Treme: s02 e07 – Carnival Time

And so we come to a – the? – Mardi Gras episode on Treme, the city and the episode consumed by the famous annual event, the one thing this week’s episode was about, even as far away as New York, where Chef gave Janette the day off and she took one of her housemates to the restaurant for dinner.

In a way, this was a curiously cool episode, interested mostly in seeing ‘Fat Tuesday’ from all kinds of angles and letting the music and the carnival have the stage. In terms or arcs, little was done to take people in the directions they are going, minimal gestures reflecting lives overwhelmed by the moment. LaDonna stays at home, relaxing with a glass. Antoine’s plans to tour a succession of off-book ladies founder on his having to take the boys around.

Colson gets through a one-murder Mardi Gras, and that afterwards and elsewhere. Big Chief Albert leads the Indians with a massive detachment but nevertheless scores. One of Antoine’s band takes it on himself to get Sonny straight and moves him out oystering for the night.

Nelson gets pointed in the direction of the Zulus by Cuncilman Thomas, which further cements him among friends. He scores too, only a lot more explicitly.

Hawley’s invited Annie T to the cajun celebration. Davis has never missed Mardi Gras in his life and the selfish little bastard slithers away to do his own thing, but he redeems himself at the end. Toni and Sofia are going to sprinkle Crei’s ashes in the river, a moving ceremony, except that Sofia sidles off and goes drinking whilst Toni, after a tearful farewell, gets increasingly frantic. The little girl winds up getting drunk, getting hit on by someone a hell of a lot bigger and older in the same bar as Davis… and Annie gets back to find her asleep on the floor in a tartan bra, but that’s only because she threw up on her shirt whilst Davis was getting her home.

He didn’t even go hunting for her phone because he wasn’t putting his hand inside her jeans. Toni’s relief is palpable but it’s compounded by the misery of realising Sofia knows her Dad killed himself, and there’s a lot of helping needs doing.

Carnival Time. But interludes are only interludes, and aftermaths still come.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Nightside the Long Sun’

