A fact about the Duckbill Platypus

According to our computer system at work, the duckbill platypus can store as many as six hundred worms in the pouches of its cheeks. Immediately, I envisaged the experiment to determine this taking place in an expensive restaurant with the platypus sat up at the table, a napkin around its neck, whilst being fed worms one by one whilst an assistant stands by with a clipboard, anxiously counting, until, in a Mr Creosote monent, he’s offered a wafer thin mint…

Film 2020: Clockwise

Everybody’s got a list of great film lines in their head, usually starting with ‘Play it again, Sam’ (which is never spoken in that form in Casablanca). Not all of these quotes are as famous as that: one of my favourites is ‘Brute force and ruddy ignorance!’ from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Somewhere in between those extremes is a line from John Cleese’s first solo film, Clockwise, a British film comedy released in 1986, which I saw in the capitol during my month working at London Office. It’s the first, and in plenty of cases only, line anyone remembers, for two reasons. One is that it’s a pentratingly accurate observation, and the other is that the film is not that good overall.

Rewatching it today, for possibly the first time since that hot summer, I realised I’d mangled the line in my memory, rather like ‘Play it again, Sam’. Clockwise, written by Michael Frayn, stars Cleese as Brian Stimson, headmaster of a successful Comprehensive School, a stickler for punctuality, who’s travelling from somewhere in Gloucestershire to Norwich to address the Annual Headmasters Conference, of which he has been appointed Chairman, the first ever from outside the Public School circuit.

By a quite natural mistake arising from his own habits, Stimson misses his train. The film is a well-constructed Farce, featuring his attempts to catch up and arrive on time. Having lost his suit, wallet and watch, dressed only in a monk’s robe, his press-ganged driver having taken off without him, Stimson collapses to the ground, exhausted, in a country lane and says, “It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope…”

Ah yes, words of great wisdom, and what if I recall them slightly wrong? It’s that line that had me choose Clockwise for this Sunday’s film. I’ve been torn between despair and hope this week, and Frayn’s line has been in my mind every day. The despair I banished with unusual speed and completeness, in large part because of the events that have spurred the hope, but the hope is as ever dangerous. I can stand the despair: it’s the hope…

But enough of things I’m not going to start explaining in detail, let’s go back to the film. I’ve already summarised what it’s about, and categorised it as Farce. Traditionally, in its classic form as established by Georges Feydeau, the Farce involves misunderstandings and coincidences and not a few bedroom doors flapping open at the wrong moment. There’s none of that here, or what there is is placed offscreen, but the plot involves, in its first half, multiple interlocking misunderstandings and comings and goings where people miss each other in passing, unaware of the other’s presence until too late.

Cleese plays Stimson as a kind of watered-down Basil Fawlty. Fawlty was a monster, but one we sympathised with even at his worst. We’re introduced to Stimson in the morning, as school assembles, upright in his office, looking out over the playground, issuing orders by PA to individual pupils, summoning miscreants with the single utterance, “9.20”.

The school runs like clockwork. Everyone knows where they should be and at what time. It’s the secret of the school’s success and it’s an obsession for Stimson. It’s efficient on a trains-run-on-time basis, and the kids seem to accept it, though there are dozens queuing to be seen at 9.20, but it cast the shadow of fascism over Stimson, whose dictatorial manner extends to his wife, Gwenda (Alison Steadman), already peeved that she can’t even go to Norwich with him on this proud day, not even to sit in a hotel and eat at McDonald’s (yeurchhh).

It doesn’t help to sell Stimson to us, but it underlies his obsessive determination to get there on time, even at the cost of taking over the lives of two people, and committing crime after crime after low-level but still criminal crime, just because he has to get there.

As with all such things, all it takes is one moment, and catch up is impossible. Stimson is supposed to catch the train on the left hand side of the platform. Unfortunately, he has the habit of emphasising things with an imperative “Right!” that sounds like a direcion, and which causes chaos driving. Here, Stimson listens to himself rather than the porter, gets on the train on the right hand side of the platform, misses his train… and here starts the despair.

I’m not going to summarise everything that happens. Cleese’s main supporting characters are debutante Sharon Maiden (who would apparently not appear again until an episode of Inspector Morse fourteen years later) as Laura Wiseley, a Sixth Former and school prefect enjoying a Study Period in which she’s taking her parent’s car, driving without a licence, for an illicit rendezvous with music teacher John Jolly (Stephen Moore) and the ever-reliable Penelope Wilton as Jan Garden, Brian’s ex-girlfriend of twenty years ago.

Stimson commandeers Laura and the car to drive him to Norwich. Her parents report it stolen, and are horrified that her Headmaster is taking an eighteen year old girl off to Norwich. Gwenda, who is driving three senile old ladies from the hospital on a day in the country, sees her supposedly train-bound husband putting petrol in a car and nipping off with one of his schoolgirls, jumps to the same wrong conclusion and sets off to Norwich with the three women, one of whom is carrying on a neverending monologue about which family member to leave a dozen sherry glasses. Both leave the petrol station without paying.

