All the Fells: Sallows

Sallows – The Far Eastern Fells 1,691′ (29)

Date: 8 September 1985/17 August 1996

From: Garburn Pass/Garburn Pass

I always have great difficulty when it comes to Sallows. It is one of two summits immediately south of Garburn Pass, lying between Troutbeck and Kentmere: anonymous, broad, shapeless fells whose omission from The Far Eastern Fells would not have been criticised by anyone, but Wainwright chose to include them anyway, in the volume with the greatest number of fells anyway. Sallows and Sour Howes, the ‘Maiden Aunts’ of the Lake District, practically indistinguishable, and that’s where I have my difficulty: I always have to look them up in Wainwright to remember which of them is which! Of course you walk them together: who would take the time to make separate visits? And it is only sense to access them from Garburn Pass, when the lands diminishing south are featureless and largely pathless and uncertain of legal access in the days before the enshrined ‘Right to Roam’. The first time, I parked low in Troutbeck and found the steep, rising lane out of the valley to join the long approach to Garburn from the south along the Dubbs Road. The second time, the impulse day where I combined a return visit with an ascent of Binsey in The Northern Fells, I came in along the Dubbs Road, a long, slow, level walk from the fell road that provided a short-cut to Troutbeck, and spectacular views along its route. Either way, the fells were ascended from the Pass summit. Twin paths, one either side of the wall, leave towards the south. That to the left leads to Sallows, but to go further you have to come back all the way.

