The Infinite Jukebox: East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’

I have never been interested in boy bands, though that attitude had to change, at least in part, when I married a Take That fan. I saw them twice with her on their first reunion tour, learned to appreciate some of their songs, and one of these, ‘Rule the World’, is to me as good as anything I’ve heard. But the rest? Gah! Spare me, save my ears, relieve me from this hideous mockery of good music. Say not the name Boyzone in my hearing, let not the existence of Westlife be mentioned.
East 17 were a particularly unbearable example of the breed. They were the bad boys to Take That’s good boys, the dickheads whose schtick was outrage allied to the harmonies. This was still in the days where, however much you didn’t listed to Radio 1, you nevertheless heard things far more often than you ever wanted. Thankfully, I cannot now consciously remember or recognise a single East 17 song.
Except one.
‘Stay Another Day’ was the Xmas no 1 of 1994, spending five weeks at the top, the band’s only no. 1. Even at the time, with not reason to have an alleviated view of boy bands, I liked the record. It’s a gorgeous, slow ballad, built upon some wonderful harmonising on the much-repeated chorus, rising to some extended vocal arrangements over the song’s long coda that sends the song into infinity and leaves you regretting that it has to end when you could listen forever.
This isn’t a Xmas song, yet the addition of Xmas bells over the coda are a perfect touch, drawing the atmosphere of the season into the song, adding a touch of stardust. it isn’t even a romantic song, despite the words talking about asking someone to stay, though Girls Aloud turned it into a love song for the b-side of their first single.
No, this is an incredibly sad song, written by lead songwriter Tony Mortimer, following the death of his brother, a suicide. Knowing that the message is to a loved one who, rather than being a lover, leaving, was a brother who left forever, deepens the meaning of the song and the togetherness of the harmony, with the band as a surrogate brotherhood, increases the poignancy of the forlorn desire for the loved one to stay. All of us are affected by this.
And the final genius of Tony Mortimer is that to accompany this plea, he found a tune of simple beauty, free from tricks, in which to say how much his brother meant to him.
I’ve never heard the Girls Aloud version of the song and never will. To turn this song into a romance is cloth-earedness of the highest water, and Mortimer’s bemusement at the step says all that need be said. Though one can never rule out the possibility of someone singing this song with an equal measure of pain and understanding in their heart, I should venture to suggest that none of us, no matter what our voices, have any right to this song, and that it is something that should be accorded the respect of being left pristine.
None of the meaning of this song I knew in 1994. All I knew was that it was a lovely sound from an unlikely source that, for four minutes at a time, reconciled me to them. Knowing all I know, I regard it with more profound love than so long a time ago. This is a song that will outlive all the centuries.

Crap Journalism

I don’t really care what other people think of the books (or films or television or art) I like. Make an interesting, intelligent, thoughful criticism and I’ll read it, though you’re unlikely to change my mind. Just slag it off, and I’ll shrug and ignore you.

Occasionally, those who slag off need answering, briefly. Take this feature in the Guardian about writer Adam Kay in the Books That Made Me column. Note his comment about Lord of the Rings, which he calls ‘indecipherable nonsense’.

I don’t know who Adam Kay is or what he writes. He’s as entitled to dislike Lord of the Rings as I am to like it and neither of us is right or wrong.

But given the sheer volume of readers it has had, the reams of academic study it has undergone, its translation into film and radio by people with creative abilities, ‘indecipherable nonsense’ is demonstrably one thing it is not and Kay’s description says more about his comprehesion skills than the book itself.

Lou Grant: s03 e08 – Witness

Richard Jaeckel

What really caught my eye about this episode was not the main story itself, and certainly not the insufficiently comic B story, but rather the presence of one guest star, Richard Jaeckel as Detective Dan Staley, playing what was originally a serious role but which, forty years later, has become a grotesque cartoon.

I’ll come back to that shortly, but here is the context. Billie and Donovan have gone to a bar for a drink. Billie has noticed controversial trial lawyer Elliott Robinson and tries to question him. Robinson bluntly refuses. In the darkness of the underground parking garage, two men beat him viciously. Billie and Donovan discver him. He’s taken to the hospital in critical condition, where eventually he dies. The Trib starts an investigation. Robinson has multiple enemies amongst those he has sued/is suing. The name of popular and successful gameshow host Art McQueen is mentioned. One of the thugs contacts Bilie, naming McQueen as the one who hired two of them, only to welsh on the final payment, but his unsupported allegation can’t be printed without a name or corroboration. But when he turns up dead, that’s a story. When Billie puts the story to the folksy, real-people McQueen, he warns her over printing a story that could effect someone’s life. The brakes promptly fail on her car, though it’s when Rossi is driving it. To obtain Police protection, Billie agrees to testify to the Grand Jury considering indicting Art McQueen. Ok, we’re now here.

Though she should have a woman Police Officer guarding her, Billie ends up with the Detective handling the Robinson assault/murder case, Detective Staley. Though I’m bound to say that Jaeckel’s performance was weak an awkward, as if he was unhappy with the script he was given and couldn’t bring conviction to the role, his was a character study that’s changed in dimension over the years.

In 1977, Feminism had only been an effective force for less than a decade. Linda Kelsey plays Billie as an independent, forthright young woman, intelligent, informed, effective. This was still controversial back then, and I recall one contemporary criticism of the character that claimed she was “a hideous lie”.

Dan Staley was portrayed as a male chauvinist (we’ll leave off the ‘pig’ aspect, despite the term getting two shots at him). He’s patronising towards Billie (the ‘little lady’), and full of condescending assumptions about her, especially when Billie goes to the Morgue to identify the body of the man she met. He makes assumptions about why she went to the bar, why she approached Robinson, even that she approached the lawyer when she was already a guy, some of which can be alibied by the need of a Detective to initially doubt everybody’s story, but which lean on the invisible sex angle. He’s patriotic, believes in Nuclear Weapons, he’s authoritarian, he continually makes assumptions about Billie over her political opinions, in fact she starts to come over as a catalogue of feminist/liberal virtues designed to contrast with him. They have nothing in common, except that they both enjoy Masterpiece Theatre.

