Peter Firmin R.I.P.

Farewell a true genius

I wish I didn’t have to write so many of these.

Peter Firmin, one half of Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate, has died in his sleep at the age of 80, after a short illness. I really shouldn’t need to tell you this, but Firmin was the co-creator of Bagpuss and The Clangers, along with his late partner, Oliver Postgate. It would be crude to call Postgate the conceptual genius and Firmin the practical genius, for both men were part of  a greater whole, but Firmin it was who mostly constructed genius out of materials no-one else would even consider trying to use for animation.

Yet the very simplicity, the compression of both men’s artistic genius into such tiny and worn and obviously hand-made things, was an essential element of what made Smallfilms magic. Only a frame was needed to demonstrate clearly that this was the work of complete individuals, whose work came from inspiration without commercial consideration of any kind.

But children never thought that way. Children just watched and loved, like I did, almost sixty years ago, in black-and-white on a small set in the corner of our living room, enthralled by the adventures of Noggin the Nog, in the lands of the north, where the cold winds blow.

This is another day when a piece of what makes this world worth living in has been taken away. Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, Old Fat Furry Catpuss, Wake up and look at this thing that I bring. Wake up, be bright, be golden and light, Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing. Can Professor Yaffle and the mice from the Mouse Organ please fix this into something new again, for us all?



The late Keith Waterhouse, like all writers, had his favourite words. Chief amongst these was ‘serendipity’: the art of making happy discoveries by chance. Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday, I was serendipitous.

Watching the latest episode of Treme in order to blog it, I had the pleasing bonus of a live performance by Shawn Colvin, dueting with super-violinist Annie T., alias the superb Lucia Micarelli, on a song I thought I hadn’t heard before.

Once home from work, I looked for the song on YouTube, though there was only a 20 second long clip to be seen. At least I knew the song title now, so I googled it, and discovered it was actually from the 2006 These Four Walls album.

In typing her name into Google, the first thing that came up was ‘Uk tour. After checking on ‘I’m Good’, I went back for that. Shawn Colvin is doing a short UK tour, in July. She’s doing only three dates. Two in London. And one at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Fifteen minutes and one registration later I had me a ticket.

Serendipity. I love you.

Harlan Ellison R.I.P.

It’s a long time since I’ve read any Harlan Ellison, though in the years of my obsession with SF and things associated therewith, he was one of the authors whose work I assiduously collected. Now, at the age of 84, and after a decade (I understand) of illness, he has passed away. As with so many others, the world is diminished today.

Ellison was one of those few writers whose life was often as important as, or even more important, than his works. After growing up under the pressure of anti-semitism as a Jewish child in a protestant Ohio town (aptly named Painesville), Ellison ran away in his teens, taking the classic variety of oddball menial jobs, before reaching New York in the early Fifties.

By dint of sheer force, he made himself into a prolific writer of short stories (Ellison only wrote one novel), and into a very successful and award-winning writer for TV, with two classic Outer Limits episodes and one of Star Trek‘s best episodes, ‘City on the Edge of Forever’.

This latter won a Writer’s Guild Award, based on the original screenplay, which was hacked around for the finished episode. Ellison loathed this, spoke of it often, even published the screenplay many years later. He was a man who glorified writing, who was fiercely protective of his work and who fought tenaciously against those, especially in TV, who thought it could be taken to pieces without understanding it.

This led to many controversies. Ellison was a controversialist who espoused many many causes, most of them noble and great, but some of them more akin to feuds in which it seemed that the controversy was more important than the cause. There was the infamous Michael Fleisher libel case against the Comics Journal over what was clearly praise from Ellison, in an unorthodox fashion, that Fleisher chose to interpret as insult, where Ellison defended himself vigorously.

But he was like that. His writing was fierce, concentrated, aggressive, out to shock, disturb, unsettle. He papered his stories with forewords and afterwords in which he could at times be explicit about what most people would regard as personal and private. He would experiment with form and approach, would insist that writing could be done anywhere, under any circumstances.

There was a lot to like and dislike with Ellison and a lot of people did one or the other or even both. There was no such thing as fence-sitting around Harlan.

Now he’s gone. It’s years and years since I moved all my Ellison books out. I don’t and won’t miss his writing, and I’ve long since ceased interest in the air of chaos that he perpetuated. But Harlan Ellison was grit in the works, sandpaper to the soul, someone who would never let himself and that which he believed in be worn down, co-opted or compromised. Right or wrong, we have too few of those already and now we have one less. Notice must be taken of his passing.

Father’s Day

Today has been Father’s Day.

Not since 1970, when I wrote my last Father’s Day card have I had any personal involvement in the occasion. A couple of months after that, he died, and since then it has been just another commercial event, of no meaning to me, except to memory.

I still think of him. I always think of him and I will go to my deathbed hoping that, in the face of my complete inability to believe in God or religion, there is another level of life above and beyond our sphere where I will, at long last, see him again, and I will ask him  that only thing that matters to a small boy: did I do good? was I alright? were you proud of me?

There’s been some things happen again, bringing back some of the bad shit, disturbing my never very certain confidence in myself, and once again I’ve been referred to counselling. Not directly about that void that is what Dad would have been if things had been otherwise: I have largely come to terms with that, and have no resentments on that score, it not being his fault that he left me (though I will never cease hating those fucking cigarettes that killed him).

