A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: The Solar Cycle resumed


Though The Urth of the New Sun had appeared as a single-volume sequel to The Book of the New Sun tetraology, the very completeness of the sweeping story appeared to preclude any further visits to that overwhelmingly distant future of decay and rebirth. So it was both a surprise and a delight too learn that Gene Wolfe was writing ‘another multi-volume series’ set in the same Universe.
As is always the case with Wolfe, beware of assumptions for they will invariably fail to materialise.
The Book of the Long Sun is massively different in all but one aspect, and that is that at its centre it has a Christ-like figure acting, though he doesn’t know it, to save his people and his world. And even then there are very few correspondences between Severian the Lame, and Patera Silk, whether he be what he is at the outset, a young augur at a run-down manteion in a poor part of a dying town or, what he becomes, the Caldé of Viron and the centre of a massive popular revolt. One saves by destroying everything, one saves by expelling his people outwards.
The biggest contrast between the New Sun and the Long Sun, apart from practically everything, is that the first was a first person narrative, by an unreliable narrator, and the second is a third person story, something that is comparatively rare in Wolfe’s work, yet in exactly the same way that Severian’s revelation of his own insight into his true nature at the end of ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’, there is a revelation at the end of ‘Exodus from the Long Sun’ that throws everything the reader has faithfully absorbed into doubt, when the writer of the Long Sun makes himself known.
Don’t mistake an authoritative impersonal narrative voice for authority.
Another major difference is that whereas the entirety of the New Sun is seen through the single, unaware viewpoint of Severian, in the Long Sun Wolfe sustains the viewpoints of dozens of characters, each with their own distinct modes of speech, whether it be a wholly invented and equally convincing Thieves Cant, the drawn out prolocution of a senior religious figure, the repeated emphasis on certain words of another such. Modes of speech, accents, voices, each clear and unmistakable.
It’s difficult, indeed almost impossible, to accept the Long Sun as taking place in the same Universe as the New Sun. There isn’t a moment in which the feel of either series corresponds to the other, in which the sense of what we are reading is in anyway comparable. But there is a link, detectable even in the opening volume, ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, that the perceptive reader can seize upon to draw the two into a single continuity, though I admit I had to have it pointed out to me.
Of the three series that go to make up ‘The Solar Cycle’ – which, let us remember, is a title put forward by Wolfe’s fans, not the lupine master himself – The Book of the Long Sun has always been the least to me. Previously, I promised to summarise as best as I could the four books of the tetraology as with the New Sun. It is trying to hold to that promise that has meant so long a delay in picking up this series of posts. The increasing profusion of characters, the increasing profusion of separate strands, the increasing variation from not only a single, coherent narrative but also a single, coherent narrative plot has not only made that promise untenable for me, but also made the re-reading of each volume a very tedious and unenjoyable process.
I’ve done just as I said, but the result is an unintelligible mess. What will follow will be shorter précis of each volume, and a longer analysis of the series as a whole at the end.
I was introduced to The Book of the Long Sun via a hardback copy of ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, bought in the last phase of my short-lived Book Club commitment. I bought the rest of the story in paperback, lovely themed covers of predominately yellow colouring reflecting the conditions of heat affecting the inhabitants of the Whorl. Completist that I am, I sold my hardback to buy the paperback.
The books came out one a year between 1991 and 1994 and, to the best of my knowledge, were the last of Gene Wolfe’s books to be published in Britain for many years: the only other Wolfe book I am aware of having a UK edition since was the 2009 retrospective, The Best of Gene Wolfe. Thankfully, Waterstones in Manchester had adopted a vigorous policy of importing American SF editions, which kept me going until the era of Amazon and eBay.

On with the show!

