Friday, October 19, 2018

Doctor Who: Another Review


Episode 3

A man pulls his hand from the pocket of his uniform jacket. Tuneless music thumps in the background. He looks, shocked, at the hand. It has been completely consumed by a green, alien parasite. 

As we see his shocked face, the music cuts out, and a surreal female voice cuts in. "Halloooo....Space Station Nova!" It starts as a portentous sing-song chant; but gradually turns into generic political rhetoric. "And now, across the chasm of years, I send the prayers and hopes of the entire world."

As the voice speaks, we cut away from the man: first to an external view of a space station, then to an empty corridor, and then to an impressively large interior chamber. As the voice says "You have slept longer than the recorded history of mankind!" we see row after row of plastic, human shaped caskets.

Sarah-Jane, Harry and a uniformed woman listen: the Doctor walks slowly across the scene.

As the speech reaches its climax, we cut back to the guy with the possessed green hand. "You have been entrusted with a sacred duty, to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith, shall never perish from the universe" says the speaker, invoking the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The possessed man starts to cry, and then smashes the hand against a control console. As it finally comes to an end, the uniformed woman catches the Doctor's eye. (She is Vira, first of the humans to be defrosted.) We finish on a long close up of Tom Baker's face.

This is the opening scene of Episode 3 of The Ark in Space. It is like something out of an opera: the whole story shrunk down to one little scene. Even if we missed Episodes 1 and 2 — even if we are not sci-fi fans and have never heard the word "cryogenic" before — we understand perfectly what is going on. It is the very far future. A small number of humans have been frozen and sent into space to keep the species going. And they have been infected by an alien parasite.

It is so good — proper Mythic Level good — that I think it is the only thing most of us remember about the story. The last humans. On a spaceship. Being turned into aliens. I suppose the Doctor must have saved them in some way.

Remember C.S Lewis's comment about the ending of King Solomon's Mines? "The trap I remember forever. How they got out I have long since forgotten."

Episode 1 – 2

But we are not watching an opera. We are watching a hundred studio-bound minutes of Doctor Who, stretched out over four cold February Saturdays more than forty years ago. And this is not Episode 1 one, but Episode 3: it has taken us a fortnight to get anywhere near the beginning of the story.

Episode 1 was another initiation, an enforced wait until we get to the good stuff. The Doctor and Harry and Sarah-Jane wander around the space station trying to work out what is going on. Harry accidentally locks Sarah-Jane in an airtight room; Sarah-Jane manages to teleport herself into a cryogenic unit. The Doctor gets increasingly impatient with Harry: Ian Marter, bless him, has nothing to give and poor dear Tom has to carry the episode on his own.

"Have you pushed any buttons, Harry?"
"What, me?"
"Well, there are only two of us here, and your name is Harry."

In Very Old Who, this was a fairly standard way of starting a story: everyone would walk around the set and Ian would say "Hey, Doctor, what do you make of this?" until someone worked out what was going on. But the initial set up of, say Planet of the Giants or the Space Museum were at least a little bit puzzling. We all worked out pretty much what was going on on Space Station Nova as soon as we found out that the story was called The Ark In Space.

Episode 1 ends, right on schedule, with Harry opening another one of those Mysterious Doors and a GIANT ALIEN CRUSTACEAN emerging. It turns out, fortunately, to be a dead alien crustacean, and we get right on with the exposition. It's only at the end of the second episode that the station commander, known as Noah ("a name from myth") gets his hand scratched by a green alien caterpillar, and the story proper gets under way.

It is a mistake to judge the past by the standards of the present. We can tell that the alien caterpillar and the parasite taking over Noah's arm is made of green bubble wrap, but people in Olden Time couldn't. Most people were watching in black and white, so it was less green and more, well, bubble wrap coloured.

Episode 3

There is a limit to how long you can stand around saying "Gosh, this is incredibly mythic".  Contemplate the last humans stuck in the compromised base all you like: but sooner or later Stuff has to start happening.

Harry Sullivan is on hand to provide the bathos. His first reaction to hearing the Prime Minister of Earth address the last, best hope of the human race is "I say, it's a bit like a pre match pep talk." And his second reaction is that Sarah-Jane must be pleased that in the Far Future, the Prime Minister of Earth will be a woman. One of the things written on Sarah-Jane's character sheet is "Journalist"; the other is "Feminist" — what was in those days still called "women's lib". We are meant to find this a little bit funny: but primarily we are meant to think that Harry Sullivan is being an idiot. "Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole" he says. That's what Harry's own character sheet says, unfortunately: Navy Man; Physician; Idiot.

(Episode 3 of Ark in Space went out on Feb 7th 1975. On the previous Tuesday, Conservative MPs had voted to select a new leader. The former Prime Minister Edward Heath only received the support of 119 members, and withdrew from the contest. On the 11th, one Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party.)

And so stuff starts happening again. The next two humans out of deep freeze start moaning about there having been a "snitch up" and wishing they'd been wiped out along with everybody else. The Doctor starts rigging up silly science equipment. Actors point toy guns at caterpillars without very much conviction. Some have said that it is darker and grimmer and scarier than anything which went before, and others have wondered if Ridley Scott was a fan. But from this vantage point it feels like corridors and monsters and a clever scheme to save the day: if not what Doctor Who had always been, then definitely what Doctor Who was going to become.

Some years ago the BBC repeated the classic historical drama, Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson and the entire British acting profession. It was quite brilliant and impossible to take seriously, because, of course, it was the exact thing which the equally classic and much more familiar Black Adder The Second was sending up. Speech at Tilbury all you want, Glenda, we will all hear Queenie pouting that she has the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. I feel that Douglas Adams and the Golgafrinchans may have done similar irreparable damage to the Ark In Space.

Episode 4

It's a very clever, tight little story. Bigger and more epic than the format allows for. The last act of a millennia long space-opera epic played out between basically just five people: the Doctor, the two companions, Vira and Noah.

The Ark was sent into space because the Earth was due to be wiped out by solar flares. But other human explorers had set out before the days of the Ark, and while the last humans slept, they made enemies of the Wirrrn. Robert Holmes is good at alluding to stuff outside his tale. "Andromeda - then our star pioneers succeeded!" says Vira, and that's as much as we are allowed to know. The Wirrrn have got a complicated life cycle; they take over the bodies of warm blooded mammals, turn them into green caterpillars; and finally emerge as giant talking insects. But here is the fiendish bit: they normally incubate themselves in mindless cattle; but they have discovered that if they lay their eggs in humans the adult creepy crawlie will have all the knowledge and memories of its host.

So the Doctor defeats the Wirrrn through the power of exposition, which is infinitely preferable to a Big Red Button. Their Achilles Heal turns out to be electricity; and so he runs a cable from the space shuttle to the cryogenic hall to keep them out.

