The Matter of Asia Biba

There’s a headline in the Guardian today, reporting that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has quashed the death sentence imposed in 2010 upon Asia Biba, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in that she allegedly insulted or disparaged the Prophet Mohammed. The decision is likely to cause deep trouble in Pakistan, where blasphemy is taken ultra-seriously, carries an automatic death sentence and, whilst no-one convicted has actually been executed, the death sentence frequently gets carried out by lynch mobs.

I’m not going to start making caustic comments in my usual manner, because I don’t think anybody needs telling what to think here. This is too serious a subject for levity: the lady herself has been in solitary confinement for eight years – eight years – under the threat of this sentence and there are political parties demanding her death, and the death of the Judges who have taken this situation. You don’t have to be an atheist to find all this horrific. At least, I hope you don’t.

The return of Asia Bibi to the headlines awoke a memory of a short piece I offered to the Guardian at the time her story was in the news. It was considered but rejected by implication (i.e., it never got printed and I didn’t make any money off it). Given what’s happened today, and the piece’s transition from the micro to the macro, I’m giving it here:

“I’m not a stranger to insecurity: that undermining sensation that whatever you say or do, you’ll reveal your ignorance, your inadequacy, your lack of… well, whatever seems important at the time.

But, years ago, I first noticed a form of insecurity that only seems to be growing, despite the fact that it’s based on massive, unalloyed success.

I’d moved to a new branch, done the usual ‘what do you do/what do you watch/what’s your music?’ questions, and slightly flummoxed my new manager by mentioning Shawn Colvin. Her reaction – as soon as she actually heard her first Colvin song – was to start having a dig at me every opportunity, over how Colvin was ‘bloody rubbish’. Then came the fatal moment.

Diana Ross was in town, and my manager was going. What did I think of Diana Ross, then? With some care, I avoided giving her a true but unflattering response and settled for the ameliatory, “She’s not my kind of music, really.” “She’s better than Shawn Colvin!”

After that, it got bad. I endured endless snide remarks, all aimed at one end: getting me to admit Diana Ross was the better artist.

What I couldn’t understand, then or now, was why my manager was so vehement in her efforts. Diana Ross was, and for decades had been, an international star, beloved by millions. She sold out concerts world-wide. Every album she released probably sold more than Shawn Colvin’s entire career. Even at the height of her commercial success, Colvin was, and would stay, a cult artist. And an enthralling one to this day, needless to say.

If you saw it as some kind of contest, Diana Ross had already won. My manager had backed the victor, agreed with the majority. So why did it matter so much to her that one person preferred a nobody? Make no mistake, this wasn’t fanaticism, which we more often see in the young, defending their choices against the most fleeting criticism. I knew insecurity when I saw it.

So, when you follow a mainstream, majorly successful artist, where does the insecurity that keeps you from just enjoying your favourite, that compels you to howl down even the slightest criticism, come from?

Multiple examples of this were seen in response to Alex Petrides’ review of the posthumous Michael Jackson CD. Collectively, it can seem hilarious, but when you read fans proclaiming ‘My life is better for having lived during his era’, the laughter starts to sound hollow. The same fan, asked why no MJ fan seemed able to accept any criticism, replied that he ‘would defend MJ in the same manner (he) would defend a family member, such was (MJ’s) impact on (his) life.’ (He also claimed that MJ made Quincey Jones, which is equally worrying.)

It was the same as the cries of pain from Take That fans responding to Johnny Sharp’s article about Deep And Meaningless Pop Epics. We can all cite similar examples (is life actually worth living when you cross a Robbie Williams fan?)

But whilst it can be amusing to watch fans of the biggest acts clamber over themselves to get a lonely non-believer to take back what he said, that still leaves the question of why they can’t accept less than 100% approval. The religious parallel is immediate, especially given some of the comments of the Michael Jackson fans.

Worrying as it is to think of today’s Pop Idols – even the dead ones – becoming the fount for someone’s spiritual needs, it is equally worrying to recognise the even greater depths of insecurity underpinning religions themselves. The women of Asia Bibi’s village claim that “She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion.” Yet they also demand, “Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” If their religion is superior as they state, why are they afraid of the ‘damage’ one woman can do?

The East is not the only part of the world where superiority hasn’t managed to convince the superior that they are actually so superior after all.

Can we think of a country, not further than an ocean away, which has enjoyed unparalleled military, economic and cultural dominance over the whole planet, for more than half a century, yet acts with childish bafflement and complete incomprehension – shortly followed with anger, outrage and rank bullying – whenever someone so much as smiles, nods and says, ‘very nice, but I think we’d prefer to keep doing it the way we’re used to, thank you.’

And given that this country is going to lose it’s economic supremacy in the foreseeable future, are we entirely comfortable at how it’s going to react?

Would you find Take That fans quite as risible if you knew they were armed, and really, really wanted you to take back what you just said about Gary Barlow?”



Our Sorrow

After mourning the passing of Leicester owner and Chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, I’m back marking the passing of one of our own, a Manchester United man, former Manchester Evening News United correspondent David Meek, aged 88.

Meek became a football writer by accident, pressed into service in emergency, from news and politics, when the MEN’s United correspondent was amongst those killed at Munich. He took to the job, holding the position for 37 years and, what’s more, earning the trust of Alex Ferguson and holding that for 26 years. Meek was never a flashy writer, but he was solid, reliable and faithful to the Club, which makes him one of us and ours. David Meek never betrayed Manchester United, and his favourite moment was a George Best goal.

The Football Pink of Heaven has gained a new correspondent.

