Valerian et Laureline: 21 – At the Edge of the Great Void


Valerian

I’m tempted to break with the form of this series and review the last three episodes as one long story, for that is what they are. On its own, At the Edge of the Great Void is not much more than a prelude, that ends on, if not an actual cliffhanger, the gateway to a much more directly involved episode. It stands in the same relation to the succeeding story as does Dan Dare’s ‘The Man from Nowhere’ to ‘Rogue Planet’: it’s about getting into place.
And that place is, exactly as the title states, at the edge of the Great Void, a vast nothingness, without stars, lying beyond the furthest outposts of civilisation, where civilisation is ceasing to have any meaning. Somewhere out there is Earth and Galaxity. Valerian and Laureline intend to find it. But they can’t just head off out there, on their own, hunting at random. Such things have to be approached carefully.
Which means surreptitiously. And without their usual craft, which is too recognisable, especially as too many people want to hinder them. So instead they’re travelling in a beaten-up old clunker that used to belong to travelling peddlers, and our heroes are acting incognito as peddlers themselves, though not with any great commercial success. That’s not the point though: they’re not out to make money, they’re out for information. And it seems that the Shingouz do not travel this far from the centre.
The law on this un-named planet appears to be being administered by Rubanis, which has done everything in its power to chase rival commercial organisations as far away from the centre as it can and, once they’re this far out, is intent on hassling them out of business. Like the clothing factory that’s closed down, putting Ky-Gai, a young girl of Vietnamese looks and dress, out of work and leaving her with no money.
It doesn’t stop her admiring the goods at Laureline’s end of the joint mobile stall, which are feminine products, clothes, jewellery and soft goods. She’s a bright, cheerful girl, and the fastest seam sewer in the factory: Laureline likes Ky-Gai as much as she likes Laureline and takes her on as an assistant.
Just in time, because not only is Val’s end of the business (exotic animals and potentially lethal weapons) not doing much, he’s under constant florid criticism from his bound Schniarfer, and hassle from the Police. Of course, a bribe and clearing out works, but there are hostile forces in Police uniform keeping a close watch on our two.
And indeed, where they next pitch up, outside the Labyrinth Prison, selling to wives and sweethearts and trying not to stifle from the smell of the Limboz, ragged peddlers and invisible thieves, they’re once again sent on their way, with a tax penalty. And the Limboz stealing half their goods, including Ky-Gai’s lovely, old-fashioned sewing machine.
But this is where Val and the Schniarfer come into their own, and the pair of Limboz send them off to Abyss Port, the best place to get, well, anything you want. Which, when Ky-Gai produces two spacesuits of individual size, includes the attention of Captain Shing’a Roog’a, captain of her own ship heading out into the Void to break new routes, a redhead dynamo who prefers to deal with women, and who commissions an entire crew’s worth of spacesuits from Laureline and Ky-Gai.
Now we see where the first instalment is going. There’s a long way to go before our pair can get themselves installed among Captain Roog’a’s crew, much of which could be dismissed as filler, included because it wouldn’t do to make this leg of the story too easy for the heroes. And some of it is a foretaste of mystery yet to be explained.
So, in fairly fast order, the Police descend and arrest Val and the Schniarfer, confining them secretly in Labyrinth Prison, whilst awaiting orders from the Triumvirs of Rubanis. We briefly see them on a small videoscreen. It seems that the Shingouz’ information that former taxi-driver S’Treks had won out over his rivals for power on that planets is at least out-dated, as he is now merely an equal with Na-Zultra and Colonel T’Locq. For reasons of their own, they want Val held until further orders. And they seem to think, quite correctly, that holding Val stops Laureline from going forward.
Whilst this is going on, we watch Captain Roog’a recruit a crew. It’s not quite trial by combat but every applicant has to have the guts, the determination, the self-confidence and at least one special ability to be judged worthwhile.
Ky-Gai is worried for Val, but Laureline is not. The young worker girl keeps busy sewing the spacesuits, with the assistance of other hard workers from her former factory who’ve hung around, all coming from the moon Phnom-Nam (I told you). Laureline reassures her that whilst Val is a rotten peddler, he has other abilities. And as soon as she sends her re-hydrated Tsheung, Val, who’s been refusing the Schniarfer’s pleas to unbind his Shubinal Gland, sets about escaping with his usual, almost casual flair.
And I said there was a foretaste of mystery. Out, somewhere is the Great Void, the Triumvirs of Rubanis are gathered, on the cold, dark, barren surface of what seems to be a planet. Each wears a visor that blinds them but which keeps their eyesight from being destroyed. The news that Val has escaped, that he and Laureline are to try to enter the Great Void disturbs them. It also disturbs the beings they have come here to meet, the Wolochs. We don’t see the Wolochs, we just see a massive black, windowless citadel, a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Monolith and a sawn-off Pyramid.
But the Police on Rubanis are still out to intercept our heroes and keep them from Captain Roog’a’s ship. First, there is a parting: much as she will miss Ky-Gai, Laureline knows the Great Void to be too dangerous for her. So Ky-Gai sets up her own factory with Laureline’s assets, and Val bequeaths her the Schniarfer, to become her economic advisor and HR Director.
They make a run for Roog’a’s ship but come under fire. Val will pilot them through, but gets hit on the head so Laureline has to do it. She’s welcome in Roog’a’s crew, and even gets a cabin near the Captain, but Val is only accepted after he proves himself in combat. And in keeping with Mezieres’ delight in referencing other creators, the bridge Lieutenant wears a very familiar cap and uniform coat, and goes by the name of Molto Cortes…
So off they go, staying on deck as much as they can, until the last stars disappear, and there is only the Void, so they go below, knowing that somewhere out there…

All the Fells: Yoke


Yoke – The Far Eastern Fells 2,309′ (76)

