Film 2019: In The Loop

I didn’t go for The Thick of It in the first place. I watched the first, three-episode series, the one with Chris Langham. It was billed as Yes Minister for the 21st century, which led me to expect what I wasn’t going to get. I didn’t find it funny, and it took me a long time until I did find it funny.

In The Loop, borrowed on DVD from the local library, got me over that hurdle. It’s a spin-off from the TV series, a 2009 feature film splitting its time between England and America, intended as a satire of the Iraq war. Several of the Thick of It cast appear, together with half a dozen American actors, the biggest of whom – in every sense – being James Gandolfini, Tony Sporano as was.

What I didn’t understand properly, then, was that only Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker and Paul Higgins as Jamie MacDonald were playing ‘themselves’, with other familiar characters, most prominently Chris Addison, playing new characters closely related to their TV selves.

The spine of the story is very simple. Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander as a soft-boiled egg, says something stupid on the radio, bringing down the ire of Tucker (it’s no good, Capaldi is and always will be Malcolm Tucker, forget this nonsense about being Doctor Who). Foster, you can rapidly tell, is born to say something stupid as he stands for nothing except being a career politician.

His new aide, Toby Wright (Addison), undermining his rather more efficient Director of Communications, Judy Molloy (Gina McKee, looking frankly gorgeous), gets Foster into a meeting with American Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) but only as ‘meat’ (i.e., another warm body to make the meeting look good). Foster compounds his error by speaking up when he’s not wanted.

This gets him dragged into affairs in America, where Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) has created a secret War Committee aiming to invade an unnamed Middle East country. Clark, assisted by a very much more Con than Pro position paper written by her staffer, Lisa Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and General George Miller (Gandolfini) are opposed to War and want Foster to help ‘internationalise dissent’. Malcolm Tucker has other ideas.

There’s more to it than that, a lot more, branching out in multiple directions, but that’s enough. The film is a wind-up toy that whirrs and crashes. It’s embedded with personalities that are all exaggerations, but the thing that worries you is just how big – or in the circumstances little – an exaggeration they are.

Capaldi is just Tucker, his non-stop foul-mouthed invective a masterpiece of scripting given the perfect delivery: Tucker is bile and fury, he doesn’t just run on it, he is it. Foster is all soft edges and no convictions, the only flaw in Hollander’s portrayal being that you wonder how he got as far as he did without a vertebrate spine.

Addison’s Toby gets the biggest comeuppance in the film, in an unemphasised way. He screws Lisa in Washington which blows his relationship with girlfriend Suzy (Olivia Poulet), costing him his home, and is displaced at the Ministry almost as soon as Foster departs. It’s difficult to know whether to characterise him as a slimy creep or a creepy slime but after he tries to to explain away fucking Lisa as a protest against the war, he deserves everything he gets.

Of the other performers, I have just got to pick out Gandolfini. His is the most grounded in reality in the film (apart from McKee as Judy, who is more level-headed and unneurotic than everyone else). You can believe in him as a soldier and a General, more solid on the earth than anyone else, and yet every bit as cutting.

In the Loop was a success on all levels, thugh it’s fair to say it was slightly out of date when it was released. Obama was in the White House by then, and the film’s world is Dubya and Cheney, Republican hawks. Nevertheless, it hits all its marks with stiletto-like precision, and you come out of the film not merely wondering how close to the reality this is but convinced it’s more accurate than any history book or hard-hitting documentary will ever be.

I should also mention that it’s bloody funny too, that’s it’s full-to-bursting with undercurrents, sub-stories and clashing personalities without ever once feeling crammed, the performances are exactly brilliant and, most worrying of all, in these days of pandemics, crisis and potential panic, the feeling that you wish this lot were really in charge instead of the, you should pardon the expression, leaders we actually have.

Strange but Wonderful: the history of Mystery in Space

Knights of the Galaxy

In one form or another, I have accumulated good, comprehensive runs of most the the major DC Comics characters of the Sixties, the Silver Age, the years when I was discovering comics as a boy, and expecting to lose interest in them as I grew older. And I did. It just didn’t take, that’s all.
There is, however, one major DC character of that era whose stories I never read then, and of which I am only vaguely acquainted now. That’s why I took the chance to pick up a DVD-Rom with a complete run of Mystery in Space comics, 117 issues starting in April-May 1951, only a month or so after All-Star Comics was transmuted into All-Star Western. Mystery in Space, a joyfully science fiction series, was home to several space-set series, none more important than that of Adam Strange.
That’s who I’m here to read, but Adam and Alana, and the planet Rann are a long way off from the start, so let’s begin with that issue 1 and the stories it featured.
Mystery in Space followed hard on the heels of DC’s other SF title, Strange Adventures. The impression most often given of the In-Between Age from 1951 to 1956 is of DC floundering, creating titles and cancelling them six issues later as flops. Wasn’t this why Showcase was devised? But the two SF titles were glorious examples of the opposite. They were in tune with the times, with the boom in SF in magazines and novels. Maybe they took some pointers from EC’s SF titles, I don’t know; I know too little about EC to do more than guess. Were they weak cousins of it?
Issue 1 impressed me. It led off with the first story featuring the first ongoing series, The Galaxy Knights, law enforcement officers of the Thirtieth Century, and the first case entrusted to new Knight Lyle, to stop a pair of space villains and save the life of Knight Commander Arthro’s beautiful daughter, Ora. Ah yes, all very Golden Age, big-jawed heroes playing Cowboys and Indians on the space prairie, but with a typically Schwartzian emphasis on intelligence, ingenuity and science.
Comics were still in their 52 page format, allowing room for four decent-length stories, including scripts by Gardener Fox and John Broome, plus art from the likes of Carmine Infantino and, I think, Joe Kubert. There’s nothing particularly original about any of them, but there’s a happy enthusiasm to the work that makes it clear and likeable, plus Broome’s story has an ironic twist as to Man’s ignoble instincts that could do with a bit more development.
If you’re thinking I may have been a mite too harsh on the Galaxy Knights, the title of their second appearance might convince you otherwise: “Jesse James – Highwayman of Space”. As for the brave, resourceful, short-skirted Ora, she had a Knight of her own in Lyle, and it looked like she was going to need him.
As the only recurring feature, Knights of the Galaxy stands out in these early issues, especially with its vigorous and clean art, which has a look of Carmine Infantino about it. Weirdly, writers are credited, so I know the series was by Dion Antony, but not artists. Wikipedia confirms my eye is good on this score, and also that Dion Antony was a pen-name for Robert Kanigher, which comes as little surprise given the formal language used throughout.
But the title was created less than a year before the final size cut, as the 48 page comic went the way of its predecessors, transformed into a 32 page package with only three stories per issue instead of four, as of issue 6.
But the Knights only ran until issue 8, in which they were pushed to the back of a two-story issue. This was something of a shame as Infantino’s clear, crisp art was excellent, not being softened by Joe Giella or Sid Greene as it later would be on The Flash. I also confess a partiality for the skirt-abbreviated Ora. On a more serious level, the SF art of the era tended to put women in far shorter skirts than would have been remotely acceptable on an American, or a British street. But whilst Infantino had been free with leg-shots in issues 1 – 5, it was very noticeable that he confined himself to mostly head and shoulders or upper torso shot in issue 6 – 8. Given that we’re now into 1952, I think I’m not far wrong if I suspect the influence of Wertham, Kefauver and the soon-to-be-imposed Comics Code.
Before leaving issue 8, I do have to comment on its other story, a bizarre and twisted affair that envisaged a future in which, after the election of the first woman President (in 2980!) society had been completely reversed by 3100, with women the dominant force and men the despised weaklings.
For seven of the story’s eight pages, it’s a straight role reversal satire, with men downgraded, discarded, treated as unfit, helpless, inadequate when set against brave, daring, strong, intelligent women. The one young male who forces his way into Rocket Training, to fight an evil enemy, is cold-shouldered, shunned, disrespected just as a female cadet in an academy of men would be. Then, just as the plucky, brave, competent woman would do, he saves the day, rescues the captain, defeats the enemy. Proves his sex is not as helpless as people think.
So far as simplistic as you have to be in an eight-pager, straightforward and exact. Until the last page. In which the cadet newbie Greg marries the experienced veteran commander Stella, tells her that in their house she’ll be doing the vacuuming (she loves this macho stuff) and by the last panel, with males flooding back into leadership positions she’s happily cooing about women having run things for long enough (120 years out of 3100) and it being time ‘you men’ take over again.
What can I say? Somehow just repeating 1952 and What Can You Expect, not to mention the fact this was before I was even born just doesn’t cut it.
Incidentally, there were no short skirts for these dominant women of the future. No, they wore two part bathing suit bottoms and fishnet tights into battle. For no doubt logical combat reasons.

