All the Fells: High Crag

High Crag – The Western Fells 2,443′ (183)

Date: 16 September 1993

From: High Stile

Back, long ago, when we set out to climb Haystacks, once we reached Scarth Gap Pass and looked to our right, there was collective agreement, excluding my six-year-old sister, that the fell we were looking at was shaped uncannily like Great Gable. This was High Crag, the third and least regarded of the High Stile range, the eastern end of the very straight ridge. The ascent from here, up Gamlin End, looked fierce and stressful: stony and steep. I decided that when I climbed it, it would not be from this direction. The High Stile Range was an obvious end-of-week Big Walk, but was another one marred by a low cloud level, with nothing to see from High Stile. I made my way down and to the right for the ridge to High Crag. By the time I got there, the cloud had dissipated entirely, and it was a scorching afternoon. I walked quietly along the ridge, which I remember as being very narrow and very level. The path was slightly on the Burtness Comb side and I had time to look thoroughly across its vast expanse, whilst keeping a safe eye on where I was putting my boots. At last, the ridge bridged to High Crag itself, with a relatively short uphill slope to reach the summit. The descent by Gamlin End was every bit as steep as it had looked from Scarth Gap, scraped thin of stones but still a knee-cracker. I had the opportunity to bypass the little ridge of Seat and take a short cut down to the upper section of Scarth Gap but instead, despite my increasingly burning soles, I crossed it manfully and returned to the Pass summit, like those long years before. I made my slow way down to the lakeside and, with my car parked at Buttermere Village, followed the quiet, level, shaded lakeshore at no great speed. if there had been a place where I could safely have gotten down to the actual shore without being likely to fall in, I would have seriously gone back in time and paddled my feet for half an hour. C’est la vie.


The Office: s02 e05/06 – Charity/Interview


In the words of Andy Williams, half a century ago, where do I begin?

When The Office, and especially the second series, was around twenty years ago, I confidently gave it as my opinion that this was the Fawlty Towers of our generation, and nothing since has given me any reason to question that opinion. Everything about it, the writing, the acting, the direction, the attention to detail, the facial expressions in the background, the brilliance of the way the cast react to the constant presence of the ‘mockumentary’ cameras, the willingness to permit silence and inaction to heighten the pitch and even the trick of the format when Tim Canterbury removes his microphone in the last episode, these are all fundamental aspects of the sheer brilliance of the series from start to this inglorious, almost operatic ending.

When I compare the show to Fawlty Towers, though the two are chalk and cheese, I’m only recognising the decision by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who plays a cameo role in episode 5, demonstrating the horrible realisation that Gareth Keenan is not unique) to limit their story to two series of six episodes each, twelve episodes overall, in tribute to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s original work. Both series refuse to push their luck by going on until the inevitable decline arrives, and indeed The Office has an extra reason for not doing so: how can you maintain the intensity of something like this? It’s already at a pitch such that by the end of each episode I have to massage the palms of each hand, to try to smooth out four crescent shaped indentations, caused by my fingernails digging in.

When I was at school, we studied plays in English, almost invariably Shakespeare, but we did also do Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which was the occasion for discussions of the definition of tragedy. As defined classically, Tragedy is the fall of a great man from a high place: Lear, Hamlet, MacBeth. The word has long since ceased to be used so strictly, so it is appropriate in modern usage to describe The Office as a tragedy, David Brent’s story a tragedy. He’s neither great nor in a high place, but then neither was Willy Loman. What we’re seeing over the final two episodes is the inevitable working out of a fate that dervies from David Brent’s nature: his illusions, his thin-skinedness, his unwarranted self-aggrandisement.

Episode 5 centres the series upon the BBC’s Children in Need Day. Brilliantly, the series was scheduled to broadcast this episode in Children in Need week, with Wernham Hogg’s contribution to the event running like mercury through the episode. Now I’ll admit that I don’t watch Children in Need, nor Comic Relief, because I am allergic to the combination of schmalz and contrived wackiness. The latter was on display in the episode, it’s essential childishness emphasised by Tim’s efforts to rise above and ignore it – I really did sympathise with him – and it was the perfect vehicle for Brent to flourish in his inimitable way. At least we hope it’s not imitable.