Sharing the Sorrow

For practically all of my adult life I’ve been a Manchester United fan, with all that that implies. And the only time I’ve lived outside of Manchester was in Nottingham, a city whose rivalries are with Derby and Leicester. These are where my allegiances are supposed to lie, and where they do lie.

But two football seasons ago, that amazing year of 2015/2016, I appointed myself an honorary Fox, a temporary Leicester City fan, for that year when all the improbable things that never happen any more happened, and Leicester City won the League. Leicester City. The first first-time League winners since, ironically, Nottingham Forest, thirty-eight years before.

It was and still is a brilliant thing, no doubt a complete one-off, but who cares? The point was that it happened, and whilst I could never feel what a lifelong Leicester fan would feel, I could understand it, and be thrilled for them to have that indescribable feeling. It’s created a glow that lasts until now, and will remain. a lifelong soft spot for the team that did the impossible.

I never knew or understood how much of that success was made possible by the Club’s owner, Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Another foreign owner of one of our clubs, yet someone who stood out from the rest by being in it for the football. For the club, and for the City. We should all of us be so blessed.

That I know this now, and know more about the generousness, the philanthropy that Srivaddhanaprabha brought to Leicester City and Leicester, is only because of what happened on Saturday night, when the helicopter carrying him, two assistants and two pilots, crashed shortly after taking off, and killed all five people aboard. It seems that the pilots too were heroes, those kind of heroes who represent what we all could be, managing to keep the helicopter from crashing until they could get to the car park, where no-one else could be injured. In the face of death…

The Guardian has a football cartoonist, David Squires, who produces a cartoon account of the week in football every Tuesday. Though he lives in Australia, Squires is one of the funniest, sharpest and wittiest commentators on this bloated, overblown but still compelling game of ours, and every week, every panel skewers someone, often many people in one panel.

This week’s cartoon is about Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and what he did for and what he meant to Leicester. It isn’t funny, it isn’t cruel, it doesn’t stick anything into anyone. It’s a tribute, and in panel four, he produces a moment of such piercing insight that you wonder at how everyone else who talks about the game and what it can mean so consistently fails to understand what it really all is about. A look on a face, and three words. And he’s right, in the caption too: Looking back now, you find yourself wondering if it ever really happened.

I wanted to pay my own tribute to Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, and the best way I can do that is to link to what David Squires has said and done, and in particular that fourth panel, which says it all, really. Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, you gave them that, and you gave a share in that to people like me, who stood behind the cheering fans, adding our silent and not-so-silent will to your doing the incredible. Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times. You deserved a better fate than this, this cruelty. As Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e20 – The Changing Face of Evil

The destruction…

In some ways, we’re still in the transitionary phase of the Endgame, process and progress but no conclusions. Ezri and Worf return to DS9 to hearty greetings from Doctor Bashir and the Chief, who otherwise spend most of the rest of the episode arguing over the Battle of the Alamo, for which Miles has built an impressive model, to scale. This gives Worf the building blocks for his campaign to keep Ezri from Julian.

Of course sh, having effectively deserted her post at the beginning of this sequence, is in for a bollocking from Sisko, which she clearly anticipates. This we don’t get to see, if it ever happened, because Sisko is more concerned for information, on the mysterious Breen, and upon why the hell Damar rescued the pair?

But we start learning that the Breen are certainly effective, militarily, as they attack Starfleet HQ on Earth, and start winning back the Kontaran system, the Federation’s only foothold in Dominion territory. Which leads to massive shock number 1.

Other things are going on. In a minor key, Sisko, very condescendingly, gets Kasidy taken off the active list for freight runs, just in case the Breen pop up out of nowhere. It’s all in a good cause but Kasidy resents the living hell out of it and quite rightly. Sisko is being very twenty-first century Republican about it, running the little lady’s life for her, bless her pretty little head. He does back down, but accompanies it with flowers and a necklace, no doubt found by rummaging in the Cliche Drawer.

In a major key, Kai Winn is nudged by Dukat towards consulting the forbidden book about the Pah-Wraiths, the Costa Mogen. Louise Fletcher shows the Kai’s fears as she’s gradually nudged further and further into blasphemy, withDukat behind her every step of the way, nudging and prodding.

The Kai’s servant, Sobor, is disapproving, though that only rankles the Kai into imperiousness, to the point where Sobor takes matters into his own hands. He denounces ‘Anjol’ the farmer as an imposter: the real Anjol died in a Labour Camp. Winn is shocked and horrified. Even more so when Sobor reveals that he has secured a DNA sample which has been tested.  Not only does it confirm that ‘Anjol’ is not Bajoran, rather Cardassian, but that he is actually Gul Dukat.

The Kai’s horror increases, fuelled by the fact that he has put his X into her Y. She revolts disgustedly, plans to burn the Costa Mogen, which is a book of blank pages, it’s words hidden by some key that’s yet to be unlocked. Winn has a knifethat she’s prepared to stick into Dukat, who’s gone for the approach that it doesn’t matter who he is or how much he’s lied and cheated, he’s doing it for the Pah-Wraiths, and for her power. Somehow or other, the knife the Kai’s grabbed for use on Dukat ends up in Sobor’s back: a Rubicon. And the blood dripping from the knife is the key to the Costa Mogen. The door to Power is open.

But I’ve created a dramatic pause of sufficient length and it’s time to go back to major shock number 1. The Defiant joins the fleet to retake the Kontaran system. It is hit by some energy-draining weapon, left powerless, and is battered. To my surprise, Sisko orders Abandon Ship. The Defiant is destroyed, a step I never expected, and one that, if I had thought they would do this, I would have assumed would be done in the finale, not so long before the end.

