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Happy New Year

8 January, 2018 (14:00) | Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

3 conversations with medical professionals:

DENTIST: Have you checked with your doctor about that? Probably isn’t anything.
DOCTOR: Probably nothing, but I’ll get a dermatologist to have a look.
DERMATOLOGIST: Nothing to worry about, but we’ll schedule a biopsy anyway.

*

I spent a lazy Sunday watching three films linked by similar themes:

  • Bladerunner 2049
  • Ghost in the Shell (1995)
  • Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I feel a longer post coming on, but I’m going to give them all a second watch before I do

 

Myth, Meaning and Coffee

4 January, 2018 (16:07) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

When I was a student the first time round, a significant figure in my life was Gianfranco Tellini, the college Vice Principal. I don’t honestly remember much about that period in my life, though I get flashbacks now and then, but getting to know Gian and his family was a delight. In my final years at University, 1980-82, I took Gian’s classes in Liturgy for two years, and my Honours dissertation was on Baptism considered anthropologically as an initiation rite, with him as my tutor.

Gian was originally from Trieste, and was a Roman Catholic priest before converting to Anglicanism and marrying Clare. He was many things in his life, including (if my memory is correct) a Vatican adviser on Eastern liturgies; but, my lasting memories are of friendship, discussing science fiction, his lessons on how to drink vodka in the Polish style, playing the devil’s music on an old guitar he had in his apartment, and a way of thinking about myth and ritual that has never left me.

I’ve also never forgotten, but never managed to replicate, the ferocious coffee brewed in the traditional Turkish style in a small copper pot over a calor gas burner in his small study, the grounds being settled by adding a touch of rose water (or the afternoon we beat a hasty exit from his office when the calor gas container started leaking.)

The last time I was in touch with Gian was 5 years ago when we had a brief email exchange touching on patterns in Celtic Christianity, and how the communion rail in the 4th century church (ecclesia plebana) of Old Muggia near his native Trieste is decorated with a frieze that could have been taken from the Book of Kells.

I’m currently writing a story that has deep origins in my memory of elements of Gian’s teaching, and I was looking through my old class notes just this week. I decided to drop him another line to keep in touch and pick up on a half-remembered theme, but I found out yesterday that Gian died on 23 November 2017, aged 81.

Although we had been only in sporadic contact, I will treasure his final words to me in his last email: So glad to have heard from you. It is nice to hear again from a friend.

RIP

Many Bothans Died to Bring You This Post

26 December, 2017 (22:21) | Star Wars | By: Ian Burdon

After my initial thoughts on The Last Jedi (spoilers) I’ve watched all 9 of the Star Wars movies in timeline order and seen The Last Jedi a second time. I don’t think I’ve done that before and most of the earlier movies I haven’t watched for some time.

This post is the result of that immersion. I’m not going to claim there are any great insights ahead, it’s just my thoughts. Nor am I going to attempt a ranking of the films other than to say the prequel trilogy and The Return of the Jedi are, for different reasons, the weakest of the series, and that’s hardly a controversial view.

If you haven’t seen it yet, this post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi

I acknowledge from the outset that the films are adventures for children not old farts like me. Lindsay said she loved The Phantom Menace when she was eleven, but doesn’t have the same sense of enjoyment now, so mission accomplished by George Lucas in that sense.

Lindsay is responsible for the production stills used below.

The Prequels

Bruce Lee as Obi-Wing Chunobi, in Enter the Jedi (1973), an early inspiration for Lucas’s Star Wars

I’ve written previously that I liked Star Wars because of its call backs to Saturday morning serials in the cinema when I was 10 or 11. There was little or no attempt at any more backstory than absolutely necessary for a simple tale. The prequels differed in that they were a deliberate attempt to add a complex history to turn the six films into the saga of the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

I watched all of the movies for this post on my laptop on DVD, except Rogue One which I played on Blu-Ray with the sound through the HiFi, and The Force Awakens which I have on Blu-Ray but watched on Netflix. I watched The Last Jedi at the cinema, first in 3D then on an IMAX screen. It was obvious from the beginning that the prequels do not play to best effect on the laptop screen. They are the most heavily digital of the movies and it showed. Effects shots just didn’t look great, and the matte scenes looked like gameplay rather than cinematic. That wouldn’t matter if the story held your attention, but…

Tony Curtis as Long-Gone Jones in the 1958 original of The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace. Good story, but not well executed. There is far too much exposition and explanation; ‘show don’t tell’ holds as true for the cinema as for prose. The dialogue is as wooden as a forestry plantation. A tighter edit might well improve it a lot. And then there’s Jar-Jar Binks who, if nothing else, stands as testimony that George Lucas learned nothing from Ewoks about putting stereotypes on screen.

Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers never felt the need to delve too far into the history of the villains, or to turn their stories into redemption arcs. If the Saga had started with The Phantom Menace in 1977, there would never have been any subsequent movies and this would be an oddity shown late at night on obscure cable channels.

Attack of the Clones. I enjoyed this much more than The Phantom Menace. It is quick to action and Ewan McGregor comes into his own when Obi-Wan gets to go off on an adventure of his own. Another wooden script, though, and I’m not in the slightest bit surprised Anakin got shirty when continually patronised as ‘my very young padawan’ and condescended to by Obi-Wan and everyone else on the Jedi Council.

Revenge of the Sith. The first 15 minutes are good, though perhaps a little overdone. Throughout the film the beats are slightly off, somewhat too plodding, like when Eric Clapton ditched the original Layla for his acoustic dirge rendition. Too digital, and the soundscape is not great, at least on headphones. The dialogue is stilted. In terms of Star Wars lore, though, this is the one that suggests that Anakin is the creation of the Sith Lord Darth Plagueis, meaning that the entire Skywalker line is a creation of the Sith. The digital Yoda is crap.

Douglass Montgomery and Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 Children’s Film Foundation production of Little Jedi (aka The Younglings in UK cinemas)

Overall I’d say the prequel trilogy is three potentially good movies trapped inside three mediocre ones. Annoyingly, given the whole point of the trilogy is to set up the tragedy of Anakin and Padme, it was those scenes I ended up fast-forwarding through. Natalie Portman was better than the scripts deserved.

Rogue One. And boom! When I saw Rogue One in the cinema I emailed some friends to say “the first third is a bit clunky but the final third is pure Star Wars.” My view has changed; I like Rogue One more and more every time I watch it. Deliberately, it plays on a very different set of tropes to the first Star Wars; it is basically The Battle of Britain, 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Sands of Iwo Jima. It also reminded me a little of 13 Assassins, though I’m not sure why.

Olivia de Havilland, the original Jyn Erso, with Errol Flynn; production still from the 1935 Captain Rogue

In an earlier age this film would have had Richard Widmark and Clint Eastwood as leads, with Yul Brynner, Richard Burton, Tony Curtis et al as the ragged band of heroes. Telly Savalas might show up. Ingrid Bergman or similar would have stayed at home to wring her handkerchief and bear her loss stoically. Rogue One instead has Felicity Jones being fab and carrying the movie. In terms of action, script, cinematography, story beats and all the rest it is leagues ahead of the Prequels and only let down by the digital-overlay Leia. The perfect beer and pizza movie, and we even have Darth Vader in Barad-dûr.

Star Wars. Where it all started. I expected this to pale somewhat on the back of Rogue One, but it holds up really well. It is straight in with action, no messing. Although it is an earlier generation of effects, it looks much better than the prequels. The back story is minimal and honed down to the point necessary to keep the story going, but no more than that. Where it falls down is the dialogue is not great (and some of the additional dialogue doesn’t quite synch. with what’s happening on screen). Also, Hamill, Fisher and Ford in their earliest film appearances are still learning their trade. I’ve never liked the medal awards thing at the end, even when I first saw it. However until that moment the film never loses focus on the primary story for a second, and, quibbles aside, it still hits the spot.

The Empire Strikes Back. Often cited as the fan-favourite of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back also starts in with a WW2-movie vibe, very well done, and sharply edited. The Empire Strikes Back starts to lay the mythology in place in the way Star Wars didn’t. Luke is set up in a way that comes to be mirrored in the prequels (much anger in him, like his father), and Yoda initially declines to train Luke, who is shown to be flawed in this film.

Kirk Douglas as Darth Spartacus in Revenge of the Vikings, after his seduction by the Dark Side.

Hamill and Fisher are still finding their way as actors, and the dialogue is hokey. It’s a good movie though, entertaining to watch, and worthy of the high regard in which it is held. See also my thoughts on The Last Jedi below.

