Some Books: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘The Illuminatus! Trilogy’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The latest of these is The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Back in the late Seventies, in the days before the Tories destroyed the Net Book Agreement and every newsagents/confectioners had their own spinner racks or a couple of shelves full of cheap paperbacks, you literally couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the brightly coloured and esoteric symbol heavy covers of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, or rather of the three individual volumes, The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan.
I’d read about them in the New Musical Express, the only place I’d heard of them, and they’d given the books a glorious reception, both welcoming and cynical at once, enough to intrigue me. I looked at them, and I looked at them, and I kept looking at them, with curiosity and reserve. I wanted to read them, and I wanted to like them, but I was very unsure of them, and unwilling to commit the money when there were so many certainties available.
Eventually I read them, and it must have been from the Library, and I know this because I read them out of order, second, third and first, not that it made much difference to my understanding. This was no Lord of the Rings, and starting with The Two Towers. What I thought of the books when I was in my early twenties I have not the faintest idea, except that I didn’t go on to buy the books to re-read.
That re-reading has only now come, something like forty years later, an intense spell of three days reading of a collected volume (the form the book has taken since 1984), bought in 2018, struggled through and lost less than halfway, and now forced through continuously. What do I think of it now?
Actually, I’m going to quote an opinion on the trilogy that expresses my responses in language I can’t surpass. There are two quotes:
“It’s a dreadfully long monster of a book… The authors are utterly incompetent – no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, and the authors… have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy.”

“… it’s absurdly long… ‘If The Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale for adults, sophisticated readers will quickly recognise this monumental miscarriage as a fairy tale for paranoids.’ That refers to the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the plot, if there is one, seems to revolve around.”
And who is it that has anatomised the book thus succinctly? The authors of those quotes are the authors, Shea and Wilson themselves, on pages 238-9 and 381 respectively of my copy. But whilst they are exaggerating for comic effect, taking themselves as little seriously as a book of this nature should do, or else are cynically exposing themselves as the ultimate put-on merchants (that’s a vintage term now, isn’t it?), they aren’t saying anything that isn’t true.
I’m at a loss as to how to describe The Illuminatus! Trilogy without expanding this post to something like the dimensions of the book. The narrative flicks erratically between viewpoints and multiple characters, along an achronological timescale, and between first and third person. It throws in every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of and dozens more you haven’t come across, seeking to bind them into an over-arching structure that is paradoxically only capable of being united by a complete lack of structure, and underneath all the head-trip obfuscation, it’s about foiling a resurgent Nazi world takeover plot, deep into the third act.
As for the experience of reading the book, well, I have never dropped acid, smoked grass, or partaken of any hallucinogenic substance stronger than a bloody good book, but the whole thing reads like the meanderings of a room of potheads whose brains have been fried, and the only reason this book didn’t get written in 1967 might well be because the writers were too stoned to come far enough down for nearly a decade.
Actually, Shea and Wilson were associate editors at Playboy magazine and wrote the trilogy between 1969 and 1971 and it took several years before a publisher would touch it, and then only after 500 pages of cuts! It was conceived as a complete work and, just as with Lord of the Rings, was split into three volumes for commercial reasons.
The book is incredibly hard to read due to its diffuse structure. I’m not unused to books that use, for example, non-linear timelines, but whereas these can be incredibly effective from an author who has worked out what he is doing and maintains a rigid control, there’s never any sense of this here, but rather that the authors are making it up as they go along, which might not be that far from the truth, given that there is apparently very little collaboration in the trilogy, but rather the authors writing different sections, and out to one-up each other all the time.
Considered as individual books, The Eye in the Pyramid has the benefit of some form of narrative propulsion, and Leviathan of a double-climax, completing the ‘story’, but The Golden Apple is a classic middle book, solving nothing, answering nothing, just a haze of incomprehensibility, although that may have been my over-tired mindset when reading that part of the trilogy. I shalln’t be going back to give it a fairer hearing.
There are books that you do not like but that you nevertheless go on to finish, ‘to see what happens’. This wasn’t the case with The Illuminatus! Trilogy but there was an element of that to my determination to read until the final page, and that itself was not even the urge to finish ‘to see if there was any point to this’, but simply to read and end, because it was there. I will finish this. I can’t even say that I disliked the book: in the end it was something that was not for me, not now, nor probably for the younger me, who does not seem to have been influenced by it one way or another.
One for the Charity Shop.


Lou Grant: s02 e16 – Sweep

The latest episode of Lou Grant was about immigration, or to be more specific, illegal immigration, Mexicans ccrossing the border to find jobs in LA.

The human story fronting this was about Rosa, favourite waitress in a Mexican food joint patronised by Lou, Billie and Rossi. Rosa has two kids, aged 10 and 5, and is picked up in a sweep by ‘La Migra’, the Immigration Service. Our trio start by being concerned for the kids and ensuring they’re well looked after, which leads them into the world of illegal aliens.

The problem is that, despite the A story being framed around the search for the kids, and the climax being firstly that Rose is back straight away and secondly is reunited with her kids, the drama doesn’t do enough to establish itself as drama. We are watching the equivalent of a drama-documentary, before the term was coined, and the episode is so determined to show all sides of the issue that the human element never comes through on a personal level.

