a creep, or maybe a danger. Here, he’s a lovestruck dreamer, and she’s his dream. It’s that Sixties innocence once more. Nothing more is needed than that, someday, he shares the little, distant cloud she occupies.

All of this we hear in the song, but it’s there in those wistful ‘la-la-la’s that introduce the music for us to understand before even a word is sung. They’re our passport into the fantasy, into the soul of ourselves and our wish to find someone to worship. Stevie Wonder tapped into that, and he sang it from the heart, and we hear it that way every time we hear it.

No, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Motown!


Film 2018: Airplane!

Something simple for a working Sunday, like I said.

Airplane! was the third film by the writer director team of Jerry Abrahams, David and Jerry Drucker, and probably their biggest hit. It was a spoof of disaster movies in general – a biiiig fad in the mid/late-Seventies – and of the Airport franchise in particular, these being a justly forgotten series of films featuring an entire soap opera of personal stories set in an airport experiencing a disaster.

Airplane! made a star again of Leslie Neilson for the rest of his life, playing the straight funny man who was always more serious than his role even as everything was collapsing around him, and usually because of him. And it was a key film in the throw-a-lot-of-jokes-at-the-wall-and-don’t-wait-to-see-if-any-of-them-stick genre.

I’d first heard of the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker combo through Barry Norman’s championing of their low budget, brilliantly raucous and extremely silly first film, The Kentucky Fried Movie (later this year) in 1978, though the script for Airplane! was an earlier effort, based very directly on the 1957 film Zero Hour! I’ve never (knowingly) seen that film, and I know from experience that films like Arplane! are so much funnier when you’re familiar with what’s being parodied and can see how exact the joke is,

But you don’t really need that much knowledge to get along. The film throws everything at you and doesn’t wait. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges play no-nonsense characters, Stack in particular playing his image whilst Bridges sends his up to a greater extent, and there are cameos all over.

The story is simple: passengers on a flight from LA to Chicago are badly affected by food-poisoning, including all the crew. A substitute pilot is needed to land the plane and this is Ted Stryker (Robert Hays, a newcomer). Ted was a fighter pilot in the War but is traumatised by his experiences: he’s only on the plane as it is because he’s pursuing his stewardess girlfriend, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) after she has decided to leave him. Once he gets the plane down safely, it rekindles their love.

But who needs a story? It’s only a framework on which to overload all sorts of absurd jokes: puns, sight gags, gross outs, deadpan, extreme bad taste, you name it, Airplane! has it somewhere.

And it also has the semi-legendary Leslie Neilson exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious? I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” that’s used judiciously in the film and is always warmly familiar.

I haven’t watched this in ages, and I enjoyed it still, but it’s starting to feel a little sluggish now, as the pace of comedy has accelerated in the past couple of decades, and the Saturday Night Fever scene has dated seriously now, and is much too long.

But it’s simply funny, and it’ll stay funny for a long time yet. I’d rather re-watch it immediately than go to work…


In the shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Under Black Banner’