The Return of the Jedi. This is a strange one. The opening, as you might expect from the final film in a trilogy, expects you to know what happened in the first two films. Even allowing for that, this felt to me like an episode rather than a fully formed movie. There are a lot of creature effects and, looking at them now, after The Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, and Planet of the Apes, they are embarrassingly poor. Notably Jabba isn’t very good. The matte art looked really bad on my laptop screen.

And then there are the Ewoks; not only do they look ludicrous, there is a dismaying play on colonial tropes of bumbling, comedic natives.

Somewhere in all of this is the final encounter between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, but for me it gets a bit lost in the Tarzan pastiche.

There are interesting bits of lore in the movie, and, as with The Empire Strikes Back, various cues that Rian Johnson picks up and plays with in The Last Jedi. It is in this movie that Yoda says to Luke When gone am I the last of the Jedi you will be. And it is Obi-Wan who comments that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Also, no one can watch Return then complain with a straight face about the recent ‘Disneyfication’ of Star Wars; Lucas did this all by himself.

In the 1961 blockbuster El Cith, Captain Phasma was a hero, played by Charlton Heston

The Force Awakens. It is apparent right from the opening that this is an order of magnitude different to the older movies. It’s not just that film making has moved on over forty years; we have good actors delivering plausible dialogue, great cinematography, and a presentation of the First Order drawn on contemporary experiences of terror and oppression. John Boyega makes an impact even while wearing a helmet; Rey is introduced brilliantly and with economy; Daisy Ridley is believable from her first scene and never lets go. Even bit players deliver their lines with conviction.

There was a lot of talk at the time of The Force Awakens as a remake of Star Wars, as a JJ Abrams reboot. But I don’t think it is that at all. It obviously takes its cues from Star Wars, but it plays with them for its own purposes rather than replicates them. Rey is not Luke, and her journey is different. In a way it pays homage to what Star Wars is in the childhood memories of its creators, and what an homage it is.

The Force Awakens is a very, very good Star Wars movie that doesn’t neglect to stir mysteries into the pot of Star Wars lore (why does the light sabre choose Rey over Kylo Ren? Is it because it is Anakin’s light sabre not Vader’s?). Crucially, the film gives us no serious expository set up other than The First Order are on the up using the Dark Side of the Force, Luke has disappeared, and Leia’s band of rebels are in trouble; enter our new heroes.

The Last Jedi

Kirk Douglas as Mac Windows in Clone of Spartacus, before his seduction by the Dark Side of the Force.

The Last Jedi is a thing of wonder. On my first watch I enjoyed it but had reservations; I was spellbound on my second viewing.

Rian Johnson takes his cues from The Empire Strikes Back but refashions them into something very special. Importantly, this is not a remake of Empire, but the conclusion to it. Just as Yoda first refuses to train Luke in Empire, Luke first refuses to train Rey, but for different reasons, and Luke’s hesitation, his lack of belief in himself, is exactly the same lack of belief that plagues his training in Empire. Always with you it cannot be done, says Yoda in Empire, adding that Luke fails because he doesn’t believe.

In The Last Jedi, Luke has to face his failure to train Ben Solo, just as Obi-Wan failed in his training of Anakin. Yoda finally helps Luke complete the training he started all those years ago, and complete his own arc, finding for himself the truth in Yoda’s words in Empire: luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

In Empire Luke confronts the Dark Side in a grotto and kills an image of Vader only to see his own face beneath Vader’s mask; in The Last Jedi, Rey confronts the Dark Side in a cave and, asking to see her parents, sees herself. Luke sees his fear realised in his own face, Rey sees something else, something puzzling, and her destiny goes its own way, setting up something special, I hope, for Episode IX.

The Last Jedi is visually gorgeous and pretty much perfect tonally throughout. It is both a serious film in its own right and a fitting second part in a trilogy. It engages deeply with Star Wars mythology, and also opens up a grand toy box of possibilities for future writers and directors to go and play.

Marlon Brando as Carlo Renson in 1953’s Rebel Without a Mask

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega impress again, as do all of the lead and supporting cast. I still have some quibbles but they are precisely that, quibbles. The main one is I remain unconvinced that Kylo Ren is a big enough villain, however superbly Adam Driver plays him. But that is one for Episode IX to deal with.

I’ll take The Last Jedi as it is, a wonderful addition to the canon.