Interplanetary Insurance

All issues so far have credited Whitney Ellsworth as editor, though given the nature of MiS, it’s clear that Julius Schwartz is the assistant editor doing the groundwork. Further evidence of this is the spectacular cover to issue 9, clearly drawn by Murphy Anderson, in the grand Schwartzian tradition of having action covers drawn to inspire scripters to pen stories in which, far too often, just like this one, the actual cover scene – a young couple, she in short skirt, trapped in a gigantic diamond – ends up squeezed in in a very minor manner. As cover cheats go, this one’s a doozie!
Without a regular feature, the comic is patchy but I couldn’t ignore a story in issue 12 that involved the Earth’s first landing on the moon. Like Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers, which foresaw the Great Storm of 1987 to within a few months, forty years earlier, this Moon landing, nearly a decade before President Kennedy’s commitment to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade, gave its date as 23 May, 1969, less than two months before the real thing.
It’s fair to comment that, despite an ongoing educational feature from issue 1 onwards, dealing with science fact about planets, moons and the Solar System, the stories themselves are pure, unbelievable science nonsense, with impossible science, planetary invasions and humanoid aliens from as far out as Pluto in story after story.
MiS‘s next recurring series debuted in issue 16. This was Interplanetary Insurance Inc., and their ace investigator, Bert Brandon, and if you want to know how to turn an insurance salesman into a hero, don’t look here. This is insurance company as machine for sucking in money and spewing none of it out, and whilst that makes it extremely accurate to life, putting it in an SF milieu doesn’t make it any more interesting. This is mid-Fifties, middle-America, business-is-God era with a vengeance.
A second recurring feature was added in issue 21, this being Space-Cabbie, about an unnamed taxi-driver in space, which, like the insurance one, was intended to have an underlying humorous aspect. At first it was a one-off, but the Cabbie was popular enough to be brought back in issue 24, though he didn’t get a regular gig until two issues later, when he replaced Bert Brandon. Unlike the Galaxy Knights, Brandon wasn’t missed.

Space Cabbie

Also on board now, from issue 25 in fact, was the Comics Code seal. There had already been very little in the way of micro-skirts by then.
To be frank, MiS wasn’t doing much throughout these issues. It had started with the advantage of space as a 48 page title but had been reduced to 32 pages early on. Instead of reducing the number of stories per issue it ended up reducing the number of pages per story. Six were insufficient for more than rather perfunctory tales on a limited number of Cold War themes, infected by paranoia, treachery and constant invasion, and undercut by far too many mundane stories given an SF veneer.
I did find issue 33’s scientific feature fascinating, dealing as it did with the status of Pluto. Anticipating the decision of a half-century later, it analysed anomalies in Pluto’s composition and orbit to query if it was a planet at all, though the alternative proposed was that it was a satellite, a lost and unrecaptured moon of Neptune. Many decades were yet to pass before Pluto’s oversized moon, Charon, was even detected, a discovery that I missed even hearing about until many years later.
The Space Cabbie series bowled along with Gil Kane’s art, Infantino appeared every issue, artwise MiS was solid at its very worst, albeit softened from its early days, but the stories remained crude and gimmicky, using tropes that SF had left behind. One story had the Empire State Building converted into a spaceship to attack would-be invaders, whilst another had the entire continent of North America, including Canada, spacelifted to another galaxy in one piece to save that galaxy from destruction. And brought back intact with everyone alive on it. Boy, did it need an uplift.
Yet even in this form it was popular enough to go from bi-monthly to eight-times-a-year with issue 45. Usually, this frequency was for titles dependant on a single artist (those with multiple artists could go monthly without deadline threats) but MiS had multiple artists available.
Space Cabbie went missing after issue 47, leaving the series without a regular feature as it approached its 50th issue. But the time I had been waiting for was nearly upon us.

A classic Adam Strange cover

Adam Strange arrived in Mystery in Space in issue 53, cover-dated August 1959. The creation of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, he had originally appeared in Showcase 17-19, the previous year but, unlike The Flash or Green Lantern, his sales had not added up to quite enough to justify his own title, and Julius Schwartz had opted for berthing him here.
The formula was simple: each issue, Adam, an archaeologist, would rendezvous with a Zeta Beam from Rann, teleporting him 25 trillion miles to the Planet Rann, in the system of Alpha Centauri, to the beautiful Alanna, who he could never hold for long enough, and her scientist-father, Sardath. But instead of spending these visits lovemaking, Adam continually found Rann being menaced by monsters and disasters that could only be defeated by the application of his scientific mind and the effects of Chemistry Class, as was only right and proper in 1959.
Adam Strange’s early stories mostly feature Mike Sekowsky on art. This is not as scratchy or littered with weird anatomy as his Justice League stories, which start up shortly after, and he’s getting better inkers than the wholly unsuitable Bernard Sachs, but there is a world of difference between his jobs and the occasional one drawn by Infantino. But Fox’s stories are very formulaic, from the business with Adam’s difficulties intercepting the next Zeta-Beam to his inevitable return to Earth. What lies between is inventive, but the brackets bore very quickly.
Of course, the moment I said that, issue 61’s story decided to be different, with Adam being snatched by a different beam in the northern hemisphere, Rann and Alpha Centauri only being visible from the southern hemisphere, intercepted to prevent him saving Rann from a tyrant out to conquer it. That would-be dictator was the Tornado Tyrant, a sentient tornado with an unexpected future as a component element of The Red Tornado, Gardner Fox’s last creation for DC, eight years hence.
Oh, and for once Adam wasn’t snatched directly out of the loving Alanna’s arms the moment the menace was defeated, and the loving couple had several days sea, sun, sand and… oh come now, not under the Comics Code Authority.
The non-Adam Strange stories remained as predictable and dull as ever but Murphy Anderson – used primarily as an inker in the Silver Age – produced a short series of beautifully-drawn tales that at least looked the part for me.

