The Infinite Jukebox: Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’

Some people have claimed Steppenwolf as the progenitors of Heavy Metal. It’s a serious charge but on the strength of their best known track, ‘Born to be Wild’, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and acquit them. Besides, ‘Born to be Wild’ has too much of a melody to ever be a forerunner of Heavy Metal.
‘Born to be Wild’ was another of those songs that regularly got tracked into Radio 1 shows as a Golden Oldie, to the extent that, when I got my first book of Chart Music (Simon Frith’s Chart Files, summarising the Top Twenty from 1955 to 1969), I was flabbergasted to discover that the band didn’t feature anywhere. But it got that airplay because of its distinctive, aggressive sound and it’s rebel lyrics, and I suppose you have to give credence to the progenitor argument if only because the song includes the term ‘Heavy Metal’ early in the lyrics – it’s first appearance in music – though the predominant organ sound looks to a different tradition.
Oh, what the hell, does it matter who calls this what? It’s a classic piece of music, a song of power and massive appeal, the sound of wanting to be free to do your own thing, to reject rules and regulations and the suburban ways of life and just get out there on the road, free and alone, just you and your motor-cycle, and the band fit the perfect sound to singer John Kay’s snap and snarl and that glorious howl of the title line.
Get your motor running, it begins. Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure. And whatever comes our way. It’s an immediate statement of intent and the band hits it at pace, the riff already striking, the organ squealing between each line.
Yeah darling, gonna make it happen, catch the world in a love embrace. Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.
This is the point in a lesser song that the chorus line would break in but, in a touch of genius the band withhold it, preferring to rush into a second verse, that praises the sound and feel of the bike (the line about heavy metal thunder is meant to refer to its roar) racing with the wind and the feeling that I’m under.
Yeah darling, again, but this time the song bursts forward, building towards its peak. What Kay and the band are doing, their rejection of the world we others occupy, comes from within. They are the true nature’s child, they were born, born to be wild and being wild they can climb so high, they never wanna die…
And in that moment, everything stills except for the residue of Kay’s growl and the sensation of the organ, for a pause that is brief but infinite, until Kay throws back his head and hollers into the wind, with a howl that is proclamation and supplication in one: Born to be Wild, his voice caressing the last word and refusing to let it go, and the guitar screams out its riff in a tone like the earth splitting, Born to be Wild, and the band career in with a searing, juddering organ solo that scorches the tarmac until the song collects itself again, and begins anew its assault: get your motor running…
We run through the first verse again, and that bridge, until Kay throws back his head again, and everyone who listens to this throws back their head, either in voice or metaphorically, and tries to emulate that imperishable line: Born to be Wild, as if we could sound like that or live like that, except in those regions of the imagination that this song reaches into and incarnates.
‘Born to be Wild’ isn’t just a song, it’s a statement. It’s sound is the sound of its lyrics. Would you believe, could you imagine that this was originally written as an acoustic ballad by a guy who was the drummer’s brother and who went under the stage name of Mars Bonfire? Steppenwolf’s version is a classic example of seeing things in a song that it’s composer couldn’t, of tearing it down and building it up differently, of making it into a thing of beauty and a rush forever. And it has a fierceness that nowadays is wasted on things that don’t matter worth a damn.
Never wanna die? The song has already done that for you.

Sunday Watch: The Office – s01 e01&02 – Downsize/Work Experience

Where do I start?

It’s twenty years since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant brought The Office into the world and I, like millions of others, watched it with my mouth hanging open in an unpredictable mixture of shock, embarrassment and horrified laughter. I was instantly convinced that I was in the presence of greatness, that just as everyone regarded Fawlty Towers with awe as one of the greatest comedies of our times, so too would The Office be seen as one of the undisturbable greats. Given the way Ricky Gervais has conducted his career since, it’s not quite worked out like that, but you should always be ready to draw a line between the work and the creator, and The Office is still a work of genius. Not just because of Gervais and Merchant, but because of everybody, to the least important background figure: sometimes people just get it right.

When it comes to sitcoms on a Sunday morning, my usual aim is three episodes at a go. The Office is so intense that that’s just not on. When the series has your toes curling and your eyes fervently wishing to look somewhere else after the opening scene, you can’t manage more than two at a time.

As everyone ought to already know, the show takes the form of a mockumentary. It’s supposed to be a BBC documentary, a fly-on-the-wall look at life in a medium-sized office. The company is Wernham Hogg, the branch is situated on the Slough Trading Estate, the company manufactures and sells paper, and the theme music was the inspired resurrection of Mike d’Abo’s unforgivably overlooked Sixties song, ‘Handbags and Gladrags’.

The form is followed immaculately. We simply watch the men and women of Slough Branch going about their daily business, intercut with headshot interviews in which they explain themselves. Four figures stand out. In ascending order these are the receptionist, Dawn Tinsley, played by Lucy Davis, Sales rep Tim Martin, a first starring role for Martin Freeman, team leader Gareth Keenan, a similar debut for MacKenzie Crook, and Branch Manager David Brent, Ricky Gervais himself.

David Brent is one of those utterly perfect creations. Basil Fawlty is an obvious example. So too is Alf Garnett. We believe in them completely, no matter how little we want to. They are monsters, monsters from whom we would run, as far and fast as our little legs can carry us if we met them in real life but whom, safe by means of the glass screen between us and them, we watch. Ricky Gervais was born to be David Brent. After twenty years I’m still not sure if that really is a compliment.

The first series introduced its underlying theme, its narrative purpose, quite quickly. Jennifer Taylor-Clark (the lovely, dark-haired Stirling Gallagher) drops in from Head Office for a meeting for which Brent has conspicuously failed to prepare. The company can no longer justify keeping open branches in Slough and Swindon. One will have to take over the other. There will be redundancies. Brent here, and Neil at Swindon, are effectively thrown into competition to see which branch will live to absorb the other.

We already know which manager will be best, even though we haven’t met Neil, and won’t in series 1. It’s enough to see David Brent to know all we need to know. We don’t even need to get to episode 2, in which he lies to Jennifer about firing a non-existent worker, can’t bring himself to apologise for a wholly unjustified accusation made against Tim and pretends to fire his best mate, Finchy, over the phone by dialling the Speaking Clock. We don’t even need to get to episode 1’s hideous final scene when, to impress new temp Ricky Howard (Oliver Chris) with a practical joke, he ‘fires’ Dawn for stealing (post-it notes, of all things). We only need the opening scene to paint a picture of a monster, an empty, hollow man, with qualities or abilities, without the ability to understand a single thing about other people, desperate to stand out because he is a total absence, determined to come over as fun, clever, with-it, intelligent, cool, popular but revealing in every word his complete inaptnress for everything.

David Brent is pathetic. And a monster. He is horrifically embarrassing. You laugh at him in nervousness, you cannot believe what he says and does and you wait in terror for what he will say and do next because you know that whatever it is it will be worse, that it will dig ever deeper the pit into which he has not so much fallen as flung himself into, dioing a triple-salko on the way down, under the impression that he is rising skyward as a beacon in the darkness.

Of course you can’t make David Brent the sole focus of a sitcom: the paper on which the script is printed out would start to crisp at the edges and burn is shame before anyone could read a line. You have to build a world round him and that world has to be simultaneously the absurd exaggeration Brent is and recognisable and realistic. Brent is a real figure, we’ve all met David Brents, he’s just an overload of all their characteristics and no relieving factors. But by making his environment mundane and straightforward, carefully measuring the degrees by which its characters mix eccentricity with human dimensions, Brent is anchored and thus more convincing.

There’s Gareth. Gareth is Brent junior in that he’s equally detached from reality, and convinced of a superiority over those around him that is laughable as the aims at glory that mark his little life. With his pudding bowl haircut, his semi-whining pretence at authority, his complete lack of any sense of humour, Gareth is in his way a monster, except that he will never possess the capacity to harm anyone.

Besides, he has to sit next to Tim. Tim is, of all things, sane. Or as sane as anyone can be, working under Brent and alongside Gareth, whose ‘authority’ he refuses to acknowledge exists in the same Universe. In his own way, Tim is every bit as off balance as anyone else but that’s because he’s been driven to it by the combination of his boredom with his job, his lack of drive to find anything better and the need to torment Gareth that stems from just knowing him. His habit of putting Gareth’s stapler into a jelly is a magnificantly surreal touch.

And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see,

And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see, Dawn’s engaged, to Lee in the warehouse. Lee’s a monster in his own right, we will see in later episodes, but he’s a much more real monster, not an eccentric.

Tim likes Dawn and is attracted to her. Dawn likes Tim, enjoys his gentle company. There’s more to it than that, but not yet in this first two episodes. But without words, indeed inarticulately in an episode 2 scene where Lee is waiting for Dawn, Martin Freeman nails it by his inability to thoink of anything to say to Lee. Tim’s in love. Tin’s a loser. And Martin Freeman is for my money the most real actor I’ve seen in the last twenty years. He is solid and believable no matter who or what he is. And that started here, as Tim. There’s a scene, not in either of today’s episodes but much later, where he is so believable that he will become me in a moment of recognition.

But that’s not for today. I’ll be back at Wernham Hogg from time to time. David Brent will be waiting, a monster preserved in aspic. A bit like Gareth’s stapler, really.

The Monocled Mutineer: e03 – When the Hurly-Burly’s Done


Continuing my comments about structure from last week, whilst I enjoyed the third episode of Alan Bleasedale’s adaptation, I found the episode to be poorly assembled, blurring its own focus.

To repeat my points, episode 1 was about setting up Percy Toplis and episode 2 about setting up the Etaples Mutiny. Episode 3, therefore, should have been about the prolongation of the Mutiny and its ultimate outcome, showing Percy getting involved in the negotiations over the mutineers’ goals and establishing him as a ringleader wanted for reprisals by the military and the Government, with episode 4 concentrating upon the aftermath. About three-quarters of episode 3 was about Etaples, but Bleasedale started early on Toplis’s post-War life and established Secret Service Agent Woodhall (Philip McGough) as his implacable pursuer.

By mingling the two phases in one episode, Bleasedale unfortunately diffused the effect of his primary subject.

