Once upon a Time in Amber: Nine Princes in Amber


Original Patrick Woodruffe cover

Published in 1970, Nine Princes in Amber was Roger Zelazny’s seventh novel and his first non-standalone. It would end up being the first in a sequence of five, forming the first Amber Chronicles, though I’ve long since held the conviction that Zelazny, who had only published his first novel four years earlier, had nothing like so grandiose a story in mind when he wrote this book. Indeed, I get the impression, from how things progress, that Zelazny didn’t have a lot of ideas about how the story was going to end and was, for the first two books at least, making it up as he was going along.
By this point, Zelazny had been a professional writer since 1962, and a full-time writer since 1969. He had won two Hugo Awards for Best Novel and two Nebula Awards (Best Novella – shared – and Best Novelette, in the Award’s first year). He was established, he was feted, he made a living, not typical among SF writers, and especially not those who had been around for less than ten years. I’ll come back to this point later in this series.
Thus far, Zelazny had definitely been a Science Fiction writer. Two of his novels – the Hugo-winning Lord of Light and the experimental Creatures of Light and Darkness – revolved around characters who formed panthea of Gods, Hindu and Egyptian respectively. Both conjured up myth into a form of superficial Fantasy that was nevertheless grounded upon futuristic science. Nine Princes in Amber was his first essay into Fantasy itself, though as events were to demonstrate, this was to be very much Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.
The world Zelazny creates for the Amber Chronicles is vast, subtle and very individual, but it requires a massive information dump to set up for the reader. Given his overwhelming preference for a first person voice, not to mention cynical, hard-bitten heroes with not a lot of trust for anyone, Zelazny negotiates this by having his narrator, Corwin, Prince of Amber wake up amnesiac but convinced he is being held against his will, and having him play more knowledgeable than he is so that he can glean information in a carefully measured manner over the first third of a basic three Act book.
I, unfortunately, am going to have to infodump fairly heavily to provide an outline of Amber, Shadow and Chaos.
At one end of reality lies Amber the Great City, the only real city of which every city elsewhere is but a reflection of some aspect of it. Amber is a primarily medieval/sophisticated kingdom, ruled since before anyone can remember by King Oberon. Corwin is one Prince among Nine who have survived, the others being Benedict, Eric, Julian, Caine, Gerard, Bleys, Brand and Random. There are also four surviving Princesses, Dierdre, Florimel (Flora), Fiona and Llewella.
Amber is Substance, like a magnetic pole. Its opposite is the Courts of Chaos, the most unstable, twisted, impermanent form of Unreality there is and, by its nature Amber’s enemy.
Between Amber and Chaos lies Shadow, created by the opposing polarities, an infinity of possibilities: Earth is one such. Zelazny makes a philosophical question as to whether Shadows exist in themselves or whether they are created out of the minds of the Royal family of Amber, who can walk through Shadow, adding to and subtracting from what they see, mentally, until they achieve their destination. He also, by making Corwin entirely pragmatic, ignores answering that, and other similar questions throughout the series.
Nearly done. Amber is based upon something called the Pattern, an immense ‘diagram’ of arcs, curves, angles and occasional straight lines that is in some manner encoded within the Royal family’s genes. Walking the Pattern, against its escalating resistance, to its centre unlocks the person’s knowledge of how to traverse Shadow, and enables them to instantly transport themselves anywhere they want. And the family all possess specialist packs of Tarot cards, the Greater Trumps of which are portraits of the family that can be used to communicate over vast distances with the person and even transport one or other to the other’s side, if you trust a sibling. Corwin isn’t the only one who doesn’t care to do that. Take a breather now, if you wish.
So: Act One is based on Corwin learning most of these things, in greater detail. He awakens in a private hospital on Earth, in America, with no memory of himself or his circumstances, except that he has been in a serious car accident, sustaining severe injuries from which he has recovered with unnatural speed, and that he has been over-sedated to keep him quiet.
Determined not to let anyone know his weakness, that he doesn’t know who, what, when, where, why about himself, he bluffs/forces himself out of the hospital, and heads for Westchester, home of the sister, ‘Mrs Evelyn Flaumel’ (aka Flora), who has checked him in, and who is working for his brother Eric, whom Corwin hates.
Thus far, the story keeps closely to realistic bounds but between the cryptic cross-talk and Corwin’s discovery of a Trump deck, it’s starting to get strange. Then Random arrives out of the blue pursued by humanoid-but-not-human pursuers whom the two Princes kill with tremendous strength and mastery of swords. The next day, out driving, without knowing that he’s doing it, Corwin prods Random into taking them to Amber, by shifting the car they are in through an ever-changing series of Shadows. The pair survive an encounter in the Forest or Ardern with hated brother Julian, a master hunter, brothers for preference, who is also backing Eric, and rescue Deirdre, captured trying to flee Amber.
The situation is that Oberon has disappeared, maybe dead, maybe abdicated. Eric has taken the Throne of Amber and is planning his coronation. Corwin, who has already committed himself to opposing his brother, is doing so for the Throne himself.