This leads to the most genuinely scary scene in the entire story; because Sarah-Jane, being small and thin as well as feminist, has to crawl along an incredibly narrow access tunnel to bring the cable through. It is when he is acting against someone like Elisabeth Sladen with whom he has a genuine rapport — and who can give as good as she gets but is under no illusions about who the star of the show is — that we discover just what a fabulous actor Tom Baker is. Sarah-Jane gets stuck in the access shaft, a few feet away from saving the human race. And after trying to encourage her, the Doctor goes into full-on comp school P.E Teacher mode. Oh, you are useless! I never should have trusted you! You're a silly girl! Stop blubbing! Which makes Sarah-Jane so cross that she forces her way through the tunnel, and out into the Doctor's arms and he immediately tells her how very proud he is. Elisabeth Sladen's face brilliantly shifts between genuinely upset to cross to sharing the joke. It's a sexist scene, arguably: or at any rate, it shows the Doctor at his most patronizing, prepared to be cruel to be kind. But it is as close to Drama as this episode comes, and it is brilliant.

The Wirrrn swarm over the space station and steal the space shuttle and fly off. But their leader used to be Noah the leader of the humans and there is just enough of his memory left that he scuttles the ship, wipes out the Wirrrn and gives the human race its chance to survive. So that's all sorted out.

Which made me wonder: couldn't this have been a story about interspecies compromise? Why, after all, would anyone go to all that trouble to preserve the human race? So that somewhere in some corner of a foreign planet there could be a species which happens to have some of the same DNA which emerged a zillion years ago on earth? Or so that human culture, human knowledge, human love and human faith — everything which is unique and irreplaceable about the species — can survive? In which case, wouldn't uploading homo sapiens minds into the minds of incredibly resilient space fleas be the best possible outcome for everybody?

Episode 1

It isn't quite true to say that the Ark in Space owes its retrospective celebrity entirely to the opening of its third act. It owes some of it to a little speech in the middle of Episode 1. The Doctor walks solemnly into the cryogenic chamber for the first time. Harry entirely fails to understand what is going on ("funny sort of place for a mortuary") but the Doctor breaks out in a full scale aria:

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!

And indeed, this is the moment where Tom Baker first becomes Tom Baker. You can perfectly well imagine Jon Pertwee speaking the same words. You can imagine him half sneering them out, surprised and patronising but with a twinkle in his eye. "Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species you are, Jo..." Or you could imagine him coming over all paternal and giving us a little lecture, like the one on courage in Planet of the Daleks. "Homo sapiens, my old chap? Why, what an inventive, invincible species!"

But Baker declaims it to himself or to the universe. Harry is pointedly in the other room, so this is a private moment shared between the Doctor and us. The camera is looking down on him from a height. Pertwee gained a certain cachet from occasionally reminding us that he is not really human, but his character never ceased to be that of an upper crust boffin with a funny car and retro dress sense. Baker is obviously an outsider, looking down on the earth from a cosmic perspective."Just Tom being a benevolent alien" was how he later summed up the part. He is very far from being the fetishized Lonely God of later retroactive continuity. He is only a traveler, an ancient traveler whose path happens to have crossed with ours.

Holmes pulls off a similar effect in Episode 3 when the Doctor plugs his brain into the dead alien to try to discover its Achilles heel. Any space hero from Dan Dare onward might have said "It's not just our existence that's at stake, Sarah. It's the entire human race." But only the Fourth Doctor could have grinned and said "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species".

Robot established that Tom Baker's ego was big enough to fill an entire story; but Ark in Space defines him as the visitor from outside. There are some jelly babies and a yo-yo. There are some good put-downs. But if we had been asked to describe this new Doctor, after two stories, we would have said "He is going to be the serious one, the alien one, the Shakespearian one." And for a few weeks yet, we would have been right.









Monday, October 08, 2018

Doctor Who: A Review


This story introduces a new Doctor. It also represents the death — the gentle putting to sleep — of a remarkable TV series called Doctor Who. It's over. It's gone. It will never come back. And that’s okay.

Last season went out on a more than usually allegorical note. New life grows out of death. You have to accept change and move on. But this is hard, particularly for those of us who have been watching the show for — can it really be?— more than ten years now. We had got used to the Doctor being an older, grey-haired man, sometimes so school-teachery, sometimes so silly. We'd forgotten he could be anything else.

Some of us will get used to this colourful new version. Some of us never will. But that's okay. We can move on. It's only a children's programme. We're grown-ups. It's okay for grown ups to stop watching children's TV.

That's the message, isn't it? Embrace change. That's more important than just going on living.

But still. I wonder if the production team got the memo about what an important story this was? Or did they make a conscious decision to treat regeneration — referred to simply as changing — as just another day at the office? Sarah-Jane is a little sad, and the Brigadier is a little irritated, but Benton just takes it for granted ("You mean he's done it again?") Maybe they were just acknowledging the reality of the situation. The viewers all know by now that the Doctor sometimes changes. They have all seen pictures of the new guy in his parka jacket in the papers. So there would have been no point in making us watch Nicholas Courtney wondering at great length whether this really was still the Doctor. We all know darn well it is.

The New Doctor quotes some of the old Doctor's lines. He grins a lot. He runs down the corridor in a nightshirt and tries on a harlequin costume. He skips. And then he gets right on with just being the Doctor.

So: what is this New Doctor like? No-one knows. For this first Tom Baker story, Terrance Dicks, bless his little novelisations, turned in a Jon Pertwee script. There is hardly a scene, hardly a line, which you could not perfectly well imagine being performed by the Third Doctor. We get the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes, brilliantly deducing what attacked the Ministry of Defense building by examining a crushed dandelion. ("And according to my estimation of the resistance to pressure of vegetable fiber, it was stepped on by something that weighed a quarter of a ton.") We get the The Doctor as James Bond, leaping into his posh yellow car and rushing off to help a boffin in distress. We get The Doctor as Man Of Science, rushing off in the middle of Episode 4 to brew up some Evil Robot Disintegrating Goo in the lab. And of course, we get the Doctor as School Teacher, gently drawing out the life-lesson in the final scene ."It was a wonderful creature, capable of great good, and great evil. Yes, I think you could say it was human. "

Tom Baker has been contracted to play Doctor Who, and he has been given a Doctor Who script. And Doctor Who, at this point, means Jon Pertwee. The posh, patronizing science guy who likes fast cars and bickering with soldiers. It's going to take Tom Baker a few weeks to figure out who the Doctor is going to be from now on. And we are going to watch him figure it out.


Did Terrance Dicks ever think of himself as an artist? Did he set out to wittily rework the classics, a Frankenstein tale in which a shiny robotic tin-man turns out to have a heart? Was he cleverly satirizing the environmentalist movement, warning us that if the science nerds ever get into power, they'll start an atomic war and ban ladies from wearing trousers? Did he even have any sense that Doctor Who was a big deal, and that the debut of a new Doctor was a very big deal indeed?

Of course not. He was a hack, sorry, a craftsman, hammering out a job of work. Take a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of the other and you'll end up with 25 minutes of early evening TV which will keep people watching and maybe even make them come back a week later. He wrote nearly 150 children's books, not including his Doctor Who novelizations.

How does he do it? Story. Structure. Construction. Four episodes with a pattern and a shape and a form and admittedly an enormous cheating plot hole. It had me grinning all over my face with joyous, innocent recognition. Oh, for the days when Doctor Who was made of stories. 

Almost the first thing we see is the Mysterious Monster breaking into the M.O.D base. We are looking through the Monster's own eyes: we can see what is being done, but we can't see the Creature that is doing it. Of course, now we instantly think of first person computer games. But this was 1974. There were no first person computer games. There were no computer games. There were one or two computers, but they looked like dishwashers.  