The point is that in 1979 this was a nearly natural portrayal of a state of mind. The programme plays fair by Staley. He isn’t angry, or defensive, he doesn’t overplay the role, he just is that way, like so many people were. In 2019, he’s a caricature, a cartoon compilation of cliches akin to an OTT role in a French and Saunders sketch. His every utterance is groan-inducing, an ‘is this guy for real?’ display.

We’ve moved on a lot from 1979. The world is very far from perfect and there’s a gathering strength among the chauvinist who want to dial things back towards the days when such sentiments were not merely ‘normal’ among their crowd but to everyone. But the fact that Staley is now a grotesque, instead of a common viewpoint, speaks well for our mental advance over forty years. On the day of a General Election in Britain, there’s something encouraging about that.

Doomsday Clock 12

So the Undistinguished Thing is now here in its entirety. The set is going on eBay at any moment, One-Day Auction, Buy and Pay Thursday, Guaranteed First Class Posting Friday morning, maximum chance of delivery for Xmas, £9.99 plus postage starting bid or Best Offer. Get bidding!

Why you should want to is entirely another matter. I have made my opinion of Doomsday Clock amply clear over this past more than two years and I recant nothing now I have read the final, extended size issue.

But, in the manner of Lucifer on an Australian beach reluctantly give God his due over the matter of sunsets, I have to give credit to Geoff Johns for some of the things in issue 12. Despite the many flaws that I’ve held up to ridicule and  scorn, some of which carry over into this wrap-up, there are elements to the outcome that, if attached to a story with a less mean-minded purpose, could have completed an event worth reading and re-reading.

The first thing to recognise is that I was completely wrong in the assumption I made on reading issue 1 back in 2017 that the ending would be a big fight between Superman and Dr Manhattan, to be won by the former despite the overwhelming discrepancy in power levels. Johns even set that up at the end of issue 11, all those months ago, but he had something more subtle on his mind.

The big fight is between Superman and everybody else. The Russians, the Markovians, Black Adam’s Khandaq brigade, the Brits, the Aussies, the Israelis, in short every other country in the world that has a superhero team we never hear about because americans really can’t be arsed about anything that isn’t American, all piling in at once to take Superman down and in for his part in the Moscow massacre, whenever that was. Dr Manhattan looks on. After all, he sees everything simultaneously so he is the man on no action and no hope: it all goes black in eleven minutes and fifty seven seconds, after which, ho hum.

There’s something of the rat pack mentality about this atomic pile-on. i don’t know whether Johns intended this or not but there’s an element of mean-spiritedness, a seizing of the chance to get back at, and drag down the paragon, to adopt the current Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series terminology. Superman’s been the perfect ideal for too long, now he can be clawed down, not so perfect anyomre. Tied in with the nationalistic implications of the battle being every other country versus the American boy, it leaves a sour taste on the mouth. But then, so much of what inspiresJohns to this work does exactly the same.

Dr Manhattan, like I said, looks on. He sees destruction in the forthcoming darkness: Superman destroys me or I destroy everything. But the DC Universe is one of hope and optimism, not like that nasty ol’ Watchmen Universe. Superman asks for a third choice.

And at exactly the same moment, Batman and the is-he-dead-or-is-he-not-dead Alfred catch up with Reggie, the New (I can’t write well enough to write Rorscharch so I’ll make up a second-rate version of him to speak what little superficially similar dialogue I can achieve) Rorscharch, who can lead them to where Ozymandias is, even though Veidt has moved elsewhere before since Reggie last saw him. They need Reggie to put on Rorscharch’s mask again (what the hell for? It hasn’t got a direction-finder or anything like that?).  But Reggie won’t touch it, won’t even say the name. because everybody’s lied to him about Rorscharch and Reggie’s father and he hates the monster.

Until Batman tells him to change what people see when they see the mask so Reggie changes his mind. just like that. As you do when you’re in a superhero Universe that’s done the same thing for eighty years non-stop.

By now you must be wondering when we’ll come to something of which I approve but fear not. Just as Reggie undergoes a 180 degree change in character because Batman talks to him, so too does Dr Manhattan because Superman speaks. Everything goes black. Because Dr Manhattan makes it go black, for nearly three pages, until the Lux is Fiated once more, this time by the naked blue guy.

And also the shitty changes Dr Manhattan has made are unmade. Superman lifts a car over his head in 1938 again. The lantern is six inches nearer Alan Scott again. A girl a thousand years hence saves R.J. Brande’s life again. And a Superboy inspired by heroes of the past saves Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Suddenly, the sky is full of allies of Superman, aiding him against the treacherous, loathsome Old Worlders. Allies from the past, allies from the future. The Legion of superheroes to the doublespread panel left, the Justice Society of America with that old, calm authority to the right.

I’ve no idea whether this is yet another Universal reboot or just Rebirth Reborn, but either way it’s all turned round again. and this was apparently Ozymandias’s plan all along: he couldn’t persuade Jon to save the world again but Superman could so it was all about engineerng a confrontation.

Because not only is whatever Earth-1 equivalent we may be in at any given time, not only is the DC universe the Metaverse that steers the stars of every multiversal existence, but Superman is the fons et origo of everything. Every Universe our reading eye passes through is still there, growing the multiverse with it, and every future Crisis to come (Johns listing enough to get us to the Legion’s time though the ones for 2025 and 2030 are obviously the more immediate concerns, with the former’s 5G having already been hinted at) creating new versions.

So, Dr Manhattan regroups everyone from the Watchmen Universe so that they can go home (and write about what they did on their holidays?) Actually, the Mime and the Marionette will stay behind because despite being deeply evil, half mad and psychotic criminals, they do love each other and besides, they’ll be nice to their little daughter. The Comedian, whose resurrection from the dead to appear in this dog has always been completly pointless, shoots Ozy through the chest and this time he doesn’t catch the bullet, except in his chest, so he gets sent back to where he’s falling out of his penthouse, except that this one’s done by Lex Luthor cancelling out his altered vibrations, just like Barry Allen all those half-centuries ago. Veidt’s going to die a hero just as he wants to but Reggie stuffs the Rorscharch mask in to plug up the wound and, bare-faced, proclaims himself Rorscharch. Just as in the TV series, Veidt’s going back to be arrested. He is a mass-murderer, remember.