Jan comes in for the middle of the film. Having discovered Laura hasn’t passed her test yet, having driven into the back of a Police car, having pulled the nearside wing off the Wiseley car and strapped it onto the roofrack, Stimson pulls up in a village to use a telephone box to warn Norwich he’s running late. The phones don’t work. In his frustration, he smashes the receiver. Jan, who lives overseas, is visiting her mother. They and Jan’s children are about to sit down to lunch. Whilst her Mum phones the Police to report the vandalism, Jan goes out to keep the perpetrators talking. She recognises Brian with delight, assuming Laura is his daughter, even kisses him enthusiastically. Apparently, when they were going out together, Brian was so disorganised, he was always late for everything…

But, since Stimson won’t let Laura drive, and she now won’t let him drive, he cons Jan into taking the car for a ‘spin around the block’. Jan’s mother reports Jan as kidnapped, and basically she has been, because Stimson starts directing her towards Northampton, where she can catch a train back…

Jan ends up arrested herself, for stealing the car, driving a vehicle in an unroadworthy state and, left offscreen but we can easily imagine it, assaulting a Police Officer.

Most of the second half of the film is about the journey. Having set up his multiple conflicts, Frayn gets everyone to Norwich way ahead of Stimson, and keeps cutting back there as the headmasters try to cope with the increasing number of people wanting their absent Chairman, which include both local and regional Police, whilst fretting over the misunderstandings piling up over him.

In the end, Stimson arrives dead on time, in a stolen Porsche, in a stolen suit too small for him, with one detached sleeve held on by sellotape, carrying a stolen wallet with £1,000 cash in it. After rehearsing his pompous speech all day, he quickly loses track as various people enter the hall late, becoming the tyrannical headmaster as he undergoes a breakdown.

That’s about all we get for an ending. Stimson’s arrested, Gwenda’s arrested, Jan’s already been arrested but once again this is one of those films that doesn’t have an ending, just a stopping point. Farce in Feydeau’s form does restore the status quo, allowing the far-fetched to be explained, understood and resolved, but any resolution in Clockwise would put a colossal damper on the fun, of which there hasn’t been anything like as much as we hoped, because it would have to make explicit the inevitable realisation that Stimson’s detroyed his career and his life and probably his marriage, he’s led the wholly innocent Jan, a visitor, into massive difficulty with the Police, not to mention the trauma of her disappearing from her family and young kids at lunch, he’s exposed Laura and her nebulous affair with Jolly, he’s wreaked havoc and there’s going to be hell to pay. Feydeau’s subjects are never innocents to begin with.

Overall, the film’s problem is that it’s just not funny enugh. Some things made me giggle this time, but there’s none of the belly-laughs such ludicrous goings-on should provoke. Farce is about hysteria, controlled hysteria, but the only hysteria here is Stimson’s drive to obey an imperative that simultaneously makes him pathetic and ruthless.

It doesn’t help that the surroundings are so cosy and so English. The film was shot entirely on location, in green and pleasant lands and picture book villages. It’s too comfy and cosy, and the production is not that much greater than a decent TV film of the era. It’s just to ordinary and parochial to work as it was intended.

The acting’s decent. Alison Steadman has little to do and has to fight a purely reactive role without any strong lines. Stephen Moore bumbles along without having to throw too much in, his character defined mainly by his inability to actually finish any sentences. Sharon Maiden, who was 24 at the time, has a big role but whilst she’s sparky and lively, her range doesn’t extend very far, and in a school uniform that includes a dark skirt below knee-length and flat shoes, she looks ill-proportioned.

Several recognisable British actors contribute cameo roles, Tony Haygarth particularly memorable a man on a tractor, but there are so many of them it’s like a game of ‘where do I know him from?’ Penelope Wilton is the best of the bunch as Jan, a delightful woman thrown in out of her depth, caught in a whirlpool, an innocent dragged down without ever knowing why or how. And she looks good.

So, not one of the world’s best films and, despite the blurbs, not even one of the better ones. The worst you could say abut it is that it had a lot of potential but didn’t come anywhere near living up to it which is criminal in any movie.

But it’s got that line that’s been on my mind this week, and I wanted to see it again for that line which has influenced me in so many ways. I can stand the despair…

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘Canoe’

There are few enough songs by Pete Atkin and Clive James that are known outside the charmed circle of we privileged fans as it is, and sometimes it feels that the later ones, the Twenty-First Century additions to that rich but obscure canon are known even less well. At least the likes of ‘The Master of the Revels’, or ‘The Flowers and the Wine’, or ‘Thirty-Year Man’, or ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’ have the advantage of history, the resonance of time.
‘Canoe’ comes somewhere between the old and the new. It was written in the Seventies, in that time when Atkin and James were so prolific that the songs outran the albums on which they could be recorded. Listening to it, you wonder how on earth it could have been ignored then, but the same thing happened to ‘History and Geography’, and other classics known only to those lucky few who got to gigs, before the contract with RCA was used up by the jokey Live Libel at the same time that the music business exploded, destroying the expectation of a seventh album.
The song finally saw daylight twenty years later, in the unexpected second act made possible by an Internet to connect the dots between the memories of the fans from then, and the later arrivals who found something that made complete sense to them.
A new wave of interest. An interest on Atkin’s part in dealing with that backlog. Sessions in his local studio, laying down demos, until he realised that these were not demos after all, but the basis of a seventh album, aye, and an eighth simultaneously. The ground being cleared before the reinvigorated urge to write anew.
‘Canoe’ is a dazzlingly simple song, played on on electric piano with minimal percussion: rich, calm notes and Atkin’s voice, clear in its Englishness. The melody is delicate yet rounded, framing a story that, once you begin to understand it, is immense in its implications. The song was inspired by the Apollo 13 mission, the one that went wrong, the one where the world held its breath over the days it took before the Bird could be negotiated back to Earth, its crew alive and well.
Clive James built the song upon the recognition that so modern a story was nevertheless one of the oldest stories of all. What, in essence, was the difference between Apollo 13’s venture into that terrifying, empty, trackless place, and the journeys of the canoes of Pacific islanders, guided only by the skies as they sought routes across the pathless water to their trading islands?
It’s the gift of this simplicity, and James’ refusal to wrap his story in the ornate language he was proud of, that introduces us to the three in the canoe, the lucky three who, under a perfect moon, on easy seas, slide across the reef in search of the island where they trade the shells their island holds for feathers.
But they are not the lucky three. They don’t find the island, they never return, they row under the sun’s reflected glare.
And imperceptibly the song crosses vast gulfs and times, as the singer tells his friends the time has come for all of them to die. But now the singer is one of Lovell, Swigert and Haise, checking navigation readouts and warning they are out a whole degree.
The same fate awaits them, death by frying. But the astronauts are the lucky three, flying the mission with their hands, and on a path for home. The astronauts returned, where their earlier counterparts were lost, drifting down in silence to the ocean the missions shared.
Clive James found the words to bring these two far-separated things together, and Pete Atkin the melody to bind them in your thoughts as the piano plays out. They produced a song that, like so many of their other creations, yet for far bigger reasons, ought to be far better known than it is. No other writer, I believe, of either words or music, could have told that story without the elaboration to dull it, in a way that would make us feel less for the ones who went out there for all of us, for the ones who returned with gifts and giving, and the ones who remained in their unknowingness.
And though this aspect of the Apollo 13 is little known, no other humans have travelled further away from our planet than Lovell, Swigert and Haise. They are the ones who truly went where no man has been before. ‘Canoe’ is a worthy token of their safe return from that distance.