Inevitably, Neil Godwin showed up and out-performed him, dressing as John Travolta and doing a quite impressive Saturday Night Fever dance together with Tim’s girlfriend Rachel and putting Brent’s nose so far out of joint that no carpenter in the world could have straightened it out again. This led to the infamous Brent Dance, which no words, except possibly anthropoid, can describe.

You have to congratulate Patrick Baladi for his performance as Neil. He is, in the show’s terms, the villain, as double-dyed black as any Sir Jasper, and on top of that he’s smooth, calm, controlled, intelligent, competent and sensible, a combination of characteristics that ought to have us loathing him like any proper audience. You’d hate someone that slick in real life. But Baladi plays him straight, decent and reasonable. He’s got David Brent to deal with.

And that showed the show’s supreme versatility. So far it’s been a highly-polished farce, and not just Brent. There’s Gareth, there’s Tim, there’s Keith dressed as Ali G, even Lucy’s contributing, selling kisses for a £1 and having to endure not just Finchy’s crudities but the idiocy of Gareth’s other infantile mate. Tim pops in a quid but doesn’t want a kiss, but Dawn insists. It’s a sweet moment, not passionate but lasting that noticeable few moments longer than such a thing should, but it’s one that plainly rocks both of them, in ways that throw off both their balances.

Then, without stripping a gear in any way, the show shifts tone and content effortlessly. Neil and Jennifer are here for a meeting with Brent, abut a report he promised to have done. Of course he hasn’t even started it, instead he’s been dreaming up game shows of quite startling banality. He’s trying to shuffle the blame off, what’s more important, feeding starving children or writing a report? There’s no doubt as to which is more important to Neil or Jennifer, who have everything in proportion. The inevitable happens with stunning speed. Brent gets a Verbal Warning: three of these and he’s out. He invites all three at once with the infuriating sneering inability to see even the trees, let alone the wood.

So they come back and they offer him a generous Redundancy Package. For once, David Brent shows a moment of perception. Are you inviting me to take this, or are you ordering me to take this? It is, of course, the latter. And he emerging from behind his desk to reveal he’s wearing a Norman Collier chicken outfit that he quite naturally mistakenly thinks is Rod Hull.

It’s only where everything has been going this series, and Brent’s anger at this rejection is, again typically, directed at its timing, not the fact of it in the first place. He doesn’t care, he’s got other irons in the fire, that lot out there will mutiny.

No, they won’t. Episode 6 deals with Brent’s last day, but there’s a second and no less significant falling out to be negotiated, and that is Tim and Dawn. Watching it aroused an awful lot of personal feelings: not only is Martin Freeman an absolutely brilliant actor but in terms of his relationship with Dawn he is acting out far too many of my own experiences for real comfort.

So: Dawn, who has never been happy in her job at Wernham Hogg, hands in her notice. She and Lee are going to the States for six months, to stay with Lee’s sister in Florida. The news hits Tim. He’s already broken up with office hotshot Rachel, because he’s still too emotionally fixated on Dawn. This has reduced Rachel to tears and leads to a moment when Gareth decides to go over and ‘clear up (his) mess’. For once, Tim isn’t joking when he pleads with Gareth not to do it, he’s genuinely fearful, though he needn’t be. Gareth barely gets to speak Rachel’s name before she tells him to fuck off (a first use of the f-bomb in the show, and demonstrating that it’s sparing use, in situations where no better response can be called upon, can making it hilarious).

Then comes the moment. We’ve already had the hint, from Dawn’s reaction to Lee’s blythe confidence about how she can get a job as a receptionist out there, that her future might not necessarily be the dream she’s pursuing. Then Tim, doing an interview to camera about Dawn’s leaving, suddenly breaks out, heads to reception, draws her into a waiting room to talk, and removes both his and her microphones. The screen goes utterly silent. We see them talk, or rather him talk, voluably. Then Dawn hugs him. Tim comes out and goes back to his desk. He’s fumbling about his clip-on microphone, to restore it to place, but first he holds it to his mouth and simply says, in that especially cheerful voice we use when we’re pretending to shrug off devastation, ‘She said no, by the way.’

But it all comes down to Brent. HJe’s being his fatuous self all episode, ‘moving on’, giving more of himself to a wider world. Not just Slough, but Reading, and a whole host of places known only to inhabitants of the Thames Valley. He’s also being interviewed for the trade paper, by Olivia Colman, no less, and trying to dictate every word instead of answer any questions.

