Out Now!

Monday, 13 August 2007

And we all moved closer to Heaven

I saw them as a blur, as meaningful to me as wildebeest on the African Veldt. Suddenly they turned, streaming after their leader, charging down the boys’ play-yard, heading in my direction. It was too late to run. My back was against the railings. To my left a high brick wall, to my right the boys’ toilets. No refuge there. A hand grasped my throat, fanatical eyes glared deep into mine. “Wot team d’yer support, la?”

I didn’t support a team, never really thought about it before. He was still looking at me, pushing closer, heads peering over his shoulder waiting for an answer. “Liverpool,” I squeaked. It was the right answer. The hand relaxed. I was able to breath again. Had it been “Everton,” I’d have been dead meat, or at least badly bruised meat.

They charged off, the Spanish Inquisition, in search of fresh prey.
I stared across the yard towards the black metal fire-escape leading to the classroom, thinking of dinner and wondering whether I had time for a wee before lessons. I was nine years old and had suddenly become a Liverpool supporter. I was also very hungry.

Our dinner tickets came in rolls of thick, slightly fuzzy blue paper. They were comforting to touch when you were hungry and if you were really hungry you could imagine the smell of dinner on them. When lessons were boring I’d take them out of my pocket and sniff them, imagining the smell of meat and gravy, pies and toffee puddings. It was better than eating what was actually served. The ultimate nightmare was Tapioca pudding, which resembled frogspawn in cream - no, not even cream - thin milk.

Blessed Sacrament after the 11+ exam was rough and ready. All the smart kids had gone. We looked forward to ‘Games’ where we rolled hoops and threw coloured bean-bags, sometimes the other way round. I remember Mr. Grue, a small dapper man with short dark hair tightly curled and a face that was brown. It reminded me of a monkey, sometimes of a fierce but benevolent raisin. He controlled - often taught - classes of forty. Like many teachers in the 1950’s he was ex-army and possessed an authority increasingly rare in modern schools. In the adjacent pre-fabricated building was Miss Mooney who allowed me to sort out her stock cupboard when the weather was wet.

It was warm and simple. Classrooms had pictures of steps leading up to the Heavenly Throne. For sixpence a time, you could move your adopted African or Asian child up a step. The money went to the missions and we all moved a little closer to heaven.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Green Teeth

My first bike was grey and heavy and looked like a recycled tank. My parents tested it and were reassured by its strength and solidity. The ground shook when my dad picked it up and let it fall gently to the floor. He tried it again - just to make sure and a passing lorry jumped. The two of them nodded. Michael would be safe, safer than any vehicle he’d probably crash into.

Tony was luckier; younger brothers are. When nothing bad happened to me, he was allowed to buy a light and sexy bike in glossy red metallic paint. But the deal remained the same. We had to save half the cost and our parents would match it with the other half.

It took me just under a year and two paper rounds. I loved delivering papers. The round bound you, but the mind roamed where it wanted to. Sometimes still, I wonder what fantasies lurk in a postman’s head - probably darker, more erotic than any a twelve year old boy would have had in 1959.

Usually I was an Indian, chewing pemmican as I trudged across the endless plain. In lieu of dried buffalo meat, I’d have a store of dried orange peel gathering dust in the pocket of a blue gabardine raincoat. Sometimes - as a true forager - I would sample privet leaves. They had a mean, bitter taste and would stain your teeth green. Not a garden was safe from me. My favourite was nasturtium leaves. They had a dark and peppery taste, and didn’t stain your teeth. On a Sunday I would treat myself to an Uncle Joe’s mint-ball. Sometimes two.

Delivering the papers took me longer than most people because when not whistling or chewing privet leaves I’d be reading what I should have been delivering; occasionally exercising censor-ship. I was a narrow bigoted little boy, a good Catholic, possessed of the truth. There was a journal called ‘The Free Thinker’ - atheist and libertarian - I regularly crumpled up before pushing it through the letter-box. The man was patient, but eventually complained.