Film 2019: Ill-Met by Moonlight

Ill-Met by Moonlight was the last film made together by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as The Archers. Like its predecessor, it’s a war story, a true story, treated with faithfulness and respect, emotionally underplayed. It’s about a daring 1944 mission to capture the German Commander-in-Chief on Crete, General Kreipe, and bring him back captive to Cairo. The film was a success, the seventh most popular picture in Britain that year.

Unless it was something I sat and watched one of thoseSunday afternoons a very long time ago, this is only the second time I have seen this film. For a long time, I didn’t bother with it: the Powell/Pressburger boxset is a big one, as you will by now realise, and as long as I had the majorfilms I wanted, I didn’t necessarily have to see the minor ones.

I’m afraid that, to me, Ill-Met by Moonlight is a minor film. The Fifties was not a good time for the Archers, the years of their creative flair sadly diminished, and given the riches they showed themselves capable of in the preceding decade, it’s disappointing to see their partnership end on a pair of true-life stories in which they are required to do no more than follow the facts.

The film stars Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, nicknamed Paddy but most often referred to as Philidem, his Cretan name, Marius Goring in his fourth and final Archers film as Kreipe and David Oxley as Captain W Stanley Moss, known as Bill, on whose wartime diaries the book of the same name was based.

Ironically, though much of the film was shot on location, and in glorious mountain countryside of powerful beauty, and in deep, twisty ravines along roads that barely squeeze into the valley bottom, not one moment of the film takes place on Crete. Instead, shooting was in France and Italy. No matter, except for authenticity, for the mountains are magnificent and the urge to ascend them compelling. Of course, I’d have much preferred to see them in colour instead of black and white, though the lushness of colour might have overwhelmed so much, it could have squeezed the story out of consideration.

As it is, the story never rises above the level of a competent war story, made at a time when the War was still the central experience of every audience member’s life. It’s entirely respectful, as it might when using the names of real war heroes, who were still there to see their experiences recorded on screen (Leigh Fermor was presentfor the mountain location shooting and, according to Wikipedia, “expressed great satisfaction with Bogarde’s representation of him.”

As well he might. By all accounts, Leigh Fermor was exactly what Bogarde portrays, handsome, intelligent, self-confident, a perfect romantic hero who combined the reticence of the English gentleman with the lust for life of the Hellenic spirit. The type is summrised immaculately in an early exchange in the film: Paddy and his Cretan Intelligence Chief, Micky, are sat in a cafe overlooking the General’s villa and plotting his abduction. Micky points out that the Villa is heavily defended, with ‘barbed wire, many dogs, many sentries’, to which Paddy replies, ‘Cut the wire, dope the dogs, kill the sentries’, calm and casual.

The actual plot involved abducting the General and his car, driving it through all the checkpoints and taking to the mountains to eventually rendezvous with a naval vessel at an undefended south coast beach. The plan works, but between the stiff upper lip conversation between Paddy and Bill, the officer and a gentleman conversation between Paddy and the General, and the two officer’s self-image as Amateurs, evoking the atmosphere of Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and their crowd, or Dornford Yates’ Richrd Chandos, Jonah Mansell and Co., clubland heroes, the film forfeits any attempt at emotional depth and instead feeds only an idealisation of Britain’s victory as an expression of a superior national character. Frankly, I’d like more.

So far as the action is concerned, the filmdoes the best with what it has, lacking the money or the facilities or maybe the energy to go for the spectacular. The only really expansive moment of violence comes when a German company, drawn out of the position that could destroy the whole mission, are slaughtered by Cretan Resistance fighters, and this takes place unseen, at the bottom of a deep gorges, represented only by the echoing of rifle and machine gun fire.

Not, for me, a fitting send-off for The Archers, lcking even the veraching sense of impending tragedy that permeates the final third of Battle of the River Plate. Powell and Pressburger, who rattled Churchill’s cage so thoroughly with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘s stuffy Englishmen and good Germans, ending their partnership with a straight, rah-rah War film. Life never lacks for ironies.



