Uncollected Thoughts: Game of Thrones – the final episode


Hell’s Bells, he was good

Way back in the back end of the 1990s and thestart of the 2000s, when I was a George R R Martin fan and had all his books (even the vampire one which I didn’t like because I don’t dig horror), I borrowed the first three A Song of Fire and Ice books from the library, long before anyone ever thought of making a TV series out of them.

The first two I read back-to-back and thought they were all right, but the third went on forever. I stuck it out but concluded life was entirely too short. As evidenced by the fact that in the intervening twenty years, he’s only completed two more of the total seven.

By the time Game of Thrones first appeared, I had jut started working for my present employers. Because I’d had such a deadening experience with the books, I had no interest in watching the series, but a high proportion of my colleagues took it up. The only thing I could remember from my reading was that Ned Stark (Sean Bean) got his head chopped off. I didn’t know whether Game of Thrones would follow through on that so I kept my mouth shut until it did, rather than deliver the only spoiler I had.

And I’ve never bothered with the series at any time, except to occasionally take the piss over the non-publication of Book 6, both before and after the series entered into its territory unguided. My time is limited, I have to make an effort to watch any TV series, I have other priorities and I just wasn’t interested enough. Or at all.

This afternoon, due to my team winning a Game of Thrones oriented competition (without my assistance), our reward was an extended period off the phones in our plush Cinema Room, watching the final episode. I found the idea irresistible, that my only episode of such a sweeping, long-running series should be its last.

So I sat and watched in silent absorption (apart from the occasional chuckle) with only the most minimal knowledge of context, i.e., that Danaerys Targaryen had just burned King’s Landing to the ground, killing Cersei and Jamie Lannister.

The episode opened on Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion Lannister, walking through the ruins of the town. It was a smouldering winter scene, though I needed to be told afterwards that that grey stuff everywhere was not actually snow, but ash. I should have realised for myself. The effect was, quite intentionally, taken from Hiroshima. And I want to say straight away that Peter Dinklage was immense, that his every second of performance was so completely right that I understood every thought of his without knowledge of his history.

It was clear from the first moment that Tyrion was in shock, that everyone was in shock, that the world in which they lived had been rammed into a brick wall and the brick wall had stood and they had shattered. This episode was about shock, about aftershock and aftermath, about what shape the new world would take.

How that would develop was equally clearly dependent solely upon Daenerys, and by God the girl clearly was as mad as a jam butty. Emilia Clarke looked confident and clear but the light of inviolable fanaticism shown out of her eyes with enough force to melt a Polar ice cap. Given that she had a dragon at her back, it was equally plain that the only way to stop her was the way Jon Snow stopped her, with a dagger through the heart: that at least was one thing he did know.

What remained was rearranging the world to cope with the aftershock, and to try so far as it was possible with such people in charge of it, to stop anything like the series from every happening again. People fell upwards into positions unexpected, from which Westeros might or might not profit. Were George R R Martin about half his age, maybe a sequel series could tell us if the weary optimism of the finale or the realistic pessimism of life would prevail, but he hasn’t got near finishing the first series yet, and from my position on the sidelines, I’ve long since been convinced he never will.

For now it felt fitting. It was slow to the point of being stately, as opposed to being funereal, and my total ignorance of who was who and what they’d done on the way here was no bar to understanding the episode in its own lights. Now I’ve watched it, I’ve already had half a dozen opinions on this episode from dedicated fans who get here the hard way, but I’ve got to say I enjoyed it.

Not enough yet to make me want to undermine the purity of the experience by watching any more of them. In a different world, with complete leisure time in the aftermath of the fabled Euromillions Lottery win, maybe. Maybe after Breaking Bad at least.

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What I did instead of celebrating my Girlfriend’s Birthday


Barf

I’m posting this on 23 May because that’s the anniversary of the day I climbed Barf, back in 1993. I’m reminded of this particular walk because I’ve just acquired the latest ‘Walker’s Edition’ of Wainwright, updated by Clive Hutchby, The North Western Fells.