There was one other thread I haven’t mentioned, building up through the episode and culminating in not quite so major a shock number 2, reserved for the close. A Quadrant wide broadcast from Gul Demar, or rebellion against Cardassia’s Dominion overlords and an attack on their facilities. In particular, their cloning plant, which Weyoun9 (?) interprets as personal: he could be the last Weyoun…

So: the avalanche begins to move. enough pebbles have been displaced.  Something is coming down the mountain, and the Dominion is in its path. Five more episodes…

Film 2018: The Lovers!

Welcome back to 1972, and not just 1972, but my Manchester of that year, from George Best’s Boutique to a St Ann’s Square that cars still drove through, with the extension of the Arndale Centre to the other side of Corporation Street undergoing construction in the background.
I’ve written about The Lovers! Twice before on this blog, and some of what follows is adapted from what I’ve said before: this is another working Sunday, upon which times are limited, and what I said before is still the larger part of what I see and think whenever I watch this film.
The Lovers (no exclamation mark) was a Granada TV sitcom created and (in the first series, in 1970) written by the great Jack Rosenthal. In my memory, I was sure it ran for ages but the programme actually only lasted two series, a total of 13 episodes.
It starred Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, both of whom were in their first starring roles, and both would go on next to their most popular parts: Beckinsale as Godber in Ronnie Barker’s classic Porridge and Wilcox as Chrissy in ITV’s successful Man About the House. Sadly, Beckinsale would die young, in 1979, though his daughter Kate become a very popular actress, whilst Wilcox, after a long absence from the screen, resumed her career in the late Nineties to very great effect.
Rosenthal was already a successful television writer when The Lovers debuted. He had cut his teeth on more than 100 episodes of Coronation Street and had developed his comedy play There’s a hole in my Dustbin, Delilah into the crude, ballsy and very funny sitcom The Dustbinmen, leaving the latter after two series to develop The Lovers. He was a very funny, very perceptive writer, often drawing on his Jewish North Manchester background, and his lifelong love of Manchester United.
The Lovers was a complete contrast to The Dustbinmen, being a sweet, gentle comedy, drawing its laughs from the dialogue between its two principals, twentyish bank clerk Geoffrey Scrimgeor and twentyish secretary Beryl Battersby. Its underlying theme was the Permissive Society of the late Sixties, and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated working class Manchester. Geoffrey and Beryl were boyfriend and girlfriend and the comedic tension came from their diametrically opposite desires. Beryl, being a bird, wanted what all birds wanted: marriage, and a ring. Geoffrey, being a bloke, wanted what all blokes wanted: sex, and the word ring being stricken from the dictionary. The duo duelled constantly over what would come first: a sparkling (though probably tiny) jewel for the third finger of Beryl’s left hand, or her knickers being sent to Oxfam.
Both actors were perfect and wholly natural in their roles: Geoffrey’s frustration and uncertainty – he was, after all, just as virginal as Beryl as his pretence otherwise revealed at every moment – Beryl’s determination and waspish disdain – Wilcox was an absolute master of the withering put-down, in voice and expression – in the face of her ignorance of any subject that had nothing to do with engagement or marriage.
It was completely of its time, when the matter of saving one’s virginity for marriage was of much greater importance than now. Indeed, in 1970, the subject of pre-marital sex was still a controversial one for family viewing, especially when taken as lightly as this.
The show took a certain risk in basing its humour on so small a cast, though in doing so it did no more than Steptoe and Son, a two-hander from start to finish, over a decade later. There were only two regular supporting players, Geoffrey’s flash and successful workmate Roland (Robin Nedwell) and Beryl’s Mum (Joan Scott), forever making lampshades and sardine sandwiches.
The Lovers was renewed for a second series, but Rosenthal had moved on, gearing himself towards comic plays such as the classic trio of Bar Mitzvah Boy, Ready when you are, Mr McGill and the taxi-driver’s favourite, The Knowledge. Series two was written by stalwart writer Geoffrey Lancashire (father of actress Sarah Lancashire, and creator a few years later of his own popular Granada sitcom, The Cuckoo Waltz, giving Diane Keen her first starring role). Lancashire did not tamper with a winning formula, though the second series was a little less successful, and The Lovers was not renewed.
It was, however, enough of a hit to be granted the dubious honour of being turned into a feature film, for which Rosenthal wrote the screenplay.
Those of you too young to have experienced this era should count yourselves fortunate. Virtually every sitcom to last more than one series seemed to get a film version in the Seventies – apart from a few tail end Carry Ons and the Confessions films, it seemed all the British film industry could do – and the films are, almost universally, crap. Mostly this is because the creators were writers practiced at episodes that ran for 25 – 30 minutes and had no idea how to stretch an idea to 90 minutes: several such films are little more than three ‘episodes’ with some awkward dove-tailing. Several others flopped in realising that, on film, they could go further with the sex stuff than on TV, without understanding that most of the humour lay in the ways they found to suggest what they couldn’t say or do upfront on TV.
Porridge is generally accounted to be the best of the breed, and it’s one of the few to have a cohesive and structured story throughout, but it is still weak in comparison with the small screen version, and when it came to their other hit series, Clement and La Frenais couldn’t make anything halfway decent of The Likely Lads, completely wasting the last time James Bolam was prepared to work with Rodney Bewes. The Dad’s Army film is better than most but, except in its final quarter hour, it’s barely equal to the weakest TV episode.
However, The Lovers! (exclamation mark added) was, and I am biassed here, surprisingly successful, and genuinely funny in places. It was almost completely forgotten when it was released on DVD for the first and only time in 2013, by The British Film.
So much of it is familiar, familiar gags, familiar cringes, familiar faces. It’s extensively shot on location in Manchester, and it’s the Manchester of my late teens, Manchester gone, none more so than the pre-credit scene, shot outside the long-vanished George Best Boutique. That scene depicts Geoffrey and Beryl’s first meeting, as the leftovers when, one Friday lunchtime, three bank clerks pair off with three secretaries (Geoffrey: “I’m Geoffrey, and I don’t happen to be attached.” Beryl: “I’m Beryl, and I don’t happen to be surprised.”)
Rosenthal structures the film around the lovers’ relationship from beginning to end. There are the old familiar lines, and several new ones, and the film structure allows the field of vision to be widened: Beryl’s mate Sandra and Geoffrey’s mate Neville (the film’s equivalent of Roland) also meet outside the boutique and their relationship – first date, lashings of sex, pregnancy, engagement, marriage and going away outfit – for hospital, not honeymoon – is the parallel to Beryl and Geoffrey’s dysfunctional course. There’s also room for several scenes with Geoffrey’s parents, the great John Comer, and Stella Moray, who are convinced that Geoffrey is actually having the life he can only dream of.
Two things are plain over the meandering course of the film: that Geoffrey and Beryl have absolutely nothing in common except the fear of being without someone, and that their genuine relaxation at the thought of having split up will never last in the face of their fear of being without someone. ‘Not really the End’ is the final caption, but it’s easy to recognise that, one day, the pair will end up marrying because they’ve nothing better to do. The gift of Rosenthal’s script, and the naturalness of Wilcox and Beckinsale’s playing is that you can see the two of them eventually being ok with it, once Percy Filth arrives for both, and N-O finally stops meaning No.
I’m also disposed in the film’s favour because I recognise that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the unbridgeable gap between what you want and how to get there, the lack of experience to know that failure now is not final for your whole life. And I don’t just recognise emotions, I recognise me: I will never forget watching the scene when Geoffrey takes Beryl home after their first date, sitting there cringing in redfaced embarrassment and wondering how long they’d been following me – a hideousness made all the worst by the fact that, as Beryl, Paula Wilcox looked so much like my first ‘girlfriend’, even to the slightly ungainly legs under the white box-pleat miniskirt…
As well as the fine and subtle performances of both leads, I also appreciate the playing of Susan Littler as Sandra: a fine actress, who went on to play the lead part in Rosenthal’s famous teleplay, Spend, Spend, Spend, about the pools winner Viv Nicholson, and who had a superb reputation building when she died of cancer, only ten years after this film.
With reference to The Likely Lads, I recall Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais once saying that they’d have liked to have returned to Bob and Terry down the years, a new series every five years or so, to see what was happening in their lives and their relationship, a course rendered impossible by James Bolam’s refusal to ever work with Rodney Bewes again.
The only other sitcom that I thought could live up to that kind of continuity, to a return to the developing fortunes of its leading lights was indeed The Lovers, but that too was never to be, because of the equally tragic and premature death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979. And, of course, only Jack Rosenthal could have told such a story.
But each time I watch the film, I find myself wanting to see how this silly, naive, misunderstood and misunderstanding pair handled the rest of a life in which, however awkwardly, they were going to be together. I’d like to prove my instinct that they really would, against all likelihood, have made it, and to watch their future stumblings.
And I’d especially have loved to see how Paula Wilcox (who I love as both Beryl and Paula) would have handled her feelings towards Geoffrey, which are so open and revealing in her every look. Forget him, Beryl, I’d be so much better for you. Come with me, back to Manchester forty-six years ago (but let’s not stand on the roof of the Hotel Piccadilly, eh, my vertigo won’t take it…)