Within the Whorl – whose lands are on the inside and which is lit by the Long Sun, running down its centre, around which a shade revolves, artificially creating night and day – in the ballpark of a run-down manteion on Sun Street, in a poor quarter of Viron, a young augur, Patera Silk, yellow-haired, devout, receives Enlightment in the middle of a game that resembles basketball.
This does not come from any of the nine Gods of Mainframe – two-headed Pas, his wife, Echidna, their five daughters and two sons – but from The Outsider. Silk is transformed by his experience. And he is tasked with saving the Sun Street manteion, which is under threat of being sold for unpaid taxes.
Silk, aged 23, tall with yellow hair and a habit of drawing small circles on his cheek with his forefinger when thinking, shares the manteion with three sibyls, Mayteras Rose – much of whose human body has been replaced by artificial parts, strict and censorious – Marble – a chem, or wholly artificial person – and Mint – a shy, unassuming, wholly human woman. He has been at Sun Street for only a year since ordination, first as assistant to, then as replacement for old Patera Pike.
It is a time of great heat and prolonged dryness, from which the city is steadily suffering.
His first thought is to make a sacrifice to The Outsider, for which he will need a suitable subject. Different animals are birds are sacred to each to the Nine Gods, but Silk has never before sacrificed to The Outsider. Nor has he any cards or cardbits with which to buy a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he sets off for the Marketplace.
En route, he encounters a rich man being driven in a floater, and persuades him to give up three cards, or face the peril of refusing a God’s requirement. Silk is not aware that he is speaking to Blood, a successful criminal, nor that Blood has already bought the manteion by paying its overdue taxes, and who is on the way to inspect it. Blood, however, knows who Silk is.
After much haggling, Silk buys a black night chough to sacrifice. The bird can talk, in brief, two-syllable bursts and understands what Silk intends. Back at the manteion, unknowing as yet that Blood had made himself known to the sybils as the new owner, Silk prepares for the sacrifice. Like all such manteions, Sun Street has a Sacred Window whose leads and connections need checking and tightening. Silk’s voided cross doubles as a screwdriver and a spanner.
Once upon a time, Gods would appear at Sacred Windows in response to a suitable sacrifice, but this has not happened in Viron for twenty years or so. But Silk’s sacrifice fails. Before he can slit the bird’s throat, it suffers a seizure and goes limp, appearing to have died.
Disturbed by his failure, and now aware of Blood’s purchase, Silk determines on a dangerous and morally dubious course. He proposes to find Blood’s home, invade it, and make Blood, by persuasion if possible but by force if necessary, to assign the manteion back to the Chapter, so that it can continue to be of benefit to the people of that Quarter. In short, he plans to steal the manteion back.
Silk justifies his intentions, to first himself and then to those who would dissuade him, by reference his having been commanded by a God, an by pleading a kind of greater morality based on the needs of the poor people, a greater number. Nevertheless, he continues to doubt his self-assigned mission even as he pursues it determinedly.
Being a complete novice at thievery, Silk seeks out a professional to advise and assist. Maytera Mint, the shyest of the sybils, directs him to Auk, a former student at the manteion, who she had favoured. Auk, now a burly, highly competent man, is found at his usual haunt at the tavern, the Flying Cock, at shadelow, when the light of the Long Sun is hidden from Viron and instead illuminates the cities of the skylands on the opposite side of the Whorl.
Auk agrees to advise Silk, but refuses to get involved on any practical basis. He knows the whereabouts of Blood’s villa and will lead Silk there, but no further. Silk shrives Auk of his recent sins, then has the thief shrive him, placing both in a state of grace. He also obtains a promise from Auk to change his life, giving up thievery.
Silk succeeds in scaling the walls that surround Blood’s grounds and, beyond that, gains access to the roofs of the villa, To get this far he has had to evade vicious genetically-modified horned cats and an armoured talus.
Inside the villa, Blood is hosting a substantial party, his guests including Councillors from Viron’s ruling body, the Ayuntamiento. Strictly, they act illicitly: they are supposed to co-exist with a Caldé, but no new Caldé has been appointed since the death of the last one, twenty years before, nor have any new elections been held.
Whilst on the roof, seeking access, Silk undergoes attack again, this time from a genetically-modified bird. He is seriously wounded by the bird’s beak, but manages to kill the bird.
Entering through a skylight, Silk encounters two young women. The first is the unnaturally thin Mucor, with skull-like features. She claims to be Blood’s daughter and it is quickly apparent that she can possess people. The other is Hyacinth, a beautiful woman who is plainly addicted to drink and drugs: it is equally plain that Hyancinth is a prostitute,there to entertain guests, but Silk is struck by her beauty.