Rather more is done to humanise the rather feeble B story that fills out the episode. Mrs Pynchon wants her eighteen year old niece and potential heir, Tiffany (guest star Maureen McCormick), to learn the business from the bottom, starting as a copy girl in the newsroom. Tiffany’s attractive, a bit inflated in her attitude to her lowly role, but a hard worker and very effective, albeit in a limited way. This is because Tiffany can’t read. So she plans to run away, until her Aunt persuades her to take the difficult step of learning at her age.

It’s trivial, and the importance of the story is typified by how little space is given to it, but it has more personality than the main story, which was where the episode, or rather the issue, lost its way. Better next week, I hope.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Past Master

By the time Past Master was published in 1968, the first of three novels to appear that year, R.A. Lafferty was well-established as a writer of original and distinctive short stories. He was in demand from a variety of SF magazines, and his fellow writers were enthusiastic about the first chance to read Lafferty at full-length.
By the time I got to read Past Master, I was a confirmed and enthusiastic follower of Lafferty, anxious to grab any book of his I could find. It’s been like that ever since.
Lafferty tends to get classed SF, because that’s the field that embraced him and in which most of his work is published. Past Master plays to that assumption in that it is a novel set on a distant planet, Golden Astrobe, five centuries into the future and involves time travel. Q.E.D., you might say. But the SF framework is mere trappings for the philosophical underpinnings that are this book’s main preoccupations.
Golden Astrobe is the third and last great hope for mankind, after the Old World and the New World on old Earth. Astrobe is the home of the perfect society, the home of the Dream. But it’s also a place in crisis. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Astrobe citizens have abandoned its perfect world to live in misery, poverty, filth, deprivation, despair and danger in Cathead and the Barrio: slums expanded to the highest possible degree. And it is voluntary. At any moment, every single one of them could abandon Cathead, return to the golden life of Astrobe. But they don’t.
The three original Masters of Astrobe are gathered to discuss the best way of resolving this problem, of preventing Astrobe from failing. These are Cosmo Kingmaker, Peter Proctor and Fabian Foreman. Foreman is under threat from the Programmed Persons, mechanical beings who detect threats to the Astrobe Dream and set out to kill whoever is thinking them. Such as Foreman.
What’s needed is a new President, a President who will be an acceptable figurehead to the people, but who will accept the direction of the three Masters. Kingmaker and Proctor review the available men and dismiss them all. Foreman has one name, and one name only, a figure from the past who had one totally honest moment in his life, for which he was executed. This is Thomas More, Sir Thomas More. He will be summoned from the past to become the Past Master.
The Masters intend More to be a puppet President: after all, they know far more about Astrobe than he does, not to mention the fact it’s almost a millennium after More’s original death, for refusing to put the King ahead of God. More has no intention of being a puppet for anyone. He spends a long time after his arrival on Astrobe travelling the planet, seeing different parts of it, and intends to lead in his own fashion, but he end up being the puppet he’s expected to be, though not of Foreman or either of the others. That is, until he brings down upon himself his own execution. The President is expected to rubber-stamp laws into being, and if he vetoes one three times, he will be executed. Thomas More vetoes the same provision three times. It’s not explicitly defined, More and his Masters talk about it in roundabout terms without naming it directly, though they know what it is and so do we, if we know anything of More’s history or have access to Wikipedia. More refuses to ban the beyond, that is, the afterlife. Golden Astrobe is the afterlife, the last life there is, perfection. More is being asked to ban what little remains of the Church, and by Church Lafferty means, as he always will, the Holy Mother Church, the Church of Rome. In everything he writes, Lafferty writes from a deep and powerful belief and conviction as to the absolute importance of the Roman Catholic Church in which he believed in life.
Lafferty chose More, partly because of this parallel, but largely because More wrote the well-known book, Utopia, the work that gave its name and the initial impetus to uptopian fiction. Golden Astrobe is based upon More’s Utopia, but the joke is that, in Lafferty’s words, More wrote the book as a colossal joke, a bitter satire, never intending it to be taken seriously in the way that it has been ever since, and bemused to find it being used as the basis of a world that is humanity’s Last Best Hope.
Unlike later works, where he will be much more explicit, Past Master weaves Lafferty’s viewpoint into the story in a much less direct fashion. Things are identified and laid out to be seen, but not labelled as such. Cathead is many times described as a cancer, a black cancer on Astrobe, but this is always by the Masters, by those invested in Astrobe. Squalid and disgusting as it is, for More, even after he’s been seduced, it is a sign of life, of vigour, of robust vulgarity.
Astrobe’s enemy is Ouden, the great emptiness, the great nothingness. It is oblivion, ending, the extermination of life through, as much as anything, lack of use. More is invaded by seven snakes, implanted there to have him speak words that are his own, by Pottscamp, the Fourth of the Three, who is Ouden’s chief agent. Without them, the Programmed Killers circle him endlessly. Companions give up their lives to protect him, though that isn’t always permanently.
Like so many of his novels to come, Past Master has no definitive ending. Change comes, matters come to a head, but we are left to determine for ourrselves the effect of the climax. The Thomas is executed, for the same reason as his first death on Earth, which is yet to come. And at that moment, the worlds came to an end.
What comes next, what will follow, the implicit answer to the claim that Golden Astrobe is humanity’s third and last best hope, is discussed, broken at intervals by the admonition, cutting across the narrative, Be quiet. We watch.
This repeats. The last such admonition is different: Be quiet. We hope.
And with that, we have to be content.
Past Master is a very clever book. It’s not the best of Lafferty’s works, but it is the best of the three novels he would publish in 1968. It works more by indirection, but it has all the characteristics of his work, his unreproducible voice, his vigour, his rigour, and the ability to toss off lines that are unbelievable in a way that has you believing him (late in the book, the necromancer, Walter Copperhead, escapes from prison by walking through the walls: he describes it as a method that has been insufficiently tried, and you blink and wonder if you actually can…)
This book is currently available as part of the 2018 release Three Great Novels by R.A. Lafferty. As one of the other two is Fourth Mansions, you have no excuse for not buying this. A new American edition, with a foreword from Andrew Ferguson, of Continued on Next Rock , incorporating passages originally struck from the book as published fifty years ago, is due out next month, and you can expect a comment abut that once I’ve gotten my hands on it.

