Miss Perfect


We’ve known her for decades as Christine McVie, because of her marriage to Fleetwood Man bassist John McVie, but before that she was Christine Perfect, and she sang and played piano with another British Blurs Band, Chicken Shack, including on their only top 20 hit. She was too good for Fleetwood Mac, frankly, their best singer, and writer of some of their best songs. Now she too has joined that ever-burgeoning band in the stars, at the age of 79, and we won’t hear a voice like hers again any time soon. I’ll remember her this way.

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Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 3 – Elidor


Elidor

Instead of completing the Weirdstone of Bringamen trilogy he’d originally envisaged, Alan Garner chose to go in a different direction. Elidor, like its predecessors, is a fantasy, and it uses themes from Celtic mythology, but this time to create a land, a world, a dimension physically separated from our mundane reality, and not hidden within it. At the same time, the story is still about that world interacting with our own. It’s a more sophisticated, and a yet darker story, showing Garner progressing his craft.
It’s also a smaller, slighter book than either of its predecessors. This is down to Garner honing his craft of writing shorter. It’s a learning curve: the more he leaves out, the deeper the story goes, evoking what the reader recognises but does not understand, but which our long ancestors would have understood instinctively. His actual writing, in terms of words, is still plain, and natural, but that is because there is much more narrative – to be expected with four protagonists, all Mancunian – with description being reduced proportionately.
Once again, Garner structures his story around an initial adventure that appears to come to a climax, with a second and longer phase then following after a breather: in this case a whole year elapsing free from comment. The first phase is taken up with the four Watson children being drawn into the dying land of Elidor, and being tasked with safeguarding four treasures which can, if the right circumstances come about, be used to restore the land to life.
Once again, there’s more than a hint of Narnia in here, especially as Garner, like Lewis, inverts the usual setting whereby the fantasy world is superior: natural, alive, unmarred by modern technology and altogether a nostalgic throwback to simpler times. The thing is that Elidor is all of that, or rather it was. Now it is all but overcome by Darkness (unspecified), its land dead and decaying, three of its four bright castles dark and led by a crippled King, Malebron, who seems to be its only inhabitant, insistent that the four children take with them one each of the four Treasures: a stone, a sword, a cup and a spear.
Elidor’s existence as a dead land is made more pointed by having the children access it from an exact earthly parallel, an area of slum clearance just north of Manchester City Centre, part of the great programme of redevelopment in the Sixties that, in time, swept away my grandparents and aunt’s terraced homes and, after we had left it, the house I had grown up in until age 11. And of course the limping Malebron is a clear Fisher King symbol, not that I was aware of any such reflection when I first read the book.
I haven’t yet spoken of the children except for their part in the story. These are a single family, named Watson, three brothers and a sister, in descending order of age Nicholas, David, Helen and Roland (the book’s introductory epigram is the classic line ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’). We’re not given their ages, nor are the personalities of the elder three more than lightly sketched out. Apart from a short section on the first page, the entire book is seen through the eyes and mind of Roland, the youngest: we are not shown anything he isn’t party to.
Roland is very much the youngest. I can’t help seeing him as no more than 10, though he may be younger in the first phase of the book before a full year passes. If he’s older than that it starts to cause problems with his older siblings. Helen I imagine as 12, David 14 and Nicholas 15. He is the real constraint in what the others can be.
And Roland is very much the cuckoo in the nest. He’s an imaginative, highly-strung child. Though each of his siblings is summoned before him, and fails, it is Roland who wins through in Elidor, who imprints the family front door onto a sealed mound and later has to pull it down with his mind when it becomes an entry into our world. And it is Roland who believes, utterly and passionately, in Elidor, in their mission, in the absolute reality of what the four children experience, when each of the others – old enough to question and doubt that reality – want to distance themselves, accept that their limitations as children disqualify them from being able to ‘save’ Elidor, and are quite rightly afraid of something they do not at all understand.
After the return from Elidor itself, the Treasures turn into an ordinary (and heavy) stone, two laths nailed together to mimic a sword, an ordinary cracked cup and an iron railing. This helps the three older children keep Elidor separate from the real world, even though the effect the mere presence of the Treasures has on television, radio and electricity, demonstrates their real power. There’s something horribly spooky about an unplugged food mixer turning itself on and running all night until its motor burns out.
Garner also sets up for the diversion into Elidor to take place on the last day before the Watson’s move out of their house on Fog Lane, in Burnage – a house less than fifteen minutes walk from where I then lived! – to an unnamed village six miles away that is, of course, Alderley, though no Alderley we have yet seen in his books. It’s what enables him to place four such young (and middle-class) children in Manchester City Centre on their own, and it becomes necessary for Roland and co to be more distant than Burnage would be from the slum clearance area to which everything will return for the dangerous climax. I mention this mainly because Garner avoids introducing anything specifically Cestrian: you can take the kids out of Manchester but you can’t take Manchester out of the kids.
Much of the second phase is a battle of perception between Roland and his siblings, especially Nick. Roland has always let his imagination run away with him, we understand, making him both an irritant to the rest – the youngster who refuses to grow out of childish games – and, as much as if not more than the Treasures, the one person keeping Elidor itself alive.
But as long as the Treasures exist, there is hope. Elidor’s invaders can, however, triangulate upon their whereabouts in our world (wrapped in polythene bags and buried in an old dustbin under Mr Watson’s prized rose bushes) and they try to break through. And Roland’s determination to prove to everybody else that he’s right enables two of them to do just that, bringing a primitive but genuine danger into the world.
So we have our climax, on New Year’s Eve, back where the children entered Elidor. They bring the Treasures, hoping somehow to get them back to Malebron, fearing the invaders and their spears, at their back. And a figure of pure fantasy has also broken through from Elidor, Findhorn, whose song can save Elidor. Findhorn is a unicorn, with which ‘no man (may) mell’, according to the prophecy, save a ‘makeless maid’. That is obviously going to be Helen.
But Helen’s calming of Findhorn and dispelling his fear makes the unicorn vulnerable to the last surviving invader’s spear. Yet that is the trigger: the dying Findhorn raises his voice in glorious song, Elidor blazes with golden light again and the children hurl the Treasures back through the portal, leaving them alone, at night, in the middle of a cleared slum.
Even more so than with The Moon of Gomrath, the ending is sudden, leaving numerous questions as to what happens next in the reader’s head. It is as if Gollum having inadvertently taken the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Tolkien ended the story there. We have Alan Garner’s word that, if the book had gone on one more line, Roland would have gone mad, and more than any other reading I’ve made of the book, I saw the truth of it so clearly: his obsession with Elidor, his single-minded and reckless fixation on it being real, his inability to accept the real world around him and then a complete removal of his fixation physically and in every respect: what has he left?
With Elidor, Garner’s writing is progressing. Elidor is the first and only fantasy land he creates, and it is structured firmly upon myth to the extent that it is as if he is using a real place, a France or Germany, but the majority of the book is grounded in a real and definitely Mancunian world, where Elidor the fantasy is instead an intrusion, and a dangerous one. The idea is sophisticated, especially in children’s fiction, but the fit isn’t exact and the story is a little awkward for it.
Elidor the novel was profusely illustrated by Charles Keeping, whose impressionistic style, heavily laden with swirls of black ink, is initially jarring but which, on longer exposure, works brilliantly to convey the atmosphere of the book. He’s anti-naturalistic, and when there are multiple layers to the image, makes no attempt to distinguish foreground and background, forcing you to concentrate on his drawing, to great effect. I was amused to note that where he draws the three older children as all having curly hair, Roland’s is straight and short, separating him from his family in a subliminal manner. Very interesting.
Thirty years after the book first appeared, Garner collaborated with playwright Don Webb to adapt Elidor into a six part BBC TV serial, the third of his novels to receive such a treatment. It was, to be frank, a disaster. Due to the inability to recreate the dirt and atmosphere of the mid-Sixties Manchester slum clearances, the setting was updated to the present day and so were the four Watsons. They all immediately became older, mentally and emotionally, and physically older than I intuit them to be from the book. Their actions and preoccupations were changed. They were more cynical, in the modern manner, which made Elidor itself less possible to be believed. As for Elidor, the effects used in its depiction were cheap and drew attention to themselves as effects and the invaders were represented by stereotypical barbarians in hairy cloaks, riding horses purposelessly along beaches in too much light and snarling, over and over. Of the three adaptations for TV, this was the tenth best. Unsurprisingly, it has never been released on DVD.

