As Father, As Son: Christopher Tolkien, R.I.P.


Thiugh his father’s name will always precede him, so long as people read The Lord of the Rings, Christopher (C.J.R.) Tolkien, who has been announced today as having died aged 95, will enjoy reknown for playing a vital and heroic role in expanding the universe of Myth and Philology that grew from an exercise book and a pencil, in the trenches of the Somme over a hundred years ago.

Christopher, like his siblings, grew up on the stories created by his father, not least of which the one that became The Hobbit. He became cloaest to his father in mind about these stories, drawing several of the earliest Maps, being the recipient of Book 4 in chapters sent out to him on National Service in South Africa in the Second World War, his Literary Executor, and not merely Guardian of the Flame but responsible for the expanson of Middle Earth and its vastest histories into the best possible representation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final thoughts.

All his work, from 1974 onwards, when he began work on producing an acceptable The Silmarillion and then the long decades of The History of Middle Earth, a massive illustration of the evelopment of a writer’s mind, C.J.R. abnegated himself to his father’s creativity, with love, fidelity and a profound respect.

Though not a writer in his own stead, to me he deserves just as much remebrance and thanks for what he did. May he live in Middle-Earth forever.

Crap Journalism


I don’t really care what other people think of the books (or films or television or art) I like. Make an interesting, intelligent, thoughful criticism and I’ll read it, though you’re unlikely to change my mind. Just slag it off, and I’ll shrug and ignore you.

Occasionally, those who slag off need answering, briefly. Take this feature in the Guardian about writer Adam Kay in the Books That Made Me column. Note his comment about Lord of the Rings, which he calls ‘indecipherable nonsense’.

I don’t know who Adam Kay is or what he writes. He’s as entitled to dislike Lord of the Rings as I am to like it and neither of us is right or wrong.

But given the sheer volume of readers it has had, the reams of academic study it has undergone, its translation into film and radio by people with creative abilities, ‘indecipherable nonsense’ is demonstrably one thing it is not and Kay’s description says more about his comprehesion skills than the book itself.

Film 2019: Tolkien


This film is the first of a three-week intermission, between the box-sets I’ve been exploring for so long this year and the dozen or nore single-film DVDs that will form a relatively short Film 2020 season. It’s also by far the most recent film I’ve ever watched on a Sunday morning, straight from sleep, being a 2019 film released in the cinemas only seven months before this writing. I meant to see it then, but Sundays are both the best and the most awkward to visit a cinema, and I never got round to it.

By general consensus, Tolkien, a biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a failure: certainly commercially and to many artistically. Some thought it superb. My own opinion is somewhere between. Large parts of the film were low-key, as any film dealing with the life of a writer is bound to be (scribbling things in a notebook at a bus stop or on a bus is about as exciting as my writing gets), but on the other hand there were scenes near the film’s end that, to me, were deeply emotional.

The film had no assistance from the Tolkien family, as was evidenced by the fact that it only used a few of Tolkien’s words: Earendel was spoken, as was The Hobbit, but I noted that in the captions that closed things off, the film either didn’t want to, or more likely was prevented from specifying that the shared grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith carry the names Beren and Luthien, stating only that words were taken from Tolkien’s private mythology.

So with the caveat that the film was faithful to the course of Tolkien’s life, the details must be taken on trust, what was it like?

In order to create a physically dramatic opening, the film is framed around the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in Flanders. Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is suffering from trench fever but refuses to rest, instead insisting on searching the trenches for his friend Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith. Followed by his batman, Private Hodges (first name Sam, cue gasp of significance) who refuses to leave him, Tolkien’s mind keeps slipping into the past, presenting his life in lengthy flashbacks.

I’m not going to start reciting the details of Tolkien’s life. The flashbacks start from the financially enforced removal of the Tolkien family – mother, Ronald, younger brother Hilary – from the idyllic countryside of Sarehole Mill in Warwickshire to the smoky, black, hideously cramped hellhole of Birmingham (where nobody speaks in a Brummie accent), and continue as far as Tolkien’s enlistment in 1914 before the film’s timeline merges.