Person of Interest: s02 e15 – Booked Solid

She’s baaaack.

Structurally, this latest episode of Person of Interest was a solid procedural Number of the Week, supplemented by two differing strands from the show’s ongoing underlying mythos, three if you count the mostly peripheral return of Paige Turco as fixer Zoe Morgan. But it ended on a twist made all the more enjoyable in its reveal by withholding the name of someone from the opening credits, which is the lead-in to the theme that will dominate the remaining third of the series.

Our Number this week is Mira Dobrica, real name Mira Brozy, played by Mia Maestro. Mira works in a very upmarket Hotel, supposedly a Serbian refugee from Kosovo. The Hotel has just acquired two new members of staff, a Concierge and a Bellhop, named Harold and John respectively, there to look out for who, in a Hotel of over 700 guests, wants to murder a housemaid.

The answer is relatively straightforward, indeed almost obvious once it is teased out that a professional hit squad is staking the Hotel, though there’s a not very serious attempt at drawing a red herring across our path with the fact that the officious Floor Manager is running a hooker ring that someone has shopped to the Police (by who is never revealed, but between Derek’s accusation of Mira and her non-denial of John’s assumption, we can guess it was her, but why she should be drawng atttention to herself thusly was never directly discussed). No, Mira was a witness to war crimes conducted by a Serbian General currently running for high political office and wanting the evidence, and the witness, to disappear.

In dealing with the thriller aspect of the story, the episode made good use of our two Guardian Angels, together in the field, and their respective skills. Harold, neat, professional, unhurried, a comprehensive source of information, was the spider at the centre of the web, all-seeing, all-directing, and a pefect concierge, and John our roving operative, covering the whole Hotel, whose guests included one Zoe Morgan, who took his appearance in a bellhop’s uniform in her professional deadpan style with a murmured, “Nice suit.”

Zoe would be very briefly used to ‘accidentally’ spill wine on a guy who’d been sat in the lobby all day, exposing him as part of the threat, but otherwise her appearance was deliberately for show, the series indulging itself in teasing our expectations. And John’s, if their mutual decision to stay on an extra night was any indication.

Fusco was brought in midway to lend an extra pair of eyes and legs. He managed, surprisingly, to shoot down two professional killers and then, when he’d brought Mira back to the Precinct for protection, Carter was forced to shoot another one. Add to that the two John shot up in the Hotel, one in an elevator car where he’d got Mira trapped, and it was a busy day.

But Mira was saved, the hooker ring exposed, Finch bought the Hotel and installed Mira as its new Floor Manager, plus the General was brought down, so all was well that ended well. Despite the political reason for Mira becoming a target, the Number was really a rather lightweight story, well-executed.

Except for her dramatic intervention to save Mira from an in-Precinct garrotting, Carter was kept back from the action this week, as part of her ongoing story. Special Agent Donnelly may be dead but his recommendation of her as an FBI Agent isn’t. Carter’s interested. Her relationship with Detective Cal Beacher is going well, enough so that she’s talking about introducing him to her son, Tyler. He’s definitely serious about her. And he is under investigation by IAB (Internal Affairs Bureau) for enough matters that her association with him knocks Carter’s chances on the head. Joss needs to think and, being Joss, she will need to know. Is Beacher dirty? We know, though Carter doesn’t, that he’s the godson of the head of HR. Where is this leading?

Of more direct application to both the Number and the ongoing story is the re-emergence of Hersh, having finally got himself out of Rykers. Special Counsel wants him finding Reese and disposing of him, but he wants to know who Reese is working for. The taciturn Hersh knows simply to look for a ‘mess’ and reports of gunfire at the Hotel is enough of a lead.

John’s got Mira out. He’s resigned as a bellhop, changed into his other suit, is about to leave and Hersh, who knows his face from Rykers, comes up on him from behind. The two fight, both professionals. This time, it’s John who prevails, sticking a kitchen knife into Hersh only just far enough to not sever an artery. John recognises a fellow soldier just as much as Hersh recognises him: in twenty minutes, Hersh will bleed out. He can pursue John or he can get to a hospital and save himself. That’s the difference: nothing is personal to Hersh, he follows orders. Everything is personal to John Reese. He invites Hersh to consider if his masters would show him the same mercy.

I’m forced to question Reese’s not killing a dangerous opponent who he knows will come back at him again. Letting Hersh live is tactically foolish and exposes both himself and Finch to risks that are, by definition, unnecessary. Hersh and Special Counsel have parts to play: at episode’s end, the recovering Hersh will be summoned by to Washington by his master to deal with a more pressing matter, taking him off the trail for the moment. But it’s still a development that smacks of scripting convenience rather than the natural outcome.