We picked up things in the immediate aftermath of the riot/rebellion. The mutineers are enjoying their new-found freedom for what it is, but only a few of them have the sense to realise that this is and can only be temporary. The Army, as represented on the ground by General Thomson (Timothy West, still splendid), are rigid in their defiance: Jack is not, cannot be and never will be as good as his master. Bring in the cavalry, that’s all that’s wanted, regular troops, horses. cold steel will drive the rabble back to their duties under Thomson’s complete contempt.

But though we all know that ‘Order’ will be restored, and the Training Camp will return to normal, and more vicious than before, the mere fact of the Mutiny has changed things irrevocably. Thomson is finished, He’s drinking more, and more often, desperate to try to keep things under control and low-key. There’s a maudlin scene with his Executive Officer, Guiness (Anthony Calf, later of New Tricks) where he explains about once being liberal and ghenerous in his attitude to Officer Cadets, only to berated publicly in front of them, their families and friends, by Sir John French, and transferred almost immediately. This is meant to explain his rigid attitude to us, and I think to make him sympathetic, but in the first instance I found it too ,mechanical and in the second a flop. Thomson is rigid until the last second but is forced, by manipulation, to sign his agreement to the Mutineers’ demands, finishing his career completely, only to learn that, my mere minutes (and the uncooperative Guiness’s refusal to chase after him with a message) that he need not have conceded at all.

Thomson’s the only major holdover from last week’s Establishment trinity. Strachan has been broken completely. We get one scene of him holed up, scared, under his MP’s guard, eating and drinking and obviously uncaring: he transfers out offstage, at his own request. And Lady Angela Forbes is sent home from France, without a chance to say goodbye, just like that. She is the balance: Strachan has gone so a piece of equal size and weight must also be removed from the board as a face-saver, whether she be his equivalent or not.

But what of Percy Toplis in all this? He’s wearing the uniform of a Gordon Highlander, enjoying the mayhem, his usual ‘it’s all bollocks’ self. Percy’s gift, or more likely curse for his time and place, is that he’s much too smart. He knows it’s going nowhere. He knows the Mutineers have no real idea about tactics or strategy so, out of sheer devilment, and the love of stiring things up, the fun of manipulation, he starts advising the lads on what to do and how to handle things. He brings Thomson to the negotiating table, he advises everyone to cover their faces, to avoid reprisals, and he’s the one, when Thomson expresses his contempt of the men as cowards, who pulls down his scarf to show his face.

Which shows more devilry than good sense. Percy becomes a marked man. Why should he worry? He can disappear into being an officer any time he wants. But Woodhall is tracking him down and arrests him, only for Percy to escape from the Glasshouse and eventually to England.

Which is where the episode loses concentration. We jump to Derbyshire in 1918, the month before the Armistice. Percy transforms into an officer again to pick up an attractive woman whose car has broken down. She is Dorothy, a War widow who lives in a big house but who has secrets in her past (probably that she’s flat broke). As ‘Johnny’. Percy seduces her which, as she’s the sweet and lovely Cherie Lunghi, is far from being a hardship. The two have started a relationship, but Woodhall is not far behind…

The freeze-frame is here a bit melodramatic, but it ewill all play out in the final episode, next week.

It’s still a lot of bolloclks and generally, though the standard of performances is high – one of Percy’s mates, Franny, is being played by Jerome Flynn, and I don’t even turn my nose up at him – and I’m biassed in Bleasedale’s favour, now that historical information about the real Percy Toplis, pictured above, and the competing claims about the Etaples Mutiny are freely available, the series loses a lot of credibility over how it plays fast and loose with the facts. Percy himself has been glossed over and made sympathetic beyond his real characteristics and whilst the series as a whole is thematically and dramatically ‘true’, it’s basing in an actual incident that has been so luridly treated dimishes it. Based on a true story? Let Percy Toplis tell you about that.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist – Part 10

89: Story name: The Special Orders – 1998 ***
Location: East coast of Thailand – Rosie Ling’s Yang Shan cargo boat – MB’s London penthouse – WG’s “Treadmill” pub – Min Feng (small island 20 miles from Bua Nan).
Villain: Rosie Ling; James Nagle-Green.
Other characters: Pira (cocky Thai employee of Rosie Ling); Captain Rocha (of the Yang Shan); Samantha (Sam) Brown; Saragam (MB’s mentor, originally from Cambodia, now living in Thailand); Fain (Saragam’s granddaughter, a young nurse); Del (Tarrant’s man in Bangkok); Mei Lu (Thai girl captive whom Sam befriends); Mr Hata (wealthy business man whose daughter had been snatched three years before); Mr Wu Smith; Mark and Hannah Turner (husband and wife overseeing the judo club visit to Thailand); Weng.
Body count: 1, possibly 2
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed; MB wearing a crop-top, bare shoulders.
Who kills who? : Rosie shoots Pira, her Thai employee who is cheating by taking his own 50% extra cut when selling girls to clients. The body is dumped at sea as a warning to others in her entourage. One of Rosie’s crew tried to stop the girls’ escape from the ship, only to be drop-kicked by Sam into the sea, when the girls battered him with an oar. We presume he drowned.
: Vice ring caper. Based on her ship Yang Shan, Rosie Ling and her English personal assistant, Nagle-Green, deal in ‘special orders’, young girls of various nationalities specific to the requests of her wealthy clients. She has two very young Indian girls, others from Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong or Macau, but her latest request, from a man named Sumartra, is for a young English girl. Nagle-Green selects 15 year old Sam Brown, in Bangkok with the London East End judo club, to meet MB’s martial arts mentor Saragam, and his granddaughter Fain. Sam is kidnapped and knocked out with chloroform, following a fake ‘drowning accident’. Rosie Ling then pretends to have ‘rescued’ her, which Sam realises is a ruse, but she, in turn, pretends to act dumb, and grateful. Meantime, MB and WG, alerted to Sam’s disappearance, fly to Thailand, where they met Del, Tarrant’s local agent, and are offered help from Mr Hata (a rich businessman and friend of Saragam), whose daughter was taken three years previous, and has vowed revenge. When Rosie Ling’s ship moors off a small island to pick up another young girl, Sam is able to access the ship’s radio and get a message to Weng in London, then speak to MB and WG, giving her location. Despite MB’s objection, she then planned to take the captive girls (all young, and of various nationalities) with her by dinghy to the island. MB and WG parachute down to the island, and, when Rosie’s men come ashore to re-capture the runaway girls, WG blows up their boat. After that MB and WG take out the men, one by one, but before they can make the next move against remaining crew onboard the ship, Mr Hata arrives by helicopter and uses tear-gas to subdue Rosie and Nagle-Green, and the remaining crew. Rosie still tries to buy her freedom by offering money or a partnership, but Hata tells her he is already rich, and she had better start to remember where his daughter is. At best, she faces 30 years in a Thai jail. MB and WG find Sam and the girls holed up in a fortified abandoned temple. Given how grown-up she now is, WG is suddenly apprehensive about hugging Sam. MB and Sam have a laugh and Sam has a weep on her shoulder instead, before calling WG “daft”.
Critical comments: This is Sam Brown’s third and final appearance, after “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88) and “Ivory Dancer” (1992). She is no longer a young child, but aged 15, and a very competent, feisty teenager. When MB mentions Sam to Sir Gerald, following her disappearance in Thailand, he immediately associates her with “helping save my godson’s wife”, Stefan Kolin’s wife Lucy in the 1987/88 story. However, later in the story, when our heroes land on the island where Sam has taken the girls, MB is concerned about the ”aggressive” monkeys, but then remarked about WG’s ability with animals, giving the example of “Ethel the elephant” and the “Himalayan bear in Tibet”…Except, although one of the Gogol circus elephants was named Ethel, it was Chloe the elephant who was WG’s favourite, as featured in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73), “The Return of the Mammoth” (1984), and finally “The Zombie” (2000/01). Old foe Mr Wu Smith also puts in his last appearance, in a funk when MB phones him from Bangkok, recollecting his previous attempt to have her and WG ‘signed off’ in the story “The Aristo” (1994/95). He is again accompanied by a nameless young Chinese female in a very short mini-skirt. He was always a Romero creation, but, when, towards the end of the story, we meet Mr Hata, the rich businessman friend of Saragam, he looks almost identical to Wu Smith – same facial features, hair-line, moustache! We also briefly meet MB’s Cambodian martial arts mentor, Saragam, and his granddaughter, Fain, still working as a nurse, but now living in Thailand. They appeared in the comic strip story “The Golden Frog” (1978, also illustrated by Romero), as well as Saragam featured in the novels The Silver Mistress (1973), The Night of Morningstar (1982), and Dead Man’s Handle (1985). When Sam first phones MB and WG from Singapore she pretends to be the ‘speaking clock’. As usual Weng is on ‘radio duty’ at the penthouse. Anglo-Thai Rosie Ling is cruel, ruthless, without any moral compass. As such, she is rather similar to Miss Tseh Suan, head of a Hong Kong-based vice ring in the Jim Edgar “Garth” comic strip story “The Fishermen” (1979) – equally ruthless in disposing of enemies or failed employees, but Garth (always a sucker for anything in a skirt) calls her “An amazing woman” – not an opinion that MB would have expressed! Garth actually intervenes and saves her from the self-appointed vigilante’s attempt to assassinate her – thereby allowing her to continue to ply her trade. Worth comparing the Martin Asbury artwork of Hong Kong with that of Romero, however – who was the better artist!