US trade paperback

By now, it’s gotten so complex that Corwin has to confess his true state. The only way for him to recover his memory is to walk the Pattern again. The one in Amber is obviously inaccessible but another exists in Rebma, Amber’s reflection in the deep sea, ruled by Queen Moire. It’s death for Random to go there, he having once committed the minor indiscretion of eloping with Moire’s daughter, abandoning her pregnant, and she suiciding after her son was born. Instead of death, however, Random gets to marry Vialle, a blind member of Moire’s Court, and to stay with her for one year.
Corwin gets to walk the Pattern and recover all his memories. The most significant of these is that his amnesia did not start from the car crash, for which he is convinced Eric was responsible, but from his arrival on the Shadow Earth in England, during the time of the Black Death.
He promptly abandons his two allies to their respective fates and transports himself to Amber, to acquire a pack of Trumps for himself, to fight an unanticipated duel with Eric, who is still the better, stronger swordsman of the pair, and escape via Trump to join brother Bleys, who is the only formal opposition to Eric thus far, raising an Army in Shadow to invade Amber.
After all that, the remaining two acts of the book are almost ridiculously easy to summarise. Corwin becomes Bleys’ Lieutenant, doubling the size of his Army by recruiting easily-persuaded volunteers from a Shadow in which he is worshipped as a God. Corwin leads the Navy, Bleys the Army. Both are cut to ribbons on the long approach to Amber, Eric’s forces and defences – including his mastery of the weather-changing Jewel of Judgement – decimating the attackers. The Navy is lost, the Army reduced to 5,000 men. Their frontal assault, up the Great Stair on the mountain Kolvir, Amber’s home, devolves into a series of duels hand-to-hand. Bleys kills a great many but is eventually knocked off the path, at which point Corwin, in a wholesale change of character, throws him his Trumps, giving Bleys a chance to escape. Corwin makes it into Amber but everyone is killed except him. He is imprisoned until the day of Eric’s Coronation where, after briefly crowning himself first, he is made to witness Eric receive the Crown, before he is taken away and his eyes burned out.
The final act covers nearly three and a half years imprisonment in solitary confinement and blindness for Corwin. He is released once a year to attend Eric’s Anniversary parties, and his monotonous and uninspiring diet is relieved from time to time via his friend and protege, the minstrel, Lord Reyn, bringing bread, meat, cheese , wine, news and the inevitable cartons and cartons of cigarettes (all Zelazny’s heroes are inveterate smokers).
Eventually though, the Amber Royal family’s natural regenerative capacities see Corwin’s eyeballs grow back. He’s still a prisoner but that’s when Dworkin Barimen walks through a Shadow wall that isn’t supposed to exist in Amber itself, into Corwin’s cell, because he wanted to see what was on the other side of his cell wall.
Dworkin is a hunchback, a madman, a Sorceror and an artist. It was he who designed and drew the Trumps, with their remarkable capacity to transcend distance, but he has long been Oberon’s prisoner, held because he had discovered a way to destroy the Pattern. Bored with captivity, he’d literally walked through the wall. He needs to draw a picture of his own quarters to return, but Corwin also gets him to sketch out an image of the Lighthouse at Cabra, which he then uses to escape Amber.
After staying with Jofra, the lighthouse keeper, whilst he recovers his strength, Corwin moves on. First, Jofra shows him a dark, twisted road along which strange creatures are accessing Amber: this is the outcome of Corwin’s death-curse when his eyes were being burnt out. When he rules in Amber, he will have to deal with his own handiwork…
Corwin sails away. When he returns, he swears to bring guns into Amber. He creates two birds of desire, one to fly ahead with the message, ‘I am coming’, the other to fly back with the message ‘I’ll be back’.
What we have here is an unusual set-up with bags of potential buttressing a, so far, pretty unsophisticated and trite story, princes fighting over a vacant throne: that’s never been done before. It’s being written by a writer who, though his style is to a degree poetic, and which has indulged itself in Panthea, has nevertheless previously only written science fiction, and who, by making his narrator a person who has existed on our material Earth for over half a millennium, thinks, talks and uses referents in a modern American idiom.
Add to this the excessive cynicism of a Zelazny hero and we have a mixing of elements that are very difficunt to blend in an organic manner.
There’s an example of this in the second act, when Corwin discovers/creates the Shadow from which he draws an army that sees him and Bleys as Gods. These are two high Princes planning to invade a High and most powerful Kingdom, and how does Corwin describe his loyal Army? As “furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably man-like, and about as intelligent as a freshman in the high school of your choice.” What Zelazny’s trying to establish here, and which he makes explicit in the next sentence, introduced by a nervy, “sorry, kids”, is that they are cannon-fodder, too easily deluded by ‘Gods’ such as him into slaughter. Then, with your ears still ringing from the tinness of that reference to a freshman high schooler, he describes himself as feeling like “the dee-jay of your choice”, which further undermines the atmosphere of Fantasy as well as using the ‘of your choice’ line in the same five-line paragraph, appalling writing in itself.
And after a war fought with swords and shields, magic and trained creatures, Corwin’s reaction is to plan to fight with guns.
There’s going to be more of this to come, including one particularly atrocious moment that I’ll pick out in a later book,and I’ll give more of one of my theories at that time, one that I held when I was an avid Fantasy/Zelazny fan, and not in my older, more analytical years. For now, let me merely remind you of that phrase I introduced before: Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.