Why I Am

I try not to make this blog a version of therapy. It’s supposed to be about me only in respect of my opinions of various things that interest me, or my experiences of fellwalking or other expeditions. My ‘issues’ stay in the background for the most part.

Sometimes, things break through, like my post this week about attending my oldest mate’s father’s funeral, and going on to a new counselling session in which my own experience of losing my father, almost half a century ago, was one of the major issues we discussed. The blowback from that carried over into Friday and a day’s work, for which I was not best fitted.

Sometimes I wonder why losing Dad, even at such a significant point in my life, still has the power to crush me. I feel weak for letting it affect me so, but then I look back to the things that shaped me in the years before that happened, and it’s all too clear how I had already become an isolated child. There was a whole long line of things that, coming within a relatively short period, combined with an effect that could not have been bettered by any calculation.

It begins with my birthday being in mid-November, 1955. I started at the local school, which was literally at the end of the street, in the nursery year when I turned 4. This meant starting school in January 1960, when everybody else had started in September. This is, as far as I can recollect, one of the few things not to have any negative effect on me: I met my oldest mate in the nursery and we have been friends for almost 59 years.

My birthday didn’t become relevant until my final year at Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors, in Junior 4, the year in which we would all sit the Eleven-Plus Exam. I was a bright, academic boy, obvious material for a Grammar School, and my Headmaster wanted me to get that chance. However, to enter this Eleven-Plus, you had to be eleven on or before August 31 1966. Three of us were excluded from the mock exam because of our birth dates. The other two would almost certainly be ok: one girl born September 1, one boy no more than 4 to 5 days over. I was ten weeks outside the line.