This summons for Hersh places us in Special Counsel’s office, where he works with a secretary. Literally seconds before the show revealed its twist, I saw it coming, this time and first time, from Miss May’s voice, from her super-competence, from the way the camera avoided showing her face.

A long time ago, in the second series of 24, one episode’s cliffhanger hinged upon the unexpected, last second appearance of President David Palmer’s now ex-wife. Penny Johnson Gerrold’s name was in the credits at the start and she didn’t appear anywhere in the episode, so the surprise fell flat because it had to be her. Series have learned from that fiasco since, including Person of Interest. So Amy Acker was left off the credits for guest stars. Miss May is Root. Welcome to the endgame.

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface 2 – episodes 7 & 8

Unsung heroes

Woah! The blurb in The Observer last Sunday promised a stunning ending to Below the Surface 2, better even than the first series. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. As I’ve often done before, I’m splitting this blogpost up, and writing about episode 7 before I watch the finale.

And what an episode! At first, I thought it was going to be a tension-ratchetting episode, drawing things out until we’re ready to scream: the Russians invade Herdis’s home, bag her, threaten to shoot the little dog, Benji. June’s phone is in an envelope lying in plain site, but the Russian lady doesn’t find it. Neither do SP and Simon, arriving to interrupt proceedings. My fears that one or both of this pair would be killed off were unfounded. There was a mini-shoot-out, with the Russian heavy getting wounded and the ice-blonde abandoning him per protocol, but Herdis keeps her nerve, lies to everyone, and leaves in her son-in-law’s truck, with the phone.

And on the Ferry, things are getting tense. The Engineer’s dead, the tanks are still full, they’ve already passed Provensteen island where the ambush awaits. But Philip finds the valves and dumps the fuel whilst Captain Hvalso convinces Yusuf that it’s Provensteen or drift into the Baltic.

But there are bombs inside the trailer, threatening the hostages. Philip has to get in and disarm them or the ambush won’t work. He’s trying to break through the trailer roof. June wants to kill Rami and Mahdi. Time’s getting tight. Rami discovers that Mahdi used Hassan’s body, that Philip and June are alive and free.

And then it all comes to a head. Mahdi panics, runs for it. Philip orders the troops notto shoot, but Rami does. Mahdi is down, shot in the shoulder, possibly dead. June welts Rami over the back of the head with a wrench. Yusuf orders Hvalso to drive the truck and trailer, heading for the exit. Philip’s in the back, disarming bombs as fast as he can. He gets the last one just as the truck reaches the barricade: a sniper shoots Yusuf through the shoulder: he too looks dead.

Unexpectedly, the hostage crisis is resolved with an episode to go. And if Yusuf is dead, how can TTF track down who was pulling his strings? Mind you, the ferry is yet to be secured, Rami and June. June’s on our side, Philip says, blithely. Andwe cut to June, armed with Rami’s gun, running away, furtively.

Is there a big surprise coming? As I said, Woah!

In the end, though, the ending was not as advertised, and certainly lacked the personal tragedies that made the first series so brilliant. The episode began with June pursuing Rami and Philip pursuing June, assuming she intended to kill him. Not so. June wounds him in the leg and takes him hostage, a clever if short-lived reversal. She’ll let him go once she gets her phone back. This development doesn’t last long: the Strike Team are ready to attack but Philip goes in first, disarms June by shooting her in the arm. As for Rami, who has been defiled by being touched by June (there really are some sick aspects to the fanatic’s version of that religion), he tries to restore his honour by knifing her and Philip,and only loses his life by being shot, several times.

So at last it’s over, barring the mopping up. But the mopping up has heavy implications. Faithful Herdis, no less fanatical in her way than the religious nuts, givesJune back her phone in thee hospital. The blonde Russian, Anna Karashina, is identified from CCTV footage of June’sarrest at the airport. Bulow recognises her. Anna’s going to be deported, or she would be if she wasn’t going to be pulled out first. But she’s taking June with her, the first ever extradition from Denmark to Russia.

June doesn’t mind. She’s handed her phone to Philip who, after having seen that the two dead Danish soldiers were Rangers, his old mob, has promised to get the video out. Philip’s hacker buddies can upload it to the internet, untraceably, via the Dark Web. Unfortunately, Philip has to abort once he hears of June.

Philip rescues June one last time, swapping the phone for her extradition papers. It’s a yielding to the infamous realpolitik, doing the wrong thing to protect the country as a whole, not that anyone ever tests the opposite hypothesis, because they don’t want to, they’re fixated on being tough-minded, the mad arrogant bastards.

June, needless to say, is furious. She has her life back, and her family, at the expense of her cause, and we all know what matters most to her. Philip is left with a troubled conscience, the desire to expose wrong set against the knowledge that the entire State apparatus will be turned against him if he tries, andthis now he’s decided to go back to TTF.

I spent the last six or seven minutes expecting something explosive, literally explosive, to happen. But the series was too sophisticated for that kind of cliche. Its explosion was metaphorical, not literal: the Hacker Twins still had a copy of most of the video, 88% of it, to be specific. Should they wipe it, or….?

So the video comes out, and questions start to be asked. How much they might affect the now inevitable third series, I don’t know, but I’m happy to wait.

No, series 2 didn’t match up to series 1. It was still a sophisticated, gripping thriller, free from cliches, of a standard I wish this country could reach. But by opting for realpolitik concerns against private grief, honour and commitment, it condemned itself to stay merely a thriller. It avoided the personal on anything except a personal level, and left the hard questions to a credits-covering voiceover.