And this is the scenario for the retuern of Ray and Jude, the Management Consultants. Not to discuss further engagements but to bin him off. It’s the ultimate, the crash of crashes, and it gets the other profanity, a serious cry of Fucking Hell! torn from Brent in a moment of complete rock bottom despair. Then he throws them out, the journalist included.

It’s also a moment of extreme terror for David Brent. When Neil and Jennifer arrive with the Redundancy Package Agreement, a generous one, Brent has nothing left but a plea. An abject plea. Please don’t make me redundant. Is he finally beginning to see himself as others see him? Please, don’t say its definite. Don’t take my job.

Again, that the show can encompass the farcical actions, conversations and behaviours we have curdled over and make something like this in virtually the same moment, and to do it in just twelve episodes, six hours of film, shows the level at which it has operated.

The final moment goes to Dawn, sat on Reception, looking into space. The phone rings. Slowlky she drags herself back from wherever she is, picks it up and answers, ‘Wenham Hogg.’

How do you top perfection? You do it by offering up another ending. Next week.

All the Fells: Heron Pike

Heron Pike

Heron Pike – The Eastern Fells

Date: 5 May 1988/1 July 1995 2,003′ (83)

From: Great Rigg/Great Rigg

My experiences with Heron Pike are a virtual duplicate of those with Great Rigg. It’s the next fell down the ‘Afternoon Arm’ of the Fairfield Horseshoe, the seventh summit of the round, and again my only interest in it as a fell, other than tickboxing, was to get up its back as quickly as possible so I could once more see the incredible view westwards, gradually diminishing in scale but increasing in depth.

The Infinite Jukebox: Badfinger’s ‘Day after Day’

Bands get shafted. It’s always happened, and sometimes it feels like it always will, even though the internet has opened up more and more easily controllable avenues to achieve success, and success’s tangible evidence, money.
I remember when The Small Faces re-united in the late Seventies, and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test under whatever name it was then using, playing what could have been a storming version of ‘All or Nothing’ if Steve Marriott could have kept himself from complaining about how it was one of those hit songs for which they didn’t get any money, and then not being able to enjoy it for the palpable sense that he resented the fuck out of having to play it at all.
And I remember The Stone Roses in 1989, the centre of everything musical, the hinge point on which everything revolved, or would have revolved if they hadn’t been kept out of recording for years because they were trying to get overturned an exploitive recording contract that denied them any royalties on sale of CDs…
But if there has ever been a band who were shafted as cruelly as Badfinger, I really do not want to know.
Badfinger, a Welsh foursome offering the classic two guitars, bass and drums line-up, started life as The Iveys, under which name they were the first band signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records label. Their new name came from the working title of ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’. They were plugged as the ‘new Beatles’ and the publicity was so much that even I, in my impenetrable ignorance, heard of them.
The band’s debut single was a cover of an unreleased Paul McCartney song, ‘Come and Get It’. The demo of this is on one of the Beatles Anthology CDs, and the Badfinger version is identical. It was a big hit in early 1970, the band’s biggest British success, though it came and went to no. 4 without my ever recalling hearing it, at a time when I had Radio 1 on every hour I was at home.
The next year, they released a follow-up, a song called ‘No Matter What’. It was a great, solid-sounding rocker, all crunchy guitars and a powerful chorus with great harmonies. It was a new entry directly into the Top Twenty and it got to no. 5.
Then this song came out in 1972. By then, I had formed the impression that Badfinger only released one song a year. I loved ‘Day After Day’ for the extreme crispness of its production, by George Harrison no less. It combined a very sharp electric guitar lead with some strongly strummed acoustic guitar, its rhythm section was powerful and fluid and the band’s harmonies were gorgeous.
The song, for all its musical steel, was strangely melancholic. It was a love song, but there was a certain amount of despair to it. I remember finding out about you. I remember holding you while you sleep. The past tense, both the past tense, tempered by immediately following lines about every day my mind is all about you, every day I feel the tears that you weep.
But as the drums slide in, with a controlled bravado, the line that matters is the one about looking out from my lonely room, of my lonely gloom.
Bring it home baby, make it soon, they plead. I give my love to you, they promise. But there’s a forlorn air to things, echoed in the beautiful slide guitar solo, performed simultaneously by Pete Ham and George Harrison. In the end, the song peters out with a flicker of piano notes, and it was gone.
There was a fourth single, but I never heard it, and if it was released in the UK I never heard it until I discovered it on YouTube in 2020. It was a hit in America, and it should have been a hit here, but already maybe it was too late. Harry Nilsson had had a massive world-wide hit with Pete Ham’s song ‘Without You’ but Ham never saw the royalties from that that he so richly deserved. A crooked manager, a vicious contract, penury. In despair, Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975.
Eight years later, also reduced to extreme poverty by complex legal suits dragged out about royalties and earnings, Tom Evans also committed suicide. Maybe the melancholy I attribute to ‘Day After Day’ stems from the knowledge I had of what was already going on, and what would so horrifically soon, come to pass. Two such guys, with all that talent between them, driven to that length by the bastards who fasten on musicians and cheat them unmercifully.
Badfinger never were the ‘next Beatles’. They were the first Badfinger. That meant a lot and it could and should have meant more than it ended up doing. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last, not yet anyway.