Along the way, the story makes a creditable job of depicting Tolkien’s twin fascinations with mythology and language, but it’s at its strongest in the two external passions of his life in this era. One of these is the TCBS, a small society of Tolkien and his three closest friends, the aforementioned Geoffrey, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Through awkward beginnings, the quartet become close friends, brothers, an alliance determined on changing the world, through. Smith is a poet, Gilson a painter, Wiseman a composer. Tolkien’s future is by no means so clear. But these four, in their different characters, embody a meeting pf purpose, all so clever, so vital.

The TCBS isn’t just a fact of Tolkien’s life, they are an emblem. The Edwardian period, from the turning of the century to the advent of the Great War, is often spoken as a kind of Golden afternoon, a society going places that was crushed underfoot by War. For the vast majority it was nothing of the sort but they don’t feature in this story. Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman are a representative of that world and its potential: you know already that it’s going to be smashed, that the dreams and determinations of these privileged, unrealistic but talented young men are going to be buried in the mud of Flanders Fields, but when it comes it’s no less painful to watch Tolkien’s loss than it is for him. Smith and Gilson died on the Somme, Wiseman was broken by the conflict and lost as both a friend and a composer. The irony, which is never once hinted at let alone spelt out, is that it was Tollers, the least-formed of these overgrown boys, who was the only one to fulfil their promise.

The other relationship is, of course, with Miss Edith Bratt. Ronald meets Edith when he and his brother are taken in as foster-children by the wealthy Mrs Faulkner, whose only other foster is Edith, also an orphan, destined for a life of poverty and genteel slavery as Mrs Faulkner’s companion.

Edith is also talented, an excellent piannist but, most importantly, a woman with a mind, independent and passionate. For her, the life ahead is in all senses a prison. She is denied even the freedom to play classical piano, having instead to play ‘cheerful’ sentimental slop.

There are difficulties, both due to inexperience but, most savagely, the decision of Tolkien’s legal guardian to forbid him seeing Edith until he comes of age at 21. Father Francis is concerned about her effect on Tolkien’s studies at Oxford, where he is failing on a number of levels until he finds himself sparked by Professor Wright and transfers to philology.

Tolkien wants their separation to be temporary but Edith sees her hope of escape, her desire for an ordinary life, with hope and happiness, being taken away for good. The TCBS tell Tolkien, with good reason, that it was he who made the choice, not Father Francis, it was not forced on him.

But though Edith becomes engaged to another, Tolkien’s love remains in full force, and on the eve of his embarkation for France, she agrees to meet him and things are righted between them. Stay alive, she tells him, and come back to me (a line from Treebeard’s lament for the Entwives, though I didn’t recognise that until I started writing about the film).

Tolkien survives. Edith has found him in hospital and has never left his bedside until he wakes: Father Francis approves of her. The film, having no more flashbacks to deliver, leaps years, to Oxford, Professorship, marriage, children. Tolkien is still, in one sense, living in the war, though this time his loss is loss of purpose. Edith challenges him to find joy in writing, or else give up completely. This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of a story to be told to the children. We see him write ‘In a hole in the ground lived’ but we only hear him say The Hobbit before we are led out of the story by the captions mentioned above.

All told, Tolkien is a fairly low-key film, respecting the conventions of Tolkien’s generation and its restraint in the portrayal of overt emotion. The film makes a very sensible decision in choosing little-known actors to play its characters, so that we are not distracted by the parts past played by practiced stars. Nicholas Hoult does a decent job of portraying Tolkien, who keeps his feelings in more than we would recognise as good for anyone in our day and age, whilst Lily Collins is a quiet revelation as Edith, across the wider spectrum her femininity allows her to express: in most of their scenes together, it is she not he who is the star.

Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynne-Carney, as Smith, Gilson and Wiseman, all bring different but complementing personalities to the doomed group of friends, and I have to compliment Casting Director Kate Ringsell  for finding actors to play the central cast’s not-all-that younger selves so seamlessly in both looks and performance.