A one-off story in issue 66, drawn by Sid Greene, another DC artist used primarily on inks, became a short series in Mystery in Space. The Star Rovers were three rivals, Homer Gint, novelist and sportsman, Karel Sorensen, former Miss Solar System turned space-adventurer, and playboy Rick Purvis. Their stories involved them bringing three different viewpoints to the same incident, the total vision, Rashomon-style, adding up to the real truth. They would appear every three issues until MiS 86, with two further stories appearing afterwards in Strange Adventures.
It’s interesting to note that throughout most of this run of the series there were full page house-ads, promoting National’s titles as ‘still 10c’. A change in price, DC’s first ever, was due very soon (in Britain, they would go from 10d to 1/-), but I wasn’t previously aware that DC had held out against the increase so blatantly.
Adam Strange had been the lead feature and main attraction of the series for over two years now, at nine pages an issue, but with issue 71, DC finally did what should have been done long before and expanded Adam’s feature to 17 pages, eliminating one redundant one-off story but still leaving one.
And for issue 75, Adam was given the whole comic for a book-length, and excellent, story guest-starring the Justice League of America (plus Snapper Carr but without Superman), a story written in response to a fan identification of a flub in the League’s own title. This had come in Justice League of America 4, the issue that admitted Green Arrow. Among the possible nominees, The Flash put forward Adam Strange. All very well for me, reading that in retrospect, but nobody but Alanna (and the rest of the planet Rann) knew of Adam’s exploits.
So Schwartz and Fox put their heads together and came up with a story, set between Justice League 3 and 4, that gets the League to Rann, in pursuit of Kanjar Ro, the villain of issue 3, as he tries to takeover Adam’s adopted planet. I’ve known of this story for over fifty years and this is the first time I’ve read it. And it’s excellent (except for the bit where a clearly-impressed Flash thinks, ‘wow, I’ll nominate Adam for membership when we next have a meeting’, which is too knowing).
Issue 81 gave Adam Strange another book-length adventure, this time starting with Alanna seemingly coming to Earth. Obviously it’s a cunning plot, this time by yet another of Rann’s past would-be dictators intending to take over the planet again: between all these former dictators and the alien races all trying to take over Rann for no better reason than that it’s there, the backgrounds to the stories do drag at Adam’s constant ingenuity in combatting these scientific menaces.
Incidentally, the letter column contained interesting letters from two young and eager comics fans, the increasingly regular Paul Gambaccini, and one Marvin Wolfman.
The next issue had most of its cover obliterated on the DVD but as soon as I started to read the story I remembered it. I saw many Mystery in Space covers in this era, in house ads in comics I bought, in spinner racks that I combed through but didn’t buy. But Carmine Infantino’s work has never left me.
A similar obliteration concealed the cover to issue 82 but this time my memory banks couldn’t supply the image. There was another Star Rovers story, exposing the limitations of the three-sided formula. And a complete no-cover on issue 84 made three, though this was one of those instances where the cover was duplicated as a panel in the story, instantly reminding me. The same thing applied to issue 84’s cover, by which time it was getting particularly annoying.
Covers returned with issue 86, in which Adam’s adventure on Rann turned out to be only a dream: the lad just can’t escape having to save this most vulnerable of planets even when he’s asleep! It also featured the last Star Rovers story to appear in MiS. And it also made much, both in the lettercol and in the final panel of Adam Strange’s story, of the arrival of Hawkman to share this space next issue.
This is the part of Hawkman’s Sixties stories that I know of but had never read. Revived as Katar Hol by Julius Schwartz and Gardener Fox in Brave & Bold, the editor had been shocked when this third revision of an old Justice Society hero had failed to take off. Not then, and not after a second three-issue run. These issues had been drawn by Hawkman’s old star, Joe Kubert, but Kubert’s style had evolved, brilliantly, past the point where he was suited to superheroes. Refusing to give up, Schwartz put Hawkman into MiS and replaced Kubert with the somewhat blander Murphy Anderson (and I speak here as a fan of Anderson), whose style was much more in keeping with DC’s ‘house’ look.
The first shared issue was very cleverly constructed. Hawkman took over the cover – the first since issue 52 not to feature Adam Strange – but Adam still had the lead, double-length story, in which he accidentally gets mutated into a highly-evolved, mentally magnificent version of himself, who is also offensively superior and dismissive, especially of Alanna who, in a very understandable if selfish gesture, smashes the machine that has evolved, bringing back the version she (and we) love. At story’s end, Adam beams back to Earth, carrying with him a stone his brain-heavy self has created, which he places in a museum.
And in the Hawkman back-up, introducing regular foe Ira ‘I.Q.’ Quimby, the latter becomes a super-crook when the combination of sunlight and his presence by the stone sets his brain off on incredible ideas. That’s what you can do when the same writer is writing both features. You can also get Carter and Shiera Hall meeting an archaeologist named Adam Strange, in both their guises, and getting a bit suspicious about him…