Valerian et Laureline: 14 – The Wrath of Hypsis


Once again I found the conclusion to a two-parter less satisfying than its set-up, not on this occasion because of its depressive and downbeat atmosphere but instead because I thought the most prominent aspect of its conclusion was flat out ridiculous. But let’s set this out in proper order.
‘The Wrath of Hypsis’ continues directly on from the end of ‘The Ghosts of Inverloch’, breakfast at Inverloch Castle the morning immediately after, a very civilised affair as might be expected, except for the late arrival of Valerian and Laureline, who’ve been having the kind of reunion that was highly unimaginable at the end of ‘Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos’. Our favourite redhead is positively giggly: all is once again well.
And as an adventure, things go well. Everybody has pooled their information, except for the Superintendent keeping to himself the vanishing of Galaxity until pretty late in the book. That an impending nuclear incident at the North Pole will effectively destroy the planet causes a mild degree of perturbation to Lord Basil Seal (but not Lady Charlotte). This demonstrates the importance of the task ahead, and leads to a task force consisting of all the assembled, except the good Lord himself, initially, to head for the North Pole to intervene in whatever Hypsis has planned.
The vehicle for this is the Royal Navy, HMS Crosswinds, under the command of the splendidly bearded Lt. Commander Merrywhistle (the rather more natural Merrywhether in the Wikipedia entry on the story), demonstrating true naval sang-froid towards the motley crew he’s being asked to transport. They’re looking for the ship that will be responsible for the incident.
Military navies can be discounted, as both inappropriate and subject to the escalating interferences that caused such concern. But there are rogue ships, not ghost ships as Val suspects they’d be termed but pirates and smugglers, crude vessels whose registered nationality doesn’t correspond with the languages spoken aboard, whose ports of call have been erratic. Once inspected, by Val pretending to be a Meteorologist, and Merrywhistle as an actual seaman, these can be dismissed as irrelevancies.
But there’s another ship, a tall, elegant three-master full of sail, whose appearance Laureline instinctively admires, earning her Merrywhistle’s approbation. This is the ‘Hvexdet’, supposedly Albanian but, when found in the ice floes, totally silent. And Ralph, the Glapum’tian, who has been engaged in enjoyable information-gathering from a less sophisticated but in many ways more akin Earth species, the Orcas, or Killer Whales to you and I, reports that they tell him there is nothing at all human about that ship.
By this point, and despite the overwhelmingly joyful relationship that he and Laureline have resumed, Val is frustrated. He is, after all, the man of Action, however good or bad that might be. They are acting passively, pursuing only, with no thought of any positive step being taken. He and Laureline have their Superintendent, their ultimate boss, on board, but he is keeping to his cabin, giving out no information, giving out no instructions. This isn’t Val’s thing at all. He’s still having dreams, of what happened in The City of Shifting Water, and he’s starting to get premonitions that Galaxity has gone. And that he, as a citizen and native of Galaxity, is also gone. Something has to be done.
And that something is an attack.
Merrywhistle doesn’t like it. It’s against Naval tradition, not to mention that the ‘Crosswinds’ is his ship (except that the Shingouz have won large sections of it playing their version of poker with his crew). But Val’s plan is backed by Lord Seal, who remains at hand at Inverloch Castle, communicating from the Spatiotemporal craft. The Superintendent’s hiding in his cabin, giving no directions. This is Valerian’s initiative.
Ralph can given them a course to the ‘Hvexdet’. Merrywhistle is to pretend an accidental collision course, across the sailing vessel’s bows. When he does… at the last second, the ‘Hvexdet’ blasts out of the polar waters and arrows into space! Val wishes he had their craft with him but the Superintendent corrects him: with that on board they would never have got near the ‘Hvexdet’.
Ralph is focussing his concentration upon tracking the ‘Hvexdet’ into the stars. ‘Crosswinds’ has been holed and is sinking, and all must abandon ship. Merrywhistle and his crew will be rescued by other ships, but Val and Co await Lord Seal, flying their craft like his Spitfires of old under Val’s remote direction and then into the stars into pursuit.
The nuclear threat to the North Pole has been removed, at least temporarily, but now the pursuit is to lead them to the mysterious whereabouts of the planet of Hypsis. Except that the course is erratic, irregular, illogical. It’s easy enough to suspect that they’re being led on a wild goose chase, to keep them occupied, never to find Hypsis which, for all they know in their absence, is substituting another attack ship to complete the intended destruction.
But Val has another ingenious idea. They’re not making the fullest use of Ralph’s abilities. If he’s plugged into the shipboard computers, he can not only better track ‘Hvexdet’s course but get out ahead of it. With his co-operation, of course, which he gives willingly.
And so the mysterious Hypsis, home to towers and domes of all SF sizes and shapes, is located and landed upon at last, and the party can begin to get to the bottom of the attack on Earth, and Galaxity.
But this is where the story starts to head off the rails into incomprehensibility as far as I was concerned.
It begins with the Superintendent suddenly having doubts about the mission, and whether to continue the pursuit to Hypsis itself, throwing the decision over to Valerian. Sense starts to dissipate as Valerian cannot decide either, because Galaxity is the place of his birth and death. So Laureline, who wasn’t born there and isn’t going to die there, decides for them and lands. Then she and Val go onto the planetary surface.
The first tower is classic SF imagery, an array of low domes on a metal tower of tremendous height, but they are not allowed to enter because it does not belong to them. The Shingouz direct them to the right tower, much more downmarket, a lumpy dome on a stone pillar. Everyone goes up. Inside, the tower is racketty, jerry-built and crumbling. But it is occupied by three people. The boss is a big, heavy-jowled, big-bellied and loud-voiced man in a trilby, trenchcoat and loose tie, who can throw lightning bolts. No, not Thor: wrong God entirely.
He is accompanied by his son, long-haired, bearded, casually-dressed in not so much the hippy style of the past as the hanger-on-to-the-hippy style. He looks both shifty and slightly out of it. The third is a talking machine, a portable one-arm bandit with a scratchy voice. Their family owns our solar system. The father started life on it. The son spent 33 years on it. Yes, this is Earth’s Holy Family, the Father, the Son and the Faulty Ghost.
Pass on. They are behind Hypsis’s attack on Earth and its immediately forthcoming destruction. And why not? God started it, why can’t he end it, he’s entitled to. Their fellow Hypsisians constantly complain about Earth sticking its nose in where it’s not wanted, always causing trouble. And it’s not as if he’s made as much as a penny off it in all that time.
Here is where the story logic started to get beyond me. The disaster in 1986 started a near four century period of total silence before what became Galaxity first emerged. Galaxity has been dealt with in its present, or rather Hypsis’s present by being teleported away to somewhere both unpleasant and undiscoverable.
But Mr Albert argues against destroying Earth in 1986, as well as Galaxity being banished in the Now, because that is what causes the subsequent appearance of Galaxity: doing that will only leave them having to tackle Galaxity again. Why not leave it alone, see how it develops? Meanwhile, Lord Seal can negotiate with Earth’s Governments for regular payments to their owners. The case is hardly expressed with this clarity in the story: I had to get an explanation that made sense from Wikipedia.
The Superintendent decides that no matter how horrible it is where Galaxity is, he wants to be there with them, so off he’s sent. Ralph wants to go back to Glapum’t, and the same goes for him. The Shingouz will trade out. But what will now happen to Valerian and Laureline? That we’ll begin to find out in the next volume. Let’s get back to that Holy Family, shall we?
As an atheist, I’m not personally affected by the adolescently blasphemous aspects of this portrayal, but even someone of my opinions can be offended by the cheap, nasty and altogether too unthinking Humanness of such creators. The only point to this portrayal, so far as I can see, is to poke stupid fun. Unlike Philip Pullman’s depiction of God in The Amber Spyglass, it has all the depth of a seven year old waving his willy at his parents’ guests.
It has no point to it other than to shock, and even less creativity. It’s meant to be offensive for no better reason than offensiveness, and the absence of anything approaching thought is insulting to the readers’ intelligence, unworthy of the series thus far and, quite frankly, thoroughly disappointing.
Now the series has undergone a radical transformation that will provide a new underlying structure to the remainder of the Saga, but I wish it wasn’t built on a foundation that is less brick than dung.
There isn’t an explicit explanation of the Superintendent’s cryptic comment last story about Galaxity’s ongoing disappearance being due to events he had set in motion, but I’m assuming that by sending our stars to frustrate the destruction of the Earth in 1986, we’re meant to see that as the gods’ retaliation.
And Valerian and Laureline? They end up back at Inverloch Castle. Though once more it was not that openly expressed in the story, Laureline saw Val as wanting to go with the Superintendent, and made him stay with her. And for her, the Shingouz arranged for them to retain their Spatiotemporal ship, so that she could keep him. We’ve come a long way from the end of the volume before last.
But Valerian was of Galaxity. It is part of him in a way Laureline can never understand. It will be on his mind, especially as he stares up at the stars…