Some Books: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘The Illuminatus! Trilogy’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The latest of these is The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Back in the late Seventies, in the days before the Tories destroyed the Net Book Agreement and every newsagents/confectioners had their own spinner racks or a couple of shelves full of cheap paperbacks, you literally couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the brightly coloured and esoteric symbol heavy covers of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, or rather of the three individual volumes, The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan.
I’d read about them in the New Musical Express, the only place I’d heard of them, and they’d given the books a glorious reception, both welcoming and cynical at once, enough to intrigue me. I looked at them, and I looked at them, and I kept looking at them, with curiosity and reserve. I wanted to read them, and I wanted to like them, but I was very unsure of them, and unwilling to commit the money when there were so many certainties available.
Eventually I read them, and it must have been from the Library, and I know this because I read them out of order, second, third and first, not that it made much difference to my understanding. This was no Lord of the Rings, and starting with The Two Towers. What I thought of the books when I was in my early twenties I have not the faintest idea, except that I didn’t go on to buy the books to re-read.
That re-reading has only now come, something like forty years later, an intense spell of three days reading of a collected volume (the form the book has taken since 1984), bought in 2018, struggled through and lost less than halfway, and now forced through continuously. What do I think of it now?
Actually, I’m going to quote an opinion on the trilogy that expresses my responses in language I can’t surpass. There are two quotes:
“It’s a dreadfully long monster of a book… The authors are utterly incompetent – no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, and the authors… have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy.”

“… it’s absurdly long… ‘If The Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale for adults, sophisticated readers will quickly recognise this monumental miscarriage as a fairy tale for paranoids.’ That refers to the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the plot, if there is one, seems to revolve around.”
And who is it that has anatomised the book thus succinctly? The authors of those quotes are the authors, Shea and Wilson themselves, on pages 238-9 and 381 respectively of my copy. But whilst they are exaggerating for comic effect, taking themselves as little seriously as a book of this nature should do, or else are cynically exposing themselves as the ultimate put-on merchants (that’s a vintage term now, isn’t it?), they aren’t saying anything that isn’t true.
I’m at a loss as to how to describe The Illuminatus! Trilogy without expanding this post to something like the dimensions of the book. The narrative flicks erratically between viewpoints and multiple characters, along an achronological timescale, and between first and third person. It throws in every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of and dozens more you haven’t come across, seeking to bind them into an over-arching structure that is paradoxically only capable of being united by a complete lack of structure, and underneath all the head-trip obfuscation, it’s about foiling a resurgent Nazi world takeover plot, deep into the third act.
As for the experience of reading the book, well, I have never dropped acid, smoked grass, or partaken of any hallucinogenic substance stronger than a bloody good book, but the whole thing reads like the meanderings of a room of potheads whose brains have been fried, and the only reason this book didn’t get written in 1967 might well be because the writers were too stoned to come far enough down for nearly a decade.
Actually, Shea and Wilson were associate editors at Playboy magazine and wrote the trilogy between 1969 and 1971 and it took several years before a publisher would touch it, and then only after 500 pages of cuts! It was conceived as a complete work and, just as with Lord of the Rings, was split into three volumes for commercial reasons.
The book is incredibly hard to read due to its diffuse structure. I’m not unused to books that use, for example, non-linear timelines, but whereas these can be incredibly effective from an author who has worked out what he is doing and maintains a rigid control, there’s never any sense of this here, but rather that the authors are making it up as they go along, which might not be that far from the truth, given that there is apparently very little collaboration in the trilogy, but rather the authors writing different sections, and out to one-up each other all the time.
Considered as individual books, The Eye in the Pyramid has the benefit of some form of narrative propulsion, and Leviathan of a double-climax, completing the ‘story’, but The Golden Apple is a classic middle book, solving nothing, answering nothing, just a haze of incomprehensibility, although that may have been my over-tired mindset when reading that part of the trilogy. I shalln’t be going back to give it a fairer hearing.
There are books that you do not like but that you nevertheless go on to finish, ‘to see what happens’. This wasn’t the case with The Illuminatus! Trilogy but there was an element of that to my determination to read until the final page, and that itself was not even the urge to finish ‘to see if there was any point to this’, but simply to read and end, because it was there. I will finish this. I can’t even say that I disliked the book: in the end it was something that was not for me, not now, nor probably for the younger me, who does not seem to have been influenced by it one way or another.
One for the Charity Shop.

Nottingham Expedition

It’s been five and a half months since my last Expedition, the ill-fated one that didn’t get me anywhere near Patterdale. Today’s Easter Saturday, the sun is up, the skies are flat blue and I’m awarding myself a day out. This one is to a rather more prosaic destination: I’m going to Nottingham.

Nottingham? Why? The East Midlands is not high on anyone’s list of outings, especially in this sort of weather. Couldn’t I find somewhere better?

Put in those terms, the answer is obviously yes. But I spent two years of my early Twenties living in Nottingham, I’ve written a novel rooted in those experiences, and I’m currently working on the second of two sequels, which includes scenes in Nottingham, so the Expedition is split down the middle between nostalgia and research. I wonder if I could claim the train fare back against my taxes?

The plan is to catch the 9.54am train from Stockport to take advantage of the much-reduced Off-Peak fares. My paranoia about missing trains is under reasonable control these days, but I was on Platform 0 with no mishaps or panics with fifteen minutes to spare. Which is just as well, for what arrives is the Norwich train, which is two coaches only and most of the seats reserved. I quickly found one that wasn’t and stuck to it like glue.