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Some Books: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence


Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times I associate them with.
The latest of these is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, as it’s commonly known and is indeed titles on the paperback omnibus I obtained through eBay for the purpose. At the time, I borrowed it in individual volumes, never more than one at a time, which suggests to me that either they were sufficiently popular that it was hard to get each succeeding book when I’d finished with its predecessor, or else that I wasn’t that into them that I had to read the full story.
The Sequence has been praised, and by people whose opinions to tend to alert mine, such as Neil Gaiman. There is, however, criticism that the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, doesn’t live up to the rest of the series, being a far too obvious children’s story, almost unrelated to the later, greater sequence.
I’d say that’s fair comment. Before starting my re-read, I checked the publication dates, which show Over Sea, Under Stone appearing in 1965, and the other four books appearing over a five year period that doesn’t start until 1973. And though Cooper does start with the idea of a longer, background story, in which the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, play a significant role, none of the deeper matters impinge on the tale, which is a simple Treasure Hunt, with the Drews, under the direction of their (honorary) Great-Uncle Merriman Lyons, find a golden chalice that is identified as being the Holy Grail, and which ends up in a glass case in a Museum, from which it has to be stolen in book three in order to be recovered in time to use.
The opening book, and its simplistic nature, has the look and feel of an altogether lighter story, without long-term consequence, and the eight year gap before its sequel appeared – a sequel in which the Drews are absent and whose central character, eleven year old Will Stanton, is a direct and more than human participant in the overall struggle – suggests to me a later development of the major story, creating a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings clash of tones, albeit not so severe.
That sequel, which gives its name to the sequence, introduces Will and moves the action lock, stock and barrel from Cornwall to Buckinghamshire. Again, it’s something of a Treasure Hunt theme, but this is different. Instead of being a game for three normal children, fun but with dangerous edges, it’s a life and death matter from the outset, and Will, who learns on his eleventh birthday that he is actually the last of the Old Ones, participates as an equal with closer to full knowledge of what is involved.
Though this was explained by Merriman in Over Sea, Under Stone, it’s not until The Dark is Rising that Cooper starts to give us a greater feel for the longer story. This is of the opposition, since the world began, between the Dark and the Light. The Dark is everything mean, dirty and offensive. It is control and power, forever seeking the means of ordering everything according to its lights. In contrast, the Light, which is represented in the Old Ones, seeks nothing for itself but the freedom of those it protects to live their lives as they choose. The Dark is rising, to one final, fatal push, which will either win they total control, unendingly, or else their own dissolution forever.
What Will has to do in this book is to collect and bring together six signs, each a circle, quartered by a cross, each of a different substance, to create a weapon essential to the Light’s ultimate aim.
It’s a much stronger book because, notwithstanding Will’s pre-adolescent age, he has to be, and indeed is, adult in all but years.
Greenwitch, a surprisingly short, and overly simple book, takes everything back to Trewissick, and brings the Drews back into things. The Grail has been stolen and has to be recovered which, despite Will’s powers – which he hides from the children until it’s almost too late – it’s Jane, the only female leading character in the series, who makes victory possible, and that is due to her innately feminine niceness.
The Greenwitch is a wicker woman, constructed by the women of Trewissick and given to the sea, as an ancient rite born in the desire to seek protection for the fishermen. By chance, the Grail, stolen by a minor figure of the Dark, hoping to rise in their ranks, is hidden in the Greenwitch, who refuses to release it. If it is taken into the realm of Tethys, queen of the sea, it will pass into the hands of the High Magic, and cease to be available to Dark or Light. It is Jane’s kindness, making a wish on the Greenwitch not for herself but for the being created from the woven wicker to be happy that persuades the latter to release her treasure to the only girl in the game.