The issue even contained a letter from Joe Kubert, regretting the commitments forcing him to stop drawing Hawkman, and praising his mate Murph.
At this point, I’d like to bring up a point about the Adam Strange series that’s mildly surprised me. DC’s not supposed to have had a continuity in the Sixties, only Marvel. That was never entirely true: both Fox and John Broome employed regular footnotes in their stories, harking back to previous tales. But from early on, Adam Strange did this to an unusual degree. Each story was an individual tale, but Fox would constantly refer back to the previous story, and earlier ones, and would very often base a new story in the events or aftermath of its predecessor. If you could have thrown an entire years worth of The Flash, or Justice League of America in the air and read them in whatever order they came down without noticing any difference, that could not be said of Adam Strange. Adam’s stories were a sequence, and Fox would emphasise this with Adam’s constant musings bout how, every time he arrived on Rann, there was yet another menace to overcome, and was there a jinx, was it him? Given that we are still only up to 1963, I’m pretty impressed.
The cover of issue 88 was a throwback to the Golden Age Flash Comics, showing that Adam and Hawkman would alternate, with headshots plugging the other. Inside were two separate stories, one in which Alanna got a new figure hugging costume which swapped her blue-and-yellow colour code for yellow-and-blue (made for her by an Earth couturier she never met: wonder how Adam got him the precise measurements when, under the Comics Code, good girls definitely didn’t), whilst Mavis Trent, the long-forgotten girl archaeologist fixated on Carter Hall, having died her hair Shiera-red, accidentally discovered and donned Hawkgirl’s costume: much frivolity ensued.
One issue later, Hawkman was not only back on the cover but taking the lead story, whilst in the back Adam Strange had to fend off an interstellar ‘Lorelei’ who wanted him to marry her (even the bad girls didn’t…) but saved himself with a profession of love so profound that Fox would rip it off himself for a similar situation in the future Hawkman 13. here though it was accompanied by an engagement: Awww!
This little spell of Mystery in Space is probably the best of the entire series, but little it was, only four issues, Issue 90 posed a classic cover, another I recall from scrabbling through racks, probably on a Saturday afternoon in Droylsden, allowed to walk on my own from Grandad’s to the newsagents at Fiveways: Adam Strange hurtles through space to try to prevent Earth and Rann from colliding.
The book-length story was a team-up between Adam and Alanna on one side and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the other (though it’s noticeable that neither of the lovely heroines has a word to say to each other). Artistically, it’s a fun compromise: Infantino pencils Chapters 1 (Adam-oriented) and 3, Anderson the Hawkman oriented Chapter 2, as well as inking the lot. And at the end, the Hawks give Adam a lift back to Earth, ending his Zeta-Beam tyranny, and Alanna asks if she can come too, and there’s going to be a wedding: double Awww!
As for Hawkman, less than four issues of MiS had done what six of Brave & Bold had failed at: the Flying Fury had finally got his own title.
More than that was to change. Julius Schwartz was also leaving, and taking with him Fox and Infantino, to rescue the Batman titles which, unbelievable as it sounds, were in serious danger of cancellation. His replacement would be a straight swap, with Jack Schiff – who’d cynically and unhappily commissioned awful, ludicrous, ridiculous stories that were completely wrong for the Caped Crusader, because that sort of shit seemed to be what the public wanted and who was he to stand in their way – taking over Mystery in Space with issue 92.
No-one knew it then, but the title had only 19 more issues to live.
The first thing Schiff did was to bring Space Ranger with him from Tales of the Unexpected, putting him on his first cover, although Adam Strange retained the lead spot, now by Dave Wood and Lee Elias. This was an apt line-up: both Adam and Space Ranger were created as a result of a 1957 request by Editorial Director Irwin Donenfield that Schiff and Schwartz create two new SF heroes, one from the present, the other from the future. Schiff, given first choice, chose the future hero, who became Space Ranger, Schwartz’s present hero was our man Adam.
Two issues were enough to demonstrate that Wood and Elias didn’t have the wit and sophistication of Fox and Infantino, and that Space Ranger didn’t have the wit and sophistication of the new Adam Strange, plus ugly art in which everyone stood with bent legs. Nasty. Also, Elias dropped Adam’s finned helmet like a shot.
The two stars teamed up in issue 94 despite the time-gap, with Space Ranger finding a menace that had lain dormant since Adam’s time, Adam himself referring to the mystery in his diary and his descendent, also named Adam, taking up the mantle, uniform and ray-gun in the future, only with red-hair not blonde.
Adam regained the cover for issue 95 but lost the lead spot inside. Next issue, the set-up was reversed. In fact, it was turnabout time again. It stayed that way until the landmark issue 100, cover-date June 1965, which gave the cover to new character Interplanetary Agent Jan Vern, appearing in one of two one-off stories behind a particularly poor Adam Strange purporting to feature the Death of Alanna. Space Ranger wasn’t even there.
Then it was Adam’s turn to drop out of issue 101, allowing Space Ranger back, though the cover once more went to a nothing story, a one-off. With three stories an issue once more, MiS was going backwards, rapidly. Turnabout for issue 102, with Adam also on the cover and accompanied by Jan Vern inside. But that was it. It had taken Schiff only twelve issues to kill off the very popular Adam Strange, and Space Ranger only lasted one issue longer.

That issue, 103, introduced Mystery in Space‘s new star for the remnants of its run, Ultra – the Multi-Alien. I’d seen Ultra in house ads but never read him before, and he’s drivel. Another Wood and Elias creation, he’s Captain Ace Arn, shot simultaneously by four blasters, each intended to turn him into a duplicate of a native of a different planet, but instead turning him into one-quarter different alien each all with different powers. The idea is stupidity squared, a perfect example of DC’s increasing descent into moronic crap as they tried to work out, vainly, why Marvel was so popular. It’s a painful demise.
Mystery in Space was cancelled with issue 110, cover date September 110. There was no reference to its cancellation in that issue. Years later, in 1980, it was revived for a further seven issues, but that run lies outside my remit, as does a second series many years after that.
I came to MiS for Adam Strange and I got my money’s worth from the Schwartz/Fox/Infantino stint, and whilst the comic could be dull in the long months leading up to the arrival of the Champion of Rann, there were still series that were enjoyable and there was classic art from Infantino, Anderson, Kane and others to enjoy.
But Jack Schiff’s editorship killed the series as surely as it was killing Batman in 1964, when Julius Schwartz was transferred over. He remained editor on Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected for another eleven months before retiring. There’s a story there, but not for here. Time to look at another series.

Lou Grant: s03 e21 – Dogs

A happy ending

It’s noticeable, to me at any rate, that I start to get a bit weary of Lou Grant towards the end of a season and start to wonder about taking a break, cleansing the palate, etc. The first half of this episode which reverted to the show’s occasional and always-dull didacticism, re-awoke that feeling.

The show began with Mrs Pynchon’s ever-present Yorkshire Terrier lapdog, Barney, being taken from her car in a parking lot. As we’d already seen suspicious people, in denims, baseball caps and sleeveless puffer-jackets (it was like a uniform) paying out large sums to carry out an unspecified but clearly dodgy arrangement, the pieces clicked into place rapidly.

Barney, it turned out, had not been stolen to fight but for ‘conditioning’, the process by which a fighting breed of dog – the then little-known Pit Bull Terrier – is trained to kill by ripping apart a smaller dog. Mrs Pynchon’s grief was palpable, and any pet owner would have empathised, but it was mingled with her patrician nature that made her feel embarrassed at mourning a mere animal, and Nancy Marquand was excellent in balancing all her emotions.

The Trib set out to find out more about these dog-fighters, with the aid of the stiff-backed Jim Lawrence (Geoffrey Lewis) of the Humane Society, who was one of several characters who had to deliver dollops of didactic exposition to the audience to explain the scale, tactics and ultra-secretiveness of this frankly disgusting practice. And because it was so disgusting, we were never going to see any actual scenes of what it entailed, for which one member of the audience at least was profoundly grateful.

The episode picked up in the second half when Rossi went underground to infiltrate the circuit, in a manner that was very cleverly written. Nothing was said or done that did not fit into his assumed persona and, given the heavily masculinist atmosphere, in which the fighting dogs themselves were effectively a symbol of the male wish to attack, rend and destroy in person, made us very jumpy.