The only two ‘name’ performers are veterans Colm Meaney as Father Francis and Derek Jacobi as Professor Wright, though Lauren Donnelly, who briefly portrays Tolkien’s mother, will count as a name to the followers of the Outlander TV series.

Overall though, how good is this film? It’s about Toliken’s earlier life, formative years, things that influenced him in the kind of writing he produced. I was unfair above in that snarky aside about ‘Sam’ Hodges, because the film deserves credit for not making these things a point for the audience to go ‘Ah-hah!’ except in the privacy of their own minds. Such matters are few. Indeed, apart from the overt displays of Mrs Tolkien acting out Norse myth for her sons, or Tolkien’s own obsessions with the Library, literary foreshadowing is kept to a minimum,  shadows and temporary visions, none of which are either effective, or other than risible, though thankfully brief. Only when Tolkien is witness to the slaughter in No Man’s Land is such a vision alowable, and it’s another mark of the film’s inhibition about using Tolkien’s actual works that his very first entry to the Mythology, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, was begun in the twenties, in 1916, and we are denied even the inference of this.

Ultimately, I come down on the side of the film, not that I have any plans to add it to my library. Who knows though? Lily Collins is certainly worth a 50p Charoty shop DVD, and maybe I’d even go up to a quid…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King


Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers


I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.

 

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring


Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

The Lord of the Rings Redux


The shouting has already begun, and it’s going to go on for a long, long time.

My cards are on the table: I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings since first starting in in 1973, and it has been one of the biggest influences on my reading habits. I have the pretty much complete Tolkien ouevre (this does not include Mr Bliss, The Father Christmas Letters or some of the most recent reconstructions but it does include the entire History of Middle-Earth series in hardback, all First Editions). I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings (first half) the day it came out, despite being on holiday in Wales at the time, I have seen all the Peter Jackson films and I unashamedly like The Hobbit trilogy. And, guess what, last time I looked, not a single page of the book had changed.

No, you can call me a Tolkien fan, and I’m not bothered about what the means to you.

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had secured the rights to do a The Lord of the Rings TV series. It is intended to be ‘multi-season’. And it is not another adaptation of the book: it will tell primarily untold stories from the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The response has, frankly, not been good. This piece of shit… sorry, whimsy and wit from the egregious Stuart Heritage in the Guardian, not to mention the BTL comments, seems to be typical. Condemnation, right out of the gate, assumptions of malign intent, a conviction that before anyone has done more than sign the contracts it will all be shit: well, I could understand it if we were talking about Heritage’s next thousand articles, but the one thing everyone seems to have overlooked in the rush to heaps coals and execrations on the heads of everyone involved is, it hasn’t happened yet. No scripts have been written, no actors auditioned. The Tolkien estate approves of it.

Ok, I’m a fan. I’m naturally well-disposed to the idea. And as has already been pointed out BTL, the life of Aragorn has got a lot of meat in those barely hinted at appendices.

Some things are obvious: this is nakedly a bid for the Game of Thrones market, and whilst it’s clearly arguable that it may have been better to go for a less familiar ‘property’, The Lord of the Rings is very much the kind of story that could achieve GoT levels of success.

And whilst I’ve never watched GoT, I work alongside loads of people who do, and they seem to be impressed.

So, as I tend to think at moments like this, why don’t we just calm down, wait for the thing to be made, and then kick it’s arse if it’s fucking crap. Because, trust me, that’s what I’m going to do if it is fucking crap. Until then, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. And I’m not rushing to judgement.

I’m surprised that I have to point things like this out to people (no, I’m not. Sigh.)

The Hobbit at 80


I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, with absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Baskett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight tickets, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had only the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfully evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, such as at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus where I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, invested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book itself.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of its intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does commend the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had already been developing for twenty years.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogy had to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.

A Birmingham Weekend


After a weekend of summer sunshine and heat, almost to the point of oppressiveness, I woke this morning to the comfortably familiar sound of July rain, falling steadily from a grey sky. It took me back to a weekend away in Birmingham, thirty years ago.