UK paperback reissue

Another intriguing aspect of this story is that Corwin’s first person narration isn’t just a convention or a style, but rather an actual telling of his story to an as yet unidentified listener. We know nothing of this person, save that Corwin is telling him everything. And all we know of the circumstances or place is that auctor and lector are looking at the Courts of Chaos.
The listener’s identity is revealed in the final book, but I’d be prepared to bet a year’s rent on this not being anyone Zelazny had in mind when he dropped those two references into his story, if indeed he had anyone in mind. There are discrepancies of detail between what Corwin establishes with utter certainty in this book, and what turned out to better suit the story later on. There are discrepancies in style between the first two books and the last three. Nor did the sequel appear for two more years.
As I said, I get the strongest feeling from Nine Princes in Amber that Roger Zelazny is making up this story as he goes along. It’s his first story not to be contained in one book, and I get the impression he is dropping in ideas to keep the pot boiling. The book is reasonably coherent in itself but it begs multiple questions and I’m convinced Zelazny was trusting to future ingenuity to unify these as a whole. Since it will become of importance to the next book, let me adduce as example the Death-Curse of a Prince of Amber, a curse of terrible intensity, pronounced in the face of Death and inevitable. Corwin curses and doesn’t even have to die to make it stick. I’m not complaining about that but at the end of the book, it’s explicit that the Black Road cutting through the burned Forest of Garnath is Corwin’s Curse: he recognises it as himself.
Hold that thought: you will get a surprise later on.
Re-reading after so long was interesting. I found myself driven by pure nostalgia and, after a difficult start in which the actual writing was creaky and herky-jerky, narrative propulsion. Originally, I read this book after its sequel, and I thought the sequel was better. Now I’m going to check my memories of that.

Person of Interest: s03 e18 – Allegiance


An offer

Nice one. Superficially, this is 90% a prodeural, a Number of the Week of an unusual, but not unbelievable standing, bookended by twin scenes featuring Root and the mysterious Mr Greer. But this is Person of Interest, late third season, and even the Numer of the Week feads the overall story, the gathering storm. There is a cold wind blowing.

Said Number is Maria Martinez (a welcome guest apearance for Nazeen Contractor), an Engineer working on Third World infrastructure projects, lately having installed sixhigh-power generators in Iran. Maria is set up to be a potential terrorist and the team accepts her as such, despite the fact that Terrorists are Relevant and that, if that was the case, they would not have been sent the Number.

Though the premise is built on flimsy grounds, nevertheless the plot plays fair, riding that narrow edge where the things Maria says and does are in keeping with her perceived status yet are never entirely specific and are completely in line with what she really is doing which is getting paperwork to UN High Commisioner for Refugees Pierre Lapointe (Michel Gill) concerning Iranian asylum-seeker Omar Risha (Haaz Slieman). Omar has been accused of links to terrorism and is in danger of deportation to Iran, where he will be killed.

Though the revelation is left until later, Maria’s concern for, and increasing desperation about Omar, isn’t based on fairness and justice, nor even on the fact he’s saved her life, but rather on that oldest of grounds: they are in love.

Given that the French Foreign Legion, a bit left-field there but justified by their being in the pay of Maria’s boss, Ken Davis (Casey Biggs, who we remember from so many episodes of Deep Space Nine), are trying to kill Maria, there’s much slick action, with Fusco fully in the midst of it. Theres also one of those cliche moments when Maria, removed to Finch’s safe house but consumed by terror for her boyfriend, ignores all the advice from these self-evidently experienced and professional people to stay put and runs away to put her head in the noose and provoke the climactic shoot-out.

Whereafter Finch procures the asylum status for Omar, who celebrates with Maria by dining in a very high-class restaurant with a gorgeous view of the New York night-time skyline. This segues into a short but very touching scene between Shaw and Fusco. She’s melancholic: this restaurant was where her father took her mother on their first date. Fusco, who has been paired with her on their stake-out, on the usual combative terms, is in tune to her mood: though he’s a non-drinker he buys a glass of champagne, then places it in ront of Shaw: it’s March 20, Persian New Year. For the first time, he calls her Sameen. She silent signals her apprecation of his gentle concern, then tells him to get out: he leaves without a word, smiling.

So this is the bulk of the episode, all but a few twists and turns I’ve not mentioned. How so does this procedural tie in with our longer story? The answer is six generators. Removed from Iran by order of Ken Davis, sold and transported to an unknown location. Omar translated the contract: had he been permitted to meet Maria, the move could have unravelled. Hence the false accusation, the bribes to Lapointe, the forged letter. Why were these generators so powerful? Where had they gone?

Our answer was a meeting in the snowy Central Park when Davis – supposedly having flown the country – received his payment for his deal – and was promptly black-bagged. The purchaser was John Greer. the generators will power Samaritan.

So to our bookends. First, Root is on the trail of  Greer. following him into the subway, trailing him. She’s planning on stopping Samaritan by killing its master. But Greer knows he’s beig followed and, one  by one, has the systems the Machine is using to detect him, shut down: visual (camera feeds stopped), audio (footstep pattern blurred by overloading), GPS (phone dropped into someone else’s pocket). Root loses him.

Second time round it’s the identical setting, the identical sequence. But Root has another means of tracking Greer: she has borrowed Bear.

So this time she catches up to Greer, waiting for her in an empty corridor. He addresses her as Miss Groves, he offers her an alliance and, in case she should reject it by putting a bullet through his head, has two armed heavies behind her. Stalemate, or as Greer puts it, a draw. The offer hangs there. Greer does not underestimate Root. He does not think her crazy, as everyone else does. he walks away, and so does she.

And Samaritan’s coming on line draws ever nearer. There are now only five more episodes in the third season.

One of the Boys: Harry Gregg R.I.P.


There are not many of them left, the ones who walked away from the Munich Air Disaster that threatened to kill Manchester United, that happened 62 years and 11 days ago, and now there is one fewer. Harry Gregg, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper for whom United paid the then-worled record fee for a keeper, has passed away aged 87. That only leaves Wor Bobby, Sir Bobby Charlton, who walked away from that plane.