As just as in the TV seruies, Dr Manhattan dies. Everyone returns to Watchmen world in 1992, with no explanation of how the two Universes are running on such a time discrepancy, and Dr Manhattan invests his power in regrowing the world after its nuclear holocaust, only this is Watchmen rebirth: Janey Slater tells Jon Osterman her watch can wait: six months later, they marry and have three kids. The events of Watchmen the comic still happen even despite there being no Dr Manhattan (go on Johns, for your next trick tell us How?) because Laurie and Dan are still in hiding in their assumed identities with their daughter who’s really Mime and Marionette’s first child, and there are no nuclear weapons any more.

Oh, but there’s a visitor who comes to stay with Dan and Laurie. A little dark-haired boy. With a blue hydrogen atom symbol on his forehead. He says to call him Clark.

I’ve ended up being still as scathing about issue 12 as I’ve been about all the others, and not merely by force of habit. The ending is built on too rotten an edifice for anything more, and the edifice is still what I’ve called it all along: Geoff Johns’ inability to understand an approach to superheroics that didn’t exactly mirror everything it’s been since 1838, and his fear of that failure to understand. What might have been noble, entertaining and even worthy if it did not grow from that shit-heap of resentment falls apart upon analysis. As I’ve just said.

But the JSA are back, which we can all welcome. And so too are Jonathan and Martha who, though their death was for fifty years an integral element of Superman’s tale, come as most welcome. Though were we’re gpoing to go with Schroedinger’s Alfred I don’t know.

The one thing I can say about Johns’ Watchmen is that at least he put the toys back where they came from where, out of sight and out of mind, we can forget everything that happened before and after Watchmen the comic and pray that nobody ever fucks with them again.

I’d hate to have to do this again.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Serpent’s Egg

In the late Eighties, very early Nineties, I was working in Altrincham. Just round the corner from our office, there was an independent bookshop, which I would pass at lunch, and look at what books they were promoting in the display. On one occasion, I came back to the office and mentioned to the Senior Partner that the new Kafka was out and it was a cookbook! The author, if I remember correctly, was named Barbara Kafka, but the joke fell flat, for he looked at me blankly and, once I’d explained, told me he’d never heard of Franz Kafka. So much for that.
But the biggest shock I had walking past that bookshop was the sight of an unknown hardback R.A. Lafferty novel, published by a British publisher in 1987. I was inside and buying it on the spot.
Serpent’s Egg was the first of two Lafferty novels published by Morrigan, neither of which appear on the Archipelago list of unpublished novels.
That day, I bought the standard issue, but a decade or so later, I traded up to the special edition, with a bonus short story, completely irrelevant to the novel, but when there is so much uncollected and unpublished Lafferty, it’s worth while grabbing what you can find. Besides, I got in before the rapid acceleration of prices for second hand copies.
This was the first of two late Lafferty novels published by Morrigan Publications, who were based in Bath. The book was limited to 1,010 copies, positively palatial compared to later publications, which numbered in hundreds. Mine is one of 250 signed and numbered copies, no 220, to be exact. It, and its successor, were the last of Lafferty’s novels to be published in hardback, with beautiful dust jackets designed by Neil McCall.
Like much of Lafferty’s later work, this is a difficult book to construe. His stories had become denser and darker, his symbolism more inwardly directed. The story is set in 2035, in a future vastly removed from our latter day present. Things have changed, in a manner difficult to summarise. Our world is subject to Government by the Kangaroo, and if you suspect a correlation to Kangaroo Courts, you’re on the right wavelength.
The population has changed, has become overwhelmed by ethnics to the point where regular people are rare. If you suspect that by ‘regular people’, Lafferty means white folks, you’re once again right. And that is unavoidably racist. Yet Lafferty is anything but racist, in any of his writings. He has a massive affinity with and sympathy for the Indians, and the distinction he draws here is not carried forward into the story in any way.
Nevertheless, it disturbs, even if it’s only meant to indicate the future expansion of a trend over the near fifty years between publication and story. And indeed the principal characters in the book cannot be any more diverse, without the least drawing of hierarchies amongst them.
These central characters are mega humans, children, a foursome of trios, each the ‘children’ of two experimenters. The foremost of these, in the sense that they are introduced first and in most detail, are Ruddy Lord Randal, Inneall and Axel, gathered in the ongoing experiment conducted by George Lynn-Randal and Iris Lynn-Randall. Lord Randall is a boy, son of George and Iris, Inneall (Irish for Machine) is a Mobile-Ambulatory computer that presents itself as a human girl, and Axel is a simian of the Axel’s Apes, also known as Smithy Apes, the blue-eyed Apes, and who may be the next presiding species on Earth, replacing humans. The trio have lived together as an experiment since birth, and are nearing their tenth birthdays, at which point mega-humans achieve their majority. They are charged with finding new ways of looking at the World, only not too cock-eyed new…
This is more a descriptive book than a narrative book, with Lafferty initially focusing on the Three, or rather the more unusual two of the three, the little girl computer and the Axel’s Ape. Strangely enough, though Lord Randall is clearly indicated to be a leader, he is the least described of the Three.
The starting point for the action, such as it is, is the start of Inneall’s Ocean. By means that Lafferty doesn’t even hint at (there is practically no science in Lafferty’s SF stories, he’s not that kind of science fiction writer), the little girl-identified computer creates an Ocean, which expands and expands until it threatens to consume the entire world. Inneall has a second personality as the Pirate Queen, Bloody Mary Muldoon, and pirates need an Ocean to sail upon, not to mention yachts, which Inneall commandeers from the midas Satrap Saint Ledger, who agrees this on condition Inneall becomes his daughter, which permits Saint Ledger a role as an adviser to the Twelve, and to all diminishing versions thereof.
Because this Three are not the only Three, the only experiment. There are three others, sets of three ‘children’ of incredible levels of intelligence, who come together on Inneall’s Ocean, for the Three Days of Summerset, the End of Summer. These are Marino, a young male seal, Luas, a young male angel and Henryetta, a young female human; Lutin, a young female python, Dubu, a young female bear and Schimp, a young male chimpanzee; and Gajah, an unborn female Indian elephant, Carcalou, a young male wolverine and Popugai, a young male parrot.
And ringed around this Twelve are the Dolophonai, assassins watching. Should any of these mega-persons, or any combination of them, be a Serpent’s Egg, they will be killed. They might be killed anyway, on the Third day of Summerset.
Amongst them, the most important might be Axel. It is his duty, after midnight, to wake the sleeping Axel’s Apes, who are God’s second chance. If they are not woke, they will sleep a further thousand years.
Like so many of Lafferty’s endings there is no real ending, except for a gustatious and self-congratulatory pun. By then, several of the mega-persons have been assassinated, despite being ten year olds, as Serpent’s Eggs and the Axel’s Apes sleep on, the book leaning very much more towards disaster and failure in a way that will start to appear common.
Some of Lafferty’s symbolism seems plain: the Twelve match (in number) the Apostles, Inneall’s Ocean threatens to be the Flood, and Satrap Saint Ledger is a Moses-figure, which would cast the book in religious terms, save that this time the cleansing of the world fails to occur. Which makes this a pretty bleak book in Lafferty’s terms, especially in the jokey epilog, exploding much of what we’ve read as lies.
In the end, we all take from Lafferty what we see. Serpent’s Egg is a difficult book, more diffuse in its narratives than earlier books. This is a common theme to these later books, and especially so with Morrigan’s other publication.