All the Fells: Sale Fell

Sale Fell – The North Western Fells 1,170′ (70)

Date: 1 May 1988

From: Ling Fell

Strictly speaking – well, as a matter of geographical fact – there is no ridge route from Ling Fell, the western ‘Sentinel of Wythop’, but neither it nor Sale Fell were big enough to make an expedition to one only worth the time to pull on walking boots. To get across the valley, I followed the upper road, turned down the connecting road, and carried on up Wythop Vale with that unexpected view of Skiddaw ahead. A steep path led up beside a wall, making a bee-line for the ridge, but as it was hot and sultry at that point, I carried on to the farm before doubling back at a much easier angle to the point at the top of the wall, and up into the col. It came on to rain. And it rained hard. It was the worst storm I have ever been caught out in in the Lakes. Southwards, a walker was struck by lightning and killed on Great Rigg of the Fairfield Horseshoe. I could see maybe seven or eight yards, and that without any clarity as my glasses were useless and I stashed them in my anorak front pocket. On any larger fell, I would have abandoned the walk immediately, but this was Sale Fell and I refused to be beaten by something as low as that. I carried on, uphill, in a straight line, with no idea of where I was and not the least inkling of what others’ photos suggest was a very nice view. Eventually, the cairn, six or seven loosely piled stones, came into view. I walked up to it, circuited it and carried on walking, this time downhill, without pause. I probably never spent so little time on any other summit. By the time I reached the col, the storm had passed. I descended soddenly by the wall, then followed the lower valley road all the way back to the village, sitting on the parapet of the bridge, looking at the mill wheel, before hauling myself up and up the road back to my car. If transport were available to get to Wythop, maybe it’s still not too late to go back and catch the view from here.

Due South: s02 e09 – The Edge

Due South

I like the comedy in Due South, but I also like it when the programme plays it straight and offers up a nearly pure drama, especially when it’s on a serious subject.

‘The Edge’ was an episode about Benton Fraser, and the question of whether or not he had lost, or was beginning to lose his ‘edge’, the intensity and the honed peak of all his faculties, mental and physical. The context for this was serious: Chicago was hosting a NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association: that’s going back) summit with representatives from the three parties, America, Canada and Mexico. Security is paramount, especially given the real-life opposition to NAFTA of the time, and the plenty of death threats the candidates were getting. As a result, all three countries had brought their game to the party, in the spirit of co-operation (ho ho) which meant that our duo became a more-or-less trio for the duration, their third angle being Anita Cortez (Marie Therese Rangel)

The seriousness of the situation was represented by a strong and out of character open. Armed men, in blue jumpsuits and peaked caps move stealthily through a snowy wood, converging on an isolated mansion. They force an entrance, spread out inside. They include Benton Fraser and Ray Vecchio. They surround a madman who has taken a woman hostage and who threatens to inject her with Lake Michigan water if they don’t let him go (the first indication that this might not be quite so superserious as it’s been played so far). Suddenly, she (who is Agent Cortez) bites the guy’s hand, shots are fired, Ray shoots Bennie (again) and the man in charge of this training exercise stops things and condemns it as a complete shambles.

After the theme music, and Daniel Kash’s name has now been removed from the credits, we do get a bit of mild comedy, not to mention foreshadowing. We’tre convened in Lt. Walsh’s office for some expository dialogue, plus the entrance of three FBI Special Agents, identikit knobheads, who will in short order decide that Fraser is past it and, eventually, kick him off the detail. But that comedy: as the meeting breaks up, Fraser still has tomato paste or whatever they use on his face from where Ray shot him. Cortez starts to clean it off. Inspector Thatcher hurriedly intervenes to wipe the rest of herself, giving the lame excuse, ‘we clean our own personnel’. Oh yes, we can see where this is going, especially when there’s a closing scene further expanding the confusion Fraser is start to cause for the comely Inspector (I tell you, Camilla Scott has got great legs).

But we’ll put that away because from here it’s straight drama. The would-be killer gets hold of the secret telephone codes and gets away from Fraser, to whom he’s directed his death threat letter, promising reprisals for the clearance of forests. This leads the FBI knobheads to two erroneous conclusions. One is that Fraser has blown it. The other, based on the psych profiles, is as to the nature of the killer.