But the train was crowded, and chaotic, and I was on the aisle with no possibility of looking at the green scenery. No room for anything but my mp3 player, my book and the occasional swallow of Diet Coke.

There was a real shock at Sheffield when, having debouched some of the passengers and taken on thankfully fewer, the train backed out the way it had come in. Nobody seemed fussed and the next stop was still Chesterfield, when the crowds thinned out enough to lose the standing passengers. I was grateful of that: I’d already spent more time with a bloke’s arse rubbing up against my upper arm than I’d budgeted for my whole lifetime.

This was only the third time I’d gone to Nottingham by train. The first was for my interviews (two, at different firms, both of which I flunked) of which I can remember nothing but the excellent instructions on getting there from the station. The other was New Year’s Day 1979, when snow and ice had made the roads too dangerous to risk, and I needed two trains, change at Sheffield, and my Principal was stunned to find me there when I was supposed to be because of the travel problems.

Now, there are direct trains, when once it was nothing but changes.

I’d been travelling backwards since Sheffield, and I  wish I could say I was doing so mentally or emotionally. It would be neat, appropriate, literary but it would also be untrue, not just a mere exaggeration. But though I used to make regular trips down here, in my car, I haven’t been to Nottingham since the last century, and I have had no contact with anyone here in all that time. Several of them have died, which is understandable: my contemporaries are all in their sixties by now. No, this is not a pilgrimage.

There was not a thing I remembered about Nottingham Station, though it marked the first place that I needed to research. I exited onto Carrington Street and immediately turned left, assuming this road would, at some extension, take me to Trent Bridge, Forest’s ground, the Cricket ground and the road to West Bridgeford. But I was wrong. Proving that irony still runs rampant in my life, this was where I was asked for directions by a pretty young woman in a car and a very short skirt.

My primitive bump of location worked better in the opposite direction, leading me to and through the Broadmarsh Centre and into Lister Gate. I emerged into my memories, knowing where I was, and that forty years hadn’t wrought enough change for me to possible lose myself.

Out of the Broadmarsh Centre

From that point on, I felt as if I was walking an invisible maze, it’s walls defined by recollection. Names that used to be the network of Saturday afternoon shopping trips. Up Low Pavement, into Bridlesmith Gate, where the original Selectadisc used to be, though I couldn’t spot where exactly. The heat, exacerbated by the jacket I’d insisted on wearing because, you know, drove me into Waterstones, a source of temptations. But I had a list of second hand bookshops I wanted to visit, and I was determined only to buy from any of these.

The Market Square was not too far away on my left but ahead was dear old Clumber Street, where our offices were. I gently weaved through the tide of people, but try as I might I couldn’t work out where we’d been, we being Hunt, Dickins & Willatt, Solicitors, which hasn’t existed for a long time.

I moved on, just as I used to at 5.00pm, when I could go home, but I turned left into Upper Parliament Street, circling the Market Square. What used to be merely the Nottingham Building Society – and how many mortgages did my customers take out with them? – was still there, recalling to me their fantastic window displays, one of which was endless Sunday pages devoted to Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland that I would study for ages.

Selectadisc has also gone the way of all things. I passed the front of the Theatre Royal, scene of my third of only three gigs – The Chieftains – in Nottingham in that whole forty-eight months (I saw more in Manchester during that period) and turned down Market Street. I picked up a cheap DVD in Oxfam that’ll soon be appearing in my Film 2019, then visited the legendary Page 45 independent comics shop, where I bought a Lynda Barry hardback, which had my taste applauded. Worryingly, I was one of only three people in there all the time I looked round.

No more shilly-shallying. I made my way down to the Market Square and turned to the narrow end of it. Needless to say, the ABC is gone, a great old-fashioned massive screen cinema where I took my ‘special friend’ to see the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and where I first saw 2001 – A Space Odyssey as it really should be seen.

Across the Market Square

The main part of the Square was home to a big tent advertising performances by the Lady Boys of Bangkok: yes, well. Instead, I turned up Friar Gate (which has a memory all of it’s own that has my right knee throbbing in sympathy as I write this), into Spaniel Row to St Nicholas Street, where stands my favourite pub, Ye Olde Salutation Inn, est. 1240 AD. Mind you, it was crowded, and full of Heavy Metal music, so the cool atmosphere of the ages had a bit of trouble getting through.

A pint, a burger and a half hour studying the streetmap I’d bought in W.H.Smith’s and I was ready for another go.

I found one of the bookshops I’d marked out the night before, whose address I’d written out then left behind, but it was small, cramped and didn’t have anyting I wanted. I re-emerged on Upper Parliament Street and walked down to the Victoria Centre, which used to be my favourite Shopping Centre for its high ceilings and wide interior, a sense of space that, yes, you’ve guessed it, no longer exists. The Indoor Market’s gone, as has the space it used to occupy. Do I have any tangible memories left?

At least the exit onto Mansfield Road hasn’t been bricked up or anything like that. That was my way home, but I wasn’t going to go up to Woodborough Road or Alexandra Court: that’s a nostalgia that needs no refreshing. Instead, I wandered back to Clumber Street where, after consulting the streetmap, I worked out where the firm used to be.

I used to work above there

I also found the second of the bookshops, down a long, quiet alley, but again nothing.