Person of Interest: s03 e09 – The Crossing

This was the one where it was really never going to be the same again.

‘The crossing’ is the second half of ‘Endgame’. Joss Carter has Alonzo Quinn and everything she needs to bring him and HR down for good. There’s only one catch: she has to get him to FBI headquarters across town. Across a town where every dirty cop and every crook has John Reese’s photo. And whilst Simmonds wants Carter and Quinn alive, the order is shoot to kill for the Man in a Suit.

Meanwhile, Harold Finch has received a string of numbers with one thing in common. They are all aliases, all aliases for John Reese.

Getting to FBI HQ is a problem. With reese runing interference, they get to the City Morgue, four blocks away, but that’s as far as they can go. Finch has brought Sameen Shaw into play. Lionel Fusco has helped Resse and Carter get as far as they have but he’s been captured, the key to the safe deposit box with all of Carter’s evidence taken, and they’re torturing him for the Bank’s name and location.

Meanwhile, Finch faces a dilemma. Root has a connection to the Machine fundamentally different to his own. She can help. She wants to help. It’s not that she cares all that much for John but she understands just how much Harry does: John is Finch’s creation as much as is the Machine. Nor is he Harold’s first partner. But Harold can’t break his fear of Miss Groves: she has changed the Machine. She has become closer to it than he has.

Fusco’s in deep trouble, fingers broken, but still defiant. This once dirty, once lazy cop has transformed, imperceptibly, into a stalwart. He’s tough, still wise-cracking, and he sends Simmonds on a wild goose chase to the wrong bank. In consequence of which Simmonds sends someone to Fusco’s home, to kill his son, Lee, with Fusco listening in by mobile phone. The shot is fired. Fusco crumples, his son is dead. But the voice on the line is Shaw: it is going to be alright. But if she is there for Lee, she cannot be where Fusco is for him.

The promotion for this episode leaned heavily on the idea that Fusco would die. But not tonight, brother, not tonight. Broken fingers made it easy for Fusco to break his thumb, slip his cuffs, attack and throttle his intended killer. Not Fusco.

Meanwhile, HR are in the Morgue, the power’s down, John and Joss are trapped. It’s the longest time they’ve spent together without an immediate threat, so they talk, compare scars. John explains just how important Joss is to him, how her intervention when he was a homeless drunk, planning on killing himself, changed him into what he is now. There’s a tremendous warmth between them, a growing intimacy.

And then John exits. Harold runs interference for him, he leads the HR cops away, and is arrested – by two honest cops found by Harold. It means arrest. But it’s better than death.

So Carter makes it. Quinn’s threats continue to the end but now they’re hollow. HR is broken, the story goes public, Simmonds is still missing but the lot are in custody. Joss is reinstated as Detective and uses her influence to get ‘John Doe’ out of the 3rd Precinct, in an echo of their first meeting.

What a long, strange trip it’s been, all the pieces, bright, shiny, sharp-edged, brought together in perfect balance to create so tense, so thrilling, so roller-coaster an episode, everything is going to be alright.

And then Simmonds steps out of the shadows and shoots both Reese and Carter. Aghast, Finch watches, a payphone ringing unanswered, conveying another Number but this one too late. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for Joss Carter. Simmonds is wounded, Reese is wounded, but Carter is dead.

Film 2019: Tolkien

This film is the first of a three-week intermission, between the box-sets I’ve been exploring for so long this year and the dozen or nore single-film DVDs that will form a relatively short Film 2020 season. It’s also by far the most recent film I’ve ever watched on a Sunday morning, straight from sleep, being a 2019 film released in the cinemas only seven months before this writing. I meant to see it then, but Sundays are both the best and the most awkward to visit a cinema, and I never got round to it.

By general consensus, Tolkien, a biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a failure: certainly commercially and to many artistically. Some thought it superb. My own opinion is somewhere between. Large parts of the film were low-key, as any film dealing with the life of a writer is bound to be (scribbling things in a notebook at a bus stop or on a bus is about as exciting as my writing gets), but on the other hand there were scenes near the film’s end that, to me, were deeply emotional.