But Harry Gregg didn’t just walk away. He went back inside to do what he could to help. He got a woman and her baby, trapped in their seat, out of the plane.

Harry Gregg was unlucky in his years with United not to win a single trophy, but he had something more, something that no-one ever wants but which is beyond praise. We bow our heads at his passing.

Film 2020: Boule et Bill


I don’t really expect anyone else to share my enjoyment of this modest little film, the only one among the half dozen or so foreign language films in this half-season I have already watched.

Those who don’t read the posts I make here about comics will be wondering if I’ve gone off my head. For them, let me explain that, last year, whilst going through the British boys comic Valiant, I discovered they had reprinted a clearly French or Belgian series about a family and their cocker spaniel under the title ‘It’s a Dog’s Life’. It was brilliant and I loved it. Research quickly told me it was the very long-lasting ‘Boule et Bill’, written and drawn by Jean Roba, a Belgian cartonist working for the French cartoon magazine Spirou.

There seems to be a distinct children’s market in France in turning popular children’s characters into film and, six years after Roba’s death in 2006, Boule et Bill was turned into a film. Critically, it was panned, but commercially it was popular enough to spawn a sequel in 2017. After seeing a clip on YouTube, I was interested enough to chance the DVD. After watching it, I line up with the audience.

The film version is a period piece, set in 1976, and serves as a prequel to the comics series. Franck Dubois and Marina Fois play the parents of eight-year-old, red-headed Boule (Charles Comperz) and the cast is completed by Funky, a red-furred cocker spaniel as Bill (voiced by Manu Payet) and an unnamed tortoise as the family’s other pet, Caroline (voiced by Sara Giradeau). There’s only one major supporting role, that of the unnamed depressive downstairs neighbour, but unfortunately I can’t work out from the cast list, in French, who plays him. He’s very good in a stylised manner, whoever he is.

The story is simple. On a Sunday afternoon, the family drives put into the country to pick berries. Mama diverts them surreptitiously to an animal sanctuary (over the credits Boule has asked for a dog). Inside the sanctuary, an anxious, lonely red cocker spaniel assures himself unconvincingly that today’s the day he’ll be chosen, not that any of those who cross the bars of his kennel are suitable. By the time Boule arrives, Bill has given up, doesn’t want to know. But it’s love at first sight…

Papa doesn’t want a dog. He puts his foot down firmly, no dogs. They take Bill home, very slowly – Bill has joyfully rolled in poop, smells to high heaven and is a bit bemused over how his new family takes him for walks, running alongside the car on a lead held from inside. Then there’s the bath…

Papa doesn’t take to Bill at all at first. He’s concerned with his career as an appliances designer. He’s applied for a transfer to Head Office in Paris (Boule overhears the argument about his not telling Mama until he’s got it and misinterprets it as a divorce, a running gag in the film) and plans to leave Bill behind but the dog follows, spending most of the journey perched on the bumper of the van, worryng that the family just don’t know how to do walks properly.

Their new home in Paris… well, within sight of Le Tour D’Eifell, is an eleventh floor apartment in Wisteria House, a single apartment block in an outsized builder’s yard. This is where the depressed neighbour comes in. He can’t tolerate noise, which puts the lid on Mama’s job as a Piano teacher, and as for the confined, bored, anxious Bill…

Papa’s move is not going well, his ideas being taken over by a ‘brownnoser’ at work. He can’t think or talk about anything else. Boule and Bill’s escapades cause trouble everywhere. To try to occupy Bill’s mind whilst she gives lessons at little kid’s homes, Mama gives him Caroline for company – the tortoise is already in love with the cocker – leading to insanely silly games, as a result of which Caroline goes down the trash shute. Looking for her in the bin-store, Boule sets the rubbish alight…

Though Papa is starting to get fond of Bill, the impossibility of the situation has Mama insisting they give the dog away. The moment he overhears this, Boule runs away with Bill, though only to the bin room. Both parents are frantic with worry. Papa, to distract himself, starts drawing cartoon sketches of his son and his dog – yes, the Boule et Bill of the comic – which he screws up, drops down the trash chute, where Boule excitedly collects them. One such is not a cartoon but a draft of Papa’s resignation…

Boule has won. But before he can celebrate, the janitor wheels out the dumpster, with Bill in it, before locking the bin room to keep Boule out. Unfortunately, he’s still in…

This leads to a madcap chase following the garbage truck to the dump to save Bill from ending up in the incinerator. All’s well that ends well, and the family moves away to a house in a small town. There’s a boy with hair covering his eyes called Pouf, who becomes Boule’s other best friend, an elderly woman with a Charles de Gaulle fixation and a cat named Caporal next door… in short, the set up of the comic is set up.

And, in a nice touch, Papa whilst vacuuming under Boule’s bed, discovers the rescued sketches. Inspired, he comes up with more, asks Mama if she thinks these might be published by Spirou, to which she agrees they very well might, and goes on to suggested that Monsieur Roba is a very talented person…

In short, the film turns at the last minute into a massive metafiction and we all live happily ever after.

Oh, this is a children’s film alright, and not even a Pixar film, with the things to keep the grown-ups amused cleverly interwoven. No such seriousness is allowed to darken this lightweight and standard story. Dubois and Fois are good as the parents without ever straining themselves, and the latter looks authentically French-attractive without ever being unrealistically beautiful – she spends most of the film in long-sleeved blouses, knee-length midi-skirts and knee-length boots, a nostalgic combination I’d sit and watch all morning. Young Comperz is a bundle of energy, and Payet catches the doggy-centric tone of voice of Bill’s thoughts perfectly, though the dog itself is the film’s one weakness: though Funky is well-trained, he’s a real-life cocker spaniel and the only one who can’t capture the look of the comic Bill.