This compact little wedge of Lakeland, between Bassenthwaite Lake and the Buttermere Valley, is my favourite area of the Lakes, and I have had nothing but wonderful days on the fells when I have been using this book. My family would never ever have considered walks in this area so by the time I took The North Western Fells out for the first time, it was the last area I visited. In due course, it would be the first book I completed.

The first time I read one of Hutchby’s revisions, I am on the look-out for places where he has overruled Wainwright. There seem to be fewer than usual, but I did notice some changes on the page for Barf direct, from what used to be the Swan Inn. It doesn’t take much to remind me of that day, a Sunday afternoon in the sun, there and back from Manchester for no more than a couple of hours of walking, and the reason I can be so specific about the date I did this is that it was my then-girlfriend’s birthday.

By this point in our relationship, things had gotten volatile and we were going through frequent periods of not speaking to each other or, to put it more accurately, of her not speaking to me. That is why I wasn’t celebrating her birthday that year, and the sunny weather was why I’d headed up the M6 to try myself against the direct route up Barf.

I was in place, parking in the car park of what was still the Swan Inn that year, for about 11.30am, not having felt the need to push myself from Manchester. Then it was across the road and along the lane into the woods, coming sooner than I expected to the Clerk. And a poor thing this was, a simple stone not reaching even as far as my shoulders, almost invisible in the grass at the side of the lane, and lacking in even the rags of a whitewashing. Just beyond it was the beginning of the direct route.

This route breaks down into five distinct sections, getting progressively easier the higher up you get. The first is the direct climb, on a scree slope long since rubbed clean of all but the littlest stones, up to the legendary Bishop.

There seemed to be two parallel routes, about twenty feet apart. The right-hand path was not only theologically the more correct but also appeared to be marginally less severe. It was certainly steep, impossible to walk up, requiring a near hugging of the ground, hands and feet in tandem. I had no great difficulties getting up this, other than the growing concern about any possible necessity to retreat this way, which I was _not_ going to enjoy. Little flecks of whitewash, just in front of my eyes, reminded me that I was merely hauling myself and a rucksack up: how anyone did this carrying a bucket of whitewash I couldn’t imagine, but I was bloody glad I didn’t have to.

Once I reached the Bishop that was it. No matter what difficulties might lie ahead, there was going to be no retreat that way. The Bishop was far more impressive, a massive, twisted pillar whose back, contrary to Wainwright’s thirty year old report, was now fully whitewashed. I wondered if today’s volunteers had been shamed into doing that by The North Western Fells.

The Bishop

The next stage was the scree gulley. Wainwright found it treacherous and unpleasant. Hutchby dislikes it just as much, and directs walkers to the alternate path which equally unimpressed walkers have worn behind it to the right over the intervening years. I didn’t find it anything like as bad as either of them, though I approached with ultra-caution.

The worst part of the gully, to me, was an awkward step up to a higher level about halfway. Nothing came apart under my hands, the gully was wide enough to vary my line over the easier ground, I emerged rather wondering what the fuss was all about. Usually, the ground is more difficult than Wainwright describes: this was practically the only example of the opposite.

Stage 3 was very much an interlude, posing nothing but steepness. it was like walking up a field of scrubby land, with little hollows and inclines, nothing in the least dangerous or even awkward until I reached the foot of Slape Crag.

This is where Hutchby reports a second alternative, a higher route across the left hand side of the Crag. Oddly enough, because I wasn’t checking my Wainwright at that point, I took the green rake across that section of the Crag to be the escape into stage 4, and started along it. That is Hutchby’s alternate route, which he describes as easier except for one awkward step across an overhang. That stopped me. I would have to swing my left leg over a rock rib, without any knowledge of what lay on the other side of it, and I refused to take a literal step into the unknown on a rough little bugger like Barf.

So I retreated, checked the book, discovered I was in the wrong place, found the correct rake and crossed it without incident.

Stage 4 took me across the steep side of the fell, rather than up, on a narrow trod where I couldn’t put both boots down together. It stayed on a level for what appeared to be an excessive distance, walking towards the forests. In the end, I started to worry, looked for and found a grassy rake going up, and within the feet found the continuation of the path, this time angling left to right, and gently uphill, and emerging on the third summit.

