The Best Bit Was…


…Not just scoring five in a Premier League game for the first time since Fergie’s last match. Not just winning comprehensively and comfortably. not just Athony Martial’s brilliant goal.

But we were in white shorts.

Not the fucking black shorts we’ve been wearing under The Departed One all season, even in home games. Red and white. That’s Manchester United’s colours, not red and black.

Red and white. Forever.

The Infinite Jukebox: Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’


In the beginning, I hated it with a passion. Some of it was being contrarian, because it’s a part of my nature to be out of step with the broader tastes in music, part of it was the artificiality of it, part of it was the people involved, among whom only Paul Weller and Bono were making any kind of music that I actually liked, and part of it was that I genuinely did not like the song. It was in a good cause, but I believed that the cause was better for giving money to it directly, and not encouraging the bloody song.

Somewhere down the line, that changed. Band Aid 2 helped in that process, simply by demonstrating how much better the original was. ‘We are the World’ also helped because, despite the musical commentators who laud it for having genuine soulful voices as part of its ensemble, it was too treacly glutinous. No-one involved in USA for Africa could have imagined singing that line: you know, the one Bono sang.

But somewhere along the line, when I had removed myself from the time and place of ‘Do they know it’s Xmas?’s advent, and removed myself from my own time and place, I stopped hating the song, until, by the early 2000s, and the use of our Best Xmas Songs Ever! double cassette on Friday night drives to deliver the kids for contact, I found myself joining in the song, with difficulty.

The difficulty was not my usual struggle to harmonise without being  half a tone flat throughout, a feat that my ex-wife used to marvel at, but in getting through the song without the lump in my throat at its sentiments, and the genuine urge that inspired it, causing my voice to break down completely.

Like ‘A Fairytale of New York’, ‘Do they know it’s Xmas’ is the product of two half-songs being squeezed together. Midge Ure arrived with the idea for the first half of the song, and Bob Geldof adapted an already-written proto-song into the ‘Feed the World’ section that closes out the song. That the stitch marks are evident in the change in nature of the melody doesn’t matter a damn.

It’s easy to be queasy about the project, and about the line-up. Geldof called on his mates, practically all white male rockers, Bananarama the principal exception. Frances Rossi and Rick Parfitt were there practicing their ‘we-wuz-so-aht-of-it’ schtick, and you look at some of these people in the video and ask how many of them were really there for a good cause, unmixedly.

But Geldof and Ure, neither of whom I normally have much time for, especially musically, Band Aid was a thing of desperate honesty and the urgent desire to do something. Their drive is strong enough to purify the record, and make any less than stellar commitment from others both whole and pure.

Yes, it’s paternalistic, yes, it’s patronising, yes, it does snow in Africa. Yes, it doesn’t have even a single black Briton on it, let alone anyone with African connections. Yes, it’s still a colonial legacy. But listen to it. Listen especially to the choral sections, to the plea to feed the world, the link to Xmas that makes the record’s poignancy. It’s flaws are manifest, but it was conceived in something close to pure goodness, and there aren’t enough such things of which you can say that.

Thirty years on, you couldn’t get away with Bono’s line, not in the way he chose to sing it. It would offend too many sensitivities and I’m not going to get into an argument about whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a line without which the song could not be everything it is. Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you. It’s the anchor to the reality that is in each of us, the unavoidable, completely human, shadow that paradoxically lends strength to our efforts: it wasn’t me.

Everything that’s been justly said about Bono can be set against the moment he showed the strength to sing that line with passion, with a despairing honesty about the blackness within us that cannot be ignored when we attempt to be the best we can be.

‘Do they know it’s Xmas?’ is a modern anthem, a modern hymn. It shares no characteristic with a hymn, but it is, nevertheless. Bono’s line is the only reference to god and it’s hardly a Christian thought. But the events that made Band aid the vital thing it was may not be here in the same manner but the song and its spirit will always be part of this time of year.

And I will never again be able to sing along without that lump that destroys any attempt to sing rather than live the words.

Apollo 8


Partly due to my growing up on Dan Dare, and partly due to me living through the Moon Landing, I find our increasing knowledge of the Solar System and beyond endlessly fascinting in its pointers towards discovery. And I find the stories of those few men who went into space unfailingly moving. Those few who did what we  dreamed of as small boys, who really did leave this planet.

Fifty years ago, we all had the chance to see the dark side of the Moon for the first time ever, and to look down on our planet as a tiny thing in space. Unbelievably, the three men who went there in the name of all of us are still alive today.

This is that story.

Earthrise

Imaginary Holidays 2


It’s freezing cold, cloudless and blue skies: why not slip off to the Lake District for another Imaginary Holiday.
This time, we’re definitely heading for Keswick for the start of the week, the early Sunday drive up the Penrith section of the M6, Blencathra’s profile overlooking the A656. I’ve had my return to the hotel overlooking the park, let’s update my nostalgia and rebook for two nights on good old Bridgedale, on the main street, just past the mini-roundabout.
The name of the game is to not use the same book of Wainwright twice in the same week, and to try to go to as many different areas as I can from last time. So, since I didn’t actually do any Patterdale walking last time out, let’s do that.
I’ve climbed Gowbarrow Fell a couple of times in the past, from the Hause, below Little Mell Fell. It’s a lovely, low, rural fell, of gentle gradients. The first time I did it, I parked at the Hause on a Sunday afternoon of gentle sun. There was a wide path leading directly from that spot that Wainwright didn’t mention. I strolled along it, checking my position by his map, curling round a low, green bump and picking up a path onto the summit from behind. Then I returned by the same route.
When I came back with an old friend, recently separated from her husband and children and in need of distraction, we had a Sunday out. I thought of Gowbarrow, but in the meantime, the landowner had padlocked the gate and put up signs very fiercely forbidding access. Instead, we took the car down a bit further towards Patterdale, parking near Watermillock Church.
There was a mostly level path along the flank of the fell, overlooking Ullswater, and we wandered along, chatting. There’s only been a few times since I broke with my family that I’ve gone walking with a companion, and Linda wasn’t a girlfriend (or wife). Indeed, given her current frame of mind with her husband, I was sternly warned about making a pass!