There is a monitor glass in Hyacinth’s room. Silk summons up the Artificial Intelligence that mans it, and attempts to get a warning sent to Auk. Hyacinth makes advances to him. Silk removes a small needler from her possession, but when he refuses to have sex with her, she produces an azoth, whose beam disintegrates anything in its path. To escape, Silk is forced to jump out of the window, fracturing his left ankle, and being captured.
Silk’s ankle is attended by Docftor Crane, Blood’s physician. To speed up the knitting of the bone, Crane applies a leather-like, self-sealing bandage that generates heat. To maintain the heat, Silk must periodically unwrap the bandage and thrash it against a flat surface to restore its kinetic potential. He is then taken before Blood and his main henchman (and lover) Musk, a mostly silent but entirely vicious young man whose sole enthusiasm in life is in hunting birds. Musk holds a deep-lying grudge against Silk, for his having killed Musk’s bird on the roof.
Silk is now wholly at Blood’s mercy, but despite his weak position, indeed with nothing to offer, he succeeds in drawing a bargain that will enable him to buy back the mainteion, albeit for twice what Blood has paid for it: 26,000 cards. He has a month in which to raise a substantial sum towards that total, as a demonstration to Blood that he is not merely a time-waster.
Silk is sent home in Blood’s flier. Crane will come to check Silk’s health that coming afternoon but Blood also requires an exorcism at one of his properties, on Lamp Street, a brothel under the Madameship of Orchid. En route to Sun Street, and passing this house, Silk hears a scream from within, but the driver refuses his pleas to halt.
When Crane arrives, he finds Silk trying to identify a hidden intruder. This turns out to be the night chough, which did not die but merely suffered some form of fit. Having threatened to cut its throat, not to mention damaging its wing poking about with Crane’s stick, Silk finds it hard to gain the trust of Oreb, as he names the bird. Once it does emerge, Crane bandages its wing before taking Silk to Lamp Street for his one o’clock meeting with Blood.
Blood is late, and Silk begins to discuss the exorcism with the Madame, Orchid, a barely awake overweight woman. They are interrupted by a scream: Orpine, one of the girls, is dead, stabbed under the left breast. Silk administers the last rites over the hysterical and blasphemous shouting of the red-headed Chenille.
When he arrives, Blood wants Silk to testify that Orpine’s death was suicide, to conclude the matter without question. Silk refuses, and combines his preparations for the exorcism with questions to establish the truth behind this. Orchid is persuaded to admit that Orpine was her daughter, which enables her to grieve properly. Thus relieved, she asks for a lavish funeral at Sun Street, and gives Silk thousands of cards to pay for this.
Silk identifies Chenille as the killer and elicits her confession. However, Chenille was not in possession of herself, being taken over by Mucus, who is also responsible for all the strange happenings that have prompted the exorcism. As part of the exorcism, he reconnects and retunes a long-disused Sacred Window from when the house was itself a manteion. Before the conclusion of the ceremony the Window is visited by the Goddess Kypris.
She is a beautiful, dark-haired woman and it takes Silk time to identify her. She is not one of the Nine but rather a minor Goddess, of Love, lover of Pas. She twits Silk over his twenty-three years of abstinence and about how Hyacinth, who she possessed the previous night, liked him. She commands the obedient Silk to keep their conversation secret.
The exorcism complete, Silk returns to Sun Street, to find Auk waiting for him. On a wall is chalked the words ‘Silk for Caldé’. Auk wants to know what happened, to advise Silk on the nightside world he has gotten himself mixed up with, and to protect him: these wall-scrawlings could put him in danger.
Indeed, Doctor Crane is currently filing a report to unknown masters outside of Viron on such a subject, and the possibilities of a popular movement in Silk’s favour, based on the ‘miracles’ he is reputed to have wrought.
Silk is still in debate with himself about the comparative moralities of his various courses. In order that he may be taught to defend himself, Auk takes him to meet the elderly one-legged fencing teacher, Master Xiphias, who hops around energetically and speaks in short bursts of excited sentences.
Silk returns to the manteion, tired, his ankle hurting. For a moment, he waits outside, listening to a conversation. He feels himself divided between Patera Silk and nightside Silk, convinced that the latter despises the former. Little more than twenty-four hours have passed since his moment of enlightenment. One of the voices inside sounds familiar: it is his own. Needler in hand, Silk enters.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e06 – Treachery, Faith and the Great River