My Headmaster, Mr Phillipson, went in to bat for me. I can only thank his insistence that I get my chance. The immediate consequence of his failure would have been repeating Junior 4. It would have been disastrous.I’d have fallen back into a year of class-mates I didn’t know, who I thought of as children in comparison to myself, and I would have been repeating an entire year of work I had not only done but in many instances had gone past already.

But that was not all. Harold Wilson’s first Government had been elected in 1964, and re-elected in 1966. The Comprehensive System was coming in, where selection for schools was based more on geography than ability: in 1967 there would be no Eleven Plus for me to sit, nor Grammar School to attend.

And there was even more to it than that. My parents had lived in Brigham Street since they were married, in 1950. By the mid-Sixties, they wanted to move up. A bigger house (there were two children), a garden, a nicer area. All they were waiting for was the school I would go to, to give them an area to focus upon.

There was another, much more important factor. East Manchester in general, and Openshaw in particular, was being redeveloped. Hundreds and thousands of terraced streets were being torn down. My mother’s parents and her sister’s family had already been moved out, to Hulme and Hattersley respectively. Brigham Street was coming down in 1970. House-owners – of whom there were only three in our street, my Dad one of them – would be re-housed, but only if they had owned their property for three years. That set an inflexible deadline. If the house didn’t sell before 31 December 1966, that was it. It would be blighted. There would be no buyers.

So there was a lot resting on my sitting, and passing, the Eleven Plus. No pressure, then.

How much of of this I was aware of, I can’t recall. I do know Mam and Dad wanted to move, but when I don’t know. I passed the Eleven Plus, one of only two boys to be offered a choice of four Grammar Schools. The two North Manchester Schools were rejected out of hand, the nearest was in Gorton, which wasn’t much of a step up from Openshaw, if any, and my parents chose Burnage Grammar, away in leafy South Manchester suburbia.

My exact age meant I had to have an interview with the Headmaster to check just how mature I was, but I got in and started in September 1966. Mam and Dad had identified a house about a mile away from the school, and were negotiating with a buyer, who I’m pretty sure knew how strong a position they were in given our circumstances.

But I was still living in Openshaw when the First Year started.We wouldn’t actually move to Burnage until a fortnight before Xmas, a week before end of term. To get to School for 9.00am, I had to walk ten minutes to the main road, catch a bus to Fairfield Road and change to the 169/170 route to Burnage, an hour’s travelling, and an hour back.

Given the distance, I got a Free Bus pass from the Education Committee, but the distance I had to travel meant no hanging around getting to know my new class-mates, let alone the rest of the First Year. With only one other exception that I was aware of, they were all local to the School, coming from a limited number of Primary Schools, all of them arriving at Burnage knowing anything from a handful to a dozen of new boys already. Understandably, I was the only boy from Elysian Street.

I was taken out of a close-knit class of local boys and girls, who had been together as an unchanging group for seven years, and thrust into a group of strangers who knew each other but not me, and who were all boys. With my travelling and homework, I wasn’t seeing even my best mates, our little game of six, two Steves, two Alans, a Dave and me. Not even at weekends: on Saturdays we always when to Granny’s in Droylsden and Sundays in mid-Sixties East Manchester were not days where you could go and play out, with or without your mates.

So by the time I’d moved to Burnage, it was too late to make those initial connections and friendships. I was already finding myself slipping into a kind of isolation, the worst kind, when you’re on your own in the middle of a crowd. I don’t even remember getting myself accepted into any of the groups of lunchtime football in the yard until the Second Year.

And I’d arrived in Burnage in the winter, of cold days and early dark. At home, my first home, there was a park at the end of the street too, with a playground, where every kid played, and my house was a terraced house in a dead-end street, with a croft and a lock-up garage wilderland outside. My new home was on a four car-widths wide long, straight suburban road with cars flashing back and forth. Nowhere to play out, not until spring. The nearest Park was nearly twenty minutes walk away and didn’t have a visible playground, and the only other kid who played in our garden was my sister, six and a half years younger than me.

And this is before I relate the Maths Class Incident.

This was in October 1966. Mr Adams was teaching us averages. He was going to do this by calculating the average age of the class in years and months. In alphabetical order, when called upon, we would give our age in this format. Straightaway, I knew this was going to be a disaster. My surname placed me about three-quarters of the way down the list. Age after age was chalked onto the board: 11 years 4 months, 11 Years 9 months, 11 years 1 month, etc, etc. Until me: 10 years 11 months.

You could all but hear the neckbones crack as every single head in the room swivelled to look at me, a ten year old in a class of eleven years old. Mr Adams did not help by asking me to confirm I’d got that right, I hadn’t totally misunderstood and I was really 11 years 10 months. No, I was ten years old alright.

It was the penultimate lesson of the day: by four o’clock, the whole First Year knew I was the only ten year old in a year of eleven year olds. I was publicly identified as the youngest boy in the school.

Remember my saying there was no Eleven Plus in 1967? The Comprehensive system came in that summer. Burnage Grammar School reverted to being Burnage High School. It also put into operation a long-negotiated plan, to merge with the nearby Ladybarn Secondary Modern School, fifteen minutes walk away, the other side of Kingsway. The amalgamated High School would have the Lower School (Years 1 – 3) at the Ladybarn Road site, and its Upper school (Tears 4 – 6) at the Burnage Lane site.

Those who, like me, had entered in the Grammar School years would continue to get a Grammar School education and stay in the Upper School throughout. So, when I returned for my Second Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Third Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Fourth Year…

I was in my Fifth Year, and my Dad three weeks dead, before there was a boy in the school younger than me. Four years of being conscious of my status.