Ullswater from Gowbarrow Fell

At the ruins of the former refreshment hut we sideslipped up towards the broad back of the fell, and made our way up its back, from a different angle than before.
I could choose an ascent from a direction I’ve not walked before, via Aira Force and Yew Crag, but I’m in the mood for a lazy and undemanding stroll, and the route from Watermillock Church will remind me of older times and a long friendship long broken.
So I’ll stroll along the flank of the fell, through the increasing plantations, until the route via Yew Crag joins from the left and then turn uphill, through an easy tuck, and those who have chosen to assert their rights to roam under the Countryside Rights of Way Act would arrive here over untracked ground, having passed behind the hummock of Great Meldrum, and nothing left but the easy ascent up the back of the summit.
There are three ways back: by the same route, by the farmer’s route, or the longest way round, by descending towards Dockray and following a path above the intake wall, until it reaches a quiet road leading back to just below the Hause. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give myself so much road walking, but this quiet hinterland behind Gowbarrow Fell is beautiful, perfect for a Lazy Sunday afternoon stroll (‘ere, mustn’t grumble…), when the exercise is minimal and the atmosphere is the point of the day.
Of course, I’ve still got to get up and over the Hause. but it’s neither high, nor steep, nor far before I’m trotting downhill again. I think I’ll sit in the car with the door open and all the windows down for a while before driving off.
There should be time for another stroll, back in Keswick, though the town and down towards Derwent Water, turning into the Park and finding a little hummock from which to gaze down the lake towards the Jaws.
But let’s do some serious walking on Monday. My pursuit of the missing views kept me out of the North Western Fells, but there’s a matter I’d like to clear up just to the west of Newlands that should make for an entertaining day using the leg muscles seriously.
I finished off one holiday with an extended Newlands Round – Maiden Moor, Dale Head, Robinson, Hindscarth – in which I rather over-extended myself. I started a nasty headache, under the sun, struggling up the final slopes onto Robinson’s top, and by the time I’d circuited Little Dale to Hindscarth, I was completely drained. The long descent over Scope End was wasted on me as all my focus was on not falling over.
So let’s go back. But rather than repeat the walk, let’s just restrict it to those last two fells, for I wasn’t in the best state to take in Robinson by the time I got there. Call it a circuit of Little Dale, about which Wainwright was so negative, though it looked alright to me on the day. Ridges run in parallel from Newlands. Well supplied with barms and liquid, I’ll hunt out an offroad space close to the lane to Newlands Church, convenient for both.
Re-imagining what it’s like to go up (or down) a ridge I’ve never walked is far from easy. Studying Wainwright, or internet walking sites, or photos of the ground cannot make up for grass and rock under your boots, nor can it tell me what views I will enjoy along the way.
And which way do I walk? Surely Scope End demands ascending? It may be familiar territory, though by the time I descended it I was blurred by headache and exhaustion. But the thought of a new ridge, and one that Wainwright recommends as the best way up Robinson (as well as being anti-clockwise) is almost irresistible, and the thought of having to repeat that tedious, draining slog to the summit off the ridge from Hindscarth settles it.