The film employs it’s fair share of slapsticky gags around Bill, and uses the neat trick of going to widescreen for brief moments when we slip into Boule’s fantasies. But what it does is capture the comic’s tone of voice and sense of humour well enough for live action. The comic has been adapted to animation in two separate TV series, one standard cel animation, the other CGI, which are paradoxically weaker for failing to be exactly as Roba drew them.

I found it funny first time I watched it, and I laughed again at all the same points this morning. Unless you’re a French child, or closely in touch with one mentally, you’re unlikely to enjoy this the same way I did, who have 24 Boule et Bill hardback collections in the original French that I can barely read (a 1971 Grade 4 O-level isn’t the best qualification). If not, you may want to skip the Sunday when I get to Boule et Bill 2

 

The Infinite Jukebox: Roger Whittaker’s ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’


The posts appearing here under the heading of The Infinite Jukebox have obeyed no order, scheme or structure. After the first three songs, all-time favourites, they’ve been written in fits and starts, sometimes a handful at a time, as memory, inspiration and the discovery of something to say about them has been made. They have been posted in order of writing, nothing else.
Roger Whittaker’s ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’ is the 100th post in this series. If there were any order, it would have been the first. Because it was. First, that is.
Everybody has a first single that they bought or, as in my case, their mother bought for them because they didn’t have any money of their own. 6s 8d at Sykes’s Records, Lane End Road, Burnage.
I haven’t always been prepared to admit to that. In fact, most of my life I’ve kept schtum: no self-respecting music-lover wants to make that kind of thing widely known and usually I’ve either kept a decent silence or else pretended my second single, eight months later and much more respectable, being a Northern Soul Club track, was the first one. I didn’t buy it because it was a Northern Soul track, mind you, as you may remember from this.
Roger Whittaker was a South African light entertainer, noted mostly for his whistling before he had a hit with this (the b-side, ‘Storm’, is one of his whistle-jobs). He was an immaculately turned-out, buttoned jacket prematurely middle-aged man with a perfectly groomed beard and a rich, deep voice with clear enunciation: not your average pop star of the months before the Underground started climbing overground, yet not a Tom Jones or an Engelbert. Whittaker lacked passion in his singing. He was almost didactically precise but the words could have been pages from a dictionary for all the feeling he put into them.
‘Durham Town’ entered the Top Thirty at no 28 on 22 November 1969 and peaked at no. 12 a couple of weeks into January 1970. It was a bloodless song, light enough for a kid in a family who hated pop, who was only slowly progressing from the kiddies’ songs on Junior Choice though I’m not making excuses for myself. Sometimes I can’t understand what on earth made it appeal to me, and at others I hear clearly the things the song wants to express, in the chorus, the words and tune that Whittaker can’t entirely flatten.
Because Whittaker has lived his whole life in Durham Town, watching people and things go, leaving him behind, and now it’s his turn. He has to leave, shedding everything he’s known, that he’s buried himself within. He’s not leaving a town, he’s leaving his cocoon, going away from home and comfort into the unknown and unknowable.
And if that isn’t a description of growing up, what is?
Besides, in a world where songs were about San Francisco and Tulsa, there was a lot to be said for a song about somewhere in England, somewhere I might conceivably go (which I did, but not until 22 years later).
Amusingly, I still have vivid memories of the song featuring in Junior Points of View, a five minutes BBC letters page of the air, in which an indignant Durham youngster took ‘Durham Town’ to task for its many geographical errors, like the fact Durham was a City, not a Town, and how Whittaker couldn’t possibly have sat on the banks of the River Tyne when the river running through Durham is the Wear. Such things matter up there.
But ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’ has a place in this list for what it was: the first. And if the first is last, last in this first century of songs and to now be compiled in book form, it still has that place. They can’t all be supercool, but they can never denied the place in your memory.

A poem by Wendy Cope


It’s not that I’m a conscientious objector to Valentine’s Day, more that it seems to be a conscientious objector to me.

This however is as perfect as it gets.

To My Husband

“If we were never going to die, I might
Not hug you quite as often or as tight,
Or say goodbye to you as carefully
If I were certain you’d come back to me.
Perhaps I wouldn’t value every day,
Every act of kindness, every laugh
As much, if I knew you and I could stay
For ever as each other’s other half.
We may not have too many years before
One disappears to the eternal yonder
And I can’t hug or touch you any more.
Yes, of course that knowledge makes us fonder.
Would I want to change things, if I could,
And make us both immortal? Love, I would.”

Lou Grant: s03 e16 – Cover-up


This is the perfect example, after last week’s dismally didactic episode, of how to do a story right. Lou Grant came up with a two-sided story of equal weight, no A and B stories, both reflecting the same theme and, for once, both reaching negative conclusions instead of making the world a better place.

The episode started in quasi-comic form: a magazine story written by Rossi has been optioned for a TV Movie-of-the-Week (remember them?) and he has an appointment with Alex Brubaker (Edward Power) at the Studio, who’s eager to produce it, with Rossi as scriptwriter. You can  just imagine Rossi over this.

Meanwhile, as part of her series on alternative schooling, Billie’s at a private school, where Mrs Pynchon is on the Board. Everything looks swell, especially popular, easy-going and very effective teacher Jeff Lindsey (Andrew Rubin). But Billie is inadvertently the pebble for the mess that follows, when her escort stops 10 year old Bryan Furniss (David Hollander) from getting to the bathroom in time. Bryan wets himself.