Second books get to go straight on with the story. We know who everyone is, how they get on with each other and where they are. So Geoffrey Trease can start Under Black Banner in the middle of things, and a very ordinary thing it is for the Lake District if something new for Bill Melbury and Co: our little band have set out to climb Black Banner for the first time, except they’re lost in thick and cold cloud.
This expedition, and its unexpected outcome, will have consequences that echo throughout the entire book, whose theme is at one at the same time peculiar to its time and universal in application. But it allows Trease the opportunity to repeat his approach in No Boats on Bannermere, of a long, gentle lead-in to that part which constitutes the plot. Where we had scene-setting, now we have slice of life: Bill, Sue, Penny and Tim, Sports Day and RTC exercises, the days and weekends of their quiet friendship, and the slow revelation of the first worm in that apple.
Under the direction of Tim, the experienced walker, the children descend safely, but on the far side of the mountain, into a deserted side-valley, where they discover a small group of dilapidated buildings around a small tarn. There’s barbed wire, there’s something buried that blows up, more flashily than dangerously, when Penny treads on it, and there’s someone else about, who’s left a Grammar School text-book behind.
The friends survive the night with the aid of the mystery person’s fire and the blankets he’s left, but it’s not until they’re heading for home on Sunday, and are caught up with by a Search Party including Mr Tyler, that they learn the full story about the decaying place they’ve been: that it was working farmland until the recent War began, whereupon it was seized for War-training grounds. Now, it’s no use to anyone, and getting steadily more so each year, but the Ministry of Defence won’t give it back.
To Penny, who is a town-girl, it’s a curiosity and no more. To Tim and Bill it’s a challenge: Tim the Detective believes he can find out just who camps there, and after Penny’s love of devilment leads her to propose a challenge, Bill acts as her champion (of course he will) to beat Tim to it. Only to Sue, the town-bred girl who has already discovered a love of farms and farming, already framing her future, is this a terrible tragedy.
Because Bill has had the luck to discover a clue Tim hasn’t seen, he gets the answer first, in Johnny Nelson, of the Upper Fifth: farmer’s son, Captain of Sports for Bill and Tim’s hapless house at school and Victor Ludorum at the Sports Day, leading Brownrigg’s House into an unexpected second. He’s also attracted the attention of Susan Melbury, despite her being at least two years younger than him, and as the book goes on, it seems the attraction is mutual.
Not so Penny. Our beauty has seen Nelson’s main rival, the favourite for the Victor Ludorum, the wavy-yellow-haired, Greek God-like Ian Seymour, and has come all over unnecessary.
But this doesn’t have any effect just yet. Bill’s identified Nelson and, as chance has it, an explanation of why he has such an affinity for the steadily more ruinous buildings at Black Banner Tarn: the farm belonged to his father, it was Nelson’s childhood home and, if only the MoD would give it back, Johnny – already in unconscious agreement with Sue – believes it can be successfully worked using modern methods.
All this happens in gentle stages throughout the business of school-life, with Bill time and again assuming the story has come to an end. But it hasn’t, and our quartet are the catalyst for it going the whole distance.
It’s Bill’s inspiration, as the quartet go swimming, looking across Bannermere to the Hall, and recalling the excitement of the previous summer. Sue feels the situation as almost a personal loss, but Bill’s love of fairness and justice, inspired by an impromptu History lesson from Kingsford, touching upon his Aunt the Suffragette, leads him to suggest a campaign to publicly pressure the Ministry to restore Black Banner Tarn to its owners.
Everyone agrees. Tim takes methodical charge of making sure everybody wants to go back or, in the case of the former owner of the ‘Hall’, would agree to profit from its sale if she got it back. That established, the scheme is a letter-writing campaign to the Winthwaite Advertiser, kicked off by Bill (aka ‘Citizen’), to be followed by Penny, Tim and Sue in successive weeks. Bill’s letter duly appears. The ever-more approachable Johnny invites the friends up for a fishing expedition on Saturday, the day of the next issue, though Penny seems to be cutting it fine about her letter, and she misses the invitation, without explanation. And when Tim brings the Advertiser with him, there is no letter from Miss Morchard.
But there are others. One, entirely expected, from Kingsford himself, in blazing support. And another, entirely unexpected, from ‘Citizen’s old enemy, Sir Alfred Askew, also supporting the return of the land. And whilst the trio and Johnny are polishing off the fish caught in the Tarn, there’s a surprise visit from the Army, spurred into a report by this new public fuss. And Bill gets close enough to eavesdrop and learn that the Army don’t think they have any grounds to resist!
However, despite the success of the afternoon on both counts, what matters most to Bill is Penny’s defection. Cycling back, the party has been overtaken by a speeding car, driven by Seymour, with a girl in the passenger seat. Bill doesn’t see who it is, but from Sue’s reaction, he recognises her. Though he pours out his anger on her letting the Campaign, and the little group of friends down, it’s obvious to all the readers that it is his personal hurt, and his jealousy, that lies beneath everything. Sue, herself distressed at being distanced from her best friend, and having in her own mind her attraction towards Johnny, is not overtly aware, but Mrs Melbury knows exactly what’s in her son’s head, even if he’s the last person to guess, and she has to advise him in a way that will keep him from making too much of a fool of himself, whilst not revealing the truth to him before he can discover it for himself (boy, is she going to have to keep her mouth shut a long time!)