Robinson the hard way

There’s an easy, pedestrian route into Little Dale, and a trackless climb onto the ridge beyond High Snab Bank, but I have never been inclined to soft ways round, so once I reach the end of the road past Low High Snab, I take to the open fellside, cutting upwards steeply on a well-defined path. This is the way of the North Western Fells: short, steep ascents on grass to gain long, airy ridges, and I curve leftwards into High Snab Bank itself, where the gradient is gentle and the walking can be brisk, until I near the edge of Blea Crags.
Here are three rock steps in succession, across the path, each twenty to thirty feet in height and requiring my scrambling head to get up. I wonder what real-life exertions they’d require, but I think of Stirrup Crag and Lining Crag, and the fun I had on these, and get up them.
Above lies the meat of the ridge, following the edge of Robinson Crags, overlooking the neighbouring valley of Keskadale Beck, where care is needed with an unfenced edge. There’s a rock step on this, just below 1,800 feet, but I think I’d do what I tended to do when I could, and hove a little ‘inland’, far enough not to let my incipient vertigo turn me into a bag of nerves.
As the ground eases, the prominent cairn that suggests it’s the summit is revealed to be a third of a gentle mile off the actual, somewhat sprawling top. This time, I arrive in the same kind of sunshine but without the grinding headache that marred my visit.
It’s a fell-filled view, if the wide top shuts off valley sights, and Floutern Tarn is visible just beyond Hen Comb, but apart from the eating of those barm cakes, this isn’t a summit to inspire an extended stay. Hindscarth is the nearest thing, just across Little Dale, and once refreshed, I am back on actual trodden ground, crossing the top towards the Littledale Edge fence, and following it around east, to the choice of paths: whether to bear left and shortcut across the depression, or continue to the highest point on the ridge to Dale Head and approaching Hindscarth from behind with the benefit of being a purist.
This time, I’ll take it easy, take the ‘shortcut’, avoiding the unnecessary regaining and losing of height.
Let me imagine now that Hindscarth, reached much earlier in the afternoon than before, has other walkers in its summit. Usually, I refer my summits in solitude, when I can get them, but I had that last time, and it felt unwelcome and frightening. No necessity for conversations, perhaps, but a bit of company would restore a psychic balance.
Then off, downhill, on a clear, almost grooved path, with Newlands to the right and below. I can take my time, walk with ease and regularity, enjoy the view rather than concentrate ferociously on where my feet fall, until I cross Scope End and turn downhill, remembering how relieved I was to have gotten here safely.
At the very foot of the ridge, I have a choice: a long contour back left into the valley of Scope Beck, to cross and regain the lane past Low High Snab, or the lane ahead from Low Snab to Newlands Church and, somewhere close by, my car. I think I’ll do it the easy way.
Tuesday begins by packing the car and heading south over Dunmail Raise to lodge in Ambleside until the week ends: where to today?
I’ve already used The Eastern Fells, so how about somewhere Central? I park at somewhere like the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, in the little car park on the opposite side of the Great Langdale Road. The black wood of the Hotel stands out away from the road and behind it, Mill Gill tumbles joyously down the fellside. I know they call it Stickle Ghyll these days, but we are walking inside my head now. The sun sparkles down from above, I change into my trusty boots, tuck my walking jeans into my socks and shrug my Dad’s old rucksack onto my back.
I couldn’t begin to work out the number of times I have been up and down Mill Gill, above the New Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll. The first time goes back to the middle Sixties, when we used the path to the west of the Gill, before it was closed due to erosion, and the last would have been somewhere during the Nineties, maybe even for the original walk of which this imaginary ascent is an extended repeat.
The only highest fell in any of the Wainwright books that I never visited a second time is the Central Fells’ High Raise. Most of the available routes are from the top of Greenup Edge Pass, reached from three different valleys, but no-one wants to go up Greenup Edge if they can help it. When the time came to collect High Raise, I approached from Great Langdale and I propose to do that again.
From the New Hotel, that means crossing the beck by the footbridge to gain access to the east bank of Mill Gill. This is the route I have taken more often than I can remember, but on that last visit, knowing the congested stony stair ahead of me, I was intrigued to see a narrow path head away to the right that was not in Wainwright. Out of curiosity, I followed it.
It proved to be another path, running in parallel to the main drag, about ten yards up the hill. It was narrow and unspoiled and I was completely alone. The walking was a little easier, because the ground had not been broken by overuse, and instead of the walking in this section being a grind, I felt refreshed and cheerful.
The path’s now marked in Hutchby’s Third Edition Wainwright, and it may no longer be the quiet alternative it was when I found it for myself, nor as discrete underfoot, but that’s the route I plan to tread, away from the numbers, as Mr Weller once put it, in his youth.
Given that I’m not aiming for the Langdale Pikes in any way, it would be completely legitimate to take the short cut zigzag route to the east of Tarn Crag (not the one beneath Sergeant Man), but that would be to do myself out of the supreme purpose of climbing to Stickle Tarn: the sight of Pavey Ark rising gradually but majestically over the lip of the final channel, and providing the glorious backdrop to the Tarn itself. No amount of climbing saved can justify passing this sight by.
For High Raise, it’s necessary to follow the shore of the tarn round, paralleling the great cliff-face, and following its feeder, Bright Beck, around the end of Pavey Ark. The crossing to the North Rake on the Ark is passed, and any first time visitor here will mark where it diverges, as did I.

Sergeant Man – my forgotten Wainwright

But we are bound for ahead. Wainwright is not impressed by the ascent after Stickle Tarn, but before too long the route drops into the channel of Bright Beck, and there is a long straight scramble beside the water. I can’t recall, but this may have been my first extended scramble, and I had a whale of a time, hauling myself along by hand and foot.
Ahead, at the top of the channel, was a strange white thing. I was climbing in either late April or early May, a bright, sunny day, but it was clear from a long way down that this was some deposit of snow, sheltered from the spring sun. When I finally got to it, the snow was extensive in depth, at least some ten feet and nearly six feet wide, and it was supported by a mass of long grasses. It looked like a natural ice igloo, that you could wriggle under, though I wasn’t about to try that, because it looked easily fatal if the damned thing collapsed on me.
Actually, the worst part of the walk was getting out of the gully on trackless grass. This brought me out into the open, onto the wide plateau that stands behind the front of the Langdale Pikes, filling the horizon from Grasmere to Langstrath. The sun was high and there was nothing left but an uphill walk to the bare top of High Raise.
In terms of the sheer extent of the flatlands, there isn’t another place in the Lakes that feels so exposed and yet so secure. The views are limited so far as valleys are concerned, but there is nothing for a long way around that overshadows High Raise and diminishes its isolation.
Sergeant Man, a rocky outcrop on the edge of High Raise’s top, is not geographically a separate fell, any more than is Pavey Ark, but on the same basis that Wainwright separated the Ark from Thunacar Knott, he divorces the Man to make it a separate destination, though it would be odd for anyone climbing either fell to ignore the other. The crossing is nothing but a downhill walk, without features, and indeed Sergeant Man is one of the very few Wainwrights about which I have no easily available mental image to call upon when I think of it.
From here, it’s a cross-country walk, downhill all the way, to the edge of the basin that contains Stickle Tarn, and that’s the way I retreated, because I was still bagging Wainwrights and I had already added all those around. But the point of these imaginary holidays is not to simply repeat what I’ve done.
So, instead of bearing off for Stickle Tarn, I shall turn my steps towards the broad ridge between Langdale and Easedale, until I reach the walkers crossroads on the moderate skyline, where the path beyond Easedale Tarn crossed the watershed. I came this way from Easedale once, gaining the ridge here aware that I was actually higher than the next summit along, Blea Rigg.
There’s nothing particularly exciting either at Blea Rigg or on the way to it, but it’s a variation on a walk done, and a change is always welcome. Blea Rigg then, and a slow stroll back, until paths start to lead down towards the Tarn, and then the short cut that doesn’t matter on the return journey, into the channel of Mill Gill, and back along the old familiar path, where twice I was headachey and sick in the same place, on the day of my O-Level results, and the day of the O-Level results two years later, when I’d already had my A-Level results.
For Wednesday, I want to head east, into the lonely country that’s as far away as Lakeland gets. This isn’t going to be an exciting walk, and neither will Thursday’s be, but there’s a thematic continuity between the two that link them. And these are places I have only been once, and thus are territory I want to revisit.
I’m planning a trip to Longsleddale, rounding from Kendal onto the Shap Road, and slipping off into that narrow road along that long, straight, unspoiled valley, as far as Sadgill. Once, there used to be a small parking space, easily filled on a busy day, but the last time I looked into Longsleddale, it looked as if this has swelled into a full-scale car park. Convenient though that would be, I’d rather I was wrong.
Walks along one ridge of a valley have the drawback of ending a long way from where they start. Revisiting Grey Crag and Tarn Crag means a long walk, either way, from the Head of Longsleddale to Sadgill, unless I want the walk to take place in a very small compass. Given the attraction of the Head of Longsleddale, I’d rather not.