Ultimately, we see two dogs about to face each other. Rossi, his stomach giving way at last, betrays himself and his wire and is given a good, mainly offscreen kicking, resulting in facial bruising, a broken left arm and, given the way he was moving, at least one cracked rib, but everyone is arrested.

Then came the kicker. The penalty these disgusting subhumans would face is a fine of $50. Rossi set out to write a story that would change people’s attitudes to the subject and, by a for once wonderful irony, Robert Walden credits this episode with being instrumental in changing legislation to make dog-fighting a felony, which is great to hear.

There was a second string to this story, in Mrs Pynchon herself. The gang buy her a Yorkie puppy, a bright-as-a-button scrap of untidy fur, to replace Barney but, still choked up over her loss, she rejects him. Lou wins up with the dog himself, that is, until Mrs Pynchon comes round to ask for it. Despite Lou having started to get attached, he hnds the pup over instantly. Mission accomplished, some kind of happy ending.

And a half-decent episode too. I wonder how I’ll feel after three more?

Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Courts of Chaos

The Courts of Chaos is the shortest book of the First Chronicles, and very much the simplest. There are no more flashbacks, no more revisions of the backstory, but not that much less debate. Just a couple of preparatory chapters, one tidying up a loose end to no apparent benefit, and then setting the story in motion, throughout all of which you can sense Zelazny’s straining to be done with such mundanities and to get to the flaming point!
The book first appeared in Galaxy magazine, serialised in three parts (November 1977, December/January and February 1978). I never was a buyer of SF magazines but I bought these three, just to read the end that much sooner.
The story picks up with Corwin having locked himself away in the Library and, quite frankly, throwing what can only be described as a hissy fit about his father returning and not immediately taking everybody into his confidence. This is a prelude to a rather awkward scene in which Dara has been trumped into Amber by Martin, is in the throne room with him and Benedict when suddenly we get a replay of the scene at the end of Unicorn where Corwin cuts the mechanical arm from Benedict and it now disappears. No reason is given as to why the arm should be removed, except that it’s clearly served its sole purpose, nor is there any explanation of why everything in the scene should be slightly different from the scene in Tir Na Nog’th.
Dara claims to have come from Oberon, with orders, and his signet ring to prove her bona fides. She admits to having sided with the Court of Chaos as long as they were planning a balancing exercise, levelling the playing field of Shadow between them and Amber, but broke with them when she realised their idea of levelling was to take it all back virtually to Amber’s door.
Oberon has been planning a strike against the Courts of Chaos, but not necessarily with Amber’s full strength: now his orders via Dara are to start immediately.
Corwin doesn’t trust her, even after Oberon confirms his instructions direct. He trumps to Dworkin’s workshop, which irritates Oberon. The King has decided that he will attempt to repair the Pattern. This will trigger distraction tactics from Chaos, hence the strike to preoccupy them. Whether he succeeds or not, the effort will kill him. He has decided to nominate Corwin as his successor.
Corwin, partly because he started to like Oberon as Ganelon, partly out of a sense of duty to Amber, but mostly because he has decided he no longer wants to be King, snatches the Jewel and runs for the Primal Pattern, intent on making the attempt himself. Between them, Oberon and Dworkin paralyse his muscles: he wakes to find Oberon holding the Jewel.
Now Corwin has refused the throne, the succession will have to depend on the Horn, whatever that is. But Corwin must now hellride as far as he can from Amber, towards the Courts. When Oberon has finished, successful or not, the Jewel will be conveyed to Corwin who has to get it to the Courts, for purposes he will not understand until they occur.
That is the book’s main purpose: Corwin’s journey and the various obstacles placed in his path, both repeated attempts by Brand to stop him, including claiming Oberon failed, that there is no Pattern and he must urgently draw one, and people in his path wanting to slow him down, stop him, etc.
In the end, his horse shot and killed, absolutely exhausted despite the continuing drawing of energy via the Jewel, Corwin arrives in sight of the skies above the Courts, but with forty miles to go. The only option left to him is to do what Brand proposed: to draw a Pattern. Corwin infuses his Pattern with his memories, in particular of Paris in 1905, when he was happy. He completes his task and collapses, exhausted. Brand trumps in, kicks him in the head and steals the Jewel. Now there is one more Pattern for him to destroy.

UK Edition

But Corwin can not only draw energy from his Pattern, he can also teleport himself from its centre, taking him to where he can overview the battle at the Courts. He can see armies directed by Benedict, Julian and Bleys, he can see his brothers and sisters in armour in their colours, though he can’t identify the knight in green.
Brand is trapped on the edge of the Abyss by this group, but he has a hostage, Deirdre, Corwin’s favourite sister and true love (we’ll not go there), whose throat he threatens to slit. Corwin, unseen, gets close enough to turn the Jewel against him, but loses control when Brand slashes Deirdre’s face. The distraction enables Deirdre to create a clear shot, which is taken by the knight in green, who shoots Brand in the chest with a silver arrow. Brand falls into the abyss, with the Jewel, but his clutching hand grabs Deirdre’s hair, and he drags her with him.
The knight in green turns out to be Caine. His ‘death’ was a cover: he killed a near-Shadow version of himself to go underground, trying to locate the threat to Amber. It was he who stabbed Corwin, being then convinced he was working with Brand.
The battle is over and Amber has won, but the chaos-wave that has spread through the former Shadows on Oberon’s death (like the Anti-Monitor’s antimatter wave in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and who’s to say Wolfman and Perez weren’t inspired by this) and threatens to sweep over everyone. It’s progress halts to allow the passage of Oberon’s funeral cortege, for interment in the Courts, where he was born.
No sooner is it gone when the Unicorn rises from the abyss, with the Jewel of Judgement on its Horn… She delivers it to the new King, the youngest brother, Random.
An absolutely exhausted Corwin enables Random to attune himself to the Jewel, and watches as the new King causes the storm to flow around, not over them. Shadow lies behind it: Oberon successfully repaired the Pattern and Amber has survived. Only now there are two Patterns…
Corwin is introduced to the young, dark-haired man he briefly encountered at the Courts in Oberon, who let him leave unscathed. This is Merlin, raised and trained to be King in Amber once the city was reduced. Like his father he does not want to be King but rather to explore Shadow. His mother is Dara. His father is Corwin. With nothing more pressing to do, Corwin starts to tell him a story starting in a private hospital after a car accident.
The final chapter has Corwin considering his family, both dead and alive: who they were, what they are, those who have changed, those who have not. He and Merlin rise to ride into the Courts of Chaos.