For a while I sat in the sun in the Market Square. There was a Revolutionary Communist haranguing the crowd, starting off on Climate Change but transitioning to a denouncement of Capitalism (and Imperialism, don’t forget Imperialism) with a rapidity that didn’t betoken much real enthusiasm for Climate Change, and then a long and hagiographic spiel holding up Cuba as the world’s ideal. Frankly, he bored the arse off me, and he wasn’t convincing anyone else, so I moved on.

But I’d seen what I’d come to see, more or less. My next attempt at an extended sit down, with a triple replenishment of my liquid supplies, was disturbed by another Saturday afternoon ranter, this one a God-botherer. Then he was replaced by a blues singer/guitarist busker. Sigh.

When I lived here, they used to say, and may still do, that Nottingham girls were the prettiest in all England. And whilst I am and always will be a chauvinist for my home city, on today’s evidence, the 2019 crop aren’t letting their forerunners down in any respect.

It was all over by now. I’d had the refreshers I wanted, but on top of that I’d demonstrated that there is no continuity to this slice of my past. Nottingham was a city in which I lived for two years, two vital, engaging, educational and essential years, but only the City remains and that’s the lesser part. Simon, Heather, Liz, Richard, Sharon, Jeremy, Alison, Roger, Anne, Gary, Jill, Graham, Rose, Ken, Jane, Murray, Sandy: we will never be in each other’s company again and without the people, Nottingham is only lines in brick.

Town Hall, looking round the Lady Boys

So I headed back down Lister Gate, and through the Broadmarsh. There was time enough to hunt for London Road and the way to Trent Bridge, to see what Steve and Lottie see when they walk along there, but it had been hot too long and my feet were starting to ache so, like the route round the Boulevards that Steve navigated for Lucy and Pam, it’ll have to come from the streetmap, and the memories that are closer to what I need than the streets now.

I was on the 15.47 Liverpool Lime Street train with time and space to spare, a table seat, facing the way I’m going. Except that for the second time today, we set off backwards. At least, it seemed backwards to me, but the ticket-inspector assured me we were going the only way the train through Stockport goes, but I still can’t work out how I got 180 degree arse about face.

Never mind, I just switched to the other side of the table, then again when we re-reversed out of Sheffield. This latter cost me sight of two attractive young woman (whose collective age was still much too young for me) but enabled me to enjoy the hills as we motor through Edale (which has four separate memories of four separate women). They haven’t distinctive shapes, nor nearly enough rock, but they form a skyline, and they rouse the hunger to walk it. One ridge has two arcs of para-gliders above it.

I was back at Stockport for 5.30pm, straight onto a 203 home when I got down to the Bus Station, and in for six o’clock. It’s not like going to the Lakes, and that’s going to be the next expedition, before too much longer, but a day out is a day out and this was a good enough one.

Saturday SkandiKrime: Trapped 2 – episode 6

This is not fair. Once you get past the halfway episode, the Scandi series are supposed to start laying trails towards a wrap-up, start drawing things together, instead of putting up new questions. Not only did episode 6 not take the slightest step towards elucidating just what Elin saw, but it reintroduced, and further complicated, an entire strand that didn’t even get memtioned in episode 5, and it hung itself up on one stinker of a cliffhanger. I have at least one thing next week that I’m looking forward to with great pleasure and anticipation and this makes me want to skip straight past that to find out.

If we’re actually going to find anything out, that soon.

After the relatively static first episode today, the show did at least start to twist the knife. Andri and Hinrika go back to re-examine Finnur’s house, only to find the seal broken by Aron and Thorhildur, the place a fucking mess and yes, Forensics haven’t been inside yet, so who knows what’s been lost. Andri is contemplating the malevolence of the universe with particular regard to 15 year old daughters when Hinrika finds a roll of Euros under the cushion next to him…

Next stop, Aron and Thorhildur are quasi-arrested. Andri can’t believe how all-fired stupid they are, taking 80,000 Euros from the house of someone who’s just been brutally murdered, without imagining any consequences (but the ones who think they’re unbelievably more clever than the stodgy old adults around them always lack that vital bit of cleverness that’s needed to recognise that you might not know everything after all). Even in the Police Station, Aron’s texting Thorhildur to hide the money so that they can keep it, and she’s hiding it so cleverly that it takes her Dad all of twenty seconds to find it (can you tell that this prize pair of muffins rub me up the wrong way?)

But there were two other things in the bag. One was the mobile phone that Thorhildur used to contact a mystery person, that she’s still hanging onto, lying about having found nothing else and only agreeing a meeting with him. At which he doesn’t turn up, not to meet her anyway, but to identify her, and tell her he knows who she is…

The other thing was a sheaf of papers, including a geothermic map of Gisli’s farm, prepared by the Ministry of Industries, and a blank purchase agreement. Theory: Finnur, knowing Gisli’s bankrupt, and that his land is a geothermic gold-mine, wants to buy it cheap, but with enough money to save Gisli. But then Gisli heads straight for Reykjavik and tries to immolate his sister, the Minister for Industries.

Who, if you believe her, and is there anybody here who actually does, didn’t know her Ministry was surveying Gisli’s land and has never seen her Ministry’s Survey Map.

Halla’s staying at the hotel now, meeting with Hafdis and Kolbrun, staying on a bit. Whilst Elin’s telling Oli that Halla’s already gone back south.

Add in the open, Ketill on a horse, up in the mountains, searching by the Lake. The one his poisoned son Sulji drank from. The one with drainage pipes emitting into it. The one with long streams of white scum on its surfaces. The one with a profusion of dead ducks on its shore, several of whom have been foaming at the beak. Ketill was right: he said the plant would pollute the land.