Birmingham sounds like an unusual destination for a weekend away. I don’t like the city, and I don’t like the action, but Lancashire were playing a County Cricket match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and I never minded an opportunity to visit Nostalgia & Comics (from where I acquired my Cerebus no 1, by trading a complete set of the Claremont-Cockrum/Claremont-Byrne X-Men and still got ripped off) and the still much-missed Compendium Books, the best second-hand SF bookshop I’ve ever visited.

In addition to all this, I had a good mate back then who’d not long since moved out of Manchester to train to become an Addiction Counsellor. He was now working in the Midlands and staying at the Nurse’s Home attached to a hospital in North Birmingham. So we set it up that he would give me directions to find the Nurse’s Home from the A34, so I could drop off my overnight bag and he could lend me a Birmingham A-Z, and I’d find my way back there after the cricket.

I made a bright, early start and was at the Nurse’s Home for tennish, picking up the A-Z and my mate and one of his fellow residents, and driving them into the centre of Birmingham.

Compendium and N&C were handily close together, a walk of less than ten minutes. There can’t have been much in there to interest me because I ended up splashing out on the new Tolkien History of Middle Earth, edited by his son, Volume 5, The Lost Road and other writings, which was something like £20 even then. I tucked it into my shoulder bag and drove on to Edgbaston.

I visited that ground a handful of times in the Eighties, in the first occasion to watch the Saturday of the Third Test against the West Indies, and then a couple of times with Lancashire. Cricket grounds have their own feel and appeal. Old Trafford I love, of course, and despite its several flaws, and I’m not even including the preponderance of Yorkshiremen about, I have always liked Headingley. Trent Bridge has always been a delight, but Lords leaves me cold, too much smugness in the air. Edgbaston is a small, oddly mis-matched ground, no two parts of which look alike and I’m not keen on it.

It was a typical, relaxed cricket day for me, kicked back in the stand, idly diverting my attention between the cricket and my new book, with a bit more time for the latter than I’d really wanted when the rain came over in the mid-afternoon, and the infamous ‘Brumbrella’ was winched out.

This was a unique extended tarpaulin that in the event of rain could be winched out to cover the entire playing field, except for one awkwardly-angled corner. It stretched out prophylactically and I eased back and read.

For a time, I got talking to a couple of home supporters, about their ground, and ours. They were pleasingly loyal to Edgbaston, well aware of its flaws, but content with it because it was theirs, as they should be. They eventually left, but I stayed because I’d travelled all this way to be here, and I had nothing else to do, and I was content to read and absorb the atmosphere. If I have to be somewhere when it rains, a cricket ground is a very pleasant place to be.

By the time play resumed, the ground was virtually empty. I wandered round, looking at the pitch from different angles. In one corner, opposite the Pavilion End, was a high-banked stand and I was at the top of that when Graeme Fowler struck a perfect flat cover drive, straight to the fence below me. It was one of those shots, all along the ground, where the ball hits the fence before the sound of the shot leaves your ears, and the fielders didn’t move because there was not enough time for them to move.

By close of play, the evening had become sunny and dry, and the sky and the air was a rich, warm gold. It was perfect weather for driving in, looking at what was around me, exploring a strange place. If I couldn’t be in the Lake District, at least I was somewhere I didn’t know, and I decided impulsively that, instead of using the A-Z to plot a course back to the Nurse’s Home, I would just point the car in its general direction and set off.

It didn’t take me very long to have no idea where I was or where I was going. In other circumstances, this would have qualified as being lost, but this was practically the purpose of everything. I found myself heading out of the city towards the south west and the M5 and curving back in again. At one point, I found myself driving along Handsworth main street. It was a slow, straight drive, full of people on both sides, and not a white face to be seen.

This was a new experience. I wasn’t disturbed, or angry, or threatened, or resentful, or anything. I was merely curious as to how far I could go without seeing another white face. It must have been at least a mile, of continuous crowds.