The film had no assistance from the Tolkien family, as was evidenced by the fact that it only used a few of Tolkien’s words: Earendel was spoken, as was The Hobbit, but I noted that in the captions that closed things off, the film either didn’t want to, or more likely was prevented from specifying that the shared grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith carry the names Beren and Luthien, stating only that words were taken from Tolkien’s private mythology.

So with the caveat that the film was faithful to the course of Tolkien’s life, the details must be taken on trust, what was it like?

In order to create a physically dramatic opening, the film is framed around the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in Flanders. Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is suffering from trench fever but refuses to rest, instead insisting on searching the trenches for his friend Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith. Followed by his batman, Private Hodges (first name Sam, cue gasp of significance) who refuses to leave him, Tolkien’s mind keeps slipping into the past, presenting his life in lengthy flashbacks.

I’m not going to start reciting the details of Tolkien’s life. The flashbacks start from the financially enforced removal of the Tolkien family – mother, Ronald, younger brother Hilary – from the idyllic countryside of Sarehole Mill in Warwickshire to the smoky, black, hideously cramped hellhole of Birmingham (where nobody speaks in a Brummie accent), and continue as far as Tolkien’s enlistment in 1914 before the film’s timeline merges.

Along the way, the story makes a creditable job of depicting Tolkien’s twin fascinations with mythology and language, but it’s at its strongest in the two external passions of his life in this era. One of these is the TCBS, a small society of Tolkien and his three closest friends, the aforementioned Geoffrey, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Through awkward beginnings, the quartet become close friends, brothers, an alliance determined on changing the world, through. Smith is a poet, Gilson a painter, Wiseman a composer. Tolkien’s future is by no means so clear. But these four, in their different characters, embody a meeting pf purpose, all so clever, so vital.

The TCBS isn’t just a fact of Tolkien’s life, they are an emblem. The Edwardian period, from the turning of the century to the advent of the Great War, is often spoken as a kind of Golden afternoon, a society going places that was crushed underfoot by War. For the vast majority it was nothing of the sort but they don’t feature in this story. Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman are a representative of that world and its potential: you know already that it’s going to be smashed, that the dreams and determinations of these privileged, unrealistic but talented young men are going to be buried in the mud of Flanders Fields, but when it comes it’s no less painful to watch Tolkien’s loss than it is for him. Smith and Gilson died on the Somme, Wiseman was broken by the conflict and lost as both a friend and a composer. The irony, which is never once hinted at let alone spelt out, is that it was Tollers, the least-formed of these overgrown boys, who was the only one to fulfil their promise.

The other relationship is, of course, with Miss Edith Bratt. Ronald meets Edith when he and his brother are taken in as foster-children by the wealthy Mrs Faulkner, whose only other foster is Edith, also an orphan, destined for a life of poverty and genteel slavery as Mrs Faulkner’s companion.

Edith is also talented, an excellent piannist but, most importantly, a woman with a mind, independent and passionate. For her, the life ahead is in all senses a prison. She is denied even the freedom to play classical piano, having instead to play ‘cheerful’ sentimental slop.

There are difficulties, both due to inexperience but, most savagely, the decision of Tolkien’s legal guardian to forbid him seeing Edith until he comes of age at 21. Father Francis is concerned about her effect on Tolkien’s studies at Oxford, where he is failing on a number of levels until he finds himself sparked by Professor Wright and transfers to philology.

Tolkien wants their separation to be temporary but Edith sees her hope of escape, her desire for an ordinary life, with hope and happiness, being taken away for good. The TCBS tell Tolkien, with good reason, that it was he who made the choice, not Father Francis, it was not forced on him.

But though Edith becomes engaged to another, Tolkien’s love remains in full force, and on the eve of his embarkation for France, she agrees to meet him and things are righted between them. Stay alive, she tells him, and come back to me (a line from Treebeard’s lament for the Entwives, though I didn’t recognise that until I started writing about the film).

Tolkien survives. Edith has found him in hospital and has never left his bedside until he wakes: Father Francis approves of her. The film, having no more flashbacks to deliver, leaps years, to Oxford, Professorship, marriage, children. Tolkien is still, in one sense, living in the war, though this time his loss is loss of purpose. Edith challenges him to find joy in writing, or else give up completely. This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of a story to be told to the children. We see him write ‘In a hole in the ground lived’ but we only hear him say The Hobbit before we are led out of the story by the captions mentioned above.

All told, Tolkien is a fairly low-key film, respecting the conventions of Tolkien’s generation and its restraint in the portrayal of overt emotion. The film makes a very sensible decision in choosing little-known actors to play its characters, so that we are not distracted by the parts past played by practiced stars. Nicholas Hoult does a decent job of portraying Tolkien, who keeps his feelings in more than we would recognise as good for anyone in our day and age, whilst Lily Collins is a quiet revelation as Edith, across the wider spectrum her femininity allows her to express: in most of their scenes together, it is she not he who is the star.

Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynne-Carney, as Smith, Gilson and Wiseman, all bring different but complementing personalities to the doomed group of friends, and I have to compliment Casting Director Kate Ringsell  for finding actors to play the central cast’s not-all-that younger selves so seamlessly in both looks and performance.

The only two ‘name’ performers are veterans Colm Meaney as Father Francis and Derek Jacobi as Professor Wright, though Lauren Donnelly, who briefly portrays Tolkien’s mother, will count as a name to the followers of the Outlander TV series.

Overall though, how good is this film? It’s about Toliken’s earlier life, formative years, things that influenced him in the kind of writing he produced. I was unfair above in that snarky aside about ‘Sam’ Hodges, because the film deserves credit for not making these things a point for the audience to go ‘Ah-hah!’ except in the privacy of their own minds. Such matters are few. Indeed, apart from the overt displays of Mrs Tolkien acting out Norse myth for her sons, or Tolkien’s own obsessions with the Library, literary foreshadowing is kept to a minimum,  shadows and temporary visions, none of which are either effective, or other than risible, though thankfully brief. Only when Tolkien is witness to the slaughter in No Man’s Land is such a vision alowable, and it’s another mark of the film’s inhibition about using Tolkien’s actual works that his very first entry to the Mythology, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, was begun in the twenties, in 1916, and we are denied even the inference of this.