With Kingsford so plainly on the same side, Bill outs himself to his Headmaster, to the latter’s approval. But the unexpected support of the egregious Sir Alfred throws in a bit of a twist. Letters to Kingsford and ‘Citizen’ advertise a Public Meeting, but they’re about the only thing that do. The wrong venue, no publicity, no invitations to the organisations relevant, a Friday night slot, oh yes, and obvious cronies a bit too quick to propose Sir Alfred to chair both meeting and a low-key, word in the ear of the right person in the Corridors of Power campaign, why, it’s almost as if Sir Alfred wants to hijack the matter for his own advantage.
But you should never try to pull the wool over the eyes of a man who has educated practically every responsible adult male in West Cumberland, and who can call on Old Boys everywhere. Such as in the Forestry Commission, to whom Sir Alfred wants to sell an unwanted, useless tract of land that is only viable if the Commission can simultaneously buy Black Banner Tarn and the land around it…
Exit Sir Alfred. It’s a token appearance as the resident villain, and as the series matures in scope and intention, Trease finds no more use for his somewhat cartoonish opponent.
It still brings nobody any nearer to the goal of persuading the Ministry, who are employing the Civil Service trick of putting their heads down, doing nothing, and waiting for the campaigners to run out of steam. We assume Tim and Sue write their letters in due course, though Bill tells us nothing more about this side. Penny remains absent, and Bill feels that keenly without saying anything about it.
Everything is petering out for want of another step to take, until Bill solves both problems.
Both Schools, plus local rivals St Edwards, are on a joint trip to London, to the International Exhibition (the book was published the same year as the Festival of Britain), with Penny still attached to Seymour. Bill slips away on the last day, to Parliament, where his long shot of approaching his (future) MP pays dividends. The man, a one-armed Army veteran, responds positively, and his help will tip the balance in favour of a not-long-delayed successful outcome, and the restoration of the farm to Nelson’s father at long last.
Better yet, heading back to Euston, Bill finds Penny, lost, frightened, alone, being ignored. She and Seymour had also slipped off, to go to the Theatre, but where Penny wanted – and went and watched – Shakespeare (what else, but Romeo and Juliet?), Seymour wanted a variety show, and went off with some other girl to a tea-dance, with a cruel parting shot at Penny for the limp that prevents her dancing.
Bill, who knows London, becomes what he most wants to be to Penny, her White Knight, getting her back safe, in time, and almost unnoticed (nothing goes unnoticed by Miss Florey but whilst Penny never reveals her Monday morning interview with her Head, she never again allows anyone to say a word against her). The sudden comradeship restores the old easiness between the pair, and Bill can finally learn that he misjudged Penny: she wrote her letter alright but, against missives from Kingsford and Sir Alfred, was simply left out!
So all’s well that ends well, and with no more than the necessary trace of sentimentality. The MoD releases the land. Mr Nelson takes Johnny up there to immediately start planning, though the scale of the restoration is daunting. Kingsford takes Bill and Tim, who deserve to see: besides, he has hopes of his proposal to the Education Committee that they buy the ‘Hall’, to become an Outward Bound Centre and adjunct to the Grammar.
It’s all the more comical, as well as fitting, that Miss Florey then turns up with Sue and Penny, on the same grounds: for once, it is not of her doing, but the Education Committee will not stump up to buy the building for the benefit of only one School…
And in a manner that would not be believable in this modern and improved age, yet which was entirely in keeping with the world of 1951, as life was being rebuilt after the War, restoring the buildings and the grounds and the farmlands becomes a Summer School Project, for the Grammar boys and the Secondary High girls.
The book ends gently with Penny once more fully back in the fold, and happy for it, protecting her best friend from the teasing of a big brother who has noticed the sudden change of address from ‘Nelson’ to ‘Johnny’…
Under Black Banner is an archaic book, with a subject that is alien to the world in which we live. Outside of Northumberland, where this was still a living issue when the book was republished by GirlsGoneBy in 2005, and may still be to this day, for someone to remember that such things existed, they have to be at least of my generation, and this book is four years older than I am.
But in its theme, of the different priorities between Government and people, and in its depiction of a believably successful campaign to benefit the latter, it is timeless, and even more important in the present day. And in basing itself upon the principle of Justice, and fairness, not individual benefit and greed, we need it more than ever.
This is the only one of the Bannermere books I read as a kid. All I had remembered of it was Penny’s supposed defection from her duty to write a letter. It was the only one I read because it was the only one the Library had, but I’m sure I would have read the others if they had not already gone out of print, and they were never offered by Armada. I don’t remember whether I liked it or not, but unless I had been utterly bored by it – and I was already fascinated by the Lake District – I was hooked on series’, and would have wanted to know all there was to know about characters I had read.
What a pity I was denied that chance then, and I owe Jim MacKenzie a great deal of thanks for the inspiration to do so now.