The problem is that Fraser has made a couple of mistakes. This is the man who does not make mistakes. Assisted by his Dad’s ghost, talking blythely about how the bodily skills slowly start to break down as you age, Fraser starts to doubt himself. He has bizarre symbolic dreams about it (actually, there’s a nice and even sweet touch as Diefenbaker has a similar dream, about being removed as lead dog on a pack team and being replaced by a puppy!) His confidence is shaken. He makes another mistake at the airport, seeing a gun where no-one else does (another laugh here as the three co-operating security teams plan protective steps for their candidate without informing the other two).

But of course Fraser’s analysis of the threat is much more accurate than the FBI’s. Indeed, the woould-be killer, whose name we later learn is Macon Lacroix (Ken Foree), is a trained infantryman, a two-tour jungle veteran. His natural habitat is now the wild, the forests, the very forests that NAFTA’s plans are erasing. He’s out to save his home. He visits Fraser to enlist him, seeing the two of them as being the same. He’s right about that, but Fraser is sworn to the Law and cannot join Lacroix’s cause. He’s also immense, taller and broader than Fraser, very skillful. He’s Fraser’s match, ‘the player on the other side’ as Ellery Queen termed it, and he is very likely Fraser’s superior.

The FBI naturally don’t believe Fraser. They have their three suspects staked out 24/7. He’s thrown off the detail. By now Ray and Anita have bonded: saving her when she’s trodden on a home-made landmine can help that sort of thing. They’re prepated to quit in sympathy but Fraser won’t let them. Instead, he turns up at the lavish Reception as a waiter. The FBI don’t pay the proper concern to how if Fraser got through their security that easily…

And there’s Lacroix, Candidate’s hand in one hand, gun in the other. The trio converge. There’s a scuffle. Lacroix comes out of it with his arm round Fraser’s neck and his gun to his head: back to the open. Time now for Benton Fraser’s patented monologue-cum-reminiscence, which lulls Lacroix’s guard until Bennie can jump him and get him down. And save him from getting shot by the FBI…

This is what Inspector Thatcher boggles at. Fraser saves not just the candidate but the assassin. She should be getting used to this by now, also to Fraser not wanting a commendation. When she asks what he does want, it’s a coffee. With her. Cool, calm, collected she is not, flip-flopping over which of them shall drive. And she’s got great legs.

Oh, there was comedy in it along the way, moreso as we neared the dramatic conclusion than early on, which reversed the usual process, but in dealing with Fraser’s fears as to his prowess we were on a serious plane throughout. Of course he proved himself: we’re still four episodes short of the midpoint of the entire run. Much more fun to follow.

The Infinite Jukebox: Judy Collins’ ‘Both Sides Now’

As 1969 wound down to that moment I would automatically put Radio 1 on on a Monday morning, as opposed to merely Saturday and Sunday, there were some songs I did actually get to hear. Not many, and the one that made the most impression on my eardrums was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, as interpreted by Judy Collins and taken to no 12. in the British chart.
Apparently, Joni was unhappy about Judy’s interpretation of the song, and I can understand that she might not appreciate the musical prettification of the same. The original is a more reflective performance, its only instrumentation Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, her voice swooping and gliding in the way we expect of Joni Mitchell, creating the impression that she is working out her feelings, her words, as she is going along.
In contrast, the Judy Collins treatment is a more pop-oriented approach. There is considerably more instrumentation, including strings, the song prettified immensely, her singing more ringing and clear, and full of more cheer and body.
I’m obviously far more familiar with Judy Collins’ version than the original, but to me her angelic tones, overlaid by a slight vibrato, open things out. The song is not quite so personal, it is more of a universal condition, than a single person’s dilemma.
Listening to the song now, I doubt that I would have understood its deeper concerns originally, not at just turned fourteen. I would have understood it as it first paints itself to be, a word picture of clouds, those ice cream castles in the air, masses of clean, white, solid cloud built up in ramparts into an otherwise blue sky, standing separate and proud from everything else.
But this is a song about life, and the illusions it creates, and how everything breaks down, sooner or later, leaving you with no understanding of clouds, of love, of life. The clouds that ride high and proud exciting you with the visions they inspire are the same clouds that conceal the sun, that rain and snow upon you: so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.
Yet even seen from as many angles as there are, from both sides now, it’s the brightness and the illusions that impress themselves the more firmly upon you. We will always turn first to our illusions, instead of the let-down of how things really are.
But the clouds are just a metaphor. The song expands to apply its three-part structure to love, first to the crazy, bursting out of your skin period, where life moves onto an escalated plane, moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel when every fairy tale comes real. And then the way it all dissolves into indifference, when they have changed and you have not, hiding what was once behind laughter meant to suggest nothing matters, and that incredibly sad line, and if you care, don’t let them know. Instead of being open and upfront, you are disguising yourself. Yet still you remember love’s illusions.
And from there to life, the whole show, the gamut of emotions, the stirring declarations, tears and fears and feeling proud to say I love you right out loud. Collins fronts up to this, emphasising those words, confronting life and the ways to live it with warmth and strength, yet even so she has to acknowledge that friends change, and they say she’s changed and ultimately life is a matter of gaining and losing things every single day.
Joni Mitchell sang as if she was trying to work it all out in her head as she went along. Judy Collins sang as if she had solved enough of the puzzle to be accepting of its inherent contradiction, to divine the difference between reality and illusion, but still to desire the illusion.
At just turned fourteen, I didn’t understand anything of this, but I recognised in Judy Collins’ voice the meaning of the words, the underlying yearning for the surface that deludes yet delights, the hope and the despair and the determination to keep going, to accept what life offers you, and to accept what it takes away. I had no real understanding of what it was like to have things taken away until the following year, but I heard that in music, before I finally began to become absorbed in music, and I am haunted by it still.