Ultimately, I come down on the side of the film, not that I have any plans to add it to my library. Who knows though? Lily Collins is certainly worth a 50p Charoty shop DVD, and maybe I’d even go up to a quid…

A Spot of Adventure: The Silver Age – Part 1

It’s February 1958, though the cover date says April, standard comic book practice then and for decades to come to try to fool newstands, drugstores and Mom-and-Pop stores to leave the comic out on display for longer and longer, before tearing the strip with the title off the cover and returning it for credit. The new Flash had appeared in two issues of Showcase, both big sellers, but the management at National Periodical Publications (you didn’t shout the word ‘Comics’ too loudly in the Fifties) would require two more, this year, before trusting him to a series of his own. The Silver Age was struggling to be born but Adventure Comics and its editor, Whitney Ellsworth, was about to make their greatest contribution to the new era. He, writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino were about to introduce the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Appropriately for the time, it’s a bit of a jerky story. Three kids from the future, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, the latter two of which looking nothing like the incarnations we would become familiar with in the future, and all of which boast artificial super-powers that, at this stage, are not the inherent abilities stemming from their respective home planets, ‘tease’ (i.e., horrify) Superboy by knowing his dual identity, invite him 1,000 years into the future to join their superhero club, put his through competency tests in which they deliberately sabotage him, and all for fun. Remind me again, why did he join this bunch of creeps?
We only get to meet these three Legionnaires, although the group includes at least four other identified members, one of which is green-skinned and could possibly have been Brainiac 5. We also learn that, ten centuries on, feminism hasn’t arrived, since Saturn Girl is ‘only a girl’ (curl lip in contempt). Of such acorns do oak trees grow, however implausible, but if superheroes are on the way back, the idea’s a doozy.
There are still our hapless D-listers, The Green Arrow and Aquaman, to go through, and it was back to Superboy solo next month, But the Silver Age had visited and left its calling card on the table. The In-Between Age was doomed..
As this is a new run, I actually started reading the back-up stories, or enough of them to finally pick up on the patterns. Green Arrow’s stories are always about the arrows, and how the crime-fighting archers have to keep using different ones, whilst Aquaman is about him acting out of character for some secret purpose that gets revealed on page 5. And it was interesting to see that, when Adventure hit issue 250, one of a very small number of titles to do so, absolutely nothing was done to mark it.
Or did it? For that and the next six issues, Green Arrow gained a new artist, the King, Jack Kirby. No, it’s not particularly memorable art, or that distinctly Kirby, and apparently it was being inked by his wife, Roz, but it’s Kirby. And in issue 252, not only did Superboy encounter Red Kryptonite for the first time (but not its more antic aspects), but Green Arrow’s story was continued into a second part!
A major change arrived in that second issue. It was not Superboy teaming up with a time-travelling Robin the Boy Wonder but rather the introduction of the Silver Age staple, the letters page.
I was also pleased to see the occasional resumption of house ads, particularly the full-pagers devoted to new characters in Showcase, such as Space Ranger and Adam Strange, under the rubric ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’. But on the debit side, Aquaman’s series was now adorned with his own sidekick, his pet octopus, Topo. Don’t anyone tell Jason Mamoa about this.

Don’t believe it…

But we are really getting into some deep and, frankly, scary psychological terrirtory, especially with the Superboy story in issue 255, which sees some Martian Red Kryptonite split Superboy in two, one of them the Boy of Steel and the other a merely human Clark Kent. Clark goes criminally batty and Superboy ends up killing him in an explosion. That’s right, killing him, or rather himself, without qualm or regret. That’s seriously disturbing shit.
Kirby’s last Green Arrow, featuring the most identifiably Kirby art of his run, was a re-telling of his origin in it’s pre-Speedy form. In fact, the letters page, and several requests for who, what and why, seems to have inspired a sweep of origin recaps across the Superman titles generally, not to mention another ludicrous team-up in issue 258, this time with Superboy trying to inspire new-kid-in-town Oliver Queen to take an interest in archery… In time, practically half of DC’s characters would pass through Smallville during Superboy’s youth.
When I mentioned that Whitney Ellsworth was editing Adventure, I was surprised to see his name in the indicia, as I’d always assumed Mort Weisinger’s legendary possessiveness about Superman would not allow anyone else to be in charge. Weisinger replaces Ellsworth as of issue 259, reminding me that when Ellsworth was editor of All-Star, it was Julius Schwartz doing the work. I think Ellsworth was editor in the same way Stan Lee et al were editor-in-chief at Marvel: the overall boss but not the hands-on man. I think Weisinger’s hand was on the real controls all along. Now, it just became official.
One of those origin stories appeared in issue 260, as Aquaman’s origin was retold for the first time in eighteen years, or rather retconned, for now Arthur Curry was named for the first time, and he was revealed as being Atlantean, though not yet as the rightful king of that undersea world. Next issue, the Boy of Steel met a teenage Lois Lane at camp, sharing a cabin with Lana Lang and deploring the latter’s constant efforts to discover Superboy’s identity: Lois would never do that. All-in-all, it was a chance for the Boy of Steel to anticipate his adult self’s trait of acting like a dick to two women who love him.
By now, it was clear that the Legion hadn’t caught the imagination of Superboy’s readers first off. In fact, it took twenty issues for the teenagers of tomorrow to reappear, in issue 267, and they were still dicks, humiliating the Boy of Steel, driving him off Earth, imprisoning him. It was the same trio but this time all in the uniforms with which we would be familiar in the Sixties, except that Saturn Girl was brunette, not blonde.
Two issues later, Aquaman met Aqualad, an Atlantean expelled from Atlantis for being afraid of fish, cured his fear and ending up with the kid imprinting himself on the King of the Sea and adopting him as a surrogate father with no legal proceedings whatsoever.