***

Finally, something occurred to me only as I was revising this: when Star Wars was released in the US in 1977 (78 in the UK), it was only five years after Cernan, Schmitt and Evans flew the last of the Apollo missions to the moon. Space flight was a real thing in our minds, especially all of us who’d been woken up to watch the first moon landing in 1969. Return of the Jedi was released after the Space Shuttle programme was flying, but before the Challenger disaster of 1986. The modern films are for an audience of children who were not witnesses to the Apollo landings, and who have no experience of spaceflight outside of near-earth orbit.

For us fifties (just) kids, space flight was a real and present thing, and a source of optimism in the future, not a thing to read about in history books. Perhaps like Luke we have to face our own failure as a generation to shape the future of which we dreamed.

Don’t centre on your anxieties

22 December, 2017 (11:02) | Star Wars | By: Ian Burdon

As part of the festive fun I’ve been watching Star Wars DVDs in sequence. I’ve just finished the prequel trilogy again. Some thoughts to come once I’ve watched the rest. Rogue One up next.

The Last Jedi: initial thoughts

16 December, 2017 (13:37) | Star Wars | By: Ian Burdon

Note: the post below was written after my first viewing of The Last Jedi. I have now seen it a second time and my opinion has changed. You’ll find my updated thoughts at the end of this.

This is written the day after watching The Last Jedi. If you haven’t seen it yet, look away now as you will find spoilers ahead.

***

In the early seventies, East Kilbride Cinema used to do children’s matinees on a Saturday morning. My routine was always much the same: go to the cinema, enjoy sugary sweets and drinks, then drop into a shop to buy something from Airfix.

The children’s matinee followed a standard format: Tom and Jerry cartoons (hooray! especially directed by Fred Quimby), sometimes a Disney cartoon (boo! never as good as Hanna Barbera/Warner Brothers), something from the Children’s Film Foundation, and an instalment of an old serial, sometimes Robin Hood, most memorably Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

It was in that same cinema in 1978 I first saw Star Wars, and thrilled to the edge-of-your-seat rush when Gold Squadron dived into the trench of the Death Star for the first attack run. I recognised the film straight away as the production of someone who had seen and loved those same 1930s serials and was trying to distil the same pure pulp spirit.

40 years on, I still think of Star Wars in that same way, as the heir of Flash and Buck and Dale Arden and Princess Aura, Ming the Merciless, Robin and Marion and the Sheriff of Nottingham and all the rest; my touchstone for a Star Wars movie  is still: does it transport me back to being 10/11 years old at the children’s matinees? It’s why I was never bothered too much by the trade dispute backdrop to The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I was fine with all of that narrative so long as the movies remained pulp space opera with a hint of noir.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi, but it was a qualified enjoyment. I wrote on Twitter that my first reaction to The Force Awakens was Holy Crap! I have to see that again! whereas The Last Jedi was wait, what? I think I’ll need to watch that again to process it.

The things The Last Jedi gets right, it gets very right indeed. I like Luke’s story and also how Rey develops. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is well done; John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran impress in their sub plot. But I’m not convinced the whole exceeds the sum of its parts; there was so much going on that the narrative got muddied. In part this might be because it is the meat in the sandwich of a trilogy and we need the final part to make it whole.

Some things niggle at me 24 hours later; some is detail–in the opening battle there’s a bunch of First Order cruisers hanging around in space doing nothing while their comrades get blasted, for example. I found the whole Canto Bight sequence entertaining, but redundant, serving only to give Finn and Rose something to do, and Benicio Del Toro’s character is underdeveloped and unnecessary. The least said about Leia in space the better.

More substantially, I’m not keen on the psychic connection that apparently now comes with the Force. To be sure this has always been present in some sense (“I sense a great disturbance in the Force”) but not the full-on communication. I can almost accept it with Luke and Leia, brother and sister, but not for Rey and Kylo/Ben; it’s an innovation for no better reason than as a plot device (a device that suggests a family connection between Rey and Ben, although we are being directed away from that?)

The same is true for the conclusion of Luke’s story: when did he get to be that powerful? (answer = when the script required it). But, dramatically, overcoming limitation and hardship is always more interesting as a denouement than deployment of suddenly acquired powers.

Also, although I see the psychological drama, I’m not sure that Kylo Ren has enough narrative heft as a character to be a convincing principle villain, if that is what he is, in the next movie. The late Supreme Leader Snoke was correct that Kylo is just a boy in a mask.