90: Story name: The Hanging Judge – 1998/9 ***
Location: Bridestone Prison (18 years previous) – Benildon village, Wiltshire – London’s East End, house of George Leyman – cottage in Lancashire – St. Oswald’s Isle, off the south coast of the Republic of Ireland – The “Treadmill”, WG’s riverside pub near Maidenhead.
Villain: Simon Vance (egomaniac master criminal). Henchmen Fenton, Calder, Lambert and Downey.
Other characters: Jimmy Merton (movie director, Hokum Movies); Sir Robert and Lady Martha Beaumont; Hannah Leslie Beaumont (daughter, 28, qualified nurse); George Leyman’s daughter Daisy and her thuggish husband Len; Billy, another of Vance’s former gang; Dave Craythorpe (pilot).
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Hannah Beaumont (at the end of story).
Nudity rating: MB in undies, changing into skimpy ‘Boadicea’ outfit; MB semi-nude and in undies; nude in bed; MB and WG sharing a small caravan on the movie unit site in Ireland, MB, as usual, sleeping nude; Hannah nude (rear view).
Who kills who? : WG kills Fenton up on the monastery roof, while MB kills another two more of Vance’s henchmen. WG swaps bombs into Vance’s speedboat, which, when Vance then activates, blows himself up instead. WG gets a cracked rib from a crossbow bolt.
Summary/theme: Mad criminal seeking revenge caper. Evil killer Vance is sent down for 20 years, a decision made upon appeal at the leniency of the original 12 years, by then Home Secretary Sir Robert Beaumont. Once out, after 15 years, Vance goes abroad with the money from the bullion robbery, changes his appearance, even his finger-prints, but determined to extract revenge. He kidnaps Beaumont’s daughter Hannah, and taking the persona of the ‘Judge’, intends keep her half-starved for 20 days – one day for each year of the prison sentence – before hanging her on a wooden gallows. In the meantime, he torments her parents with videos recordings showing her condition and ill-treatment. MB realises she is tapping out the location in morse code, that of a silent order monastery off the Irish coast. Under cover of a movie unit making wacky ‘parallel universe’ science fiction movies, MB (dressed in a Viking outfit) mounts a rescue, while WG parachutes in, although he gets wounded by a crossbow bolt. However, together they kill three of Vance’s henchmen and knock out the fourth, but Vance escapes in a fast motor-boat. However, he is blown-up by his own bomb, intended for his hapless henchmen, which WG (knowing about it from Hannah) had swapped over. Afterwards Hannah visits the “Treadmill” to show WG her gratitude.
Critical comments: This is the third time in the comic strips Peter O’Donnell has the bad guys take over a monastery – the first time being “La Machine”, the first MB story (1963), then “Plato’s Republic” (1985) by Salamander Four. But he also used this theme in the original novel, Modesty Blaise (1965), by the Gabriel gang, that time located on a remote Turkish island in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the last two instances (both, therefore, Greek Orthodox monks), it seemed most likely the unfortunate monks would have been murdered afterwards. Here they are a silent order of Catholic monks, being detained in the west wing, while Vance and his four henchmen hold Hannah in the south-east corner. Vance wears different face-masks so only Hannah knew what he now actually looked like, and he planned she would eventually be dead. Afterwards he intended to go back abroad again.
Meantime, Romero’s image of MB’s cottage in Wiltshire has changed yet again! It is now a small, two-storey house with tile roof and French-style window shutters, built into the hill-slope. Nothing like the stand-alone thatched cottage in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92) or “The Grim Joker” (1993/94). Also, MB visits George Leyman, former member of the Vance bullion robbery gang, supposedly living in London’s East End, again, an un-English, stand-alone house with trees in the background! The face of Leyman’s obnoxious son-in-law, Len, as illustrated in strip 9573, has been directed ‘lifted’ from a short science fiction comic strip story entitled “Paradise Lost”, written by Victor Mora, and illustrated by Spanish artist Carlos Giménez, which appeared in the August 1981 edition of the U.S. fantasy magazine Heavy Metal. The two faces are almost identical! Meantime, Vance’s other criminal ex-associate, Billy, lives in a very nice large house (rather than a ‘cottage’) in Lancashire – at least comparatively authentic in appearance. Again, Peter O’Donnell has fun with wacky science fiction (“parallel world”) movies, this time involving hand to hand fighting, followed by a bedroom romp, between Julius Caesar and Boadicea – WG remarks “Posh people call her Boudicca.” The next movie in production is – coincidentally – in Ireland, although by MB’s suggestion relocated to opposite the remote island monastery, where Vance holds Hannah prisoner. It was originally to feature Vikings fighting “aquatic invaders from another galaxy”. However, the aliens “were wanted on another movie” so the plot was changed to a Viking fleet, led by ‘Erica the Red’, battling against a “fleet of Apache Redskins led by Pocahontas, wife of Sitting Bull”. WG tries to point out it was Eric the Red, while Pocahontas lived 600 years later, and wasn’t an Apache, but from the Powhatan tribe, and Sitting Bull lived another 200 years after that. The movie director merely says “That was this world perhaps…not in the Hokum Films Inc., parallel worlds.” At one point, preparing for her Boadicea action scene, MB debates “Did Boadicea wear knickers?” under the loose, split skirt, then deciding director Jimmy wants a U-certificate (unrestricted), so better to do so! Both have Union cards for doing acting or stunt work. WG jokes he still has nightmares after seeing the movie “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial”, which was released in 1982.
Former Home Secretary Sir Robert Beaumont, briefly became Shadow Home Secretary after his party lost the general election, but was later crippled in a riding accident, and retired to MB’s Wiltshire village of Benilton, where Lady Beaumont had a reputation of complaining a lot. Sir Robert knows of MB’s association with Sir Gerald Tarrant at the Foreign Office. Their 28 year old daughter Hannah is a qualified nurse, who worked in Third World countries, of strong character. Three years previous she was the nurse (under middle name of Hannah Leslie) on an Antarctic expedition, when radio contact was lost, she used morse code. MB realised that, on the video tape Vance has sent the Beaumonts, she is tapping out the name Saint Oswald’s, off the south coast of Ireland, monastery built in 1687, with just fifteen monks. It would a matter for the Irish police, who would treat it as a hostage situation, by which time Hannah would be dead. Hannah herself is another Romero blonde, looking rather like Maude Tiller.

91: Story name: Children of Lucifer (1999) **
Location: “Northern ranges of Sierra Nevada” (California/Nevada border) – Township of ‘Eagle Fork’ – ‘Blackwings’, a folly built by ‘forty-niner’ goldrush ‘overnight millionaire’ Harry Lee – ‘The Cabin’, Winter sports house owned by John Dall – ‘Skagg’s Crest’ ski slopes – logging camp and river.
Villain: Luke Blenkinsop (real name Luke Farley); ‘hatchet-man’ Max; the Masaryk brothers, Rudi and Klem.
Other characters: Joanna Martin; Giles Pennyfeather; Steve Taylor.
Body count: 3
Modesty’s lover: Giles Pennyfeather.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed; in just panties, getting dressed.
Who kills who? : Max kills Luke when he threatens to shut down their drug empire. WB kills Max with a peavey (pole used by loggers), and another henchman with his knife.
Summary/theme: Drug gang criminal caper. Blenkinsop’s daughter Nicola died of overdose in New York, but he saved, and kept, her best friend Joanna as a prisoner and sex-slave in his Satanic cult front, when really he’s dealing drugs to three US mafia gangs. They use the forest logging trucks as cover to move the drugs overland. Blenkinsop’s plan, however, is to entice and kill the mafiosi bigwigs (and their minders) in revenge. To this end he intended to show them home movies of his dead wife and daughter, having trapped them in a strongroom, then using poison gas. After that, he planned to shut down his own racket, and burn the house down. However, unbeknown to him, his chief lieutenant and strong-arm man, Max, has other ideas, which is to save the mafia bosses and continue getting rich from the drug trade. Joanna, meantime, manages to escapes on skis, but is knocked unconscious, drugged, and left to freeze to death, by the Czech Masaryk brothers. They then, rather too forcefully, try to stop MB skiing that way, only to be knocked out just as WG and Giles appear. WG has been working with the local loggers, while MB and Giles are spending time together at ‘The Cabin’, owned by another of MB’s lovers, multi-millionaire John Dall. Joanna is discovered and rescued when Giles skis the wrong way, and she tells them about Blenkinsop. Despite MB tipping off another of her ex-boyfriend, FBI agent Steve Taylor, Giles persuades her and WG to still save the lives of the mafia hoods. MB and WG use the ruse of being radio reporters, sent to investigate the Satanist cult, but Max is still able to kill Luke before he can carry out his threat to kill the mafia bosses. The finale is a fight, between WG and MB and Max’s gang, which takes place on logs as they float down the river. Only when Steve Taylor and his “posse” arrive, does WG realise they haven’t seen the Masaryk brothers. They hurry back to the Cabin to find Giles used a trick to give them a knockout drug.
Critical comments: This story brings together three of MB’s regular boyfriends, all making what was to be their final appearances. So, we have Dr Giles Pennyfeather (originally a crossover from the novels), making his fourth appearance; MB’s FBI boyfriend, Steve Taylor, also making his fourth appearance; and a brief ‘cameo’ from Texas tycoon John Dall, who owns ‘The Cabin’. Steve Taylor again has his FBI ‘hat’ on, as from his first appearance in “Uncle Happy” (1965, illustrated by Holdaway), then “The Gallows Bird” (1973, by Romero), but in “Dosser on Pluto” (1980, illustrated by Colvin) he was apparently retired from the FBI. Not anymore! He is now based at San Diego, CA, rather than New Orleans. MB declines his suggestion of renewing their relationship, only for Giles to finish up ‘comforting’ Joanna instead. Steve Taylor only ever featured in the comic strips. Giles first featured in the novel The Impossible Virgin, while in the comic strips he featured in “The Wild Boar” (1986, drawn by Neville Colvin), “The Young Mistress” (1992, by Romero), and “Honeygun” (1996).
Eagle Fork is described as a ‘village’, but most Americans would probably call it a township. The word ‘village’ is rarely, if ever, now used in the USA. Romero’s one illustration of ‘Main Street’ is very crude, especially compared to his earlier work. Also Blenkinsop often looks rather the fake priest ‘Father’ Lamont, in the story “Milord” (1988). Whilst being interviewed for television, and as part of his fake Satanic cult, Blenkinsop gives an almost Gnostic interpretation of the world really being ruled by the “fallen angel” Lucifer. Although both MB and WG remark on aspects of Satanism, neither allude to their own ‘close encounter’ with Lucifer – or the mentally gifted young man who thought of himself as Lucifer – in the early novel I, Lucifer (1967). There are frequent references to the ‘Temple of Asmodeus’, within the Blackwing complex. He was another fallen angel from the Bible, who featured in Jewish, Christian and Moslem beliefs, sometimes regards as the King of Earthly Spirits, a Prince of Demons.
MB, of course, hates drug-dealers, but this is also another example where the villain goes bad after his daughter died from drug addiction, as we first saw in the early story “The Alternative Man” (1983, illustrated by Colvin), where the grieved father became so jealous of young women still alive and healthy, that he masterminded a Caribbean drug trade. Giles, as ever, continues to alternatively evoke MB’s affection for his doctor’s skills and foibles, but tempered with his ability to annoy and wind her up by his “lunatic” contradictory logic. When he appeals to her to prevent the mafia bosses and their minders being “slaughtered” by “bad-mad” Blenkinsop, MB responses by saying that her and WG aren’t the “Caped Crusaders or the Four Just Men”. This latter refers to a novel of that name by Edgar Wallace (1905), and a British television series from 1959-60. When she remarks she hopes the mafia men will “spend the next fifty years in gaol”, Giles shows no sympathy for them, saying, “Fine, they deserve it.” However, when he and Joanna are faced with the Masaryk brothers alone, Giles pretends he can see symptoms of the totally fictitious ‘Purple Death Fever’ and he only had two ampoules of the vaccine, which was really a knock-out barbiturate. Joanna, of course, thinks him “marvellous”, while MB says she is “proud” of him. Giles goes out on a high. WG and MB use a clever scam as a means to get into Blackwings, of being radio reporters tasked with a follow-up item on the Satanists, MB having an asthma attack, WG supposedly on the mobile phone to a bitchy, unsympathetic female producer.

