He may be us


No-one saw 2020 coming, not in what it was. As Cate Blanchett said, at the start of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, ‘the world is changing’. It has changed. And it won’t change back, no matter how desperate we all have been about getting back what we had until March this year. Because that’s the thing about the world changing: it always does and it never changes back.

And currently the world is heading into the Pit. I don’t mean that in any religious sense. There is no God or god waiting for the moment to resolve it all with a miracle. As Terry Pratchett put it in Mort, ‘there is no justice. There’s just us.’

American heading into Dictatorship of the stupid. Britain scurrying along in its wake. Breaking a treaty and expecting the world to trust us on the basis we keep our word. Belarus falling backwards towards chaos and Russian takeover. The climate isn’t changing after all, he said, coughing from the smoke of the West Coast fires. The isolation we experience. Work friends I haven’t seen in six months because they work from home and I work in the Centre.

But these aren’t the only aspects of 2020, though the good stuff is very limited. Doves have come back, sounding as if it’s still 2008 when I sat up until 4.00am and I near had tears in my eyes, was in almost holy awe, that in my lifetime I had lived to see the day America elected a black President. What an amazing feeling. How unbelievable then. how much more unbelievable now.

And 2020 is the year I finally got into Pogo, Walt Kelly’s blessed, much-loved and much-praised cartoon strip. I’ve tried and failed before. I’ve known of it for decades but couldn’t carry myself over that line. Now I have. Five Collected Volumes. A sixth awaits my next payday, to be put on my birthday pile. I have to live long enough for the other six that will complete the long story to be published. nothing like an incentive.

It’s Walt Kelly that’s prompted this mournful little essay this morning, as I wait for my rigidly enforced appointment for a flu injection . Because funny, acute, perceptive and inventive as Kelly was, he was also wise. And he said something that people quote, unaware that its provenance is a cartoonist. He said it in one line, but this, below, is an expanded version of it, and I quote it here. Kelly was talking about the ecology, but his words are no less applicable to everything that surrounds us today, and why there is only us to save us. If we want to.

“There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

Diana Rigg, R.I.P.


How can days turn into such downers because you hear about the death aged 82 of someone you never met?

But only the physical shell of Diana Rigg has died: she is a light that will never go out, and we will remember her long beyond the years.

A Southport Expedition


It’s been a while, since Derby in january in fact, since I went ahywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s goimg to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Woorking Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me  it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time to steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus have to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, full down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was the first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast waking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Fronty had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is is far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day i was born!There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th  Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shpopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side.Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that i finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of awander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in tho draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than  vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time i come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resortand whilst I might be an old person myself now, i’m not that kind of old person. The one i seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a norwich train and off again in Southport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

Saturday


The date was August 15, 2020.

Some readers here will already know the significance of that date to me. It is the first date I look for each year, when the new holiday entitlement is made available. August 15 is the date I go to Dukinfield Crematorium to commemorate the death of my father, from cancer, when I was 14.

There was no need for holidays this year as the 15th fell on a Saturday, when I do not work. But that lent an extra emotion to the day. Not only was this the big Anniversary, fifty years since that day, but it had been a Saturday too in 1970. And in the days leading up to the Anniversary, the weather had done an almost perfect job of replicating the sun and rain of those terrible days to Saturday.

I was already in a heightened state of tension, because of the pandemic. I’ve worried, for months now, about whether in August I would be free to observe this Anniversary in perhaps its most important year. Would I be able to leave the flat? Would I be able to catch the bus? Would the Crem be opened or would I have to stand by the gate and project the words I would find to say from there? Many times I have confessed my worries, telling people that if it was the forty-ninth, or the fifty-first, it wouldn’t matter so much. But it was the fiftieth, a half-century. And it mattered immensely.

Perhaps it was that which set me up for the days that preceded Saturday. I was conscious of more than just the day itself, but the memories of the days that led up to it, that horrible last week when, on top of everything else, Dad – who was at home – contracted pneumonia as well.

I am not going to list the things that happened. These are private. But they were more vivid in my head than at any time I could remember. The first part of the week is lost, but from Wednesday onwards, things fell back into my mind with terrible force.

Thursday was horrible. I was completely unprepared for the flood of flashbacks that overtook me once I settled in to work. It was immediately obvious that if the more pointed memories of Friday were to affect me as badly – for Friday was the last day I saw my Dad alive – I would be completely incapable of working.

Getting the day off was difficult. I now work for a team with a very small pool of advisers and special arrangements have to be made for leave. I was turned down but had my leave forced through by my line manager. As for Thursday, my mind dealt with the issue by simply shutting itself off. As calls came through and I needed to respond to these, it opened enough for the technical knowledge and experience. Otherwise, it was as if my mind was now shielded by a lead bunker, impervious to x-ray or other radiation.

By that means I got to 9.00pm and the bus home. It is not yet the middle of August but already sundown has ridden back so far that I walked down my street in the dark. I logged in to the internet, to e-mails and comments on my blog, but I chose not to reply, to go off-grid for a few days, until this time was over.