The Grey King returns to Will, sending him into Wales whilst recovering from a life-threatening bout of hepatitis. Will has memorised three verses of ancient property that have now gone out of his head (but not permanently, of course), but the rags he can recall indicate that the next stage is a confrontation with the Grey King, translated as Cader Idris.
Cooper shows herself very adept at conjuring up the feel of Wales, relying not on phonetic dialogue as with the Cornishmen, as on the rhythm of Welsh speech and the use of unexplained Welsh terms. And whilst much of her mythology already rests on Celtic concerns and an underlying touch of Arthur, both are greatly enhanced here as Will makes friends with, and more importantly brings to the Light’s side, the initially strange albino Welsh boy, Bran (pronounced Braan) Davies.
For Bran, with his mysterious, greatly obscured parentage, proves to be the son of Arthur himself, brought by Guinevere and Merriman forward in time, and he and Will are key to first finding the golden harp that is the next thing of power required by the Light, but also in waking the Six Sleepers, held under the Grey King’s power in the bearded lake, Tal-y-Llyn.
This sets up the final confrontation, in Silver on the Tree, in which the Drews return, but the major part of which concerns Will and Bran’s journey into the Lost Land, to persuade the doubting King Gwynnndo to give to Bran the sword made for Arthur. This leads to a frantic race to the Chilterns, where a bud is to be cut from a certain tree.
En route, there is a clever, and moving twist, as the Dark, in what might be seen as an oddly pedantic appeal to Rules and Regulations, seek to have Bran disqualified from taking part. In a way, it reminded me of the old distinctions of County Cricket, held onto longest by Yorkshire, that permitted only players born within the county boundaries to represent their county (this was used in a DC Thomson ‘It’s Runs that Count!’ series, in which a mystery player for Rob Higson’s Highshire was claimed by their unscrupulous neighbours to be only qualified to play for Broadshire).
Despite this bureaucratic approach, Cooper turns the scene to great advantage, for the decision is placed in the hands of an ordinary man, a man who considers himself betrayed by all that has happened, and especially by the Light that has destroyed the life of contented love he once had. And this man reaches deeply through his pain and regret to give a fair, composed, and deeply thought-out verdict that refutes the Dark’s challenge, and permits Bran the part he is destined to play, to turn back the Dark, from this, its greatest Rising.
And defeated thus, the Dark is not merely diminished but is defeated forever. And the Light withdraws with it, no longer needed. Earth and humanity now has control of its destiny, and will forge its future from now on. Merriman, oldest of the Old Ones, can now move on, never to be seen again, though Will, youngest, will remain, the only one to remember what has happened. The Drews will not, nor will Bran, who chooses to remain with the father who adopted him and showed him nothing but love, rather than Arthur, in idyllic and mythic retreat.
Overall, despite its shaky beginning, the Sequence is a very good, well-thought out and knowledgeable fantasy, far better than many I have read, whether for children or adults. The problem with it is that, underneath everything, it is always and ineluctably a children’s story. As such, it consciously limits itself to a certain depth, below which it will not allow itself to sink. The worst that the Dark can perpetrate is horrible violence against animals (usually by other animals), the perverting of vulnerable humans to betrayals, and some overt racism in Silver on the Tree to demonstrate the kind of thing that’s going to be in store for us if the Dark wins.
It’s not much, it’s far from graphic, and it shrinks the series’ horizons to things shaped to a young audience.
What I was hoping for is something of the strength, the deep-lying conviction, that comes out in Alan Garner. Though they mostly remain even further from the surface than Cooper’s Dark, Garner’s horrors are terrifying. They are vivid and real, even though they take their substance from what Garner doesn’t write but instead effortlessly draws from us.
But there is only one Alan Garner, and even if he writes no more, as Boneland seemed to predict, I dread the day of losing him. Cooper can’t do that. She can write a good story, full of symbols and myths and evocations of things other than we can see, but she can’t draw me into them in the way that cries out to be drawn. My younger self – I say younger but we’re looking at my early twenties at the very best – was clearly not sufficiently interested in the books then. Though she has written other, later fiction, I don’t think I’ll be spreading my net wider. A shame: I had hoped for better. But like most of the books in this series, this will be going back on eBay, in the hope it finds a more appreciative reader than I.