Date: 3 May 1988

From: Ill Bell

Alphabetically, the last fell, and also the last fell of the Ill Bell range. Like the other two summits I visited on that day, I have few memories of Yoke. It broke the mould of the ridge, being broader and sprawling, the range having lost definition here. The walking was undistinguished, a mostly downhill retreat with no features on the route to mark. It was one of those days: once I broke out of Kentmere, it was as if I spent the rest of the walk stumbling, though I don’t remember being fatigued, even after my long straight climb. Mentally I was dulled, interested in little beyond getting back down again. Ill Bell suffered from that and so too did Yoke, which had less going for it. From the summit, I descended towards Garburn Pass. The last hundred yards or so were filthy soft. I knew there was firmer ground to my right, reaching the Pass with less slutch, but that was the Troutbeck side and I needed to descend the Kentmere side, so I stuck it out to the Pass summit and hastened down rapidly, not needing to go far to return to solid ground. The descent was pleasant and comfortable. I meant to go back, and did set out once to do the Kentmere Horseshoe, but life’s commitments were becoming too demanding and, out of practice, I only made it to Nan Bield Pass before returning along the valley, instead of the Ill Bell Range. And all too soon after that, it was all over. Like this series.

Due South: s02 e16 – The Duel


Due South

With the exception of one small element, which was pleasant enough in its own way but out-of-place, this was a wholly excellent episode, centring for once on Ray Vecchio. It was also almost completely serious, with minimal comedy and that virtually restricted to the backchat between our Chicago Detective and our Canadian Mountie.

It was the kind of episode that depended on very clever scripting, less in the dialogue than in the plotting. The title tells us what to expect, a battle of wits between detective and criminal. It’s not an original notion: Detective gets criminal put away, he protests that he was framed, too clever to have made the mistake that cost him his freedom, begins a campaign of threat against the detective and everyone connected to him, meanwhile the original investigation is reviewed and it is strongly hinted that the detective may have crossed the line… Who will win the battle of wits?

If it were a film, we’d be psychologically prepared for the twist that the detective did indeed set up the ‘evidence’ but in a television series when said detective is one of the two stars, we know that Ray is going to be cleared by the end, that he is and will always have been clean. The thrill is of how it all plays out, how the criminal, here Charles Carver (Colm Feore), is seen to be on top throughout, far smarter than Vecchio, who is not only out of his depth in this battle but who confesses it, yet when it comes to the extreme crunch, comes up with the bluff that fools the crininal into tripping himself up and being exposed.

The fun is in the ingenuity. In this case, it all starts with a parole hearing after eight years imprisonment that Ray, as arresting officer, has to attend, smugly certain that it’s all a foregone conclusion. Carver is dirty. He was arrested and convicted for arson thanks to a dislodged heel that matched his shoes, found by Ray after Arson had combed the site and found nothing. Carver was convicted for arson but not just Ray suspects him of at least two murders of women he exploited and abused.

The game begins when Carver gets his parole. Feore is excellent in the part, conspicuously clever and driven by a desire for revenge against Ray for the outrage of having beaten him, as much by the fact that it will tuen out that the convicting evidence was planted, just not by Ray. He’s outwardly cool, smug, waging a slow burn campaign clued by toys sent to or left with or for Ray.

The first step is comic. Assistant States Attorney Madeline Carnes (Lisa Houle), who was present at the parole hearing to hear Vecchio call Carver a turkey is enjoying a refreshing, extended, soap-heavy soft-porn shower when a turkey leg descends to scare the shit out of her, though not to the extent that we see anything that shouldn’t be seen on network tv (this is the false step: Ms Houle spent some time oversoaping arms, shoulders, legs, all golden and naked, which appealed to weaker instincts but it was all too blatant and incongruous against the rest of the episode).

At first Vecchio thinks the campaign is against people involved with the original bust – his then-Partner Laurie Zaylor, his supervisor Will Kelly – but we know better and, when Carver delivers flowers to his sister Francesca on her birthday, ostensibly for her birthday, he twigs that it is about people connected to him.

Each time it’s a toy and Ray, with Bennie, has to figure out what the toy – a Kenwood bus, a boat called Bookem, a baby carriage – means and who it threatens. Each time they do, and no-one gets hurt. Carver taunts but evades leaving tracks, Ray grows despondent. Carver is smarter than him, he doesn’t do puzzles, not this kind of conspicuously smart kind. Meanwhile, the Internal Affairs investigation gets closerto spotlighting him as a dirty cop.

Only it wasn’t him. Benny picks up on the vital clue, the manipulation, the attitude of every suspect is guilty of something, and spots that it was a frame but by Will Kelly, but by then Carver has doped and captured him and Diefenbaker, and Ray on his own has to figure out how, and where.

And when it mattered he did it. Not just where Benny is, and how he and the wolf are going to be killed, but he has the smarts to act his part, set up a trap, play the victim in a way that leads Carver to assert his superiority and give himself away for one of those unprovable murders. Game, set and match.

As I said, it’s a familiar story shape, and the episode didn’t travel far from it, but the trick is in making it new again, in being clever enough to capture and hold attention even though experience tells us how it will end. This episode worked beautifully. And, in view of the big change coming up very shortly, it was good to see Ray Vecchio, the fall guy, taking the spotlight for once and being right from start to finish.

The Infinite Jukebox: Kathy Mattea’s ‘Asking us to Dance’