Mrs Robertson ran the shop. She had a waxen face and her fingers were yellow. She’d clutch the sweets as though reluctant to let them go. At the far end of Warbreck Moor was another Newsagent - Claytons. Along one wall was a small private lending library. The books smelled musty, the shelves were dark and narrow. The other walls were lined with tall glass jars filled with sweets, but it was something else they sold that drew us like wasps to a beer glass. Broken crisps. They were the brushings from the Crisp Factory (Smiths) half a mile up the road, but we didn’t know that. They were served in small conical paper bags - a penny a bag - and they looked good enough. Grease with a crunch.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

British Comics

The man with the square chin is Dan Dare, Pilot of the future.

Giant green head and stunted body - must be the Mekon - Dare's supreme enemy

The scene: a log cabin in Siberia: a British pilot kneeling beneath a lit window. Inside Von Stalhein is warning his new Russian paymasters, “You must never under-estimate Herr Biggles. He could be anywhere.” The British pilot wears a smug look.

Why do we remember such rubbish?

Biggles began his long duel with the German master-villain in World War 1. The fight continued as Von Stalhein mutated into a Nazi, and he’s still fighting an ever-green Biggles at the height of the Cold War. The author, W.E Johns went on to have Biggles fighting the Communist Chinese in the Himalayas. By this time the author was almost as senile as Biggles should have been. My last remaining image of Biggles was being pursued by the Chung - invisible electrically charged maggots the size of dogs through a network of mountain tunnels.

George Orwell wrote a superb article on British comics. “Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps a majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else…and with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs… All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our times do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern which will last for ever.” This was written in 1939.

I think Biggles, single handedly fighting German master spies and the two great Communist blocs, shows that comics and boy’s books don’t so much ignore the problems of our time, but rather simplify them. But then I’ve never met a boy yet who reads a Times Editorial for pleasure.

They would much rather read the ‘Yellow Sword’ published in the Wizard in 1968.

He had seen the grey hordes from the East spread like a flood across Europe, as they had done across America a year before, and now he was coming home. ...it was June, and Britain had been conquered. The last news Maitland had heard was of landings by the Kushantis at Dover, Folkestone and in the Southampton area….He was opposite the general store when the announcer came on the air again. “You will now hear a recording of the last message of the late Prime Minister, the last words spoken before his death,” he said. Maitland stopped at the sound of a familiar voice, now heavy with incredible weariness and broken by emotion. “My friends! It is my duty to tell you that at six o’clock this morning, stripped of our defences and in order to save further useless loss of life, the British Government through me, as Prime Minister, signed an act of surrender to the Imperial Kushanti Oligarchy in the Tower of London. I have to say that the act of surrender was made in the presence of His Excellency, Colonel-General Mushti, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Occupation in Great Britain.”
The wireless was now silent, but some of the villagers heard another voice, a voice that came from the street. Maitland with his head back and a strange glow in his eyes, was singing as he marched. “Rule Britannia,” he sang, “Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never never shall be slaves!” His voice weakened and faded away. As, with shouts of “John! John’s come home!” his parents and brother rushed out of the house. Maitland staggered and fell sprawling and inert on the garden path.

1968. This was well after my comic reading days were over but think about it. This was written in 1968 - the year of the Paris riots, world wide student unrest, Vietnam and the march on Grosvenor Square - 'Sympathy for the Devil'. And children are reading about a grey horde from the east - Britain over-run - and the hero singing Rule Britannia. 1968. It could have been written in 1910.

Orwell was speaking of a time and place: 1939. Britain. What about America? In Europe,economic and social turmoil saw the rise of fascism during this period - the cult of the leader - the hero born to rule. German had Hitler, Italy, Mussolini. America had Roosevelt, but it was also the period Superman was born. Britain made do with Stanley Baldwin.