Crap Journalism: Unseriously.


https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/09/has-fiction-lost-its-sense-of-humour

Go on, read this one. It’s about Comic Fiction and whether it still exists. Read it all the way to the end. A whole essay about Comic Fiction and it gets to the last paragraph before it mentions Terry Pratchett, and then as a maybe and not even with the courtesy of his first name: Douglas Adams at least gets that.

That makes the writer the biggest joke of all.

Some Books: Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Book of Skulls’


In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
Back in the Seventies, when I first discovered SF and Fantasy, I was an avid consumer. Heck, I practically read nothing else. One of my great favourites during this period was Robert Silverberg. I’d timed things well, coming in when he was in the middle of a phase of his writing carer, that lasted about a dozen years, in which his writing was fierce, passionate, elegant and intellectual, not to mention in many respects pretty sexual. I borrowed everything I could get my hands on from the Library, and had at least one short story collection in paperback, and was only mildly disappointed with one novel.
Then, in 1980, there came Lord Valentine’s Castle. This was simply a big fantasy, set on the gigantic planet Majipoor, home to a mountain so big it practically extended into space. Everything about the book was overtly epic, with the title character being the rightful heir, aspiring to regain his crown and in the meantime touring with itinerant entertainers as a juggler.
It wasn’t just the subject, but the language. Silverberg’s style changed, became more open and simple, more ordinary in my perception. It was a long-term, if not permanent shift: certainly Majipoor came to dominate Silverberg’s creativity, whilst the planet held little interest for me. And, as my tastes started to move further away from pure SF, that short story collection, and any other Silverberg books I might have owned, failed a cull and were moved on.
I haven’t read any Bob Silverberg in years, but thanks to Amazon, or GoodReads, he was put back in my head. The Book of Skulls was more or less my favourite of his books during that halcyon period and a cheap copy was available, so here we are.
The Book of Skulls is about four college roommates, all in their early twenties, of wide-ranging backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, social status and physiques. Timothy is a rich WASP, heir to inherited millions, tolerant of but indifferent to things outside his privileged experience. Oliver is a Kansas farmboy, highly intelligent, fiercely driven to improve himself, an Aryan god in appearance though not in heritage or temperament. Eli is Jewish, intent, conflicted, a quasi-mystic, darker of hair and skin, neurotic and self-hating. And Ned, Boston Catholic, equally short, skinny and swarthy, is gay.
These four are on a mission to achieve physical immortality, with differing degrees of commitment, conviction and comprehension.
The story falls into two parts, the first half a road-trip from their Northeastern College, via New York, Chicago, etc., to Arizona, the second half their experiences at the hidden religious retreat they discover, as they – a Receptacle – undergo the training that will taken them to their goal.
There is one major drawback: immortality is only for two of the four. One must willingly commit suicide, and the other must be killed by the two successful candidates. Life for a life. Balance.
Of course, at the outset, you look at the two blonde jocks, physically superior specimens, natural survivors, and the two neurotics, dark and weedy, natural victims, and you have certain expectations. As do Eli and Ned. But any reader worth their salt will expect this blatant cliche to be overturned as, disappointingly, it is.
Silverberg chooses to write the book as an ongoing quartet of first person monologues, the viewpoint changing between the four characters. Unfortunately, from my present day perspective, there’s too little differentiation between the four voices, and between their various subjective opinions. Much of their monologues, in both halves of the book, are tied up in their motivations, the extent or otherwise of their faith in their quest, and whilst each of them has a different perspective, their supposedly individual self-analyses are too similar.
Timothy, insulated from concerns outside his class and his background as a rich kid, is the most distinct. His ‘belief’ is the most superficial, he is financing the trip, he is going with his friends, but in the end he does not believe in the outcome of their trip, just as he does not actually believe in anything, because he doesn’t need to believe in anything except his trust fund.
Ned is the next most ambivalent. He is a trickster, a self-identified clown, primarily gay and very content in that, but capable of having hetero sex when the situation requires it, only he deliberately chooses ugly girls when that happens. Ned both believes and doesn’t believe simultaneously.
