Boldly going where no chap has gone before

 

© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers

 

The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968).  Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.

 

As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms.  In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’  There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’

 

However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all.  A woman.

 

Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist.  In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth.  In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’

 

But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more.  He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman.  She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary.  But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains.  “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks.  “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.”  I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure.  Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up.  “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”

 

After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories.  Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.”  In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while.  It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick.  It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.

 

So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way.  It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club.  As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities.  Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.”  And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.

 

However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable.  Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development.  Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.

 

A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures.  By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.

 

And the title story is rather wonderful.  Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it.  In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth.  The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation.  As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young…  If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait…  I do not think we will have to wait for long.”

 

By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose.  Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.

 

Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion.  Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!.  (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes.  They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”)  It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other.  This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019.  For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”

 

Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.

 

Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.

 

To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, James Moran, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Du Maurier, du merrier

 

© Penguin

 

One nice thing that’s happened to me in the past year or so has been my discovery of how good a writer Daphne du Maurier was.  I’d long been aware of her novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971), but before 2018 The Birds had been the only thing by her that I’d read.

 

Then, two Christmases ago, my partner gave me a collection of her short fiction that had Don’t Look Now as its title story and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I didn’t think the fictional Don’t Look Now was quite as good as the famous film that it inspired in 1973 – by a sad coincidence, the film’s director, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg, died soon after I finished the story – but I thought some of the other things in the collection, like A Border Line Case and The Way of the Cross, were crackers.  Now I’ve just completed another book of her short stories called The Blue Lenses and Other Stories, which was originally published in 1959 as The Breaking Point.  I’m happy to report that the tales in it are every bit as satisfying.

 

Much of the Don’t Look Now collection had a common theme, that of English people travelling abroad and having problems – by turns humorous, serious and horrible – as they leave their comfort zones and encounter the new and the strange.  This theme reappears in a couple of stories in The Blue LensesGanymede even uses the basic scenario of Don’t Look Now itself, i.e. an English visitor coming unstuck in Venice.  However, the tale isn’t a macabre one but a painful comedy of errors.  An older gay Englishman lusts after a teenage Venetian waiter and gets his comeuppance from the lad’s shady relatives, who happily lead him on whilst milking him of his money.  Ganymede has a few uncomfortable moments where you wonder if it’s being anti-gay or, alternatively, anti-Italian.  But du Maurier – herself believed to have had a lesbian relationship with Gertrude Lawrence – gets away with it, balancing our sympathy for the pathetically naïve Englishman with our satisfaction at him getting his just deserts from the Italians.  (For all his pitifulness, he is still a predator.)

 

The Chamois has an English couple travelling to some far-flung Greek mountains because the man, obsessed with hunting the goat-antelopes of the title, has been tipped off about the sighting of a notable and shootable specimen there.  To get to the peaks that are its territory, they entrust themselves to the care of a goatherd-cum-mountain-guide with a primordial appearance.  The woman, narrating the story, describes him as “wrapped in his hooded burnous, leaning upon his crook…” with “the strangest eyes…  Golden brown in colour…”  There follows a series of psychological revelations about the couple – the man hunts to make up for inadequacies in his psyche and the woman, shall we say, is simultaneously turned off and turned on by his hobby.  And a weird, almost mythical narrative unfolds wherein they find it harder and harder to distinguish between the beast they’re seeking and the man-beast who’s escorting them.

 

Similar weirdness occurs in the stories The Pool and The Lordly Ones – the former about a pubescent girl staying at her grandparents’ country house and experiencing strange dreams involving a pond in the woods beyond the garden, the latter about a misunderstood mute child who runs off with some unidentified ‘beings’ who come in the night while he and his family are holidaying on a remote moor.  Both contain dashes of W.B Yeats-style mysticism and Arthur Machen-style folk horror and are among the best stories in the book, even if in The Lordly Ones I saw the ending coming a mile away.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