Friday was like Thursday, in that the lead shield was still operating. I remained mindless all day, lowering the barrier only once, deliberately, to relive that moment of my last few words with Dad, the undeliverable promise to come and see him in the Hospital when he was only being taken back in to die in the most comfort they could provide for him. Then back to deliberately obliterating all the rest of that day.

And Saturday. I was awake early enough to open my consciousness to the moment that I was always told was the last, and then, freshly-shaved even though this was the weekend, off on the bus, a 203, then a 330, followed by the long, slow walk up the hill under a blazing sun equal to that of fifty years ago.

Not until the final bend in the winding road that leads to the Crematorium gates could I see that these were open, though the room in which the Book of Remembrance is kept is now only open for inspection on weekdays. I know what it says, but reading it anew is still a part of this ritual.

An elderly couple were leaving as I walked towards Plot C. The hills loomed up around us, looking strangely higher than I had ever seen them before. It seemed as if I was the only person in the entire Crematorium. My ritual is to talk about the last year, about where I am and who I am, all the things he never knew about me, but I was incapable of that. The sense of loss and hurt that is inescapable on this day was overwhelming and I could barely speak at all. In part it was an intensity I conjured for myself in focussing upon the fifty years, the gulf that was unimaginable to the boy I was, and which is still in some measure impossible to understand for the man I am. All the things that have happened in fifty years, the accumulation of life. And still…

That day, in 1970, I was due to go to a football match at Droylsden with a mate. I didn’t want to go, but my mother insisted, identifying correctly that Dad would have wanted me to do normal things, and to enjoy myself, and more than that, that I needed to take my mind off things for an afternoon. There’s a certain, personal, irony that such a thing would, for the first time ever, be impossible, given the recent news about Droylsden suspending all football, probably never to return.

So it was back down the hill, and buses home, via Tesco’s and some food shopping, to the lead shield and the radio silence for the rest of the day. Sunday became the day of going back to normal. Though I think of my Dad, and his absence, often, these concentration of these feelings will not arise again until August 15, 2021, and I can hope to be free of the flashbacks and the stream of memories of those final days. And I can go back to talking to people in an ordinary fashion, both here and in real life. Apologies for my silence.

Man of the World


One by one they wink out, those fabulous monuments to the  beauty and wonder we’ve had in our lives, lives that grow thinner and drier and darker each time.

If there is a Heaven then the perfect blues band’s line-up has gained a new lead guitarist and singer. Peter Green, co-founder and central light of the only Fleetwood Mac I’m prepared to acknowledge, has passed away aged 73, peacefully in his sleep, and the world is full of tears again.

What to play to remember him? I would choose not a Fleetwood’s track, not even any of the big hits of 1969-70, but a solo song from the other end of that decade. Spare seven and three quarter minutes to say goodbye to a genius. He deserves no less.

 

David Squires on Jack Charlton


One day, soon maybe, I’ll talk about how and why the deaths of the people that I refer to on this blog affect me as they do.

I’ve already written about Jack Charlton, but this, with far fewer words, says much more than I ever could, especially in the last tier, and that last panel.

For those who don’t follow the Guardian, and who won’t otherwise see David Squires’ beautiful tribute.

As It Must: Jack Charlton R.I.P.


As the years go by, the privilege of having been there to see England win the World Cup grows ever more important. A ten year old boy, watching a black-and-white television set in the midst of a family, none of whom were interested in football but who gathered together to hope to watch history.

Eleven names, a litany all of us could recite. Amazingly, over half that team remain with us, but one more name has been subtracted from that list. Jack Charlton, centre-half for Leeds United, elder brother of Bobby, World Cup Winner, has passed away. We can only expect more names to follow, in more rapid order.

I remember lots of stories about Wor Jackie. The time that, on television nearing the end of his playing career, he stated that he had a couple of names in a book, of players who had done things for which he would exact revenge before he was dne. Didn’t go down that well with the authorities but I doubt there was a fan of any team that didn’t understand, and approve.

The other came out of the Munich Air Disaster. It was not a world in which news could be had quickly and Jackie and his wife took the train to Manchester where they hoped to find if Bobby had survived. I will never forget Jack Charlton, whose relationship with his younger rother, already strained by the irreversible changes in him due to the crash, telling of how he stepped own off the train, saw a newstand at the bottom of the platform, and from that distance saw his brother’s name in the printed list of survivors.

Though they grow old and leave us, they will not grow old as other, nor will their memories pass from us.

A Manchester Expedition


Once upon a time, the idea of writing about a trip to Manchester City Centre, let alone calling it an Expedition, would have seemed ludicrous. But those were inncocent days, before the current pandemic shrank life down to doing everything necessary to prevent or minimise the spread of contagion.

Since then, I’ve only gone out to three places: work, a supermarket and the chemists. The recent re-opening of the launderette doesn’t alter that, they’re only two minuteswalk from Morrisons.