I had gone from being surrounded by both friends and classmates who I saw all the time, both in and out of school, to knowing almost no-one, and even fewer of them put of School (and if it hadn’t been for Subbuteo…). I knew no girls except my sister and her friends, which was no use when it came to working out how you talked to them as a preliminary to other things you might want to start to do. I didn’t even know anyone with sisters…

Any my Dad died. He’d been ill for over a year and a half, unable to take any part in helping me begin to face how you changed from a boy into a man. I had already learned a certain resilience which has stood me in good stead, has had to stand me in good stead all my life. I had already learned enough cynicism and self-protection to teach myself self-deprecation, leading people into laughing with me at least as often as at me, tempting them with things they could have permission to laugh at, and keeping them from those areas where laughter would have killed, and still, for all my efforts, sometimes did. But my Dad died, and it was a very very longtime before I had anyone who was on my side the way I know he would have been. I learned to live with myself alone, to manage alone.

So many different things. Each of them innocuous in themselves, reasonable, natural, unexceptionable. Each of them nothing for which anyone could be blamed. But it was like being inside the magician’s chest when the swords are being thrust into it. Instead of having a secret compartment I could slip into until the swords are pulled out, emerging whole and intact, I had to contort myself into a tiny, awkward space to avoid being sliced over and over, and when the swords dissolve, the wind has changed and I’m stuck like that forever.

I’m sorry for once again intruding on you with things too personal. I’ve wavered over whether to publish this, or rely only on the effect of writing it, but I’ve come down on the side of being honest. There’ll be other things alone in due course, the stuff you can rely on, but today this is what wanted writing. Thank you for your infinite patience.

Suit and Tie

I’ve spent most of today in a suit and tie, the longest time I’ve spent dressed this way in probably a decade, when I was still a Solicitor and working for the Council.

Nor have I at any time unloosened the top button of my shirt, and tugged at the knot of the tie, as I always used to do the moment I reached my desk, because in the years since I used to regularly wear ties, my neck has shrunk enough for my collars to become non-restricting and loose to start with.

The occasion of this dressing up has been a funeral. My oldest mate’s father died recently after four years of treatment for cancer. I went to support my mate and his family, and to pay respects to someone who I still remembering teaching me the Bible at Sunday School, not that I was ever an enthusiastic pupil.

This was the same church where my Dad was a sidesman. I don’t remember them ever having conversations, but they were contemporaries, my Dad something like eleven months older than him just as my mate is eleven months older than me. Names came up in conversation of those already gone, Tom Penketh, Frank Hyde, Marjory Bullock, that resound in my memory as people my Mam and Dad spoke of oh so long ago.

There was a service at a nearby Church, the Commitment at Dukinfield Crematorium, of which I am all too familiar, and sandwiches at Fairfield Golf Club.

As an atheist, I felt not merely divorced from but resistant to the religious aspects of the Service. As far too often seems to be the case, the whole thing felt less like a commemoration of my mate’s Dad, and more an advert for God, and how good he’d been by taking my mate’s Dad away from him.

But I politely sang the hymns in a low voice (no-one wants to hear me sing in a loud voice), and stayed silent during the prayers (reciting the Lord’s Prayer placed me right back in Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors where first I learned it), because this was not about me, it was about my mate, his family, his Mum. Though in my head I argued which much of what was said, and was angry with it, I would choke before intruding on their grief.

But I was also fighting, in waves that I mastered only temporarily but which swept back again and again, the urge to cry. Because this was all too close to home. My mate’s Dad was 88. My Dad would have been 42 if he’d lived another five months. I don’t begrudge my friend a second of those extra years he enjoyed and I didn’t get, but here in the Church, and at Duki Crem, I was closer than I like to be to that day when the coffin that was the last physical sign of my Dad in this world rolled away.

Outside, after the Commitment, I slipped away for a few moments. Plot C was very close by, screened off from eyes and ears by that mini-plant built here several years ago. It was a moment to pay my private respects, and to be able to allow a few of those tears to flow freely.

Later, I had a pre-Counselling session at Stepping Hill Hospital to which, even via a diversion to Forbidden Planet in Manchester City Centre, I arrived nearly an hour early, still with the knotted tie, and full of the emotions of the morning that overwhelmed the first part of the session, through which I gabbled.  It set a pattern that the Counsellor was quick to see, of loss, loss, loss and loss.

But that’s not for here. Home via Tescos, some food and then it’ll be the blanking and blurring of feelings that I can’t handle still. As always, when I do this, thank you for listening and I apologise.

Treme: s03 e09 – Poor Man’s Paradise

And so we gather momentum into the final episode of the series. Season 3 has been the most diffuse of the series to date, and has left me wondering more than once where this is going, knowing full well that this is also the last full season, but the penultimate episode seems to be drawing strings together with the sense that there will be some form of ending.

The open focuses on Terry Colson, being shown just how isolated he has become in Homicide, left without back-up to be beaten, not badly in absolute terms, but painfully enough to register for the whole hour, and for bad bruising to register. It’s known he’s been letting the FBI in, it’s made known to him that he’s made a breach that can’t be healed, but he’s denied a transfer out by a vindictive Captain. The only was Terry’s getting out of a Department that will give him nothing is to quit.

How he will react we have yet to see, but in one quarter the sun begins to shine. Toni Bernette takes her findings, her suspicions, her own year-old breach with Terry, to the FBI, but to the Agent with whom Terry is liaising. Who can tell her, in no uncertain terms, that she’s not him wrong. For Toni, who’s backing down on the Arbrea case because she can’t protect her own daughter, let alone any witnesses, it’s a moment of sunshine too. She turns up with beer, and more importantly a smile. We won’t get to see the apology, but we know it’s due and she won’t be afraid to make it.