We see that the Whatever It Is has claws. We see that they are metal. We see the shadow of the Whatever It Is as it breaks into the base. We see it pick up the secret plans. We know that they are secret plans, because  they have TOP SECRET PLANS written on them. 

We flash back to the UNIT base. The Brigadier is fretting. Something has broken into an M.O.D base and stolen the Top Secret Plans for a Top Secret Disintegrator gun.

What can it be? Whatever can it be? And could their possibly be any clue in the fact that the title of the story is ROBOT?

Those, as Nicholas Parsons would say, are the rules of the game. You start in the drab, real world, 1970s; military bases which look like dentists' waiting rooms; science Think Tanks which look like comprehensive schools. A Mysterious Something steals the plans to a secret weapon; and then it steals the components of the secret weapon; and then is steals secret nuclear codes from the Man from the Ministry. The Doctor does a Science and works out that the Mysterious Something must weigh half a ton and not need to breathe and be made of metal. And quite separately and for no particular reason Sarah-Jane goes to investigate a secret science Think Tank and sees a mysterious door that you are not allowed to open under any circumstances marked "VERY SECRET ROBOTICS SECTION". But only at the end of the episode does the Mysterious Something emerge from behind the Mysterious Door and -- bless my soul -- it's a Robot! 

We passed the threshold between the mundane and the fantastic, and now, anything goes. (This was before Star Wars. No-one had heard about Joseph Campbell.)


It is a truth universally acknowledge that Old Who was slow and ponderous whereas New Who is fast moving and dynamic. Or, put another way, that Old Who took the time to tell a proper story but New Who is rushed, gasping for breath and directed at people with no attention span. Like all truisms, it is just close enough to the truth to be almost completely misleading.

It is true that it takes 100 minutes for Terrance Dicks to get us from the point at which a Mysterious Something is stealing TOP SECRET plans to the point where UNIT and the Science Fascists are having a pitched battle outside a bunker. Modern Forty Five Minute Who would have dumped us in media res just after the shooting started. It is also true that the groundwork for the final resolution is foreshadowed in unnecessarily ponderous detail. In Episode 2 Dr Kettlewell, the robot-creating boffin, just happens to mention that he has also invented a microbe that eats metal. In Episode 4, it just happens to occur to Sgt Benton that this might be worth mentioning. So we watch the Doctor drive back to Kettlewell's lab; wait with him for three whole scenes as he brews up some fresh Microbes, and then watch him drive all the way back. The Forty-Five-Minute Doctor would have had a test tube of the stuff in his pocket. Or else just made the Robot eat itself by projecting the Power of Love at it.

But in fact, the story feels incredibly pacey. Breathless even. Almost every scene reveals a new piece of information which changes our understanding of what is going on. 

Sarah is threatened by the Mysterious Something from behind the Mysterious Door. It's a Robot! Jellicoe and Winters, who run the Think Tank, arrive in the nick of time and deactivate the Robot. Sarah was never in any danger: they just intended to give her a scare so she wouldn't come snooping around their secret headquarters again. Sarah says the Robot is dangerous — so they order it to kill her. But it can't kill her — because it has been programmed with the Prime Directive and The First Law of Robotics. Sarah feels sorry for the Robot, because it was obviously distressed when it was given orders which conflict with its artificial conscience. She leaves. Winters reveal that she has been trying to remove the Robots anti-killing inhibitor, that it might very well have killed Sarah, but that she wouldn't have cared.

Twist, twist, twist, and all in one five minute scene. Twist: the Robot was only meant to scare Sarah. Twist: they are ordering it to kill her. Twist:  it is incapable of killing anyone. Twist: but maybe it isn't.

And wrapped around it all, a rather less predictable twist: the lumbering cuboid wind-up tin Robot is capable of feelings, and Sarah feels sorry for it. Not the most radical piece of science fiction originality, of course, but it pushes us into different narrative territory from the one we thought we were inhabiting.


It is a cliche to say that the special effects of Doctor Who in the 1970s were amateurish. It is entirely true that computer generated animation was a decade away. Colour separation overlay — blue screen — was a new and cutting edge technology and they haven't quite got the hang of it yet. If a bit of blue background gets reflected in the Robot's chrome body, its leg had an annoying habit of disappearing. (Back then I honestly thought this was intentional. I honestly thought the Living Metal was being attacked by the Metal Eating Microbes before the Doctor had arrived. It made the Giant Robot somehow more unearthly. There is no production flaw which the eye of faith cannot perceive as a virtue.)

The final episode is all about UNIT soldiers firing guns at a monster they already know is bullet proof, while the monster disintegrates tanks and stomps on buildings. Very obviously there is an actor inside the Robot and very obviously the tanks and the buildings are only models. Models you could buy in a toy shop: tanks that richer kids had in their Action Man collections. But the visual effects team is clearly having great fun playing with their toys, and they are using some ingenuity to make everything look as exciting as it plausibly can on a budget of ten shillings and a free cup of tea. We get a long shot of the Giant Robot blue screened against an English town. A shot of a row of cabins or outbuildings of some kind. A closer shot of a single cabin. And then a Giant Robotic Leg comes down and crushes it. We cut away before we have quite had time to realise that the crushed cabin was made of cardboard. 

In 1974 we stamped our feet and sulked and said this was all NOT REALISTIC. But in 2018 we can smile and say "Toy soldiers fighting toy robots! Cool!" 


But in the end, it's not about the script or the special effects; it's all about the cast. Tom Baker was a protege of Lord Olivier and Passolini. Nicholas Courtney had a great future behind him playing sergeant majors and policemen in any rep company of his choice. And Elisabeth Sladen has a way of squeezing her words out like toothpaste as if she isn't quite sure if she is back in the provinces playing Desdemona or has landed a job teaching Primary School. They are Actors. They take the words some writer has given them to say, and they make them come alive. If a line comes from nowhere then they make sure the audience sees it forming on their lips before a sound comes out of their mouth. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good at mouthing the words before she says them. If it isn't clear what their motivation is then they show it, by gesture and body language. It's what being a thespian is all about. The character of the New Doctor emerges, not from the script, but from stage business. 

Everyone knows that Tom Baker's first line as the Doctor is "Don't worry Brigadier. The Brontosaurus is large, placid and stupid." But Tom Baker pauses after the word "placid" and adds the word "stupid" as the new medical officer, Harry, walks in. So the line becomes "Don't worry Brigadier, the Brontosaurus is large, placid.....And stupid?" The line is Dicks'. The delivery is all Baker's. He turns a back-reference to Invasion of the Dinosaurs into a foreshadowing of his relationship with Harry. 

Or look at the feeble joke about the Titanic.

--Never liked the word impregnable. Sounds too much like unsinkable.
--What's wrong with unsinkable.
--Nothing, as the iceberg said to the Titanic.

The Third Doctor could have said that and it could have got a perfectly good laugh. But it's not the "as the iceberg said to the Titanic" which we remember; it's Baker's "glug glug glug" as he sinks down below the windscreen of the Landrover. And then he sticks his feet on the dash board as if he (the Doctor) is incredibly bored with the whole thing. So when the Brigadier tells him that the building is secure on all sides and from the sky, he has to wave his finger in the air to indicate that the Robot could tunnel up through the ground.