Grey Crag – far east

This time, in the peace and quiet, I’m putting the long valley walk first. The farm lane rolls on, between drystone walls, level and straight, with the narrowing jaws of the valley and the rising packhorse track visible all the way. Up cobbled steps, where the horses hauled carts to the quarries, the steepening way into that quiet hinterland, that indefinite country where Gatescarth Pass continues to its summit, and the Mosedale valley opens up on the right, suggesting a country far removed from human habitation.
This is the way to go. Not into Mosedale itself, which on my one visit here struck me as a place where the miles are far longer than a mile and where people could disappear forever, melting into the landscape. For Tarn Crag, take the Mosedale path, with an eye to where the ascent of Branstree, left, begins alongside a mounting fence, and instead turn right, over featureless slopes, increasingly pitted with peat-bogs, through which the path threads until it reaches the lonely cairn.
There is only one site in Lakeland, as defined by Wainwright, that lies east of here, and that summit it a half hour on, at best, along a dull, damp, peaty ridge, before we reach Grey Crag.
There is no other distinction to this fell that its geographical position. It’s a flat, grassy top, with good views down into Longsleddale, but insufficient height to look at fells beyond the valley rim. Eastwards, the ground dissolves into rounded ridges, where at some point the Lake District comes to an end and indeterminate ground separates the walker who braves this isolation from the Howgill Fells, on the other side of Tebay Gorge. There is no real looking out, only the knowledge that you are looking out, out and away where nothing stirs the eye or the mind.
Descent to Longsleddale is marked by a patchy path, first west across the summit on a slow gradient to find the fence and the stile that permits progress, then a turn almost due south on a clear line descending the shallow green ridge to Great Howe, with its survey pillar off-route to the left, and its Longsleddale views, up and down. The escape off Great Howe isn’t worth risking in mist, with scarps and rock to thread through, as the ground gets steeper and the path a little less clear. But I should be able to safely get to the second stile, where wall and fence meet, and follow the wall towards the valley head until the path breaks and descends the easy gully that leaves you in the upper field. One more stile, and just the lower field to cross to the gate opposite the Sadgill parking facilities.
There was one curiosity I observed, ascending here long ago that should be clear to see in descent. Across the valley, on the flank of Shipman Knotts, I saw an intriguing path, a thing of zigzags, angles and reversals, snaking up the fellside, about halfway between the Kentmere ‘pass’ and Kentmere Pike’s Goat Crag. I instantly wanted to walk it, test it underfoot, but I couldn’t see where it went, up or down. I don’t believe so defined a route can only exist halfway up a fell, but neither Jesty nor Hutchby have teased it out, so either I suffered a sustained optical delusion or it’s a purely private farm path. This one attracts but frustrates the imagination.
From Longsleddale in the east to the furthest west. For the final day of this imaginary holiday, I’ve selected for myself a long walk, of the kind I used to reserve.
It’s long-distance in two senses, first in the drive from Ambleside to reach the starting point, on the crossing of Cold Fell, from Calder Bridge to Ennerdale Bridge, and in the walk itself, twelve miles, there and back. I’ve done longer walks, even on days when I’ve driven from Manchester first, and been returning the same day, but Wainwright warns that the miles are long on this ascent, long and empty. This is more of an endurance test than a walk for pleasure, because I intend to climb Caw Fell.