And Toni’s decision to let things simmer down brings its own reward, a eye-witness to identify the brutal Officer Wilson as the killer – executioner – of Arbrea. At the same time, Everett has written his story on Glover’s killing, has armoured himself against the smears NOPD are preparing, and is going to print.

But if these strands are positives, as is Sonny’s acceptance into Linh’s family, as her fiance, there are negatives and negatives. LaDonna is being screwed by neighbours and noise inspector alike over the music from her bar, but the threats being made by her assailant’s cohort come at last to fruition: a late call summoning her to Gigis, a burning Gigis, destruction of that independent part of her life. She comes to sit with Albert, undergoing his chemo, in need of peace and quiet.

Janette Desautel has peace and quiet, and silence, but doesn’t want it. The restaurant is a success, but not the success she wants. They have a signature dish that the public loves, that they’re flocking in too eat, in such numbers that they can almost cook nothing else. It’s not the restaurant she wants and she’s taking it out on her old New York room-mate and going to the flat alone, with nothing but takeaway and Graham Crackers to eat.

And there’s a crash elsewhere. Davis McAlary’s R’n’B Opera has nose-dived. Aunt Mimi won’t finance it, all it will be is a limited CD sampler. Melodramatic and petulant as he has not been since the first series, pre-Annie, he hollers and boozes, he swears off music, he turns up at Annie’s mixing session and tries to take over, goes home and writes a screamingly petulant Fuck You song…

In the morning, she’s leaving by taxi, a gig in Texas, she told him. When are you back, he asks? Annie gets in the taxi.

Desiree is getting more deeply involved in the campaign against the City knocking down viable homes. Nelson Hidalgo slickly walks away from NOAH, looking to the bigger picture. Delmond’s being warned about the National Jazz Centre. Albert’s dubious about letting them have his Indian costumes, for ‘posterity’ at an admission charge. Antoine’s concerned about members of his school band, about potential and continuity and music.

And Sofia’s offstage, in Florida.

Next week…

Deep Space Nine: s07 e19 – Strange Bedfellows

Oh yeuch

An apt title for this latest episode since there were a few pairings that could be described that way, ranging from the macro to the micro. ‘Strange Bedfellows’ was still a part of the long build-up, moving chess pieces around the board, setting forces in motion to play off later, so individually this could not be said to be an especially satisfying 45 minutes: this part of the long endgame is frustrating because I can’t just bingewatch the final run and see it all.

But let’s look at the copious number of pairings, shall we? The first such is the new Dominion/Breen Alliance. The Breen are coming aboard, subject to signing a treaty, the terms of which involve secret Cardassian concessions to the new allies, secret as in Gul Damar, over his considerable and entirely rational objections, is not to be told. And Weyoun 7 is being even more high-handed with Damar, treating him with open disdain, treating Cardassia as utterly worthless. It has no independence, it is of the Dominion, it belongs to the Founders. This is said in front of the Breen leader, who doesn’t seem to register that itrefers to his people as well.

No matter. Ezri and Worf are still prisoners, now on a Jem’Hadar ship heading to Cardassia. Though Worf is still as stiff-necked as only a Klingon can be, going on about his honour every three minutes and seventeen seconds, he and Ezri do manage to get their heads straight, about their unwise shag and, more importantly, the whole Dax thing. Ezri even confesses that she didn’t actually know about being in love with Julian (who, back at DS9, is himself beginning to realise he’s in love with Ezri: this really is very weak and artificial).

That settled, they prepare themselves to be executed, Damar having notified them in advance that they would be tried as war criminals, convicted and executed. But, in a not wholly unforeseeable development, Damar kills the Jem’Hadar guards, provides a spaceship full of security codes and tells the escaping pair that the Federation has a friend on Cardassia. Just goes to show, if you whip a dog long enough…

Weyoun certainly has, in the vulgar parlance, dropped a bollock on this. The lad is prone to do so, and there’s an amusingly brilliant demonstration of this when he taunts the prisoners in their cell over Ezri admitting under torture to loving Julian. Unfortunately, Weyoun is stood next to Worf when he says this, and the big Klingon grabs him by the head, twists it and breaks his neck. Weyoun 8 is, of course, just as big a dickhead.

Back on DS9, we have two more sets of bedfellows, both literal. On the one hand we have Mr and Mrs Captain Benjamin Sisko. In a development that I personally found not merely disappointing but offensive, we have Martok giving Klingon marital advice to the Emissary, about marriage being a long war, a fight over everything. That may be so in a warrior race like the Klingons. but to see Sisko immediately starting to plot to defeat Kasidy over her refusal to conduct a religious ritual she doesn’t believe in was deeply depressing, and not a little misogynist.

But the creepiest set of bedfellows this week were Gul Dukat and Kai Wynn, and I do mean bedfellows, a sight that was enough to turn your stomach. That the surgically altered Dukat was here to seduce the Kai from her loyalty to the Prophets, in favour of a quick conversion to the Pah-Wraiths should be paralleled by the physical side of things was no doubt artistically sound, but it was still queasy to see.

But to give the Kai credit, the moment she realised that it was the Pah-Wraiths sending her visions, she fought back instantly, telling Dukat to get thee behind me, pledging herself to the Prophets, seeking their guidance, resisting all the way. She even sought Kira’s counsel, genuinely humble and open. But all this repentance broke upon the rock of Kira’s advice that Wynn must abdicate the Kaiship.