But lockdown is now easing. We’ve won, go back to normal, so what if there are still daily deaths and a second wave is next to inevitable? Now I don’t trust a word this so-called government says, and I never will, but I’m not immune, I am stir crazy, and with hands washed and facemask donned, I’m going to go out.

With typical irony I first set off in the opposite direction. I have an undelivered parcel, an external optical drive, to collect from the Sorting Office in Stockport. I tried to do that yesterday and got very wet for my pains. And the Sorting Office is currently only opening until 11.00 am, and I got there for 11.10am. I’m trying again because I’d like to put it to use this weekend, but it all depends on the connection in Stockport Bus Station.

Unlikely as it may seem, it’s timely.

There is a sicially distanced queue when I arrive but it’s less than half a dozen long and anyway, it’s not raining. They’re operating a One-Out, One-In policy and instead of waiting for your package to be produced from the back,you go round o the side door where it’s waiting for you on a trestle, so things go quickly.

Back to the main road. I want a 42 for Town and one turns up in less than fibe minutes. It’s all going swimmingly well: I get nervous.

The 42 takes me through parts of Manchester I used to be very familiar with but where I rarely go now, even in the freest of times. The route is an exercise in nostalgia and a reminder of how unfree life is without private transport.

Within a stop of getting on, I’m the only person on the bus, downstairs at least. No-one’s getting on or off and we just sail along, disturbed only by the automated voice reciting stops we pass by. Eventually, we stop in the middle of Didsbury Village to let the schedule catch up to us. A querulous bloke in a much-stretched Manchester City shirt complains about the timetables being “up the wall”: just how deeply has he been self-isolating these past three months and more.

Some memories on thi ride are more plesant than others. Some memories I don’t want to remember. We take another stop outside Christie Hospital, where they specialise in cancer.

Once we’re past Withington Village, the stops for travellers become more frequent. Joggers abound. The journey gets slower, stop-and-start, traffic lights perpetually red. We’re not quite at the University when the driver has to stop and count the passengers on board before allowing others to join us.

The nearer we get to Piccadilly Gardens, the slower the driver gets, playing for every red light. But there’s only a finite number of these and he can’t stop us from getting there eventually. No sooner do I alight than a man with an Irish accent and an air of still being drunk from the last time the pubs were open, shouts at me and anyone else within hearing that I/we can wear a hundred masks, a thousand masks, but he can still see us. Yerrsss.

I’ve three objectives in coming into Manchester today, aside from the novelty of course. The first of these crashes and burns almost immediately. I wanted to browse the Oldham Street Oxfam shop for cheap DVDs to supplement the dwindling Film 2020 collection. They’re open… but not until Monday.

Forbidden Planet is sixty seconds walk away on the other side of the street. They’re regulating entry on the same basis as the Post Office but here I’m only third and I’m soon inside.

I’m hoping/expecting to collect three comics and I come out with two, but one of them is a series I’d forgotten I was getting. The last one of the series…According to eBay after I get home, I was premature: the other two aren’t released until next week.

So let’s go see if Pizza Hut‘s open. It is indeed, but only for takeaways. There’s only a limited number of ingredients and when it comes to my two favourite Create-Your-Owns, there’s an ingredient missing from each one. I end up ordering a Sharing Hawaiian, to take home and heat up. It’s like Friday evenings twenty-five years ago, doing that.

So to home. I think I’ve just missed a 203 but I can’t tell through the facemask induced steam on my glasses. The dark clouds that have hung around all day, threatening yet more later, have separated and gone white in places and the sun through the gaps is surprisingly June-like. A not young but gently attractive lady with opaque tights and a foreign accents, asks me if she’s missed the 203?  If we have, one’s very close behind. She sits diagonally in front of me after starting on the other side of the aisle: in those innocent days I mentioned earlier, I might have tried to start a conversation with her (who’s kidding who? no, I wouldn’t. Probably not). She gets off in North Reddish.

One last task: I get off one stop early and go to check if my barber’s has any indication when it may be re-opening, but there’s none, nor any number from which I might book an appointment. I’m a good six to eight weeks past the last point I would have waited to have it cut, it’s longer than any time since the Seventies, and it’s bugging me seriously.

I’m back in before 2.00pm, and I heat up the pizza and Share it with myself. I haven’t had anything from Pizza Hut since the end of February so I’m entitled, ok?

Thus ends my Expedition: still not worthy of the name, especially when I’d originally have been intending to regale you with a Buttermere Expedition in a couple of week’s time, but we make the most of what we have.

 

Sir Ian Holm R.I.P.


13.07

I don’t believe this. I’m still at work, I turn to the Guardian to check what’s up to date and Ian Holm has died as well.

Ian Holm. Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings films. Frodo Baggins in the BBC’s The Lord of the Rings radio adaptation. Ian Holm of Alien and Chariots of Fire, and Terry Giliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil.

The circumstances are different: Holm was 88, not 55, but that’s two terrible, wrenching blows in the same day. Please let there not be a third today.