And so on. Improvising card tricks, building towers out of lab junk, delivering exposition lying on his back with his face covered by this hat. This is not an actor delivering lines. This a clown skipping merrily around what is written on the page, adding a squiggle hear and a flourish there, while the rest of the cast stand back and watch in mounting bemusement.


"I think just for once, we're not going to need the Doctor" announces the Brigadier as he very sensibly zaps the robot with its own disintegrator gun, which Benton had very sensibly picked up. This very plausibly makes the Robot grow to about 40 feet tall and start stomping on the local scenery, until the Doctor turns up and chucks the big bucket of microbes at it.

But what is perfectly clear by the end of the episode is that the Doctor isn't going to need the Brigadier ever again. Jon Pertwee was impressive and charismatic but needed a foil. (Three foils, in fact: Courtney, Manning and Delgado.) Baker barely needs the rest of the cast at all. Everyone is looking at him all the time, and boy, does he know it.

I was taking my first tentative steps into Doctor Who fandom in Tom Baker's first year. The New Doctor mesmerized me. He turned me from a person who watches Doctor Who on Saturday nights along with ten million other people, into a person who memorizes the plots of stories which were made  before I was born and spends his pocket money on inky duplicated fanzines. Of course, those early fanzines were written by people who grew up with Troughton and Hartnell and Pertwee and they were mostly horrified. Their serious ensemble show was mutating into a garish vehicle for a manically charismatic leading man. This was not their Doctor Who. This was not their Doctor. And in a sense they were not wrong. When the Doctor offers Sarah a jelly baby and steps into the TARDIS, and shuts the door, he was shutting the door on the UNIT era, and on all the previous years as well. We were now in the Tom Baker era and you either liked it or you left.


Sarah says that the Doctor is childish. "Well of course I am" says the Doctor "There is no point in being grown up if you can't be childish." Sarah also says that Harry is a bit old fashioned "There is nothing wrong with being old fashioned" says the Brigadier "I am a bit old fashioned myself."

This story is a bit childish and very old fashioned. There is nothing wrong with that.



If you link to this review, please don't give away my little joke. 


Sunday, September 30, 2018

The End of The End

 The End - 
My Struggle 
Volume 6 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard


Before starting this essay, I eat a crumpet.

The Marmite tastes salty. Salty Marmite. We used to have Marmite for breakfast when I was a child. Granddad called it rat's poison. He died. 

I am also going to have a mouthful of coffee. It is in a red cup. The coffee is warm and coffee coloured and tastes of coffee. There is a granual floating on the surface. It makes me think of a drowning refugee child or that old joke about the soup. I wonder if the Moors Murderers ever drank soup?

This is my essay. I am writing it now.

*

Strange that in the era of social media and limited attention spans, the novel everyone is talking about runs to six volumes and is stuffed full of philosophy and literature and art history, all translated from the original Norwegian.

But perhaps it is not that strange. My Struggle  (yes, I know) is essentially a seven million character Tweet: a macro blog in the age of micro-blogging. It is the tangible remains of hours spent at the keyboard recalling the details of day-to-day existence: what Karl Ove had for supper (prawns, probably); how many cups of coffee he drunk (dozens, on the balcony mostly, with a cigarette); what Karl Ove said when he settled his three little children down in front of Bolibompa (Norwegian Tellytubbies?) — yet prone to shoot off at any moment into thoughts about God and identity and the holocaust and the terrible burdens of being an artist.

For every passage which reads like this:

We hold the absolute at bay, firstly by levelling down the bigness of our existence, that which has to do with the very boundaries of life and materiality, to the commonplace, addressing the issues that concern us all, the great collective, mankind, only in the quotidian; secondly by ritualising the absolute in an unreal world of images: death is to us not the physical death of the body, but the figurative death, as it occurs in images, in the same way as violence is not physical violence, but figurative violence.

There is one which reads like this:

I snatched two packets of red sausages, the ones with the highest meat content, something I had suddenly and rather neurotically become obsessed by after someone at the nursery made me realise there were big differences from brand to brand, then dropped a bag of hot-dog buns into the basket along with a regular loaf, a bag of coffee, the dark-roast French blend I’d settled for after six months of experimentation and had since stuck to, a litre of milk, a litre of yoghurt, a six-pack of beer, toilet paper, and a packet of four bars of soap, seeing as how we had visitors and they probably washed their hands more than we did, and finally three ice creams.

The first volumes were written quite slowly, the culmination of a long period of writers' block during which Karl Ove went from being the most promising Norwegian novelist of his generation to the person journalists phoned up if they wanted to do a feature on one-book authors. But this final volume is written against the clock. His first manuscript ran to 1,200 pages, so his publisher suggested putting it out in twelve monthly installments of a hundred pages each. "If you are going to do that anyway" said Karl Ove "Can I expand it to 6,000 pages?" So this final volume is full of a sense of urgency and spontaneity and desperation and the need to keep on going; like a sort of high class NaNoWriMo.

Karl Ove has read more books than I have had Ikea Meatballs. While working flat out to finish this volume he is also working on a new Norwegian translation of the Bible. He doesn't believe in God but isn't sure quite how we are going to get along without Him. Although it can veer into the preposterously over-written — I am told the translation accurately reflects the original Norwegian, warts and all — he is so damn knowledgeable about nearly everything that he can hardly fail to be interesting. If he is going to talk about Abraham and Isaac — and since the whole epic is kind of about his father, he is more or less bound to talk about Abraham and Isaac sooner or later — then you can be sure he has studied his Kierkegaard and his Freud and his Girard before he begins to type.

But his real genius lies in descriptions of ordinary life; what he calls, over and over again until you want to throw the book across the room, the quotidian. (It is a very large book.)

It is easy to poke fun at this sort of thing. Here is Karl Ove making yet another cup of coffee: 


Impatiently I lifted the kettle before the water had started to bubble, and the crescendo of noise was interrupted and replaced by a soft murmur as the coffee rose inside the cup, at first a golden brown from the powder, visible as an earthy clump at the bottom, until over the next few seconds it completely dissolved and the surface became an impenetrable black with some lighter-coloured froth at the edges.

But this obsession with trivial detail is essential to the project. It is what makes you feel that you are inside Karl Ove's head; inside his life; inside his underpants. I am a slow reader and I found myself gobbling down these domestic disasters and private embarrassments in hundred page chunks.

One extended passage in this volume describes a disastrous holiday at a tourist resort in Gran Canaria. (Or perhaps it describes an idyllic, expensive holiday in a resort which Karl Ove cynically and snobbishly despises?) In one mercilessly specific episode Karl Ove and his wife agree to go on a free excursion without realizing that someone is going to try to sell them an expensive time-share. It literally felt like being there; it made me feel agonizingly embarrassed on behalf of  the characters; scared to turn the page in case Karl Ove really is persuaded to phone his mother to ask her to guarantee the loan. (Does this embarrassment and identification depend on my knowing that Karl Ove is real and this really happened: or would I have cared just as much if it had been two made-up people I was reading about?) The long description concludes:

‘Me too,’ Linda said. ‘Imagine you actually considering buying a timeshare!’
‘Yes, it’s unbelievable. But the worst is that I didn’t twig. I didn’t twig what was happening until afterwards! But you did, right?’
‘Yes. I wondered what you were up to.’
‘I was taken in hook, line and sinker....
Linda laughed.
‘Yes, go on, laugh,’ I said. ‘We won’t breathe a word of this to anyone, OK?’
‘OK!’