The remaining stories are admirably varied.  The Menace is a comedy with a slight science-fictional element, about a movie star called Barry Jeans who sets hearts aflutter by communicating as few words and expressing as little emotion as possible onscreen.  Offscreen he’s not much more vocal or expressive and listlessly leaves all decisions to his bossy wife and his sizeable entourage of hangers-on.  Then some new technology ushers in ‘the feelies’, which promise to be as game-changing for the film industry as the arrival of ‘the talkies’.  In the feelies, film stars are wired to a machine that transmits their sexual energy – what Austen Powers would call their ‘mojo’ – to the audiences watching them in the cinemas.  Barry’s entourage are horrified when preliminary tests suggest that the inscrutable star’s mojo is almost non-existent and so they embark on a drastic campaign to pep that mojo up.  The Menace sees du Maurier taking the mickey out of Hollywood and I suspect it might have been inspired by some less-than-edifying experiences with the place – for example, she was sued for breach of copyright after Rebecca was made into a film in 1939.

 

The Alibi is the collection’s most twisted tale, about a well-to-do and respectable man who one day seemingly flips: “He was aware of a sense of power within.  He was in control.  He was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling.”  He walks away from the routines, conventions and obligations of his upper-middle-class existence, invents a new identity for himself and secretly rents a room in a seedy part of London.  Initially, he plans to commit murder – but his Nietzschean madness subsides somewhat and instead he starts living a parallel life as an aspiring artist, using the room as his studio.  But his project gets knocked for six when the story reaches an unexpected and nasty conclusion.

 

Different again is The Archduchess, an exercise in magical realism.  It describes the final days of a ruling dynasty in a Ruritanian microstate called Ronda, somewhere in southern Europe, which has discovered the secret of immortality.  It’s difficult to know where du Maurier’s sympathies lie here.  Is she writing in favour of the dynasty and, by extension, of aristocracies and the status quo everywhere?  Or is she satirising it?  One thing I will say – her account of a devious revolutionary named Markoi, who edits Ronda’s main newspaper and uses it to seed the minds of the population with doubts, suspicions and eventual paranoia, so as to engineer the downfall of the ruling order, strikes a chord today.  Markoi seems all too familiar in a modern world of fake news, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped propel Donald Trump into the American presidency and, in Britain, the Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph has just achieved a similar feat with Boris Johnson.

 

Finally there’s the title story, The Blue Lenses, which I found rather terrifying.  Its set-up is a familiar one, about a woman in a hospital recovering from an eye operation who discovers that things suddenly aren’t as they’re supposed to be.  But unlike the hero in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), who removes the bandages from his eyes and finds that the world really has gone to hell, the nightmare experienced by the heroine of The Blue Lenses is ambiguous.  The surreal, if not grotesque things that she sees have a subjective quality and you wonder about her sanity.  What makes the story more effective is her decision to pretend to the hospital staff around her that nothing is amiss, while she tries to figure out what’s happening.  Her desperate efforts to stay composed heighten the horror of the situation.

 

As a collection, The Blue Lenses and Other Stories ticks off the checklist of things I want to find in a book of short fiction: clear, lucid prose; plenty of incident; a variety of tones and genres; and an obvious commitment at all times to telling an entertaining yarn.  It’s another package of du Maurier marvelousness.

 

A guy called Gerald

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too.  I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891.  When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’  But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today?  I doubt it.

 

In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.

 

To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died.  A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But his work had apparently vanished without trace.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.

 

However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.

 

It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write.  Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna.  Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob.  Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue.  Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me.  The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.

 

© Valancourt Books

 

It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End.  Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow.  Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career.  The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.

 

What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline.  Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance.  But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed.  Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages.  I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.

 

Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot.  He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of.  Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay.  Six hundred thirty is suicide.  Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it.  Discourage ‘em.  Threaten to tell their teacher.  Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”

 

I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman.  But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II.  Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass.  If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.

 

For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up.  Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters.  As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.”  His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity.  “The depths!  I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims.  “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?”  To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”

 

Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences.  And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).

 

© Valancourt Books

 

Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style.  Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster.  Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.

 

Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.

 

Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls.  It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries.  The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.

 

While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated.  He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period.  Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.