92: Story name: Death Symbol (1999) *
Location: Patan hospital, Kathmandu, Nepal – “The Treadmill” pub – Buddhist temple at Swayambhu (the ‘monkey temple’) at Kathmandu – Tibet, and the camp community of Djut – ‘Tsam-La’, remote Tibetan valley, village (of some 200 inhabitants) and abandoned monastery.
Villain: Yen Kang, Chinese renegade.
Other characters: Irishman Paddy Boyd (ex-French Foreign Legion colleague of WG); Maureen Boyd (his daughter); Dr. Banerjea; Sushilla (his nurse); Weng; Djut (Tibetan Khambas leader); Tibetan brothers Tsering and Norbor; Tibetan Ten-Dal.
Body count
: In total probably between 12 and 15.
Modesty’s lover: MB is brutally raped by Yen Kang.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in and out of bed at the “Treadmill”; MB nude in Kang’s bedroom; full nude ‘nailer’ to distract and overwhelm guards.
Who kills who? : At least 10 Legionnaires killed in ambush, from which only Paddy and WG escape; several of the Polisario rebels. One of the renegade Chinese soldiers, trying to escape with the Thai woman Chia. Yen Kang is killed by the twenty or so women sex-slave prisoners. MB has her face badly bruised by Yen Kang. Paddy, in his failed attempted to rescue his daughter, is shot twice in the leg. In the French Foreign Legion flash-back WG is wounded in the leg.
: Rescue caper. Two years previous, Maureen, the daughter of an old French Foreign Legion friend of WG, Paddy Boyd (who once saved WG’s life), had been kidnapped whilst visiting her Thai grandparents. Through another Thai woman, Chia, Paddy learns she is in Tibet, in a secluded valley and the village and former monastery of Tsam La, now a hideout for fifty renegade Chinese deserters under the command of sadistic Yen Kang, who have set up their own little self-contained mini-‘kingdom’. Paddy’s own attempt to rescue her is thwarted, and he is badly wounded, leaving him helpless in a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal. In a state of semi-delirium, Paddy talks about WG, whose name his doctor, Banerjeo, recognises, having himself once been a pupil of the Indian guru Sivaji. By means of dream images Banerjeo is able to ‘communicate’ images – of Paddy, of the ‘death symbol’ (the bullet taken from WG’s leg when they were ambushed in Algeria), of the monkeys in the Buddhist temple of Swayambhu that WG might recognise. His attempt at mental telepathy worked, and, having learnt Paddy’s story, MB and WG fly to Nepal, then cross into Tibet, where they enlist their old Khambas friends to mount a rescue of Maureen (now aged 18) and the other girls, twenty in all, who are procured by Thai vice gangs to be used as sex-slaves. Again MB volunteers to put herself at most risk by allowing herself to be taken captive by Yen Kung, then use the ‘nailer’ to distract the guards, allowing WG and Djut’s men to attack. MB is brutally beaten and raped, but WG is able to blow up the armoury, and two of the Tibetans free and guard the girls. When Yen Kung appears, he is disarmed and the girls collectively kill him. MB and WG secure the supply helicopter to fly the girls out, back to Kathmandu. Maureen is reunited with Paddy. MB and WG fly home.
Critical Comments: Again, the time-scale is totally all over the place. WG’s time in the French Foreign Legion was originally said to be 1950-54 (as per Jack Fraser’s intelligence dossier in “La Machine” (1963), but now WG says he was in the Legion after the French had left Africa, but were still allowed to train there, helping fight the “Polisario rebels”. In fact Algeria gained independence in 1962. The Polisario ‘rebels’ were mostly confine to the West Sahara, fighting against Morocco, and Algeria (and Libya) actually supported them. WG says he joined the Legion at 18 and the incident in Algeria with Irishman Paddy Boyd was two years later, so when WG was 20. WG also says his “best mate” Paddy was “nearly twice his age”, so already late thirties to forty. Paddy later married a Thai girl, Chula, who “he met out East”, and they had a daughter, Maureen, now 18, so at least 20 years on again. Given that WG is older than MB (already 30 to her 26, again according to Fraser’s original 1960s dossier), Paddy must, therefore (even in the tight, unrealistic time scale of the story, but also going by the dates of his marriage and fatherhood) already be in his late-fifties/early sixties at least. Romero, however, depicts him still as comparative young – perhaps forty at most, looking not unlike Steve Collier, certainly not a near- or plus-60-something-year-old, and – we must presume – he has blonde hair, unless (given the strip is in black and white) he is supposed to be grey, but this seems unlikely. Somehow the Paddy of WG’s flashback of being the only two survivors of a 12-strong Legion patrol, doesn’t match up with this Paddy (20 years at least later) in the hospital bed. It is perhaps worth noting that, although both he and WG are wearing the Legion kepi in the flashback, Paddy carrying a wounded WG through the desert is shown with dark stubble. Chula, Paddy tells WG and MB, died three years previous, “in Pattaya” – located on the east coast of Thailand, a fishing village until the 1960s, but took off as a tourist destination and resort following the Vietnam War. According to Wikipedia, it is now a city, with a population (registered residents) in 2019 of over 119,500.
In addition to this glimpse of WG’s (pre-MB period) time in the French Foreign Legion, we also get to meet Djut again, who featured in “The Black Pearl” (1967), but which – even more bizarrely – WG says was “only a year or two ago”! Again, this is totally ridiculous. O’Donnell could have at least said ‘eight to ten’ years. And apparently, in that short time MB (“Mostiblaise”) has become a much exaggerated legendary ‘giant’ (“like an elephant”). MB has already mentioned knowing the monkey temple of Swayambhu in Kathmandu from the aftermath of the “Black Pearl caper”. Also known as Swayambhunath (the name means ‘self-created’, although in Tibetan it also means ‘subtle trees’), this is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Nepal, and perhaps the second most sacred in the Tibetan Buddhist world after Boudha, also located in the Kathmandu valley. It dates to about the 5th century AD, and is famed for its ‘holy monkeys’. Again, as MB was in the Black Pearl story, WG is ‘summoned’ to Nepal by paranormal means, in this instance a transferred dream from Doctor Banerjea. If Paddy Boyd is depicted as looking too young, and (either Nepalese or Indian) Doctor Banerjea looking a bit like the bearded version of Greg Lawton (from “Million Dollar Game”, 1987), then the nurse Sushilla looks just like any of Romero’s dark-haired females – neither authentic Nepalese, Indian or even especially Asian. But worse is to come. In Benerijea’s flashback we see him with Indian guru Sivaji, who we saw (briefly) in “Idaho George” (1978), and later featuring as a pivotal character in “Kali’s Disciples” (1985/86, drawn by Neville Colvin). Romero’s original version of Sivaji (sitting under a palm tree! This is in India!) bore no resemblance to his own later version, and certainly not to Colvin’s more authentic depiction. So, not only has the “solitary tree”, under which he lived (possibly a banyan tree), transformed into a weird – almost science fiction – growth, but Sivaji himself is utterly unrecognisable. Yes, he is bald (as Colvin draw him; previously Romero had him wearing a sort of turban)), with a long beard and wearing a loincloth (again Romero originally depicted him without a beard or long hair), but Colvin’s version of him was an authentically Indian – dark-skinned, thin and scrawny, dishevelled matted beard and straggly hair. Romero’s version, by contrast, depicts someone with classical Western (almost noble Greek) features and pale skin – wrong, wrong, wrong!
Once again we have a similar story of girls as sex-slaves, as we have seen in “Milord” (1988), and even to the bad guy being ‘executed’ by the liberated and revengeful women, this time without MB’s protests. WG remarks that Sivaji is dead – which we saw in the story “Kali’s Disciples”. There is also a mention of Rosie Ling (from “Special Orders”, 1998), putting this story chronologically later – again making no sense to WG’s pronounced time-scale since their last Tibetan visit, given that Samantha Brown in “Special Orders” was age 15, so at least 5 years older than her first appearance in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). During their activity in Tibet, they also pull much the same ‘truck over the ledge’ stunt to cover their presence to the Chinese, as was used in the earlier “The Black Pearl” story. However, given the ever greater Chinese control over Tibet, one must question would the Chinese authorities have permitted army deserter Yen Kang to have operated apparently so independently, but also just how easy MB and WG would be able to cross into Tibetan territory, or even a helicopter flying supplies in and out to the valley community from Nepal. The helicopter is an SA 330J Puma, of which (according to Wikipedia), 697 were manufactured by Sud Aviation Aérospatiale, from 1968 to 1987, used primary as troop carriers by various air forces around the world, the seat capacity was 16, although the ‘J’ model was upgraded for civilian use, with higher maximum take-off weight capacity. Issued with an ultimatum by MB, the two crew prefer to fly them, rather than remain with the ever-vengeful Tibetans. The rest of Yen Kung’s men are disarmed and expelled from the valley. If the Chinese army find them, they will be shot as deserters. When Djut remarks, “kinder to kill then now”, MB’s reply is “Tomorrow is always a better to die.”
Again, in retrospect, while this is the usual, quite complicated, O’Donnell story, alas overall, this story is seriously flawed in its ridiculous time-scale and a number of plot holes, while also being much nastier and more brutal, with little humour or originality to redeem it.