"We won't breathe a word of this to anyone."

Karl Ove does a lot of mildly stupid things. He takes on an allotment he is never going to be able to manage, and then can't sell. He allows his wife to make her own way back to the psychiatric hospital after he has been specifically told not to. He does much stupider things too, when he is younger, like self-harming and glassing his brother and cheating on his wife. The sort of thing you wouldn't normally breathe a word to anyone about. 

It would be misleading to describe the book (as some people have) as an enormously erudite soap opera, a conjuring trick in which you are forced to care about Karl Ove's football practice and Heidi's ice cream cone by sheer weight of detail. It does that, certainly. The quotidian minutiae (you see, it's catching) make it the best and funniest account of what it's like to be a hands-on Dad as you are likely to read. But that's not really what the book is about. 

In volume two or three — I am certainly not going to look it up — Karl Ove is visiting Paris and lays a wreath on the grave of Marcel Proust. Which can only elicit the response from the reader "Son, you're no Marcel Proust." My Struggle and In Search of Lost Time are both very long books, and they are both full of the details of ordinary life; although Marcel spends more time attending exquisite dinner parties and admiring beautiful scenery and less time making coffee. But Proust is writing about consciousness and memory, about reconciling the subjective world with objective reality. Knausgaard is much more about the process of writing. Like Proust he makes connections and linkages and wild digressions. We go from the quarrel with his Uncle and the realization that he is going to have to disguise the names of some of the real people in the book to a discourse on the significance of Names in general, to a long critique of a poem by Paul Celan. (Pity the poor translator, offering an English version of a Norwegian. close reading of a German poet!) But these links are links which occur to him on the page, while he is writing. He doesn't know what he is going to say until he starts to say it.

So the enormously long canonical text of which The End most reminded me was not In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses but Don Quixote. You remember how volume two is very largely about the consequences of publishing volume one; about how the anonymous knight has become a public figure; about how his life is now being read, misunderstood and contested by strangers? That's what this feels like. An enormous book which turns out to be an account of its own coming into being.

The structure of My Struggle emerges only gradually: in the first volume, we see Karl Ove arranging his father's funeral and clearing the house where he was living at the time of his death; the second volume shows us Karl Ove as a Daddy himself. Only in the third book do we see his relationship with his father and start to understand why he is writing all this down. By the end of Volume Five he is a published author, struggling to begin his next book. Volume Six begins with the first volume of My Struggle already written and about to go to press. So he has to show it to his friends and family. And, astonishingly, they don't like it.

There is nothing you can say about Knausgaard which he hasn't already said about himself. I went to hear him give a talk in London last month to launch the English translation of the final volume, I was surprised at how pleasant and self-effacing and urbane he was: how patiently he answered the audience's doubtless very predictable questions. I had imagined that the craggy man on the cover would be distant and a little frightening.

But here his is in the last pages of The End:

It is therefore as though I can only be warm and sincere in front of a group of strangers and not with kith and kin. That is why what I do is a kind of trick. When I am sitting on the stage talking to an audience there is a great distance. I can manage that and appear close and warm.

When I queued up for him to sign my copy after the talk (and no, gentle reader, there is no other contemporary writer whose signature I would wait an hour for) I wanted to say something. So I said that it seemed strange to be standing in the same room as Karl Ove Knausgaard; that it felt as if I was meeting a character from a novel. Does that make sense? "Yes it does," he said politely and did one of those squiggles that pass for authors' signatures. But here he is in the last volume:

‘Actually we’re all characters in a novel sitting around this table,’ Yngve said.
‘That’s true,’ Asbjørn laughed.
‘We should set up a web page for characters in a novel so that we can discuss our experiences,’ Yngve said.
‘I can be the moderator,’ I said.

The first question anyone asks is whether the book is true of fictionalized; the second is how he can possibly justify writing about his late father, his kids, his wife and his ex- in such detail. And there we have pretty much the entire text of this final volume, which pretty much justifies the entire three thousand page construct. Not so much a book, more an experiment. Not the literary equivalent of a Tweet, after all: more the literary equivalent of Big Brother. The previous volumes are about being a Dad and a student and a teacher; this final volume is about being a writer who has committed himself to writing a 1200 page book in time for a deadline. The previous five volumes have told us everything in horrible, intimate, fascinating detail: This double sized final issue is about a man who has already told everybody everything and what that feels like.

People say things on Twitter and are surprised by the firestorms they set off. Sometimes firestorms which only effect Twitter and are meaningless outside that sub-culture; sometimes firestorms which have tangible effects on real people in the real world. Karl Ove seems astonished by the storm his macroblog unleashes; as if somehow he expected his family and friends to be happy with him publishing the intimate details of their lives because it was all true. His uncle reads the book and more or less accuses him of a hate crime. That's what the first half of this volume is about. Karl Ove eats prawns and takes the kids to the beach, but mostly all the time he's worried about whether his uncle is going to sue him. His wife reads the book, and finds out that he's cheated on her with other women. He never told her: she finds out when she reads the manuscript. She spends several weeks in a mental hospital, while he takes the children to kindergarten and drinks coffee and promotes the book. (She was probably bipolar so the book probably didn't literally cause the breakdown but it presumably didn't help.) He feels guilty; he feels sorry. He disguises some of the names. He cuts some passages. But he won't back down from the book. Telling the truth (the truth about where he buys his breakfast cereal and when he first learned to masturbate, and what rock bands he likes) is some kind of moral obligation.

And then there is the middle section. 

Desperately worried that his Uncle is going to sue him, stop the book being published, ruin his life, and desperately wanting to reach the end of this monstrous undertaking, Karl Ove writes a meticulously researched biography of Adolf Hitler.

We see the point, of course. Hitler's life is probably the most well-documented of any human being who ever lived; but at the same time his life is more than usually unrecoverable. It is impossible to find out what Hitler was like before he became Hitler just because we know he is going to become Hitler. For what it's worth, Karl Ove thinks that prior to the first world war Hitler was not very different from a lot of young men and aspiring artists. But it's the journey that's the point; the very idea of putting a 400 page historical essay in the middle of an autobiographical novel. Do we know what Karl Over Knausgaard was like before he became Karl Ove Knausgaard? Before his name became an adjective and his face became a logo? And if not, how does anyone ever know anyone?

*

It is ten in the morning. I have finished writing my review. I am no longer writing it. For two weeks now I have been getting up early and writing from as soon after 7pm as I can manage for as long as I can manage, until I have to go to the library or need breakfast. My flat is quiet and I feel as if I am being virtuous but also as if I am somehow playing truant. I remember at infant school when two little girls bunked off for an afternoon on a dare. They left the school and sat in the park for a few minutes; I think playing at being Enid Blyton characters more than anything else. The teachers knew perfectly well what had happened but pretended to be very worried and called the police to give the rest of us a scare. I suppose if they had been boys they would have been smacked. I was in Miss Griffiths' class. There were Gerbils in the corner by the book shelf. They died. 