It’s not for the first time. Bryan has high achiever parents, the kind who believe that ‘average’ is a polite way of saying ‘failure’ (great line from the script, there). Wetting yourself is a common response among kids being pressured. Though Bryan insists everything’s alright, Lindsey senses the problem, sends the class out early and assists Bryan to get out of his wet underpants without public awareness by taking him to the Teacher’s loo. He even provides a paper bag in which Bryan can put his wet shorts to get home, though Bryan dumps these in a bin before getting home.

Unfortunately, his mother sees him changing and both parents force the story out of him. When they here he was taken to the bathroom alone by a male teacher, their thoughts both speed in the same direction: did he touch you? they demand, and poor Bryan is almost browbeaten into saying yes, though it may be that he’s not totally understood where they’re going: Lindsey does touch the kids in a friendly fashion, frequently, and a pat on the head or a shoulder is still a touch. But that’s a fine distinction that the show isn’t going to take up.

Meanwhile, Rossi learns that Brubaker is being sued for extorting kickbacks from  a caterer. He’s still up for his story, yet he’s honest enough to want the story investigated. Lou solves the conflict by swapping assignments: Rossi gets the school story in time to walk into Lindsey’s issue, Billie takes over the Brubaker accusations.

Things progress in a simpler fashion on her side. The caterer’s action gets dropped when it’s settled out of Court and he’s re-hired, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. Brubaker is intelligent, creative, powerful and more than adequately compensated, yet he extorts payments and kickbacks all over the show, to the extent that his long-term secretary, a former PA to Humphrey Bogart, ups and retires on it rather than continue to be a party to this.

From her, Billie gets a list of victims which she takes to studio Vice-President Ross Danziger (William Jordan) who, both before and now, says this is intolerable and despite the fact that Brubaker has saved the Studio from bankruptcy single-handedly, he’ll be out on his ear if this is true. No question.

Straightway you are cynical, especially as things are going badly at the school. Lindsey denies everything. It’s his word against Bryan’s. But the Board, over all Mrs Pynchon’s attempts to talk and think sensibly, panics and sacks Lindsey, rather than face publicity which will hit them over admissions. And income.

Lindsey loves teaching. Even though the reason for his dismissal isn’t being recorded publicly, his career will still be blighted. He could fight, but he won’t. The risk of loss if bryan is believed is too high. he won’t go High Noon. Was he telling the truth? You want to believe him. He’s very likeable, and incredibly good with the kids, but does that exclude…? The episode doesn’t give you any absolutes. As Mrs Pynchon points out, if the Board are not sacking a brilliant teacher on a single unsupported allegation, they’re sending a child molester out to do it again, only somewhere else. Nobody, least of all truth, wins this one.

Which sets us up for the finish we’ve been expecting ever since Danziger said he’d do the right, but wholly uncommercial thing: a Press Conference to announce, not Brubaker’s sacking but rather his resignation… to go  Indie-Prod and work in close alignment with the Studio. The rich are different from us, they don’t recognise laws in the same way, and everybody would rather bask in the wealth that drips off them than serve justice. After all, who are the little people getting screwed? What do they count for?

So, a serious episode made all the more effective by working through people rather than statistics, and with a pair of dark endings. A better antidote to last week I can’t imagine.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: Introduction


For some people, growing older takes the turn of more clearly trying to define the past. To more deeply understand the things that constitute the course of your life, to try to get to grip with how your mind develops.
I’ve been an avid book reader ever since I was a little kid, hooked on Enid Blyton’s Noddy books. I read, constantly. What I read, the genre of the book, is eclectic. I very rarely buy a book without the expectation of re-reading it, usually several times over. But my tastes change as I go on. My pokey little flat is stuffed with books, in book-cases, storage crates, plastic bags piled in corners as unobtrusive as I can find. I need a Library. But first I need a living space large enough to fit a Library in.
But substantial as my collection is, it is still only a fraction of the books I used to own. Some books don’t live up to anticipation. I bought Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic when it first appeared in paperback and didn’t find it funny enough (it still isn’t) and sold it on. Then I got trapped into a situation where I needed a book to read, it was getting late, and The Light Fantastic was the only thing I felt I could stand: I could always sell it on again. Instead, it was funny, but most of all it read like the work of a writer who’d studied The Colour of Magic very carefully for why it didn’t work and then sat down and applied everything he’d learned. I had to buy The Colour of Magic again.
Some books end up outliving their usefulness. I have books I can read indefinitely, rich, complex, powerful, from which I can learn and discover every time. I offer up Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun quartet, or The Lord of the Rings. Others will sustain you just so many times and then you’ve used up everything they have to offer. Sometimes, the longer a series lasts, the more it diminishes, because it’s used up everything it had before its pages reach your eye.
This new, and relatively short series is an exercise in returning to books that were once great favourites of mine, to see if their old magic is capable of being restored..
I fell into fantasy and SF because of The Lord of the Rings. It took me nearly three months, from October 1973 to January 1974, to get the third book and finish the story. It’s only after that, I think, that I took the next step and started searching for things that could give me that kind of enjoyment, other fantasy, other SF. For the next twenty years or so, I read very little else. Even now, in 2020, after writers have been dying on me, the last one left whose new works I will automatically buy is Neil Gaiman: vale R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett.
In that searching period after The Lord of the Rings, the first favourite I found was Roger Zelazny. Man, I loved his stuff! I had all of it, US paperbacks of different dimensions and sizes, the works. Up unto a point, that is. Because Zelazny may have been good, and in his early days very good, but ultimately he suffered from something that everybody said was his great strength. He was recognised early. He was popular, without the same years of struggle others had to go through. He was free to turn his imagination to what he wanted to write, without being pressed and pushed.
And that easy success, without himself having to press or push, somehow ended up with his writing becoming thin, and lazy, his style a prison locking him into certain modes and thoughts, his cynicism manifesting itself in places where it should never have appeared, undercutting the quality of his stories with that little nervous tic that suggested the audience ought not to be taking this high-ish fantasy too seriously.
I’m not going to review Zelazny’s entire ouevre: I couldn’t afford the money or the space of reacquiring that many books and I’m certainly not interested in the later books, when his entire writing blew up in his and everybody’s face.
But I got into Zelazny for his famous Chronicles of Amber series. A superb Patrick Woodruffe cover attracted me to The Guns of Avalon, the second book of what eventually became five. I worked back to Nine Princes in Amber and then through all the remaining books as they appeared. These turned out to be ten in total, because he wrote a second series, and then seven short stories which would have acted as a bridge to a third series but for Zelazny’s death in 1995, aged 58, a victim of throat cancer from all the cigarettes and pipes he, and all his characters, so determinedly smoked.
In order to do this re-read, I bought one book, The Great Book of Amber, containing all ten books, plus the recently released collection of those seven short stories. I haven’t read these books for at least twenty years so I’m curious myself as to how I’ll find them now. Join me next week to see how it begins.