US Edition

So the sequence was over. It had been a big and popular success for Zelazny and transformed his career. There was every reason why it should have: Amber/Chaos and the infinitely mutable Shadows between is a major conception, allowing unending variety. It fascinated me forty-odd years ago, enough to overlook what are now obvious glaring flaws to the modern me. Nor has the series fared well in face of the changing nature of the best fantasy fiction now (I have to say the best as I don’t read anywhere near enough to generalise). It did the kind of things fantasy did then, and did it mostly energetically, and it’s not like Zelazny was unique in cutting the legs from under his creation by being unable to go the whole hog and write clear medieval High Fantasy instead of stuffing in scientific and mundane earthly material.
The Courts is, as I’ve already said, about Corwin’s extended ride to the battle and the dramatic conclusion. The initial, set-up chapters come over as the product of an author itching to get at the good stuff. The opening chapter, replaying the Corwin/Benedict swordfight in Tir Na Nog’th, serves to introduce Dara to Amber (with one final revisionist twist as she’s now a quasi-ally, trusted by Oberon) but is otherwise otiose. It’s easy to understand the chain of manipulation that retrieves the mechanical arm, gets it to Benedict and he to the point where it’s the only effective weapon, though it requires some incredibly precise and in places highly implausible foreseeing of causality, but the point of then removing so highly effective a device is lost on me.
Similarly, since Dara and Corwin’s son Merlin is being groomed to rule in Amber, and Oberon has determined on Corwin as the interim King, it’s easy to construct a rationale for she who said, “Amber will be destroyed” at least semi-swapping sides. Though this introduces an unresolvable contradiction given that if Oberon is so foresighted as to set up the mechanical arm, howcum he can’t tell that Corwin no longer wants the throne?
No matter: their last conversation is only there to set up the scheme for the rest of the book. The actual hellride aspect is comparatively brief, all sentence fragments and geographical/ meteorological changes with oneirological logic, no different from any other hellride we’ve already read and as boring as all of them except maybe the first, and then we have a long long ride with obstacles.
Apart from Brand’s attacks, Zelazny populates the obstacles with scenes drawn from various mythologies: Irish, Arthurian, Norse, undercutting the potential power of each with flip, cynical responses from our narrator. There’s an argument to say that long journeys are irrelevant when the only thing that matters is the point of arrival. That’s far from being always true – Genly Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness springs vividly to mind – but the only significance to this journey is that it exhausts Corwin to the point where he cannot go further. The actual incidents are largely meaningless and most could be swapped for other scenes without any practical difference, but in their defence they lead to the book’s best – indeed, the series’ best – chapter, the inscribing of a new Pattern. This is powerful, intense and yet meditative, and for once the largely Earth-oriented imagery of Paris 1905, in the golden days before the Great War, romantic rather than mundane, lends the piece a very distinct flavour.
It is, of course, Corwin’s finest moment, an inevitable step, and one that I believe was nowhere near Zelazny’s mind before the conclusion of Avalon.
After that, the victory over the Courts could easily have been an anticlimax so full credit to Zelazny for making sure it was not. Brand’s death coming from elsewhere in the family was a skilful extension of the Frodo-esque ending of Corwin’s ride, and the death of Deirdre, with whom Corwin was in love, full-sister or no full-sister is intended to demonstrate the devastation Brand has caused, and to give our hero something he loses.
For me, that falls a little flat in its impact. Corwin’s told us, often enough, of his feelings for Deirdre (though nothing of her feelings towards him), but the Prince in Amber’s innate cynicism and aversion to sentimentalism of any kind, spelt out often enough, makes every such moment so brief as to be prime Tell-not-Show and we see far too little of Deirdre to form any real idea of her as a person to be liked, respected or loved (ok, we discover she fights with an axe), so we cannot feel at her loss the way we ought to and Zelazny wants us to.
Two final things: the decision of the Unicorn to select Random, the runt of the litter, the youngest of the Princes, may have been intended to be a surprise, but Zelazny has done so much building up of him as a right-hand man in the last three books that he becomes the only sane choice.
And the choice of Merlin, as the person to whom Corwin relates the books we’ve been reading, becomes only logical and correct by the time we get to this point but, pointing this out for the last time, I would swear that this is not who Zelazny intended as the auctor throughout the first two books, nor victory and survival the setting for the telling of this tale.
So that’s the First Chronicle, the Corwin Cycle. After a short interlude, to discuss philosophy and the development of a writer’s career, we shall turn to the Second Chronicles, the Merlin Cycle.

Person of Interest: s03 e22 – A House Divided

Penultimate episodes are a pure pain on Person of Interest: I just want to crash straight through to the last episode. But when you’re doing a weekly blog, simulating the effect of watching the series in real time, that sort of thing is forbidden.

This is incomplete, this is so incomplete. It’s like climbing a mountain in the daylight and reaching the summit as night falls and you cannot see the way down. There are many ways down but until you set foot on one – until you discover if there is one on which you can set your foot – you cannot know what your climb has been.

There were four big pieces to this incomplete puzzle. Piece one was what turned Peter Brandt, who knows calls himself Peter Collier, into the leader of Vigilance. Piece one was flashbacks to four years before, 2010, to the sudden and inexplicable arrest of Brandt’s older brother Jesse, a terrorist subject identified by, we assume, The Machine. Held without charge or trial, Jesse kills himself (or does he?) but his ‘terrorist’ contact is a man he sponsored through AA (or is he?) Peter Brandt saw his brother destroyed by the Government, Someone offered him answers. Four years later he’s on the cusp of Vigilance’s greatest coup.

Piece two was Harold Finch and John Greer, the one the prisoner of the other. Finch and Greer debate philosophies with increasing confidence, but unavailingly. When Samaritan wakes up, creating that ideal world of just Governance that doesn’t sleep with its secretary or fiddle its expenses (is Greer serious about this eyewash? he’s on more believable grunds when he talks abut power), Harold Finch will be killed.

Pieces three and four got mixed up with each other by both containing Root. Three returning characters, Numbers previously rescued (Daniel Casey, Jason Greenfield and Daizo from ‘RAM’, ‘Mors Praematura’ and ‘Root Path’ respectively), have been assembled by Root to do things with the Samaritan servers she stole that will slow it down.

Meanwhile, Root pulls Reese and Shaw away from hunting for Finch to deal with a set of five new numbers. Three of these turn out to be Control, Senator Garrison, Manuel Rivera (the President’s bulldog) who are meeting to try to sell the President on renting Samaritan from Decima. A fourth is a Vigilance agent with a machine gun in a coffee shop whose actual relevance to the plot gets lost in passing.

What also isn’t explained is how Vigilance knows of two things: Control’s meeting (which ends in she and Rivera being taken by Decima, despite Shaw’s unwilling attempt to stop them), and where Greer is holding Finch: they’re taken too.

Meanwhile, there’s a stand-off between Reese and Shaw on one side and Hersh on the other, resulting in their decision to work together. But they’re all too late. Piece three ends with Root planning to enter where Samaritan is housed with the servers and a marginal chance of surviving. Piece four ends with the beginning, Peter Collier as Prosecutor, Vigilance as judged, putting the United States government on trial, live on the internet. We know that utcome already: Guilty and Execution. Five defendants: Control, Rivera, Garrison, Greer… and Harold Finch.

Seven days can’t pass fast enough.