The World At War: e12 – Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – March 1944)


WAW

Like the episode two weeks ago about the North Atlantic Convoys, The World At War‘s twelfth episode was about a more abstract aspect of the Second World War, not a phase or a theatre of operations, marked with battles and outcomes, but an ongoing, daily thing that covered a much longer period of time, without necessarily taking on a marked shape. And its end point was not in victory but rather in a tactical shift that changed the priorities that had gone on for almost the whole length of the War to this point.

The episode set off in an unusual manner. Instead of the usual portentous Introduction by Laurence Olivier, we went straight to the voices of those who were there at the time, and these exclusively, creating a picture of Britain in war-time, the music, the dancing, the speeches. The Battle of Britain had been won by Fighter Command, Hitler’s military attention was turned eastwards, and now was the time for the RAF’s other branch, Bomber Command, under the leadership of Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, to come to the forefront. Harris is a controversial figure among War historians and later generations, though the episode did not allow this to creep in, save in Harris’s occasional faint defensiveness to accusations never made.

The tactical point was that Britain had been, and was, on the defensive. For so many reasons, not least morale, it had to fight back, be proactive in taking the fight back to Germany. It was the same need that took the War into North Africa. In Europe, there was no means to attack, except by bombing German targets: Bomber Command were the only ones able to take the offensive.

At first, this was disastrous, and almost completely ineffectual. Daylight raids meant being picked off by the Luftwaffe: bomber planes were bigger and had the greater range but were incomparably slow compared to fighter planes. So Harris switched to night operations, which were more economical of planes and crew but were hampered by the ansence of light with which to find or see targets. It was estimated that of every hundred bombs, no more than three fell within five miles of their targets.

Yet the raids were good for morale, and propaganda films made them look twenty times more effective than they were. Later in the War, technological advances would greatly alleviate the dependence on eyesight, but in the meantime Harris moved to co-ordinated mass raids, known as Strategic Bombing. What this meant was area bombing, the concerted devastation of a target area instead of a precison target. The general intention was to disrupt and destroy German industry, War manufacture of all kinds, but this indiscriminate bombing also meant massive civilian deaths.

The attitudes displayed had an horrific undertone that we can indulge in now, in an era where such choices are not being asked of us. At the time, and perhaps how else could it have been seen, it was a combination of cold-blooded revenge – they had dished it out to us in London, Coventry and Liverpool, now they could have it back (the episode title derived from Harris himself, quoting Scripture: ‘they have sewn the wind: now they will reap the whirlwind’) – and the determination to break the enemy. Indeed, after the firestorm visited upon Cologne in 1942, the first thousand strong bomber raid, Albert Speer, Minister for Armanents, stated that seven such raids would force Germany to surrender. This was the whole intent of Harris’ campaign, to shorten the War by, effectively, terrorising the enemy into surrendering.

But Bomber Command did not have the resources for what might have ended things abruptly.

The episode also discussed the different tactics of Bomber Command, with its night raids involving strings of individual planes, and the daylight actions of the US 8th Air Force, with its highly-efficient and perfected formation flying, enabling the planes to protect themselves to a very large degree, without fighter support. Interestingly, among the voices discussing the American tactics was one Squadron Commander James Stewart, yes, the Jimmy Stewart, making one of a very comments upon his distinguished War service, discussing a disastrous raid in the industrial town of Schweinfurt.

There was also a very revealing interview with William Reid, an ordinary middle-aged man, a former Bomber Pilot, talking calmly and diffidently about a raid in which his plane was hit, his navigator killed, his controls damaged. Reid talked about not being able to turn back because to do so would take him into oracross the path of the rest of his squadron, so he completed the raid and got his plane back, as if these were just difficulties that had to be overcome. Only after he’d finished speaking did the programme silently show that he had won the Victoria Cross for this action.

But it was like that then.

Though the programme did not actually exclude the issue totally, nevertheless the effects of the raids, the bombings of Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin were given plenty of exposure by local picture footage, led inevitably to a consideration of the moral aspect. Harris was not just nick-named ‘Bomber’ but also, within the RAF, ‘Butch’, from which you could not escape the echo of ‘Butcher’. The pragmatic side of me says that this was War, and war against an enemy to whom we dare not lose, and that alone justified the tactics we, or rather Harris, pursued. One of my favourite films ever is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that, in 1943, debated the morality of copying the enemy’s vile tactics, so I have faced such questions before.

But the footage kept reminding me that these were people like us. And once you begin to identify with the ‘enemy’, and see them as human beings…

In the end, and very much against Harris’ wishes, the bombing campaign came to an abrupt ending in March 1944, just as the arrival of the American Mustang fighters broke Germany’s control of its own airspace: a fighter with the range and endurance of a bomber. It was a change of tactics. General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, took over strategic command of the RAF as well, and ordered the focus of the attacks be hanged away from the terror inflicted on German cities. Harris protested, but it was of no avail. There was now a new priority for 1944, which Bomber Command was required to support – the reinvasion of Europe.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Alan Bown’s ‘Little Lesley’


I am told that, not only was this record released as a single in 1968 but that, despite making no impression whatsoever on even the Top 50 of the day, the band were invited into Top of the Pops to perform it. Obviously this was on one of the programmes where the tape was wiped for re-use so there’s no way of checking if that was true, or simply the fantasy it obviously must be. I mean, a record like this on the Nation’s Favourite Pop Television? No way can that have been true.
But it very much is true in alternate universes, in which the BBC and the Great British Record Buying Public’s toleration, nay avid taste for bright and unusual musical sounds was much more well-developed than the crappy one we’re stuck with. In such universes, this song got more than just a fleeting wiped appearance, it got the repeated exposures a top 5 hit deserved. If only.
The band was formed by Alan Bown, a trumpeter who came out of the early Sixties jazz and r’n’b scenes, to become a member of the John Barry Seven, and the band’s stage leader when Barry decided to concentrate more upon composing. Coming out of the Seven on its dissolution, Bown founded The Alan Bown Set with three other former members of the Seven, continuing to work in r’n’b – their flop single ‘Emergency 999’ went on to become a Northern Soul Classic.
But in 1967, Bown dissolved the band and reformed it, this time merely as The Alan Bown!, turning the group in the direction of psychedelia. The following year they definitely did appear on TOTP with their buoyant single ‘We Can Help You’ (a very blurry film of this can be found on YouTube) but it’s chances of progressing, which seemed pretty decent, were holed by another of those record-pressing company strikes that killed so many potential hits.
According to Wikipedia, ‘Little Lesley’ was a b-side, to the completely unsuccessful ‘Story Book’. That figures: its gentle sound, its almost twee song-subject are more suited to being the track on which groups could get away with experimenting because the record company couldn’t give a toss. I first discovered it when I first discovered pop-sike, and wanted to hear as much of what was categorised as such, and when YouTube’s algorithms took you to more of the same kind of music instead of the stuff you’d already played twice or more.
I think it’s beautiful, and if it is twee, then it’s twee that should be held up as wonderful, open and honest and in no way cringeworthy. Little Lesley, sweet and lovely, helps her mother, loves her brother, helps her daddy do the dishes, gets the food and feeds the fishes…
It’s a picture that brings my long ago past close to the surface again, that past that can’t ever be retrieved, when everything was as good as it ever could get, when your parents loved and protected you and you had no fears or responsibilities, except those you wanted to share, by doing things to help them, because you’re with them and part of them. All grown up at four years old, they sing, loves to mother all her dolls, keeps her house incredibly smart, a little girl with a large heart.
It’s a word picture, of everything we hope a little girl will be at that age, full of confidence, full of innocence, free of fear and sorrow. She sews her dollies’ dresses, has a teddy bear she caresses. Don’t tell me that that’s incredibly dated, or that it’s sexist. It’s a little girl in the midst of her family, free completely of shadow. She’s probably not even started school yet.
And she’s everything you want to see thrive and grow in this world because what she will be as she grows can only be good both in and for this flawed world, that in her own small way she will improve just by being there. Though she’s only four foot two, a little mind with a large view (she) knows all the ways to be kind… and what more should we ever ask of anyone than that they know that and, like Little Lesley, she will practice that, and give all the sympathies she can find, and the song shifts down to its closing line that shows her that she is completely of love, for the ones she adores…
Yes, I know, it’s twee all the way up to and far above that four foot two, but twee cannot be twee when it’s told with the greatest sincerity we have. Once upon a time nearly all of us were like this, certainly the ones with parents who loved and cared, and who taught with kindness, not some of the bastards who should be shot before ever they’re allowed near any children, least of all their own. And yet we still fall from this state of grace. How do we do that? Why do we do it? Why can’t we be like this, for all the ones we adore?