I walk across my study to the toilet and notice that there are two plates and four cups on my desk: three containing undrunk half cups of coffee and one containing an undrunk half cup of Twinings jasmine tea, purchased from Tescos in a little green box. There were demonstrations when Tescos opened, riots even, and for years I wouldn't use it. There is also a plate on the floor, with a smear of Marmite on it, next to a pair of pink suspenders which I bought partly because they were eccentric and partly to keep my trousers up. Suspenders are more comfortable than belts, but you have to wear a jacket or a waistcoat or leave your shirt untucked. I suppose you could wear them outside your shirt, but then you would look like a violent American blue collar worker, or a children's entertainer, or a comedy policeman.

Anyone can type this kind of shit. Once you start with the trivial detail, there is no end to it, the tangled white headphones to my left, the big black letter edition of Spider-Man to my right, the dog-eared Douglas Adams in the left hand corner of my desk by the pot of pens which I took off the shelf to look up the quote for the Brexit essay and never put back. I don't write with pens any more.

It was C.S Lewis who said that writing was about structure and that stream of consciousness was merely a puddle, even if it was a puddle that contained very fine raw materials.

My Struggle gives the impression of rambling and going off at tangents but it is highly structured and full of artifice. It differs from Proust in one important respect. When I got to the end of, In Search of Lost Time, which I am very proud to say I did, I breathed a sigh of release and knew I would never read it again. When I got to the end of The End, I wanted to go back to A Death in the Family and experience the whole thing all over again.



If you would like me to write more book reviews, please pledge $1 a month at my Patreon. 

If you would like me never to write another book review ever again, please also pledge $1 a month at my Patreon.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sausages or Dog Shit?

"I checked it very thoroughly" said the computer "And that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is." 

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy



I have almost nothing to say about Brexit. And here it is.

To start with, it's a silly word. So let's put quotation marks around it. "Brexit". 

Foreigners sometimes ask "Why are you doing it? Why is Britain -- England -- seceding from the European Union? Why would a tiny little country say that it doesn't need the great big continental mainland and can do perfectly well all on its own?" 

I reply "We are doing it because the bin-men all went on strike in 1979." 

That isn't the whole truth, of course. We are also doing it because the leader of the opposition made a poor decision about his wardrobe on a cold Autumn day in 1981. And because a South American dictator launched an expedition against the last few acres of the British Empire in 1982. 

The suicidal 2016 European referendum was simply the logical end point of a right-wing slope which Britain has been sliding down since before I was allowed to vote. There have been individual progressive victories since 1979, of course, but all the ideological ground has been conceded to the Right. I do not think that The People are any less socialist or any more conservative than they were in 1945. Many of The People think that paying taxes to pay for hospitals is a good idea. But then they always have done. They don't call it Marxism, they call it Fairness or Sharing. On the other paw, many of The People don't see why they should give so much of their hard-earned wages to the Government to fritter away. But many of the People have always thought that, too. God knows, no-one ever won an argument. We simply all agreed to take it for granted that The Left were funny and unpatriotic and silly. It would be political suicide for any politician to talk about socialism or the redistribution of wealth or anything more radical than Sure Start nursery schools. That kind of talk will bring the country to a standstill (winter of discontent, winter of discontent) and anyway it's insulting to our glorious dead (donkey jacket, donkey jacket.) 

"Brexit" is simply the latest move by the Right to wind back the post-war-Liberal-Consensus. "Brexit" is not a political theory you are persuaded of, but a holy mystery you are initiated into. "Brexit" is "Brexit"! Question ye not the details of "Brexit"! Have faith in "Brexit"! For the faithful, the endgame is not trade deals with former imperial colonies outside of the European free trade zone. It is not even bendy passports and blue bananas. The prize which is now within reach is a gallows in Wandsworth prison, a cane in every classroom, and the Black and White Minstrels on the television.

That is the answer to your next question. I do not think that Tony Blair was no different from Margaret Thatcher. I do not think Tony Blair was no different from David Cameron. I do not even think that Centrism leads necessarily to egomania and wars fought on the basis of personal intuition. The fact that we had a crazy Centrist Prime Minister doesn't prove that Centrism drives you crazy. Blair did some liberal things and some illiberal things. But I do not support Centrists even when they come bearing gifts. Centrism doesn't halt the slide to the right. Centrism doesn't want to halt the slide to the right. Centrism says we're moving in the right direction but going a bit too quickly. I support Jeremy Corbyn because he is the first politician in my lifetime who would, in power, start to move things (slowly, tentatively, sensibly) back to the Left. I would not follow some hypothetical Centrist Messiah because he happened to be an Anti-"Brexit"-Centrist-Messiah. Those kinds of pacts are never a good idea. Christopher Marlowe wrote a very good play about that kind of thing. 


I do not think it is possible to stop "Brexit". I think that the best we can hope for is a "Brexit" that does as little harm as possible; a form of words which allows us to tell the referendum cultists "You see, we did come out of Europe; 'Brexit' did mean 'Brexit' after all" while retaining some semblance of a functional economy. "Brexit" in name only, as the fellow said. That appears to be what both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are working towards. Because neither of them are lunatics. 


I do not support a second referendum.  The best option would be not to have had a referendum in the first place. 

The second best option would have been for the sane side of the argument to have said "We deny the legitimacy of this Referendum. Referenda are not how parliamentary democracies work. We regard Referendums as purely advisory. We will not necessarily abide by the results."

The third best option would have been for the sane side to have fought a decent and compelling referendum campaign and put the issue to bed for another 43 years. But that's a problem because the sane side is always going to feel boring and wriggly and evasive where the mad side is always going to sound dynamic and exciting and committed. The sane side will always come out sounding like that slimy lawyer who keeps saying "Objection, your honour" and trying to introduce pedantic little facts into the argument, where the mad side is quite free to shout "Millions of Turks flooding through the channel tunnel! Give us back our conkers." 

But we decided not to go with any of the sensible options, and we are where we are. 


Once you have jumped off a cliff, your options are severely limited. This is the main reason that jumping off cliffs is widely regarded as not being a great idea. The choice, as I see it, is between growing a pair of wings and reversing gravity, or facing the fact that we are going to be hitting the ground relatively soon and doing something to mitigate the bump. 

Jeremy Corbyn is a sensible man and sensible people sometimes change their minds. He is also a sensible politician and sensible politicians sometimes do what the majority of their party want them to do, even though they would rather have done something else. So it is possible that, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow (the day after that would be a bit too late) Jeremy might say something like this. 


"As you know, I supported 'remain' because although I think that the EU is flawed, I think that we should remain members and try and fix the flaws. And as you know, when 'leave' won the referendum by a small majority, I said that we should abide by the result but work towards a 'Brexit' that does as little harm as possible. But I have listened to you members who elected me, and I am very happy to change my mind and say that we should try and halt the whole process. Accordingly, we will fight the next election with a clear manifesto commitment to reverse article 50, and with a clear set of principles about the reforms and improvements we want to push for."


This would be sensible, pragmatic and democratic. It would also be politically suicidal. The press would crucify him. The Labour leavers would defect to UKIP. The Labour remainers would say that he didn't really mean it. The BBC would say it was all about the Jews. Labour would lose the election; the cause of socialism would be lost for the next 40 years; and the Tory hard right and the Labour Centrists would see themselves as vindicated. 

Scenarios in which Corbyn steps aside and Chuka Umunna fights the next election on a Remain platform; or in which Tony Blair returns from the Isle of Avalon in a swan-shaped barge crash into the same rocks. They wouldn't win.