All the Fells: Sail

Sail – The North Western Fells 2,530′ (194)

Date: 9 July 1994

From: Eel Crags

The Coledale Horseshoe consists of six summits, or seven if, as I always did, I added in Wandope whilst I was there. When I finally got to walk the full Horseshoe, one wonderful summer Saturday, I had already climbed six of those seven fells, as part of three different walks. I would have walked it for itself any day, but there was one summit left that I needed: one summit in that Horseshoe, one summit in The North Western Fells. This was the last of Wainwright’s seven books that I had used to go walking with a first time. And it was the first of those seven that I closed and put away as having been to every summit in its pages. It’s a shame that Sail, for all that it is over 2,500′, is so nondescript a fell, with a small footprint, overshadowed by Eel Crag both in terms of height and features. There was an uphill walk of less than a hundred feet on grass, a path that crossed the featureless top, avoiding the cairn, which can be seen much more easily from above than from the path past it, three or four stones, almost overgrown. But it held a significance far beyond its own appeal. I had finished one whole book, for the first time, just by stepping aside from the path and being there.

Some Books: Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.


For the first time in this series, I’m writing about a book, or books, I never borrowed from anywhere, but rather bought – the first on whim – and have owned for well over thirty years. The Fionavar Tapestry is not so much a book in itself but rather a trilogy, like The Lord of the Rings. In contrast to that work, The Fionavar Tapestry has never, to my knowledge, been issued as a single volume, but only as its three component books, ‘The Summer Tree’, ‘The Wandering Fire’ and ‘The Darkest Road’, the first two of which I have signed by the author.
Guy Kay is a Canadian author and a qualified lawyer. I saw ‘The Summer Tree’ on holiday in the Lakes one year in the late Eighties, though not for once, I think, in Cockermouth’s New Bookshop, which I used to think I’d never visit without coming out with three volumes. I was still heavily into Fantasy and SF, that interest generated by The Lord of the Rings a dozen or more years earlier, and the bright and formalised cover of the book caught my eye. I read the back page blurb, scanned enough of the Introduction to confirm that it looked alright, and bought it.
I didn’t connect Kay with a line I’d read in a book I’d owned for a decade by then until the Waterstones author session for the second book, the following year. It’s in, perhaps not surprisingly, The Silmarrillion, at the end of Christopher Tolkien’s introduction, when he thanks Guy Kay for his help in collating the materials in that book. Yes, Kay had been a student at Oxford University, and C.J.R. Tolkien’s chief assistant in drawing together that legendary, unfinished book. Hardly a surprise then that he should go on to become a very successful author of fantasy fiction himself.
The Fionavar Trilogy was Kay’s first publication, and is both typical and untypical of the writing he’s done. The world Kay creates for his epic story is pure fantasy, Tolkienian in manner, with Elves and Dwarves and a Horse riding nation, as well as a High Kingdom and a malevolent God against whom a final battle is to be fought, and it wears no one direct influence on its sleeve other than the late Professor of Philology. His later books are set in Kingdoms that deliberately echo European countries as a direct influence on the narrative – Italy, France, Spain, Rome etc. – but there is no such tinge this time.
And, biggest difference of all, is that this story is set around five human beings, transplanted from Earth into this literally fabulous realm, the first realm. Not just five human beings, three male and two female, but five students from Toronto University: in no particular order Kevin Laine, Jennifer Lowell, Paul Schafer, Kimberley Ford and Dave Martinyiuk. The first four are friends, and the last a loner dragged into things against his will.