Even so, if series 3 is no better than this, I’ll still lap it up. But one can dream, can’t one?

Film 2019: I Know Where I’m Going

Though you can’t class it amongst the Archers’ major films, I Know Where I’m Going occcupies the highest rung of the second tier. It’s a sweet, fresh, natural romantic comedy that is blessed with wonderful scenery, wonderful cinematography and an underlying seriousness that makes the film a success on every level it attempts.

I Know Where I’m Going takes its name and theme from the renowned Scottish folksong, which is sung over the opening and closing credits. It stars Wendy Hiller and the massively underrated Roger Livesey, though the original casting was to be Deborah Kerr and James Mason. Kerr couldn’t get out of her contract with MGM, opening things up for Hiller (who’d been the original choice for Kerr’s multiple roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp until she became pregnant). Mason dropped out six weeks before filming was due to start, not wishing to travel to the Hebrides for location shooting. Livesey asked to read the part, despite being older than the role and somewhat out of shape: he lost twenty pounds and took the role, despite being committed to a London play which meant that all his scenes had to be filmed at Denham Studios. The use of a double on location is so brilliantly concealed that unless you know in advance, it’s undetectable.

The film was made in 1945, though the War is still active in the story. It further exemplified the Archers’ crusade against materialism begun in A Canterbury Tale and took the place of the intended A Matter of Life and Death, for which there was not sufficient colour film available yet.

The storyline is simple. A series of voice overs introduces us to Joan Webster, a forthright and determined young lady with ambitions towards a better life, i.e., one of money and luxury. At the age of 25 she is engaged to marry the substantially older Sir Robert Bellenger, Chairman of Consolidated Chemical Industries, where Joan works. Bellenger is almost as old as Joan’s Bank Manager father, who is less than impressed at her news, not that Joan cares. After all, she knows where she is going.

And that’s the Isle of Kiloran, in the Western Isles, where Bellenger is tenant of the island for the duration. Bellenger is the rich man: he has had a swimming pool built rather than swim in the ocean, buys in salmon from Glasgow rather than take the abundant local stock, and thinks the only people worth knowing in this part of the world are an Englishman and his silly-ass, bridge-obsessed wife. This is the life Joan dreams of, and has headed towards all her life.

Joan has an itinerary, taking her from Manchester to the Isle of Mull, where a boat will collect her to take her to Kiloran. But it is here that fate, or nature, intervenes, first in the form of sea-fog, and then a gale lasting seven days, making the last leg of the journey impossible. There’s some blatant symbolism in the wind blowing Joan’s itinerary into the sea at this point, though the moment was far too obvious even in 1945.

Also stranded is another Kiloran-bound traveller, a Naval Lieutenant who we initially know only as Torquil, who arranges for himself and Joan to stay overnight at the House, owned by his childhood friend, Catriona Potts (nee McLaine), played by the lovely Pamela Brown, along with her eccentric tenant, falconer Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight). Not until the next day, en route to Tobermory to take up hotel accomodation there (and relieve the strain on Catriona’s underfunded household), do she and we learn that Torquil is MacNeal of Kiloran, the true Laird, as opposed to Bellenger who is only an interloper.

It’s plain that Torquil finds Joan attractive. It’s less plain that Joan finds Torquil attractive, enough so to make her doubly determined to get to Kiloran and remove herself from temptation’s way. Even when she goes to stay with the Robinsons, ‘the only people worth knowing around here’ according to the fruity-voiced Bellenger, who is never seen and only heard this once, they are on their way to play bridge with the elderly Rebecca Crozier, whose houseguest is Torquil.

The underlying theme of the entire film, which is seen at its clearest in the ensuing ceilidh scene, celebrating the Diamond Wedding anniversary of Mrs Crozier’s head gardener (Mr Campbell’s son, John, is played by a young John Laurie, who also choreographed the ceilidh). It’s a beautiful scene, natural and simple, and Joan is plainly drawn to it, and to the evident enjoyment of all the participants. But it is Torquil who is at home, and who is accepted amongst the people, notwithstanding his lairdship.

Because Joan’s problem, like that of Bellenger and the foolish Robinsons, is that they don’t belong, and it’s not just being English in the West of Scotland. Colonel Barnstaple belongs, and he’s as English as they come. Bellenger lives with, but above and separate from the people of the area. Joan is seeking a lifestyle that Bellenger’s money can give her, but in knowing where she’s going, she belongs to no place. She is in motion. Torquil, Catriona, Rebecca, the Campbells, Ruairidh Mhor, the boatman, Kenny, his assistant, and Bridie, his daughter who Kenny hopes to marry, they are all in the place that they know and understand. They are part of the land. Catriona puts it best, to Joan at the end, sobered by her ordeal: Joan still sees only money as the measure of life: instead of struggling to maintain their homes, Catriona, Rebecca, Torquil, they could all sell. Catriona is mystified by the thought, cannot understand it. The land is as much a part of them as they are of the land, and they cannot be if this is severed.

Joan has to learn this. She bribes Kenny to take Ruairidh’s boat out, behind his back, when it’s manifestly insane to do so. Torquil, unable to talk her out of her stupidity, her rootless arrogance to think that she knows better, washes his hands of her, until Catriona points out what he’s not yet seen for himself, that Joan is running away, not towards, and she is running from Torquil.