93: Story name: The Last Aristocrat – 1999/2000 **
Location: Greek island of Corfu (Krolli’s ‘cottage’) – the small (fictional) island of Asiago, “south of Brindisi” – the fictional village of Caglienda (where Aniela was born).
Villain: ‘Granny’ Smythe (Lettia Smythe, daughter of an Earl); Henry, her butler.
Other characters: Tarrant; Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli; his girlfriend Aniela; Italian intelligence chief Vinezzi;
Body count: At least 13.
Modesty’s lover: None.
Willie’s lover: Aniela.
Nudity rating: MG in shorts and top; Aniela nude (mostly rear view) in bed with WG, and getting dressed; MB briefly topless (front view) when WG wishes to ‘borrow’ her bra.
Who kills who? : Three of ‘Granny’ Smythe’s assassins are killed by WG throwing the two hand-grenades back at them, in the Network period flashback. The Soviet plague warfare expert Pavel Chernov (who we never see) is killed by Smythe’s henchmen. MB and WG kill a number of ‘Granny’ Smythe’s heavies, with spearguns or knives. Henry the butler shoots ‘Granny’ Smythe, then himself.
Summary/theme: Espionage/crime caper. Tarrant is on another vacation with MB and WG, this time on Corfu, at a house belonging to one of her former Network chiefs, Krolli, and on her yacht, anchored in the bay. However, Tarrant’s motive is in part to investigate a criminal English aristocrat, Lady Lettia ‘Granny’ Smythe, whose is currently dealing in illegal arms sales – notable by former Red Army factions (thereby dating the story to the post-Soviet period). MB tells him she has already had a direct confrontation with ‘Granny’ Smythe four years before winding down the Network, when WG’s sense of impending danger ( his “ears prickling”) saves her and her section chiefs from an assassination attempt. MB retaliated by giving Smythe 30 days to get out of North Africa, or her mansion and string of brothels would be burnt down. Unexpectedly, whilst Tarrant and MB are talking, Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and girlfriend Aniela parachute down into the sea, supposedly to invite MB and WG to their forthcoming wedding. Really the wedding is a sham, so Guido can continue investigating Smythe’s latest arms sale, which turns out to be deadly plague-bombs (encased in flat metal disks), sold for $15 million to a terror group, the Dark Sable. Furious at being stood up at the altar, Aniela decides to ‘honeymoon’ with WG instead, but then speculates where she thinks Guido is – in the secret sea-water cave under Smythe’s mansion on the small, nearby island of Asiago. MB and WG investigate, sending Guido back with a tape recording for Tarrant and Vinezzi, head of Italian intelligence. Having got the two plague-bombs, MB and WG wear them about their necks as ‘protection’ – if damaged, the deadly bacteria will kill everyone within the vicinity. Unable to escape in the helicopter, WG uses MB’s bra as a bolas to set fire to the sail of a yacht, which, in turn, ignites an explosion. With police patrol boats approaching, ‘Granny’ Smythe’s butler, Henry, kills the two Dark Sable men, then Smythe, then himself. A week later Guido and Aniela get married.
Critical comments: This is the final appearance of lying, womanizing Italian gutter journalist Guido Biganzoli, who we first met in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83), and his blonde, beautiful, long-suffering girlfriend Aniela. Again we have a Network flashback, and also yet another attempt to murder MB, together with WG and all her section chiefs, this time by order of ‘Granny’ Smythe, the English aristocrat of the title, who was then living in a large house near Casablanca, and running a chain of brothels throughout North Africa. Given that MB is telling the story to Tarrant, it is apparent he was previously unaware of the failed assassination attempt. As we have remarked before, Jack Fraser’s original dossier on MB back in the first story (“La Machine”, 1963) obviously greatly underestimated the number of attempts on her life, and MB, at the time, made little attempt to correct him! MB explains that the ‘cottage’ (surely a quaint term, given the location and style) on the Island of Corfu, actually belongs to the Greek Krolli, one of her most loyal former section chiefs. He gets regular mention and appearances in both comic strips and novels, but featured in particular, with his mature teenage daughter, in “Plato’s Republic” (1983/84). Here he is only glimpsed in the flashback. The main two-storey section of the house itself seemed to be constructed of timber panels, and, in appearance, is vaguely similar to the New Zealand house in “The Maori Contract”, rather then a Greek-style house one might associate with Corfu. In fact, yet again, Romero’s architecture throughout this story seems completely wrong. ‘Granny’ Smythe’s house (or mansion) on the nearby Italian island of Asiago (strip 9904), two storey with roof windows and front portico, actually looks more like a plantation mansion in the southern states of the USA – again, neither Italian nor Greek in appearance. And why does he depict it tilted at an angle? While the ‘cottage’ (that rather English word again) “ in the hills behind the village of Caglienda”, where WG and Aniela consummate what was supposed to be her honeymoon (strip 9912), is almost identical in appearance to Australia lady lawyer’s house “in Sydney”, New South Wales (strip 7555), in the story “Walkabout” (1990/91), even to the positions of the trees, roadway in front, and the dark exterior walls and white roof, despite it being only mid-afternoon! A further example of lazy art is the one view of the Greek village itself – which again does not look in the slightest bit Greek; and, indeed, it is almost identical (roadside trees, parked cars) to a view, supposedly of London, in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92). Vinezzi, who first appeared in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72, by Romero), and later “The Balloonatic” (illustrated by Colvin), was originally older, probably in his late fifties, bald, with dark hair. Here, again rather bizarrely, Romero re-depicts him as much younger, with fair hair, more like his French colleague. Entertaining Tarrant on the yacht, drinks are served by a young, bikini-clad female who WG names as “Aliki”, but she appears in two panels only, without any explanation. She is actually from Crete, and featured in the novel I. Lucifer (1967). MB remarks that WG’s singing is even worse than hers. WG comments that the helicopter used by ‘Granny’ Smythe is a Hughes 500. We never learn Aniela’s surname, or, indeed, much about her – what did she see in Guido to want to marry him? Surely it would all end in tears?

94: Story name: The Killing Game – 2000 **
Location: Benildon, Wilts. – ‘Redmont’, nearby cottage – Singapore – ‘Rigel’ settlement, Orion’s Field, New Guinea.
Villain: Sebastian Kromm; McNab; Pienaar (big game hunter from South Africa); Da Costa (hunter from Portugal); Ms Roper (hunter from USA); Lord Whitram (from England).
Other characters: Unnamed vicar of Benildon; Mrs Maloney; Keri (16 year old New Guinea native girl and her baby Matilda); Tarrant; Fraser; Weng.
Body count: 4
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: At the village fête MB wears a very low-cut, slinky dress. In the set-up to trap WG, the younger foreign woman has her dress torn, exposing her breast and panties. Both MB and WG are kitted out in ‘Tarzan-like’ tiger-skin outfits, in MB’s case showing off her back, legs and buttocks. The young native girl wears only a grass skirt, breasts bare.
Who kills who? : MB drags McNab out of the helicopter when she jumps (he, however, is without a parachute). WG kills Pienaar with spear. Ms Roper kills Da Costa in a fit of feminist rage. MB kills Kromm in a shootout. MB wounds Whitram in the shoulder with an arrow, but let him go afterwards.
Summary/theme: Game hunting caper. MB is at a charity fête at Benildon, where she is introduced to the ‘Reverent Sebastian Kromm’ by her vicar, but quickly realises he is a phoney. He, in turn, claimed to have a detailed dossier on her and WG, and offers adventure in the form of a big game hunt of “lions or tigers” at his 20 sq. mile estate of Orion’s Field in the Far East. She refuses outright, saying she does not kill animals for pleasure, and is about to leave when her vicar delays her to assist the Punch and Judy man. She then gets tricked into helping drive two foreign women – apparently mother and daughter – to their rented cottage nearby, only to find Kromm waiting for them, before being knocked out. Soon after WG is walking to visit his girlfriend Lady Janet and the younger woman pretends she is being sexually attacked, again he is knocked out. Both MB and WG are then separately transported by private jet to New Guinea, at the Rigel settlement at Orion’s Field, where they are still kept separate in windowless accommodation, but with access to gym facilities, library, etc. MB is under the custody of an elderly and rather severe Mrs Maloney; WG – having already encountered and wound up Kromm – under a man named McNab. Each are told that any resistance will result in the other being flogged by a sjambok, a whip made from rhino hide. To their guards’ bemusement, both respond almost the same, exercising, reading, mediating, performing yoga. MB is unsurprised when told she and WG are to be the hunted quarry, saying that always was obvious. She shows equal disdain when paraded before her hunters – Kromm, Pienaar, Da Costa, Ms Roper and Lord Whitram, vowing she and WG will compete to personally kill Kromm. WG is already in the secluded, enclosed jungle hunting grounds, but when MB is to be parachuted down, she takes McNab with her – him plunging to his death. She lets WG take his boots – size 10! WG has prepared primitive weapons – sling, spear, bow and arrow – and hunted for food. However, in their cave hideaway is Keri and her baby (still suckling), a young native girl, used and abused and rejected by her tribe, who had wandered into the reserve and now cannot escape. WG and MB promise to protect her. WG has already discovered they have radio bugs stitched into the hem of their outfits. Also the hunters are using bolt action Jeffreys .404 rifles, which take a second to reload and fire again. When the hunt begins, WG takes out Pienaar, then finds Da Costa shot by Ms Roper, who he knocks out. MB meanwhile wounds Whitram in the shoulder with an arrow. He concedes defeat, being the least enthusiastic at the man and woman hunt, and MB patches him up, taking his rifle and throwing away his boots. Finally MB and Kromm shoot it out at close range. MB then uses Ms Roper’s outfit and a chunk of her blonde hair to briefly fool the settlement guards, long enough for them to seize the helicopter and fly out, together with Keri and her baby. Keri says she will rename her baby ‘Willie’.
Critical comments: Yet another charity fête, again at MB’s Wiltshire village of Benildon! Kromm is introduced as the vicar of the Church of St. Blaise, in the Indonesian city of Surabaja, capital of East Java. St. Blaise was a martyred 4th century bishop of Sebustea, in Armenia, revered by both Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, his feast day 3rd February (11th February, Orthodox calendar).
MB asks herself why she can say ‘no’ to any man except a “small, fat vicar”.
Again, WG is off to visit Lady Janet Gillam when intercepted and knocked out.
At a meeting of Kromm’s big game hunting group, the Orion’s Field Big-Game Club, they briefly lament Pienaar’s predecessor, the late Mr Laborde, who had “recently deceased following a dispute with Mrs Laborde”, Kromm adding, “At least he had the honour of being shot with his own rifle.” The South African Pienaar (who shares his name with one of the members of Europe’s Fist, in the story “The Vampire of Malvescu”, 1987), remarks he was friends with “Scoular, ivory poacher – He tried to kill them. He’s dead.” This was from the story “Million Dollar Game” (1987), but actually Scoular was captured alive – it was the gang leader, Carslake, who was killed by Milly the rhino. In many ways – even in the story title – this echoes the short comic strip story “the Killing Ground” (1968), later reworked as the short story “Bellman”. Again MB and WG are being hunted by big game professionals, but who cheat by using a radio bug to track their intended quarry. WG cannot bring himself to actually kill Ms Roper, a potential fatal flaw we have witnessed in other comic strip stories. MB says she is 40 metres away from Kromm, but is actually drawn as being a lot closer, not even 40ft distance. Was that deliberate, or simply Romero forced to contract the distance due to the comic strip panel size. At the end, they contact Larry Houston, the Australian Intelligence chief – a friend of Tarrant – who first featured in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw, and appeared as a key crossover character to the comic strip in the story “Walk-About” (1990/91).