All the Fells: Hen Comb

Hen Comb – The Western Fells 1,661′ (180)

Date: 15 September 1993

From: Kirkstile

Hen Comb has a bad reputation from its near-isolation in the wettest Mosedale of them all in the Lake District. It’s entirely deserved, frankly, and the fell itself, once you break through the virtual moat that surrounds it on three sides, offers little but a reasonably elegant shape to warrant the effort to climb it. It really only can be climbed from Kirkstile, and it can’t reasonably be linked with any other fells, none of which can be said to be adjoining except in the loosest sense. I left it to a fairly drab midweek day where the weather was sufficiently uncertain to put the prospect of walking in doubt completely. I used the morning to drive over to Whitehaven for the first time, having spent decades seeing its name on coastal road signposts but never having gone there. Apart from an excellent, attractive harbour, I found little to impress me, though it did offer me a previously unseen view of the Loweswater fells from the ‘outside’, so to speak. Hen Comb itself would only take as much time as would occupy a single afternoon, and it was after 2.00pm before I was in my boots and walking in along long lanes. There were two slightly different routes of approach. To ascend, I followed the path into Mosedale, slowly sinking deeper and deeper as I tried to identify the point Wainwright recommended for breaking uphill onto the ridge. Then it was just a walk uphill, mildly steep, to the narrow, quiet top, surrounded by gulfs on three sides. Apart from the chance to enjoy something of an intimate view of Mosedale and the turn towards Floutern Tarn Pass, there was nothing to hold me. So I walked back down the ridge-line, the whole length to Little Dodd, before dropping down on the right to the Kirkstile lane, beyond the morasses, and strolling back to the car. There was never any incentive to repeat the experience.

Film 2022: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!


Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is the last film from the Pedro Almodovar box-set and the only one I’d heard of before buying the same. Nevertheless, I knew nothing about it in advance, and made sure of not disturbing that innocence by not even reading the blurb on the back of the DVD case. Let my response be as pure as it could be.

Initially, I was enjoying the film, despite not having the proverbial foggiest idea what it was about. It starts with Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from some sort of institution, quickly resolved as a mental hospital rather than a prison. Ricky’s been certified normal. The female Director clearly doesn’t share that opinion, and we’ll learn that she is absolutely right to do so, but at the time we wonder just how much she’s influenced by the fact that, despite her being over twice his age, Ricky’s been screwing her on a regular basis for some time and she’s going to miss it.

So Ricky is released back into Society and, for reasons not explained until later, heads for a film set where it’s the last day of shooting of a horror film, ‘The Midnight Phantom’, directed by famous Director Maximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal), a stroke victim confined to an electric wheelchair. The film stars Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril), a former porn actress and heroin addict. Ricky sneaks into her dressing room, casually stealing anything that catches his eye, like 10,000 pesetas, a set of handcuffs, her sister Lola’s Walkman and Marina’s housekeys.

We see Maximo change the final scene so that instead of being stabbed to death, Marina’s character actually kills the Phantom, in an athletic manner that is rather superheroine like. Ricky tries to speak to Marina but she brushes him off. There’s a wrap-up party at which Marina and Lola, the film’s Assistant Director, are to do a musical turn, but first Marina, who got soaked through in the final scene, heads home to freshen up.