Though they’re superficially as different as chalk and cheese, Eli and Oliver are the most intense. For Eli, it’s the mystical element of his nature, which he ascribes to his Jewishness, for Oliver, the most obviously intelligent of the four, it is a matter of, effectively, fear. Oliver hates and fears death. He’s going into medicine to fight it, to claw away from it any little advantage he can get for himself. His father died of a particularly aggressive cancer at age 36. Oliver hates the very thought of losing either his unexperienced future or the life he would build in the prime of it.
But each of the four delves deep into themselves, in endless streams of metaphysical speculations that make it hard to distinguish which of the four is speaking at any given moment, unless they touch directly on their own key characteristics.
And I find the whole concept difficult to absorb. Who are these people talking to? This isn’t a written account, a diary or a memorandum. It’s an internal monologue that spills out on paper four times, over and over again, with nothing to suggest why any of these four are spilling their guts with such verbosity.
The latter half of the book goes into details realistic enough to suggest a potential method of achieving immortality, without having to introduce magic potions. It’s a combination of physical suppleness, mental conditioning, concentration upon manipulating bodily energy internally. All convincing enough, and all working towards the inducement of trance-like states, both physical and mental. In a couple of places, Silverberg doesn’t just risk confusing his audience but, in one reader, does actually lose him.
The final phase is an interpersonal, round robin confessional. Each one has to confess, in turn, their deepest and most shameful secret, to one other, not to be repeated to another party.
Ned confesses to Timothy a time when he became involved with both partners in a gay relationship, both of whom fell in love with him and who both commit suicide at not being able to have him exclusively: he shame is at the charge it gave him.
Timothy confesses to Oliver that, four years ago, in a fury of drunkenness and frustration, he raped his fifteen year old sister.
Oliver confesses to Eli that he once had a homosexual experience with another boy, at the age of 14, which he found more intense and satisfying than any heterosexual experience before or since.
Eli attempts to cheat, by spilling Oliver’s confession to Ned, who has lusted after Oliver all along, and making that into his shameful secret, but Ned refuses to accept that, so that Eli has to confess that the erudite paper he wrote on which his reputation as a highly intelligent and promising scholar was plagiarised from an unknown deceased Romanian.
The confessionals precipitate the end of the book, along the lines that the alert reader has been expecting. Ned uses Oliver’s confession to Eli to approach the midwesterner and seduce him into an hour’s homosexual coupling (this being 1972, homosexuality is defined solely as buggery).
Then Eli, working outside, sees Timothy heading back to their abandoned car. Timothy, the least convinced, the least committed, the most conditionedly indifferent to anything that does not impinge on his privileged life, has had enough, is going back to College, heedless of the quartet’s pledge to the Fraternity, and the threat that, if one of the Receptacle leaves, the other three lives are forfeit.
So Eli runs up behind him and smashes his (appropriately) skull in to provide one of the required deaths, and when everyone gets inside, they discover that, as a result of his hour of homosexual joy with Ned, Oliver has very painfully and determinedly disembowelled himself, to complete the prophecy.
Well, well, so the two alpha-males, the dominant, white protestant jocks, are the pair who die and the swarthy neurotics, the weedy wets, are the ones who get eternity, as absolutely nobody guessed from early on.
There’s something of an ambivalent ending, in Eli’s head. He’s the only one of the four with definite plans for his unending future, decades in succession all the way into the mid-Twenty-first Century (from a book set around 1972), of the various things he will take his time in experiencing. And whilst the first phase of that is staying at the sanctuary anyway, the ending implies that now he has achieved immortality – at least, so much is the assumption – Eli will stay in the Sanctuary forever: what price immortality for so limited an existence, eh?
It’s clear that whatever fascinated me about Silverberg’s writing in the Seventies has long since evaporated by the 2010s. There will be no further explorations into this area of my reading past, and this book will be sent out to fend for itself on eBay on Sunday.
Now for the next old book I’ve reacquired.