Maybe though I will talk about what I don’t know about him, which is who he was as a man. I never knew my Dad as a man, he died before I could even begin to think of having an adult conversation with him. I know things about him: his practicality, none of which I inherited, his passion for motorbikes, likewise, and his love for the fells, which he bequeathed to me in spades: all my walking has been, in some degree, following in his footsteps, however far beyond him I was allowed to go.

I only know of him as a father, as a Dad. He was a good Dad, strict when he needed to be, but kind and loving to both of us, my sister and myself. All small boys worship their fathers, unless they are cold, or nasty, or angry or violent. Dad no doubt punished me when I was naughty, but always fairly.

Once upon a time, there was something I wanted to go to, desperately. I knew that I, we couldn’t, that it was impossible, out of the question, but I wanted it so much that I had to ask. I hedged my plea about with so many caveats, and resignations that it would have been the easiest thing under the sun for me to be told, I’m sorry, no, it’s just not on. But for reasons I never knew, Dad blew up at me, in anger, shouting at me as if I’d committed some unforgivable crime. It shocked and overwhelmed me, and it reduced me to tears. Not the refusal, but the manner of it. It stands out in my memory still, because he was never like that. Mam comforted me, and Dad came and apologised to me. Naturally, I diddn’t bring it up again, and would never have mentioned it, but a week later he came home with tickets for us both, he and I.

Maybe his temper derived from pain. Not long after, he took the pains in his shoulder to the Doctor. It was the beginning of the long end.

I never spoke to him about his life. He had done his National Service in the Navy, he was a trained Draughtsman, he had built up a Division at the company where he worked then had it taken away from him. Afterwards, I didn’t think to ask questions about him, only rarely. He was Dad, frozen in time, and what he’d been outside my eyes seemed unimportant. And then those who had known him started dying too, and there was no-one to ask. My sister and I have been estranged for many years now, yet for reasons I can’t begin to account for, we never talked about him, and probably never will, now.

I last saw her at Uncle Jack’s funeral, back in 2011. He was married to Mam’s younger sister, who’d died before him. My cousins came back to England for the funeral: two live in Australia, but my cousin John, the only relative remaining who is older than me, has lived in Canada since 1981. He talked to me about Dad,about how much he’d respected him, and how he’d never seen Dad anywhere without thinking he was the most intelligent person in the room. And then he stopped, concerned that he’d upset me, for I was all but in tears. To have someone talk to me about Dad, someone who knew him as an adult. There is no-one else.

In a couple of months I’ll be making that annual pilgrimage to the Crematorium, to that place that is the last place some part of him physically was on this Earth. Today was Father’s Day, for you but not me. I hope you don’t mind me asking you to listen. It was a very long time ago and I have no-one else to talk to.

Danny Kirwan R.I.P.

I don’t know much about former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, whose death aged 68 has been reported today. What I do know it that he wrote and played this beautiful 1972 instrumental from their ‘BareTrees’ album, that I have loved since I first heard it.

May he rest forever on the Sunny Side of Heaven.

Crap Journalism: Unseriously.

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.

The end of the Block

You can call it a block, but that’s not how it felt. It felt like a great absence, as if my head was completely empty.

It didn’t stop me writing the regular things for this blog, and the little snippet posts that are an instant response to things around me. I seemed to be able to watch, or read, and then scramble my thoughts together. But anything remotely creative, even down to trying to conceive of something of any substance for the blog, was inaccessible.

Some of it, I think, was a side effect of the weather. Now that I’m not a kid anymore, sun and hot weather don’t do much for me. Lay it on like it’s been the past couple of weeks and, whilst its very welcome, I’ve no wish to go outside and bask in it unless I can lean back in a seat at Old Trafford and enjoy the cricket, or if you parked me on a beach in Mallorca.

But that’s not really it. There’s been some stress lately, some stuff that’s had a negative effect, that has me thinking about counselling again (ironically, this was offered by my Doctor the day before recent events blew up, and I turned it down. Pillock.) All these things have tipped my perennially fragile balance.

And it’s not fun, not at all fun to have this great emptiness in my head, completely intangible, and be unable to summon any thoughts to even begin to fill it. I’ve told my Doctor several times, and Counsellors I’ve seen, that it’s the writing that keeps me sane, and it does, and when deserts as it did…

It’s quiet at work currently. We think it’s the good weather: people are out in it, enjoying it, saying soddit, we’ll call up about the broadband, the phone later. There are some long waits, for calls, between calls. I can feel myself sitting there, unable to think, my head like a 3D desert, conscious of just existing without any actual way of moving through the minutes.

And then, without warning, in the shower this morning, getting up earlier because I have a dental check-up, there it came: a thought. A forthcoming scene, in the next chapter I have to write. A character asked me something. She says, what about (redacted): why is this different?

And I recognised it for what it was, a genuinely connective thought. That calls back to a previous incident that was merely an episode, and which now is integrated into the story, which helps to set up the long-planned emotional conclusion of the story. The guilt will not come out of left field. Its seed is planted.

I had a thought. An idea.

And I wrote it all down in the Dentist’s reception, analysing and expanding the initial idea into the areas I’ve just written about above. Oh blimey, it felt good. To think again.

And in quiet moments at work, I have written a substantial blogpost based on a memory that came to me whilst eating some early lunch, a long section of the current chapter, and now this, being rattled through during my last fifteen minute break (less than sixty seconds left). My head is full of words again. I am back to normal. I am back to keeping sane.

Oh, Yog-Sotthoth that feels good!