So far, so fun. It’s been bright and breezy without tipping its hand as to where it’s going, but now the film tips that very hand and as far as I was concerned, it went clunk. You see, we later learn that a year ago, Ricky, having escaped from the hospital, met and fucked Marina, when she was still a fucked-up porn star. As a result, he’s developed an obsession with her. He’s decided that he loves her, and that she will love him the same way: he’ll be a great husband to her, and a great father to her kids, of which there’ll be two or three. And to enable this, he breaks into her apartment, hits her in the face, breaking her tooth, holds her prisoner without contact with the outside world and ties her up with duct tape over her mouth every ten minutes or so.

Like you do.

The moment this became apparent, the film was closed off to me. My immediate response was, how trite. And how unbelievable. The disconnect between Ricky’s obsessive desires and any realistic situation was unbridgeable. I know he was basically off his trolley, but I couldn’t escape from the logical idea that no-one, be they man, woman or child, would come to love an oppressor that tried to rule every aspect of their lives, who imprisoned, beat, hurt and tied them up. In my head, that creates an unbreakable barrier, the more strong from it coming from an apparent position of love. How the hell did he think he could get away with this? was the thought ricocheting from one side of my brain to the other.

And yes, I do know of Stockholm Syndrome, though I thought that applying it to such an extreme situation as this was in itself going to be a cliche, and I am also aware of the multiplicity of coercive and controlling relationships where husbands dominate wives to the extent that no amount of abuse can cause them to try to break free, but the majority of those come about gradually, like the proverbial lobster being cooked alive by the slow increase in the temperature of the water in which it is boiled. This kind of invasion, brutal in every respect, in which tenderness is going to be a thing of the future, once she loves him, was unbelievable, and the film foundered on that rock.

We had about an hour of this stuff, two-thirds of the film’s length, increasingy dull. It didn’t help reconcile me to Ricky that he was a completely amoral character, who took what he wanted because he wanted it, without thought or conscience. I’d hesitate to categorise him as a psychopath, but he was clearly on the spectrum and heading there.

Which led to the moment the film took off and nose-dived into the ground. Ricky goes out to score some heroin for Marina, leaving her tied up (but he’s using a nicer rope, and porous duct tape, see, he does love her). Whilst he’s gone, she burns through the rope, frees herself but can’t bust out of the bedroom, so she ties herself up again. Meanwhile, Ricky gets a much-needed comeuppance, getting the crap beaten out of him and robbed because he’d earlier roughed up and stolen from a girl pusher (Rossy De Palma).

So he returns, all beaten and bloody and, in a heartbeat, without the least visible motivation, Marina turns all soppy, cleaning his wounds, weeping on him, hugging him and then giving him one almighty fuck during which she remembers him from last year at last. Awww! Or, what fucking crap!

As if it were posible after such a nadir, it’s all downhill from here. Lola finally finds Marina by accident and gets her out but Marina no longer wants to be free, she’s fallen in love with Ricky, so Lola takes her back to him so they can marry, live with the family, and he’ll miraculously turn into a solid citizen, like hell he will. Anyone who thinks that an amoral twat like Ricky can grow a conscience and responsibility in not even overnight is fooling themselves for the sake of cheating out a happy ending.

I’ve read the film’s Wikipedia entry now, with its Analysis claiming that Almodovar is satirising heterosexual marriage as a thing of binding, tying down with expectations, and the suggestion that this is a Beauty and the Beast analogy in which Victoria Abril’s beauty softens Antonio Banderas’ savage nature, and all I can say is that sometimes people see what they want to see. The film’s failure of rationality makes such notions into over-intellectual fantasies.

I’ve been extremely savage about this film because I enjoyed the first thirty minutes or so, then it crashed spectacularly, into triteness and total implausibility. Yes, Victoria Abril was extremely beautiful and her willingness to undress was cheering, but that was the only factor in the last hour that makes me willing to retain this film. That and the fact that I don’t want to break up the box set, of course.