Film 2022: The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins


Sins

You know that feeling you get when something catches your eye? Everybody tells you that it’s rubbish. You can tell yourself, just by looking at it, that it’s rubbish. But your curiosity has been aroused. You want to find out for yourself just how and in whay way it’s rubbish. And maybe, perhaps, given that you rarely go with the tide, might you discover that it’s actually not as bad as they say? And the DVD is so cheap on eBay…

If the paragraph above seems familiar, that’s because it is: I have repeated it, word for word, from my post about the British sexploitation film Girls of Shame a few weeks ago, to which this post is by way of a Part 2. On this occasion, I had seen the film previously, though I remembered only one part of it, and that because it was a retread of something I’d seen previously. And watching the film again, at the end of November in this year of dismay and shame, that was the only thing I remembered having seen before.

The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins is a portmanteau film, a collection of seven sketches each with different casts and mostly different writers, built upon the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. It was made in 1971, which accounts for the profusion of ‘saucy’ girls in hot pants and knee-length boots, but also for the presence of Middle of the Road (credited as The Middle of the Road) singing the theme song: must we always take trhe rough with the smooth?

The film is full of British comedy stars, familiar faces that together recall a vanished age. The film’s a capsule in that respect, a slice of time held preserved for the memory of us who were there then, much as is Michael Bentine’s lovely The Sandwich Man, but with one crucial difference: The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins is not funny. More than that, it is anti-funny, capturing (with one glorious exception) every element of humour and sucking it into a Black Hole of deadliness.

The film’s opening demonstrates what hard work it’s going to be. It features a beautiful blonde barefoot in the woods, dressed only in a floor-length white shift which she lets slip to the ground to stand naked. But just as she turns towards us, a cartoon director and cameraman shoot onto the screen, concealing her nipples, explaining that this has nothing to do with the movie, the Director just promised to get his ‘close personal friend’ into films. Quite. The loud clunk you hear is your expectations hitting the floor, and chipping quite a deep hole in it.

Incidentally, the animation is by Bob Godfrey, and sequences of this nature separate each sketch, acting as serial credits. Godfrey was responsible for both Roobarb and Henry’s Cat, which you will wish you were watching instead.

It’s really difficult trying to find words for this film. It really is just not funny. It’s supposed humour was out of date for 1971 and fifty years on is so dead it’s ceased to smell. It begins with ‘Avarice’, in which Bruce Forsyth plays a chauffeur forced to descend into the sewers to retrieve a 50p piece dmanded by his greedy employer. It’s flat. The sketch also features Roy Hudd, Bernard Bresslaw and Joan Sims but what’s supposed to be funny is dead on the page let alone the screen, and robust performances by Hudd, Bresslaw and Sims (Forsyth doesn’t even get off the ground) cannot invest it with an instant of conviction.

The next segment, ‘Envy’, gave me the most food for thought. Written by Dave Freeman, the only writer in the piece with whom I am not familiar, it starred Harry Secombe. The ‘plot’ is irrelevant, so contrived I won’t even mention it. What astonished me was that here was Harry Secombe, a natural comedian, an ex-Goon, always a bundle of irrepressible energy busting out all over. Secombe knows comedy. It baffled me. He must have known that there was nothing at all funny about the concept, the lines and the minimal slapstick involved, yet he agreed to take part in this film. Why? His version of ‘This Is My Song’ is funnier.

‘Gluttony’, written by Graham Chapman and Barry Cryer, two guys who know which end of a joke is funny, cast Leslie Phillips slightly against type as an advertising manager for Slimmo biscuits (clunk) on a company-mandated diet of eight Slimmos a day and nothing else and who, consequently, is permanently hot for… no, not Vice-President Julie Ege, for whom the word slinky might have been invented, who wanted him to warm her bed (given the amount of fur on it, it must already have been stifling) but instead for doughnuts, rice pudding, roast duck, virgina ham – you get the picture. Philips left out his usual seducer’s mannerisms but might have been better served to throw them all in. The segment did raise my first smile of the film: Philips is shown as having food concealed all round his office, usually in filing cabinet drawers as we’ve seen a million times before, but when he flipped back the top of the globe…

Oddly enough, though it was no more funny than anything before it, I found ‘Lust’ to be strangely effective on a serious basis. There were good reasons not too. The sketch was written by credited Director Graham Stark, from an idea by Marty Feldman, it starred Harry H Corbett in a variation of his part as Harold Steptoe, and even at the time it had a creepy underpinning that now is all the more obvious. Corbett plays a lonely 38 year old man longing for a girlfriend. It’s Saturday night and he’s getting ready to go up West to try to pick a bird up. The obvious stalker impression was undervcut by Corbett’s interior monologue, which showed him to be a bit of a pathetic loser, but someone who was genuinely miserable and really lonely. Perhaps I recognised what he felt too much, but I was on his side, in a pitying way. His complete failure, and the cause of it, was foreseeable from a long way out, yet as portrayed by Corbett (who was so bloody good) it carried the inevitability of tragedy with it. A tick for this one.

Sketch five, ‘Pride’, was the one I remembered. It was actually written by the great Alan Galton and Ray Simpson for a BBC Comedy Playhouse as long ag as 1961, and changed little save in its cast (Ian Carmichael and Alfie Bass) and being set on location instead of in the studio. It’s tied up with class themes but these are now too broadly based to make any impact, whilst the sting ending was another that was completely predictable. Not one of Galton and Simpson’s best.

At last there was something funny, and genuinely funny, when we got to ‘Sloth’. This was wriiten by and starred Spike Milligan with a host of guests, filmed in deliberately cheap black and white and mostly silent. It was just a strng of running gags on the subject of laziness but it was Milligan, the master comic, the surrealist, being funny for the sake of being funny. It was the shortest segment of the film, and if I could cut it out and keep it I would do so because it was worth it on its own. Some of it was predictable, though never as clunkingly as elsewhere and the true token was that, when it arrived, I was laughing my head off anyway.