 

The importance of being Ernst

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(c) Eon Productions
(c) Eon Productions

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Details of the forthcoming 25th official James Bond movie were announced via a media rollout on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on April 25th, 2019.  This came after a series of delays, script rewrites and changes of director that, depending on your point of view, is a sign that the long-running James Bond franchise is in trouble or is just part-and-parcel of the cumbersome business of getting a Bond epic to the screen.  Anyway, two important questions remain unanswered.  Firstly, what is the new Bond movie actually going to be called?  And secondly, will Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his long-awaited comeback in the previous instalment Spectre (2015), return for this new one? 

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It’s been reported that Christoph Waltz, who played Blofeld in Spectre, won’t be in the new film.  However, previous films and the Ian Fleming books that inspired them have depicted Blofeld as someone with a penchant for radically altering his appearance.  So it’s still possible that he’ll be back in Bond 25, played by a different actor – perhaps Rami Malik, who’s been unveiled as the film’s main ‘villain’.

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Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-intelligent and super-nasty leader of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion organisation (SPECTRE for short), is a paradoxical figure.  On one hand, in popular consciousness, he’s as much a part of Bond tradition as Q’s gadgets, shaken-not-stirred dry martinis and the Aston Martin DB5.  Mention of him conjures up images of a sinister foreigner sporting a shaven head, wearing a white Mao-suit, stroking a white cat and feeding minions to piranha fish when they fail to carry out his orders.  It’s no surprise that when Mike Myers lovingly spoofed the Bond movies with his Austen Powers ones (1997-2002), he made sure he spoofed Blofeld too with the character of the bald-headed, Mao-suit-wearing, cat-stroking, piranha-feeding Dr Evil.

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But on the other hand, Blofeld isn’t really in the Bond books and movies that much.  He appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond novels and short-story collections, and in one of those, 1961’s Thunderball, Bond and Blofeld never meet – Bond spends the novel tangling with Blofeld’s lieutenant, Emilio Largo.  Meanwhile, Blofeld is featured in seven of the 24 Bond movies made over the past six decades by Eon Productions, but makes only fleeting appearances in three of them.  And three of the four films where Blofeld is a substantial character were made during the first decade of the franchise.  Before Waltz stepped into Blofeld’s shoes in Spectre, we’d hardly seen anything of the old rogue since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever

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(Still, in terms of presence in popular mythology versus lack-of-presence in the original source material, Blofeld has nothing on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, who doesn’t figure in 58 of the 60 Holmes stories.  He only properly appears in one story and lurks offstage in one other.)

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Thunderball, the novel in which Blofeld made his debut, was really a collaborative effort.  It was written by Fleming but based on a script he’d put together with Irish writer-director Kevin McClory and British playwright and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for a Bond film in the late 1950s.  The film came to nothing and Fleming’s publication of the novel a few years later resulted in legal action from McClory and Whittingham.  Although who came up with which ideas in Thunderball has been a matter of dispute, I’m inclined to believe Blofeld was the product of Fleming’s imagination rather than McClory or Whittingham’s.  For one thing, Fleming had attended Eton in the company of one Thomas Blofeld and he probably borrowed his old schoolmate’s surname for the character.  (This real Blofeld was the father of the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.)  

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Meanwhile, Blofeld’s Wikipedia entry suggests that Fleming took inspiration for his personality from the infamous Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.  After escapades in his youth as a confidence man, bigamist, possible arsonist, dodgy goods exporter and general manipulator and social climber, Zaharoff came to specialise in selling weaponry – weaponry that sometimes didn’t work, as with the Nordenfelt 1 submarine that he flogged off to Greece, Turkey and Russia.  Zaharoff also had no qualms about supplying arms to countries that were fighting on either side of a conflict, which is a very Blofeld-ish thing to do.

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Over the course of three novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) – Blofeld is quite a shapeshifter.  In Thunderball, he’s a whale of a man, some 20 stones in weight.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s slimmed down to 12 stones, wears green-tinted contact lenses and, disconcertingly, has a syphilitic gumma on his nose.  And in You Only Live Twice, he’s bulked out again, though with muscle rather than fat.  His mouth flashes a gold-capped tooth and his nose has been fixed. 