Again it was the early Nineties, and a combination of things conspires to have me listening to country music for a few years. This, in itself, is almost miraculous, because I don’t like country music, I really don’t. The occasional examples of it that hit the UK chart all hurt my ears: Lynn Anderson, Faron Young, Tammy Wynette, oh God, Kenny Rogers. I am not enamoured of the sound of the pedal steel guitar. I cannot stand the voice of the male country singer. In short, even more so than Heavy Metal, this music is an anathema to me.
Then I start exchanging cassettes with a never-really girlfriend. One brings together k.d. lang and Shawn Colvin, which was how I started a musical love affair that’s lasted thirty years so far. I stay a weekend with a couple of friends in Shropshire, the Country Music Awards are on on Saturday night, we watch, take the piss, but are truly impressed by some songs, one of them Alison Krauss’s version of ‘When you say nothing at all’.
I hear of and listen to some Nanci Griffiths. In the HMV Shop’s basement, in the country section, I see a CD of Suzy Bogguss with a cover photo which makes her look like a dead ringer for my lovely friend Fliss, and there are some good, upfront songs on it. I find that I do not loathe the female country voice. In Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau has his longterm protest singer/songwriter Jimmy Thudpucker go country, defending himself by claiming that that’s where song and melody has gone now that it’s been forced out by rap and hiphop, and I find myself nodding in agreement.
The phase doesn’t last long, but whilst it does I seek out new voices to explore. Of course Emmylou Harris becomes one of them, though it’s not until the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball that I am really captured. But my range is not unlimited. My interest has gone as far as Country, but not & Western. Anything that’s deep country, whether in sound or lyrical atmosphere, is too much for me. I fancy Reba McIntyre – she’s a redhead, isn’t she? – but I can’t listen to her.
No, where I find I enjoy Country music are the (usually) younger female artistes, singers of songs that aren’t overburdened with Country sounds, no pedal steel or bluegrass fiddles, that in the Seventies would just have been classed alongside singer-songwriters.
Kathy Mattea was one of those who were close to the edge of what I could enjoy, though the edge this time was not so much Deep Country as MOR. Nice voice, but with not enough of that edge to her music that I still found fundamental to anything I liked to hear. One CD, borrowed from Withington Library, played, enjoyed but not enough. Three tracks taped and retained.
All three are semi-melodramatic ballads. Mattea has a good, powerful, yearning voice and ballads suit her, especially with lyrics that have a bit of a melodramatic theme. I’ve still got those tracks, now burned to a private CD compilation.
As far as I’m concerned, ‘Asking Us To Dance’ is the stand-out, still, after thirty years. It’s a love song, but it’s a love song from a standpoint that’s very rarely represented in modern music, and certainly not pop music as we have known it since the Fifties.
It’s about Love, oh yes, and it’s sung to a loved one, but this is no boyfriend, actual or desired. Mattea, as perhaps her status in Country music, music of the people with its conventional and Christian roots in family, is singing to her husband. A long-married husband. A husband still loved, but a love that, through no fault of either but just through the way love gets put aside in the face of living, that has started to risk growing stale through disuse.
And Mattea has recognised that danger, the danger of loss that not just yet, but maybe soon if not faced head-on, might dry up and blow away. Because that love has been the foundation stone of everything they have built. And it should be and must be fought for, by recognition, by a re-watering of it at its roots.
She conjures up a night with a full moon, casting its light down on a scene that’s become familiar to them in a way that it shouldn’t: the tangled silver dangling from the cypress trees, the moonlight river flowing into the lake and, above all, both literally and figuratively, a sky full of a million stars, big, wide and open, and every one of those stars waiting for them to wish upon. Some will snort at the cliche of the scene, but Mattea sings with a heartfelt passion that makes the moment as real for us as it is in this moment for her, because it’s a moment of recognition, and one of longing.
And she makes her appeal to him, the silent, nameless partner who is as important to her as breathing, and with whom she is afraid their connection might be lost. Darling, she sings, tonight I am reminded how much these two hearts need romance. You know, it isn’t very often we get this kind of chance. She’s asking him to join her in this sudden, almost mad moment, why don’t we get caught in this moment? Be victims of sweet circumstance. It possesses her so deeply that she transcends the ordinariness of their mundane, settled lives: tonight I feel like all creation is asking us to dance.
And in token of what she is saying in this chorus, there is a harmonising voice, in time and tune with her but buried deeper in the mix. I don’t know who is the singer, but his is the male voice, the echo and complement to Mattea, the symbol of the love she wants to enfold herself within.
There is another verse, that recounts the flatness of the lives they lead and its eternal existence, still there tomorrow, for them to return to, but it is this very ordinariness that leads her to plead for him to feel what has overcome her now, this special moment, when heaven and earth meet where they are and are waiting, ready to be open fully, as once they were, and her adamant belief that all the things on earth worth having are the things they’ve already got.
Though if he hasn’t already responded to that beautifully sung chorus, and her soul deep feelings, no other words will sway him.
But we know he’ll respond. No matter how long we’ve been together, been in love, no matter how dulled that first overwhelming passion has become by familiarity and repetition, those two are still within us, and just as flowers need to be fed, watered, nurtured, that original love needs nurturing if it is not to die.
Kathy Mattea sings as a plea, but the depth that remains in her heart must call back the man she still loves. A song with this solidity could only have come from Country music, so lacking in doubt but nevertheless still well-versed in fragility.
Darling, tonight I am reminded…

All the Fells: Yewbarrow


Yewbarrow – The Western Fells 2,058′ (186)