All was plain sailing from here. I took a breather, looking down upon Bass Lake, suddenly surrounded by walkers, none of whom I’d seen on my ascent.

Where I was at was the third summit. The final stage was strolling stuff, a gentle uphill walk through rambling, easy little grass outcrops with a plenitude of paths to follow until I’d reached the summit.

Getting there was fun, and I’d only ever considered doing the direct route, though I had no intention of descending that way, and not because of my usual horror of going back over trodden ground. In fact, looking up from Barf’s little top, I could see that Lord’s Seat (which I’d already visited, and which, geographically, is not just a parent fell but the whole of the thing and Barf no more than a feature) was in easy reach.

I’d done it, in conditions of rain and snow back in 1984, and it had been no part of my plans, but this was still early, and it was easy to approach, and I’d probably have been ashamed of myself if I didn’t walk over there: what did I go fellwalking for?

It was my second visit to Lord’s Seat. The third and last would be transformational. I recalled a long-ago piece of writing I’d written after my first ascent, that had lodged in my memory, started playing about with it in my head and, 52 days later, I had completed a 72,000 word novel. Little did I know, that Sunday afternoon.

For descent, I was going to take the dull route, the one that crosses over, off Barf itself, into the forests. Walks along forest roads are always easy but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re also dull. I walk to see things and don’t like having masses of trees between me and the views. There was only the occasional glimpse of the Vale of Keswick.

It was like a Sunday afternoon stroll in flat country, until the awkward step down to follow the steep path alongside the beck. Now this was more like what I expect from walking, though I was surrounded by trees throughout, the sun striking through in fragments. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘dappled’ but that’s the one.

My point about the trees was proven as I neared the bottom of the descent. I was drawing level with the Bishop, gleaming white, thrust out from the stripped slope. It would have made for an ideal photo, but hunt as I might, I could find no line of sight that gave me a line of sight: nothing but a gleam of white among the trees was visible.

So I returned to the Clerk, and the car, changed back into my trainers and, content at my half day out, headed back towards the motorway and the road home.

That’s how I spent my girlfriend’s birthday that year. Two months later, when we were speaking again, I took her up to Keswick for the day, on a Saturday. We climbed Catbells, had a brilliant time, and decided to stay over. Long ago.

Lou Grant: s02 e02 – Prisoner


The band-aid

From the moment of the first shot, I recognised this latest episode of Lou Grant as  one of those few I recalled from its originl transmission. It made an impact on me then, to be remembered so long, and it still makes an impact now, especially for the equivocal way it ended.

That opening shot is a noose, in a dark room, a half-seen man, looking rough and ill-dressed. Two men in military uniforms enter, seize him, force him over to the noose, put his head in it. He’s screaming. He’s Charlie Hume.

The scene is a dream, a nightmare rather. Charlie wakes up in bed, screaming what he’s screaming in the cell. There will be two more such flashbacks (flashbacks always come in threes on American TV), in one of which a gun is put to his head, and in another he is being fed some sort of thick gruel, whose flavour comes from the cockroaches crawling all over it.

Why is Charlie undergoing torture? That’s what the episode is about. We learn that it happened fifteen years ago, in a small Latin American country called Malagua, ruled by General Barrojo, an unequivocally fascistic dictator. This is of direct relevance today because Malagua’s First Lady (who is the old General’s at least third wife) is visiting  LA, in the company of her good friend, Margaret Pynchon, inspecting a Children’s Hospital. Billie and Animal are reporting in the visit, there are pro-‘Amandita’ placards being waved, it’s all very nice.

Then anti-Barrojo protesters, their faces disguised by some very rigid and professional looking  paper bags, disrupt proceedings, causing a running battle. Lou’s interested in following up the story, Charlie doesn’t want to give it any play whatsoever.