Person of Interest: s03 e17 – / (Root Path)


A walk in the Park

Here endeth the past.

According to my DVD, this episode’s title is simply “/”, which I interpreted as Forward Slash, which nothing in the actual episode would justify. imdb have it as “Root Path”, which is clever because that is what the episode is about. A moment’s googling tells me that the term is a computing term indicating where all files are stored in a system. Which is another relevant term for this episode. The people who write these things aren’t stupid, you know.

Amy Acker has been a full member of the Person of Interest cast all season but, in terms of screen representation has been held back, often to the point of invisibility. This won’t be the case any more.

Our first indication is the credits, Finch’s monologue. For a second week, the show incorporates variation to set up its point, with a truncated version alternating line-by-line between the familiarity of Finch and the strangeness of Root. It throws you, as it’s meant to.

The first act is a Root solo, temporarily springing a car thief from transportation to prison to use his likeness to intercept a package before abandoning him to recapture. It’s a lovely, complex, freewheeling sequence as Root talks away along, to Billy, to the Machine. She’s following a path created for her in which everything the scam needs is provided on the fly, but beyond the fact that she is acting to save both the Machine and the future, Root has no idea what she’s doing. The Machine directs its human Interface but doesn’t tell all, or even a fraction. It likes Root to work it out for herself.

I could happily stand an entire episode of this, but the show intends something more dense in nature. Root is next direced to locate janitor Cyrus Wells (Yul Vazquez), former financial wizard and millionaire, whose life was changed by tragedy, yet who is a believer that there is a plan and that everything that has happened to him, however terrible, is a part of that.

What’s about to happen to him is definitely part of a plan, two in fact, but not with any concern for Cyrus. Root follows him to a snowy Central Park, for his morning walk to help him sleep daytimes. Someone else is watching Cyrus. Root sits down by Finch. Cyrus’s Number came through at 7.04am, the very minute Root approached him. Root, it would appear, has brought Cyrus into danger and the Machine is playing both ends against the middle. Or is it urging two diverging viewpoints towards collaboration and merger?

Root is convinced she can protect Cyrus better than Finch, Reese and Shaw, because she has the Machine in her ear. Her confidence is overconfidence, or hubris. Because something bad is coming into being, something that will become the series’ focal point from now until the end. Two forces are after Cyrus Wells. These are Vigilance… and Decima Technologies. Peter Collier and John Greer.

Because Decima are building a rival to the Machine, a rival called Samaritan. It’s crashed once, because there wasn’t a processor fast enough to run it. Two days ago, one was invented, in a secret NSA lab working under cover on the 19th Floor of the building Cyrus cleans at night. He’s the only Janitor with clearance to clean the 19th floor, who can pass the retinal scan. Can you see why Decima wants him now?

And they’ve the technology to sever Root’s connection to the Machine to ‘blind’ her and get him.

Finch chides Root, or Miss Groves as he will persist in calling her, for hubris. The two argue their viewpoints. Harold ‘broke’ the Machine by limiting it but even in its broken state it cares about Cyrus Wells. Finch puts that down to his teaching the Machine.

Cyrus believes there’s a plan. Root denies that. There never was, there isn’t a plan. It’s all horribly random. But if Samaritan gets started, there will be a plan, its plan, to direct and regulate everything. There will be two AIs, two ‘Gods’, and they will be at war. What is more important? Saving the processor from Decima, or saving Cyrus Wells?

In the end, the team saves Wells but Decima gets its chip. Here endeth the past. Root warns that when Samaritan comes on line, a lot of people will die. And within the first thirty minutes, four people will be marked out for death: Finch, her, his helper-monkey, and Shaw. She’s been trying to save them all along. Our last shot is the Machine. Samaritan’s completion percentage is rising rapidly. So too are the Probability of Death ratios of her assets. There’s an awful lot of red filling the screen…

“/” is an awesome episode. It’s fast, it’s tricky, it’s slick, without a moment’s sag. Everyone plays their role to perfection. It pursues its spinal story implacably, but not without the little asides and twists we come to associate with the series. There is a moment that stands out. Cyrus insists on taking a photo with him, three people, together and happy. He won’t talk about them, not at first. They were his friends from college, who started a small, careful financial business that became a major player by avoiding the crash of 2008. They got up somebody’s nose. An unidentified gunman walked in one day and killed his friends, wounding him and ten others. He spent weeks in the ICU, came out and abandoned his past and his money. But it was part of the plan.