Date: 17 October 1993

From: Mosedale

As befits the son of a family who never holidayed in the Lakes without visiting Wasdale and Wastwater, I have a history with Yewbarrow that includes no less than two failed attempts to reach the summit before I finally got there. As a family, we once tackled Yewbarrow the direct way, up its long prow. I can’t say I remember much of the ascent, which is a shame because it was the only time I approached the fell from that end, but I was only just in my teens then. I can imagine myself struggling with the long, tedious walk uphill, which was the kind of walking I hated still. Our original destination was going to be Red Pike, but it looked far too far from Over Beck, so we side-stepped onto Yewbarrow instead. We got as far as the Great Door, a scene of tremendous devastation, requiring care, a little bit hairier that we were used to, especially with my sister, who must have been six at the most, in tow. Dad was so worried about her safety in a place where a wrong step could have been disastrous that he actually roped her to a rock! It was obvious that we were going no further, but actually the men of the family, which included me, went on a bit further, onto the open ridge, at least as far as it took to be able to see Burnmoor Tarn across the valley and behind the ridge (why?). How near that took us to the summit, I can’t even guess. When it came time for me to go it alone, I had no intention of tackling that prow again, which necessarily meant Dore Head. I started off in decent weather, across the Packhorse Bridge and into Mosedale. When I reached the broad, clear, uphill grassy path, I headed up it. It was tough going yet, in its extra steepness, a lot easier for me to cope with: some slopes are just naturally draining but not this. The drawback came when I reached what remained of the old scree-shoot that gave walkers of the past such a quick route down to the valley. Unfortunately, their controlled slides down the scree had not just dispersed all the stones but had dug a nasty looking, raw earth channel down the middle of the slope. The continuation of the path was easy to see opposite, all I had to do was bridge the gap. Which was a good dozen feet deep, with unclimbable overhangs on my side. Dismally, I recognised that the only way I could get down that was to fall, and even then I wasn’t over-confident about getting out the other side. I was stymied. Rather than go back down and find a different starting point for the climb, which meant losing a good five hundred feet at the start of the walk, I opted to keep climbing on this side. This left me to tackle a rough, broken, steep and pathless fellside, very slowly. I made my way leftward, towards the base of the crags that were the bottom of Stirrup Crag. I would move about ten feet at a time, no more, focussing on what was immediately above me, seeking out the easiest lines, constantly looking rightwards to check my progress. It took ages, but eventually I was near the ridge. There was no direct way to it and to escape I had to cross the highest, most polished section of the channel, the bit where it would have been the simplest to have come a cropper. Grateful to have got up there, I then found my effort effectively wasted. Whilst I had been climbing up, the weather had turned. Cloud was down on Yewbarrow, swirling about Stirrup Crag, just a few feet above my head. The walk was obviously ended here. Since I couldn’t go back down that way, there was nothing for it but to descend the Over Beck valley and walk back up the road: in short, rather than climb Yewbarrow, I would circumnavigate it. As if to crow over me, I hadn’t gone more than two hundred yards when it decided to rain. I got into my waterproofs., but it came down so incessantly that I learned that after a certain point, waterproofs become waterlogs. I was soaked. And unlike the descent of Sour Milk Gill from Gillercomb, there was no perverse satisfaction to this, just sogginess. I was on a day out from Manchester. I never used to do this, and didn’t repeat the exercise, but as if I had had a premonition, I had brought a change of clothes with me. Once back at the car I drove into the Hotel Car park and, clasping the change set to me to try to keep them from getting wet, I sprinted for the toilets to undress. Unfortunately, my foresight had not extended to a dry pair of underpants. A couple of years later, I would just have cheerfully ‘gone commando’ but now, after wringing out as much water as I could (not much), I wriggled back into them. This was not a good idea. Almost immediately they started to soak back into my new jeans, producing a horribly embarrassing two-tone effect, as if I were some buckshee Superman. Gross. It had to be third time lucky and it was, and if it hadn’t have been for those two failures, I wouldn’t have had the unbelievably brilliant day I did. The weather had been gorgeous all week, bright blue unstained skies, a crisp clarity to the air. My fingers were permanently crossed that it would stay to the weekend, to Sunday in fact (United were at home on Saturday). It was the very end of October. The first I realised just how good the conditions were was coming across the top of the Corney Fell Road: the Irish Sea burst upon me in a blaze of turquoise blue from one end to the other and the Isle of Man stood out so massive and near that it looked as it I could see the other half of the sea, behind it. I have never seen it so clearly again. I was puzzled to see, ahead of me, a circle of clear water, like a silver coin laid on the sea. What on Earth was that? And then it struck me. It was the river water, emerging from the triple estuaries at Ravenglass, a different colour from the sea water, before it merged. What an incredible sight! To be honest, if I had known things were going to be so clear, I would have gotten up two hours earlier, given Yewbarrow the elbow and gone for Scafell Pike. They claim that in good conditions you can see the Mountains of Mourne from its summit, and if you couldn’t have seen them that day, you never would at all. Once again, I crossed the Packhorse Bridge, but this time I bypassed the broad grass path, crossed the foot of the once scree and started looking for a way up the other side. I found a narrow trail leading up, crystals of frost forming on it. I pieced my way upwards, a fascinating little climb, until I caught up with the ‘obvious’ path’s continuation, little spurts and angles, and lastly a grassy dell below the ridge, holding a big boulder. I fixed my eyes on it from above, memorising the scene for any later descent, and I can see that picture in my mind still. Stirrup Crag was a gorgeous hands and foot scramble, with never more than a couple of yards of rock visible at a time and, like all such things, too short by half. I was now on the roof-tree and it was a simple walk under the brilliant skies to reach the summit. I lived for days like these, stuck in a job I hated. I descended towards the Great Door, remembering our ghosts of nearly thirty years before: only myself and my sister remained. Then down the prow, back along the road and a drive home of pure contentment.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 33 – The Passenger