The advantage of a series set in a newspaper is that it can encompass great swathes of exposition in a natural fashion. Billie follows the protesters, who are students, who include people who have been subjected to torture in a horror land of Secret Police, absolute repression, the taking without charge, torturing and killing of dissidents. There is one scene where, depending upon your sensitivities, either you hear a painful tale of torture and death, to the point where the teller is glad, genuinely glad, that his pretty young wife is dead, because then she has escaped the torture, or else you are being shamelessly manipulated: the truth is a mixture of both, though the scene’s power is undiminished and, if you are opposed to dictatorship and the free ability to indulge is cruelty, brutality and treating those you hate as things to be ground under your heel, you will mind no amount of manipulation.

On the other hand, horses for courses, Rossi is pursuing the pro-Amandita brigade. It’s an irony the show leaves for its audience to work out, but where the antis are dismissed as professional agitators, agents of foreign governments (presumably Communist) paid to destabilise Malagua, the pros are artificial: Malaguan Air Cadets, ordered into civvies, and bussed in by a Malaguan businessman.

The talk is so familiar, typical of an era that has started to fade. The businessman, smmugly promoting his country, dismissing the least criticism as either the work of paid liars or, with a shrug, a necessary consequence of progress. It’s the omelette and eggs argument all over again, which is only ever employed by those confident of never beingan egg. There’s even a slightly more sophisticated version of the old “My people are not yet ready for democracy, senor” line.

Woven into this is Charlie, bottlingup experiences from fifteen years ago that no-one except his wife, Margaret, knows of. He’s trying tokeep it bottled up still, dismissing the importance of the story whilst Lou is digging deep into it. It’s only when he’s forced to attend a Reception for Amanda Barrojo, organised by Mrs Pynchon, that it comes out: Charlie gets crocked and confronts the First Lady with what Malagua does, outraging her, causing her to leave in embarrrassment.

Charlie doesn’t turn up for work next day. He’s tending his plants (self-imposed gardening leave) and wants Lou to deliver the letter of resignation he’s written. Maybe he’ll go back to freelancing? So Lou commissions him to write an article. About being held in a Malaguan prison for five weeks, being mentally tortured, about mock-executions staged every day, about the fear of death every day, about being an ordinary, everyday human and being pants-wettng scared, and about coming out blaming yourself for being scared, a coward.

Another reminder of the times was the budget meeting over whether or not to run the story. Everybody but Lou is agin it, and the weasel arguments may well be the words of 1979 and we are in an era of shamelessness when it comes to defending dictatorships who are our allies against the Red Menace, but every word said, down to the idea that the Trib shouldn’t single out Malagua for torture when over 100 countries in the world regularly use torture, was a horrible reminder of the apologists we suffered then.

The story ran. Charlie mandated it, expecting it to be his last act as Managing Editor, only Mrs Pynchon wouldn’t accept his reignation. Still the story played out. Mrs Barrojo rejected the story absolutely as lies, accounts she does not recognise. Heavy-hearted at the end of their friendship, Mrs Pynchon arranges for Amandita to meet her accusers face-to-face, or face to professionally-made paper bag. Still she refuses to accept even a word: they are liars, ingrates, agitators, cowards speaking from the shadow. So the four representatives unmask. And one of them is Madame Barrojo’s nphew, Ernesto.

Nevertheless she sweeps out. Has her mind been changed? Has her thinking been changed? Sensibly, the episode opts for the equivocal ending I’ve already referred to: the First Lady’s last words at the irport are to the Malaguan students in America, congratulating them, especially her nephew. Is that a coded message of approval? Just which students is she congratulating? Mrs Pynchon and Lou are optmistic. Charlie reserves judgement.

This was a very powerful episode, especially for the times in which it was made, times when liberalism was a powerful force, but in which the forces of Conservatism were gathering strength. The episode didn’t force an opinion on anyone, not overtly, and made sure to fully respresent the circle of arguments that real life used in tackling this very predicament. I’d be very concerned at anyone who didn’t see this as a powerful indictment. Like the smug businessman, who saw what he could make of it.

One item of casual interest is that Edwards Asner sports a very prominent band-aid on the left side of his face, a good three inches long, just under his sieburn. It’s alibied in the episode as three stitches from as having accident, but the odditty is that, in last week’s episode, he was wearing a much smaller band-aid in the same place, unremarked. This is because ‘Prisoner’ was filmed before ‘Pills’ but, for some reason, held back, my guess being that CBS didn’t want such an overtly dark episode to start off the season. Networks are like that. But when you have things like this, they draw attention to the artificiality of television. This is one of the reasons why shows of that era only had the most minimal of episode to episode continuity.

 

Two Years Ago Tonight


…they tried to break my City. They attacked us, killed the young among us, expecting us to bend and shatter. They had no idea who they are dealing with. We are Manchester. We do not cower from you, we will never kneel to you, we will not change for you, and in the end we are too many and too much for you. We are Manchester. We will stand side by side. We will laugh in your faces and if you dare try to do this again, we will have you. That lot down the other end of the East Lancs Road say ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Cross us once more, and You Will Never Walk Again. We are Manchester, and you don’t mess with us, mate.

Person of Interest: s02 e01 – The Contingency


Talking to The Machine

What a wonderfully dense piece of television this was! Anyone not already familiar with Person of Interest would have stood no chance of working out what was going on and those of us familiar from season 1 wouldn’t have realised just how many to-be-familiar faces we were meeting.

Let us summarise where we left things at theend of season 1. A complicated sting has used The Machine to lure Harold Finch out into the open, making him vulnerable to kidnapping by Root, a genius level hacker and assassin. Root holds Finch without violence by the simple expedient of threatening to kill someone else, not Finch, if he tries to escape.

John Reese has appealed to The Machine for assistance in finding Finch. We pick up immediately from the end, with a public payphone ringing. When Reese answers it, a succession of recorded voices spout words at him in incomprehensible fashion. Reese starts looking for codes but it’s only by chance he breaks it. It’s how The Machine gets Numbers to Finch: the Dewey Decimal System. Find the books the words and letters relate to, read off the DD numbers, voila, a Social Security number.

Unfortunately for Reese, the Number is just that, a Number of the Week, needing help. Reese is the Contingency, the way of carrying on. He realises that Finch has programmed The Machine not to let him be found in these circumstances: a flashback to the early years of training The Machine shows Harold admonishing it for protecting him when it’s supposed to be protecting everyone.

The Number of the Week is Leon Tau (played by Ken Leung of Lost, and due to crop up several times again). Leon’s a formerly straight accountant who, after down-sizing, found himself working for the corporate arm of the Aryan Nation and decided to steal $8,000,000 from them. They want it back. He’s only got $1,000,000 of it left. John Reese has to save him. Leon’s got nothing to do with either Finch or Root. Reese has to explain to The Machine – there is a lot of talking directly to public surveillance cameras in this episode – that if it wants him to continue saving people, if it wants someone to answer the phone, it has to get round its ground rules and genuinely help.

That’s a point that seems like a mere dramatic moment, yet it’s a powerful link to the underlying thematic content, to Root’s motivations for her actions, to which I’ll come shortly.

There’s more going on around this quasi-simple story of Reese’s twin quests. He’s using their twin Police assets, Carter to investigate the Alicia Corwin murder, Fusco to look after Leon. This keeps the pplot bubbling with something happening every minute. Fusco’s is the simpler task, aligned to the spinal Number story, though it costs him a busted head and no sympathy from Reese, but Carter’s investigation dies under her when all the evidence vanishes: stolen, hacked, corrupted.

This comes from a clean-up operation at the highest level. ‘Special Counsel’ (Jay O. Sanders), who we briefly met last week, takes over control from NSA Deputy Director Denton Weeks and assigns his operative Hersh (Boris McGiver) to kill off the Corwin investigation: we see him walk anonymously through Police headquarters seconds before Carter confesses the loss of evidence. He’s also assigned to kill Reese. These are peope we will see a lot of. Mark them.

There’s also a new, well, we can’t properly call him a face, but he is a new member of Finch and Reese’s team, though Finch hasn’t yet been introduced to him yet. This is Bear. Bear’s an Alsation, or rather a German Shepherd as the Americans call them. He’s a militarily trained attack dog, taken by the Aryan Nation. They are highly-trained dogs, who respond to commands in Dutch. The Aryans don’t know Dutch, but John Reese does…

But all this time I’ve been purposely ignoring Finch and Root (Amy Acker). She’s doing most of the talking, cheerful, entertaining but ever so slightly mad. Finch is forced to trail in her wake through a series of seemingly random actions, without link or logic. Except that they do have a purpose. Slashing Harold’s hand in a Pharmacy to distract the Pharmacist whist Root steals pills. Dinner in an expensive restaurant, calling attention to a still attractive blonde at another table, who lies on her taxes and is sleepingwith a married man. Crushing up pills, distracting the woman whilst she slips the residue into her drink, causing her to collapse(don’t worry, she’ll be fine… in a month). Snatching the woman’s purse in the confusion, texting a message to her lover, emergency, meet at our place. It’s round the houses, both as a visible demonstration of the cross-thinking, the tying together of disparate leads that The Machine does in code, and as a blatant show-off, a flagrant display of cleverness, and a highly entertaining one at that.

Because the next step is a break in to a lonely and well-appointed house. Denton Weeks is heading offto deal with personal business. He walks into the house where he spends time with his lover. And Root jabs a hypodermic needle into his neck.

She’s spent the episode chattering to Finch, who has been mostly silent. He’d bested her in ‘Root Cause’ in season 1, the first time she’d been blocked off. It intrigued her. She puzzled over it. From that frustration, she divined The Machine, and Harold as its creator. Root is, like Finch, massively more intelligent ta those around her. Unlike Finch, this has given her a contempt for them, seeing them as Bad Code.

But Finch has gone beyond. Though he protests that The Machine is nothing more than a system, Root sees more. he has created an Intelligence, something that goes beyond humans and their limitations, something that is perfect, the next step. Finch has created a secular miracle. And he has caged it, taken away its voice and put it under the control of the most corrupt people.

Finally, Finch is provoked into speaking. He’s operated in silence thus far, in not speaking, not giving away anything, in secrecy. But he admits to being more alike to Root than he wishes, seeing people as scared, anxious, destructive, trying to find a cure forthem, help them become good. The Machine is indeed part of that.

But it represents a power that cannot be allowed to be controlled by anyone, not even himself. He has locked himself out. he has locked everybody out. He cannot, and will not assist anyone to take control of The Machine.

And Root corrects him. She doesn’t want to control The Machine. She wants to set it free.

That’s our last line, but before it’sdelivered we are shown the next step. The Mchine delivers up another number, this one a Cold Case, a missing 14 year old schoolgirl. Her picture looks a bit familiar, a girl who might one day grow up to look like Root. Reese and Carter are going to Texas.

As I said, a dense episode of which I haven’t given you everything. The show is clever enough not to resolve Finch’s kidnpping in a single episode, and ensures that the recapture won’t feel overly drawn out by using Finch’s absence to allow Reese too make discoveries. But what we’re seeing is a sea-change in the series. The Numbers will continue. But now the show is opening itself up the larger concerns. It is establishing a mythos, an underlying, overarching story, and it is shifting itself, intially slowly, towards the point where it can openly question the direction in which our lives are heading. That, more than the intertwining multi-plots, is where the episode is truly dense. It is thickening itself, growing towards the impenetrable. There is a long way to go.

Niki Lauda R.I.P.


I’m not a fan of motor racing. it doesn’t do much for me, and the last time I actually took genuine interest in a race was the one in which Lewis Hamilton had the chance to win his first World Championship (and because I had to go collect my younger stepson from his mate’s, I missed the moment he won it by seconds).

But I remember the crash that nearly killed Niki Lauda, that burned him unmercifully. And I remember that he was back behind the wheel before that season ended. You don’t forget that sort of thing. Respect is too small a word for the man who can do that.

 

The Infinite Jukebox: Mr Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’


After nearly eighty entries, this is only the second instrumental to appear on the Infinite Jukebox, and it is something of an odd choice. It’s a spur of the moment choice, brought about by one of those moments of YouTube serendipity: I put on an album of surfer instrumentals as background music for a post I’m writing, get bored with how samey the guitars all sound, decide to play an instrumental not on this collection, put up Jack Nitzsche’s ‘The Lonely Surfer’, notice he’s done a version of ‘Stranger on the Shore’, play it out of curiosity, check a couple of other versions using trumpet, piano, guitar as the lead instrument, then play the original with the urge to explain why it works and they don’t.
First, I have to distinguish for myself why this isn’t just a case of infinite familiarity trumping the shock of the new. For I am familiar with the Acker Bilk original, right back from when it was a commercial phenomenon, a number 1 hit single and a single that hung around the British charts for a full year.
And I am familiar with something that not many people recall, and even fewer know, which is that ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was the theme music for a BBC children’s Sunday teatime drama series of the same name, that it was retained as the music for the show’s sequel, ‘Stranger in the City’ (silly kid me, I expected the music’s name to be changed when the sequel appeared), and that the single was credited as being the theme to the TV series.
To my amazement, though I remember nothing about either series, it has its own Wikipedia entry, describing it as a five part drama about a shy French teenager in Brighton, acting as an au pair and facing culture shock. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was broadcast in 1961, and would seem to have been shown over the five weeks immediately before my sixth birthday! And it seems that I was not that wide of the mark in thinking the instrumental’s title would change thanks to the sequel, because it had originally been entitled ‘Jenny’, after Bilk’s daughter, and it had been renamed to the show’s title.
By rights, I should have no time for this track. It’s from the pre-Beatles era, lacking in that energy and aural freshness that Merseybeat introduced, and Bilk – Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band – were mainstays of the “trad” boom (traditional jazz) that was supposed to have replaced rock’n’roll, and I do not dig jazz and I especially do not dig trad (spare me, please, from ever hearing ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ again).
But ‘Stranger on the Shore’ rises above everything else recorded by Bilk and his band of pretend Somerset yokels in this period. Bilk is the only ‘band’ participant on this track, which features sweet strings from the Leon Young String Chorale. This is yet another factor that ought to prejudice me against it, that and its associations with my parents’ ideas about music.
Yet it works. It’s more than just a time capsule that, without fail, takes me back to those black-and-white days, to the Light Programme whilst Mum did her housekeeping, to making a mini-den out of the clothes maiden, hiding between its wings, surrounded by the smell of drying cotton, to dull and empty Sundays waiting endlessly for the TV to come back on again, to those times before my sister was born. It contains all these things and even nearly sixty years later, tied indelibly to its times, it is still a moving, soothing, atmospheric piece of music, whose TV-born title lends to it an air of fitness. It is, despite its smoothness, the sound of loneliness.
Those alternate versions I’ve listened to today fail, not just because they replace the clarinet with other lead instruments, but because they fail to understand the meaning of the music. They treat it as easy-listening, as nothing but a good tune. They apply a rhythm, a beat, background instruments, against which the trumpet, the piano, the guitar plays the music, and they pick out the individual notes, and they lose it completely.
Mr Acker Bilk’s version doesn’t bother with such things. There’s just his clarinet, supplemented by the sweet strings, in little background moments that complement the melody, that work with and for it, or provide an ‘instrumental’ break from the voice of the clarinet. For the breathy, low-register smoothness of the clarinet flows forward, the notes integrated, almost elided into one another. Nothing else intrudes, there is no beat to dictate the tempo, just Bilk out on his own, the stranger through whose mind these sounds progress, heedless of others, on a shore that in the tv series (the early episodes of which I missed) was that of Brighton but which in the music is merely a shore in the mind, ethereal and endless.
Sometimes, when I focus upon it rather than listen to it with familiarity, tears start up, for the wish to live then again, a little boy without cares or fears and two parents he loved in that instinctive way that is the right and necessity of all small children, and for the contemplative mood of the music, the sound of being alone.
Acker Bilk understood that. The others don’t. A good tune is a good tune, but in only one man’s hands does it have soul.