A Connecticut Yankee in an Old Comic


This is not who this is about

Though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, Eagle was not the only boy’s comic I used to devour in my personal Golden Age of the Sixties. It’s just the one of which I had the most clear and comprehensive memories, spurring me to pursue it, even to the extent of a dozen years worth of issues before I ever read my first.

Everything else exists in just brief flashes, odd, generic scenes of old but exciting series: Kelly’s Eye, The Steel Claw, Robot Archie, The Spider… ah, the Spider! I am still in awe at the discovery that some of those stories I relished back then, in 1965 or so, when we still lived at Brigham Street, were being written by Jerry Seigel, the Jerry Seigel, creator of Superman. Writing for _Lion_. I would love to grab hold of those old comics, to read them and try to see in them the work of the man who created American comics.

What comics did I read? The ones of my real childhood are unimportant to me: Robin, of course, and TV Comic are the ones I do remember, not that I would want to re-read any of these, except for the extraordinarily anarchic ‘Goon Show’ series, which really ought to be reprinted for us fans.

But of the older titles? Though I remember several recurring series from Victor and Hornet, and enjoying them then, I have curiously little attachment to their memories, and no idea which title housed which character I recall. The D.C.Thompson titles looked and felt cheap: slim, brittle, regimented in even rectangular panels in static tiers, and that permeates my recollections.

There’s only one story I would like to re-read, and that was one of which I never reached the end. This was a Wilson story, William Wilson, the mystery recluse and super-sportsman, and it involved cricket. The plane carrying the England Test party to Australia had crashed, injuring everyone. Mysteriously, a second plane with a replacement party also crashed, leaving no viable Test team. Wlison, the marvelous eccentric, put together a team of amateurs and eccentrics and weirdos who, under his unorthodox tutelage, played entertaining games and won them. Despite official MCC opposition, there was talk of offering the Tests to Wilson’s XI…

And then I gave up Victor or Hornet, whichever one it was, and never read the rest of the story. It wasn’t the only story left uncompleted by changes in my allegiances but, like my once-unfinished ‘High Quest’, it is still in my memory fifty years later.

If anyone did read that story to the end and remembers its outcome, please write!

I’m hazy on what comics I did get and which I only read when swapping with my mates. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember which comic Sergeant Hurricane (Valiant) featured in, only that it was never one of mine, but I remember getting Hurricane from its first issue, but not its contents, with the exception of its cover strip, a football series featuring the career of up and coming striker, Harry Kane (would you believe it?), nick-named ‘Hurry’, which for some reason I tried to pronounce mentally as Huhry.

But with very few exceptions, it’s the serious stories that provide me with these flashes of memory, the adventure series, the ones with a consistent, ongoing lead character. Just as with Eagle‘s features, the comedy has not worn well, and why should it? Just because I can still appreciate Laurel & Hardy as much as I did fifty years ago doesn’t mean that I am going to be in tune with cartoons and comics aimed at a ten year old’s mind and imagination.

Except that what’s caused this burst of nostalgia is a sudden recollection of a comic series that I haven’t thought of in decades.

I hold Ursula Le Guin responsible: since her death earlier this year, I have been engaged in a private re-read of all her books that I have collected, which is about 90% of her portfolio. I’m up to the non-fiction, and today, sitting in the sun with a bag of chicken nuggets, idling before my shift, I found myself reading an essay about Mark Twain, listing various of his books.

There was a reference, and a slighting one at that (with which I am in accord) to Connecticut Yankee (or A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court). Now this has been filmed, quite successfully, with Bing Crosby playing a smoothed down version of the character – you may remember the song ‘Busy Doing Nothing’ which comes from this film, but suddenly I remembered that one of my comics did a serial adaptation of the book – updating its central character to a 1960’s motor mechanic, and having a great deal of fun with it.

I seem to remember that titular Yankee having the name Huck, or maybe it was Hiram – utterly American names I was familiar with from TV – Huckleberry Hound and The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (hell’s bells, that’s another old memory springing out at me without warning!). It’s Hank in the original, and most likely in this version, I suppose. Probably, Twain’s satire, and the stinging snipes at Arthurian times and Kings in general, were removed and the series may well have taken nothing bit the basic set-up and played with it, but the point is that it’s arrived back into my head, and I want to know. I want to read it again, to test it against fifty years, to see how much of it, if any, still hits me. Because I have this irrational belief that I would remember this the way I don’t remember most of its contemporaries.

I did read the book, once. I’d read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course – at that age, the first was practically compulsory – but I tackled Yankee precisely because of the comic strip version I remembered so well. Like Ursula Le Guin, I didn’t particularly like it, and indeed resented it in places. This was substantially down to a kind of nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, an early sense of being British and being formed from the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of my country, and instinctively opposed to having our ancient past criticised by some damned upstart Yankee. I couldn’t then see that Twain was using the mythical times of Arthur to criticise contemporary Britain.