The Passenger

33: THE PASSENGER (Italian: PROFESSIONE REPORTER): 1975. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Italian (English language). Neo-noir Drama. Jack Nicholson. Maria Schneider. Steven Berkoff. Ian Hendry. Jenny Runacre.
Producer: Carlo Punti. Screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. Music by Ivan Vander. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Edited by Franco Arcalli. Distributor: United Artists. Screen time: 126 minutes. Box office takings: $619,700. Filming was in Algeria, Germany, England, and Spain.
Geoff Andrew, in the Time Out Film Guide, obviously didn’t like Jenny Runacre – oh, come on, was she really that bad? – but he does appreciate this is one of those quiet, unflashy little gems, almost ignored and forgotten in the froth and noise before and since. “Despite the burdensome presence of Runacre in a relatively minor role, this is Antonioni’s finest film for years. With a tense, imaginative script by Peter Wollen (betraying both his interest in structure/structuralism and his past experiences as a political correspondent abroad) that delves in Graham Greene-ish territory, it concerns a TV reporter (Nicholson) who exchanges identity with an acquaintance he finds dead in a North African hotel room, only to find himself hunted not just by mystified wife and friends, but by some rather threatening strangers. At times obscure, the film certainly sags in the middle, while the relationship Nicholson strikes up with Schneider in his bid to escape to a new life seems both a little perfunctory and gratuitous to the central theme. But the film’s opening, charting the burnt-out journalist’s progress through an endless desert, and the final twenty minutes – including a virtuoso seven-minute single take – are stunning.”
Tim Pulleine, in a more general article in Movies of the Seventies, remarks on the links between Antonioni’s earlier, successful, Blow-Up (1966), and the less successful Zabriskie Point of 1970, to finally The Passenger, the last of the three-film contract he had with MGM. Again, as in the previous two films, escape from reality is an illusion. “The locales this time are principally North Africa and Spain, and the framework like that of a mystery thriller. The hero, Locke [Nicholson], is a prominent television figure but a casualty of material success and a man at the end of his tether. Grasping at the chance to start again, he assumes the identity of a man he finds dead in the next room of a shabby hotel in Chad. But this attempted regeneration ultimately proves to be a death sentence: the person he has become is an arms dealer with enemies to spare, and Locke winds up a corpse in another shabby hotel in Algeciras. The extraordinary shot, seven minutes in duration, in which the camera seems to float out of the hotel window and around the little town square outside, serves to encapsulate the impulse behind the entire work, fatalistic yet transcendental…”
Again, I’m not otherwise a fan of Jack Nicholson, but he is very restrained here as a man already losing control of his life, attempting to escape by faking his own death (it was quite a fashionable thing in the 1970s), swapping his identity with that of an unknown stranger, David Robertson. This is not the usual Nicholson – ‘Jack-the-lad’, arrogant, or cocky, or womanizing. Instead, he is a loser, stressed out, his marriage on the rocks, in a much more nuanced role. Both Nicholson and Schneider thought highly of this film – quite rightly. It is a “study of existential alienation”. Initially, I didn’t make the immediate association with Blow-Up, but, in retrospect, the motif is the same – the main protagonist is drained and empty, seeking the futility of escape from a dreary damming reality. But, in the Wollen/Antonioni story, there is no heavy drama. This isn’t the conventional dramatic spy thriller, with shoot-outs and car chases – as some critics seem to have wanted. Even Locke’s assassination is low key, barely more commotion than David Hemming finding the body in Maryon Park. But this is what actually makes this movie so special, rather than just yet another same old, same old. To want an unique piece of film-making to be like everything else out there, is both bizarre and pointless. Blow-Up could have been a detective story with policeman tramping all over Thomas’s studio and Maryon Park. It wasn’t, and more memorable for it. Likewise The Passenger, which is more about the human condition, identity, alienation, and isolation.
Jack Nicholson (born 1937, prominent of that new generation of young, post-studio era actors who came to the fore in the 1960s) played the Anglo-American journalist David Locke, initially attempting – without much success – to contact rebel fighters in Chad. Nicholson’s filmography was from 1958 to 2012. Many of his roles were rather over the top, much like some of his skirt-chasing antics off-screen, with friends like Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, or Hunter S. Thompson. French actress Maria Schneider (1952-2011) played the unnamed Spanish architecture student Locke meets in Barcelona. She was just credited as ‘The Girl’. Born as Maria-Hélène Schneider, she is probably still best known for her role in the 1972 Bertolucci movie Last Tango in Paris, but which left her emotionally traumatised and, thereafter, hounded by unsavoury publicity. She declined any further nude scenes and acquired a reputation for walking out midway through productions. This, perhaps together with her being a strong advocate for improving working conditions for women in the film industry, blighted her career. Her upbringing was chaotic and fractional, with no proper family life, and she became caught up in the drugs culture of the time, with overdoses and even a suicide attempt. She came out as bisexual in 1974 – again something not really that unusual in Hollywood if you look at the infamous (but secretive) ‘sawing circle’ of female luminaries from the 1940s – but, in the then macho, man-dominated world of the time, was still regarded by many as shocking. Her acting career steadied in the 1980s, and when she died – still too young at the age of 58 from breast cancer – she had gained respect and reverence in the French film world and beyond. Looking at her life, two things are apparent. One is that she, and other actress in Europe and America, were often lone voices calling for the end to sexual exploitation of women in the movie industry. Others, like Cybill Shephard and Kathleen Turner, were deemed trouble-makers or ‘awkward to work with’ because of their demands for gender equality and women’s rights. Sadly, fifty years on, in the 2020s, despite the outing of Weinstein and the MeToo movement, this fight is still on-going, with entrenched money and powerful men still determined to stem the revisionist tide flowing against them. The second point was just how introvert and incestuous the film world was – and probably still is. Maria Schneider and Sylvia Kristel, for instance, and a handful of other young, 1960s/70s actresses whose careers were defined by the new sexual freedoms in moving making, moved in the same circles when it came to be considered for film roles. So we see Jenny Agutter, Jenny Runacre, Linda Blair, Ursula Andress, although Kathleen Turner would eventually win control of appearing nude, and being able to review scripts. The English co-scriptwriter of The Passenger, Mark Peploe (born 1943) was actually the brother-in-law to Bernardo Bertolucci, who had conspired with Brando in the sexual degradation of Schneider’s character Jeanne, in Last Tango in Paris.
The rest of the movie’s principle cast are British – Steven Berkoff, playing Stephen; Ian Hendry playing Locke’s friend and television producer at the BBC, Martin Knight; Jenny Runacre playing Locke’s wife, Rachel Locke, at first guilty about cuckolding him, then discovering Robertson’s photograph in Locke’s passport, and realising her husband is still alive, the real Robertson having been buried in his place. The Spanish hotel was said to be in Osuna, but was actually in Vera, a small town (population of less than 16,000 in 2018) between Cartagna and Almeria, just inland from the Mediterranean coast. Nicholson said Antonioni actually built the hotel, facing into the town square. Certainly the window bars of Locke’s ground floor room were hinged to allow the camera to pass through unobstructed in the continuous shot, which was also carried out in the later afternoon, to minimise the lighting contrast between the room interior and the exterior sweep of the square, there being no opportunity to adjust the lens.
I think I probably saw it on late-night television back in the 1980s, when so many films were being broadcast at that time. Apparently, later, following a dispute with MGM, Nicholson acquired the film rights, meaning it never passed to Warner Brothers following their acquisition of the Turner Entertainment archive. Nicholson subsequently kept the film out of circulation until Sony Pictures Classics tempted him with an offer to restore it.