I left Handsworth behind me and motored on, still relishing the driving conditions. This couldn’t last forever and, after something not far short of two hours of wandering, I reluctantly decided that I couldn’t carry on like this forever. I looked for a quiet place where I could pull up, out of the way, find myself in the A-Z, and work out the route home.

There was a turn up ahead. I pulled round to the left, started to slow down, and then burst out laughing. I recognised this road. I had driven down it this morning. The hospital was about a quarter mile down the road, at the bottom. All that driving around, amusing myself, had ended with me getting where I wanted to be, as if by dead reckoning!

We didn’t do anything that evening. I remember sitting around in a bit of a group, including five or six of the nurses, and chatting. One of them in particular I remember, because although she wasn’t the prettiest, and she said very little, a couple of years my mate married her, and they had three children.

We didn’t sit up too late, and I went off to my room and went to bed.

In the morning, I woke about sevenish to the sound of rain. Steady, heavy, unceasing rain. I lay in bed, listening to it for some time before going and looking out of the window. It was falling unchangingly, into the trees dotted around the gardens. There were no gusts, no winds, no bursts, just a long hard fall, and the sound of it was a constant bass note drumming outside the window.

We had no plans, and I didn’t know where my mate’s room was, so after a while I dressed and lay on the bed, reading Tolkien and listening to the rain. It went on and on, for hours, without changing. It must have been after midday before there was a knock on my door.

The rain meant there was nothing to do, so after a drink, and a bit of lunch, I was going to make a dart for it. very few people were about, just one of the nurses that hadn’t been with us last night, and we invited her to join us.

I was working full-time as a Solicitor then, and relatively flush with cash, and thus quite happy to buy a round of drinks, especially as the young lady was quite pretty (not that I had any hopes, let alone expectations). My mate warned me against it: the nurses were badly paid even that far back, and didn’t tend to accept rounds as they couldn’t buy them themselves, and had their pride.

We stayed an hour at the pub. It was still raining, now at least six hours, without any variation in its intensity. I wondered whether there’d be any effect on the drive north, but I got home without incident, taking things slowly and easily. The rain was calming and stilling, the driving easy.

It seemed that the rain was a purely local phenomenon. In London, at Lords, the MCC Bicentennial match, and a Rest of the World XI, had gone on uninterrupted, and the BBC News had an item from the game that I watched with interest, apparently an amazing run out. Given that this was the famous instance where Roger Harper ran out Graham Gooch, it was actually deserving of mention as a news item, and when it came up on screen, I was in awe and disbelief.

Harper was a West Indian cricketer, 6′ 6″ tall, whip-thin and one of the most athletic and agile fielders the world has ever seen. Unusually, he bowled offspin, approaching from the left at an acute angle, almost hopping into the crease and delivering the in an astonishing arc that saw it come out of virtually the small of his back and over his head. After releasing the ball, Harper fell away, quickly, to the left.

Gooch was well-set, with over 120 runs under his belt. He came down the wicket to the ball, played a crisp ground shot, with forceful pace to the right of the bowler’s wicket, his momentum taking him about two yards out of his ground. In ordinary circumstances, the shot would have flashed past the stumps and raced to the fence, with no fielders in position to intercept it. Gooch was already slowing down, secure in another boundary. Except.

Except that Harper spun out of his movement left, shot across right, bending double, his right hand trailing the ground, taking the hard-hit ball in his palm, lifting it up to his shoulder in a single flowing movement and hurling it back down the pitch towards Gooch’s stumps. Gooch, seeing this, knowing he had no chance to get back, was turning as if to throw himself back, diving into the path of the throw, but it was two fast for him and he was still turning when Harper’s throw flashed past him and hit the stumps.

It was an unbelievable moment. If I’d been at Lords to see it, in real time, it would have been like the time, six years later, when I saw Shane Warne bowl THAT ball: it would have been two fast, too furious to comprehend, and I would have needed to go home to watch the TV replay, to understand what I had seen.

And that was my weekend in Birmingham, when it rained for hours unbrokenly, like the rain with which I began this morning, summer rain in the best British fashion, going about its business unfussily, just pouring it all down.