If that had been the last sketch, it would at least have given the film a warm send-off but no, we had to undergo ‘Wrath’. This was also by Chapman and Cryer, though credited in reverse order, and it was an improvement on ‘Gluttony’ only because it co-starred Stephen Lewis, playing Blakey off On the Buses as a Park Attendant, and it included a few, brief, amusing seconds of Lewis parodying the bicycle ride section of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the one with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross.

So there you go. As well as it being a time capsule of the stars of British comedy of the time, the film deserves a begrudging preservation as a near impossibility, a demonstration of how you can gather together so many naturally funny writers and people, including Madeline Smith at her most winningly ingenue, and yet, but for the great Spike, produce such a comprehensive flop. Yes, it’s dated, and badly so now, yet even in its day, this was a text book example of the many different ways in which you can get it wrong.

Lucifer, the Morningstar: 3 – A Dalliance with the Damned


The third Lucifer graphic novel collects issues 14 – 20, comprising two three-part arcs, ‘Triptych’ and the title story, with a single issue follow-up. Dean Ormiston draws the first part of ‘Triptych’, Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly the other two episodes. This pairing are principal artists on ‘A Dalliance with the Damned’, again with contributory sequences from Ormiston, who draws ‘The Thunder Sermon’.

Lucifer

Triptych

Rather than a three-part arc, Triptych is three stories, each focussing on a different character, as they react to the events of the previous volume.
First of these is Mazikeen, still striving to restore her face and voice to the forms of her choice, but lacking the magic to do so. In the end, she is forced to return to her people, the Lilim. This is foreseen by her brother, Briadach the Blind, who is blind of the body but sees all beginnings and endings. First, she must run a gauntlet, comprised of the ever-angry Mahu, who hates her as he hates everything, but hates her because she is a collaborator. The Lilim stand neither with heaven or Hell, they stand for themselves and for recovery of what was stolen from them: Mazikeen, by consorting with Lucifer, is in Mahu’s eyes a traitor. He convenes a tribunal, demands her execution.
Despite his pains, Briadach attends. Seeing with more than eyes, he detects a watching presence, recognises and addresses her as Elaine Belloc, but she flees.
Mazikeen refuses to testify in her own behalf. Given a choice between poison and dagger, she drinks one and cuts herself with the other. The Tribunal, resenting her silence, demands trial by combat with Mahu.
Briadach intervenes, intimating that Mazikeen may be handicapped. She faces Mahu with her eyes and one arm bound. He plays with her, intending to cut her over and again, until she falls and is truly vulnerable. And in that moment, Mazikeen spits the venom she has held in her mouth all over Mahu’s face, burning it off and killing him. It was never sensible to offer poison to the daughter of Ophur, of the Serpent Chain.
Mazikeen has come for the Lilim’s assistance in restoring her face, but in this moment of triumph the news breaks – to all but Briadach, who sees the seed and the rot – that there is a new creation, Lucifer’s creation. The Lilim wish to offer him their service. When ten thousand chant your name it is hard to hold back, especially when Briadach further manipulates you by offering you the fantasy of meeting him as an equal. Mazikeen accepts the post of War leader of the Lilim in Exile.
The second story returns to Elaine, who no longer trusts Angels. Her grandmothers are still imprisoned, though Michael has returned their prison to her. Her parents are angry that she no longer accepts them. And she wants to know where Mona has gone. Almost without volition, Elaine steps outside herself, leaving her body on a bench at a bus-stop, and starts to explore the other realms in her spirit form.
This first takes her to the Lilim council, but she flees from Briadach perceiving her. She sees Lucifer creating a world, she crosses the Dreaming, she enters Hell, via Effrul, where her wings manifest themselves. She flies freely, glorying in this new ability, but the inexperienced girl understands nothing about Hell: she is shot down by what appear to be iron-clad armadillos fired on the order of the Lady Lys of Effrul, a buxom lady who is obviously proud of her bosom since it’s all but fully exposed.
Elaine is shot down and injured. The Lady Lys has her bound with barbed wire and attached to the Direstone, which will turn her and her wings into stone over several days. Elaine is an angel, in Hell, after all. And Lucifer is no protector here.
Of course, her presence has been instantly detected by Remiel and Duma. The former is his usual weasel-self, but Duma (evincing a moral superiority that is ‘irritating and unattractive’, at least so far as Remiel is unconcerned) flies to Effrul, releases Elaine and restores her to her body. The Lady Lys is left to direct her energies elsewhere. Elaine returns home to where her furious father is trying to convince the Police to treat her as a missing person after only ten hours.
The third and final story centres upon Lucifer himself, though it begins with Mazikeen’s return to Lux, a Lux that has been rebuilt in palatial, walled-off manner. She at least is allowed entry, and finds a note from Lucifer saying that he’s beyond the Gateway, and will return on the seventh day.
This immediately clues us in as to the nature of his story. Lucifer, having used Michael to create a new Creation, is now engaged in the God business, creating his own Adam and Eve and presenting them with their own garden, in which there is but one rule: thou shalt not worship anyone, including me.
But of course there is a serpent in ‘Eden’, and this one is Amenadiel. This time it is the Adam he works upon, and his sexuality. He leads the Adam to a silent admission that he would still enjoy the pleasures he receives from the Eve if they caused her pain, not pleasure, and from there it is but a short philosophical step to his discovering repression and rejecting the Eve.
And after Lucifer shows him the effects of repression, in the old creation, the Adam suffers an even greater rejection of his creator, until Lucifer unmakes him. He offers to create a new mate for the Eve, but she wishes for her death instead, which surprises Lucifer: he welcomes the surprise.
Amenadiel gloats, thinking he has spoiled things for the Lightbringer, but Lucifer has been aware of him all along, has treated him as quality control. Anything that fails this test was not worth the effort of creating.
Besides, he still has a very beautiful garden, and Mazikeen to share it for an afternoon’s picnic.