Caw Fell – far west

Six miles there, on the skyline south of Ennerdale, and six miles back, a long way from anywhere else. My only previous visit to Caw Fell was as an adjunct to ascending Haycock from Nether Beck, Wasdale, the nearest point involving the shortest incursion onto this unloved, wide-spreading fell.
And I’ve walked the beginning of this route, when I set out to collect the westerly group of Grike, Crag Fell and Lank Rigg, parking on the Cold Fell road and setting off along the old miner’s road through the forests. That was easy underfoot, although badly slutchy in at least one point, and if I’m going for the big one, there’s no need to waste time and effort on visiting those first two summits again.
So I can make good time over the first two to three miles of the exercise, on easy gradients that end up dipping to the bottom of the first serious rise. This is where the real walking starts.
And as with Robinson, I can’t recreate a walk never walked. I can only look at Wainwright’s map, and his contours. The dip at the end of the mine road, after passing beside Crag Fell, can’t realistically be called a col, but this is the first of two depressions to be passed as a Ridge Route from the fell. At this point, I’d be about halfway to my destination, with little or no difficulty walking to date.
From here though, I’ll be passing into the unoccupied open, the bare, grassy, unfrequented ridges that prompted me to class this region, from Nether Wasdale to the Loweswater fells, as the Western Margins. From the depression, the path starts to climb, initially quite steeply but then merely inexorably, as I start to scale Iron Crag.
The path is broad, and if it were needed, there’s a wall to the left that runs all the way to Caw Fell and beyond. It’s not a near neighbour as you grind out the ascent onto Iron Crag’s bareback top. I saw that part of the route from Caw Fell, Iron Crag running pretty much south to north, wide and empty. It looked lonely, and paradoxically something that might trigger my incipient vertigo. It’s the building roof/aircraft carrier syndrome, wide flat places with no walls or fences guarding their edges, leaving me uneasy about going over them, no matter how distant I am from anything I can fall over.
Across Iron Crag, there is another dip, a depression to cross, with streams descending westwards towards the grasslands of Whoap and Lank Rigg. Above that, the ridge is gained, and Caw Fell’s final bulk, lying on an east – west axis, the wall still the guide to the flat and exposed highest point. Where exactly that is is a matter of trusting the cairn builders: the cairn is north of the wall, which can be easily crossed to touch it. One half of the job is done.
All that remains is to return. Six miles have got me there, six more will get me back. On peak form, which is always the case in Imaginary Holidays, I’ve a couple of miles and a bit more in reserve, and a couple of thousand feet of untried, and this is not the kind of demanding walking as is involved in Scafell Pike from Seathwaite ascending via Sty Head and the Corridor Route and returning over the other two Pikes, Esk Hause and Grains Gill. Just stride out, ignore the monotony of the walking and the scenery, and who knows: by the time I’m back at the foot of the ascent to Crag Fell, I’ll have enough energy left to vary the return by traversing Crag Fell and Grike again, or maybe even Whoap and Lank Rigg.
Or maybe I’ll just maintain the purity of the only kind of walk I went out of my way to avoid, the pure There and Back Again, where every step of retreat is over the ground crossed in ascent. Back to the Cold Fell road, back to the long drive home by dying sunlight, and into Ambleside. Chicken and chips, eaten out of the paper on a bench beside the Park? It’s been a brilliant week.

Lou Grant: s01 e02 – Hostages


Just as certain proverbs say diametrically opposite things yet stay both apt and applicable – Many hands make light work/Too many cooks spoil the broth – there’s a paradox that applies to television programmes. One certain measure of quality in an episode is that it zips along so quickly, you’re astonished to reach the end long before you expect it. And another, equal measure of quality is that the episode is so full and intense that you are startled to realise that the end is still a long way off.

Both of these measurements spring from the ssame root, that the programme plays havoc with your innate sense of time passing, that it draws you into to it in a way that takes over the normal distance between you and a performance you are viewing, so that the ‘time’ something takes is compressed or expanded, according to the maker’s intent.

The second episode of Lou Grant was a perfect example of this. It inched into its main story by misdirection: the Trib reports in glowing terms a store-owner’s defence of his store, which includes the killing of a young robber, only to discover that there’s more to the story than they superficially expected. Except that, after splashing the ‘Have-a-go Hero guns down street kid Robber’ on page 1, the corrective store-owner’s arrest for homicide goes inside, where it’s not news, it’s not important, and the headline impressions will go unaltered.

We see it happen, we understand the logic of it, we accept it as rational, far too easily. But the victim had an older brother who was outraged at his brother’s mischaracterisation (the store-owner had shot him because he’d owed the kid $148.50 in unpaid wages). And when the Trib wouldn’t print a page 1 story exonerating the kid, Andrew Martin took matters into his own hands. He took Joe Rossi hostage at gun-point, walked him into the City Room and proceeded to dictate the story.

What we had was a hostage situation with Rossi, Carla, Charlie and some extras being held at gunpoint, Lou running point on negotisting with the hapless and untogether Martin (you don’t have to have your act together – boy, this is the Seventies, isn’t it? – when you’re on the trigger-pulling end of a gun), and a SWAT team in every corner under a commander who just wants to pump bullets into the hostage-taker first chance he could get.

What was most effectivewas the silence surrounding the City Room which, by itself, ratcheted up the tension. This was part of the way the episode played with the sense of time passing: after about half an hour of a 45 minute episode I was amazed things were still going because it felt like at least an hour already.

But the episode made space for silence, just as it made space for naturalistic jokes by the regulars, already very firmly in their roles. Art Donovan, the sharp-dresser, pausing his evacuation from the City Room to carefully snag his suit jacket, fold it carefully and keep it from dragging on the floor.

There was an intriguing reference at one point to the now famous Stockholm Syndrome, but here it was called the Stockholm Effect: the original incident had taken place only five years previously, and the alliterative term clearly hadn’t become settled upon.

That Martin would never actually shoot anyone, despite the paper trying to con him by printing up a fake limited edition with his story (which would have worked if the Press covering the event outside hadn’t given it away on the TV) was clear all along. He was not the natural hostage-taker type, just a poor schlub. I found myself wondering, every time he awkwardly brandished his gun, if it were even loaded.

In the end, Lou himself writes a story for page 1, admitting the Trib’s error and exonerating Robert Martin. Subject to a rewrite by Rossi (Andrew Martin found it a bit ‘goopy’) it will go on page 1: Mrs Pynchon herself descends to the City Room to promise that personally. So Martin releases everyone, who promptly crowd round him to keep the over-zealous SWAT commander from blowing his brains out!