Someone’s not looking well

After being alert and receptive to the past few episodes, I was once again in a slump today, and couldn’t really get into what was a fairly crucial episode that marks a staging post on the road to the end.

This was a fairly deeply-divided A/B story, with Odo and Weyoun up front in a serious tale and O’Brien and Nog providing back-up on the comic side of the story. Basically, the latter was a repeat of those ‘chain-of-transactions’ stories we’ve seen Nog in before, usually with Jake. Sisko sets the Chief an impossible deadline to acquire a piece of equipment to do repairs, it’s impossible to get through normal channels, so Nog goes all Ferengi on it, bartering here, there and everywhere, until the Chief is convinced it’ll all end in disaster (for him) only for everything to work out at the last minute.

Fun but essentially predictable and lacking in the kind of detail that would demand we admire its ingenuity.

The A story is set up by Odo being drawn to meet a very reliable Cardassian informant who may not have been executed after all. In fact, he has and it is a decoy to enable Weyoun to meet Odo: Weyoun wishes to defect.

That comes as a surprise, and Odo is rightly suspicious, but this is a genuine attempt by Weyoun, except that he’s not the Weyoun we’ve gotten used to. That was Weyoun-5, disintegrated in a suspicious transporter accident a couple of months ago, in respect of which the finger of suspicion is being pointed at Gul Demar, who’s still quaffing k’narr like water (hint, hint).

Odo’s dealing with Weyoun-6, the new clone, only this one thinks the Dominion is dropping one serious bollock in going to War with the Federation. Not only is he defecting with strategic knowledge that could ensure Federation victory, but he also brings the news – confirmed in a brief, shrivel-faced appearance by the Female Changeling – that the Founders are ill, that in fact they are denying.

Weyoun-6 wants Odo to effectively take over and reform the Dominion.

Unfortunately, for everyone except Jeffrey Combs, who’s having fun doubling up, Weyoun-7 has also been activated and this one’s in the true loyalist mould, enough so that he’s prepared to send Jem’Hadar ships to attack and destroy Odo’s runabout, even if that means destroying Odo – a God, remember? – with it.

It’s all very low down and dirty and has to be kept secret, especially from the Female Changeling and the Jem’Hadar, and the only way out is for Weyoun-6 to sacrifice himself by voluntary termination, releasing Odo to go free.

So now the end game starts moving. I know a few more things that are yet to come, the tracks of which are implanted here, and these will become increasingly apparent over the final twenty episode. This was an episode which deserved a better response, but as I say, I’m flat today and unable to give it.


The Infinite Jukebox: Carole King’s ‘It Might As Well Rain until September’

What should I write?
What can I say?
How can I tell you how much I miss you?
The perennial subject of song, of at least 90% of all the songs ever written since words were invented, is love. Love in all its ways, shapes, forms and delusions. It is almost impossible to imagine an angle on love that has not been explored, in whatever degree of eloquence the lyricist can muster.
In 1962, Carole King wrote a song that was simplicity itself. She wrote the melody, her then-husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin wrote the words, and she took their latest creation into a recording studio to record a demo version, just Carole, her voice, her piano, bass and drums, pretty basic. It had been written for Bobby Vee, to be a single, but his management ruled against that, and his version was nothing more than an album track.
So the studio cleaned up the tape, added some backing vocals and strings, released Carole’s version as a single, and it was a massive smash.
I’ve never heard any other version of the song, especially not Bobby Vee’s, but I can’t imagine this from a male perspective. Whatever the origin of the song, to me it has always felt like a woman’s song, a girl’s song, rather. Her boyfriend’s away on that American ritual of summer camp, he won’t be back until school is in again, she can’t see him, and as the song quickly makes it plain, it’s a glorious summer where she is but so what? It’s wasted on her. It’s meaningless. The time until he’s back is lost time, worthless without the one she loves, and so for her it might as well rain every single day from now until that magical, far-distant day he returns.
It’s a simple idea, but Goffin and King, or whichever of then wrote the lyrics, had a moment of genius when the idea came to them. Love’s like that, especially for the young, when it’s completely immersive. Separation, especially for a whole summer, is a wasteland: what good is any of it? In time, you learn to process absence, to develop a way of keeping your life vital and valid when they’re not there, even for extended periods. Older lovers are more distant by nature, especially in an age that emphasises independence, and not the traditional merging of people into one another.
You’ll have to forgive me my age as well in describing this as a woman’s song, for ‘It might as well rain until September’ is one of my genuine musical memories of the Sixties. My mother would have the Light Programme on, pretty much all day, whilst she did her housework and I would play, and some pop songs would creep in among the housewife’s choices, and Carole King and this song are indelibly linked to those days of traditional households that, as a kid, I took for granted. He went away, she stayed at home: there’s still a tiny part of me that thinks of that as natural.
And the sound of the record, the lack of sophistication it displays, the passive nature of the motions within it, and King’s upfront, strong and determined voice all tie it into that time when it would have been a natural assumption, and the reverse an oddity. Maybe that’s why Bobby Vee’s management didn’t want it for a single, eh?
But paradoxically King’s voice, and the sheer strength of it, the energy of the recording that comes from it being a demo, the attack and the rawness all combine to give the record a steel that redeems it from being purely the little woman sitting at home, waiting for her man to come back and make her life worth living again. King turns the negative space of the scenario into something that brims over with the force of her love: it’s as if she is physically imposing her feelings upon the spaces she inhabits, and the pizzicato strings that echo the patter of raindrops reinforces the sense of an elemental change. It might as well rain until September, it will rain until September.
And that’s what love is, in it’s youthfulness and vitality. It makes the world go around and it brings it to a halt, and that’s the same for man, woman, girl and boy. Carole King’s longing for the boy who holds her heart isn’t just a song, or a fancy symbol for how much she misses him, it is a force of nature, and the song captures that in its bold, brash sound as well as those ingeniously simple lyrics.
What should I write?
What can I say?
How can I tell you how much I miss you?…