Samira Ahmed has a good post on The Last Jedi (spoilers) that I mostly agree with. In the end, though, what niggles me most is the sense that, amongst all the spectacle, something of the spirit of the saga is lost, the spirit of Flash and Buck and Robin. If you think I’m over-analysing, that’s kind of my point; it’s Star Wars, I shouldn’t feel it necessary.

Roll on the next viewing (iMax, 26 December), when some of this may click into place.

Behind the Son

10 December, 2017 (17:49) | Music | By: Ian Burdon

In 1985 I bought Heaven In A Wild Flower, a compilation of tracks drawn from Nick Drake’s 3 LPs. I was smitten in the way only people who hear Nick for the first time can be. I immediately recorded the album to cassette for listening to on a Walkman, and so my copy of the LP is in mint condition (I still have the cassette).

Of all the songs on it, and they are his most famous, the one that caught my attention then, and still does, was Things Behind the Sun. I can’t articulate exactly what it is about that song in particular that speaks to me, but part of it is the lyric that is both allusive and elusive, that hints at meaning without letting you in on the secret of what it might be. Sometimes I wonder if there is any meaning there at all, if it isn’t just an exercise in rhyme made coherent by the insistent guitar pattern that gives the song momentum. Or perhaps it is just the pregnant image of “the things behind the Sun”, of what lies behind the light you see when day is done. Is it too fanciful to find an echo of Genesis 1. 6-7 and the waters over and under the sky? Probably.

In recent years it has become clear just how much Nick followed a trail blazed by his mother, Molly. The full force of her writing was unknown to me until I saw the Unthanks performing some of her songs with recorded readings of Molly’s poems by her daughter Gabrielle.

Just released (and just received here) is The Tide’s Magnificence, songs and poems of Molly Drake, a glorious 2 CD set and 195 page hardback book. Aside from the quality of the book and cd package in its own right, the revelation for me has been the force and beauty of Molly’s poems. I already knew some from Gabrielle’s recordings, but the collection shows an obvious talent at work, a talent that reveals the woman behind the words and meter, a surface wistful melancholy giving way to distilled observation, reflection and heart.

Much more than Nick, the poems and songs of Molly make known a person whom I should have liked to know; a woman who did not dwell on unspoken things behind the Sun but, in possibly my favourite of her songs, sang instead

There’s a road to the stars
But I don’t know the way…
…We might get a sight
Of the brightness of Heaven

Here’s Molly:

It may seem hokey, but…

6 December, 2017 (11:44) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

In the mighty Once More With Feeling, Buffy worries that a training session will morph into a training montage from an eighties movie. Well. says Giles, if we hear any inspirational power chords we’ll just lie down until they go away. The writers of Supergirl, which I’ve now caught up with, seem to have forgotten the wisdom inherent in Giles’s teaching, and developed a penchant for background music-drenched scenes that aspire to be montages when they grow up. Alas, the music they used doesn’t even rise to the depths of power ballads, but instead reinforce one of the saccharine qualities of the show.

Although I like Supergirl, I did find myself fast-forwarding through a disturbing number of scenes in the most recent episodes, not something I recall doing with seasons one and two.

When I first found Supergirl, I commented on the prevalence of the “Linda Gray school of facial emoting”, and this hasn’t gone away. Unfortunately, the current sufferer of the malady is Melissa Benoist herself. We get her smiley face, her stern face, her puzzled face, her concerned face, all of which function as a shorthand, and serve only to help the plot zip by until the next ad. break. It is all the more obvious because the other lead cast give their performances more nuance than the show sometimes deserves. I don’t know why this has started happening because Benoist has been, and is, very good as the show’s lead.

The tenor of my criticisms of a lot of this stuff is that, in a golden age of television, including genre television, too many shows aren’t rising to the challenge and being all they could be. I would expect writers, producers and directors with ambition and talent to look at how genre TV has developed since Babylon 5, through Buffy, and The Wire, and in more recent times through Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, The Deuce and Sense8, and raise their game accordingly (and I note in passing J Michael Straczynski and David Simon were each responsible for two of those). No doubt there are budget issues, and studio expectations, and Supergirl is pitched at a different audience to those I cite, but that doesn’t negate my expectations as a viewer. And it’s not just writers et al: my expectations run to choice of lenses and camera angles, lighting, and sound design.