95: Story name: The Zombie – 2000/01 **
Location: ‘Apollyon’, Cornwall, near village of Brownloe – London to Brighton vintage car rally – Brighton hotel – Friston Forest, South Downs, Sussex – Tarrant’s office, London – MB’s penthouse, Bayswater Road, London – WG’s pub, the “Treadmill”.
Villain: Professor Nicomede Katris (paraplegic and computer genius); Sir Edgar Holstead (head of Future Computers Ltd).
Other characters: Leda (Katris’s daughter); Tarrant; Danny Chavasse (from the Network); Dave Goss (northern-based crime boss and MB friend); Jack Fraser; Rt. Hon. Viscount Bunty Maycroft (school friend of Tarrant’s); Georgi Gogol (circus co-owner); Rosa and the Aziz Brothers.
Body count: 1 (at least 10 others mentioned in text).
Modesty’s lover
: Danny Chavasse.
Willie’s lover
: none.
Nudity rating: MB in undies, getting changed; briefly wearing clinging dress with low-cut cleavage and double side-splits; backless swimsuit; changing, topless in circus caravan; skimpy bikini (front and rear view).
Who kills who? : Professor Katris commits suicide with cyanide capsule. His underlings, using cut-outs, had previous eliminated various gang bosses in South America and the USA, and fellow crime boss Robbie Dunbar in Glasgow. Two of Tarrant’s agents had also died.
Summary/theme: Crazy megalomaniac caper. Professor Nicomede Katris, “the world’s greatest authority on computers”, and his associate, Sir Edgar Holstead, head of Future Computers Ltd., have a grandiose plan to develop the ‘Ultimate Computer’ which would replace ordinary governments globally. For this lofty aim, they need a massive and constant source of finance, and have no scruples in the takeover of criminal networks in South America, USA and the UK to sell drugs. Latest in their sights is the crime syndicate run by northerner Dave Goss, an old friend of MB’s. He, however, refuses to deal in drugs, and so the plan is to assassinate him and have him replaced. Meantime WG is accompanying Sir Gerald Tarrant in the London to Brighton vintage car race, where they are joined by MB and Danny Chavasse, one of her former Network members. Tarrant confides the US Drug Enforcement Agency has requested his assistance in combating foreign drug dealers expanding into the UK, and MB suggests speaking to Goss, when she meets him to evaluate a race-horse at Friston Forest, East Sussex. MB and Danny are, therefore, present when the two hired hooded thugs attempted to garrotte Dave Goss. MB having knocked them unconscious, Goss recognises them as Lennie the Limp’s boys and vows to put pressure on Lennie to reveal his contact until eventually he knows who ordered the would-be killing. Meantime, Katris has ordered his daughter Leda, long brainwashed into serving ‘the cause’, to kidnap Danny, who is to be held as hostage to prevent MB from continuing to protect Goss. Instead Goss has discovered, not only Katris’s name, but the location of his hideaway in rural Cornwall, actually a house on the estate owned by Viscount Bunty Maycroft, an old schoolfriend of Tarrant’s. To get into the house WG and MB set up a diversion – Georgi Gogol’s circus to camp next door for winter quarters. When Sir Edgar protests, Maycroft coldly says not to tell him what he can or can’t do on his own land. While WG (disguised as an Indian mahout) uses Chloe the elephant to ‘accidentally’ break down the gate (“She can smell bamboo”, he says), followed by the circus acrobats, MB swims in from the sea and climbs up the well in the house basement, just as Katris has ordered Leda to dispose of Danny down the said well! But Danny’s talent is his charm with women, and he has already melted Leda. She refuses her instructions. WG takes out the exterior guards, MB – having assessed the situation with Leda and Danny – takes the rest. Katris commits suicide. Tarrant is able to move the police in, and Danny slips away with Leda to America.
Later MB and WG decide they are tired of fighting villains, and plan to retrieve the hidden Roman treasure buried in the Sahara Desert, chronicled in the novel A Taste for Death, and – rather bizarrely – donate it to the Salvation Army! The strip ends with them walking into the sunset.
Critical comments: Once again we have either Romero’s total disregard for the architectural integrity of the story text, or total misunderstanding. Both the opening panel (strip 10070), and several later external, aerial illustrations of ‘Apollyon’ (example strip 10121), show that Professor Katris’s headquarters is, quite clearly, to be a house in the 20th century Modernist style, with a tiled or flagstone roof-terrace, and front and side balconies, and a modern style patio, close-set single panel glass windows, jutting roof eaves, and located within a large square walled enclosure, with what is presumably a lawn on all sides. Yet, later in the story, Tarrant describes it as an “18th century mansion”, at one time used by practising Satanists (hence the name – ‘Apollyon’, or Abaddon in Hebrew, being a demon angel of the abyss), and with the ‘Great Well’ in the basement, which was connected to the nearby sea – hence, not really a drinking well, one would have thought! The mismatch between the supposed ancient mansion and the house as illustrated, is even greater than we saw in the story “The Big Mole” (1989) of the supposed 17th century ‘manor house’ near Tarrant’s cottage/farmstead. Here it is glaring, and totally incongruous. Equally absurd, perhaps, is the Professor’s master computer. He sits before a series of giant screens, flanked in front and on either side by a vast array of control panels, flashing lights, and what are supposed to be keyboards (we presume), the whole thing looking like the bridge of the star-ship Enterprise, or, actually it is a near-duplicate of French comic strip artist Jean-Claude Mézières’ depiction of the Space-Time Services Supervisor’s control room at Galaxity, as seen in the Pierre Christin “Valerian and Laureline” story The Ghosts of Inverloch (1984), except that Mézières was a better artist, and his version was in colour. The totally immoral Professor – a classic James Bond-style mad villain – ultimately plans to develop and impose self-replicating super-computers (or ‘Ultimate Computer’), which will govern the world, instead of flawed, emotional humans. When Tarrant questions, could he have done that?, WG (an avid reader of science fiction) remarks perhaps “in another fifty years”. We would call this AI, or artificial intelligence, while the world-wide web was already up and running when this story was written.
Aside from these pictorial quirks, Romero’s images of Brighton are very crude, as are his motor vehicles (vintage and modern) – something he was once very good at. The London to Brighton vintage car race is held on the first Sunday of November, starting at Hyde Park Corner, and finishing at Maderia Drive, Brighton, although the official finishing line is Preston Park, a Brighton suburb. The distance is 54 miles, and vehicles must be from 1905 or before. Apparently it is Tarrant’s third attempt, in a 1904 Renault, the previous times he had broken down at Bolney (a Mid-Sussex village on the junction of the A23 and A272, 11 miles from Brighton), and Albourne, again on the A23, 3 miles from Henfield. This time he had WG with him, “a master of the internal combustion engine”, to make on-road repairs. Meantime, MB and her ex-Network colleague and lover, Danny Chavasse, hang-glide overhead. Another little mistake – despite this being the first week of November, all the trees depicted are still in full leaf. Dave Goss is the Liverpool-based crime boss, and MB friend, who first appeared in “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, illustrated by Neville Colvin). Colvin’s Dave Goss is a ruddy-faced, rather podgy, man with slightly receding hair, who sports a huge bow-tie and smokes cigars. Romero had previously illustrated him in “Ripper Jax” (1995), at least vaguely similar, but his version here is just another overweight, middle-aged fat-faced bloke – neither have the authenticity of Colvin’s image. Dave Goss was another comic to novel crossover, featuring in the novel Dead Man’s Handle (1985). Previously, when WG mentions Danny to Tarrant, Sir Gerald recollects “he teamed up with Maude Tiller” in the search for WG and MB, again from this novel. Danny Chavasse, a non-combat Network member, who used his seductive charm with the ladies to extract information, had featured in the novels and short stories – Last Day in Limbo (1976), which also featured Maude Tiller crossing over to printed page, she and Danny finished up romancing in the Caribbean (at WG’s suggestion). Danny also featured in Dragon’s Claw (1978), and the short stories “Dark Angels” and “Bellman”, both in the collection Cobra Trap (1996). This was his first, and last, appearance in the comic strips, initially as MB’s lover (as he was at one time in the novels), before disappearing to America with Leda. MB displays her equine expertise, advising Dave Goss on whether to purchase a race-horse, ‘Handsome Harry’, and Chavasse remarks that, while, she has great rapport with animals, “plants die, they don’t like her aura”. In addition to the final appearance of Georgi Gogol and his circus, we again meet Chloe the elephant, and acrobats Rosa and “her bruzzers” (the Turkish Aziz brothers), from “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73). Katris’s daughter Leda, whose mother died in childbirth, is the ‘zombie’ of the title, completely brainwashed to ‘the cause’ – Katris even remarks he has “manufactured a perfect daughter”.
How do you end a 38 year story? Peter O’Donnell had already done so over a decade earlier in “Cobra Trap” (1995), his ‘final’ Modesty short story, a fifty-something MB, dying from an incurable brain tumour, waging her last hopeless battle against the bad guys, and going down fighting. Dramatic – some might say satisfying (especially in finally acknowledging she might actually age beyond 30), but hardly uplifting. On the other hand, the ending to the comic strip isn’t really an ending at all….just another silly caper, and a final crossover idea from the novel A Taste for Death. MB and WG make plans to retrieve the Roman treasure hidden at the old Foreign Legion fort in the Sahara, and denote it to the Salvation Army, before they disappear together into the sunset – actually a final panel in a number of comic strip stories going back decades – but somehow reminded me of the ending to the original version of that other, long-lasting, but never-aging heroine, The Daily Mirror’s Jane, as she finally marries wet, unless boyfriend, Georgie Podgy. It’s a let-down, an anti-climax. 40 years of Evening Standard readers perhaps deserved something better, more original. Apart from the potty idea of gifting huge quantities of ancient treasure (gold, silver, jewels, coin, plate) to the Sally Army (wouldn’t it be declared treasure trove?), anyone who hadn’t read the novels (and that novel in particular) probably missed the point. Again, it might have been better if Peter O’Donnell had gradually aged MB in these later stories, into her forties at least, and especially in this finale. At least then their ‘final retirement’ might have made more sense. So, a workaday story, but a rubbish conclusion. What a pity.