There was none of that in the strip version, or if there was it was softened for so young an audience. That this was being produced in Britain, and in an age when many of the differences between the nations in the back half of the 19th Century had decreased, it was more purely a modern versus ancient theme.

Of course, Connecticut Yankee has been adapted to comics many times, mostly straight, and apart from my memories, there’s no evidence of this version ever existing. It would have dropped out of copyright in England fifty years after Twain’s death in 1910, so the series could have used the proper title. But I can almost see actual panels in my mind, images of Hank (if they did follow the book), his wide open brash grin, his lankiness and his motor-goggles.

The chances of confirming any of this would seem to be slim. But thank you the late Ursula for triggering this rush, and your patience for reading this, especially you younger readers for whom this might as well have been in a foreign language!

Block


When you’re a writer – and it doesn’t matter if you’re published, it’s down to the internal obligation to yourself to write (being any good at it is not a factor, either) – the worst moments come when you’re blocked. When there’s a great gaping whole in your head that’s usually filled with words, only now it’s just an absence. A very palpable absence. Something has been removed, and it’s that instinctive drive to think about what you’re writing, about things you can and should be working on, the ongoing mental activity that’s part of the iceberg whose tip is the words you put on paper or pixel.

You can always tell: when else are you driven to write about Block than when it’s the only thing in your head?

Somewhere in my pokey little flat is a book about Writer’s Block. It was the first book by Donald E Westlake that I ever read, it’s still my favourite of all his works, the Dortmunder Gang series notwithstanding, and it’s one of the few works I have ever read/seen that balances laughter and pain so completely. It’s called ‘Adios Scheherezade’.

The book, which appeared in 1967, is being told, or rather typed, by Ed Topliss. It is told in a series of chapters, each of fifteen pages in length, the majority of which are headed Chapter 1. Ed is a writer, officially, that is. Actually, Ed is a schlub.

You see, for the last thirty months, Ed has written dirty books for a living. Real, honest-to-god, cheap soft porn paperbacks, under the pen-name of Dirk Smuff (which encapsulates the entire, low-rent, cheesy milieu of the whole endeavour). To be frank, Dirk Smuff isn’t even Ed’s pen-name, it belongs to and was established by his college friend Paul. Now Paul is a writer. He wrote the first ten Dirk Smuffs for the money, to keep himself afloat whilst he pursued serious options, and now Paul has a career.

Ed, on the other hand, has no options open to him. He majored in English at college, emerged with no plans, no career, and married to Betty, his long-term girlfriend at college who never went all the way until it was nearly the end, and, guess what, she went and got pregnant. So Paul offered Ed an opportunity: take over the Dirk Smuff name, write a dirty book each month, collect $900 every month (Paul keeps 10%). And bear in mind: nobody can write this shit forever.

Ed wasn’t listening to that bit. Ed had his mind on Paul’s shit-hot girlfriend, or rather the thighs being unconcealed by her mini-skirt. As far as Ed’s concerned, it’s easy money, something to keep him going whilst he sorts out a real career for himself.

You see, there’s a formula to these things. There’s a limited number of plots, which you rotate, the books are 150 pages long, and consist of ten chapters, each fifteen pages long, one sex scene per chapter. Oh, and no dirty words: no f’s or c’s. Or even v’s.

And it’s easy work for easy money. One chapter a day for ten days, hammer it out, first draft only, you wouldn’t want to re-read this crap and then nearly three weeks to hang around. Once you learn the tricks of the trade to spin out those pages – and Westlake knows them all, having been in Paul’s position in the Fifties, when he was building his own career – the conveyor belt can roll.

So what if you’re just wasting those days off each month? So what if your wife and daughter are spending about 10% more than you’re bringing in every months? Ed’ll get down to doing something serious. Sometime soon.