For issue 270, the first of 1960, there was a sudden change as Green Arrow’s series was replaced by Congorilla, big game hunter Congo Bill who, by rubbing a magic ring, could transfer his mind into the body of a golden gorilla for an hour. Remember too that 1960 was the year the Justice League of America debuted, consisting of seven of DC’s eight adult superheroes. The only one to miss out was… Green Arrow. Is there a connection?
Next issue, Superboy met the young Lex Luthor, farm boy in Smallville, Superboy hero-worshipper and would-be scientific genius, and we see that Luthor becomes a Superman-hater after Superboy causes all his hair to fall out. Don’t laugh so much, there are sound psychological underpinnings to this rationale, I merely looks goofy. And increasingly the letters page is becoming a source of inspiration, with the kids raising questions that prompt stories being written to explain the answers. Weisinger certainly knew his audience.
After Robin, Lois and Luthor, it was inevitable that Superboy would meet a young Bruce Wayne when his parents, the great philanthropists and benefactors of Gotham City, decided to move to Smallville; well, wouldn’t you? Who wants to live in a plush mansion when you could live in a hick town? Bruce gets the hots for Lana who agrees to let him take her to the Prom if he finds out Superboy’s identity, which he does, being smart, only Superboy shows him film of the future where he’s Batman and they’re best friends, so he doesn’t. Funny how the Boy of Steel omits the bit about why young Bruce becomes Batman…
Both back-up series had a change of title is issue 277, to introduce their kid partners: Aquaman and Aqualad, Congorilla and Janu, with National announcing that, in response to many such requests, they were giving the first pair a two-issue run in Showcase to see if they could carry their own title.
Issue 280 saw the Mermaid Lori Lemaris become the latest Superman character to pre-empt her first meeting with Supes by turning up in Smallville years early. As usual, the story was 90% silly, the exceptions being the provision of an entirely sensible explanation for Lori’s Atlanteans having fishtails whilst Aquaman’s have two legs, and the instinctive effort of the jealous Lana to save the life of the ‘girl’ she fears as a rival. It was also announced that, from the next issue, the first of 1961, Congorilla and Aquaman would alternate as back-up, their combined pages giving the opportunity for thirteen page adventures.
This time, it took only fifteen issues for the Legion of Superheroes to return, in issue 282, with a new member, Star Boy (albeit one with super-strength, electrical vision and supercool breath, instead of mass controlling powers), as well as a cameo from the previously unseen Chameleon Boy. Unfortunately, the story was an excuse for Lana to cook up one of her least reputable plots to discover Superboy’s identity. Not even the sight of Lana in a most un-1961 short skirt and her frank admission that she loved the Boy of Steel kept him from acting like just as much as a dick to her. Just fly her off and snog her, you fool!
Congorilla’s brief run came to an end in issue 283, with the announcement that he was being replaced by the more Superman-oriented Tales of the Bizarro World. It was supposed to be just him but, come the day, Aquaman was sent swimming too. But three issues later I was hoping for one or both of them to return, as the Bizarro stories were stupid beyond belief. And they’re getting all the covers, too! The time between Legion stories was rapidly diminishing, with Sun Boy, the “Seventh Legionnaire” being introduced in issue 290.
And the big three of Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were back after only three issues, this time introducing, wait for it, the Legion of Super-Pets. Yes, that’s right: Super-Pets. These were Krypto, plus Beppo the Super-Monkey, Streaky the Super-Cat and even the as-yet unnamed Comet the Super-Horse, pet and occasional lover of Supergirl (don’t go there, just don’t) who hadn’t even been introduced in Supergirl’s series yet (hey, every young girl is into horses, right?)

There was a letter of protest about the Bizarros in issue 296 which brought forth a stinging rebuke from Weisinger, about how Adventure‘s sales figures had rocketed to their highest ever since the feature began, and that every month they got 5,000 postcards with suggestions from ‘Bizarro business’. Yeah, but that still doesn’t mean the series isn’t crap.
Finally, the suggestion came up of a regular Legion series, alternating with the Bizarros. So, with issue 300, the day finally came when the Legion, 53 issues after their debut, took a permanent role in Adventure.
And I’ll be back in two weeks for the next instalment.

Lou Grant: s03 e07 – Gambling

Gambling only pays when you’re winning

All the Lou Grant episode titles are one-worders, though they are often somewhat oblique in their reference to the subject of the episode. ‘Gambling’ is flat and prosaic, and so, unfortunately, was the episode.

That starting point is the Turner-Landis Proposition, a California State Government proposal to legalise gambling, not merely in the form of betting on the horses, but also casinos, the proceeds of the tax to go to Education. Ok, decent topic, lot of meat in there (though as there seemed to already be a well-established betting industry, including the Trib’s ‘in-house’ bookie, for playing sports, there was a subtlety to the question that, not being an American in 1979, I’m completely missing).

What crippled the episode from the beginning was its refusal to take a stance. It should have been a straightforward Gambling is Bad to have a moral centre (Gambling is Good, or Gambling is Neither One Thing Nor Another doesn’t make for a story). Instead, it thoroughly confused the issue by splitting the episode between Mort Farber and Mac McIvor.

Mort was the story’s gem. An elderly man, played by Charles Lane, a lifelong track follower who spent every day of his life studying horses, their trainers, owners and vets, Mort is the expert of experts. He’s also gruff, irascible and completely unconcerned about whatever other people think. He’s befriended by Lou after he gets into Lou’s car to snatch a ride towards the racetrack, not only as an expert on the gambling question, but as a guy you just had to like.

And you liked Mort. He had devoted himself to one area of study, he was eccentric but clued-up and whilst you had to admit he was an addict, he was an addict who was in control, who would not bet for the sake of betting, but only on his own, highly accurate perceptions.

At the end, bedridden with near-pneumonia, Mort gets Lou to place a total of $1,500 at his direction on the unfancied Vespi, a 40-1 shot, who goes on to win. Only afterwards does Mort reveal the scam he’d recognised; Vespi was a different horse, a worldbeater, running under the wrong name.

Yes, Mort was smart, he was memorable and he was a winner, so any anti-gambling viewpoint was down in flames. Nevertheless, that’s what the show tried to dom, and spectacularly failed at, with Mac.