I would very much like a socialist Labour Party to fight the next election on an anti-"Brexit" platform and for them to romp home with an overwhelming majority. I would also very much like a unicorn. 



So then: the last best hope is a Second Referendum. 

I don't believe in The People; I just believe in people. I don't believe that there is such a thing as The Will of the People; I just believe that people have opinions, different ones, some good some bad, some sensible, some silly. I don't believe that a vote taken on one particular day can possibly have the kind of Scriptural force that the "Brexit" fundamentalists ascribe to it. But if you treat referendums as really, really, big, really, really, expensive opinion polls, then they are obviously of some value. They force the government to engage with what Public Opinion actually is, as opposed to what they think it is or would like it to be. 

The really, really big opinion poll which we had on 23 June 2016 told us that slightly less than a third of the population agreed with Europe, slightly more than a third of the population disagreed with Europe, and slightly less than a third of cats who expressed a preference didn't express a preference either way. 

The People Spoke, and The People Said "We don't know."

If the referendum had been about abolishing Prince Charles, it would certainly have come out with seventy or eighty per cent saying "Gawd Bless Your Royal Highness" with the balance split between "Orf With His Head" and "I'm sorry, why are we even talking about this?" When the Irish asked the people about legalizing abortion, it went two thirds "Yes we should " and one third "No we shouldn't" which might not be overwhelming but is pretty decisive. The Irish wrote into their Constitution that you have to have a Referendum to Amend that Constitution; and they know exactly what Amendment they are voting on before they vote. We haven't even got as far as having a Constitution yet.

Please, please don't call it a People's Referendum. That makes it sound as if the last one was a kangeroos' referendum. It also makes it sound as if we believe in the daft idea that there is a thing called The People who have a thing called a Will, which is what got us into this mess to begin with. Let us rather call it the Purely Advisory Referendum Which Will Allow The Government To Accurately Gage Public Opinion Before Making Their Own Decision Which They Will Take Full Responsibility For. 

Having had one Bloody Stupid Referendum, there is no objection in principal to having a Second Bloody Stupid Referendum. The True Believers will say "I suppose you are going to ask over and over until you get the right answer?" To which I reply "Yes, and if the first answer was manifestly stupid, then asking again and again until you get a sensible one is obviously the right thing to do." 

"Do you want sausages or dog poo for your supper." 
"Dog poo." 
"No, listen, I am going to ask you again, sausages or dog poo?" 
"Dog poo." 
"I am going to ask you one last time, do you want sausage or dog poo?" 

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" is not a ridiculous question to ask before making a big decision. I believe that is how they treat euthanasia patients in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal. They don't say "I am sorry, you have booked your ticket to Switzerland, now we have to kill you." They, say, at each stage of the process "Are you quite sure about this?" I believe about a third of people get as far as the clinic and then decide to carry on being alive after all. I am sorry to have used such a morbid metaphor. If I need another one I will go back to the dog shit.


So, the question is, what is the question? 

We could rerun the 2016 vote and see if The People have come to their collective senses. (Clue: They haven't.) 


"Three years ago we asked you if you wanted to Leave the European Union or Remain in the European Union. Because this is such an important question, we are giving you the opportunity to change your mind: 

𐄂Carry on as we are and LEAVE the European Union.
𐄂Revoke article 50 if they will let us and REMAIN in the European Union." 


But we already know that the country is split down the middle on the issue, and the result will be 50/50 plus or minus 5% either way. If Leave gets 55% again, we're stuffed. If Remain gets 55% this time, then we have two advisory votes, one narrowly saying "Jump" and another one narrowly saying "Don't Jump". I suppose we could average them out and do nothing. (Do you remember that bit in Dune where Paul can see all the possible outcomes of all his actions, and all the possible outcomes of all those outcomes, on to infinity, and decides to do nothing at all, and realizes that that's still a choice, with its own consequences?) Those of us who enjoy political schadenfreude would get to see the Leavers saying "But the vote was too narrow to mean anything" and the Remainers saying "You lost! Get over it".

So, then: we must be voting on the actual Deal; whatever compromise Mrs May eventually comes up with. So the Question looks something like this: 


"Mrs May has cleverly worked out a damage limitation exercise, in which we leave Europe technically, but agree to stick to some of their rules and get some of the trade advantages we would have had if we had stayed. Do you vote to

𐄂ACCEPT Mrs May's Clever Compromise or
𐄂REJECT Mrs May's Clever Compromise and..."


...and what? And leave with No Deal? That is what the Incredibly Far Right have wanted all along: Britain as a mighty island with no tax, no welfare state, no pesky human rights. Singapore with chips instead of noodles. 

Or is the idea that we might reject Mrs May's Chequers compromise but ask her to go back to the negotiating table and start all over again? And what then? A third referendum on the third deal? 

Which leaves us with the only remotely sensible possibility:


"Chequers. It's bad, but it could be worse. What do you reckon?

𐄂LEAVE under the terms of the Chequers Agreement
𐄂LEAVE with no deal at all! Go it alone! This fortress built by nature for herself! Cry ho for England, Boris and St Cecil!" 
𐄂This is a stupid idea. Let's give the whole thing up and REMAIN if they will still have us, which frankly, I wouldn't if I were them."


I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion that, faced with a choice of Bad Deal / Terrible Deal / Remain the majority of people would chose to Remain. All of the press, most of the Tory party, some of the Labour party and that nice Mr Putin want us very badly to leave. The populist press and Nigel Farage will represent anything less than No Deal as a betrayal as bad as the betrayal when Judas Iscariot betrayed Robin Hood to William of Orange at Runnymead. I think that a three way referendum is the shortest possible path to No Deal, which is the worst possible outcome.

Rest assured: if we have Another Referendum I will do the Decent Thing. But I think that "Brexit" is now inevitable, that negotiating the least worst deal possible is the least worst strategy available and that playing Fantasy Referendum has a very high chance of making things considerably worse.

And yes, I know what the gentleman in the third row wants to say. "Brexit" will be so disastrous that it doesn't matter whether Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson or Alan Sugar is the next Prime Minister. Once all those lorries are queued up in the English channel no-one in this country will be able to have nice things ever again. My English teacher used to tell me that we didn't need to worry about our exams or our career very much because there would certainly be a nuclear war before the millennium. (Do you ever wonder how I got to be where I am today? That is how.) Hadn't we seen Threads? Apocalyptic thinking has its appeal. Eat drink and be existential because we are all going die. I think it's still worth talking about having the least worst apocalypse possible. But if I were going to Armageddon I wouldn't start from here.







Monday, September 24, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #34

The Thrill of the Hunt

Villain:
Kraven the Hunter

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Anna Watson, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, J.J.J's new Secretary (un-named)


Chronology
The action takes place over about a week: 

Day 1 (Night): Peter Parker starts studying again. (page 4) 
Day 2: "The next day" Peter Parker visits Aunt May in hospital (p4) and goes back to college (p5). That evening he hears the report that Spider-Man has attacked JJJ (p6)
Day 3 -6: "In the days that follow" the false Spider-Man makes more attacks.  
Day 7: "Finally" Spider-Man decides to take action. 