Super-heroes change but one thing remains. Whether apolitical or reflecting some degree of cultural liberalism - even bloody-mindedness - super-heroes never question the economic basis of society, or its social structure. Individuals may be bad and the hero will sort it out. At this point my son moseys by. "What about Ultimate Thor," he mutters. "He challenges the American military-industrial complex."

"Adults revisiting their childhood," I mutter back. "Revisionism," I hiss.

The New York Times (05/07/07) in an article on a Comic Book Convention, argued that it’s a cliché about fans of comic /fantasy being losers with no social skills and no friends. Hmm. It can be also be argued that cliché is also another term for an obvious truth, though as a fantasist myself I’d rather believe that truth is sometimes more complex. What interested me most however was its later suggestion that:

“In some respects America is now a country of freaks and geeks, self-professed outsiders who imagine themselves somehow different from the herd, perhaps because they are Americans - radical individualists who are united if only by their increasingly narrow interests and obsessions.” The danger is that fantasy too often compensates for economic and social inequality, imaginary worlds reduce the need to change the one we have. George Orwell would have had a field day with today’s comic culture.

Comics need heroes. Orwell argued that the boy imagines himself to be that hero but as an adult subconsciously assumes a hero is needed in times of trouble. I’m with ‘The Lord of the Flies’ on this one. Children are inherently fascist. They identify with something greater than themselves whether it is Harry Potter, Spider Man, Sherlock Holmes or Biggles. Young souls or tired souls cling to heroes. In quiet times, Fantasy remains the great escape, adding colour to drab lives. But when it comes to social breakdown adults become children again, with their black and white views, their need for heroes - the stronger the better. If George Orwell is right, the seeds are sown in childhood from the earliest fairy tale to the all pervasive cartoon and now CGI.

I'm talking as if there might be an alternative. I don't think there is. It is something built in: aspiration - as basic to us as sunlight to a runner-bean. Social realism for Children? Middle Earth ruled by a Collective. The entire world of fantasy is built upon hierarchy. Heroes of either sex defeat villains, and the peasants get on with their lives with the occasional walk-on part. And what child wants to identify with a peasant?

I didn’t. I lived in a red-bricked terraced house and attended a working class school. I didn’t want to read about it as well! Like a whole generation, I bought into the myth of privilege. In my imagination I attended Grey Friars School, laughed with Bob Cherry and Tom Merry at Billy Bunter. (You were allowed to laugh at fat boys in those days).

The Beano, the Dandy, Topper and Beezer saw me through my early childhood. Characters like Biffo the Bear, or Dennis the Menace, Beryl the Peril, Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, Lord Snooty and the Bash street Kids were all well and good, but none surpassed Big Fat Boko and his crow called Koko, and not even that approached - Rupert the Bear.

Big Fat Boko was a fat magician in a red robe and conjured up a mystic world - a world away from Aintree. Rupert the Bear was stronger drink - the summation of imperial mysticism. Set in Nutwood, an idealized English village with the sea conveniently close, stories were awash in mermaids and sea-elves, gnomes, Manchu princesses and worlds within worlds.

Later I became more sophisticated.

I adventured with Breakneck Bradshaw, Thruster John (what a name!) Captain Condor and Magnus the Muscleman; thrilled to the adventures of Captain Zoom, Cool Cassidy, Captain Scarlett, Catamount Jack, Red MacGregor - and best of all Dan Dare - space pilot of the future.

Imagine a square chinned fighter pilot dressed in a neat UN/American uniform; imagine a cultural fusion of the Battle of Britain and the 1950’s. Now put them up against intergalactic villains. There was only one, as I remember - The grand Mekon. He was green with a large globular head, and he floated on a motorized lily pad. He led the Treens who were also green and to a boy of that age carried connotations of Nazis, Japanese, communists or any totalitarian system we saw then as a threat.

Dan Dare also saw my first sexual awakening. It involved an alien race with blue skins and flaming red hair. The women were spectacular. I’ve had a thing about blue skinned women with dark red hair ever since, but so far have been disappointed.