Mac, played by Michael Shannon, is a financial reporter at the Trib. More importantly, he’s holding hands with Billie Newman. Mac comes from a rich family, though in his case the spigot has been turned off. He’s the gambler with the problem, the opposite of Mort, because Mac loses. What happens to people who lose more than they have to pay was hinted at but in vague terms that left the audience filling in a pretty substantial gap.

So Mac goes and borrows $2,000 from Billie, on a sob-story about his mother needing money for an urgent operation. She’s not certain about it until Rossi advises her not to and then she hands him a cheque (sigh: complete silliness). Then Charlie inadvertently lets slip about Mac’s family, Billie feels let down and, even though Mac repayshalf the loan dead on time, she breaks up with him and is sad, and so are we because the ‘twist’  in this tale makes gambling look bad because it’s made poor, sweet Billie nearly cry, instead of something a lot more solid.

Cue closing ‘ironic’ gag. Animal has no interest in gambling, completely lacks the urge, is utterly confused by it, but now he’s bet on to football teams and won $25, and is going to invest half his winnings on another two games: “This is fun,” he twees whilst Lou and Billie share ironic looks and the bell goes to end this formless mish-mash.

Lack of conviction dogs the entire episode. Where is that immaculate liberal stance? A bit of polemic was what was missing and the result is dullness. Try again next week.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Half a Sky

And thus we return to the Coscuin Chronicles, in its second, and last-published to date of four volumes, published only by Corroborree Press in the Eighties, at which time I bought it, not reading The Flame is Green until well over a decade later. Half a Sky is another of the listed unpublished novels in Archipelago, though its two sequels do not appear on that remarkable page: I hope this does not mean they never were written.
Half a Sky resumes almost from the moment that The Flame is Green leaves off. Dana Coscuin has come to Amsterdam, where the company of the Green Revolution is to go its separate ways. Dana and Charley Oceaan, the black man from Basse-Terre (which we already know, from another chronicle, is the location of the Earthly Paradise) are to set sail for the latter. The next phase in Dana’s battles is to take place in South America, in the land under half a sky.
The others are to disperse, to carry on their tasks in different parts of Europe, but there are ambushes, woundings, a threat of assault and, in the case of Kemper Gruenland, murder.
Basse-Terre is a homecoming for the Dana, who has never before been there. But it is the place of the Home of Dana Cosquin, and the Tomb of Dana Cosquin, and before this part of the story is over, it will provide the Bride of Dana Cosquin.
For Dana is to have new allies in the next phase of the Green Revolution, which will cover the years from 1849 to 1854. Chief among these will be Damisa the Leopard, an African so named for his mottled flanks that give the look of both leopard and leper. He will have the same old enemy, Ifreann Chortovitch, not dead as killed by Dana, but returning to life despite the Dana’s refusal to acknowledge him, and his insistence on treating him with disdain when he is forced to accept Ifreann’s presence.
And Dana gains another ally, in the form of the ship he acquires, and which he names the Catherine Dembinska, after his murdered wife, for the soul of one is the soul of the other, and Dana treats the ship as a reincarnation of his love.
As before, Lafferty’s grasp of political details, personalities and people in the South American republics is comprehensive, enabling him to refer both directly and tangentially to movements in which Dana and his company become involved, ensuring that the Green Flame is held high in these years and the Red Revolution is thwarted as they should be.
There are again magical things treated as utterly natural: Dana travels with a child’s coffin that contains not a body but rather gold coinage, more than could ever be contained in so small a box, and an everlasting supply of coins and other things that the Dana needs from time to time. This includes the Testament of Kemper Gruenwald.
And the Company comes to include a young woman, Serafino, who, despite all discrepancies of age, and genealogy, is still in some way the daughter of Dana and Catherine Dembinska.
It’s not until the last couple of chapters that Lafferty starts to work with concrete elements of the story. The first of these is the deposal of Argentinian Dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. This is an unusual chapter. History records Rosas as a prototypical brutal Dictator, and Lafferty accords with this whilst at the same time setting him up as not as bad as he is being painted, and, more pertinently for the novel, infinitely preferable to the liberal/socialist Red Revolution in Banda Orientale (the then-name of Uruguay), who want him brought down.
Dana sets out to bring Rosas down, against the wishes of everyone, especially all those in his Company. He is condemned as traitor, as renegade, faces opposition from every quarter, but brings about what he wishes: Rosas’ overthrow by his friend and fellow Governor, Caudillo, with Rosas going into lengthy exile.
To achieve this, he has to overcome the opposition of Caudillo himself, but it is done, and Dana redeems himself by pointing out how he has secured at least a decade of stability, by outflanking the Red Revolution: instead of weakness in government that they can exploit, they face another Leader in Rosas’ model, but less compromised.
It’s a convoluted chapter and solution and not one I completely comprehend without more detailed historical knowledge. But it is almost the last action of the book. The final two years of Dana Coscuin’s time under the world of half a sky is brushed past with no detail, bringing the Dana back to Basse-Terre, to marry the Bride of Dana Cosquin, alias Angelene Domdaniel.
For Dana it is the end of his journeying. He will remain with his Bride, and their child to be, and never leave again, notwithstanding the summons of Count Cyril to return to Europe. Not unless Angelene herself tells him to go… and of course she is the messenger.
But Dana and his crew cannot leave without a final (for this book) confrontation with Ifreann, and this is the ending for the Catherine Dembinska. The spirit of the dead wife leaves the ship, which dies in terrible explosions, coming up against Ifreann’s more powerful vessel, the Porte D’Enfer. And Dana and his last companion, Jack Gadalope, take to the sea with their knives, to swim ninety-five miles to port, and then to Carloforte.
Carloforte would take Dana Coscuin and his part in the Green Revolution to Sardinia. The dustjacket identifies the third Chronicles to be Sardinian Summer, to cover the period from 1854 to 1862, with the final book First and Last Island dealing with 1862 to 1872. We assume these books to have been written, but we don’t know if this is the case, or if they were finished. This is the end of the Coscuin Chronicles in time. They may continue outside of time.