Lucifer 4

A Dalliance with the Damned

In contrast, A Dalliance with the Damned is a full-scale three-part story, set in Hell, and in Effrul itself. Effrul is where Lucifer is to meet Amenadiel in combat in a year’s time, but in the meantime there are currents of treachery circulating in the court of the High Lord Azul, inspired by, what else, the availability of another Creation. There are those in Hell who are prepared to stand by Lucifer in exchange for lands in his cosmos. No-one yet understands that Lucifer intends to allow no power but his own through his Gateway.
In some ways, this is a simple story. Effrul, at first glance, seems oddly familiar, its denizens wearing mostly human form, and affecting a Seventeenth Century lifestyle. Azul rules Effrul, effortlessly, gracefully, wisely. Seviram, Duke of Gly, a twisted creature wearing the face of a human, stapled to his head, petitions to have Effrul lead the charge for places in Lucifer’s cosmos, but is refused by Azul. The High Lord knows well that Lucifer is not to be bargained with so simply, and besides, the Lightbringer is to come to Effrul at the waning of the year, to fight his duel, and only a fool moves before the outcome of such things is known.
The frustrated, and humiliated Seviram, moves on to conspiracy to assassinate Azul, and replace him with his heir, Brosag, a bull of a demon/man who lives for sport and combat. Azul’s letter of welcome to Lucifer is intercepted and a letter of Seviram’s scribing replaces it, designed to insult Lucifer and bring him hence.
Seviram wants Azul’s other child, the Lady Lys, in his cause, but when she refuses, treating his enthusiasms as childish and unimportant, he leaves her bed and she decides upon a new thrill. The Lady Lys is, shall we say, a most enthusiastic wanton, whose tastes descend to the S&M end of the spectrum the way a lift descends to the basement when you cut its cables. She sends her servant Glieve to select for her a bed-mate from the Damned, who are subjected to torture in the Painmill, where Pain is ground from them, ground down to a granular form, like snuff, which produces effects that are very popular: it is the foundation of the High Lord’s fortune.
The choice Glieve makes is a turning point in the overarching story. His choice is Christopher Rudd, an Englishman from coincidentally the same era that Effrul, in its infinite ennui, seeks to mimic. Despite his centuries of pain, Rudd can still pray, in Latin, no less! It is this that causes Glieve to select him, a decision that proves fateful for all.
Lys is entirely happy with her new rutting toy, and Rudd hasn’t forgotten about sex, in his initial, though somewhat dazed excitement. But Rudd has no clear idea of where he is and what is happening, and he is set to be extremely disillusioned, even as all and sundry marvel at the scandal Lys has created: swiving with one of the damned, and a still very Christian one at that.
Though he’s by no means one of the principal movers of this arc, Rudd is nevertheless it’s most important figure. The conspirators continue to circle Azul with plots. Lucifer is drawn to Effrul, with Mazikeen by his side, by the fake letter, and whilst Azul quickly resolves that confusion, he and the War Leader of the Children of Lilith stay on for the formal ball, though Mazikeen is not dressed for the occasion.
And in the background of the story, Rudd is unconsciously carried forward. His sin, for which he still blames himself, was anger and murder. He was a Fencing Master, experienced and skilled, engaged in tutoring the local Baron’s eager son. The Baron invited Rudd and his wife to the castle for a week, during which (by deep implication) the Baron either seduced or, more likely, raped Rudd’s wife. Full of anger, and righteous Christian hatred towards his whore of a wife, Rudd rounds on the excited and unknowing boy, who wishes to show him that he has learned to feint, and runs him through. Rudd is hung and drawn.
Yet he might still have been a cypher but for Prackspoor, Azul’s friend and counsellor, who holds to the shape of a black leopard. Prackspoor shows Rudd what Pain is, where it comes from and how it is made. Wracked with loathing and self-loathing, Rudd lashes Lys with brutal words, only to have her blow Pain over him, showing him the intensity of it’s sensations.
Maddened, Rudd seeks revenge and advantage. Glieve is murdered by the plotters, but lives long enough to confide the treachery in Rudd, who takes it to Azul. Brosag, as a preliminary to the plot, a move driven more by Seviram’s angry jealousy than by any relevance to their aims, forces a duel upon the damned man. It backfires severely: Rudd convinces Azul, quite easily, to play by the assumed codes of the era they imitate so, instead of crushing Rudd to death by brute strength, Brosag must face him in his human form. With blades. And Rudd is a Fencing Master…

Lucifer 3

Thus, when the conspiracy goes into action, to kill Azul, overthrow Effrul and hand it to Lucifer, the High Lord is prepared, thanks to Rudd. The conspirators are killed, save for Seviram, and Lucifer politely asks if Azul will permit him to punish the failed demon. Azul defers to the Lightbringer.
Lucifer has no interest in Effrul, and its palace intrigues. But Seviram sought to manipulate him,and if Lucifer doesn’t make a point of dealing with him, he’ll be facing this sort of thing every time he turns round. Lucifer does not want any alliances, they always end in tears. And certainly not with the likes of Seviram. His end is to take Rudd’s place in the Painmill. But before he does so, to enable him to truly experience pain, Lucifer invests him with a soul.
And Rudd? Rudd replaces Seviram as Duke of Gly, under Azul’s patronage. As such, he will be the Lady Lys’s neighbour, the Lady Lys on whom he has had quite an appropriate, and Catholic revenge. For Rudd has prepared a quite special batch of Pain for Lys, derived not from the pain of torture but rather the pain of humanity, of love, loss, despair and confusion. It’s thrills are exquisite, and devastating.
For Rudd has infected Lys with regret, and guilt, once and for all. No more can she revel in her extensive carnality, no more can pleasure be undiluted, no more does she wear the kind of revealing clothes that would make a Victoria’s Secret catalogue blush with embarrassment. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Azul looks on with interest as to what Rudd will do next. He does well to do so.

Lucifer 2

The Thunder Sermon

This odd little one-off rounds out a volume that deals with the after-effects of Lucifer using Michael to embody his creation. There is a meeting at Lux, distracting Lucifer from his many tasks. Most are petitioners in respect of his new creation, but the only one of these that he sees, and only out of a sense of obligation to Mazikeen, is General Misran of the Lilim. The General offers an army, to guard Lucifer’s borders. But Lucifer neither wants nor needs any army: he is his own army. The Lilim are of no interest to him. He breaks the sword they offer and bids them leave. Mazikeen chooses her own kind, and leaves too.
Two others are not petitioners. One is Faramond, the once and former God who, these days, oversees transport. He comes with information, a warning, given freely. There is a plot to kill Lucifer, old, deep-laid, moving towards fruition across a great time. Lucifer is mildly dismissive, respecting Faramond to the point of not being even the least bit ironic with him. There are always such plots, but he respects the warning.
The final visitor – ah, but before we turn to that person, let us look to the other, larger side of the story, and two other visitors, Sherry and Ewen: unwanted, drawn, trespassers. Ewen, through whose eyes we see their brief narrative, is a slacker, unintelligent, disregarded, but he’s always followed Sherri and she is one of the many drawn to Lux. They break in, climb the walls, discover unimaginably wide vistas behind. Sherri is so excited to reach the source of her searching that she embraces Ewen, shags him. And he was already her devoted slave.
But there is no story, no end for them. They are just flies, attracted to sherbet. They are lost, wander endlessly Lucifer’s many mansions. Both die from lack of food or water. Ewen lasts longer, meets Lucifer, pleads for help. But Lucifer is not God, and he is not merciful. Ewen prayed to God. Here.
He and Sherrie are just an illustration, a sideshow of blind faith, and how unwise it can be.
That final visitor is Michael, Lucifer’s brother. He comes with a message: this is to end, here, now. There can only be one Creation. Lucifer mocks: he has his own Creation, where God’s writ runs not. But Michael replies that just as God created Lucifer, so Lucifer’s cosmos is also his, and his rules prevail. Lucifer’s anger boils over. He does something we don’t fully understand yet, not in this story, this volume.
But he opens up his Creation to everybody. Let them choose, let them choose between God and Lucifer, between Universes, where there has never been any choice before…

In the next volume, we will begin to see the implications, and effects, of such a choice.

Due South: s03 e07 – Seeing is Believing


Due South

Listen very carefully, for I am about to make two contradictory statements. The first is that, without David Marciano as Ray Vecchio, Due South is nothing like as good as it originally was, and definitely less funny by a marked degree. The second is that this was an excellent, very clever and shot through with humour episode. Let us now pick these two opposing statements apart to decide why.

By this point, we’re exactly halfway through the third season and have had sufficient opportunity to get to know Callum Keith Rennie as New Ray. Remember that he’s supposedly posing as Ray Vecchio whilst Real Ray is deep undercover in the Mob. That was only six weeks ago but the series seems to have forgotten this. Nobody uses new Ray’s surname but he’s openly acknowledged as being the ex-husband of ADA Stella Kowalski (a returning cameo by Anne Marie Loder). As for Rennie, he is no Marciano when it comes to being funny. He’s cynical and Chicago-abrasive, but he doesn’t inspire laughter, he isn’t very good at absurdity and in order to distinguish him from Vecchio, he’s been given melancholy, over his failed marriage to Stella: Kowalski lacks Marciano’s buoyancy.