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More interesting, though, is how Fleming charts Blofeld’s mental development (or degeneration).  The Blofeld of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has succumbed to that most bourgeois of diseases, snobbery, and is pestering the College of Arms in London to acknowledge him as a reigning aristocrat, the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville.   (A genealogy expert tells Bond how respectable people lose all dignity when they’re angling for a title or a coat of arms: “they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”)  By You Only Live Twice, Blofeld’s state-of-mind has gone from snobbery to insanity.  He lives in a castle on the Japanese island of Kyushu and has installed a bizarre ‘garden of death’, teeming with deadly flora and fauna and riddled with sulphurous fumaroles, which has become a popular visiting spot for people wanting to commit suicide.  To be fair, by this point Bond isn’t much saner than Blofeld, due to Blofeld having murdered his wife Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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(c) Eon Productions

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The films, in tune with the escapist mood of the 1960s, were happy to use Blofeld and SPECTRE as their fantasy baddies from the start – unlike the earliest novels, which were set in the Cold War and had the Russians providing the villainy.  Blofeld makes his first appearance in 1963’s From Russia with Love.  “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one!” he decrees of Bond.  However, he has only a minor role and remains hidden within a large chair, and we only see his hands stroking the glossy white fur of a Persian cat.  (The white cat was a detail added by the filmmakers, although in Fleming’s books Auric Goldfinger did own a ginger cat – a rather unfortunate one, for he ends up being given as dinner to Goldfinger’s sidekick, Oddjob.)  Blofeld was played physically by the Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, while his mellifluous voice was supplied by the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.  Two years later, Dawson and Pohlmann reteamed to play Blofeld bodily and vocally in the film version of Thunderball, but again it was a minor, away-from-the-action role. 

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It wasn’t until the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice – which confusingly preceded the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), even though they appeared the other way around as books – that we get to see Blofeld’s face for the first time, as does Bond.  And he’s played by the sublimely sinister Donald Pleasence with all the classic Blofeld accoutrements (bald head, Mao-suit, cat, piranhas).  Interestingly, though, as soon as the filmmakers had created the definite Blofeld template with the goblin-like Pleasence, they immediately chose not to continue with that version of the character.  For when Blofeld reappears in 1968 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s played very differently by the celebrated Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

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(c) Eon Productions

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Savalas’s Blofeld is physical, macho and, when we see him flirting with heroine Diana Rigg, brutishly charming.  To be honest, he’s a shade too physical and macho for the role and you can’t help feeling he’d have made a better henchman than the Big Villain.  But Savalas is certainly believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the creepy, pop-eyed English character actor hurtling down a mountainside on a bobsleigh.

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Incidentally, when Bond and Blofeld meet up in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  Despite coming face-to-face at the climax of You Only Live Twice, in the new film Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  (Admittedly, Bond does look different all of a sudden because producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman had just replaced Sean Connery with George Lazenby, but let’s not go into that.) 

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Like its literary equivalent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Blofeld murdering Bond’s wife Tracey.  As Blofeld also features in the next Bond movie, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, you’d expect it to be a tough and intense affair.  But Diamonds are Forever is nothing of the sort.  Sean Connery (enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship) is given five minutes at the beginning to look vengeful and that’s it.  Then the film becomes the epitome of cinematic Bond laziness, its plot meandering nonsensically from one action set-piece to another, its visuals packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  No doubt this was because the melancholic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t been a big success and producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to play it safe and return to a formula that audiences were comfortable with. 

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Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever is played acerbically and amusingly by English character actor Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser gun mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”  Indeed, Gray and the bemused, past-caring Connery make quite the double act.  “What do you intend to do with those diamonds?” demands Bond at one point.  Blofeld retorts, “An excellent question, and one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon.  If I were to break the news to anyone, it would be to you first, Mr Bond.  You know that.”