Criis over, Lou springs into action, demanding detailed accoounts, splashing the story onpage1. It’s theTrib’s story, it’s News! But Mrs Pynchon refuses it. The story can run, but only inside. She will not allow ‘terrorists’ and ‘pathetic losers’ to manipulate the paper into serving their agenda, especially so as not to encourage anyone to think they only have to stick a gun in the face of someone at the Trib to get their publicity. Lou fumes, but has to admit the lady is right.

An excellent episode, and a good choice to hit the ground hard after the set-up job in the pilot. So far, Lou Grant holds up exceptionally well for something that’s forty years old.

Glad to be Red again


Then and Now

The defenstration of Mourinho and the appointment in a caretaker capacity of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Ollie!!!), assisted by another old Red in Mike Phelan has seen me in a happier frame of mind about my favourite club than I’ve been for a long time.

We have Ole, the hero of the third greatest moment of my life, in Barcelona, and Mickey Phelan, who never impressed me as a player but who turned out to be a bloody good coach: two men experienced in working at Old Trafford, steeped in the culture and traditions of the Club and I am now confident that, for the remainder of this shitty season, whether we do better or not in terms of results, we will be a lot more fun to watch.

That’s the thing. I prophecied three years ago that whatever he might achieve as Manager, Mourinho would leave is in tatters, worse than when he started. At work I make a big thing of how I don’t do ‘I told you so’s, I do ‘I wish I wasn’t right.’ Well, I TOLD YOU SO!!

I think the majority of United fans are going to be reasnable and sensible about the rest of this season, not that anyone outside our circle is going to accept that. We’ll still be painted as obnoxious and self-entitled.

There’s plenty of people willing to point out that Mourinho isn’t solely to blame, and they’re not wrong, but I’m amazed to find there’s still a strong contingent that are blaming everybody but Mourinho, as if after all the evidence we’ve seen, he only wants to be left alone to do what he wants and it’ll all come good. I can’t believe that, but maybe I should.

What does amaze me is the ones who are going on that appointing a caretaker manager is wrong, we should have kept Mourinho till the end of the season and sacked him them. I mean, apart from asking ifthey’ve ever heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns, do you seriously want five more months of this tortuous crap? And do you really want to give Mourinho an extra five months to fuck things up even worse than they already are?

From hereon in I don’t want to know from Mourinho. It’s over, it’s done, it was a fuck-up, let’s just concentrate on improving in any way we can from here to May, if we can pull off the FA Cup, wow, brilliant, but for God’s sake, let us play like Manchester United, that’s all I ask. Let’s die trying, let’s die being excited, let’s die going for it. And maybe we won’t die at all.

The Nothing Days


These are, as I may have observed before, the nothing days.

Whether you recognise Xmas as a religious occasion, as a season of peace, goodwill and family, as an opportunity for gift-giving and receiving or just an abhorrent pain in the arse that you really wish people would ignore, Xmas is a season that impacts on everyone, and the last days, as the occasion itself grows reluctantly near, are days that have no significance in themselves, except as way-stations.

Not everyone will see them that way, people with plans, events, parties, boozy nights out. Things to do. But many people, like me, who have completed their planning in advance, who have nothing but work, and ticking off days lying between us and next Tuesday, see these as nothing days, neither fish, fowl nor good red meat.

I’ve no-one left to buy me presents, and no-one to buy presents for. My only family is a younger sister, from whom I’ve been estranged for over fifteen years. We meet only at funerals, and barring any disaster affecting her children, which I hope and pray to anyone who has the least influence over such things, will never happen, we will not speak at the next one, for it will be one of us awaiting the flames that reduce us to the ashes that will be sprinkled on Plot C at Dukinfield Crematorium, rejoining that family of which we were once just the junior parts.

But presents there are, ordered and, except for the impulse buy off Amazon on Sunday that may or may not arrive before the day, received. And I divided the food into groups, some to be bought on each of the few shopping occasions permitted me by my shifts. Three more items tomorrow night, when I get out early and can get to ASDA, the fresh stuff – carrots, brussels, bread – on Saturday.

I’m working Sunday the 23rd, until 9.00pm, my working Sunday falling on that day. It’s better than last year, when it fell on Xmas Eve, and I was coming out at 9.00pm after the buses had stopped running at 6.30pm. This year, I will be in my pokey little bedsit for 9.25pm or thereabouts and, short of needing any emergency food and drink buys on Xmas Eve, I plan to lock the door behind me and the world out, and to have no contact with anyone beyond the ethereal medium of the internet until Thursday 27th at the earliest.

It’s all about a complete switch-off, a complete down-time, with only me and my own concerns to be concerned about. There are many people who couldn’t handle that, but for me it’s going to be a highlight.

I’ve a couple of mates I usually meet for a drink between Xmas and New Year, and I have an annual trip to Dukinfield Crematorium, for what will now be the 27th Anniversary of my mother’s passing which, with it being Saturday, I will combine with a visit to Manchester City Centre on the way home.

The rest of it will be new books, new graphic novels, new CDs and the DVD Box Set of The Big Bang Theory season 11. And writing, don’t forget the writing. I am currently turning the second draft chapters of my current novel into third draft chapters, with varying degrees of writing, and when that’s completed, I will be looking at certain of them in order to edit down or build up into fourth draft chapters. That’s discounting my regular features on this blog: there’ll be no stinting on these.

Writing will be the most important part of Xmas, as it is every day: writing keeps me sane.

Roll on the 23rd. Roll on shutting myself away. Roll on the peace of solitude. Roll on the Xmas turkey and the lager.