This means that in order to keep the series humourous, the writers have to push the envelope a bit further in the direction of absurdity, which risks – and a bit too often succeeds – in coming out as silliness. There’s certainly some of that in this episode.

The set-up is ingenious. An Inuit gate has been donated to Chicago, installed in a mall and is about to be officially dedicated. On hand are our good cop buddies and their respective bosses, Lt. Harding Welsh (Beau Starr) and Inspector Meg Thatcher (Camilla Scott, getting a good, meaty role this week). When Frasier starts going on about the sacred nature of the Stones, the party heads off in different directions. Frasier heads off too, pursuing and capturing a purse snatcher. In his absence, Ray, the Lieutenant and Thatcher all observe an argument taking place between an older man and a younger pair, the outcome of which is that he ends up stabbed and they, clamming up tighter than a clammed-up thing, are taken to the station.

A murder has taken place, with three trained Police observers as the only witnesses. Unfortunately, they disagree completely on whodunnit. Ray is adamant the guy stabbed the older man, a noted mobster, Thatcher insists it was the girl, and Walsh is determined it was a mob hit and the two planned it together. Him, her or both?

It was an ingenious set up. With no-one willing to relinquish their theory, and indeed snapping aggressively at each other, Fraser became the fulcrum in trying to reach a resolution. Until they could decide who to charge, nobody could be charged and the risk was that the killer(s) would be back out on the street, home free, because nobody could prove whodunnit.

The story played out in a largely static episode, with the five central actors (including Francesca Vecchio, trying to get a capucchino machine in past Walsh, wedded to the tradition that cops always drink bad coffee, brushing up against Fraser in a bare midriff shirt and generally hanging about) going back and forth with their theories. The various stages of argument sustained what might have, in other hands, been a limited and limiting notion very successfully. First we got each of Judy and Keith confessing to being the killer, though Fraser quickly demonstrated that she at least was lying, then each fingered the other, confusing the situation even worse.

The story did edge quite clearly towards silliness, despite being on firm psychological ground, in showing how the individual preoccupations of each witness influenced their theory: Ray’s broken marriage, Thatcher’s occasionally barely controllable lust for Fraser’s manly charms and Walsh’s loveless cynicism. In the case of Thatcher, this got a bit too overblown, and embarrassing. Then the episode dipped into surrealism as each witness then visually reconstructed what they saw – or what their theories led them to believe they say – casting themselves as players in the scene.

The end was inevitable. Ray, Thatcher and Walsh were cast members, in for the long run. You can’t have one of them be proved right. The answer had to come from outside, a hitherto unsuspected player who, rather than the victim being stabbed at close range by a knife none of the witnesses had actually seen – elicited under hypnosis – had thrown from concealment. The purse snatcher was actually a planned distraction to enable the killer to act whilst everybody else was looking the other way.

So, an excellent conclusion and one that ended with a good joke. Fraser had been supposed to be hypnotising Thatcher only but actually got everyone, Ray, Walsh and Francesca. We saw his setting up a post-hypnotic suggestion for Ray, to shut him down and have him apologise when he started ranting at our favourite Mountie, but the best bit was, when Thatcher started bawling Fraser out for talking with Ray as opposed to running her back to the consulate, right now, Fraser came out with one for her, which immediately had her inviting him to stay all afternoon and talk to his friend…

As I said, the show as a whole has lost its comedic forte and Callum Keith Rennie simply cannot balance out Paul Gross in anything like as funny, yet supportive way that David Marciano achieved, but this episode was actually both ingenious and excellent. It goes to show, doesn’t it?

The Infinite Jukebox: Syd Straw’s ‘CBGB’s’


I don’t usually do visual all that much with songs. All my life I’ve connected sound with colour, in a quasi-synestheisiac manner, hearing differing sounds in different shades both of light and dark and across a somewhat limited colour palate. I don’t know if anyone else does that or, if they do, if their notions of musical colour come anywhere near echoing mine.
But in terms of what form of music video might go with a particular song, I’ve always been happy to let the imagination of the band or singer, or more probably their video director come up with something to illuminate the record. Like I say, in that respect I don’t really do visual with music. This song is a great exception.
A long time ago, I wrote about the song ‘Love, and the Lack of it’, by Syd Straw, from her second album, War and Peace, a surprise discovery just before Xmas 1997. I mentioned in that post that it was one of the two standout tracks on the generally high-quality album. It’s successor track was the other and this is it, ‘CBGBs’.
Musically, the two songs couldn’t present a bigger contrast, ‘Love, and the Lack of It’ being a slow, moody, downbeat song with minimal instrumentation for the most part, and ‘CBGBs’ being an uptempo, full-throttle charger, starting with slashed and ringing guitar chords before picking up an energetic beat, courtesy of Straw’s backing band for the album, a bunch called The Silhouettes (but not the Northern Soul favourites).
Straw’s song is about time and its passing, the changes it brings to us, our dreams and our (implied) failure to live up to them, yet containing in it the kernel of optimism that there might yet be time to fulfil even a single one of them. It comes in the form of a monologue, a barrage of questions and reminiscences tumbling out of Straw without her re-discovered friend having the chance to get an answer in edgeways.
“Hey,” she begins, bringing us into the moment with concision, “do you remember me? We met ten years ago, at CBGBs on New Year’s Eve.” And immediately we know that, whether or not he remembers, and maybe more likely not, she remembers, and remembers too well and too fully.
Back when you were tending bar, you had a band of your own, called the Revlons, and I liked your songs. It was only a fleeting acquaintance, and Syd blames herself for it ending, an abandonment like that was easier then. She must have lost her head, and she doesn’t know why they never met again, until this moment a decade later.
The music surges and charges, full of life, in complete contrast to the words. For Syd is now lost in the past, in what was and wasn’t. She asks if he remembers taking her to see ‘Soylent Green’ at the pictures, but again before he answers she rushes on, can’t believe it was such a long time ago. But this meeting isn’t maybe as accidental as she makes it seem, she hasn’t totally been unaware of him and where he was and what he was doing, because she’s heard he’s had twins…
And then it comes, the real questions, the seeking of information not recollections, the chorus: Are you doing what you wanna do, did you follow your intentions, all the dreams you had, has even a single one of them come true? Why is this suddenly so important to her, especially as she quickly gets defensive about her enquiring: I ask myself as I’m asking you, hey, I’m just asking.
Yes, the longer this song goes on, the greater the depth that is coalescing beneath it. For now though, Syd swings back to reminiscing, full of what was and would be then that we’re beginning to understand all fell apart. You were the one most likely to succeed without trying, you had so much to live up to…
Is she challenging him? Is she implying that he, the best and brightest of them then, a them that was more than just him and her, he’s let them all down? That what he is is just not good enough? It seems unusual for her, but wait. For a moment, the gush ceases. Syd turns from him to herself. After all, she has undergone ten years herself since that time at CBGBs. What’s gone on with her?
And suddenly the deep waters the song has been flirting with turn into the Marianas Trench. I was married for a while. It ended in tragedy. Oh well, enough about me. That’s all you get. Her eyes turned inwards are blank, and she will never speak of it again. Suddenly we understand, as well as we will ever be allowed to, why it’s so important that she’s met him again tonight, that he remembers who she was and who she might have been.
That demand to know is even more urgent, the desperation to know that he’s had it better than her. Are you doing what you wanted do, did you follow your intentions through, all the dreams you had, has any or all of them come true? And if it hasn’t been so, she pleads, If they haven’t yet, I hope they do. Hope springs eternal, but hope is all there is.
Such a desperately sad and sorry song, propelled by all the urgency and buoyancy The Silhouettes can manage and that’s plenty. The marriage of opposites, once again creating a surge of energy.
But what has all of this to do with my building a video to accompany the music? It was an image that came to me as soon as I’d heard the song enough times to get a proper handle on it. But imagine if you would an underground club, a bit grimy, pretty small, crowded. We’re looking across at an angle, from almost behind the bar. Syd, in the Russian hat and costume she wars on the cover is sat at the bar looking past us. At first she has her head turned, to the stage, where a band, a tight band fronted by a woman, dressed the same as her, because it is her, she’s at both the bar and the mikestand, are starting a song with ringing chords.
And as the Syd on stage begins to sing, the Syd near to us turns and begins talking the lyrics, excitedly, passionately, her face acting out all her emotions, desperately trying to keep our attention on her. One camera angle on her throughout, and only when the song reaches its instrumental break to we shift across the club to focus on the band, and even then with intercut angles showing Bar Syd still in her seat. Only in those moments to be we see who she’s talking to, and then at too much of a distance to see his face or anything but the nondescript clothes he’s wearing…
That’s how I would have handled it, and how, over twenty five years later and only one more Syd Straw album since. I can still see into the past, the same way Syd does in her song, but without the pain it brings to her.
This song should be known world-wide.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 2 – The Moon of Gomrath