In that sense, in addition to trying to echo the works of Tolkien, Kay is also borrowing from his fellow inkling, C.S. Lewis, Narnia, of course. That is, however, the only Lewisian aspect of the story; there are no Christian allegories here.
There is, however, one more mythic element to be woven in, inextricably, and that is Arthur: King Arthur, a Moorcockian Eternal Warrior, Guinevere and Lancelot du Lac: the original triangle.
Having said all that, I don’t intend to go into much more detail about how the trilogy progresses, but rather to consider the story in more general terms. When I discovered ‘The Summer Tree’, I was still very much a reader of fantasy and SF almost exclusively, and I welcomed this discovery as something on a very high level. It was written in a clear, yet elevated mode, and it was a High Fantasy of Tolkienian scope, but at the same time it was refreshingly down to Earth. The five Canadians brought with them all the naturalism of ordinary human beings, and hopes, fears, concerns and desires that had nothing to do with Fantasy.
They also brought sex with them, but then, especially in the form of Prince Diarmud, of the High Kingdom of Aileron, it was already lounging with its feet up.
That is probably the biggest divergence from the Tolkien mode that Kay is seeking to evoke. He filters the story through the quintet’s perceptions which, no matter how well they adapt, are still those of Earth, instinctively reflective of our own: they mediate the fantastic for us, grounding it by reducing the distance between reader and event. But to an even greater extent, Kay’s greater willingness to introduce sex and direct violence, and modern attitudes to the same, is an even greater grounding of events for us.
Sex is non-existent in Tolkien. Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn, but really it’s only an advanced form of hero worship, like a girl obsessed with a boy band singer. Aragorn and Arwen marry, but everything is pure and holy. Sam marries Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t even get mentioned before he leaves Hobbiton. They being hobbits, and closer to the earth and the natural life that Tolkien preferred, have multiple children which means they have been shagging away quite happily over a long period of time and, naturally, no contraception.
But that’s only after the story is over. No sex whilst the action’s on. Not so in ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’, no sir, and for the most part all the sexual activities are woven into the story, changing its course in one way or another, and usually significantly.
Re-reading the series now, having left Fantasy behind for nearly half as long again as it originally obsessed me, I still found the story enjoyable, and intend to keep the books, though this time I found it far easier to see just how much the trilogy conforms to the expected patterns of Fantasy fiction. Kay’s variations don’t draw the story far enough away from what its audience would have expected.
What does still distinguish the trilogy from its contemporaries is how much Kay plays with the emotions during it. If you thought Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, which made her the Barbara Cartland of Fantasy, Kay has her beat at every turn, principally because of the intensity and depth of the emotions he plays with. He’s deliberately aiming to reduce you to tears constantly, and he gets very close to doing that several times over.


The concept that sustains the story is that Fionavar is the first of all worlds, from which every other world is but a reflection. Instead of an Eru Iluvatar to sing Arda into existence, the supreme God is The Weaver, who weaves the tapestry that is existence. Into the tapestry came the God from outside, Rakoth Maugram, who seeks to destroy all. Rakoth is both Morgoth and Sauron, having been defeated by an Alliance of all the different peoples a thousand years ago, and imprisoned, bound, beneath a near-planet sized mountain. Now, treachery has freed him and, like Sauron he is returned to strike again with incalculable and unopposable force.
And the adventure is how he is successfully opposed and, eventually, destroyed.
Now, you will have noted some very familiar elements in that brief outline. And there’s a sequence in the first book, transforming one of the five in a manner that has its roots in Norse myth, whilst the Arthurian elements don’t enter the story until the second book, ‘The Wandering Fire’.
Kay chose to end the first book by drawing the quintet abruptly back to Earth, to save all of them but principally to rescue one of the five who had undergone a terrible experience at the, um, hands of the God. This sets things up for the start of the second book, as Arthur has to be summoned from where tradition places him before we can go back to Fionavar, but after that we stay firmly in the first world. I confess that this transition backwards gives the trilogy an overall slightly unbalanced flow, leaving me wondering how deeply Kay had everything planned out in ‘The Summer Tree’, given that the two succeeding books are continuous.
It’s not to spoil the ending to tell you that ultimately, once everything has been worked out, only two of the five return to Canada to pick up the lives they have there, and don’t read too much into it if I tell you that of the others, two cannot return: that doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.
Kay has gone on to a long and successful career writing a series of High Fantasies, usually but not always single-volumed. I used to have several of these, and ironically the sequence was broken for me by the one set against a variation of Viking era Britain, which I just could not get into. I have retained one of his novels, the most uncharacteristic one, and I’ll be looking at that in due course.
The fairest way of summarising The Fionavar Tapestry is that it is good, and much better than most of its field, but it hasn’t worn well, and nothing like as well as Tolkien, because, at the end of the day, it is too representative of its genre. It does what it does powerfully, but it only does what you might expect to read if you like that sort of thing. Which I used to immeasurably, but now only read for its nostalgic flavours.

All the Fells: Rosthwaite Fell

Rosthwaite Fell – The Southern Fells 1,807′ (188)