But there was that thing Paul said, that Ed wasn’t listening to then. You can’t write this shit forever. Ed’s last three books have been delivered late. Progressively later each month. Ed daren’t deliver the next one late or he’ll be out on his ear. No income, no way of getting an income. Only, Ed needs those days off between writing sex scenes. And he’s ony just delivered the last one. He’s got something like twelve days to write the next one, or the house of cards collapses, not just himself but for his wife and his daughter too.

And Ed can’t do it.

All he can do is sit down at his typewriter and type, hoping to god that something, anything, will unlock that block, will turn into a publishable soft porn novel. And we’re reading what he is writing, as everything goes down the pan.

Because the first half of the book is funny but not yet tragic. Ed’s floundering around, splashing the water, equal parts telling us his life-story and spilling the secrets to writing cheap softcore porn, even to the extent of managing a complete opening chapter so we can tick off all the little tricks and tropes for ourselves.

But following Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 proves impossible, even before a casual lie cuts Ed’s life out from underneath himself, and there is a moment of extreme anguish as everything breaks down, as Ed tries to write a simple line but cannot get through it to the next set of words beyond, but it’s no longer possible.

And from that point on, we are following the tragedy, second-rate though it may be, of a man’s life spiraling out of all control, in which the only possible structure he has left is his compulsion to record things in chapters exactly fifteen pages long, though the need to supply a sex scene in every chapter has disappeared, along with the life he’s been leading all the time he could still write this shit.

There isn’t really an ending. Schlubs like Ed don’t get endings. His last chapter is typed in sections, fifteen pages built up on different typewriters in different places, before he vanishes, on something that you could maybe characterise as a quest. His last words are a variation on the title, adios and a word he can’t use in his books and that I don’t intend to use here. And he’s gone, and his story is essentially incomplete, we have to make up the ending for ourselves, and I don’t think any of us imagine good endings.

Adios Scheherezade is a fabulous formal experiment, and an incredibly successful one, despite its lack of any defined ending. Indeed, the nebulousness of it is a part of the book’s artistic success. It’s also virtually impossible to get hold of now.

It’s a book about Block, and doing what you can to get out of it, and it’s exactly what I’ve done: to write I’ve found something to write about, and the muscles are eased up, and the cavern inside feels less cavernous. I think I’m ahead of Ed right now. The proof will come later.

Bannermere or Lone Pine?


Geoffrey Trease and Malcolm Saville were friends, as well as fellow writers. They both wrote children’s fiction, in country settings, for an audience of boys and girls, but beyond that, in terms of style, preoccupation and even prolificity, there is little basis on which to compare them. The Lone Pine series comes with profound built-in nostalgia, the Bannermere series is pretty much virgin territory.
Comparisons are invidious, but after comparing the two series, I am surprised to find that it is Trease who comes out ahead for me. His avoidance of the formula of children’s adventure series, his concern for less overtly exciting but somehow more mature tales, his greater naturalism and his subtlety in indicating his principal relationship between the lines, requiring the reader to tease it out from the clues left to decipher is ultimately far better than Saville’s improbably extended series of strait-jacketed adventures that outlive his own understanding of his creations.
By saying that, I feel as if I am being disloyal to Saville, not to mention David and Peter, and if I were suddenly to be transported to the classic desert island with only one book from the two series to accompany, it would still be Not Scarlet But Gold. But overall, I think I get more from Trease’s band than I do the Lone Piners. Perhaps, overall, it’s that despite the Bannermere gang’s middle-class backgrounds, they are all of them closer to me in their social setting – as well as being solidly West Cumbrian in birth or adoption – and their world is correspondingly more real. Especially from having so few adventures.
It’s been fun experiencing Trease’s work, even as an adult so far removed that only the final book of the series was published when I had been born, and even then long before I was up to as much as Janet and John Book 1.
What I’d like to do now is discover someone else, comparable to Trease and/or Saville, whose work has been republished by GirlsGoneBy, whose books I can discover or rediscover as the case may be. Saville’s ‘Jillies’ series, all but one of which I read when young, would be an ideal case, but I’d prefer to discover another author to take me back into those times. Any suggestions?