Person of Interest: s01 e02 – Ghosts


Who?…

I had an immediate intimation of how different watching Person of Interest is going to be last week. Whereas, with DS9 I was content to only watch the show once a week, after re-watching the PoI pilot, I desperately wanted to jump straight to this week’s episode, and probably more. After all, I’m used to devouring the series in three to four episode chunks.

So my first impression of episode 2 was of how little it seemed to contain. That’s a false impression, as the episode introduce two signature moves that are going to be the norm, one for the whole series, and one for the first two seasons. It also introduces the famous introdctory sequence as Finch monologues the show’s ethos and purpose, neatly, efficiently, economically, rather like The Prisoner of bygone memory, only with words instead of images.

However, at this stage, the show is built around the Numbers, so let’s start with that. This week’s number is Theresa Whittaker, a fifteen year old played by Valentina de Angelis. Someone wants to kill her. The problem is, Theresa’s dead, killed by her father in a murder/suicide two years ago. How do you find a ghost?

The answer is, piece by piece. Reese quickly determines that this was not a financially threatened father going off his head and killing his family, but rather  very professional hit job. He and Finch – whose first name we learn this week is Harold – narrow down the possibilities to find both the motivation (a land deal in which Greg Whittaker was a partner and which has now come off) and the assassin (now in prison but coerced into admitting the job, exceptthat he doesn’t kill children).

So Theresa, who’s been hiding on the street for two years, has become a target as Greg’s legal heir. Reese locates her, sets her up in a supposedly safe hotel under Finch’s guardianship, which looks to beof no avail as the assassin gets both of them in his sights – only for an offscreen Reese to shoot first.

That one’s going to be a trope. Many times after this will someone be facing execution only for a shot to ring out, but not be the obvious one. It’s a melodramatic touch.

Yet it’s easily bearable, because it comes as the culmination of a tense sequence where Finch, crippled by his game leg, his stiff neck and his general weakness, places himself in the line of fire to protect his charge, and where he also has the decency to apologise to Theresa for not letting her run away when she tried: he got that wrong.

There’s also an emotional ending as Theresa is reunited with her childless Aunt, indicating that the damage she’s suffered will be accounted for by love.

But that’s the Number of the Week, the procedural set-up that’s sold the series, which will dominate the first couple of seasons. There’s more to PoI than that. Reese and Finch are enigmas, and this episode intiates the procedure of filling in their blank pages. This is done by flashbacks, flashbacks seen through the medium of the Machine, clicking through its stored information. We have two, both of Finch, from 2002 and 2007. In both we see Finch moving freely, comfortably: he’s even running on a treadmill. In the first, he’s slowly developing the Machine whilst his friend? colleague? partner?, an unnamed man played by Brett Cullen, plays the frontman for them. In the second, the other man has discovered the fact of the Machine selecting ‘irrelevant’ numbers, confronts Finch over not saving them, and learns that Finch is being ruthless in cutting them out, because they are irrelevant. “We didn’t build the machine to save someone,” Finch states, switching off the multiple screens, each showing a victim or potential victim, “we built it to save everyone.” For a couple of seconds we see the last face: it is Reese’s lover, Jessica.

And Reese is using his spare moments to find out more about Finch in the present. Finch is aware of this, ahead of Reese, still determined to preserve his privacy. So he’s genuinely shocked when Reese arrives in his cubicle, where Harold Finch is a popular but quiet, self-effacing little man, a software engineer for seventeen years in a company no-one knows he owns.

At the end of the episode, Finch leaves his job, cutting off the trail stone dead, determined to control the employer/employee relationship with Reese. He leaves the company building with all his personal effects in a box – which he promptly dumps in an etrance hall bin. He passes a bust, in memorium to the company founder, the unnamed man.

These are the kind of sidelong information shards that cause more questions than they answer. The jigsaw doesn’t even have a shape yet. We know the picture but we don’t understand how it is constructed. We’ll build on this.

 

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Soldier of Sidon’