So MacNeal of Kiloran goes on the boat, and well that he did. High winds, high seas, storms, a soaked engine, Joan’s wedding dress going into the sea and the risk of drowning in the whirlpool Corryvrecken. But Torquil gets the engine working again in time, and all are saved.

A beautiful day dawns, but too late for Torquil. His leave is over, without reaching the island, and the boat is coming for Joan. He asks her to have her pipers play a particular song. She asks him to kiss her, which he does, with great enthusiasm. Then they part.

Torquil’s path takes him past Moy Castle. Like at least three generations before him, Torquil has not set foot in Moy Castle, ever. A curse was laid, by a long-ago Catriona MacLean, forced into marriage to MacNeal of Kiloran, fleeing to her lover of Moy Castle. Kiloran beseiged and took the castle, and bound the lovers in chains, to stand upon a rock in the deep pool below the banqueting hall, until their fatigue pulled them both down to drown. Torquil knows of the curse, and now he enters Moy, climbing to its battlements. He will never leave a free man. But Torquil is not free, not now or ever again..

And we hear pipes, playing a particular song, pipers advancing on Moy Castle, with Joan marching behind, all set to abandon where she has been going because she has arrived where she wants to be, with Torquil, in this life she has begun to understand. The curse has struck: MacNeal of Kiloran shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.

It’s a beautiful story, and a dream of a script, written by Emeric Pressburger in only four days. No, it’s not a major film, not like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, but the view from here to there is not so great or so high, and the film’s setting in Scotland, and its sense of place and eternity gives the story a sense of shape that a mere romantic comedy could not have on its own. Sunday mornings are made for magic like this.

And You May Find Yourself – *New Novel*

It’s taken me a great deal longer than I’d expected, given that I’d produced the final draft by February 2019, but I’ve finally published my latest novel, my ninth in total.

And You May Find Yourself is a direct sequel to Love Goes to Building on Sand, which came out in 2018. Though it features the same ‘hero’, and many of the same characters, it couldn’t be more different, in that the first book was largely based in real events, and the sequel is the opposite. It’s working title was ‘The Wildly Overdue Wish-Fulfillment Fantasy’.

And as of tonight, it’s available through for £9.99 and P&P, and for your comfort and convenience, you may use this link. Order it, read it, enjoy it and writeand tell me just how good it is. So what if you have to lie a bit, friends do that for friends.

And in case you’re wondering, I am about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of the third (and final) book, which you can look for in 2020 if we still have a functioning country left by then.

Champion: Hardly…

renamed Jet Jordan

One of the many little ironies that make life bearable is the knowledge that back in the Sixties there were two British weekly boys comics that billed themselves as ‘Companions’ to Valiant, because they were produced by the same editorial staff. The first of these was Hurricane, that lasted for sixty three weeks across four distinct editorial phases. The second was an even short-lived title named Champion, that lasted a mere fifteen weeks before being cancelled.
Yet when the time came for each of these ‘Companions’ of Valiant to fold, neither merged into their senior stable-mate. Hurricane folded into Tiger, Champion into Lion. You have to wonder.
Now, courtesy of a tip from the invaluable David Simpson, I’ve been able to download the entire fifteen issue run of Champion and read the same, and to be frank, it’s not that impressive.
Champion debuted on 26 February 1966, costing 7d for a 40 page comic. It’s contents consisted of Jet Jordan (2pp, front and back covers, colour and b&w respectively); School for Spaceman (3pp); Return of the Stormtroopers (4pp); Knights of Konigsfeld (3pp); Lofty Lightyear (1p); War Eagle (3pp), Bartok and his Brothers (3pp, illustrated prose); Spider Webb – The Scrapper of the Scrapyard (2pp); Letters (2pp); When the Sky turned Green (3pp); Cosmic Nick – the Clot from Outer Space (1p); Hunters without Guns (2pp), World of Champions (4pp, featuring racing driver Stirling Moss this week); Boy Kidd (2pp) and The Phantom Viking (3pp). And already there were promises of new series starting in issue 2, such as Dr X and Jinks.
Some of these series I have already written about when reviewing the history of Lion, and I certainly don’t intend to repeat myself in the case of Lofty Lightyear. With the exception of the European material – and of course Boy Kidd is a translation of the 1962 Rene Goscinny/Morris Lucky Luke adventure ‘Billy the Kid’, with Luke renamed Buck Bingo – none of the comedy strips of the Sixties work for me and Cosmic Nick is no different.
One immediate problem is that, by the standards of what was being published at the time, and with particular reference to both Valiant and Hurricane, Champion looks cheap. There’s a greater use of white space on the cover, and minimal, badly off-register colour in the first Jet Jordan page. That is a decent flying adventure strip, but none of the rest are immediately appealing. The closest the title comes to a character-dominated series is The Phantom Viking, and meek, weak Olaf Larsen, the Viking’s ‘secret identity’ is scarcely adequate in that role.