Since the cuts and bruises on Peter Parker's face have healed, a few days must have elapsed since the end of The Final Chapter. If issue #33 took place in the early hours of Sunday, 29 August 1965, The Thrill of the Hunt probably takes place between 1st September and 8th September. 

The fight between Spidey and Kraven takes place after dark; Aunt May and Mrs Watson are having tea and think Peter is at the cinema. Aunt May thanks him for coming home early. 

6PM: Mrs Watson comes round for tea; Peter sets out
7PM  Fight between Spider-Man and Kraven
9PM  Foswell reports capture of Kraven to Bugle
10PM Peter gets home.

Note that Jameson's new secretary is still in the office at 9PM: he's expecting her to work a 12 hour shift, while protesting that he isn't running a sweat shop. 

Peter Parker's finances
Peter doesn't bother selling any pictures of Kraven to J.J.J: he has not spent the thousand dollars that he got at the end of last issue.


Observations:
p6: "It's the Chameleon's last hideout..the one he used when the two of us teamed up...I've got to trap Spider-Man before I myself am discovered...for I have been sentenced never to return to these shores."
In Amazing Spider-Man #15, the Chameleon brought Kraven to New York  to defeat Spider-Man. They were both deported at the end of the episode. Kraven was last seen in a prison cell with the rest of the Sinister Six, but was presumably put back on a boat immediately thereafter. (The Chameleon is currently concentrating on helping the Leader defeat the Hulk.)

p8 "The world's most amazing super-hero, contentedly munching a mcintosh apple..."
It is unclear why Stan Lee bothers to specify the brand of apple. Mcintosh were a popular red-coloured fruit grown near New York. Steve Jobs named a famous brand of computer after them.

p13 "It's him!"
"Tsk, tsk. You mean "It is he"! Nothing infuriates me as much as bad grammar!"
One would not say "Him is climbing the wall" (unless one were referring to Adam Warlock) so logically one should not say "It is him who is climbing the wall" and therefore not "It is him". Similarly, you wouldn't say "Me is climbing the wall" (unless you had been raised by Kala the she-ape.) But in practice, everyone says "It is him" and "It is me."(Germans say "Ich ben is!" but the French say "C'est moi!".) Most grammar experts recommend that one follows common usage in all but the most formal situations.




The follow-up to the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy is not irredeemably bad: it is just a bit meh. The Scorpion story, which came straight after the End of Spider-Man triptych was also a bit meh. So it was possible to read this story and hope that Ditko and Lee were merely pausing for breath before embarking on their next epic.

Kraven the Hunter decides that it is time to have another go at killing Spidey. On page #1, he is treating it as a personal challenge ("the greatest prize of all is still denied me") but by page #7 he is thinking in terms of a personal feud ("it is worth the risk to destroy the one I loath most of all in all the world"). He brews up one of his jungle potions which gives him the power to stick to walls, puts on a Spider-Man suit, and threatens J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson redoubles his newspaper campaign against our hero.

Last time a baddie dressed up as Spider-Man, Peter Parker assumed that he had become a  somnambulant split personality and went running to a psychiatrist. This time, more reasonably, he thinks "Someone is impersonating me!'' As soon as he ventures out, he encounters the fake Spider-Man who reveals himself to be Kraven. They chase each other around an old building for a bit, and when Kraven catches up with him, they have a fight. Spider-Man wins, Kraven admits the ruse ("Whatever else I may be...I am a man of honour!") and Jameson is left feeling pretty stupid. Again.

There is a very small wrinkle. An angry mob follows Spider-Man into the building where he and Kraven are sparring. Not very much comes of this: Spidey ties up half of them in webbing and punches the other lot out. The script quite definitely says that the mob are criminals with a grudge against Spider-Man ("most of the nails Hogan gang") But I wonder if Ditko intended them to be a mob of angry citizens?  Page 9 panel 5 shows the General Public being whipped up into a state of mild annoyance by one of J.J.J's editorials ("someone should put that masked wall crawler out of circulation once and for all") and on page 11 we see three mean looking guys deciding to "get rid of him once and for all". (They look very mean indeed: some of them have picked up sticks and several of them do not seem to be able to afford shirts.) So isn't it more likely that Ditko intended them to be ordinary members of the public, fired up to take the law into their own hands by Jameson's incendiary writing? Without this, it is hard to see much point to the "fake Spider-Man" plot thread. On the other hand, Spider-Man is shown quite happily punching the mob, which is hard to credit if he thinks they are just angry proles.

And that is pretty much all that happens. Aunt May is all smiles after her silly old operation; by the end of the issue she is sitting down to a good old fashioned chat with Mrs Watson over tea and cookies. Betty Brant decides to leave town for good. Jonah gets a new secretary. And Peter Parker continues to sabotage his own social life. He tries to be nice to his fellow students who not unnaturally tell him to get lost, since he's been blanking them since the first day of term. Peter could easily have explained what happened. Flash may be a bastard, but Gwen and (as we will find out in a few issues) Harry are basically fair-minded people who would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Instead he blames a situation which he himself created on a malignant supernatural force -- "the old Parker luck" -- and slinks away to catch up on his lab work. "I guess I can't blame them for thinking I'm the prize crumb of the year!" he explains to a bell jar "But I sure don't intend to beg them for a chance to explain." 

Oh. Peter. Parker. Stop. Being. Such. A. Dick.

There is, however, one point of interest in the issue. It is only a clue to a road not taken but it is an interesting road and an interesting clue.


After seeing Aunt May and finishing school, Peter Parker hears police sirens. He is just about to jump into action as Spider-Man, but then he thinks "Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" He doesn't need the photo-money because of the rather generous fee he took from J.J.J. last issue; and he would rather visit Aunt May and study.

"Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" As slogans go, it's not quite up there with "With great power comes great responsibility."

You might expect that this would lead to some tragic conclusion or moral lesson: that something would teach him that he can never say "why bother?" when Spider-Man could be helping out. But nothing comes of it at all. He decides to let the world turn without him for one night, and it does.

Peter Parker really did cast of his albatross and exorcise the ghost of Uncle Ben last month. He no longer feels that his great power gives him responsibility for the whole of the rest of the world. He turns his back on a crime and looks happier than we have ever seen him in months. Maybe it has taken Ditko 34 issues to finally refute the ending of Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker is going to pass by on the other side when he could have helped someone. And that's okay.

That was the message that Ditko tried to give us in The End of Spider-Man. If it comes to a straight choice between being Peter Parker and being Spider-Man, Peter Parker is much happier just being himself.

Of course, it doesn't come out like that. The fake Spider-Man forces him to go into action (perhaps that, in narrative terms, was the point of it) and the issue ends with him telling a passing tree that "Spider-Man I've always been...and shall always be...as long as I live."

But perhaps this was where Ditko wanted to take the story. Freed from his liberal guilt, Peter Parker no longer has to play the hero: from now on he's just a crime photographer making an honest living.

the amazing spider-epilogue


turns out that there are things to say about Spider-Man #34-#38 after all

amazingly, it turns out that it takes a lot longer to explain why a terrible story doesn't work than to explain what is so great about a classic

and i couldn't really work out any way of talking properly about #39 & #40 (the big green goblin story) without talking about the issues which lead up to it.

so, here come my last six or seven spider-essays and then i really am done

thanks for staying on board

spread the word on sociable meejah and drop some money into patreon if you haven't already