After the multiple-volume complexities of the respective Books of the Long and Short Suns and The Wizard Knight, it was a refreshing change to read a Gene Wolfe novel complete in a single volume of little more than 300 pages. Except that Soldier of Sidon is not complete, and neither is any Gene Wolfe novel uncomplicated. In relative terms, at least.
As the title immediately gives away, Soldier of Sidon is a sequel to the two volume Soldier ‘series’ of the mid-Eighties. The setting is completely different, in that the story takes place in what we now know as Egypt, as opposed to Greece, and Wolfe does establish, in his introduction, that there is a single scroll, and that it is strongly believed to be that of the Latro of the earlier works. The contents bear that out entirely.
To me, Soldier of Sidon is the last of Gene Wolfe’s novels that can be regarded as great. What follows are inevitably lesser work, though that is only in comparison with his previous standards. And in saying that, I’m flying in the face of a substantial portion of Wolfe’s following, who think the book unfit to be bracketed with its earlier companions, though it did win the 2007 World Fantasy Award.
I was surprised twenty years earlier when Wolfe terminated Latro’s story after only two books, though that may have been my assumption that, as his situation was a direct reversal of Severian’s, it would also be a four book series. Soldier of Arete ended abruptly, with Latro leaving Greece with the aid of the sea captain Muslak.
At the start of this latest book, we learn that Latro – though he refers to himself in the early stages by the name those around him use, Lewqas, a corruption of his real name, Lucius – is in Sidon with Maslak. In between times, Latro has returned home, which we only know to be on the other side of the sea but, presumably, somewhere in Roman lands, and has farmed this with his wife. But almost as soon as the scroll is commenced, these details vanish and the man without a memory does not refer to these again on any occasion he reads his papyrus.
The book is much simpler in structure and more focused, at least in its first half. Nuslak has called on Latro only to discover that his memory, which appears to have been through a manageable stage, is as bad as ever and he must be conveyed to Riverland in search of healers. On arrival in Kemet, a healer gives Latro his new scroll, commencing the story. Muslak’s boat, the Gades, is hired by Prince Achaemenes to travel down the Great River (Nile), as far south as possible, on a surveying mission that will take them to the neighbouring kingdom of Nubia.
Latro and Muslak hire ‘singing girls’, or ‘river-wives’, effectively temple prostitutes for the voyage, paying for them with a ‘gift’ at the end of the voyage. Latro’s is Myt-se’reu (Kitten) and Muslak’s her best friend, Neht-nefret. Latro soon forgets his wife back home, developing a genuine affection for Myt-se’reu that is reciprocated and which remains with him over gaps in the scroll.
The expedition is led by Quanju, and includes Thotmakef, the scribe, and Sahuset, a magician. Sahuset brings with him a woman who appears only to Latro, not because she is a goddess who is visible to him because of the head wound that has destroyed his ordinarymemory. She is Sabra, an artifica, a woman of clay, shaped and animated by Sahuset, but who is also activated, unintentionally, by Latro. Sabra demands blood – preferably female blood – to live independently.
In addition, there is Latro’s slave, Uraeas, who is a sacred cobra in human form.
The party travels south, with no apparent urgency, though this may be a function of Latro’s memory, which does not retain motive force and so begins each day in a state of inertia. As with the first two books, we see Egyptian life and culture of the period through Latro’s eyes, with a constant sense of passive wonder.
But at about the midpoint of the book, there is a substantial change of course. News comes of a young man, the King’s son, who has been taken and is being enslaved in mines off the route. Latro leads a force of men to raid the mines and recover the prince. It’s treated as if success is a foregone conclusion.
Instead, the raid is a failure. How and why we do not know, because Latro is deprived of his scroll for sufficient a time for his memories to vanish. When he resumes his account, he is a prisoner, a slave, and he remains in that state, traded from owner to owner, for much of the rest of the story.
At least he remains with Myt-se’reu: even through his fog, Latro is aware that he loves her, and insists that he will not be bought and sold without her accompanying him. Seeing that he is obviously very competent at killing, his successive owners decide that discretion is the better part of valour and treat the pair as a package.
Eventually, and by a coincidence that Wolfe pulls off mainly because he has the reader’s faith in him, Latro and Myt-se’reu are delivered from slavery after a meeting with the Nubian king, Seven Lions, whom the reader rather than anyone else identifies as his ally, the black man of the first two books.
Latro travels south into Nubia to come to Seven Lions’ capitol, where the two settle for a time, and Latro can meet Nubian as opposed to Egyptian gods, but all the while Muslak and the Gades has been searching for him, having gotten ahead of the mines raiding party (which does succeed in freeing the captive Prince, leaving us to assume, from his having taken such a step later on, that Latro was captured whilst acting as rearguard, to prevent pursuit).
Despite Wolfe having made plain, in the foreword, that there was only a single scroll, the ending is disappointingly open. Latro’s capture in the unexplained attack on the mines sees him lose his sword, Falcata, which is as much a part of him as any of his native instincts and feelings. He is determined to recover it, though he seems to take no notice of Sabra’s warning that Sahuset, the magician, has it and will not return it. All his friends agree to lend their aid in his quest, though when Latro refuses Seven Lions – who has come north again with him for this purpose – his vengeance when his queen has her blood drained, he loses the black man’s friendship.
But then the Gades sails away, with all on board, and Latro left behind, minds clouded by Sahuset to ‘see’ their friend aboard. Latro’s scroll, which he has now filled, and hands over to Sahuset, goes with them.
There had to be another sequel, everyone decided, me amongst them, though ‘finding’ a fourth scroll in a third different location would involve a dreadful contrivance. There was no sequel, and with Wolfe now 87, a widower and the survivor of double heart bypass surgery, with no new books since 2015, it seems we have come to the end of Latro’s story.
And such a bleak ending. In twenty-four hours time, he will awake with no memory of who he is, what he is, where he is, and no-one who knows him to remind him of anything. The man who has seen so many Gods and Goddesses, and who has always striven to carry out the tasks they have set him for, will cease to be in any meaningful aspect. He will not return to his wife, his farm, his family. Not even to Myt-se’reu, whom he loved, but who at the last was eager to leave him and return to her life.
Yet Wolfe’s ending, cruel though it is, has to be seen as inevitable. Latro has been cursed by a Goddess, to life without knowledge of himself. He has fought the end of that as any proficient mercenary would, and with greater strength than most, in his own cause, but Gods and Goddesses, if you accept them, cannot be beaten off forever. We can only hope that human kindness may still surround him.
Like the first two Soldier books, Soldier of Sidon is at its heart an historical fiction, immaculately researched, that places the ever-receptive Latro in the midst of a culture long gone, in which people think and act according to the times in which they live. There are no transplanted Twenty-First century opinions and activities, and with one exception, no ironical foreshadowing of what lies many centuries ahead. Even the gods and goddesses of Latro’s perception have no great quests or tasks in mind. The story takes place in Kemet, not Egypt, though it’s the obvious reference point for the reader.
Soldier of Sidon won the 2007 World Fantasy Award. Though a later book would receive a nomination, it was the last of Wolfe’s books to be recognised thus. It is the last of his major works. Though the books that follow are all of interest, and are all typically Wolfean, they do not reach the level of the works I’ve reviewed to date. Let us begin the coda.