The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Let Me In’

It surprised me to realise that, after one hundred posts under this title, I have yet to feature a track by R.E.M., my favourite band for nearly half my life. And it’s equally strange that the song that’s inspired me to write about should be off one of my least favourite R.E.M. albums of all time.
Monster was released in 1994, and a mate of mine and I went to see the band touring it at what was then the MacAlpine Stadium, the newly-built (still only three-sided) home of Huddersfield Town.
It was a blazing hot July afternoon and, in order not to fry/dehydrate completely, we took seats in the shade of the stand at the Town End, whilst the stage was set up at the open end, down the length of the ground.
To be honest, of the seven R.E.M. gigs I saw down the years, this was the least entertaining, in part from the distance we were from the band, but more for the songs they were showcasing. Monster was a deliberate reaction to the mainly acoustic music the band had made over the past two albums, and so the sound was deliberately loud, dirty, heavy, aggressive and, overall, a bit one-note. I won’t say it made the album monotonous, but unvaried would be an apt word.
So what makes ‘Let Me In’ stand out above, not only its fellow songs on this album but all the others they recorded? And why has it come to mind now? 2019 saw the 25th Anniversary of Monster and a special edition CD was issued, in two disc and five disc formats. The latter includes a complete remix of the album, which clarifies its deliberately thick and semi-distorted sound in a way that gives the album a more interesting sound overall to me.
But ‘Let Me In’ has undergone more changes than a mere remix. This was always the song that stood out for me. It was the famous song about the recently deceased Kurt Cobain, and Michael Stipe’s efforts to contact him, to offer help. It wasn’t the only slow-paced song on the album, but it was the only one of the three to be dominated by Peter Buck’s guitar, a swirl of sound, thick and woozy, feedback-drenched, in which individual notes and chords are indistinguishable, with Stipe’s vocals buried in the middle of the mix yet escaping plaintively, to plead ‘let me in’.
What he sings struggles to be heard, in its semi-abstract, abstruse form. The only clarity is that plea, a forlorn cry for help from Stipe even as it’s a cry to help, the urge to bridge the gap to Cobain as he entered the final phase of drowning in his own life.
And there in the middle of the song an organ begins to echo the melody in Stipe’s voice, a simple, one-finger two-finger, underlying the words. Until Stipe’s oak-smoked voice rises into the falsetto and the organ begins to spin out of the drench of sound, until the voice that has failed to deliver the help it so desperately wanted to deliver and which can only now mourn is supplanted by it, swirling the melody, soaring yet despairing, taking the lead until the song finally fades into silence. If I were not already drawn deeply into ‘Let Me In’, this coda completes the spell. Like Stipe but without the articulation it is the summation of the regret for what could not be done, a threnody using the minimal melody of the song to draw us into the ultimate sorrow.
The remix does many things. It separates the instruments, it releases Stipe’s voice from its half-hidden place, it brings it out into the open freeing the words for clear perception, it reduces the blur and thickness of the sound, and these are all things that, musically, I have always preferred, and which in that sense does enhance ‘Let Me In’. Yet it also removes the organ, removes the tambourine, distances the guitar, making the performance a thing of guitars only, arranged as a supplement to Stipe’s voice rather than its prison. And that diminishes the song even as it’s turned into a better vessel for Stipe’s singing.
It takes out the pain, and this is a song about pain.
And though it’s not in my nature to prefer such a sound, this once it is the thick sound, the blur and the entanglement, the inability to distinguish what Buck is playing, that is the true sound of what R.E.M. meant in recording this.
You’d expect the organ to be the work of Mike Mills but on the tribute video it is played, painstakingly, by Peter Buck. But who cares really? Let ‘Let Me In’ be the enigma it was meant to be, concealing its answers. Let it reach directly into the heart. Let It In.

Film 2020: A New York Winter’s Tale

Many years ago, when I was passionately interested in the works of Jonathan Carroll, a friend with similar interests advised me that Carroll recommended the works of Mark Helprin, an American writer who doesn’t appear to have even been published over here, let alone built a reputation.

Nevertheless, Waterstones had a more than decent import book section in those days, with a selection of Helprin, so I gave it a go. I can’t remember what I first read but I had four or so books at one point, including two of short stories, that I read and enjoyed, but the only one I’ve kept was the vast and sprawling, century-spanning Winter’s Tale (no connection with the late Shakespeare play), a story set in a superficially mundane New York, shot through with a heavy dose of South American magic realism.

After many years of attempts to bring the film to the screen – Martin Scorsese refused the Director’s role, calling the book unfilmable – writer and first time Director Akiva Goldsman achieved this in 2014, painting the film as a love story which, in one of its aspects, it is. I say achieved rather than succeeded, as the film was not a success, either commercially or artistically, and it is held in generally poor regard, which was why I didn’t go to see it in the cinema when it was released. For some reason, in Britain and Ireland, the film was re-titled A New York Winter’s Tale.

Of necessity, the film shrinks the book, excluding many things, amongst them one major character and story strand. Any kind of quasi-faithfulness to the story would be better served by a tv series of at least four episodes and a Game of Thrones-style budget. It emphasises the spinal story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), Beverley Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), set primarily in the Twentieth Century New York.

Peter Lake is a thief (middle-aged in the book, late-twenties here). A foundling set sail in a toy boat for America by immigrant parents refused access, Peter has grown into a master-burglar under the tutelage of gang boss Pearly but, having broken away from him, is now a target to be killed by Pearly’s omnipresent gang. Peter is rescued from certain death by a splendid white horse, appearing out of nowhere, that he calls Horse, but which is Athansor, a Guardian Angel.

Athansor leads Peter to rob the house of millionaire newspaper publisher Isaac Penn. The only person in residence is Penn’s elder daughter, Beverley, aged 21, who is dying of consumption and burning with fevers. She sleeps in a pavilion on the roof in winter, to stay cool, she is so hot that snow melts under her bare feet. She and Peter fall in love almost immediately.

Beverley has, at least, months to go. But here is where the film starts to lose its already tenuous grip. It began with a voiceover from Findlay about each of us being different, each of us containing a miracle that only we can perform, after which we become a star (as in a heavenly body as opposed to star and stage). It puts the film on a dodgy footing to begin with but now it rocks uncontrollably. Pearly is not merely an unusually cruel and hard gang boss, he is actually a demon from Hell, exchanged for fleshly form in order to frustrate miracles and blacken lives, to tip the balance their way (though it does’t seem to be working).

Peter Lake is, unknowingly, an agent of the other side, which is why he must die, and Beverley is his miracle: he will make her live. So, to destroy Peter, Pearly plans to kill Beverley. Peter, on Athansor, rides in to rescue her, which is only possible because Athansor, when he chooses, can unfold gigantic angel’s wings, made of light, and fly away.

He delivers her to her father’s home at Lake of the Coheeries in upstate New York, where Pearly cannot go, being bound to the Five Boroughs. The Lake is a quasi-mystical place in the book but substantially downplayed in the film, a wise decision on a practical basis, given it would need unwieldy exposition to fully introduce on film, but inconsistent with Goldsman’s decision to make Pearly a demon instead of just evil.