All the Fells: Helvellyn

Helvellyn – The Eastern Fells 3,118′ (11)

Date: 22 August 1975/10 September 1992/23 July 1994/ 1999

From: Grisedale/White Side/Catstycam/Grisedale

Helvellyn was another of those stepping-stone fells. As one of only four three thousand footers in the Lake District – in England – it is an obvious magnet, despite its surprising lack of distinctive shape. It’s a two-faced fell, an elevated point, an elevated ridge from Grisedale Pass to Sticks Pass, offering a high grassy wall to Thirlmere in the west, and reserving all its better points to Patterdale in the east, yet still no more than a flat top between the two edges, the world-renowned Striding and the lesser but in some ways finer Swirral. The family had never even once looked to climb a three-thousand-footer. Even on Lingmell, looking at the easiest approach to Scafell Pike, they scoffed at the idea of going up. But being based at Patterdale, and able to visit Striding Edge, proved to be the spur they needed. It was a long, hot day, crossing the flank of Birkhouse Moor, to what was then only unofficially ‘The Hole in the Wall’, and then going on to the Edge itself. We avoided the actual edge, whilst I was in awe of walkers taking it, literally, in their stride, carrying on oblivious conversations without seeming to look where they placed their feet. The crisis came at the end: my mother took one look at the rock chimney down which we would have to scramble to escape the Edge and decreed that my twelve-year old sister was not going down that. I knew what that meant: a premature end, a humiliating retreat, everything good about the day ruined in an instant. I kept my mouth shut. This was the last time. Tomorrow we would go home and I would never go on holiday with my family again, because at 19 I was sick of being treated as younger than my sister. But it must have shown on my face because, out of the blue, my mother suggested I went on on my own. Me? Trusted to climb up the face of Helvellyn on my own when, in Manchester, I wasn’t trusted to go to the newsagents without being told to be careful crossing Kingsway. I needed no second urging. They roped me up to descend the chimney, I shrugged off the tether, literally, and bounded up the loose, unruly, criss-crossed face, hitting the summit plateau in an unbelievable one-burst effort that took no more than ten minutes. The first three-thousand-footer. Mine, not the family’s. My first solo summit. I contemplated descending by Swirral Edge, but it was unfamiliar ground, and the start too steep for me without knowledge of the terrain out of sight below, so I dropped back to Striding Edge, dropped down to Red Tarn and followed its shores back to rejoin my family, well content. As last walks went, it was worthy. It was nearly twenty years before I returned, tracking down last Wainwrights. I had an ambitious walk in mind, my self-titled Outer Circle, walking the whole ridge between Sticks Pass and Grizedale Pass. It was the week-ending Big Walk but, as such things sometimes did, it fell foul of the weather. Clouds haunted Helvellyn’s top from the moment I parked but I forged onwards and upwards stubbornly, defying the cloud line to stay where it was all day. It ignored my defiance. I ended up on the steep ascent to Helvellyn Little Man, looking across to Swirral Edge where shadowy outlines disappeared between outcrops and cloud patches. There was between two to three hundred feet of cloud on the top, which I didn’t like, especially given the near proximity of a cliff edge. Nor were there paths across the summit: it had been so over-walked that everywhere was, effectively, the broadest of a single path. Nevertheless I got to the wall-shelter, though it was so busy up there, irrespective of the cloud, that I would have had to book a fortnight in advance in order to have gotten into the leeside of the shelter. I ate my sandwiches, fending off sheep who were trying to get them out of my hands, and all the while thirty seconds did not go by without more figures solidifying out of the cloud. I didn’t trust going on so retreated back over White Side, dropped down through Kepple Cove and finished off along a remarkable engineered level path from the old Lead Works almost to Grisedale Village. I had a parallel walk I’d called the Inner Circle, basically Helvellyn up and down by both Edges and including Birkhouse Moor and Catstycam, so one fine, glorious summer Saturday, I motored up to Grisedale to merge that into the outstanding Outer Circle fells, even though that meant foregoing Striding Edge. This was the day of my Test Match Special Cap Radio and my encounter with Harry Griffin, and I left him on Catstycam for Swirral Edge, a glorious scramble that I would have welcomed being twice as long. My final visit was in the year 1999, when I set myself the task of climbing all four three thousand footers in one summer (as will be related on a future occasion, I fell one short). This was supposed to be my Striding Edge moment: Grizedale, the flank of Birkhouse Moor, and then the Edge by the edge. I got about a third of the way before reaching a crest whose further slope was just too steep for me. I retreated to the path, descended the chimney without ropes, took the face very much more slowly than I had in 1975, made my last visit to the top, and scrambled down Swirral Edge and across to the Hole in the Wall for the long, scorching, slanted descent to Grisedale.

Alan White R.I.P.

I spent my adolescence among friends who constantly played progressive music at and around me. One spin of Yes’s ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ was more Yes than I ever wanted to hear in a lifetime, and I had to sit through it nearly half a dozen times. Now Alan White, the drummer who joined the band for that double album has passed on, aged 72.