renamed Buck Bingo

There’s an overload of what I defined as situation series, none more obviously so than When the Sky turned Green, a cliched disaster story about the crew of a submarine having to save the world because they were all underwater when the sky turned green: it took about three panels to see there was no chance ever of a new idea in its pages.
Return of the Stormtroopers, about a fanatical Nazi general awaking from suspended animation to attack the peace-loving world of 2046 and Hunters without Guns, about a family of wildlife photographers in Africa played with German war machines, though the latter had very outline art, whilst War Eagle was about an eagle becoming mascot and master technician to a WW2 RAF Squadron. Yes, you heard that right, tactician.
But Knights of Konigsfeld, Dr X and Hunters without Guns, like Jet Jordan, were all translations of European series, making Champion half bought in, a much higher proportion than anyone would have expected. Jet Jordan, which was the long-running ‘Dan Cooper’ series to the rest of the world, had decent, clean art (albeit resized and redesigned to fit the comic’s front page specifications) but the others suffered from quasi-cartoon art, all plain outlines and no detail.
Indeed the best art, detailed, carefully hatched and filled with depth, was on War Eagle, although it looked somewhat archaic. That the series was a reprint seemed clear from the different lettering in which ‘War Eagle’s name appeared, overwriting a longer name for the bird.
Wacker, another European strip (real name Starter), a two-pager, started in issue 3, with a noise-averse Liverpudlian looking for somewhere quiet in the country, only to get ripped off with a broken-down Hall.
After five issues – a third of Champion‘s life, remember – it’s already possible to come to a conclusion as to why it failed: it isn’t good enough. It looks and feels like the runt of the litter, fed the scraps and crumbs that weren’t considered up to scratch for either of its companions. The only decent strips are the continental ones: Jet Jordan, Boy Kidd, Jinx (Wacker isn’t up to their standard). Only The Phantom Viking has any credentials among the home-produced material, and its scratchy, uncertain art is a major hindrance.

renamed Jinx

War Eagle only lasted five weeks before being replaced by a similarly old-fashioned looking War strip, The Fighting Fifteenth. Dr X was ended in issue 7, having totally lost control over what it was supposed to be about. It’s replacement, The Space Travellers, was perhaps emblematic of the type of story Champion was producing. A school teacher with a head full of science fiction builds a space rocket in his back shed running on cosmic radiation converted from sunlight. It accidentally gets launched whilst he’s showing it to a boy from the school and a reporter. They fly to the planet Centaur which has a identical atmosphere to Earth, and the same kind of cows. There is literally nothing about that that a boy aged over five can take in the least bit seriously, especially in a world where ‘Thunderbirds’ exists. What kind of idiot thought this workable I don’t know, but no comic can survive on stuff like that.
The second instalment makes out its a comedy. What’s the phrase again? Yeah, right.
The Fighting Fifteenth also lasted five issues and it’s replacement was RAF Pilot, Battler Britton, who would survive into Lion in the very near future. When the Sky turned Green bowed out in issue 14, beating the rush, the good guys winning the day by committing genocide (think of that, eh?) The Space Travellers decided to bugger off back to Earth at the same time.
And so, on 4 June 1966, Champion reached its fifteenth and final issue: a short life and a far from merry one. With the exception of the Knights of Konigsfeld, all the stories that didn’t make the cut fizzled out emptily, none more so than Spider Webb, which fell on its face. Jet Jordan, Battler Britton, Return of the Stormtroopers, The Phantom Viking, plus Jinx and Wacker lived on, the first three in mid-story.
In this necessarily brief survey, I’ve saved comment until the end on the one Champion feature I did remember before starting it, and that I had looked forward to re-acquainting myself with. Bartok and His Brothers deserves some kind of accolade for being the most disappointing memory in all the comics I’ve been re-reading this past eighteen months or so.

The series was set a century into the future, in a world dominated by a Chinese crime organisation, the Sons of Ying, led by the Master Dragon. After a Genghis Khan-like warlord sacks his laboratory in Central Asia, Dr Hans Bartok uses his Duplicator Machine to create four duplicates of himself, i.e. clones, to create a Brotherhood to fight evil. Each duplicate has a superpower but one of them is potentially evil. Bartok-2 is super-intelligent, Bartok-3 is super-agile and fast, Bartok-4 is, er, super-courageous and fierce (seriously) and Bartok-5 is super-strong. Hint, the evil one is… Bartok-4, who is reformed through hypnosis but he and Bartok-2 get killed at the end.
What I remembered of this, which included the designated powers, the deaths and Bartok-4’s treachery (which I resented deeply, having adopted 4 as my lucky number), was vivid enough, but where so many things have been good enough still to justify my lifelong recollections, the Bartok stuff is cheaply and badly-written, flavourless and melodramatic. The author was Michael Moorcock’s friend and near-protege, Barrington J Bayley. The one time I met Moorcock, he signed a Boy’s World annual story credited to him but actually written by Bayley, who needed the money. I make no comment.
Had Lino Landolfi’s ‘Connecticut Yankee’ been so much a let down last year as this is, I would hardly have bought another comics DVD, so I was lucky there. Champion was created cheap, it lived cheap and even its own editor was convinced it was created to fail, and be merged into something else to give that a sales bump. After fifteen issues, Champion‘s audience must have been more like a pothole.

Lou Grant: s02 e15 – Scam

White collar criminal

Maybe it was just the day on which I watched this, but for me this was one of those episodes of Lou Grant that has just not weathered the intervening years well. It was both earnest and dry, and its subject, which might have been expository in 1978, is too well worn now to be the kind of crusade the show was about. Though you can hardly say it’s not got a contemporary element to it.

The show’s initial hook was that Lou was being taken out for a meal by his son-in-law to whom, in the early years of marriage to his daughter Lou had helped out financially to the tune of over $5,000. The man had done good and, over Lou’s protestations, wanted to repay him, with interest, threefold: $15,000.