And lastly, Ebo has done a side-job for a Polish worker, one who’s forging a spear. Ebo wants his money, and he wants it now, but the Pole is playing silly beggars about him, knows abut Ebo and Vikingur (and assumes Vikingur is paying for it, so he wants a cut or he’ll make it public). Ebo’s getting deep into the brown stuff. His brother-in-law will keep his secret, for the sister’s sake, but he has to cut Vikingur out, now.

But the Poles get violent and Ebo runs, to Vikingur, for help. Only Vikingur’s angry and pissed again and heads for the plant. Where the power suddenly goes down. All’s blind. Hjortur, the night security, goes hunting. He finds the Pole down and bloody, from what looks like a bolt-gun to the head, just like Finnur. There’s an intruder. Hjortur pursues him. It’s Vikingur. And his face and shirt are just covered in blood…

Apart from the fact I’m confident Vikingur hasn’t done this latest, and hardly regrettable murder, I have no idea where this is going. Like today’s earlier episode, some shapes are discernible: the plant is a pollutant, Halla and Hafdis know, there’s a cover-up. But again, that’s too predictable. I’m relying on Trapped to be fooling me. I’m relying on it coming up with satisfactory answers to the near two dozen outstanding questions that are neat, logical, consistent and completly unpredictable. I’m not asking for too much, I hope.

Farewell Andrew Preview

The conductor Andre Previn, former husband of singer-songwriter Dory, former husband of Mia Farrow, and one of the most respected and popular pianists and conductors of our age has died aged 89.

It is no disrespect to his memory or his talent to pinpoint the most famous moment of his life, in Britain, as beiing his first appearance on the Morecambe & Wise Show, as a conductor conned into conducting Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Eric Morecambe as the soloist.

No matter how often I watch it – and I was lucky enough to see it go out the first time – there is no part of this which has gotten old or dimmed. Previn was a natural, and he lives with Eric and Ernie as  their equal, not just their patsy.

Watch it again, cherish how much of a good sport he was, and how bloody funny the whole thing is and forever will be.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘House at Pooh Corner’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt band have never made much of a splash in the UK. Unless they featured on the old Sounds of the Seventies strand (which musically I was not able to comprehend until much later in the decade). But there were two singles, one from 1972 and the other from 1973, that got decent if not excessive airplay, enough to impress both upon me as favourites that should have had a better reception.
The first of these was ‘House at Pooh Corner’, a Kenny Loggins song that was a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band original, appearing on their classic 1970 album ‘Uncle Charlie and his dog Teddy’ and a 1971 US single that decorated the bottom half of the Hot 100. These were the days when American singles were always delayed for UK release, most of the time by at least six months.
These were also the days of home taping off the radio, with a four-track mono reel-to-reel recorder that was by no means instant when it came to starting a recording. Given the brevity of the track’s intro, I never managed to get a full recording, only one that started a half-line into the song.
That line sets the tone immediately, demonstrating that the title is literal. Christopher Robin and I walked along, sings John McEuen, under branches lit up by the Moon. They have questions for Owl and Eeyore, but already the days are disappearing too soon. The singer is both boy and man, child and adult, at one and the same time participating in Pooh and Christopher Robin’s world and distanced from it.
That verse is sung with joy and a nostalgic glow, but a plaintive note is introduced as we lead in to the chorus. The singer has wandered too far away, and now he can’t find his way to the Three Acre Wood (it’s Hundred Acre Wood in the books, but you trying fitting the extra syllable into the scansion).
The chorus makes it all explicit, as the singer pleads for help, to get back to the house at Pooh Corner by one. There are so many unimportant things to do, all the unnecessary importances of childhood, but the singer is now too far away, the adult that was once and never again be the child, wanting to go back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh.
The second verse is pure fantasy, pure A A Milne. Pooh’s got a honey jar stuck on his nose. The singer can’t help him but sends him to Owl, for help in loosening a jar from the nose of a bear.
And we swing back into the chorus, but this time the plaintiveness is replaced by a wistful acceptance that there is no such hope, that the Three Acre Wood is beyond reach, except in those precious memories of friends we will never play alongside again. Back to the days of Christopher Robin. Back to the ways of Christopher Robin. Back to the ways of Pooh.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were and are a country rock band. There’s a strong pop flavour to ‘House at Pooh Corner’, with an undertone of wah-wah guitar that adds a slight flavour of funk, but it’s a strong band performance, with superb unison harmonies supplementing the lead vocals.
The song was written by Loggins in his last year at high school, in 1967, but the Nitty Gritties recorded it first, before Loggins began his recording career with Jim Messina. Loggins didn’t record it himself until his own career, started, and much later re-named it ‘Return to Pooh Corner’ and added a retrospective third verse about the singer and his own son. I’m used to the simplicities of the Nitty Gritty version so even though that’s the writer’s own interpretation, I found the slower, acoustic arrangement and Loggins’ more affected singing to be twee already before the extra verse seals the impression in concrete.
No, I can only return to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to the energy and emotion they bring to this song. The fantasia is simple but heartfelt and the performance and the harmonies create a perfect sound stage. We’ve all been there. So many of us would give much to return, even if only for a golden hour in the middle of a life of stress and strain. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sing as if they know that. They also know it can’t be done, but they capture the exact shade of longing for such an impossibility.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e01/02 – Image in the Sand/Shadows and Symbols

Enter Ezri

The cynic in me says that this was always going to be about getting Sisko back and, given that I’m feeling overtired and unwell at the moment, I’m not in the mood for being manipulated in the fashion laid down by the end of season 6. Nor am I in sympathy with the big reveal that was made over the course of this two-parter, which I knew to be coming but which seemed ultimately to be too cheap an explanation for why Sisko is the Emissary.