I shalln’t miss him, not in the way that the fans of that era already do, nor much if any of the music he contributed too. But I’ll stand up and salute his passing, as yet one more figure from the days when I was young and eager and learning what I wanted from the world. He and Yes were colossii who bestrode that world and cast a very long shadow, and even if I learned through him and his fellows what I didn’t want, then he still taught me, and helped shape me. One by one they vanish.

All the Fells: Helm Crag

Helm Crag – The Central Fells 1,299′ (12)

Date: 22 March 1983/30 October 1989

From: Grasmere/Gibson Knott

Helm Crag is, in its own way, as significant to my career as a fellwalker as was Haystacks. That was the last fell with Dad. The four of us carried on walking, from 1971 to 1975 and, as far as the others went, beyond. Beyond a single day out, I was not to return to the Lakes until late 1981, when, having recently bought my first car, I motored up for a couple of days. Even then, it took me another eighteen months, and a much needed week’s break between a job that had turned extremely stressful and one that I hoped (correctly) would be much better, that I got away. Like before, I took my walking boots, anorak and rucksack, but this time I used them. A night’s stay at Ambleside, the restless urge to go on to Keswick, but stopping in Grasmere on the way, getting my gear on, and going out on the fells for the first time in nearly eight years to climb Helm Crag. I left the car at 10.00am for the long walk towards Easedale and the turn towards Helm Crag. This was the old route, the one depicted in Wainwright’s own edition of his own book. There were no major issues with erosion then, but it was steep going getting to the main spine of the fell, or steep at least for me. I struggled up, sweating and swearing to myself, reminding myself ruefully that only eight years previously I had been romping up Helvellyn: dammit, I was only 27 and I had been playing squash every week for years! Things eased up on the ridge, and there was actually a very pleasant and scenic ascent from there, one now denied to generations of walkers who have to take the new path. At the top, I carefully levered myself up to the head of the Official Lion and Lamb, overlooking the Vale of Grasmere, and visited the base of the Unofficial Lion, the Howitzer, the highest point, wondering if I was up to reaching the highest point, but concluding wisely that, at that point, I certainly wasn’t. I turned round and headed back, regaining the car at 12.30pm, finishing packing everything away in the boot just at the moment the heavens opened and it rained solidly until Thursday morning. I wouldn’t return until the end of the decade, a late October break, ascending Steel Fell and returning over Calf Crag and Gibson Knott. The route back to the car was down from the col behind Helm Crag but I carried on to visit its summit again, before retreating to the col and circling down. Wainwright was right: that side of the summit has very little to recommend it.