31 years ago I saw a production of Macbeth at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre . It featured a minimalist, though highly stylised set, and lacked what one normally thinks of as the trappings of a production of Shakespeare. But I remember it because of the performance of Julie Covington as Lady Macbeth, attempting to feminise a character who typically is portrayed as the scheming villainess. In fact Covington dominates my memory so much I just had to search extensively in the online archives to find out it was Jonathan Hyde playing the lead. Hyde is also in ‘The War That Never Ends’, a minimalist version of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponesian War that was on TV in 1991 just before the first Gulf War. It’s strength lay in the writing and the performances (you can watch it all on YouTube, or try only the chilling Melian Dialogue). My point, to push it home, is that budget is a context not an excuse.

Having said that, Episode 9, Reign, was a humdinger which, wonder of wonders, actually put our heroine in real peril rather than just facing fisticuffs on a Vancouver rooftop.

But Supergirl still flies high above what I’ve seen of the other shows in the CW stable. For the most part this has been their ‘crossover’ events, the most recent of which, Crisis on Earth-X, I described a couple of posts ago as shite.

Now, I understand that the principle function of the crossovers is to try and attract viewers to the other shows and thereby attract and retain the advertising income that pays for them in the first place. I also understand that I’m not the target demographic, but that is all by the by. There is really no excuse for this nonsense.

The story envisions a parallel world in which the Nazis won WW2, and there follows a four-episode slug-fest which is no more than “Hulk smash puny Nazis”, with some heavy-handed musings along the lines of ‘who would have thought it, Nazis in America…’ The writing is perfunctory, the characters cyphers in service of the story, the acting barely worthy of being called such, and the whole is a colossal waste of your time and their effort. To echo my earlier point, if you’re going to do Nazis in America, your modern touchstone must be The Man In The High Castle, in which Rufus Sewell’s John Smith has more menace in his measured stare than legions of one-dimensional masked stormtroopers stomping around to be annihilated by a group of one-dimensional heroes. The one (only) thing that Crisis on Earth-X did get right, was that the battle exacted a toll in the death of a featured character. Happily, this happened to coincide with the actor in question accepting a role in a Broadway musical, but it was worth noting nonetheless.

Fathers and sons

3 December, 2017 (13:01) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

Dad; Whitley Bay, late 1920s

My dad died 34 years ago today. He was 58 years and 4 months old. I had just turned 24. I am now 58 years and 2 months old.

He’d been ill for a long time; he had several major heart attacks, that brought me rushing back to East Kilbride from Edinburgh, as well as surgery, including an aortal graft. But this time I was home because my friends John and Gill had got married the day before.

Dad had been in bed for a while and liked to have a bottle of Irn Bru or similar by his bed. He’d been in a funny mood: our pet dog who used to lie on the bed with him had died the weekend previously, as had the father of one of my friends who, like Dad, had done time in the Navy in the Med. at the end of the war. Colin’s dad was on HMS Ajax and Dad on HMS Ocean during the creation of Israel, when Dad was nearly court-martialed for bringing the Navy into disrepute, though he never told me that.

He’d run out, so I said I’d go down to the supermarket to get him another bottle of Irn Bru, and he said he didn’t think I needed to. I did anyway, knowing what he meant but trying to ignore it. Not long after I got home he had an aortal aneurism and I called the doctor while Mum, who’d been a nursing assistant, gave him CPR. While the doctor was examining him Dad died. Mum and I were with him, and he looked at me, and I’ve never, ever, forgotten the look in his eyes just before he went.

A fine winter morning
The sky clear and blue.
Breakfast in bed and a laugh and a smile,
These memories stay true.
And Christmas was coming,
Time for last minute gifts.
It’s an eternity away from us now
On a night such as this

And I heard you were frightened,I saw you were scared.
All the nights that we thought were your last
But still you were there.
And all of the hopes and the fears and the warnings
We tried to dismiss
Are all lost to the chill of the wind
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I usually say at this time of year that I still think of him every day, and that’s true. It can be all sorts of memories and flashbacks, triggered by music or smells or something that’s close to déjà vu but isn’t–some combination of sense perceptions that find a resonant echo in memories I don’t know I have.

I have a handful of regrets in life—who doesn’t? These almost all revolve around times I treated someone badly when I was an adolescent. But no regrets are deeper or more present than not knowing Dad as an adult. He saw me graduate, but not married. He never knew his grandchildren, whom he would have loved.