The scene carries with it a frisson of understanding. Instinctively we know, without needing the slightest flicker of Root’s eyes that betrays her to us but not Cyrus. In a way, it’s a tiny moment of weakness that the episode decides it has to play to its slower audience by having Root admit that the gunman was her, in days of a greater moral depravity that are now gone: the Machine is making a point to her.

All things are connected. Everything leads back to itself. There is a plan. There are two plans. And two tribes, or rather gods, who are about to go to war.

Three Fells and No Ridges


It’s been a long time since I last gave myself the pleasure of recollecting a day out in the Lakes, at least, not one I haven’t written about before. Currently, I’m picking up the threads of a part-completed novel set in the Lake District. The place where I left the book the last time I worked on it is actually set somewhere I never actually walked. Nevertheless, there is a fell the scene’s associated with, and that’s triggered a recollection of one of my oddest days fellwalking.

Every year, from the Eighties to the Nineties, I would budget my holiday time for two weeks away, walking in the Lake District (the remainder of my allotment would be carved up by whatever days I wants for the cricket: the Roses Matches, the Old Trafford Test).

I would choose weeks in April and September, just before and just after the full-blown tourist season. These usually proved to be best for good walking conditions, and the fells were rarely so crowded that I couldn’t find convenient parking for my base for walks.

One year, for reasons I can’t remember, I managed to get enough time to go away a third week, in the last week of October. The hour hadn’t gone back so I wasn’t prejudiced by early darkness, but it was colder than I was used to, and darker overall, the skies greyer and more overcast, though not noticeably worse for cloud on tops.

I remember an excellent walk up Steel Fell from Grasmere, rounding the head of wet Greendale, all its little streams and becks backlit and looking like veins of quicksilver, before returning along Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, a nice little low-level ridge round.

The next day, I moved on to Keswick. It was a dark day, the sky and the air mostly grey and overcast, though the cloudbase wasn’t actually hanging on the fells, not even Skiddaw, the cloud-magnet. There weren’t going to be any sparkling views wherever I walked, so I decided I’d repeat my visit to Latrigg.

1…

There was no problem parking at the roadhead, where spaces abounded, and I let myself out the gate, crossed the slightly rushy region in the base of the hollow and set off up the back of the fell.

Climbing Latrigg this way is one of the dullest walks you can make. It’s literally nothing but an uphill trudge, without a glimmer of a view. You are confined between Latrigg’s sprawling slopes and the rising wall of Skiddaw behind. The only benefit of this approach, apart from conservation of time, is that the view only arrives with the last few steps. Even under that sky, it was a thing of beauty.

But once you reach Latrigg, you’ve nowhere to go but back, especially to a car at the roadhead. And it’s quicker downhill, so much so that it’s difficult to stretch the overall round trip out to an hour, and I still had much of the afternoon to go before nightfall. It was then that I hit upon a crazy idea.

With so little time used, why couldn’t I climb another fell? Another low fell, requiring not very much in time and effort? Another isolated  fell upon which I wouldn’t to waste a better day? It didn’t even need to be in the same book of Wainwright.

So I set off down the Underskiddaw road without changing out of my walking boots, back to the big roundabout, and turned towards Penrith. I left the highway at the turn for Matterdale, but instead of wandering through that lovely reserved valley to Ullswater, I turned off left, onto narrow lanes and valley routes, until I pulled up at a corner and hopped out again, handily placed to start a walk up the back of Great Mell Fell.

2…

I’ve always said that I retain memories of every fell I’ve climbed in the Lake District, but Great Mell Fell hasn’t troubled the memory banks by much. I remember that, instead of the direct and steep route from the south, where I was, I took a circular path round the west side and worked upwards gently, before using the direct route for descent. My one solid memory is disturbing three or four slightly shamefaced people, rooting around by the side of the path. They were searching for mushrooms, they told me, and one said, in pointed tones, ‘Magic mushrooms’.

Of course I’m now well aware what they meant, but back then I’d never heard of Psylocibin and, apart from guessing they were hinting at something pharmaceutically stimulating, had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never met anyone else looking for natural highs in the Lakes, except from the scenery.

Overall, Great Mell Fell used up not much of an hour, and daylight was already checking its baggage and starting to consider moving on, but if you’re going to have to do both Mell Fells, why save the Little one for another day? I got behind the wheel, drove the short distance up onto the Hause and set off for my third fell of the afternoon.

…and 3

Once more, the direct ascent from the Hause was a short and uninteresting uphill trudge, and the summit was less that two minutes walk from the ‘crest’. With a view over Ullswater, despite this being only the lowest reach, it at least offered better views that its higher neighbour, and the effort expended in ascending it was minimal (it was so easy that, two decades later, my then wife and I sent two small sons up the path on their own: they were only out of sight on the summit for five minutes, no longer and they had fun being independent).

After that, I got out of my boots, dumped them into the boot, and returned to Keswick, to contemplate what to do about an evening meal. As walking days, or half days go, it was nothing to write home about, but the weirdness of the experience of climbing three fells in the same afternoon, without any ridge routes between them, was great fun, and there are worse things to think about in these latter days.