Don’t Write Comics Like This: Roy Thomas’s America versus the Justice Society


Given a free hand, I would remove every comic Roy Thomas ever wrote featuring the Justice Society of America from continuity. I have no doubt whatsoever about his love for the characters of his childhood, and every doubt under the sun about his ability to write a decent story about them.

Ameriva vs JSA 1

For some time now I’ve been obtaining DVD runs of old comics not merely from eBay but from a Scotland-based collector who has provided thousands upon thousands of comics for me to read, enjoy and comment upon, as you’ve been reading. All things must come to an end and, just as I’ve finally reached the end with modern comics, the well of old comics has dried up. Though there are still thousands I could request, I’ve finally come to the end of what I want.
As a final request, I gave way to my private indulgence, my lifelong favourites, the Justice Society of America. If the series I’ve acquired were up to the standard I want, I would not have needed to buy them. Only a handful of the series I requested are comics I read and never kept. And I deliberately excluded Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron and Young All-Stars. Not even completeness could tempt me.
That didn’t stop A from supplying more series than I’d actually requested, as a generous final gesture for which I am grateful. But he did include one mini-series written by Roy Thomas, the 1982 four-issue America vs the Justice Society. I can’t exactly describe it as an absolute nadir in Thomas’ JSA writings, but that’s solely because that title belongs indisputably to his Last Days of the Justice Society of America Special, though the difference is but a hair’s breadth.
So I’ve read it again. And as a public duty, I wish to eviscerate it all over again, in case any of you should discover its availability on Amazon since 2015 and be tempted to spend good money on it.
I reviewed the series once before, in 1986, for the then-prominent fanzine Arkensword, issue 21. I’ve re-read my review and whilst I wouldn’t ever want to reprint it, I was at least pleased to see that I hit every point and didn’t overlook anything way back then.
To give the series it’s context, it appeared pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the JSA were still the heroes of Earth-2, though having emerged just before the Second World War, and indeed owing their origin (first told in 1977 by Paul Levitz) to a secret mission prior to America’s entry to the War. The JSA members are all chronologically in their sixties but physically approximately twenty years younger due to being bathed by chronal energy in a retrospective All-Star Squadron Annual, by Thomas. The adult Robin, Power Girl and The Huntress are members, the original Star-Spangled Kid an honorary member but also the leader and funder of Infinity Inc., comprised of the sons, daughters and godsons of various JSAers. The Earth-2 Batman and Mr Terrific are dead, The Spectre and Black Canary on Earth-1. Now read on.

Ameriva vs JSA 2

The mini-series consisted of four issues but in practical terms five: issue 1 is double-length and breaks down into two chapters, complete with their own splash pages and chapter titles, so either it was originally written for five issues or Thomas overwrote so much, it had to be tinkered about with.
The purpose of the story is for Thomas to tell the complete history of the JSA, with the primary emphasis on the stories in All Star Comics 3 – 57, but incorporating additions by Levitz and especially himself. By itself, a laudable aim, and one that could have been perfectly interesting, especially in an era where access to the original stories was limited to those both rich and lucky. Thomas, however, felt it necessary to load that history down with a comic book adventure. He was inspired as to how to do this by the then current Hitler Diaries, would that he hadn’t been.
So: the JSA, who have been stalwarts of the Law and Justice for forty years, are suddenly accused of having been Nazi sympathisers and Agents during the Second World War, traitors to America by sabotage and having covered this up ever since. As a premise it’s completely unbelievable, but these accusations are lent credence by their source, the late Batman. Yes, Batman left behind his Diaries, which expose the JSA as lifelong traitors to America, proto- and every other kind of Fascists, who only ever attacked the Japanese during the War.
That the Diaries are indeed genuinely those of Bruce Wayne/Batman is verified by Superman so far as the JSA are concerned. How they are verified as such by anyone else is just the first of the plotholes Thomas doesn’t deign to explain.
To develop his story, Thomas adopts the format of a courtroom drama. It’s not an actual trial, just a Congressional Hearing, attended voluntarily by the surviving JSAers of the Forties, to examine the claims and determine if there is sufficient substance for actual charges to be laid. Fortunately for Thomas, the JSA’s ranks include two heroes who are both lawyers in their civilian life, neither of whom are tarred by the accusations and who happen to have the closest relations with the late Batman/Bruce Wayne: Richard (Robin) Grayson and Helena (Huntress) Wayne, ward and daughter respectively.
And Robin is so impressed by and in awe of his late friend and mentor that he serves as Legal Counsel for the Committee, whilst The Huntress is so committed to the JSA’s innocence that she serves as Legal Counsel for the ‘accused’.
That’s not the whole context, not quite. In addition to the question of why the Batman is lying like this, there are naturally undercurrents. There’s a mystery figure behind all this (of course there is, where would we be without a mystery figure behind all this?). There’s a man who hates the JSA and is determined to pillory them: this is John O’Fallon, editor and proprietor of a big Washington newspaper, who’s ripping off J. Jonah Jameson. Mr O’Fallon is the son of former Senator Kieron O’Fallon. Senator O’Fallon is Thomas’ retcon to get the notorious Joe McCarthy off the hook. In the original Paul Levitz story explaining why the JSA retired in 1950, he used an unnamed figure who was clearly meant to be McCarthy, but Thomas decided to have him killed off on Earth-2 and a fictional figure substituted, either to avoid possible defamation issues or because Thomas has always been a lot less liberal than he let on. Senator O’Fallon went on to die in a house fire and his son believes the JSA murdered him.