Lots of people had advice for Lou on what to do with this windfall, with Charlie insistent on introducing Lou to his financial adviser, a real wizard named David Milburn (guest star John Considine). Next up was Dr Jack Barnes, one of ultimately over 70 doctors accusing Milburn of being a crook and a scammer.

Finacial stuff is inherently dry, and Milburn was just that little bit too obvious a slimeball to be interesting. It was all one PONZI scheme, but the body of the show revolved around Charlie digging in his heels, refusing to accept Milburn could possibly be a crook, and only being convinced when the man did a runner.

Then it was self-recrimination time, which was the only part of the episode where the show escaped its didactic edge. Charlie’s lost practically everything he’s worked for over thirty years and is blaming himself left, right and centre. he’s feeling itall the more because his wife Marion (Pegy McCay playing her usual, sensible supporting role) won’t blame him. He wants to make himself feel better by having her call him all the names he’s calling himself, but she won’t give him the satisfaction, not out of some sadistic sense of game-playing and punishment, but becaus she is a wifewho loves her husband and is genuinely glad to still have him. It’s an altogether human moment in an episode that, try as it might, can’t escape from its theme.

Milburn’s smug self-satisfaction is hardly dented when the Judge goes against the prevailing trend of wrist-slapping and gives him ten years, nor when he tries to pull the smarm to Charlie over how this is all a horrible mistake and he will make restitution. The show is better when Charlie tell’s Milburn he doesn’t want to know what Charlie’s thinking than in Charlie’s overly quick recovery of his normal, easy-going temperament. What the episode needed was more sense of human drama than the adopting of convenient roles it offered.

As for Lou’s money, that was offered up in a quasi-comedic close, showing Lou had bought a baseball team – a Little League team and a pretty inept one, very Charlie Brown-ish – and gotten very worried about th cost of rreplacing lost balls at $2.50 a pop.

Like I say, on another day, I might have been more sympathetic overall. This just wasn’t the best episode to watch this week.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: An Introduction to R A Lafferty’s novels

People (it is traditional to address an audience with the word the great man was wont to use in his fiction when preparing to discuss Raphael Aloysius Lafferty, known professionally as R.A. Lafferty and to his family and intimates as Ray). People: little as I am qualified to do so, given my lack of great erudition, my unfamiliarity with deep Catholic liturgy and beliefs, my similar inexperience with more than a shallow amount of world-wide mythology and the absence in me of familiarity with more than merely my native tongue, but buoyed up by forty plus years of reading the great man’s writings, not to mention the qualification of being one of the few hundred people on this globe who enthuse for his works. People: I intend to re-read, and write upon the various novels of the late R.A. Lafferty. May God have mercy upon you.
The thing about reading Lafferty is not that it qualifies you for a very exclusive, inclusive club of enthusiasts and fanatics, but that you find yourself writing introductions like that.
Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (1914-2002) was born in Neola, Iowa, and moved with his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma, aged 8. Other than during Service in the US Army in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2, he lived there for the remainder of his life, the last eighteen years of which he spent in a nursing home after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1984. For someone with such a sharp, inventive mind, that was a tragic ending.
Lafferty first started to appear, as a writer of short stories, in 1959. For a time there, it was touch and go whether he would become a crime fiction writer, or a science fiction writer. In the end, the SF field claimed him for their own, although the fit was always more one of default than nature. Lafferty was a writer of dense, allusive but also broadly comic prose, a fizzer with ideas. He was a true one-off: expert writers who try to pastiche what at first sight appears to be a slapdash, easy going, campfire style that fits closest with the American Tall Tales tradition, universally agree that it’s incredibly hard work to give even a surface impression.
Lafferty was a regular in the SF magazines in the Sixties and into the Seventies, and produced a number of well-received novels. He was in demand from editors and welcomed passionately by his fellow writers, until sophisticated publishing and circulation software revealed that Laff’s actual market was minuscule: in a conversation with a fellow fan, a bookseller, a few years ago, he reckoned that there are only about three hundred of us in the world.
And if you go by their quotes, something like twenty-five percent of them at least are fellow writers. Neil Gaiman is an avid fan, who corresponded with him whilst still a child: he has said, “(Lafferty) was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was.” Theodore Sturgeon commented that, “some day the taxonomists, those tireless obsessives who put labels on everything, will have to characterise literature as Westerns, fantasies, romances, lafferties, science fiction, mysteries…”
My favourite comment comes from Michael Swanwick: “If there were no Lafferty, we would lack the imagination to invent him.” I can think of no more beautiful tribute to a fellow writer.
Most people concur that Lafferty’s strongest writing comes in his short stories. His working methods were very intense, involving two hour writing stints, and having to extend this across the number of pages required for a novel has most people believing that his talents were being diffused.
Some of his short stories are incredible miniatures, that can have you in tears of laughter, or just boggling at what he’s done in so short a space and time. But although I may have read a couple of his early stories when I was first feeling my way into SF/Fantasy, back in 1974, my first serious exposure was a novel.
Lafferty’s novels in publication order bear no discernible relationship to their order of writing. I know from the Continued on Next Rock website that Archipelago was Laff’s first, even though it was not published until 1979, and then in very limited quantities, but I’m going to go by publication order, and you’ll have to keep up.
We all have to keep up, and that includes me. I’m going to write this because I want to write this. If it can persuade any of you to join in increasing our numbers to 301, it will be a welcome bonus. But you’ll need a lot of money to afford to buy the out-of-print books…