Film 2018: Chicken Run

What else needs to be said about Chicken Run?

I was amazed to realise that Aardman’s first full-length production (after the Wallace & Gromitt shorts) was as long ago as 2000: what a different world we lived in then! It’s an astounding technical achievement, considering that it’s made in stop-go animation, and I’d call it flawless but for the fact that nothing is ever absolutely perfect, only in all this time I’m yet to see a flaw.

The concept is simple but one of genius. It’s a World War 2 Concentration Camp movie, complete with escape, only instead of British prisoners, it’s a farm in Yorkshire populated by plastiscene chickens who look nothing on earth like chickens. Put like that, it sounds potentially awful, with a high risk of cheapening the experience of the real-life POWs, yet with Nick Parks as its presiding spirit, the whole thing is carried off with a straightfaced realism that only makes the film even funnier.

Respect for the form enables the parodies to be even stronger, a point I’ve made several times now, but which bears repeating for the hard of thinking. The script, and Nick Parks’ ingenuity in creating visuals, wastes no opportunity to cram in clever gags, riffs and references. There are, of course, some overt parodies: Rocky’s late run riffs off Steve McQueen in The Great Escape when he flies over the fence, pedaling furiously on a kid’s tricycle, and Ginger’s already played the Cooler King part, bouncing a sprout off the wall and floor of the coalbin. But over and again, something smart, funny, absurd will just flash by in the background, or a corner of the screen, and you roar with laughter as you recognise it.

The film pulls off a coop  (heh heh, coup, sorry) in snagging Mel Gibson to play Rocky the Rhode Island Red, though he’s surrounded by a host of British voices, mainly female, that you wouldn’t normally expect to do voiceover work. Everybody does a brilliant job, and the aptness of every voice to the plasticene grotesques they portray is a tribute to the casting office as much as it is to the designers. Julia Sawalha is perfect as Ginger, the late Benjamin Whitrow a hoot as Fowler, the farm cockerel and a stick-in-the-mud old-style RAF officer (mascot brigade), and I love Jane Horrocks in anything, let alone her performance as the permanently muddled Babs.

Aardman are even confident enough to throw in a chicken-and-egg argument for the film’s coda, running on into a post-credit scene, which sums up just why Chicken Run is so bloody funny.

The film was another of those, like The Princes Bride, where we saw a clip from it on Barry Norman’s Film 2000 at John M’s house, after an evening at the Crown & Anchor. The bit where Fowler exclaimed ‘The turnip’s bought it!’ had us in fits and cemented the desire in all of us to see it as soon  it was out.

When that happened, I remember asking my professional partner if he was going to see it. he looked at me almost in amazement, and asked why he’d want to see something made up out of plasticene. There are people who can’t see beyond the surface, and who cannot understand the appeal of something that is so obviously ‘not real’. The best thing about Chicken Run is that for eighty minutes it involves you in a story made up out of artificial material designed in a way that no living or natural thing has ever looked, and whilst the implausibility of the characters is itself an essential part of the fun, it brings you into this life and engages you in a story that is literally life and death for those who go through it. You believe in it.

It’s a perfect illustration of the aphorism I coined thirty-odd years ago: the irreducible requirement of fiction is that it must make you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed.

Shall I watch it again?