Date: 18 April 1994

From: Stonethwaite

There’s not a lot to say of Rosthwaite Fell, though it’s not in itself a dreary fell, like Mungrisedale Common. It’s just a spur of Glaramara, on the Stonethwaite Valley side of the more substantial fell, with two separate and distinct tops, the lower of which being the actual official summit of the fell. What I was doing, giving this small fell a day of its own during a week away, I can no longer remember: it was not as if the morning had been washed out by rain, or anything like that. I was going via Wainwright’s one illustrated route, towards the mouth of Langstrath, but turning up alongside Stanger Gill, curving behind Hanging Haystack and into that strange upper valley dominated by the array of rock spurs so vividly drawn in the book, and almost miniatures when seen in real life. I remember them, but very little else of the walk. The official summit, Bessyboot, is just over 1,800′ but to the south Rosthwaite Cam was prominent at nearly a hundred feet higher, across the hollow occupied by Tarn at Leaves, whose name is more attractive than the tarn itself. I’d meant to visit the Cam as well, but it was one of those places that looked miles away, across a trackless jungleland, and it looked time-consuming and tiring to force a way there. I can’t remember how I got down now: I don’t think I retraced my steps but if I didn’t I don’t know what route of descent I took. It was into Stonethwaite anyway, because I remember seeing my car come into view, round a bend, and sitting in it to remove my boots, and picking up Radio 4 LW coverage of the England-West Indies test in the Caribbean. Brian Lara was batting, and was nearing Gary Sobers’ all-time record Test score of 366, and I sat in the car for over an hour, as tense as could be, willing him on to make it, and cheering him and pounding the steering wheel when he broke the record, which is why, perhaps, I remember so little of the walking that day, which came second for once.

Sherlock: s03 e02 – The Sign of Three


How you view it makes all the difference.

There are, excluding the short preview to the third series, only thirteen episodes of Sherlock all told. These were originally broadcast in four series of three episodes, plus one one-off, these series broadcast at intervals of not less than eighteen months. I watched each episode as it was originally transmitted, enthralled. I defended the last series in particular against the spectacular mass derision mounted by the Guardian in concerted rubbish-it mode.

On the other hand, watching the entire run in consecutive weeks, as a thirteen episode continuum, without the mental and physical long breaks between each series that give the show licence to alter its parameters every time it returns, casts everything in a very different light. Those criticisms tends to look a bit less unreasonable now.

It’s a common issue with a great many series, that the longer they go on the more homogenised they tend to get. Back in the Nineties there was a BBC series called Playing the Field, whose set-up was that it was about a Ladies Football team (inspired by the successful real-life Doncaster Belles). It was popular enough to spawn a second series, and then to go on for two more series. The problem was that the first two series were about the members of a Ladies Football team and the stories that derived from their sport. The second two series were a soap opera about a group of characters who just happened to be linked by playing for a Ladies Football team. The point was pushed out of sight.

Sherlock, when it began, was a re-imagining of the greatest fictional private Detective in contemporary times. It was a programme about complex, imaginative and extremely clever crimes and their solving, filtered through the personalities of the latterday Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. And it was brilliant. Not only was it complex, involving and puzzling, but it was shot through with flash and dazzle of the kind Steven Moffat had brought to Dr Who with Matt Smith.

‘The Sign of Three’ is the eighth episode of Sherlock overall. It’s set in and around the wedding of John Watson and Mary Morstan. During the course of the episode Sherlock discourses upon two recent unsolved cases before connecting them to a third case, of murder, to be carried out at the wedding itself. It’s ingenious, though the actual murder set-up itself has been criticised as being an unworkable fake. It’s also ‘the middle one’, the episode that, in the two preceding series, has been the naff one, and whilst it’s not as numbing as either ‘The Blind Banker’ or ‘The Hound of Baskerville’, it’s noticeable that the script is by committee, a collaboration between Moffat, Mark Gatiss and third writer Steve Thompson.

What’s far more noticeable now than first time is that despite the detection of two unsolved crimes that are, during the course of the story, are brought together to point to the intended third in time to prevent the murder thus revealed, is that the episode is not about the crime(s). They’re an afterthought, a peg on which to hang the real purpose of the episode, which is John and Mary’s Wedding Reception. And it’s not even really about that, it’s about Sherlock’s ham-fisted and, on any realistic basis, piss-poor attempt at making a Best Man’s Speech.

What’s more, in order to make the episode last 86 minutes, the timescale is twisted into a pretzel to hide the fact that the story itself would not stand up for much more than about 55 minutes.

Oh, it’s clever, I grant you that, and enjoyable, fully too in lots of places. It contains further clues towards the contents of the final episode of the series, though it tries to skillfully disguise these by having Sherlock deduce, before either of the new husband and wife are aware of it, that they’re already on the way from two to three. But whereas earlier episodes very carefully balanced a strong and seemingly impenetrable plot with the enlivening characterisation, that balance has swung well out of true and we’re into character comedy, with the plot being pushed towards the outer edges of the episode.

The point is being displaced. This is no longer about two very different guys brought together by crime-solving but about two eccentric mates, who just happen to solve crimes whilst talking to one another. Homogenisation. Coupled, paradoxically, with Moffat’s problem on Dr Who, that as the conversations are constructed on flash and dazzle, in order to keep the viewer coming back the flash and dazzle has to be upped every week, the cleverness made more overt, the jaded tastes yet further flogged, so the overall effect is pulling in two opposite directions, towards conformity and eccentricity.

It’s not a pretty sight.

On the other hand, I do remember next week’s episode as being superb, so maybe the tide will respond to Canute after all, at least for one week. I’m growing trepidatious about series 4, however.