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(c) Eon Productions

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Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond film for a long time in which Blofeld (and SPECTRE) are prominent.  This was due to ongoing legal issues with Kevin McClory, which stemmed from the controversy over the novel and original film script of Thunderball.  However, a villain who’s obviously Blofeld – though he isn’t named for the aforementioned legal reasons – does turn up at the beginning of the fifth Bond movie starring Roger Moore, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  He’s bald, has a white cat, is now in a wheelchair and neck-brace and, returning to the policy of From Russia with Love and Thunderball, he’s physically played by one actor, John Hollis, and voiced by another, Robert Rietti.  In the film’s pre-credits sequence, Blofeld traps Bond above London in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Alas, what begins as an exciting action set-piece descends into typical Moore-era silliness when Bond gains manual control of the helicopter, and somehow scoops Blofeld and his wheelchair up on one of the helicopter’s landing skids, and drops him into a factory chimney. 

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Having won the right to remake Thunderball, Kevin McClory did so in 1983.  His production company brought out Never Say Never Again, a rogue Bond film unconnected with the Eon series – although it did have Sean Connery, no doubt keen to thumb his nose at his former employers, reprising the role of Bond.  Since McClory had the rights to Blofeld too, it was inevitable that Bond’s old nemesis should feature in the plot. This time he’s played by the mighty Swedish actor Max von Sydow but, like in the original Thunderball, he doesn’t have much to do.  Now I admire von Sydow, but all I remember about him in this film is my surprise at seeing Blofeld with a beard and in a grey business suit.  And from the way von Sydow clutches the little fellow to his chest, this Blofeld really loves his white cat.

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(c) Taliafilm / Warner Bros.

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In 2013 the legal row was finally settled with Kevin McClory’s estate and Eon Productions were free to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again – and they did in their very next film, the emphatically titled Spectre.  In the role of the 21st century Blofeld is Christoph Waltz, who plays him as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike most Blofelds of old, he sports a full head of hair and commits crimes against fashion as well as against humanity by wearing his loafers without socks.  But he still has the cat. 

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The new Blofeld also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser, and we learn eventually that he’s connected to Bond through his father, Hannes Oberhauser, who brought up the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  This backstory involving Blofeld and Bond brought hoots of derision from many movie critics, though I didn’t have much of a problem with it – the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in Ian Fleming’s original, literary Bond-universe and Bond talked about him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  It’s just unfortunate that the third Austen Powers film, Goldmember (2002), has a similar revelation linking Powers and Dr Evil.

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And so the million-dollar question now is, with Waltz seemingly departed, will Rami Malik be playing yet another incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Bond 25?  And if so, what will the latest Blofeld be like?  One thing I’m fairly sure about, though.  If Blofeld is returning, I reckon the theatrical agent of a certain fluffy, white Persian will be getting a telephone call very soon.     

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(c) Eon Productions

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It’s gone all J.G.

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(c) Fay Godwin / The Paris Review

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It’s on record that the visionary writer James Graham Ballard, known to his readers as ‘J.G.’, succumbed to prostate cancer and ceased to be a presence in our universe on April 19th, 2009 – exactly ten years ago today. 

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However, the past decade has been so baroquely and surreally insane that at times I’ve had a troubling thought.  Ten years ago, did Ballard cease to exist in the universe or did something like the reverse happen?  Did the universe stop existing as a physical entity at that moment and, since then, has it continued only as a figment of J.G. Ballard’s imagination?  Could we be living now as ghosts in Ballard’s fiction without realising it?

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Some recent trends have suggested this is not simply a crazy hypothesis on my part.  The fact that people are finally talking seriously about the dire threat to human civilisation posed by global warming – talking seriously but, alas, still doing very little about it – makes me think of Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World (where climate change has jacked up the temperatures, melted the ice caps, inundated London with water and turned the city into a balmy and hallucinogenic landscape of lagoons and tropical flora and fauna); or the following year’s novel with the self-explanatory title The Drought; or his 1961 short story Deep End (where ‘oxygen mining’ has drained the oceans and a few remaining humans skulk around their dried-out beds at night-time, when the heat and radiation levels aren’t as lethal as they are in the daytime). 