The Moon Of Gomrath

What we have here in The Moon of Gomrath is the real beginning of Garner as the writer we recognise. For all that it’s a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and potentially quite an immediate one, this is a much less conventional fantasy on every level than his first novel. The language is more direct, more stripped down, the plot less traditional and linear and the two children, Colin and Susan less reliant on the patriarchal figures of either Cadellin, the Wizard, or Gowther Mossock, their guardian.
I’ve heard The Moon of Gomrath described as ‘less satisfying’ but I can’t agree. From first reading it, whilst still a teenager, I have always instinctively responded to it as a darker, more terrifying story, in which the magic element is wilder and more dangerous, as reflected in how the expected plot, at the start of the book, is deflected into insignificance by the events that develop.
The story starts in magic, a two-page chapter seeing Fundindelve, and an unexpected arrival, from outside in every sense. It then reintroduces the Mossocks and the children in Alderley with an actual Stockport Advertiser article quoted in full that, despite its apparent mundanity, is also deeply entwined in the other world. There is to be no separation between the two this time, as all the events of this tangled tale are sunk deeply into the Cheshire landscape that is presented much more elliptically, in its own magic.
We’re given to understand that not much time has passed since the end of The Weirdstone: the disappearance of Selina Place, aka The Morrigan is still being talked about (this causes something of a chronology confusion as the first book concludes early in the year yet Gomrath takes place in late autumn/early winter). Since the Weirdstone was returned to Cadellin, Colin and Susan have been cut off from the magic world: they do not see the Wizard, they cannot access Fundindelve and they’re hurt, even as the reader clearly sees that this is not ingratitude but for their protection.
Colin and Susan don’t belong in the world of the High Magic. They have no abilities of their own, nor instinctive understanding. They are in danger there, especially as The Morrigan will want revenge.
But matters are under way that will of necessity drag them in. The first of these is some never-defined issue affecting the lios-alfar, or elves, who hold themselves distant, both mentally and geographically, from humans. Susan’s bracelet that she received from Angharad Goldenhand by way of protection may have power to defeat this menace, which seems to be the intended story of the book. And indeed it might have been if Garner hadn’t already grown as a writer. That would have been the conventional fantasy that allowed the children to dip into the magic again.
Cadellin has resisted involving Susan because he is concerned about her protection. In the meantime, that article, abut the uncovering of an unsuspected deep well, comes into play. A shape-shifting demon, the Brollachan, an amorphous dark mass with two red eyes, deeply evil, has been released from confinement and the lios-alfar have been trying to recapture it, unsuccessfully.
So Colin and Susan are precipitated into things. Susan gives up the Mark of Fohla for its powers to be tested and exposes herself to danger. Before it is returned, what seems to be a black pony herds her into riding it and plunges both of them into a quarry pool. Susan is separated into body and spirit, the first of these effectively comatose. Cadellin’s magic cannot recover her spirit and it falls to the new Dwarf, Uthecar, to suggest the Old Magic.
This is an earthier, less precise, less controllable form of magic, magic stirred by emotion not thought, women’s magic not men’s. This proves to be a form of magic the children can access, particularly Colin, whose love and fear for his sister (remember, though it’s not been revealed to us yet, they are twins). Colin’s need inspires the Old Magic to waken, in the form of a rare plant that, when forced into Susan’s mouth, drags her back from the higher level world in which she has become part of a group of nine warrior-maidens out of Celtic mythology.
Susan is saved, on this level at least, but she is irrevocably changed, and the invocation of the Old Magic now guides the rest of the story.
Though this book isn’t divided into Parts 1 and 2, we have at this point arrived at the end of the first phase. The Brollachan has disappeared, the elves want to withdraw to deal with whatever afflicts them back home with Susan travelling with them to see if her Mark can be used to assist, but that is destined never to happen. Instead, in a seeming November evening on the Edge she wants Colin to show her the Old Straight Track he ran to save her. It’s cold waiting, so she suggests a fire, and eagerly, indeed obsessively, builds one using rowan, or ‘wendwood’. It’s the worst thing she could do.
Because the Old Magic has been wakened. And on Gomrath Eve, Susan wakes three members of the Wild Hunt. Who wake all the others, as well as the Hunter, a stag-tined man, to run before them. A disgusted Dwarf, Pelis, sends Susan to alert Cadellin. But once she has gone he herds Colin at sword-point, all the way to the ruins of Errwood Hall, just across the Goyt Valley, in Derbyshire, a demolished ruin that exists again in moonlight, and which is occupied by The Morrigan. And the Brollachan that she has imprisoned. And The Morrigan intends to kill Colin.
What follows is a tense struggle to find Colin and get him free. The more serious nature of this story is exemplified when Cadellin refuses to assist, placing his duty to the Sleepers and that distant future threat than to Colin, and Susan having to blackmail the lios-alfor into assisting by refusing her help unless they do. The tension mounts until, having gotten him out of The Morrigan’s clutches, she releases the Brollachan, to overwhelm and destroy them.
By then, for their various reasons, good and bad, no-one will stay to face it. It falls to Susan, at the last, to ride back. To save the day, she blows the horn that was also given to her by Angharad, summoning the Wild Hunt, but also the warrior women with whom Susan rode, and when the Brollachan is defeated, all ride into the sky, the Old Magic finally freed of the constraints placed upon it by the High Magic.
And Susan to fly with them, until, for a time, she is released, not forever, to stay back, a young human child, but changed forever. It is an abrupt ending, in the style Garner will perfect, and ending reached with suddenness and allowed no aftermath.
The difference between the two books is immediately apparent from the summaries, the latter being far less clear and logical. That’s largely because a summary is inadequate: a proper representation of the story would have to be at least half as long as the book itself, and the lack of what we expect from an ending is a brutal moment, leaving us to work out what follows for ourselves. To those expecting a second Weirdstone I can see clearly where they might find this less satisfying, but Gomrath works on levels beneath the surface of the story, and though there’s still development to come, it’s this existence within myth that is Garner’s true ground.
People wanted another book about Colin and Susan but Alan Garner resolutely refused. He’d originally planned a trilogy, and left open sufficient in Gomrath to have done so, but had no wish to repeat himself any further. Indeed, during the course of writing this book, he had grown heartily sick of Colin, if not Susan, and at one point had abruptly killed him off at the hands of The Morrigan, with the words ‘throttled the little bugger!’
There would be a third book, but not until a half-century later, a different book in a different era, written almost by a different writer and bearing no resemblance to anything Garner might have written had he been less strong-minded in 1963. Though he had not, yet, exhausted fantasy, nor escaped the quasi-ghetto of being marketed as a children’s writer, the real world and its groundings would take on increasing importance over the next decade.