And I have some photographs,
A lifetime defined:
The child then the boy then the youth then the man
Captured in time.
Did you do all you wanted?
Was your life all you wished?
Oh I wish I could talk to you now
On a night such as this.

And fathers and sons
Don’t take time to reminisce;
They just steam through the fog with their running lights on
And hope that they miss.
I was twenty four then
It’s been twenty four since
I still hope that you’re proud of me now
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I’ve never written about this before in any depth. The verses in this post are a song I wrote some years ago which are the closest I got to it. I like the verses but they elide some things, most notably the memory of the look Dad gave me as he died, even though I don’t know if he was conscious at that point or already gone.

I remember him being very moved after his first near-fatal heart attack, when he was in the ICU at Hairmyres Hospital (with hiccups that went on for two days and distressed him, when he could see the second hand on a clock ticking around), to learn how many people in how many churches had prayed for him. He had a near-death experience there: he told me afterwards that it was the classic sense of travelling up a tunnel towards a bright light only to reach the top and hear a voice saying not yet Stuart it’s not your time. It was an uncharacteristic thing for him to say, which is why it made an impression on me.

Dad, 1982

We had some difficulties for a while: he was High Anglican by inclination and disappointed I’d dropped my candidacy for the Episcopal priesthood. But after I graduated, before I got a job and moved back to Edinburgh, I was the main person in the house looking after him through the day, and cooking tea, as Mum was working, as was the eldest of my sisters. My youngest sister was at school. I never really discussed the reasons I dropped my candidacy, but essentially it was because I realised I didn’t believe the things I would be called upon to preach, that I wasn’t a Christian. And I did not, and still do not, believe in an afterlife.

The consequences of this didn’t become clear until 5 years later when I underwent training for the Children’s Panel in Lothian Region and was talking to a psychologist and it suddenly hit me hard. Not believing in an afterlife is fine as an intellectual position, but has powerful effects when someone close to you dies.

The two photos I’ve uploaded are sort of bookends to Dad’s life—in Whitley Bay in the late 1920s and East Kilbride in the early 1980s. I never asked him the kind of questions I’d ask as an adult about his life, about his regrets and joys. But I know the feelings I still have after all these years, about hoping he would be proud of me, are as good a legacy of his life as I can think of.

As we were leaving the crematorium in the funeral car I started to turn to look through the rear-view window but Mum stopped me: don’t look back, she said. And I didn’t. Nor have I ever been to the place his ashes are scattered: I don’t need to. He’s still with me before midnight, stewing the left-over tea in the old metal teapot on the gas hob, Navy-style, rolling up a tab, complaining about my hair and the music I listen to, edging towards the unspoken thing between fathers and sons, all the things he didn’t say to his own dad.

Crisis? What Crisis?

1 December, 2017 (18:45) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

My TV watching is even more sporadic and random than usual since the end of The Deuce, which disappointed only by being so short at 8 episodes.

I watched the first half of Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix, which is good, if brutal. Beneath the melodramatic surface is quite a good and nuanced portrait of PTSD in veterans. I have the second half of the season still to watch, though. Likewise I watched the first episode of Godless, also on Netflix; I enjoyed it too but it was also brutal with the prospect of more brutality to come. I’m getting a bit worn out by fashionable brutality so it may be a while before I watch the rest. Michelle Dockery was very good though.

I wrote previously about a “CW Crossover” event featuring assorted DC superheroes. I didn’t like it, so it was with trepidation that I watched the first episode of their latest effort Crisis On Earth X which seems to demand to be emboldened. It had its moments, shown to their best advantage by fast-forwarding through a lot of other stuff. The question now is will I watch the other episodes, if only to see if they really can live down to the example of last year. I do need to catch up with season 3 of Supergirl though.

(added: I’ve now seen the rest of Crisis on Earth X and it is, indeed, shite, although I enjoyed Chyler Leigh going full John Wick on the bad guys’ asses.)

On Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

24 November, 2017 (16:17) | Books, Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

Someone asked me what originally attracted me to science fiction. This is by way of a partial answer for them.

My introduction to SF (yes, I’m going to use that abbreviation: bite me) in writing, as opposed to TV, was almost certainly when my school friend Peter recommended Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I guess we were 11 or 12 at the time, maybe 13. I can’t remember the full detail of my other reading then (it was 45+ years ago), but I certainly remember SF supplanting Arthur Ransome, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming in my affections.