Valerian et Laureline: 4 – The Empire of a Thousand Planets


As far as I’m concerned, this is where the Valerian et Laureline series really starts to get into its stride, and it’s not surprising that it’s the first story to break free of Earth, its history and the now-dispatched Xombul.
The story takes place on Syrte, the centre of the eponymous Empire. This gives Christin and Mezieres a first real chance to use their imaginations, freed of the restrictions of humanity’s customs and geographies. The story is introduced by a fantastically atmospheric swirl of dark, star-filled space, a galactic curve using less than half a page amid acres of white space, as if being looked into via some kind of portal. It’s a grand and glorious tease, and the creators give themselves three full pages to depict the glories and curiosities of Syrte, the races that trade, the goods they trade, the market, the palace, the landscapes, the alienness that invests in the familiar. For the first time we feel we are really a long way from home.
This kind of dazzle, this flair, will be an intrinsic part of the series hereafter, but we still need our heroes, so enter a very familiarly-shaped Galaxity ship, exiting from a spatiotemporal jump on the penultimate leg, Val and Laureline halting to record a mission log that sets up their visit: to observe Syrte, to not get involved, to determine if it is a potential threat to Earth’s own Empire.
Unfortunately, good intentions don’t count for much. Syrte is led by a Prince, an example of decadence, and no doubt inbreeding, in his pleasure-loving, easily-led state (easily-led by Laureline, of course). But it is increasingly dominated by a kind of priest-caste, the steel-masked Enlightened, the villains of the story, suppressing and repressing science and space routes, increasingly dominating the world and the Empire.
And they identify Laureline as a threat, an enemy, an emissary from the Earth which they hate and are sworn to destroy, because she has bought a strange and wonderful object in the marketplace that she understands and can name, where it and its purpose are wholly unknown to Syrtians: it is a watch. It tells Time, and Syrtians tell time innately, internally infallibly. What need have they of Watches and Clocks?
But the Enlighteneds know what a watch is and what it’s for and by that token they know our intrepid pair are not from round here and have them seized. However, seizing and keeping are two different things, and the resourceful agents are soon on the run, into the hinterlands and the forests and swamps.
With the aid of Marcyam Hunters, Val and Lauerline return to the capital. Their first attempt to penetrate the Palace, disguised in gorgeous robes as Ambassadors, is rebuffed but it draws them to the attention of Elmir, the clothes merchant, who agrees to get them smuggled in. There’s a high degree of paranoia surrounding the palace that has grown over the near hundred years since the Enlighteneds first appeared.
This is where our pair get separated, Laureline winding up enchanting the Prince, Val captured and drugged to tell all about their spaceship. However, our favourite redhead is growing into her role as a successful and independent Agent who does the thinking whilst Val does the heavy-lifting, and she gets the Prince to release her partner, unharmed, over the heads and the will of the Enlightened.
And their reunion is marked by the first overt arms-round-each-other kiss, establishing quite clearly just to what extent Val and Laureline are a pair.
Outside the Palace again, the Agents need to find a bolthole safe from the Enlighteneds. Elmir has given them an address to find, Black Street, which takes them into the seedy darkness of the city, the underclass, the poor who are overlooked in every city and Empire. Where Elmir reveals he is more than a mere clothes-seller, but rather the Grandmaster of the Guild of Merchants. The Enlighteneds are not merely substituting religion for science, ignorance for knowledge, isolation for commonality, but they are buggering up trade, and that’s serious.
With Val and Laureline’s ship, and its spatiotemporal capabilities, at their head, the Merchant’s Guild intends to foment rebellion and overthrow the Enlightened. A fleet of ships from dozens of planets of the Empire, each specialists in some discipline or another, just as a city contains quarters where the masters of one industry or another cluster. They will make a direct attack on the lonely, isolated dusty asteroid of Slohm, in the Constellation of the Eagle. This is the Enlighteneds’ base, in an enormous shipwrecked spaceship. The Enlighteneds are aliens, from out-system. Who are they, and where are they from? The answer is meant to be the twist and, who knows, in 1970 it might have come as a genuinely unexpected revelation, but we are older now, we have read more, and we can foresee where Christin and Mezieres are heading.
By now, most of the comic elements of the story have been brushed into the background. The fleet, its silent approach across empty space, it’s solemn seriousness takes the story into the realms of the epic. There are still human moments: Elmir identifies Val and Laureline’s craft as having spatiotemporal capabilities, and more or less extrapolates their base to be Earth, but fear not, their interest is expanding markets, not Empire.
There’s a magnificent single page for a deadly act as Val pilots the ship through a complex series of Jumps through microseconds of time and a small space, appearing practically simultaneously at every point and destroying all the Enlighteneds craft.
And finally there is the invasion of their Headquarters where the Enlighteneds have acknowledged they have been beaten. What’s more, by one of their own The Enlighteneds are Earthmen, survivors of a first expedition that was believed lost in space, destroyed, but instead crashed, its crew poisoned by radiation yet made immortal by an extract made from a liquid found on Slohm with a mythical background.
So they became immortal, and hated immortally, took Syrte in hand for the purposes of an attack on the Earth that made them this way. In vain, Valerian argues that they could return, in honour, that Earth could repair its damaged children. But hatred is too powerful. The Enlighteneds cannot give up what has sustained them for so long, their only purpose for surviving. They have lost, and the fate for losers is death.
And with their death, rebellion rises on Syrte. The Royal Family aren’t going to last this one out, we realise. A very mercantile and middle-class Empire is being born, that one way or another will find its own way to Earth but in Elmir’s hands it will be to trade not to fight.
As the title makes plain, part of this story went into Luc Besson’s 2017 film (I’d still love to see another, even with Dane Dehaan as Val), the market place and the idea. It deserves that status. Though a much less mixed treatment might have been a better bet, ‘The Empire of a Thousand Planets’ having quite enough of a story in itself for a decent little flick. Although it might have had to face accusations of being too much like Star Wars if it had.
And we know why, don’t we, boys and girls?