Ameriva vs JSA 3

Now, I said that Thomas adopts the format of a courtroom drama, but the better word would be ‘borrows’. Borrows because he hasn’t the least intention of following the strictures of a courtroom drama. That’s why it’s a Congressional Hearing not a trial, because you could not get away with the least bit of this shit in a Trial, whereas even before Thomas makes the point of establishing that special informal rules have been agreed, he doesn’t intend to follow any rules at all, because even in a real Congressional Hearing, you could not get away with the least bit of this shit.
Because in essence, what is going to happen is that the JSA, in no particular order, with no particular logic, are going to stand up and talk, whilst those who aren’t talking backchat and grumble at being accused in the first place. As Legal Counsel, Helena Wayne will occasionally say something that, miraculously, sounds like genuine legal advice, but otherwise will make little or no attempt to stop her clients from displaying an open contempt for the Hearing.
As for Legal Counsel to the Committee, Richard Grayson, he will sit there and say nothing whatsoever, legal, pertinent or otherwise. From time to time he’ll bicker outside with Helena, and accuse her of having some oedipal grievance against her father (and she doesn’t even deck him once) but basically he’d better be doing this pro bono because he ain’t worth shit as a Counsel.
Before I go further, may I digress slightly. There’s usually no point in commenting on the art in a Roy Thomas comic, but I do have to draw attention to it. There are actually three pencillers across the four issues: Rafael Kayanan on issue 1, Mike Hernandez on issue 2 and Howard Bender on issue 3, which is unusual in itself, but all four issues are inked by Alfredo Alacala, who I take it to be the primary cause of the series’ appearance. Remember that I said that at this point, the JSA are supposed to be 60ish but have aged slowly into only their 40s? Not one of them looks it. They are lined and wrinkled, Wonder Woman’s hair is half-grey, they look far too old to be active superheroes. Even Richard Grayson looks too haggard to be active. It looks ugly as well as being in direct contradiction of the JSA’s then-continuity.
Back to the plot, such as it is. I have accused Thomas of choosing a format he has no respect for. Worse still, he is completely contemptuous of it. This is not a trial but he keeps insisting it is and then pissing all over anything trial-like. Do the JSA present any evidence? No, but then neither do the Committee, apart from the damned book. The Spectre pops in to threaten to destroy Earth-2 for its temerity. The Wizard gives surprise and ‘damning’ testimony, the value of which being demonstrated by his belief that his full name, William Asmodus Zard, spells out ‘Wizard’, not that anyone picks up on this.

Ameriva vs JSA 4

It’s all hearsay and unsupported evidence, and the actual writing is abysmal, the dialogue being nothing that any human being could actually speak. The only editor who would pass writing like this is Roy Thomas, who edits the series, making you wonder if Jim Shooter didn’t have some justification apart from power-madness for refusing to renew his Writer/Editorship back at Marvel.
Ultimately, because nothing remotely real applies to this series, the JSA are acquitted. No, they’re not because it wasn’t a trial, but yes, they’re acquitted, they said ‘we did all these good things, even the ones you don’t believe for a second because they were too fantastic to be credible’ and the public, not to mention the uninfluenced majority on the committee said ‘Yay, good guys!’ and that was that.
Well, no. We’ve still got to have the rationale for this farrago (rationale? Hah hah hah hah hah!) Why did Batman lie? To cause the JSA to re-examine its history in full. Why? To get them to remember that time-travelling flop Per Degaton? Why? Because he’s tried to conquer the world again except that instead of Professor Zee’s Time Machine taking him into the Past, it’s taken the fatally-wounded Zee into the future, namely today, and now the JSA can stop Degaton again, which will cause him to commit suicide. Why didn’t Batman just point this all out to the JSA? Now that’s a question.
Here is where we need context again. Midway through Paul Levitz’s run as JSA writer in the late-Seventies All-Star Comics revival, he had Batman, or rather Police Commissioner Bruce Wayne, turn against the Justice Society. Roy Thomas uses this as his justification for Batman going through this whole elaborate charade. It’s ironic that Thomas, the great continuity maven, chose this foundation since Levitz very clearly established that Wayne’s paranoia towards the JSA was based solely – and I repeat solely – on having his emotions controlled by the Psycho-Pirate.
So, in order to fit this in, Thomas does a retcon. Not his usual, All-Star Squadron retcon, of adding connective material to fill in gaps, but a direct overturning of existing continuity that is less that five years old, which he also uses to re-write Levitz’s story of Batman’s death. Sure, it was a crappy death story, but Thomas doesn’t remove any of the crappy bits. Instead, he has Batman dying of cancer, which turned his mind against the JSA so that, even though he’s still killed by two utter one-appearance no-marks, he was going to die anyway, and that makes it better.
Don’t ask me how.
No, from start to finish and on every page, this story is a bust, and it has given me great pleasure to descend upon it with knives and teeth and claws and shredding implements. Which is only fair because I didn’t get any other pleasure out of it, not in 1982 or now.

All the Fells: Whiteside


Whiteside – The North Western Fells 2,317′ (48)

Date: 10 September 1986/17 September 1996

From: Lanthwaite Green/ Lanthwaite Green

Though both my ascents of Whiteside were just as the first step in a circuit of Gasgale Gill, it’s still a fine fell in its own right, with a nice, engaging approach along steep ridges, offering an openness that you don’t get on every fell. From Lanthwaite Green, at the base of where Gasgale Gill issues from its long ravine, just ’round the corner’ into the Vale of Lorton, there is ample car parking. The mouth of the Gill is the obvious starting point, and a path breaks off, up the heathery slopes, almost immediately. This makes for the subsidiary summit of Whin Ben, crossing its crest. Except for up the fellside, there are splendid views all round, of Gasgale Gill, of the Loweswater Fells and the Fellbarrow range, which gave me ample excuses for breathers: on a sunny day, the walking was great but it was also draining. But that’s the North Western Fells for you and why I loved them more than anywhere else. You sweat it up steep slopes to get to that first summit, but then you’re up in the air all day, treading narrow ridges, and all the coming down is in one lot at the end. The path from Whin Ben led next to a rock shoulder with a bit of scrambling in its upper section, and from there to the end of the ridge, just a dozen yards short of what Wainwright identifies as the summit of Whiteside. It’s a fine, open top but it’s another of those tops where there’s a higher point further on, the much less satisfying and distinguished East Top, which is actually some forty feet higher. I was going to cross it anyway, so it hardly mattered, on the long and splendid ridge to Hopegill Head, but Wainwright’s choice feels like a summit and the eastern point just feels like a point on a ridge.

The World at War: e02 – Distant War (September 1939 to May 1940)


WAW

We are only at the second episode but already I find myself needing a little breathing space at the end of an episode, time in which to come down, or come back from these appalling times. Time in which the various thoughts that arose watching this early stage to settle, and to make sense.