Fortunately for all concerned, there were three stories over the course of the introduction to the last season, an A and two B’s, both of substantial proportion, and giving a substantial part to everyone in the cast. This included newcomer Nicole de Boer, replacing Terry Farrell as Dax, Ezri Dax to be specific, in a pretty blatant move to be about as different a Dax as can be.

Three months have gone by and Sisko has gone nowhere. Kira, newly promoted to Colonel and celebrating by adopting a new and hideous hair-style, is still acting Commander of DS9, her latest headache being the Federation’s decision to grant the Romulans a military HQ on DS9, even though they’ve got no right to. Though Senator Cretak at first presents as pretty amenable for a Romulan, enlisting the Colonel to put in for a Romulan med-base on a deserted Bajoran moon, it’s just your pretty standard Romulan treachery since they immediately set-up 7,000 missile launchers about it, provoking a Cuban Missile Crisis knock-off when Kira decides to blockade the place.

Meanwhile, Worf is mourning Jardzia for rather longer than Klingons do, forcing Vic Fontaine to continually sing ‘All the Way’ (oh dear God) and smashing up the holosuite. Chief O’Brien nobly goes three bottles of bloodwine with him to learn that it’s because Jardzia didn’t die fighting, she won’t go to Sto’Vo’Kor. The only way to secure this is to win a glorious victory against overwhelming odds in her name. Bashir, O’Brien and Quark (oh dear God) go with him.

As for Sisko, he’s playing the piano and peeling potatoes (for three months?). Finally, the baseball rolls off the piano and when he stoops to pick it up he has a vision from the Prophets, of uncovering a face in the sand on Tyree, a desert planet. Mission on. By indirect means, Sisko discovers that the face is that of his mother, his real mother, Sarah, not the one he’s always thought of as his mother until now. Sarah was his Dad’s first wife, his real, true love, who ran off inexplicably as soon as Ben was born. She’s dead now.

Having fanatically hidden her existence from her son all this long, Joseph Sisko cracks and gives Ben a locket she left behind. A locket with an inscription in Old Bajoran (my, we’re just piling on the cliches here, aren’t we?). The inscription translates as Orb of the Emissary, a lost Orb, so hey ho and the three generations of Siskos head off to Tyree where it’s obviously buried, though not before a Pah-Wraith worshiping Bajoran cuts Sisko’s stomach open to no lasting effect.

And just as they’re closing the restaurant to head for the spaceport, there’s a knock on the door, and it’s a cute little, fresh-faced Starfleet Ensign, whose cute black hair-style conceals most of her Trill spots: enter Ezri Dax.

Thee new Dax is obviously going to be comic relief to begin with, though there’s a serious explanation for her goofy gabble. Ezri never wanted to be joined, but when the Dax symbiont took a turn for the worse, post-Jardzia, she was the only Trill in town so, fifteen minutes of pep-talk later and everything changes. Ezri’s confused as hell, and looking to her two-lifetimes friend Benjamin to help her get her completely new feet on the ground. Off to Tyree? Bring it on!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Worf’s mission is not going well, though ultimately it’s a winner, and whilst I’m tired and being sarcastic because of it, Worf’s dedication to his lost wife is genuinely moving, despite all of Quark’s efforts to fuck up the tone. And Colonel Kira’s trying to bluff Senator Cretak into backing down, only, Romulans being smart buggers, she knows that and doesn’t intend to.

So Sisko’s party tramps unmercifully across the desert in pursuit of the buried Orb, Sisko’s only idea of where it may be being that he’ll know when he finds it. Or when Ezri throws his baseball away (another twist we couldn’t see coming). Did did dig dig dig, and there it is.

And another twist that I was very much not in sympathy with, as Sisko suddenly turns back into the half-mad Fifties SF writer, Benny Russell, the creator of ‘Deep Space Nine’. Benny’s in what the times would call the looney bin, his doctor trying to cure him by getting him to stop writing these stories. He’s writing in pencil on the walls (that actually was every single synopsis of very episode so far, written out on the walls of his cell, with Dr Wykoff – Casey (Demar) Biggs – trying to get Benny to whitewash over them.

That this had a perfectly logical explanation, that the Pah-Wraith was trying to get Sisko to rebury and smash the Orb, didn’t occur to me, which shows what a state I’m currently in: it just seemed like an unnecessarily clever-clever throwback to a story I’d been very dubious about to begin with. But Sisko holds out and opens the Orb.

A presence streaks from it, crosses space, roars past DS9 and re-opens the Wormhole, expelling the Pah-Wraith from it. We’re back in business. For Sisko, there’s a vision, a vision of the Prophet that was his mother Sarah, or rather which occupied her to ensure Sisko was born, at what cost to Sarah, Joseph, Benjamin himself. He’s the Emissary because he’s half-Prophet. Oh, really. How cheap.

And the re-opening of the Wormhole inspires Kira to carry out her bluff and win, because the Federation makes the Romulans back down.

So everyone returns to DS9, happily,including the new Dax in Town, whose day will of course come next week, when I hope to feel much more receptive to the next episode, or maybe have that be a bit less – ok, a lot less – clumsy and blatant in some of its ideas. Sorry about this. At long last, we’re on the home straight. I am starting to want the finish line to arrive.