The World At War: e11 – Red Star (The Soviet Union 1941-1943)


WAW

My first impression of this episode was that it looked to be a virtual repeat of that one two weeks previously about Stalingrad. Once more we were looking at a lengthy German seige of a Russian city, this time of Leningrad, the former St Petersburg, then Petrograd: Peter’s city become Lenin’s city, the second city of Russia, it’s historically long term access to the seas of the West. But though the parallels were there, the two seiges in the end had different purposes and their raising different effects.

So much of this episode, its causes, its effects, the psychological attitudes it created or perhaps merely only exacerbated, had their resonance in the current era, and Russia’s crass and hateful invasion of Ukraine. So many themes were perceivable in the events of this near two-year phase of the War that ordering them in a coherent manner seems extremely difficult. Perhaps it might be easier to summarise the chronology first.

The episode made two points very early on. The first was simple and direct: Russia suffered the most from the Second World War. We all know that who know anything of the War in its totality and not just the aggressive jingoism of the right wing Press. The number was stark: more Russians died in the defence of Leningrad than in the entire British and American War effort in every theatre. This was amplified at the end, as Russian started to push the invader back towards Germany, a deeply affecting poem about death leading to the plain statement that 20,000,000 had died. By then we had seen enough dead bodies, and people finding them andwomen weeping over them and cradling them, that each of the 20,000,000 had become human beings and not merely a mass of numbers.

The other point was less direct but no less valid in our present world. Hitler wanted to eradicate Russia, not just as an Empire, but as a country and even as a concept. It wasn’t just his hatred of communists and Jews, who were to be eliminated, it wasn’t the semi-legendary push for lebensraum, the idea of Germany becoming a self-sustaining nation once it had taken over the industries, the oil-fields and grainfields of Ukraine et al, it was the very idea of Russia as a nation of human beings. The cities were to be razed to the ground, the people subjugated, reduced to servants at best, the very idea of their being human dismissed. Had he succeeded, even the memory of Russia would have been destroyed, to the extent that some future Heinrich Schliemann would have fund it impossible to rediscover it.

This is not, under any circumstances, to be taken as any condoning of the actions of Vladimir Putin in invading Ukraine this year, but from the outset of this episode, and throughout it, the idea that Russia has reasons to fear the West, and to suspect it of wishing to destroy it was inescapable. These things happened only eighty years ago, and the extent of what Russia was put through then could only create a deep psychological paranoia that would hardly dissipate in so little a time. One of the tropes Dennis Wheatley would repeat from book to book was that ‘to understand all is to forgiveall’. Like so much else in the mad old buffer’s work, that’s bullshit. This episode gave me greater understanding of the Russian mentality towards the West, more so than living all my life in the West has done, but I still loathe Putin and all his works.

The actual story in this episode was extremely simple. When Germany invaded from the West, seizing the industrial and agricultural heart of the Soviet Union, the country could not defend itself. Instead, in an astonishing and incomparable manoeuvre, it retreated, tilting the earth so that populations, machinery and factories simply removed further inwards, out of German reach, scorching the earth behind it. From there, it set itself to the biggest, most sustained, most determined programme of militarisation, as if the country was of one mind and that set in hatred og the Germans and intent in seeing them forced back to their own lands.

Of course it must always be remembered that not one inch of the footage we could see from inside the Soviet Union over all this period can be taken at face value. It is, by any definition, propaganda from start to finish, and Stalin was one of the most terrifyingly absolute of rulers during the War, and before and after. Everything has to be taken with lashings of salt, but given the series’ adherence to high standards of objective reporting, and given its own honest references to the issue, I felt confident that what I was seeing did represent a broadly accurate account of the period.

The episode concentrated upon the seige of Leningrad, even though Hitler’s first priority was Moscow, and more men and resources were devoted to that attack. We saw something of this, later on in the episode, but the Moscow front did not assume any real prominence until towards the end. We saw much more of Leningrad, totally surrounded by Germans and Finns, cut off by land on all sides, its only communications and supplies possible by crossing Lake Lagoda to its immediate east. The Lake and the boats that could cross it were inadequate for the citry’s needs, just as the Arctic convoys sent by Britain were inadequate for Russia’s needs. Perhaps not ironically, Lake Lagoda’s access to supplies improved when the Lake froze over in the winter of 1942.

In the beginning, I wondered as I had done about how the Germans couldn’t destroy the city, the same as with Stalingrad. The bombardment, the shelling, the daily destruction, the reduction to starvation resources. How could the city hold out in nthe face of all this, the more so because Germany’s supply lines to Leningrad were far shorter than those to Stalingrad, away down on the Volga. But the city survived, and eventually was relieved, for the same reason: sheer iron determination not to be defeated, whatever the circumstances. Hitler had intended to destroy the very idea of Russia. In the end, to have achieved his goal, he found he would have had to literally kill every single person who called themselves Russian. Even through the propaganda effect, the sheer superhuman determination was awesome.

In the end, the Russian mobilisation, and its ability to call upon men from beyond the range of German reach told. Stalingrad was relieved, in timeto encourage the armies looking to lift Leningrad’s seige. Further south, Germany planned a pincer movement to cut off the Kursk ‘bulge’, and capture three Russian armies, as they had done earlier in the War. |Eliminating the ‘Bulge’ and its defences would open up the road to Moscow, along which overwhelming numbers would pour. But the Russians were ready, and knew the plans. The Germans pentrated ten miles in from the north and twernty from the south but their armies never came close to meeting, and they weee quickly and definitively pushed back. Hitler authorised a retreat. The War was lost.

This was the story of two years or so of the War, in the East. We’ve had two episodes of Russia in quick succession, because at that stage of the War, the Eastern Front was practically the only active theatre in Europe. The British had been dismissed from the Continent in 1940 and were not in a position to return for years thereafter. Here was another basis for anti-West prejudice in Russia. As far as they were concerned, they were doing all the fighting, they were doing all the dying, and their Allies were standing around, taking none of the grunt. Stalin wanted a Second Front, to accelerate German defeat, to reduce the pressure on his country, and he complained when he didn’t get it, and wouldn’t believe the West when it said it was in no position to invade Europe. Britain was not idle, nor playing a game of letting Russia bleed itself into weakness. It was fighting in North Africa, and in the jungles out east, beyond the Soviet Union. But from Russia’s perspective, it looked different.

In so many ways, this episode was about why the world is the way it is today. But it is a much-needed reminder of why, if it had not been for the Soviet Union, little or none of what we have in 2022 would ever have existed.

Midway through the episode a poem was read, which moved me greatly. Though it was not credited, I found it easily online, and give it below. It was written by Konstantin Simonov, in 1941.

Wait for me and I’ll come back!
Wait with all your might!
Wait when dreary yellow rains
Tell you nothing’s right;
Wait when snow is falling fast;
Wait when summer’s hot;
When no one waits for other men
And all the past’s forgot!
Wait when those that wait with you
Are bored and tired and glum,
And when it seems, from far away,
No letters ever come!
Wait for me and I’ll come back!
Wait in patience yet
When they tell you off by heart
That you should forget;
And when my mother and my son
Give up on me at last
And friends sit sadly round the fire
And talk about the past
And drink a bitter glass of wine
In memory of me –
Wait! No rush to drink with them!
Tell them to wait and see!
Wait for me and I’ll come back,
Escaping every fate!
‘Just a lot of luck!’ they’ll say,
Those that didn’t wait.
They will never understand
How, amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life!
Only you and I will know
How you got me through!
Simply – you knew how to wait!
No one else but you!