This episode was entitled ‘Distant War’, but the period it covers is more commonly known, at least in Britain, as the ‘Phoney War’, when Britain was at War, and was very busily, industrially and excitedly preparing for it, but in which nothing was actually happening. What there was of the War was elsewhere, a long way from our shores, of little or no direct effect upon us. Yet even these preliminsary stages were a locking into place of the machinery of War, laying the ground.

Germany invades Poland. At the same time, so too does Soviet Russia, in accordance with their pact. Poland is wiped from the map, not for the first time. Britain, who went to War over the integrity of Poland, does nothing at all to assist its gallant ally, save for taking in refugees.

Instead, there’s an almost feverish unreality to the way things went, the immediate decision to evacuate children out of the cities and away from the bombing raids that were feared but not yet experienced. The footage was real as were the memories of the people involved. I felt the horror of families being sacrificed, children removed from mothers and fathers. It was personal to me because that was my mother’s experience during the War, evacuated from inner city East Manchester to Leek in Staffordshire. An organiser spoke, as feelingly as any could in those days of British stoicism, the justly derided ‘stiff upper lip’, of the effect on the children, the feelings of rejection. A Lord spoke with disgust at the behaviour of some of the ‘evacs’, and behind the class difference you could not but sympathise, and marvel at the thought of children being brought up to behave so filthily.

The wheels ground forward. In Germany they built, manugactured and equiped, as they had already been doing. In Britain we didn’t lift a finger. We had no idea, no clue. We celebrated the Battle of the River Plate, the same one as the Powell/Pressburger film I once reviewed. The details were the same because The Archers stuck to the truth, so there wasn’t the same sense of disconnection between fiction and fact. Winston Churchill, restored to the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty, celebrated and propaganised the victory shamelessly.

Still the War was taking place elsewhere. The Russians invaded Finland, a chilingly contemporary phase. At first the Finns, a smaller but sleeker force, with ideas and tactics, forced them back, just as Ukraine are doing now, until Stalin turned the screw and overwhelmed them with numbers. How far might history repeat itself?

And then the British finally acted. At Churchill’s urging, and after much debate, an attack was planned on Norway, neutral Norway, though which Germany was importing coal and iron. Channels would be mined and a British force landed to attack two significant places on the Norwegian coast. The operation was a disaster. It wasn’t the scale of the defeat but rather the scale of the incompetence. The expedition was so under-equipped, both physically and in terms of coherent planning, that the details seem scarcely imaginable.

Narvik was the catalyst for the end of this phase of the War, for Phoney becaoming real and present. Germany invaded Norway as a consequence, aided by the original quisling, Vidkun Quisling, who would become the country’s puppet Prime Minister and a by-word for treachery and corruption. And in Britain, anger at the management of the War by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain led to heated debate, cross-party anger and a Vote of Confidence won by a margin small enough to act as a defeat. Chamberlain would resign. What mattered now was who he recommended as his successor.

There were two choices: Churchill and Lord Halifax. The terms in which the choice was described were very familiar. Halifax was ‘safe’. He was Chamberlain’s ally, his trusted lieutenant, in short, more of the same. Most analysts expect that he would have sued for peace relatively early on. He had been an appeaser, but he had also pushed for greater action to deter Hitler after ‘Kristallnacht’. Indeed, after Dunkirk, Halifax pushed for seeking peace terms. But he was also a member of the House of Lords, and no-one from that House had been Prime Minister since Lord Salisbury. Churchill, on the other hand, was a gamble. He was an aggressor, given to large gestures that didn’t come off, such as Gallipolli in the Great War, and now Narvik.

In the end, the programme suggested that what turned it was that Halifax didn’t have the stomach for it, literally. He claimed to have had a pain in his stomach an hour before the crucial meeting with Chamberlin and Churchill. It was be officially stated that it was his being a Lord that stood against Halifax but it seems rather that he thought Churchill would do a better job.

The day Churchill was invited to become Prime Minister, Nazi forces invaded Belgium. The ‘Phoney War’, the Distant War, was over.

One final thought. I couldn’t help but notice that this episode played out over a specific phase, from the declaation of War to its real start, giving the episode a dramatic unity that couldn’t help but feel convenient. I couldn’t help but wonder if there had been any element of manipulation of the actual events to produce something so neatly self-contained. I don’t think there was or else it would have been long denounced. But the concern was there in the back of my mind. We shall have to see.

All the Fells: Whiteless Pike


Whiteless Pike

Whiteless Pike – The North Western Fells 2,159′ (89)

Date: 13 September 1988/22 May 1995

From: Buttermere Village/Rannerdale Knotts

Whiteless Pike is one of those minor fells that are nevertheless utterly delightful, compact and bijou as you might say. From a certain point on the Buttermere road, nearing the head of Crummock Water, it appears to be an isolated pyramid but that’s misleading as the dip beyond it, to the ridge leading up to Wandope, is very small. But it’s a lovely walk for a half day when you don’t feel like over-exerting yourself. The approach is from the path leaving Buttermere Village bound for Sail Pass, but turning up the green fellside on a wide grassy trajectory. Early on there’s a choice of three parallel routes, one each to left and right, roundabout and easy, the central one following a semi-rocky crest that’s by far and away the best experience, and free from danger. Above this section I came to the end of the long back of Rannerdale Knotts but by-passed it. Beyond this, I came to the head of Rannerdale itself, a surprising deep and hidden valley. Buttemere was known as the ‘Secret Valley’, but the epithet seemed far more appropriate here. The rest of the walk was an exhilarating narrow ascent, leading directly to Whiteless Pike’s neat top. The path onwards to Wandope attracted me but it was too late to start that now, so I descended the way I’d come, except that I diverted out to Rannerdale Knotts on the way. My return was to take that ridge to Wandope, though Whiteless Pike was just as enjoyable as it had been when it was for the sake of that alone, the only difference being that, as I didn’t really want to descend the way I’d come again, I diverted out to Rannerdale Knotts on the way up this time.