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Meanwhile, our ever-spiralling-out-of-control and ecologically suicidal dependency on the internal combustion engine, and all the social maladies that go with it, such as road rage, make me think of 1973’s Crash – the initial manuscript of which caused one publisher’s reader to splutter, “This author is beyond psychiatric help.”  Whereas the increasing fragmentation of society through the proliferation of social media platforms and devices brings to mind Ballard’s short story The Intensive Care Unit, which turned up in the 1982 collection Myths of the Near Future and contained the prophetic line, “All interaction is mediated through personal cameras and TV screens.”  And the tendency among the elite to shut themselves off in gated communities, where they not only relax, play and sleep but also, increasingly, work, evokes such novels as 1975’s High Rise and 2000’s Super-Cannes – where in both cases the set-up memorably ends in tears.

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More generally, spending a few minutes channel-surfing through TV’s 24/7 news outlets is enough to make you feel you’re inhabiting Ballard’s experimental, narrative-less collage of ‘condensed novels’, 1970’s aptly-titled The Atrocity Exhibition.  And the sorry state of Trump-era America reminds me of his 1981 novel Hello America, which has an ecologically devastated USA run by someone calling himself ‘President Charles Manson’.

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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And as I witness the madness of Brexit, facilitated by a cadre of rich, privately-educated posh-boys like Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, I can think of half-a-dozen Ballard stories that have rich, privately-educated Britishers losing their marbles, becoming deranged and embracing chaos and catastrophe. 

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Occasionally, the thought that we could be living unawares in a giant virtual-reality system dreamed into existence by J.G. Ballard strikes me on a personal level.  For example, while I was living in Tunisia just after the 2011 revolution and the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, I arranged one afternoon to meet up with friends in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friends hadn’t appeared yet when I got off at the TCM station, next door to Carthage’s branch of the French supermarket-chain Monoprix.  So I waited there and passed the time by reading a few pages of Ballard’s final novel, 2006’s Kingdom Come.  It took me a minute to notice that the Monoprix was closed.  And not just closed.  During the revolution, it’d been trashed and looted and left a razed shell.  Its ruins looked sinisterly incongruous in the middle of this plush neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine plants.  And what was Kingdom Come about?  A community succumbing to dystopian chaos thanks to the arrival of a fancy new shopping centre.

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Ballard’s writing is famous nowadays for not being influenced so much by other writing (except perhaps for that of William S. Burroughs) as by visual forces like surrealism and Dadaism and the ‘media landscape’ of modern-day advertising and consumerism.  But I have to say I find him a very traditional author in some ways.  Reality may be crumbling around the edges of his scenarios, but at the same time he shows an admirable commitment to telling a gripping, old-fashioned yarn.  Stiff-upper-lipped British types – rather emotionally-repressed, able only to address each other by their surnames as if they were still back at boarding school – have adventures in exotic locales while they try to do the right thing, though as some hallucinogenic apocalypse unfolds and madness leaks into their thought processes, they invariably end up doing the wrong thing. 

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Ballard’s work calls to mind – my mind, anyway – the work of another storyteller not adverse to spicing his highbrow themes with derring-do and intrigue, Graham Greene.  Indeed, I’ve sometimes thought of Greene as a mirror image of Ballard.  That’s with Greene in the real world, though, posing before a fairground mirror and with Ballard as his warped, twisted reflection.  (While Greene’s characters are usually tortured by Catholicism, Ballard’s usually have to contend with creeping and finally overwhelming psychosis.) 

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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And besides Greene, another literary influence on Ballard is surely Joseph Conrad.  I wouldn’t say Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) lurks in the DNA of every Ballard story, but a good many of them feature darkness of some form and, yes, a character who feels duty-bound to journey into the heart of it.  When I was in my mid-teens, the first book by Ballard I ever read was his short-story collection The Terminal Beach (1964) and its opening story, A Question of Re-entry, begins with these deliciously Conradian lines: “All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by two o’clock had covered some 75 miles…  Now and then the channel would widen into a flat expanse of what appeared to be stationary water, the slow oily swells which disturbed its surface transforming it into a sluggish mirror of the distant, enigmatic sky, the islands of rotten balsa logs refracted by the layers of haze like the drifting archipelagos of a dream.  Then the channel would narrow again and the cooling jungle darkness enveloped the launch.” 

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And from that moment on, I was, as they say, hooked.

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Now, nearly 40 years later, I still haven’t quite read all of Ballard’s works.  For the record, though, here are my favourite things among what I have read.  Among his novels, The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise, Hello America, Empire of the Sun (1984) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). 