We gotta get out of this place

The relaxation of lockdown conditions opens up a number of possibilities for the stir-crazy, including the ability to get on a train and go somewhere for no more reason than to come back again. I have been having a play on British Rail’s Journey Planner, looking at prices and timetables and things that are clearly affordable.
Days out to places like Stafford or Lancaster. I could do York for just over £30 or London for £94… well, maybe not that. Then there’s the obvious destinations: Windermere for £16.20 on two singles, Penrith on the same basis for only £18.60 if I set off from Piccadilly at 06.26am (and £25.40 if I wait till 8.00am).
To put it plainly, I have options. In the past fourteen months I have only once gone further than Manchester City Centre. Anywhere that is not Manchester City Centre, or more confiningly Stockport, suddenly takes on a massive appeal. Just to be somewhere else, see something else. Especially if it happens to be a Lake, and mountains.
Naturally, the major question is, should !? I haven’t gone through the past year in complete safety without being sensible from day zero. Before I take off to look at the grass on the other side of the fence, I should wait and see the impact of the new conditions. Knowing the lot out there, stupidity is going to play an important part in the reaction to even limited relaxation of the rules. I’m expecting infections to go up again.
And given that I have my second COVID-19 vaccination booked for Saturday coming, it’s going to be the 24th before I could even consider going anywhere. Time enough…

Danger Man: s02 e20 – Have a Glass of Wine


After an intriguing open featuring the passing of a sealed parcel in a launderette to a beautiful but nervous brunette, followed by our friendly agent, John Drake, to Burgundy, the title of ‘Have a Glass of Wine’ immediately became explicable. Indeed, it became a meme, trotted out several times throughout the course of an episode that saw Drake acting alone for the most of it, in the face of opposition from three comprehensive sides.

After a typical ingenious start, I found myself unmoved for most of this episode. Normally I’d enjoy an episode that throws a lot of angles at us, characters clearly intended to be part of the plot, challenging us to work out their relevance to the story, but not on this occasion. The ingredients failed to properly gel and even the presence of no less than three attractive guest stars could not quite hold things together.

The package collected by the nervous girl, Kathleen Martin, played by Kathleen Breck, later of The Prisoner, contains defence secrets stolen from an aerospace factory. She’s being blackmailed over compromising pictures to act as courier, the handover to be conducted by a clandestine exchange of handbags. Drake confronts her in her hotel bedroom – don’t worry, she’s wearing resolutely untransparent pajamas, properly passion-killing – and gets the story out of her. He’s seen leaving her room, late at night, which will be significant.

At this point we’ve already been pointed in the direction of two other characters. One, who pushes himself into your face and is enjoyably voluable, fanatical about the region’s wine and generally OTT, is M. Lamaze, ostensibly a wine dealer. He’s being played by Warren Mitchell so we know he’s going to be significant: indeed, he is the spider at the centre of the web, gathering information via a system of shifting cut-offs and passing these on to The Other Side.

The other is an attractive looking dark-blonde schoolmistress, Suzanne, played by Ann Lynn, who in four years time would play Amy, the mother seduced by 15 year old Linda Hayden in the infamous film, Baby Love. Suzanne is also obviously not what she seems but we have to wait to see what she is.

Drake, once again using his own name, is there to watch the exchange, carried out by an attractive woman on a bicycle (this one, Annette, is played by Sarah Brackett, an American actress who only gets one line, delivered with a French accent). Drake steals another bicycle to pursue her, both pedalling furiously down country lanes, but is ultimately conned and loses her. She will return however, as Lamaze’s housekeeper.

This is where things should turn exciting, the setting-up done. Drake returns to the hotel to confront Kathleen but finds her dead. He’s just extracting the $500 fee from the handbag when the maid enters and screams. Next thing is that he’s arrested, handcuffed and the Police are confident that he’s heading for Guillotine Row. Over-confident, in fact. Drake escapes, runs to Lamaze as the only possible friend who would allow him to telephone London, have him vouched for. But that’s where Annette comes in with the grub, shortly followed by les flics: Lamaze has sold him out.

Once again, Drake’s too clever for them, but this running and fighting is beginning to feel like needless action, a substitute for moving the story along. Enter the mysterious Suzanne, picking him up, taking him to her cottage, cooking a ham omelette, and revealing herself as the only possible person she could now be, namely Drake’s French equivalent, a Secret Service agent.

I expected Drake to confess his own standing and the pair to work together henceforth, but the episode wasn’t going there. As has so often been the condition of things. Drake wants Lamaze back in Britain, all the stolen secrets still virgo intacta and a complete list of his Network. The lovely Suzanne, who thinks Drake is working for Lamaze, wants Lamaze to stay in business, keep operating, only feeding the secrets to his adopted country instead of his state of origin. In the face of Gaston and Rene, two old Algeria hands with a skilled line in breaking people, Drake plays along, swiftly adapting poor Kathleen’s story to himself. But now he’s got absolutely everybody against him, the Police, Lamaze, the French Secret Service. How’s he going to get out of that?

The answer is by a very weak, and cheap writing contrivance. Drake’s back at the Police headquarters except they’re all bonhomie and have a glass of wine, like everyone else. He’s free to go. He’s not a murderer. Without explanation, someone (alright, it’s Lamaze’s gardener) has confessed to killing Kathleen. It removes one plank, leaving Drake freedom of manoeuvre, and one enemy, since the locquacious Lamaze and the fanatical Suzanne are united in their glee at putting one over on the British. He’s being flown to Paris. But not if John Drake’s in the pilot’s seat…

It’s a bit of aquick ending, though not quite as quick as I’ve made it seem. Drake doesn’t just magically appear in the pilot’s seat, he has Rene and Gaston to decommission first, not to mention stealing Suzanne’s tapes of her conversations with Lamaze, which will no doubt feature in Anglo-French relations in the near future. But it is a bit of a magical ending.

No, overall, though the ingredients were there to be enjoyed, and Kathleen Breck was indeed beautiful, the episode didn’t quite cohere and the result was below the series’ usual high standards. Still, it did contain a laugh-out-loud line from Lamaze, proposing to dope the Frenchies by adding a narcotic to their drink. Mitchell sighed with regret that it was a shame to adulterate a good Burgundy. Why not use a poor one, Drake suggested. There is no poor Burgundy, Mitchell retorted. With loving pride.

They’re Open Again…

Though I haven’t bothered to check the website yet, the relaxation of lockdown conditions with effect from today means that comics shops can open again. That should mean that I can, if I wish, drop into the Manchester branch of Forbidden Planet next Saturday, for the first time this year. Manchester was one of the branches that has been shut completely, not even allowing collection of online orders on the pavement outside. I suspect I won’t be doing that, however.

It’s been coming on for a very long time, and now I think the break shall be made. Being unable to go to a comics shop for a year or so, save for short breaks when I’ve had to queue ages to get inside, and have felt constrained to only pick up what I know I want and not linger, because of the queues outside, has been the tipping point for something that has been building up for quite some time.
When we went into the most recent lockdown, there were only three series that I was collecting. Tom King’s Strange Adventures had already issued 7 of its 12 issues, his Batman/Catwoman one of its intended 12. The last, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Moonshine was due to start its fifth ‘season’ in March 2021.
It’s not much to represent a life of comics collecting that goes back sixty years. Not that I haven’t been busy in the interim, expanding my collection of old comics on DVD. That has been part of the pattern.
Strange Adventures is a disappointment. I was interested in what King would do with the character, the good old American know-how scientist hero, but it’s not to my taste. It’s of a muchness that has affected comics increasingly, year on year, for more years than I care to remember, and which no longer enthuses me. Like several series of the recent past, I am continuing to collect it until it is complete, for what chance have I of securing a sale at any decent figure on eBay of an incomplete set?
Batman/Catwoman is another thing. It was King’s long run on Batman that first attracted my attention to his writing. For the first time in, literally, over forty years, I found myself buying a regular Batman series: not since Steve Engelgart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin in Detective Comics in 1977. This limited series is a substitute for what should have been issues 86-105 of the current Batman title before King was dropped. Its conclusion is an obvious dropping off point for me.
And Moonshine? I can’t begin to count how many series I’ve bought in monthly issues, only to replace the floppies with a Graphic Novel collection as soon as it became available. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to only buy the story once, when it is collected. At the age of 65, I fear that I may finally be growing up.
What are the chances of future series that I want to read? The Justice Society will come back, eventually, and this time it might be the original JSA again. Won’t I want to read those? Honest answer? I don’t know. I suspect, probably not.