Foundation Trilogy in Panther. Art by Chris Foss

I guess I also read the usual Alistair MacLean thrillers that were around the house, as well as Tolkein and then Dennis Wheatley. But I was an avid user of our local library, and they had a decent SF section, which I plundered more or less at random. Most of it was pulp space opera, but there was a lot of it, for the most part in yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardback editions. I think that was when I first read Colin Kapp’s The Patterns of Chaos (Gollancz 1972) though my tattered old copy is a Panther paperback with a cover by, of course, the great Chris Foss.

I also read quite a lot of James Blish: the Cities In Flight series was one I enjoyed, especially the closing section of A Clash of Cymbals.

A turning point was Walter M Miller’s classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, which was qualitatively different in ways I recognised but couldn’t express at the time; the writing had a residual pulp quality, but it was much more speculative and interesting than the usual alien-bashing fare I’d got used to. In my 5th or 6th year at High School I wrote a short story that my English teacher praised, heavily “influenced” by Canticle (which I assume she hadn’t read).

At some point in my teens I discovered Brian Aldiss (The Dark Light Years I think, and Space, Time and Nathaniel) and some other British SF writers who were forging a different path. Christopher Priest was one, who I still buy in hardback when a new novel comes out. An Aldiss story from the early seventies that really got under my skin was Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land, a story that still lurks in my mind. A For Andromeda (and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough), based on a 1960s TV series, was an often-read favourite too. Likewise I read and reread a collection of Fritz Leiber short stories, and always there was John Wyndham–The Kraken Wakes was and remains a fantastic short novel, as is The Chrysalids.

The Patterns of Chaos. Cover art by Chris Foss

I was heavily involved with the church at the time and read a lot of CS Lewis, who wrote 3 interesting SF novels, of which Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus, was probably the best, even though, as a po-faced piece on Wikipedia informs me, Lewis’s description of Perelandra as a world capable of supporting a floating Garden of Eden is not consistent with current knowledge of conditions on Venus. You don’t say.

And of course there was lots of SF of greater or lesser quality on TV. According to my mum I watched the first episode of Dr. Who, though I was 4 at the time; and 60s and early 70s TV could be downright weird. I fondly remember Timeslip (incidental music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, and Cheryl Burfield was an early TV crush of mine) and The Changes (theme and incidental music by Peter Howell of the Radiophonic Workshop) amongst others.

A lot of the SF I read in my teens hasn’t aged well; I loved Dune when I was 17, but rereading it in my 50s was a major disappointment, although it is an interesting reversal of the Hero’s Journey in that it is an anti-hero’s journey. Almost all of Heinlein I find unreadable now, though Starship Troopers remains a focused, tightly written novel that may, or may not, be intended as satire.

I still like pulpy space opera (EE “Doc” Smith is a reliable standby, reluctant genocides and all, if I’ve had flu and don’t have the energy to read anything else), but my preference is for the weirdly speculative. These days I don’t read in genre for its own sake, to the extent I ever did; my favourite of the novels I’ve read in the last couple of years, regardless of label, was Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place.

Whatever I read, a lot of it comes from writers who push the limits of narrative and craft in interesting and beguiling ways, some of whom get labelled as SF as a lazy shorthand. I’ve already mentioned Christopher Priest, but there’s also M John Harrison and Ian R MacLeod, amongst many others. But I see them on a continuum with other writers I like who are not above subtle weirdness, such as George Mackay Brown, probably my favourite author, and certainly my favourite Scottish author.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I think what appeals to me about all of the SF that stays with me, apart from the pulps, is either a certain obliqueness in literary form, or the use of scientific concepts as a core metaphor for something else, for explorations of uncertainty. I also tend to favour the notion of “speculative” or “slipstream” fiction over SF, because the latter is a much more tangled and baggage-laden label.

But in the end the label doesn’t matter too much, and I’d like to let my 11 or 12 year old self know that Asimov’s Foundation and Smith’s Skylark of Space, Chris Foss covers and all, were a gateway drug; that Hari Seldon and Richard Seaton were sprites who’d lead me along Alpha Ralpha Boulevard to uncertain inner worlds and a lifetime of reading.

Added: to correct gender balance in this reminiscence, I must add that two of my favourite writers of anything are Dorothy Dunnett and Muriel Spark. My teen self hadn’t discovered them yet, though. I did read Ursula LeGuin at the time, and Earthsea is something I come back to even now.