After Low

I am a devotee of Sir David Low, the New Zealand born political cartoonist who, for me, was the greatest political cartoonist of the Twentieth Century, and that even without the creation of Colonel Blimp.

Cartoonists today who are wise and understand their profession’s history, still call upon Low, to often devastating effect.

The latest is Chris Liddell, in tomorrow’s Observer. First, the original:

then Riddell:

Nice one, Chris.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: The Solar Cycle resumed

Though The Urth of the New Sun had appeared as a single-volume sequel to The Book of the New Sun tetraology, the very completeness of the sweeping story appeared to preclude any further visits to that overwhelmingly distant future of decay and rebirth. So it was both a surprise and a delight too learn that Gene Wolfe was writing ‘another multi-volume series’ set in the same Universe.
As is always the case with Wolfe, beware of assumptions for they will invariably fail to materialise.
The Book of the Long Sun is massively different in all but one aspect, and that is that at its centre it has a Christ-like figure acting, though he doesn’t know it, to save his people and his world. And even then there are very few correspondences between Severian the Lame, and Patera Silk, whether he be what he is at the outset, a young augur at a run-down manteion in a poor part of a dying town or, what he becomes, the Caldé of Viron and the centre of a massive popular revolt. One saves by destroying everything, one saves by expelling his people outwards.
The biggest contrast between the New Sun and the Long Sun, apart from practically everything, is that the first was a first person narrative, by an unreliable narrator, and the second is a third person story, something that is comparatively rare in Wolfe’s work, yet in exactly the same way that Severian’s revelation of his own insight into his true nature at the end of ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’, there is a revelation at the end of ‘Exodus from the Long Sun’ that throws everything the reader has faithfully absorbed into doubt, when the writer of the Long Sun makes himself known.
Don’t mistake an authoritative impersonal narrative voice for authority.
Another major difference is that whereas the entirety of the New Sun is seen through the single, unaware viewpoint of Severian, in the Long Sun Wolfe sustains the viewpoints of dozens of characters, each with their own distinct modes of speech, whether it be a wholly invented and equally convincing Thieves Cant, the drawn out prolocution of a senior religious figure, the repeated emphasis on certain words of another such. Modes of speech, accents, voices, each clear and unmistakable.
It’s difficult, indeed almost impossible, to accept the Long Sun as taking place in the same Universe as the New Sun. There isn’t a moment in which the feel of either series corresponds to the other, in which the sense of what we are reading is in anyway comparable. But there is a link, detectable even in the opening volume, ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, that the perceptive reader can seize upon to draw the two into a single continuity, though I admit I had to have it pointed out to me.
Of the three series that go to make up ‘The Solar Cycle’ – which, let us remember, is a title put forward by Wolfe’s fans, not the lupine master himself – The Book of the Long Sun has always been the least to me. Previously, I promised to summarise as best as I could the four books of the tetraology as with the New Sun. It is trying to hold to that promise that has meant so long a delay in picking up this series of posts. The increasing profusion of characters, the increasing profusion of separate strands, the increasing variation from not only a single, coherent narrative but also a single, coherent narrative plot has not only made that promise untenable for me, but also made the re-reading of each volume a very tedious and unenjoyable process.
I’ve done just as I said, but the result is an unintelligible mess. What will follow will be shorter précis of each volume, and a longer analysis of the series as a whole at the end.
I was introduced to The Book of the Long Sun via a hardback copy of ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, bought in the last phase of my short-lived Book Club commitment. I bought the rest of the story in paperback, lovely themed covers of predominately yellow colouring reflecting the conditions of heat affecting the inhabitants of the Whorl. Completist that I am, I sold my hardback to buy the paperback.
The books came out one a year between 1991 and 1994 and, to the best of my knowledge, were the last of Gene Wolfe’s books to be published in Britain for many years: the only other Wolfe book I am aware of having a UK edition since was the 2009 retrospective, The Best of Gene Wolfe. Thankfully, Waterstones in Manchester had adopted a vigorous policy of importing American SF editions, which kept me going until the era of Amazon and eBay.

On with the show!