First Man

I didn’t know there was a film about Neil Armstrong coming until I saw the trailer for First Man today. Ryan Gosling is playing my boyhood hero Armstrong, and I can see him being a good fit: Neil was famously cool, calm, quiet, even when almost out of fuel hovering over the surface of the Moon, and Gosling really has a quality of quiet and stillness. First Man is due out in the autumn.

A Study in Steel

Here’s an interesting one for those of us who turn into excited ten year olds when we see a classic steam locomotive, an old film documenting the building of an LMS Princess Royal class mainline loco. I’ve seen one of these engines under steam, they’re beautiful, elegant machines, fascinating to see one being built from pieces of molten metal and the hard work and sweat of the skilled workmen:

And here’s the Princess Elizabeth, a Princess Royal class in that lovely LSM maroon livery, under steam at Carlisle:

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Foghorn (no Leghorn)

This is rather satisfying: a short video of prepping the engines and then firing up the great foghorn on the Sumburgh Lighthouse on the Shetlands. (via BoingBoing)

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,

SelfMadeHero

I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

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(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.


And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“You are here…”

Taken on this day in 1967, from the unmanned test of Apollo 4 on November 9th, paving the way for the soon-to-follow manned lunar Apollo missions which would put a human being on the moon by 1969, a view of our world that until that point no human eyes had ever seen in all of history, taken at an altitude of 9, 544 miles above our world.

This was taken not long before I was born. By the following Christmas of 1968 Apollo 8 would take the remarkable “Earthrise” photograph as they came around from the dark side of the Moon, the farthest any human being had ever been from home, the very first to see the entire globe of our world, and see it rising above the Lunar horizon. The following year Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon’s surface. I was born into the height of the Space Age and as a boy I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up.

Sometimes looking at these images I still dream

Doo’cot

This charming old doo’cot is part of the estate around Elcho Castle in Fife, just a few miles from the River Tay:

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The inside is slowly being colonised by nature, ferns and creeping plants growing out of the stone nest ledges of this hive-shaped old dovecot, which gave it a particular beauty, I think:

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And looking up through the open roof to the sky beyond I liked the effect it made, and it just seemed like a scene that would work better in monochrome, so I switched to B&W mode on the camera and positioned myself looking straight up to get this:

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Mother of Exiles

Retronaut has a a great set of historic photographs of all sorts of immigrants from around the world – men, women, children, young, old, black, white, Asian – photographed by Augustus Francis Sherman, chief registry clerk at the old Ellis Island facility, which was the main port for something like twelve million emmigrants to the United States between 1892 and its closure in 1954 (here are just a few). What a change between then and now – to the xenophobic “no more immigrants” (I bet the Native Americans thought that when the White Man first turned up centuries ago) and a land where nazi scumbags openly walk the street knowing a bright-orange excuse for a president will let them.

I wonder how many of these immigrants helped shape and change the growing America of the 20th century – the America which stood up for democracy and which joined in the fight against fascism. The ones who embraced the ideals enscribed on Lady Liberty and the opportunities offered by their new home, probably far more than most of those who today demand border walls and would cheerfully deny the rights and liberties of fellow citizens, ignore the rule of law and even the venerable constitution and bill of rights.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!‘”

New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, enscribed on the tablet in the Statue of Liberty

Happy Yuri’s Night

It’s Yuri’s Night, a world space party being marked around our little, blue marble to celebrate the great Yuri Gagarin, the very first human who really did go where no man has gone before, riding a column of fire into orbit on this day in 1961. A rocket, leaving the surly bonds of Earth and out into space, launched by the then Soviet Union, a remarkable achievement which came only six decades from the first fluttering powered flight of the Wright Brothers. Six decades from a few seconds in the air, only feet off the ground to a human being thundering into space and orbiting our planet.

There’s something wonderfully, romantically heroic about that first Space Age – engineers, programmers, designers, cosmonauts and astronauts, none of them truly knew exactly what they were getting into. It was all new – building on work that had gone before, of course, but now at a level never tried, at a level where some really did wonder if it would work, and if it did work as they hoped, could a human being travel in it? Could they survive? Nobody even knew if a human body could function in the microgravity environment – would your heart and lungs still function? How do you eat? Does it affect your vision? What about radiation? And how about getting home again safely? The inferno of re-entry, could their frail, basic craft really stand up to the intense heat? And what about the cosmonaut within, the re-entry blocking all communications so for those few moments they would be truly alone, unable to speak to ground control, ground control anxiously waiting for the interference to clear to hear their voice, to hear if they had survived the blaze of re-entry, a few moments which must have been an eternity

None of this had been tried, they simply didn’t know, it was all new, making those first pioneers like Gagarin, Tershkova, Leonov, Glenn, Armstrong all the more heroic in my eyes. Imagine being willing to train for this, to risk your life to push that envelope and achieve something which had only ever been a dream. So much optimism then, onwards, outwards, faster, further! Space awaited, orbit, then the Moon, maybe Mars and beyond… So different to our downbeat present when we have a new generation of spacecraft, but only for the super-rich, and Mars, let alone any further, is still decades off. The promises of my comics annuals that by the time I was an adult space would be in reach of everyone, we would take holidays there! Those promises never materialised, to my eternal regret – now approaching the big five-oh at the end of this year it looks like that’s something I will never get the chance to do.

Yuri became the most famous man on the planet on his return. Dragging his chute and suit from his landing in a field he smiled on his return to Earth and told them not to be alarmed, he was one of them, he was a comrade, a friend. One looked at his capsule and suit and asked if he had come from outer space. Yuri reportedly laughed and said as a matter of fact, yes! Suddenly an idea which had been science fiction, space flight, was now science fact. Sadly Yuri died young, killed, of all things, in a normal aircraft training flight, after having survived the rigours of the space programme tests and that history-making first manned mission. Years ago I read a joint autobiography on both sides of the space race by Alexei Leonov (first man to attempt a space walk) and David Scott; in Leonov’s memoirs of the Soviet effort the affection he and his fellow cosmonauts had for Yuri was still strong, even decades on.

Yuri flew before I was born, he died when I was just a baby, but he’s been one of my heroes all my life.

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

Dazzled

A few weeks ago I took a photo of an old ship which was being readied for a new paint job down in the harbour at Leith, half covered already with a fresh coat of primer, the floating scaffolding for painters moored next to the hull:

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I looked up the ship, MV Finagal, and found it was an old lighthouse tender for the northern lighthouses, long retired. And it wasn’t just getting a new paint job as such, it was being primed for Edinburgh based artist Ciara Phillips to work on, with a modern interpretation of the WWI dazzle camouflage as part of ongoing events around the UK for the 14-18 Now campaign marking a century since the Great War.

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Since you can’t camouflage a ship on the high seas the way you can a tank or an infantry position on the land, the idea, developed by Norman Wilkinson, was to use vivid colours and abstract patterns (informed by then modern art) to break up the outline of vessels. Imagine looking at this through the periscope of a U-Boat as it heaved up and down on the open seas, struggling to make out what type of ship it actually was, its size, direction, bearing, distance… I’ve only ever seen dazzle camouflage in old photographs, quite remarkable to see it on an actual vessel with my own eyes. Part war memorial, part art installation, this is also a part of the Edinburgh Art Festival and will be moored in Leith for several weeks.

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The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog