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.

Film 2019 – Casablanca

What could I possibly say about Casablanca that hasn’t been said thousands of times, by hundreds of people far better qualified to say it? This is a classic film, a film with a cast that not only stars three of the most popular actors of the time but also a supporting cast of great range and strength, not to mention hundreds of extras, many of whom were themselves refugees, and whose personal experience gave the film a solid underpinning of realistic emotion that no American actor could have emoted.

I don’t really need to describe the story of Casablanca to any of you. It’s many films in one: a love story, a war story, a nobility story, a comic story, even to some extent a documentary film, reproducing for American audiences of the time, and succeeding generations, a part of the experience of those fleeing the Nazis, in fear of their lives.

Casablanca is a way-station, a stop on the (fictional) route for refugees: Paris to Marseilles, to Oran, to Casablanca, to Lisbon, to then-neutral America. But Casablanca is a bottleneck, where refugees arrive only to wait, some endlessly, to the exit-visas that permit them to board the Lisbon plane. These are highly-desired and thus expensive, as is anything that people desperately need that is limited.

Whilst they wait, those who can still afford it attend Rick’s American Cafe. Rick is Humphrey Bogart: cynical, relaxed, in control. Rick is himself a refugee: his past is a mystery, but we know that he has previously supported quixotic causes. Now he’s withdrawn from the fight, makes money through the Cafe, sticks his neck out for no-one.

Someone important is coming to Casablanca, someone who must not be allowed to leave. This is Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance leader and a symbol of hope for many nations. He is played by Paul Henreid, who didn’t want to play the role but who was mollified by equal billing with Bogart and the film’s third star, Laszlo’s travelling companion, Ilsa Lund, who is Ingrid Bergman. Ilsa, we will learn a longway into the film, is Laszlo’s wife.

But she was once in love with Rick, in Paris before the Germans occupied it. They were both in love, strangers who asked no questions of each other, but who clearly transcended what might have been meant as a casual love affair but which became an overpowering commitment. Until Ilsa left Rick standing in the rain at the train station where they were supposedto leave Paris together.

Victor Laszlo needs the stolen letters of transit to leave Casablanca with his wife. Rick has them, but is fully aware that Laszlo is too hot to handle, if he were prepared to handle anything. Ilsa enters Rick’s not knowing that he is the Richard Blaine she met and loved in Paris until she sees Rick’s house pianist Sam, who is Dooley Wilson, actually a drummer, and a crooner of the jazz songs of the time, who brings his smokey voice to the film’s central song, the classic ‘As Time Goes By’.

No, she doesn’t say ‘Play it Again, Sam’, nor Rick later, in fact no-one does. But she asks him to play it for her, and Wilson looks and sings into space, knowing what will follow and having done everything he can to try to prevent the landslide. For this is an Our Song that summarises for two people what was once, and two people meet again, who never expected to see each other. Pain, and memories are invoked on both sides, what was and ended becomes what could be again.

This is what plays out through the film, and what guides every step. Around it, there are scenes which reflect the essential core of the film, moments, hints, allusions. There are deep undercurrents in every part of the film, but it’s successlies in how these are played out entirely on the surface. Everyone in the film, of whatever nationality, has a story behind them which is never given, but whose performances illustrate it. Some elements had to be kept buried thanks to the Production Code: it cannot be stated that the cheerfullyand unashamedly Prefect of the French Police, Captain Louis Renault, played delightfully by Claude Rains, extorts sexual favours from attractive young refugees in exchange for exit visas, nor that Rick had sex with Ilsa, not only in Paris, when she believed her husband was dead, but here in Casablanca.

This latter moment has a deliberate echo in the film. Annina Brandel (Joy Page), a young Bulgarian refugee, eight weeks married, approaches Rick to ask how trustworthy Captain Renault is: by allusions and ellipses we understand that hehas offered them an escape to America if she lets him bed her. It is a monstrous thing, especially for a young wife, young in years as well as in marriage. Annina seeks from Rick confirmation that if she does this thing, it will not be in vain, that Renault will keep his end of the bargain. She also seeks a larger, and in many ways more important assurance: that to do this evil is yet a good thing, if it is done for another, if it is kept strictly secret forever, and if, should it ever be learned, it is forgivable because it was not done out of selfishness. Rick is the last person to present this scenario to, or ask this of. Annina, trying to convince herself, affects an air of knowing, a claim thatshe is in many ways older than Jan, who is at the roulette table, trying and failing to win the money that will remove this burden from her.

And Rick does a thing which is out of character for him as presented throughout, which is to go to the roulette table, direct Jan to put his money on 22, and nod to his croupier. The number comes up, twice, and Jan has the money to buy the exit visa.

It’s a brief scene, with much of its purpose both under the surface yet on it, and whilst it shows Rick as possessing a heart that can be touched, it foreshadows Ilsa’s visit to Rick on the last night. They have to have the Letters of Transit, or Victor Laszlo will be killed in Casablanca: Rick is withholding them because of Ilsa, and Paris.

She rationalises, she pleads, she holds a gun on him, but that she cannot do. Emotionally exhausted, she collapses into his arms, unable to resist her feelings for him any longer. She loves Victor, but she also loves Rick. In an era when filmmaking meant it had to be one or the other, Bergman conveys to us that she loves both, and that she understands that both need her in their different ways. Victor has refused to leave her behind, at his own risk, many times. She is a part of him, and thus of his work, and without her he will be diminished, perhaps as fatally as if he were to die in Casablanca. But she is responsible for Rick in Casablanca: it is because of her. And she cannot fight him anymore. It isn’t said, or shown, but they make love that night. It is Annina’s story, without a Rick to intercede and avert a betrayal.

Victor Laszlo is in the closed down Rick’s that night, fleeing the Germans. He too asks for the Letters of Transit, but it is not himself and Ilsa. Henreid didn’t want the part, saying tthat Laszlo was a stiff, but he plays him with a wonderful calm, and an intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, that enables him to see beneath the surface, to understand, assess and accept what he doesn’t know, yet realises. Laszlo wants Rick to use the Letters to take Ilsa away, to save her life by joining her to Rick, to allow her both kinds of freedom in one moment.

Then he is arrested, and arrest will mean death.

Rick, the bitter man, the cynic, tries to pull the wool over our eyes. He will do as Laszlo said, he will get out of Casablanca, and he will takeIlsa for herself. What’s more, to secure her for himself, he will throw Laszlo to the wolves, set him up for arrest on a serious charge, immediate evacuation to Occupied France. We don’t believe it, not of Humphrey Bogart, though Captain Renault does. It’s a con, and Louis Renault’s presence at gunpoint will clear the way to the airport.

Where Rick will pull the last element of his scheme on Ilsa, and Louis. The Letters of Transit are to be made out in the names of Mr & Mrs Victor Laszlo. She’s going with her husband. It’s a scene in which honour, nobility, sacrifice and the rediscovery of instincts that had been lost outweigh selfishness and love. Rick saved a young Bulgarian girl from dishonouring herself in order to escape: though he had sex with a former lover, a former love, he is also saving a young Swedish woman from dishonouring herself more completely (no other outcome could have been filmed, the Production Code would not have allowed a wife to leave her husband).

Ilsa leaves with Victor. Rick kills the German, Major Strasser, to keep him from preventing take-off. Louis is witness to this, but the cynical Frenchman tells his Police to round up the usual suspects. He’ll smuggle Rick out to Brazzaville, where the Free French are based. In fact, he’ll go with him. Honour, chivalry, and the obligation to fight what is wrong, has been re-kindled in more than one breast. A cyical final line was rejected and overdubbed with one of the film’s many classic lines, “You know Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Those lines: “We’ll always have Paris”: “Here’s looking at you, kid”: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

And there’s one I appreciate, that the late William Goldman picked out, is a line where Louis is probing Rick’s background, why he came to Casablanca. Rick replies that he came for the waters. Louis protests that there are no waters in Casablanca, to which Rick replies, “I was misinformed.” Three little words, simple and unfussy, but they are a road block. What they really mean is, We Don’t Go There. We will never Go There. Yes, the film does, with it’s long flashback to Paris, but even then that just scratches the surface.

Yes, Casablanca arouses mixed responses. It has grown in popularity and stature down the years, even though it was a (surprise) winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet although it is a conglomerate of ideas, meanings and emotions, these came together to create a great totality. I would think long and hard before not including it in a list of ten films to take to a desert island.

Inevitably, sequels and remakes have been mooted down the years. The last one to get off the ground in any way was a TV series in 1983, Rick’s Bar, starring David Soul as Rick: it was cancelled after three episodes. Itwould have been only right and proper never to have done it at all.

Because Casablanca is that rare thing, a composition right and whole in itself. Any attempt to remake it, or prequel it or sequel it is unnecessary on every level. It cannot be added to, it cannot be detracted from, and any attempt to do it again would be insane to any creative purpose, because the first thought is and always will be, “Why?” Any attempt to do so would be doomed to diminishment from the very idea of it.

So that’s what I found I had to say about Casablanca.


**** Off And Die

A Br**it Party leaflet has just been shoved through my letterbox by the Post Office, ahead of Thursday European Elections, demanding I vote for them to save Br**it. I voted Remain.

For the first time in my life, I have deliberately spat on something.

I am putting the leaflet in the bin rather than the paper-recycling pile. I wouldn’t want anything to escape from it and contaminate paper that might have something decent printed on it.

**** Farage and the snake he slithered in on.

We Who Would Valiant Read: Part 2

It’s 1964. Valiant and Knockout, to give it it’s official title, starts a new year. Let’s remind ourselves of what that means.
The comic is 6d for 28 pages, a reduction of four on its original count. It divvies these up between a front cover of Famous Fighters, Captain Hurricane (3½ pp), The Nutts (1p), Spotlight on… (1p), Kid Gloves (2pp), Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Billy Bunter (2pp), The Steel Claw (2pp), letters (2pp), Kraken and the Time Machine (2pp), Cars from A to Z (1p), Sporty (2/3p), The Duke of Dry Gulch (2pp), Soccer Roundabout (1p), The Crows (½p), Jack O’Justice (2pp) and Little Fred and Big Ed (who, we all remember are Asterix and Obelix), in full colour on the back page.
But a new comic, with which we’re already familiar, was in the works and in issue 73 (22 February), Knockout was credited for the last time, it’s place on the masthead the following week (a 29 February issue) being taken by the tag-line ‘A companion paper to Hurricane‘.
Internally, all ran smoothly, with no changes until issue 76 (14 March), when the Professors Kraken and Needler series, now amplified in cast to include young electrician Chris Blower, gave up the Time Machine. Re-named Kraken and the Giant Menace, the new story involved harvest mice of unusual size. But not just harvest mice: caterpillars and pigeons were also growing to giant-size, horrendously so in the case of the caterpillar: a disaster was brewing!

Tim Kelly

Change, once commenced, has a momentum of its own. Cars from A to Z reached W the following week, and with no cars beginning with X, Y or, sadly, Z, that was it. Jack O’Justice began a new story that was not a Dick Turpin, but rather an original, with a new artist and a Sixties style, though Moll wasn’t drawn quite as pretty as before. In addition, The Duke of Dry Gulch came to its end at the same time, to be replaced by a new ‘picture serial’ (as the editor described it: picture serial? It’s a comic, man, just say so), The Wild Wonders.
The new series was timed to run up to the Tokyo Olympics of that year, and involved the GB Athletics team – women as well as men, ooh mother – being stranded (deliberately) on a remote Hebridean island that’s supposed to have some sort of monster prowling it (would the GB Olympic Committee have chosen any other kind? Are there any other kind?). Needless to say, the rumours are true, but not as you might imagine, unless you were reading boy’s adventure comics.
The island would prove to be home to two wild boys, primitive humans, brothers, who only happened to be super-athletes. This is how you win big at the Olympics.
Though I would end up being very wrong in that respect.

Rick and Charlie, the Wild Wonders

The Wild Wonders was essentially a comedy series, about the two primitive brothers, Rick and Charlie, who were super all-round sportsmen, permanently in demand to help failing organisations, perpetually wanted to tackle impossible challenges, make unscrupulous people rich, overcome nefarious plans to make them fail, and ultimately, thanks to one of these adventures, miss the Olympics completely!
Tim Kelly’s latest adventure, which had begun by his becoming Britain’s first astronaut and which had developed into a world-threatening battle against sentient plants, started winding down when Kelly accidentally discovered the one thing that completely destroyed the plants. Rather bathetically, it turned out to be ordinary weed-killer.
Asterix… I’m sorry, Little Fred and Big Ed (they really worked on those names, didn’t they?) completed his first adventure in issue 79 (4 April) and was replaced by It’s A Dog’s Life. The little Gaul would return to Britain, in Ranger in 1966, still purportedly one of us, under the name of Beric in a cheerfully titled ‘In the Days of Good Queen Cleo’ (we know which adventure that one was, don’t we?) The new series was another French or Belgium import, in la ligne clair style, Larry the Dog in a family strip, vigorous and boisterous.
The addition of a page of the original on the file for issue 86 (23 May) confirmed that certain things, like Policemen’s helmets, were being redrawn for the Valiant version. I did some research and discovered that the strip was Belgian and had been running since 1959 as Boule et Bill, the work of Jean Roba, who continued the strip until his death in 2006. Four albums were translated into English between 2009 and 2012, as Billy and Buddy (and they’re delightful).
Louis Crandell, or Shadow Five as we learned his code name, also started a new adventure the same week. This issue, no. 81 (18 April) had a one-off change of artist on Captain Hurricane, Typhoon Tracey’s artist on Hurricane doubling up.
And the changes kept spinning out. After 81 cover pages, the Greatest Fighters feature was replaced by The Greatest…, a series on World Records of all kinds. Six weeks later, Cars from A to Z was finally replaced by Crime-Busters, true accounts of famous Police exploits.

I’ve not had much to say about Reg Wootton’s Sporty. It’s repetitive and unfunny, and drawn in an horrible old-fashioned style that made Bully Bunter look up to date, but I can’t contain myself when it comes to the issue 88 (6 June episode), which featured some disgusting cartoon blacking up. Other times, other standards, I know, I know, but this was disgraceful and I cannot believe it was ever thought acceptable.
There was an unusual treat two weeks later when, as a one-off, the comic expanded to 32 pages to present a four page complete story set in Victorian London, featuring the face-changing master crook Charlie Peace. This was a plug for Mr Peace’s ongoing series, starting in the following week’s Buster, but would have made a fitting addition to Valiant, especially if it replaced Professor Kraken’s rather ponderous adventures.
Speaking of which, Kraken’s latest adventure, with The Curse from the Past, commencing in issue 97 (8 August) had a distinctly Tom Kerr look around the artwork: that man got around. And I’m pretty sure he took over Kelly’s Eye for a fortnight, the following week, instead of Solano.
By 29 August, Valiant had brought up its 100th issue, which I’m going to make an excuse for saying just how much I’m enjoying It’s a Dog Life: precise, simple but distinctive cartooning and vivid situations that never fail to come up with a final panel gag that leaves me laughing, there’s a beautiful innocence to it combined with absolute mastery. It’s been massive in Europe for decades: we can be so dumb sometimes over here.
Kraken’s latest adventure turned out to be his shortest, at a mere six weeks, for with issue 104 (26 September), two new series started. The first of these was another of Valiant‘s major features, Mytek the Mighty, whilst the second was a football strip, Legge’s Eleven. It wasn’t quite two-for-one as the horribly outmoded Sporty was also defenestrated, though it kept coming back on a sporadic basis, whenever there was space to spare (probably when the ad count was down).
Mytek was introduced as a hundred-foot tall mechanical gorilla created by Dr Arnold Boyce. The legend of Mytek was that he was the ape-god of the Akari tribe, whose war-like ways struck at Boyce’s laboratory, so he built an actual Mytek to get them to turn peaceful. Except that Boyce’s dwarfish assistant, Gogra, decided that he wanted that power for himself. Unlike the Steel Claw, however, Mytek would remain a villain under Gogra’s control at least to the end of the first DVD.

Legge’s Eleven was a different kettle of fish, a sort of Carson’s Cubs but without the (same kind of) crap art. Ted Legge, a very lanky and unorthodox inside left (what’s one of those, granpa?) was kicked out by a First Division Club on a free transfer and promptly snapped up by Fourth Division Rockley Rangers, whose chairman, Dusty Binns, made him player/manager and gave him ten weeks to form a new team, or else the club would fold. This was already obvious from the strip’s logo, with Legge’s face in the centre and ten question-marked silhouettes of faces flanking it. New face would be added with every new character.
The comic also chose to shift some of its series around, with both the Nutts and Billy Bunter bounced into the back half, though Captain Hurricane remained up-front and Jack O’Justice at the rear.
Tim Kelly’s new idea saw the introduction of something that would have to return, despite being destroyed at the end of the adventure. After years of using the Eye of Zoltec, Kelly learned for the first time that it was but one of two, the right eye, the good eye. The left eye was its opposite, a source of evil power. Tim immediately went in search of it, but found it already in the possession of the evil Diablo.
Meanwhile, Jack O’Justice reverted to Fifties style art again for a couple of stories before rebounding up to date, in January 1965, with another Tom Kerr job, though Mr Kerr proved to be surprisingly poor at depicting the gallant Moll Moonlight, who certainly was not behind the door at having Jack’s back. You’d hardly think this was a boy’s comic at all.
There was a new cover feature in issue 126, 27 February, in It Happened This Week, whose title was self-explanatory. Though there always seemed to be an incident from the recent War, the feature roamed far and wide in time. Tim Kelly finally mopped up the Evil left eye of Zoltec, four weeks later, shattering into fragments that led to Diablo’s death, then dropping the pasted-together eye into the deepest ocean. From where, of course, it would never return. And if you believe that…
And a week later, the giant robot ape Mytek walked into the ocean with the evil dwarf Gogra in his control room in the head. Mytek’s creator, Professor Boyce and sharp-shooting game warden Dirk Mason had saved the day. But there was no new feature starting up…

Jack O’Justice

We all know that Hurricane didn’t last more than fifteen months, but even before the plug was pulled on it, it ceased to be billed as Valiant‘s companion paper, last seen on the masthead in issue 128 (13 March). It’s formal merger with Tiger was not announced until issue 136 (8 May), the same issue that carried big news about Valiant itself, coming up one issue later. This was about an increase in price by one penny, to 7d, but also a massive expansion from 28 to 40 pages. Business was clearly booming.
The additional pages brought new features, starting with Master-Mind, a one page comedy strip about a supposed criminal brain, The Astounding Jason Hyde, Valiant‘s first prose series, about a man with x-ray eyes, Fort Navajo, a western strip that rung instantly to me as being a translation of Jean (Moebius) Giraud’s Mike Blueberry, What do you Know? a half-page snippets feature, Twelve Guilty Men, a crime story starring former Police Detective Rod Marsden, framed for corruption by Crime Incorporated and determined to identify their twelve chiefs (do convicted prisoners really get to wear suits and ties?) and ‘Gabby’ McGlew, about a story-telling blowhard. My deeply cherished It’s a Dog’s Life still occupied the back page but probably as a cost-cutting measure, was reduced to black and white.
Week two of the new paper confirmed my instinct about Fort Navajo when the irregular stranger actually named himself Mike Blueberry…
Six weeks worth of story were enough to confirm that Fort Najavo was the best new addition by a country mile, Giraud’s cynical Army Lieutenant putting a hard edge on the Western setting. Neither of the comedies were worth the paper they were printed on and Jason Hyde, like every other prose serial going, was cliche-rotten. Twelve Guilty Men had potential but was wasting it on indifferent art and perfunctory stories, as Marsden, with only one assistant, was taking out the twelve heads, each very rich and powerful men protected not only be the Police but their own criminal organisation, with an ease and swiftness that was ridiculous.
The strip did arouse some vague memories, but these could have come from any similar series, for this was not a unique premise – it wasn’t a million miles from the concept of the first Legge’s Eleven story, nor the later Carson’s Cubs in Lion. But as the series reached its climax – eleven heads captured, the twelfth a mystery man – there was a very direct recollection, as the twelfth man turned out to be the Chief Constable to whom Marsden took the signed confession to his framing.
Despite the last man getting the drop on him, it only took Marsden one more episode to win and get his CID job back, 21 weeks all told. The series was replaced in issue 158 (9 October) by Son of the Stars. The half-page ad for it looked well-drawn but archaic, and the concept filled me with dread.
My premonitions were fulfilled in the first episode. The art-style marked this as a product of the Fifties, and most likely the early Fifties at that. There was a strong Wally Wood influence to the art, and I suspect it to be an American reprint. The art, make no mistake, was excellent, and reproduced very cleanly, but it was so dated that, in late 1965, it stuck out like a sore tentacle but, unbelievably, it lasted only three weeks: I’m putting my money on it having been a one-off story from EC’s Weird Science.
There was a rather more unwelcome termination in issue 160 (23 October) when Fort Navajo came to an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending that smelled distinctly of an editorial decision to wrap it up, though any such instruction could not have come from Valiant’s editor. Blueberry went on in France and other parts of the world, but that was the end for us, and he was replaced a week later by Jackaroo Joe, who sounded Australian, and was.
This was the first of two new series, and its formula was obvious. Australian stockman with kangaroo sidekick inherits Scottish lairdship and sets off for Britain whilst an alternate heir tries to drive him off. When he gets there, it’s bound to be fish-out-of-water time because he’ll insist on being Australian through and through (hey, you don’t suppose Paul Hogan read this before he wrote Crocodile Dundee, do you?).
The other was The Space Explorers, and half a panel was enough to show that this was from the same stable as Son of the Stars, with all the same failings.
Issue 162 (6 November 1965) isn’t a round number. Nor is it an anniversary, or the eve of a revamp, though as it happened, Jack O’Justice came to the rather brief end of his and Moll’s latest adventure. But it is the last issue on the first DVD, which makes it the end point for this second instalment.

Boule et Bill, aka Pete and Larry

After the end of Part 1, I pronounced Valiant a good, but not yet inspired comic. We’ve covered nearly two years in this essay, and even with the addition of a dozen extra pages in 1965, the comic is still dominated by most of the same long-lasting strips I talked about at the end of 1963. Kid Gloves and Professor Kraken have gone, and Mytek the Mighty has arrived, along with The Wild Wonders and Legge’s Eleven, but Valiant is still made up of Captain Hurricane, Tim Kelly, Louis Crandell and, though I shudder to admit it, Billy Bunter, The Nutts and The Crows.
There’s a good, solid core to the comic, based around its long-running strips. Captain Hurricane remains a formulaic cartoon with dodgy racial overtones whenever the mighty Marine faces the Japanese, whilst Kelly’s Eye tests the bounds of the fantastic over and over, but it’s quasi-primitive art and writing is vigorous and dynamic, enough to forgive the the repetitious ways in which Tim either doubts the Eye of Zoltec can save him this time or loses it temporarily.
The Steel Claw is running smoothly with Crandell as a (super)hero, and it frequently is filled with gorgeously detailed chiaroscuro art of sometimes delicate brilliance that cries out for reproduction on a higher grade of paper than Fleetway’s traditional newsprint, whilst Mytek is another of the primitive energy strips, full of shriekingly-large gestures. And Jack O’Justice is enjoying a high level of art under Tom Kerr, though the stories are getting a bit too brief for complete satisfaction: still, Moll is still being treated as an equal partner and not just the damsel in distress, which I find remarkable for 1965.
The Wild Wonders is another strip that rides the edge of goofy humour and succeeds thanks to an artist whose rounded style maintains a good balance between cartoon realism and cartoon exaggeration. There’s a fluidity to the approach that builds conviction, whereas Legge’s Eleven goes too far in the opposite direction. There’s no effort at all to make the footballers or the football even remotely realistic, and indeed some of the poses make me wonder if the artist has ever seen a human body in motion, let alone one stripped to shirt, shorts, socks and football boots. By its second story, the series had become boring and the third looks like going down a well-worn path that Carson’s Cubs will be taking: I know they’re not due for half a decade yet, but I read them first.
The comedy stuff still goes down like a cup of cold sick with me, especially Sporty. These are pages I just skim through, like the Jason Hyde serials, to get back to the good stuff. The glorious exception is still It’s a Dog’s Life. The jokes are still pretty basic and frequently predictable, but the strip’s lightness, and the panel by panel staging never fails to draw me into laughing. I wish it was still in colour, but I love it all the same, for its deft depictions of its small but brilliantly incarnated cast, and a tip of the hat to the translator, who’s handling the dialogue superbly.
Have I left anything out? Valiant at this point is rock solid and stable. If it lacks anything, it is just the tiniest of sparks of imagination. I’m hoping to see that in the next part, as we head into and through 1966.

The Big Bang Theory: Bang, You’re Dead

Thanks to a minor yet unpleasant disruption to sleep, I wound up downloading and watching the final two episodes of The Big Bang Theory before 6.16am. Twelve years ago, in another world, I caught either the second or third episode on Channel 4. It was a comedy that might have been made for me, geek humour, about loneliness and isolation and the things I loved myself, and understood.

After twelve years, it’s not that programme anymore, but I still love it and it’s been the most consistent source of laughter, uproarious laughter, throughout all that time. Now it’s over.

It’s over because Jim Parsons wanted to leave, and do other things. Understandable, if dismaying. Good luck to him and all of them. Parsons has been the star, around which all has revolved, but in the process has drawn some of the attention that Kaley Cuoco has deserved. Of course I like her: she’s blonde, beautiful and sexy, but so much more important, she’s a gem of a comedienne, with timing that’s so absolutely to the point.

But I like them all, and I liked them for twelve seasons, which is not natural, especially for me, and now I’ll never again feel the fun of a new episode. This Friday ritual will never take place again.

Lou Grant: s02 e01 – Pills

Getting down with the kids

We’re here at season 2, with a new credits sequence and a new (and unnecessarily fussy with unwelcome guitar twiddles) arrangement of the title music. Gone the amusing sequence of how a newspaper is produced – from birdsong in the forest as the trees are cut down to make the paper, via the casual hurling of it into mud puddles and onto roofs when it’s delivered, to the birdsong of the canary whose cage it lines the bottom of – in favour of newsroom scenes depicting the cast. Not as good, and definitely not as memorable.

The show itself hasn’t changed, however. The opening episode was a little shapeless to begin with, playing mix’n’match with a couple of seemingly unrelatable stories. On the one hand, we have Pete, a college student, trying to lose weight, and using the services of a pill-pushing doctor, with tragic outcomes when his girlfriend? sister? Maureen takes an overdoose and dies. On the other, we have Charlie Hume making a fool of himself in front of a class of journalism students and compensating by offering a bunch of them an autonomous page and a free hand. Lou is not amused, especially as it comes out of his budget.

The kids’ element was played for laughs: six youngsters, three of whom are their ‘investigative team’, getting frustrated that their article on bathroom wall graffitti getting spiked because it’s no morethan a list of obscenities. This was very much in contrast to the story about Dr Bonham, which was Rossi’s beat and his personal obsession. He gets nowhere going undercover as a 22 year old (!) student out for diet pills himself, but then the distraught Pete breaks into Bonham’s office and steals his private records.

It’s dynamite, and it’s dodgy. The papers have been stolen. Rossi and Lou don’t know that. They deliberately don’t know that, in order to make the evidence usable, to avoid they or the Trib being accessories, though it’s 99% certain that’s howPte’s gotten hold of them. It’s playing the thin edge of the wedge of journalistic ethics and the Law (and Lou Grant plays big on the ethics and ideals of what they’re doing, in a way that we cynically can never believe again, but which, in the post-Watergate, post-All The President’s Men era in which this was made was a rational aspiration).

The implications of the story take the episode into places we didn’t necessarily expect. The Police obtain a warrant to search Rossi’s desk for evidence linking him to the break-in (they force open his locked drawer and find his stash of Snickers bars – a sign of times passing, these were still Marathons in Britain) and ultimately they jail him for contempt. Indefinitely.

It’s an impasse dependent upon how long Rossi can stay determined to protect his source, like a good reporter. How long this might be is never tested, nor does the episode establish how long it’s actually been, the one serious flaw in the affair, because Pete turns himself in. And, to complete the circle, the kids’ investigative team have been secretly using their advantage in manpower to track all the patients leaving Bonham’s practice, and uncoveringthe network of non-reporting pharmacies they go to. This, more than Rossi’s dodgy dossier, blows the case wide open, and gives us a neat wrap-up.

So: we’re back where we belong and season 2’s off to a good start. We’ll be spending Thursday mornings in Los Angeles for a while longer.

Person of Interest: s01 e23 – Fire Wall

Caroline Turing

We’re at the end of season 1 of Person of Interest now, and the show left the audience hanging on a slew of cliffhangers as several status quos were given a thorough kicking, and one cliffhanger in particular left the audience waiting for season 2 to find out just what was going to happen.

On a purely technical level, the episode crammed in multiple stories, intertwined, without feeling rushed or hurried, especially when the largest part of the episode, the Number of the Week, was a red herring of Loch Ness Monster proportions.

To signal the tension, the episode began in the middle, with Finch suddenly summoning Carter’s help because Mr Reese  is in trouble. Before she can do anything, she’s commandeered by Special Agent Donnelly and whisked off to the FBI Task Force command post. They’ve got the Man in the Suit cornered. They have him on security footage, with a woman, who, cleverly, we can only see blurred.

Then it’s flashback time, but only to the previous day, as we build into this moment.

The woman is the Number, Caroline Turing, a high-powered psychologist, played by Amy Acker, as a slightly nervous woman, caught in an unfamiliar situation. Turing deals with high-powered individuals, hears secrets that could have ruinous effect. She’s good at whhat she does: she does a pretty decent analysis on her new client ‘John Rooney’, quickly getting at a lot of John Reese. But someone wants her dead, and as Fusco reports back, it’s HR, going into the murder for hire business, who will carry it out.

A little of the tension, the sting, was taken out of the episode for me by simply knowing what was coming, though the reveal was mercifully very late. Because whilst I didn’t specifically remember that much of the episode, I do know who Amy Acker’s character is, and it’s not Caroline Turing.

But Acker played her part to perfection, not the least suggestion that she was anything other than she appeared to be. She maintained the part publicly, and even fooled Zoe Morgan (PaigeTurco, remember?) when Finch brought her in to try to identify the guy behind the shooting.

Reese intervenes in the would-be shooting, spirits Turing away, is caught on security camera with her, leading to Donnelly, still wildly misinterpreting what John is doing, according to his theory, closing in. Reese has got to protect Turing and himself from HR on the one hand and the FBI on the other. He’s not interested in Fusco meeting the three high-ups of HR, nor in letting Fusco complete his underground mission. And he’s not aware that Finch is being followed by Alicia Corwin (Elizabeth Marvel), nor that she’s found the Library.

For the moment, the show having caught up with and passed its opening scene, John is trying to get himself and Turing out of a hotel. It seems impossible, even with Carter feeding him warnings. But someone’s warning HR. Carter thinks it’s Fusco, who’s texting as much as she is, but when she confronts him, he’s feeding Finch. The two finally realise they’ve been helping the same people. They go in to get Reese away from the HR shooters, and discuss trust issues along the way. Reese has already sent Turing ahead on their escape route, to where Finch is waiting with a car.

And a woman does indeed get into his passenger seat.  But it’s Alicia.

She’s been trailing him for weeks. She has worked out that he built the Machine, Nathan Ingram’s ‘IT guy’. Alicia is herself on the run, though it’s not quite clear what from: it may be herself. The ethics of the Machine have destroyed her mental balance. In a foreshadowing of themes to come, she describes the Machine as God. It sees all, it hears all. She wants Harold’s help to destroy it. Harold sees clearly: Alicia has been behind the whole thing, has created the threat against Caroline Turing, just to draw Finch out into the open.

Only she hasn’t. She’s never heard of Caroline Turing. Who walks up to the car and shoots Alicia through the back of the head. There’s none of that nervousness now, as she sits in the back, eager at the chance to meet Harold: they have so much to talk about.

Because Zoe’s just found out that Caroline Turing doesn’t exist. That she’s a shell. A shell who ordered a hit on herself just to get Finch and Reese to save her, exactly as they did. To kidnap Finch. They can call her Root (you should here re-read my blog on episode 13).

Which leaves John Reese on his own. Finch is the brains, the man who communicates with the Machine. Root is a hacker whose skills are seemingly eqal with those of Finch. What can Reese do? He needs an ally. In an echo of the image in the opening credits, he stands in the street and quietly addresses a security camera, addressing the Machine. Finch has been doing the Machine’s work. Now the Machine needs to help him. Close at hand, a public phone rings. Reese goes to answer it.

At least there’s no waiting a close season to find out what happens next. Season 2 starts here, in seven days time. I shall fight not to watch it ahead of time.

On Sharp Edge Once

I haven’t been everywhere in the Lakes, not when it comes to walking. I have climbed each one of the 214 Wainwrights, but there are paths I never followed and features I’ve never seen close to. First among these has got to be Jack’s Rake, on Pavey Ark, a climb I would never consider attempting until I had completed all the Wainwrights for, like the Blessed himself, a broken leg (or worse) would have meant a broken heart.

Once I had ticked off my final summit, I had an unexpectedly truncated walking career ahead of me, and now I will never get up Jack’s Rake safely at all, any more than I could climb the North Face of the Eiger.

Which leaves only one candidate for the title of the most intense place I ever found myself in. Forget Striding Edge, forget Lord’s Rake, forget even that stupid steep descent off Brim Fell direct from Low Water. There was only one candidate, and that was Sharp Edge on Blencathra.

It was a Big Walk, that last day of the holiday tradition, and not the first time I’d set out to climb Blencathra from the east as  the climax to a week away. The first one had been planned as an ascent of Bowscale Fell along its ridge, and transferring to Blencathra via Bannerdale Crags, but low cloud on my ultimate destination put that out of consideration, and I returned via the Mousthwaite Col, and little Souther Fell, showing no signs of any armies, phantom or otherwise.

Mousthwaite Comb

This time, I wasn’t coming in from so far away. I parked in a layby on the Keswick-Penrith road, struggled across the field separating that from the old, pre-highway road, and started towards Mousthwaite Comb. The path spirals gently around this deep, curving basin in the side of the fell, it’s every step visible from the ground below. It looks like a natural to ascend, a rising route gaining height effortless, but its not quite that underfoot. I don’t mean the odd place where the path was damp underfoot, or where there was greenery to round, but of the angle of ascent, which seemed awkward and was tiring underfoot. I was unexpectedly glad to emerge into clear space at the Mousthwaite Col.

I descended from the Col to follow the well-marked path alongside the young Glenderamackin. Foule Crag loomed impressively ahead, growing more striking the closer I got to the branch path into the bowl holding Scales Tarn. I scrambled up beside the beck, which was broad and full.

But though Foule Crag had been riding proud and high throughout the walk to this point, weather conditions were changing. Cloud was gathering, and it was starting to blur the summit. It was getting colder, and a bit windier, even down by the outlet of the tarn, and I was eyeing the next stage of the walk, and the reason I’d decided to come via this route than any other: Sharp Edge.

From below, by the Tarn, it doesn’t look so fearsome, but I had read that page of Wainwright hundreds of times down the years and knew, so far as it is possible to know by reading, what was coming up. With the skyline deteriorated, I could have avoided it by going round the Tarn the other way and ascending the innocuous Scales Fell, but as I’ve mentioned previously, I am a stubborn little bugger and wasn’t prepared to back down this soon.

Folue Crag

So I headed up to the right, scaling the skyline, and turned towards the Edge. The cloud was accumulating, and the day getting darker, which was doing nothing for my spirits, but I went on cautiously, until I started along Sharp Edge itself. The path was distinct and clear. It was not for dancing along with gay abandon, but there was nothing to it that care and attention couldn’t manage. There was a cheat path well below the crest, on my right, avoiding any part of the ridge, which I ignored.

It’s all about the Bad Spot, isn’t it? Without that, Sharp Edge is just Striding Edge redux. And you can read all you like about the Bad Spot but words can’t describe it and you’ll never see it as it is until you get there, because no-one who is in a position to take photos or films that give you a true idea will ever be so criminally asinine as to try to take photos or film because anyone with minimal safety skills will be employing them to stay alive.

The Bad Spot starts when the path below the crest turns inwards, on naked rock, until it terminates as a ledge above a very narrow arete.

I’ve long been impressed by the mind’s ability to compress complex calculations as to velocity, direction, force, momentum and gravity into fractions of a second. Sportsmen and women at all levels do it constantly. Even I, on the cricket field, have done it several times: within an instant I have determined where a ball struck will go, what angle I have to move, at what speed and where to have my hands in order to catch it, all with a higher degree of accuracy than if I were to be equipped with the most sophisticated of measuring and computing equipment and hours in which to work.

Much the same happened as soon as I stepped out onto that ledge. My eyes took in the scene in a flash and calculated all the aspects, especially the most important of them all, which was that if I didn’t do this now, this instant, no delay, I would never do it at all. Even as much as two seconds thinking time would have been fatal: my nerve would have failed me irretrievably.

So I sat down, my legs dangling above the arete. Obviously, I wasn’t in a position to make any measurements, but I am pretty sure that those six foot tall or better had an unfair advantage in that they could rest their boots on the rock, whilst the 5′, 10″ers among us had to shuffle their bottoms off the ledge, gripping it with both hands, and trust their luck to land on the arete .

Opposite me, at the far end of this section, was an identical ledge of pretty much the same height. All I had to do was cross to it. All crossing to it required was one step in the midle of the arete, supported only by my boot, which would have to be placed with perfect balance on a rib of rock approximately half its width, surrounded on both sides by what my peripheral vision suggested were drops of at least two hundred feet, which I was not viewing with anything but my peripheral vision because the only thing I was staring at was that exact spot my boot would go. And I was concentrating on hitting that spot with perfect balance and staying there for a space of time unmeasurable (I had not, at this time, heard of picaseconds but I intuited picaseconds) before my other foot landed at the far end of that arete, my hands grasped the ledge and, with a demonstration of upper body strength that would have amazed anyone I’d been at school with, hauled myself up, shifted round and shuffled on my bottom far enough round the corner to put steep drops out of sight. And there, with my heart pounding and my legs wobbling, I sat and quivered.

Subjective time and objective time were not on speaking terms during this period, but it must have been a good five minutes by any functioning watch before my heartbeat diminished to normal, and my legs started to feel capable of supporting my weight again. I got up and moved on.

Sharp Edge

On, unfortunately, equated to about fifty feet of ascent before I came to the next obstacle. This was a broken, ridged area, stretching above, clearly requiring at least minimal scrambling to proceed. And at the same time, I had reached the cloud base.

This had descended to cover the peak, and I could only see some fifteen to twenty feet at most in front of me. I had no means of assessing just how difficult this next stretch would be: whether what I could see was representative of the next bit, or whether it got worse ahead, out of sight. And with Sharp Edge’s Bad Spot being so close behind, and the experience of risking a potentially fatal fall so fresh in my mind and elsewhere, I dithered.

To put it plainly, I was screwed. My bottle had gone, and I was dismally aware that there was no possibility of my going back over Sharp Edge today. I was way past the two seconds thinking mark, and couldn’t do it. But I also couldn’t go on, not like this, not knowing to a higher degree than I had previously needed, that it was safe.

I’ve mentioned from time to time incidents where luck had been on my side, and now it happened again, when it was sorely needed.

Earlier in the walk, between the Mousthwaite Col and the Scales Tarn turn-off, I’d passed a couple of blokes. I can’t remember how I knew or realised this but one of them was a professional guide, the first and only one I ever saw in the Lakes. They were heading my way and now, when I was dithering, they caught up to me.

The Guide quickly realised my mental state and, without a word, took me over as much as his paying client. He was gentle and reassuring and there was, in the end, nothing dangerous or even outside of my capacity in that section ahead, but he navigated me up it and restored my confidence in myself. I am still grateful to him.

I went on on my own. The cloud was down all around me and I would not be able to see anything, but the path was clear, and I angled round and up to the summit cairn, Hall’s Fell Top. I knew the cairn was close to the top of the ascent via Hall’s Fell and Narrow Edge, so I wandered only very cautiously in that direction. A brief swirl in the clouds allowed me a glimpse of green below, beyond the A66, but nothing else.

There is never much point in hanging around a cloud-shrouded summit, and besides I always was a bit of a restless walker, quick to move on. Whilst I was here, I intended to visit Atkinson Pike, the back end of the Saddleback that, when I was young, Blencathra had been saddled with (one of the many things for which Alfred Wainwright can be blessed is rescuing that name from oblivion). I passed the White Cross on the way, found the peak and retreated to descend to its right and behind it.

I found my way back under the cloud line, on a descending path whose only difficulty was a mild steepness. Below lay the rounded hummock of Mungrisdale Common, which I also intended to visit, because I had to visit it sometime, and was going to do on this walk, despite the absurd discrepancy in levels of satisfaction to be had from the two tops.

Mungrisdale Common

Top, as everyone who has been there knows, is a misleading word to use about Mungrisdale Common. I could see a thin track crossing from the Glenderamackin Col, to my right, a straight line leading with geometric precision to whatever was acceptable as a highest point. The ground was easy, and there was no reason to waste time or energy in descending to its start, so I veered left, in a wide curve, hitting the trail some good distance across the endless field.

The track ended at the ‘summit’. I looked around the void of Skiddaw Forest, the back of higher fells in each direction, except for the gap above the Glenderaterra River, over which a tiny glimpse of Derwentwater could be seen, cold and glinting. It was about all that was entertaining about the view.

I walked unhesitating back along the track, descended from the Glenderamackin Col, followed the river back to the Scales Tarn turn. Looking back, Foule Crag once again stood proud against the sky and as soon as I’d put some distance behind me, to get perspective on the view, I took the photo I’d failed to take on the ascent.

Then it was the Mousthwaite Col, and descending around that bowl, the path more interesting and easier in descent, and a final trek across the fields to the car in it’s layby. I’d climbed Blencathra, but would have to go back because I’d seen nothing, but I had crossed Sharp Edge and negotiated its Bad Spot, and I’d survived the experience. Nothing I ever did in the Lakes again would ever terrify me as much as that one split-second moment when I balanced on one boot on a narrow arete, trusting in the physical skills I was never quite sure I possessed.

I did it, and I was glad I did it. And I never tried it again.