A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Media City Line

Lowry Centre

Properly speaking, this should be a journey on the Eccles Line, that having been the next line to be added to the Manchester Metrolink Network, but as we now know the Eccles bit of the line is closed for improvements until October. That makes for a short outing today, and a familiar one, as the trams do not go further than Media City, the BBC’s home in the North, for the duration. Nevertheless, apart from Media City itself, there are the Lowry Centre, the Lowry Outlook (formerly Mall) and the Imperial War Museum North all in the immediate vicinity, so I don’t think I’ll be short of things to do.

A shorter trip out it may be but I prepare to set off earlier than usual. Partly this is because I want to stop off part way and leave a repeat prescription at the Doctor’s but mostly it’s because it’s a nice day, blue and white, the Council are mowing all the verges and strips again and I can smell cut grass as if it had been sprayed on.

Needless to say, I miss a bus walking down the street, leaving me to stand under a burning sun, not that this is anything like as bad as the Bury Line trip. It’s as if the sun is putting on a show to celebrate England winning the European Championships yesterday: I did love long enough to see it happen again.

At this time of day, the buses are every fifteen minutes, giving me time to stroll to the surgery and back and get time to sit down waiting for the next service. And stroll it is: I am very slow-movng today, lethargic and deliberate. It’s the same old crank out down Hyde Road, with plenty of stops nowhere and for nothing, and no, I’m not getting used to this by now.

To my surpriseand delight, a Media City tram arrives at Piccadilly Gardens the moment I do, but I;m not quick enough to snah a seat facing the way we’re going. As far as Cornbrook, it’s the same route as last week. I keep my eyes open for the chance to switch seats but that never comes.

There’s a twenty-something girl sat diagonally across from me, short dyed-blonde hair, dark roots, a nose ring on one nostril. She catches my eye beause she looks familiar, as if she resembles someone from film or TV, but I have no idea who. (I wondered for a moment if she might have been Analeigh Tipton, who played a cameo role in an episode of The Big Bang Theory I recently saw and it could well be). At the time, it just seemed like another of those instances I’ve been having for years: I mean, I’m getting on for 67, and I’m seen thousands of people throughout my life that it’s a wonder more of them don’t resemble peoplei used to know.

Except for the final stretch of track from Harbour City to Media City, this is the secition of the Network that I’m most familiar with for all sorts of reasons: visits to the Lowry Centre to see people like Shawn Colvin, Warren Zevon and Rhod Gilbert, unsuccessful job interviews, my then wife’s Graduation from Salford University and one night when I arrived at midnight Friday and sat outside the Lowry till 3.00am, but that’s a secret. Salford Quays is still a very strange place, looking nothing like a part of Manchester, or even Salford, at all. Office blocks of glass and either yellow-beige or red brick, narrow canyons through which the tram weaves slowly, apartment blocks of advanced design, built for yuppies in the days before we knew what yuppies were, old dockbays filled with glittering water far cleaner than was imaginable when this was Salford Docks, the end of the Manchester Ship Canal. It may now be thirty years or more old but it still looks like something delivered on an interstellarcraft and dropped down here to test the intelligence of the natives. I think we’re losing.

Media City lies off to one side of the Lowry Centre. It’s cdominated by the BBC but ITV have premises here, as do Salford University. Under the sun and surrounded by sparkle it’s busy and post booths and stalls offer over-expensive varieties of food and drink. I wander about a bit, see a nice redhead in a short skirt sat in a deckchair who buoys my spirits. But the twin demands of my bladder and my belly restrict the amount of time I can spend here, so I drift off towards the Lowry, and opt for Pizza Express. Their menu is a bit pricey and they don’t even do Deep Pan but on the other hand I can have Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi, so swings and roundabouts.

The Lowry Mall, as it originally was, has moved on et again, from Lowry Outlook to Quayside. It offers little of interest – the only shop I enters is The Works – so I walk very slowly across the first of two wide and modern suspension bridges to the Imperial War Museum North. I’ve been here only once before, in the mid-2000s, when my then elder-stepson had a project to do for MGS and we came down here on Sunday morning. It was an intense and moving experience, and it is again. This time, however, it’s exacerbated by my wearing a facemask for the first time in almost twelve months. It’s stifling, and my escaping breath steams my glasses, making it hard to read the labels.

In fact, on my own, it’s too much for me and I barely last fifteen minutes before I have to get out. We did this. We did all of this. All those people, killed, slaughtered. And we still haven’t started doing any better. It’s too much for me.

Outside, in the air, I start to feel better, though not to move any faster. I head back across another bridge that brings me out between the two main BBC buildings, Blue Peter mega-badges everywhere. Across the square I can see an Ashton-via-Piccadilly tram in the station. Despite my complete absence of alacrity, I catch it and get a forward-facing seat. And I get straight onto a 203 back at Piccadilly.

Neither journey, tram or bus, is much fun. It’s stuffy inside and everything that halts us rubs my nerves up the wrong way. But at last I’m home. This was the least enjoyable trip on the Network to date, and I know that one of those yet to come is going to be even worse, but I shalln’t be taking that route for a few weeks yet. Time to recover before then.