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Good though his novels are, I think his short fiction is even better.  Picking a favourite dozen from his short stories is a near-impossible task, but I’ll have a go.  Off the top of my head, I would nominate A Question of Re-entry, Deep End, The Illuminated Man – later expanded into the 1966 novel The Crystal World – and The Drowned Giant from The Terminal Beach; Chronopolis, The Garden of Time and The Watch Towers from the collection The 4-Dimensional Nightmare (1963); Concentration City and Now Wakes the Sea from The Disaster Area (1967); The Smile from Myths of the Near Future; and The Enormous Space and The Air Disaster from War Fever (1990).

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Meanwhile, of his 19 novels, I have yet to read 1961’s The Wind from Nowhere, 1988’s Running Wild and 1996’s Cocaine Nights.  And there’s at least one of his short story collections, 1976’s Low-Flying Aircraft, that I haven’t read either.  Which is good.  I might be an old git now, but I’m glad that reading some new stuff by J.G. Ballard is still one of the things I can look forward to in life.

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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McEwan gets a doin’

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(c) Penguin

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Earlier this week I was burning the proverbial midnight oil writing a new blog-post about a recent visit I’d made to the National Museum of Scotland, where I’d seen an exhibition with the self-explanatory title Robots.  It was a coincidence, then, when I decided to take a break from my labours, surfed a bit on the Internet and found myself reading a Observer interview with author Ian McEwan, talking about his new novel Machines Like Me: which is about robots too.  And about the general implications that come with the existence of artificial intelligence, and the troubling fact that, in McEwan’s words, humanity is “in the process of handing over responsibility for safety, but also for ethical decisions, to machines.”

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Then, half-a-dozen paragraphs into the interview, I read an assertion by the interviewer, Tim Adams, and some more comments by McEwan, which made my jaw drop.  “McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’”

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What? I thought.  Oh, come on

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I also thought: f**k off!

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I know from reading other interviews with McEwan that he’s no fan of science fiction and thus he’s unlikely to have read the very long list of sci-fi stories that do indeed deal with whether a machine that ‘seems like a human’ has ‘responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’  These include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), Harlan Ellison’s I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Arthur C. Clarke’s literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dozens, if not hundreds of other things going back to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s (later collected as 1950’s I, Robot) and probably before that too.  But I thought McEwan would have vegged out on the sofa in front of the TV at least once or twice and let himself watch a classic science fiction movie dealing with the topic, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on the afore-mentioned Philip K. Dick novel, or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – so that he would have some awareness that writing about this theme is not some startlingly original idea on his part but one that has a long, long pedigree in science fiction.

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(c)Film 4/DNA Films/Universal Pictures

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Predictably, twitter was soon busy with science fiction enthusiasts pouring scorn on McEwan’s assumption that sci-fi writers had never entertained the thought that the creation of robots and artificial intelligence might have some interesting ethical ramifications.  Among them were a few modern writers of science fiction.  For example, Charlie Stross tweeted: “Famous literary author reinvents the wheel, says something profoundly stupid about genre fiction not having wheels, while standing in front of genre fiction motorway crammed nose-to-tail with genre fiction trucks.”  And Adam Roberts speculated about McEwan’s thinking if he ever decided to write an opera: “Obviously I never listen to opera because it’s all crap but I had this idea for two doomed young lovers, a duel and a fat lady singing a really high note and I thought: nobody’s ever done that before so I will.” 

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What also makes this a bit rich is another remark that McEwan made, this time in an interview for the Glasgow Herald, to the effect that he doesn’t like science fiction because he finds it unscientific: “Although I am fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying: ‘Well, if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics.’” 

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Hmm. The premise of Machines Like Me is that it takes place in 1982, though in a parallel universe where Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but lived on to revolutionise computer science, to the extent that artificial humans have been created. (Both male and female ones, called – amazingly original thinking, Ian! – Adams and Eves.)  These are super-intelligent and can read literature, fall in love and even, in the case of the male ones, achieve erections ‘thanks to a reservoir of distilled water’ in their buttocks.  But even if Alan Turing had still been on the go, I find the notion that human technology would have reached this advanced stage by 1982 as scientifically laughable as, well, the moon hurtling out of orbit and carrying 300 people on a moonbase away on a tour of the universe.  (Yes, Space 1999, I’m looking at you.)