The New 52.
Dark Knights: Metal. The Dark Multiverse. DCeased. Dark Knights: Death Metal. The Batman Who Laughs. The Robin King.
I didn’t read any of these things. I read about them on one or other or both of two comics news-sites I visit every day: Bleeding Cool and I read about them because I have been a comic book fan for over fifty years and I remain curious as to what happens. I don’t read them because I have been a comic book fan for over fifty years. The kids that these gaudy pamphlets were created for have been abandoned a long time ago, and now I feel as if I have been abandoned too.
After half a century, I have no grounds for complaint. But I think an explanation is in order, if only to myself.
What do all the above series have in common? Death. Destruction. Degradation. Despair. Darkness. Dissipation. In all heroes there must be a shadow, something evil. Power not only corrupts, it must corrupt.

This growing impression has been exacerbated by all the comics I’ve read on DVD this past three years. Golden Age, Silver Age, there are different approaches and priorities but the titles I’ve read, including the ones where blogs have yet to appear and those still yet to be read, have one thing in common. They are all examples of the era when comics were supposed to be fun. Where all these silly costumes, ridiculous ideas and impossible powers were meant to excite and entertain, and feed into and out of dreams of being able to do things that other people around you cannot.
I’ve recently managed to acquire the extremely rare and expensive Animal Man Omnibus, the Grant Morrison run. There’s a line in the last issue, the one where Morrison as writer talks to Buddy Baker as character. He says: Someone else creates you to be perfect and innocent and then I step in and spoil everything.
It didn’t start with Grant Morrison. If anyone, it started with Alan Moore. I love Alan Moore’s work. I bought him avidly. Deconstructionism: that was what he practiced, and I relished it. Note that it’s another D word, however. And Deconstruction is not a million miles away, philologically and philosophically, from Destruction. And the problem with adding depth is that there’s always something deeper, and eventually you pass a point beyond which there’s no return. Him. Grant Morrison. Tom King. A spectrum. Tom King is anatomising the reality behind Adam Strange but I want to read an Adam Strange story behind which there is no shadow, only the clear light of Rann’s skies and human ingenuity foiling yet another menace with cleverness and wit and intelligence, instead of a ray gun. I can’t get that any more. No-one does it.
So, Forbidden Planet‘s doors may now be open but I have lost all reason to go within them. I lost that reason a month ago, when I cracked and ordered the issues of Batman/Catwoman and Strange Adventures I’d missed off eBay. Say Goodbye, because I have.

The Infinite Jukebox: Warren Zevon’s ‘Nobody’s in Love this Year’

Once I’d bought one Warren Zevon album, I started buying all of them. The follow-up to Sentimental Hygiene was 1990’s Transverse City, a very different experience, with its overall reliance on a heavier, more grinding sound, and a profusion of synthesizers. Not a single sign of an R.E.M.-esque influence.
There are only a couple of tracks that impressed themselves upon me indelibly, and one of them not so much for it’s buoyant, boisterous chorus but its uncommon application to my increasingly-private-minded lady of those years. Splendid Isolation, I don’t need no-one. Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first…
But the other song was the closer to the album, and like that pair from Sentimental Hygiene that I’ve written about before (, it was a love song, and once again Uncle Warren was producing a song with a gorgeous melody, and words of great import.
‘Nobody’s in Love this Year’ keeps its instrumentation simple, and it’s vocal low and dark. Zevon sets the scene with economy. We keep walking away for no reason at all, he explains, and no-one says a word. We were always so busy protecting ourselves, we never would have heard. So far, so simple. But Zevon has ideas about expressing this gradual deterioration in financial metaphors, the language of Wall Street and the dreaded yuppies.
The rate of attrition for lovers like us, he comments, just like any financial report, is steadily on the rise. Nobody’s in Love this year, not even you and I. Love as a commodity, and Love as a stock that is falling, so that the canny and the smart back away.
The formal import of this, and the underlying lack of emotion is further emphasised as Zevon goes into more detail. Due to lack of commitment on both of our parts, he admits, we’re going our separate ways. Ah me, a mutual lack, they’re just not that much into each other, and at least it’s mutual.
But how distant is this distance, really? This show of indifference is breaking our hearts, he claims, against the evidence of the previous couplet, and it’s making us crazy, yeah. You sit back and wait for your love to accrue, instead of extending yourself to do something about it, and the outcome is that you’ll be waiting a long long time: nobody’s in Love this year. Not even you and I.
That this disintegration has real consequences, for at least one of the parties maintaining their cool, is shown in the brief middle eight, where Zevon both admits and conceals the extent of the pain. I don’t want to be Mr Vulnerable, he says, I don’t wanna get hurt, I don’t want to be the one who gets left behind. A-ha!
Just what is this about, now we have this admission? Zevon makes it all out to be about not showing weakness, being a Master of the Universe, and not wanting to be the one who loses out in the end of this mysterious relationship. But to be hurt, there must have been vulnerability, no matter how this young Turk wants to deny it. You can’t get hurt if there’s nothing to feel, if all it is is a bad contract that didn’t produce the gains you expected.
And he recovers his balance and covers everything in transactional terms again. We still keep walking away without that ostensible reason, but now it’s for the sake of being free. Why do they want to be free of each other? Because nobody’s invested enough of themselves to yield to maturity, the sharpest, two-edged line of the entire song. And the rate of attrition for lovers like us, in this world that has got its perceptions skewed arse-about-face, is steadily on the rise. Nobody’s in Love this year. Not even you and I.
The repetition of the middle-eight, to close out the song is, I submit a mistake, however musically soulful it is. When you have a line like that, you end on it, leave it’s hidden depths of regret in the listener’s mind, for them to measure the reality that is being so imperfectly denied here.
What could have been won’t be. The good money won’t be placed where it might turn bad. Invest in something safer, with a guaranteed return. Make Love work that way. If you can.

Sunday Watch: My World – And Welcome to It – e04-06

My World

It’s long overdue a return to the world of James Thurber’s humour as dramatised in the short-lived 1969/70 sitcom My World… And Welcome to It, starring William Windom as cartoonist John Monroe. For those unfamiliar with the series, which lsasted only one season but deserved much more, the show was a three-hander, the cast being completed by Joan Hotchkis as Monroe’s sensible wife, Ellen, and the wonderful Lisa Gerritsen as his ten-year-old daughter Lydia, an almost completely serious little girl who’s never ever going to understand how a father can be so imaginative.

Each episode is a mixture of live action, during which Windom spends a lot of time talking directly to the audience, and animation from the dePatie-Grelreng studio, in the style of Thurber’s rounded cartoon figures, who are Monroe’s version of reality coming to life around him.

The series was an excuse to mine Thurber for cartoons and stories, and even though the humour is very much that of the Forties, it has an essential core of absurdity that makes it ring completely true not just in the era in which the show was being made but, for at least one member of the audience, the radically dfferent times of fifty plus years on from then.

The first of this tryptich of episodes was entitled ‘Christabel’. Though it had its funny moments, the main impulse of the episode was more to the dramatic, with a heavy dose of the sentimental dolloped on top in a way I’d normally reject. Lydia wants a puppy, a free puppy from her friend Charles’s dog’s litter. Her mother’s in favour but it’s all down to Monroe’s say-so, he being the head of the family, and he says so. Partly because there’s no such thing as a free puppy, the only free bit being the acquisition, partly because they’ve already got two dogs, even if one of them is actually pretty durned old, and partly because he has had experience, when young, of a dog that kept biting him.

As a result, neither Ellen nor Lydia are speaking to him except to tell him they’re not speaking to him.

But Christabel the poodle, the old dog, keeps having to be rushed to the vets. Mingled into this is an argument about whether human eyes gleam in the dark the way animals do and an attempt to demonstrate that they do not which draws in a traffic cop and, ultimately, Christabel’s death. Lydia takes it hard, and holds it against her Dad for not caring but there’s a Thurber piece about the dog’s dignified end that Monroe ‘writes’ that delivers all the sentimentality you could wish for to restore Lydia’s faith. Which is aided by the scrap of black and white fur puppy peeking out of Dad’s sports jacket pocket.

On the other hand, ‘The Night the House Caught Fire’ just didn’t work for me. It started off with Lydia in bed, suffering from a cold, being fed cough medicine and a story by her father, the classic Thurber short tale about the husband who told his wife there was a Unicorn with a golden horn eating the roses in their garden that results in the wife being taken away to the booby hatch. When Lydia doesn’t get that, and I’m not sure I understand the supposed moral myself, he then tells the title story, going back a generation to her great-great grandfather Skinner, the Civil War veteran, staying with John’s family (Windom and Hotchkis playing his parents) whilst his attendant is on vacation.

Granddad Skinner comes over as a nutcase, still fighting the Civil War, telling stories that delight young John, though these turn out to be lies, lies to make him seem more colourful in his old age, and perhaps attract attention from some of his family, to alleviate his loneliness at being the survivor of so many. It didn’t really gel for me, nor was I in t une with another sweet and sentimental ending, as Lydia tells her father she can see a Unicorn, with a golden horn, in their garden, eating the flowers…

Last for this weekend was ‘The Ghost and Mr. Monroe’, a title that was a play on the once-famous play and film about a young widow and the ghost of a sea captain. The story was soun out of a wonderful Thurber cartoon about two hippopotami face to face , one of whom is telling the other that she looks wonderful since she’s lost all that weight. It’s a great cartoon, but Monroe’s editor at The Manhattanite, where he works, Hamilton Greeley (played by Harold J. Stone), rejects it because Monroe can’t tell him which hoppopotamus is speaking.

Monroe quits and goes home, confident in the knowledge that Ellen, fearful of hers and Lydia’s security, will talk him into going and asking for his job back. Except that she supports him… Which then spins into a fantasy about getting financial asvice from a J.P. Morgan who’s losing his shirt. Until Monroe gets so deep in his own imagination that when Greeley turns up to beg him to come back, Monroe thinks he’s fantasising it, and is very happy with his daydream!

Three little unspectacular, silly little exercises, inconsequential in themselves. Something to smile about on an easy, lazy morning.