Anyway, he doesn’t have to leave New York, but call in a marker from another demonic gangboss whose turf includes Lake of the Coheeries. Beverley’s drink is poisoned: when she and Peter Lake make love for the first and only time, she dies in his arms (but not before she gets her one and only orgasm: there’s nice for you).

After Beverley’s funeral, Peter Lake returns to New York, allows Pearly to find him, sends Athansor away, is head-butted five times and thrown in the river to drown. Instead, he survives without a memory and lives for ninety-eight years physically unchanged.

Here’s another example of Goldsman’s inconsistency. The book has Peter and Athansor escaping by flying into a great grey cloudbank, wherein Peter loses his memory, returning to New York in the future of publication, 1983, to play out his final role, to fulfil his miracle in Beverley-speak. Instead, we get a mundane explanation for amnesia (the headbutts) and the idea that Peter Lake has lived almost a century without an identity or a memory (not even of the last ninety-eight years) or nobody spotting he isn’t growing old . By minimising the fantastical aspects of the book, Goldsman is setting up something he hasn’t got the means to handle, even if he saw it at all.

Pearly and Lucifer are still around, but that’s alright, they’re demons (and Lucifer is Will Smith, by the way). But Goldsman has made a rod for his own back when Peter Lake starts recovering his memory, aided by journalist Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) because Beverely’s little sister Willa (who was 10 in 1916) is still around, alive, and physically and mentally active (she’s also played by a now elderly Eve Marie Saint), despite being nearly 110 years old. The time-gap in the book was only 67 years and therefore believable.

The ending is confused. Lucifer reprimands Pearly for focussing on Peter Lake not Beverley: he was her miracle, her love made him immortal. Pearly wants revenge so badly that he is allowed to become fully mortal. This allows him to pursue Peter, Virginia and her ten year old daughter Abby (who has terminal cancer) to Lake of the Coheeries, but it makes him vulnerable to a final death, which Peter administers. By now he knows: Beverley was not his Miracle, instead it’s Abby. He’s stayed alive to save her life, which he does, curing her in some unseen and unexplained manner (with one almighty bound…).

The film concludes wth Peter and Athansor riding off into the sky to become stars over another rapturous and New Age nonsensical monolgue from Beverely. Read the book, people.

Having said that, though the film is poor, and much of the acting is cursed with an artificiality derived from the dialogue, it has its moments and its emotions, even if these come from the viewer and not the cast. It’s odd to see Will Smith playing his small part dead straight, whilst Russell Crowe is allowed to go OTT for most of the film’s length, but that is part of the film’s mode. It is neither fish, fowl nor good red meat, and shows no signs of understanding it would be better to chose one of these, let alone which is best for it. The best that can be said for it is that it’s got me wondering how soon I can read the book again.

A Manchester Expedition

I don’t usually categorise my monthly trips into Manchester City Centre as Expeditions but, in the current climate, they feel like the exception rather than the rule: I doubt I’ll be going further afield for some time. Buttermere in July or thereabouts might be over-optimistic.

There isn’t much to go out for anyway. I’m seldom there more than a couple of hours. It’s a for-once stress free ride in on the 203, whose driver was kind enough to wait at the stop for me as I struggled to ‘run’ with my right knee gypping me badly.

Town was still crowded but the crowds were much thinned out from the normal. My inexpert eye suggested maybe a third down, but I got to a cashpoint with no queuing, and I walked unhindered through the normal squash-points on Oldham street

There are usually three stops. There’s the big Oxfam Shop on Oldham Street where I comb the second-hand DVDs, which are now 99p or two for £1.49. They had the complete Third Season of Breaking Bad which, for all its reputation, I have never seen. I wouldn’t (and won’t) start with Season 3 (right now I haven’t got the free time to start season 1), but for 99p it’s the basis to start a collection.

The main reason for my visit was going to Forbidden Planet. They had two of my regular order reserved for me, but I’d hoped to pick up the first issue of a new, 12-issue series by Tom King that appeared last week. Hoever, it’s sold out both at Planet and its nearer, newer rival, Travelling Light.

So I went across the road to Pizza Hut where I was seated immediately, though that proved nothing about the crowds or otherwise, because the times I go, it’s very rare I have to wait. A leisurely tuna and red onion pizza later, I set off back. Incidentally, for the first time in years, I was not offered a free salad bowl. Is this a sign of the times, or a slip by a young and sweet-faced server?

There was a disturbing and disgusting gathering in Piccadilly Gardens, some white thugs ‘exposing’ Muslim Grooming Predators. I bet they weren’t saying anything about the far more prevalent White Grooming Predators, but then truth and reality have never played any part in racism. Bastards.

On the way home, I stopped off at the Gorton Tescos. I didn’t need much and I didn’t venture among the pasta and toilet rolls but I didn’t see any signs of locusts stripping shelves where I shopped and I had to go almost all the way round the store.

Waiting at the bus stop outside, I noticed a group of children playing silly buggers at the traffic lights, on a busy four-lane traffic artery, with one boy, who can’t have been more than ten years old deliberately running across in front of traffic. It’s at times like that that some of the forgotten practices of the Fifties that we don’t usually endorse need reviving, because back then, half a dozen blokes and housewives would have grabbed them, given them a swift belt round the ear and told them to bugger off home before they got themselves killed.

Thirty seconds later, I’m gathering my bag when there’s a cry from two of the other people in the queue, blokes who would have been ear-belting when I was that age. The boy had come within two seconds of being knocked down and killed and I was not looking, which in its way is the best things that happened during this ‘Expedition’. I shalln’t be going out again until Sunday.


I’m going to say this now, before anything of the sort might happen and I appear to be insincere.

As a Manchester United fan, I had to experience my team going 26 years without a Championship. In 1990, our deep and bitter rivals Liverpool began a similar drought. The one thing I wanted was for theirs to last longer than ours and in 2016 I got my wish. I’d have liked that to continue indefinitely, but there’s no denying – even if there is regretting – that they’re going to be worthy Champions any time now. I’m resigned to it, and I’m happy to settle for thirty years.

The coronavirus has changed everything. There’s been mocking anticipation already about Liverpool’s inevitable progression being kicked in the fact by the possibility that the Premier League season will be voided. Thirty years ag, I’d probably have joined in that.

There’s an emergency meeting this morning of the Premier League to decide what to do abut the rest of the season. Suspension is pretty much inevitable, especially given the number of cases already affecting clubs. Some are saying that it’s a distinct possibility that the season will indeed be voided, and count for nothing.

Here’s my two’pennorth: Don’t. Suspend it by all means, safety demands it. But don’t void it. Nobody deserves to have something so long awaited denied them by what amounts to a dirty trick. I remember what it felt like back in 1993 and I don’t want even Scousers deprived of that for anything but events on the pitch. Susppend, yes. Catch-up, yes. But vid?