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Still, maybe it isn’t so much McEwan’s fault that he’s blinkered.  Maybe it’s the fault of the literary bubble that surrounds him and his contemporaries, the fault of all the critics, publishers, agents, supplements, magazines and so on who between them create a micro-verse that’s so precious, pretentious and stuck-up it makes anyone who spends time in it blinkered.  Britain’s literary establishment despises anything that falls into the category of ‘genre’ fiction, be it science fiction, crime, horror, humour, whatever, yet when an acceptably literary ‘name’ repackages an idea that’s been knocking around genre fiction for decades, said ‘name’ is applauded for their innovation and genius.  Hence, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) got shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its premise of a world where time runs backwards was one that’d seen duty away back in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967) and J.G. Ballard’s Mr F is Mr F (1961).  And I’ve heard folk enthuse about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (a novel that, incidentally, I like) as if Ishiguro was the first writer in history to put pen to paper about the subject of cloning.  Arthur C. Clarke (author of 1975’s Imperial Earth) or Ira Levin (author of 1976’s The Boys from Brazil) might disagree.  As might a certain Aldous Huxley, who once wrote a wee book called Brave New World (1932). 

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(c) Penguin

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Ironically, this disdain for genre fiction was not shared by some of the big names in Britain’s previous generation of ‘literary’ authors.  Both Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad) were happy to write science fiction, espionage thrillers and comedies and, in Amis’s case, a ghost story.  In 1983, Burgess put together a list of what he considered the 99 best novels written in English since the start of the second World War and he found space for science fiction ones by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts and George Orwell – after all, 1984 (1949) is sci-fi – as well as fantasy (Mervyn Peake), crime (Raymond Chandler) and spy (Ian Fleming) ones.  Kingsley Amis was a champion of traditional science fiction (though he loathed the ‘New Wave’ school of sci-fi that surfaced in the 1960s) and once wrote a book on the subject, New Maps of Hell (1960).

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It cuts both ways, of course.  The gatekeepers of respectable literary fiction would do well to take science fiction more seriously because, over the decades, the field has seen some great writers with great ideas – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and dozens of others – and it would be good if they were discovered by a wider readership.  But an awful lot of dire crap has been written in the name of science fiction too, often by fanboys – and they tended to be boys – who’d never read anything outside the parameters of sci-fi and who probably thought that Sir Walter Scott was the chief engineer on board the Starship Enterprise.  Even today, I suspect there are some sci-fi hacks whose work would improve (slightly) if they broadened their reading horizons and sampled something for a change that wasn’t science fiction.  (Personally, I have little time for the old-school likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, and anything that takes place in a spaceship, space station or space colony and has more than a minimum of futuristic technobabble usually leaves me cold.  That said, I’m partial to the works of the technology-loving Arthur C. Clarke.)

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It’s a shame to see McEwan make a dick of himself like this because I actually like his books, especially Atonement (2001) and the faintly science-fictional The Child in Time (1987).  I certainly prefer his work to that of his mate Martin Amis, which I find largely unreadable.  And incidentally, I was really into McEwan’s earlier writings when I was a teenager.  This was the phase of McEwan’s career that produced the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories that were gathered together in the collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), all of which were dark, morbid and macabre.  In fact, they gave me the impression that McEwan was a horror writer.  I wonder how the genre-disdaining McEwan would react if I ran into him now and exclaimed: “Oi, Ian, you’re a master of horror – every bit as good as James Herbert and Stephen King!”  Yeah, I bet he’d really love that.

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Indeed, one of his stories from In Between the Sheets, Pornography, was included in the 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1981).  Ha!

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(c) Pan Books

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One other thing.  If McEwan is as dismissive of science fiction as he makes out, it probably wasn’t wise to let the Observer take a photo of him dressed as Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.   

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(c) Suki Dhanda / The Observer
(c) BBC

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