And so the other big bad goes bad for good, telling Dukat that the Prophets she has worshipped and served all her life have never – never – spoken to her. So now she’s gone over to the other side, the last set of bedfellows, the Kai and the Pah-Wraiths.

To be continued.

Wynn’s defection was dramatically inevitable, the culmination of her path of arrogance and power, but given the strength of her initial rejection of the Pah-Wraiths, which is genuine and vehement, I surely can’t be alone in thinking that it would have made a much more fascinating story for her to have maintained that stance, and to have devoted her strengths to the fight against them and the Dominion? Or was that a pipe-dream? Yeah, a pipe-dream.

As an aside, I’ve written this blog on the third anniversary, give or take the odd day or two, of my first blog in this series. There are now only six episodes left.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Knight’

After the long years devoted to the final two parts of the Solar Cycle, Gene Wolfe entered the Twenty-First Century with a two-part epic fantasy, inspired by the fabulist Lord Dunsany, set in a world of seven levels, built from mythology. The first of these was The Knight.
I have never read this book as an individual volume, but only as part of the 900 page plus collected volume, published as The Wizard Knight, from which it will be clear what name the sequel bears. Perhaps because of the sheer heft of the collected volume, which matches the single-volume omnibus of the Book of the New Sun, Severian of the Guild, for thickness, I have always found the book a daunting prospect, and have never taken to it.
The Knight takes the form of a long letter – a very long letter indeed – written by a young American boy whose name we don’t learn in this volume, to his older brother, Ben. The letter, which is written an unspecified number of years later, is an account of the younger brother’s adventures after disappearing during a hike from their cabin. Along the way, we learn a few passing details of the boy’s life in America: that the pair have lost their parents, their father when the boy was practically too young to remember him, the mother when he was still at school, that there is some friction between the pair, seeming to be based in Ben having to take responsibility for his younger brother, and that the boy spends a lot of time at the cabin to keep out of the way.
But the boy is of course a classic Wolfean unreliable narrator, in this case because of his youth, his naievete and his inexperience. The boy, as the title indicates, finds himself in a classic Dunsanian environmental, in a medieval age of peasants and merchant but, most importantly from his perspective, Kings and Dukes, feudal Lords and Courts and Knights.
The boy is determined to be a Knight, and takes the name of Sir Able, fully Sir Able of the High Heart, which is the only name by which we know him in this first part.
The story is episodic and rambling, which is another reason I have difficulty with it. Though I have tried to read Dunsany, many many years ago, his fantasy fiction belongs to an older age. It is a higher fantasy that I don’t respond to, a fantasy born of connections to our everyday Earth that never have (or in those days needed) explanations. So Sir Able leaves the cabin for a hike and somehow ends up in Mythgarthyr, the middle of the seven worlds and the closest equivalent to this Earth, between the Fire realm below of Aelfrice, and the Air realm above, of Skai.
What then follows seems to obey no narrative purpose except to move Able onwards through a series of situations as he pursues his goal. Where he goes, and how he moves from place to place never feels like a progression, just a collection of things that happen.
The first of these is almost a static situation, as the young Able – still a stripling physically, fitting his actual age – is more or less adopted by a former warrior, Bold Berthold, whose brain has been scattered by a severe head injury. Berthold believes able to be his real brother, presumably dead, and helps him survive in the forest.
But then Able is taken into Aelfrice, by the Mossmaiden, Disiri of the Aelf, with whom he falls in love. Disiri beds him, but in a physical parody of the notion that losing ones virginity turns you from a boy into a man, Able wakes up a big, strong, strapping man, physically tall, strong, limber, phemonenally accurate with the bow. So much so that Able henceforth is superhuman. He’s still an American teenager, and there are times when he demonstrates that his brain hasn’t developed along with his body, because he frequently talks like an American kid – a noble Knight who ends half his sentences with the word ‘Sure’ is both a deliberate incongruity and and unintentional pain in the arse after a while – and his physical ability to push people round leads to his throwing his weight around and threatening to push people around.
Able certainly sees this as defending his honour and status as a Knight, in those moments when he’s not being utterly modest about himself, but he comes over as not much more than a bully in several of these instances. And whilst he can be decently modest, especially when comparing himself to the achievements of more conventional Knights, it’s noticeable how many times he reports to Ben how people, especially his betters, praise him in terms that you might think we’re overblown.
Along the way, Able collects an itinerant bunch of followers, who continually appear and disappear. In no particular order, these include his servant, peasant’s son, Toug, his other servant, the one-eyed sailor, Pouk, his half-crippled peasant servant Uns, his two Aelf servants and handmaidens, Uri and Baki, his Dog, if Dog he really be, Gylf, who can talk, and his cat, Mani, who can also talk. Uri and Baki are constantly trying to get Able to have sex with them, though he is dedicated to Disiri, who he expects never to see again, and Duke Beel’s daughter, the Lady Idnn shows a disturbing enthusiasm for throwing herself at (or under, if he’s not careful) him because he’s this fine figure of a masculine specimen.
Yet that is supposed to be the point. Able is put in a position to fulfil all his fantasies, yet is out of his depth all the time. But, to tell the truth, Sir Able of the High Heart is too much the superhuman for me. Perhaps that is only Wolfe being true to Dunsany, but it renders him unreal, and far too simple a character to sustain him at the centre of a more than four hundred page narration that ends with the slaying of a dragon.
The second book of this extended tale is even longer.