Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this work for many months; Bryan and Mary talked about it at last spring’s Dundee Comics Expo then again at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And with the huge success of their previous Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (scooping the Costa literary award, first time ever for a comics work) I suspect there’s a wide range of readers, including many who are not normally comics readers, waiting to read it too. This time Mary has collaborated with artist Kate Charlesworth – Bryan worked on layouts, Kate on the finished artwork – and the result? Oh yes, my friends, well worth waiting for.

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

Turn of the century Britain and orphan Sally Heathcote has escaped the workhouse to a job, ‘in service’ to a household headed by the formidable Mrs Pankhurst. Both Pankhurst and her daughters are already busy with others coming and going, their house in Manchester a busy meeting place, and right away the creators show us this is going to be a more nuanced story – this isn’t just about equal voting rights (important though that is), the suffragette movement was born also from people (some men as well as the legions of women) who were sick of the vast inequalities in Britain. Heart of a vast empire and yet while many made large amounts of money and earned titles from those imperial efforts huge swathes of the population lived in abject poverty, going hungry, living in slums, little education, no healthcare. Unions in the vast factories of the industrial north of England, such as in and around Manchester, were forming and were one of the places where women started to come together collectively to wield influence and have their voices heard, and the quest for equal suffrage for women went hand in hand with many other noble concepts – eliminating poverty, care for the sick, rights for workers. The Talbots and Charlesworth are at great pains to show the interconnected nature of the movement, that it was socially driven by many blights in society.

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Servants overhear many things in the grand houses of course, and Sally picks up on a lot of what is going on. She’s well treated (it’s inferred Pankhurst took her from the workhouse and gave her respectable employment) and she’s learning of a much wider world. So when the Pankhursts decide the fight needs them to be in London and not in the union heartlands of the north, where the embryonic Labour Party (partly funded by some of those women’s unions) is starting to gather strength, she’s heartbroken. She finds new employment with some help, but suffers horrible sexual innuendoes and attempted abuse from the men of the house, both the master and some of the other male servants. Horrid though this is though, it gives her the drive to leave and head to London, and it is while searching for work their that she find the headquarters of the movement and some of her old employers, and it isn’t long before she’s happily working among the women there, and becoming increasingly active in the protest movement.

It’s quite something to watch Sally – and the movement – grow. She becomes more confident, from the first timid,  shy attempt to raise a question about votes for women at a local Liberal party meeting (she is thrown out almost at once) to the determined woman not just marching in the streets but a confident, powerful young woman who will eventually stand there in public making speeches herself, not to mention carrying out more daring acts. As the body politic (including, to their eternal shame, a Liberal government that included supposed Liberal heroes like Lloyd George) simply ignores the growing demands of the suffragettes and legal, peaceful demonstrations get rough treatment from police and from crowds of angry men, the movement starts to become increasingly militant, and here we see it all from the inside view of Sally, from breaking windows to setting fires and more. The jails begin to fill up, opinion is divided, some say the militant action loses them public sympathy, others, like Pankhurst call for “deeds, not words”. Splits appear within the movement and tensions rise. Then the hunger strikes begin…

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Demanding to be treated as political, not criminal prisoners, the suffragettes arrested and imprisoned begin a series of hunger strikes. At first it seems to be winning them ground – weakened woman are released from prison by a government reluctant to be seen as essentially killing women in prison. Until the forced feedings begin. In a turbulent tale full of both uplifting moments and terrifying ones, this scene is among the most awful to read, and it’s probably no coincidence that as Sally’s prison time begins the sepia tinged look of the other pages gives way to heavy black borders, ominous, threatening. The security and confidence that comes with acting in concert with comrades sharing the same goal is suddenly wavering – now she is on her own, isolated, in a dank cell.

The true test – when alone, surrounded by those who despise you, imprisoned, do you hold to your moral stance or break? Sally is not one to break, but again this subtle story doesn’t try to give us some ridiculous super-heroine, fearlessly facing her foes regardless of odds. No, Sally is scared. She should be, anyone would be, and she is – it’s very realistic and beautifully managed and it makes the reader believe in the character all the more, makes her more real, more vulnerable, more human. It also put me in mind of the prison scene with Evey in V For Vendetta (a scene I always consider the emotional heart of V): terrified, alone, but clinging to that belief not to give them that “final inch” of themselves; where Evey had the letter sneaked into her cell Sally has one uplifting moment where she hears others in nearby cells singing suffragette songs and a note scrawled on the wall “courage, brave heart”.

And when the forced feedings begin you feel utter shock and horror. There’s no other term for them but a violation of the body, a form of rape – brutal invasion of the body against its will. And like rape this is very much about power – here pretending to be about caring for the women and stopping them from starving, which makes it all the more horrendous. But it is a violation and a demonstration of power, the authorities showing their will over the imprisoned women. It is barbaric and truly horrific to watch the scene, the more so because while Sally may be fictional we really care about her by this point and, worse still, we know this is based on real accounts, that this was done, often repeatedly, to many women who simply had the temerity to be considered equal citizens. It gets worse with the infamous ‘cat and mouse’ act, allowing the authorities to release suffragettes who were becoming too weak, wait for them to recover a little on the outside then re-arrest them without trial and take them right back in and start it all again. And again.

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The book doesn’t present absolutes in terms of wrong and right, however – right from the start we see that certain personalities, such as Mrs Pankhurst, could be hugely divisive. In many ways remarkable and implacable in resolve, standing in the face of all against her, but like many sometimes so concerned with ‘the good fight’ that they become blind to everything else and will use anyone and anything in the service of that fight, even if it hurts and alienates good allies and friends. We also see that despite the union movement that a huge chunk of working men are as hostile to women’s rights as the ruling class males are, and indeed a large number of women, who consider the suffrage demands to be very ‘unwomanly’. We also see our determined Sally carry out all sorts of activities but eventually wondering at some of the methods Pankhurst is demanding they now use – it’s another way in which Sally becomes so very human to us, she had her ideals but she also has her doubts and worries, she isn’t relentlessly singe-minded, her time among so many activists has taught her to question and think for herself, and that includes thinking about the movement. No whitewash here presenting nothing but good, noble women against an evil tyranny, there are nuanced levels, there are good and bad men and women on both sides, and there are some who are so determined to do ‘right’ that they will use any ends (again on both sides).

It’s an absolutely fascinating and compelling look at a very important piece of recent history (consider most of this took place only a century ago – seems unbelievable to modern eyes, but yes, only a hundred years ago this was happening, many of us had grandmothers who remember a time when women weren’t allowed to vote). And like last year’s astonishing March Book One (detailing a personal history of the US Civil Rights movement – see review here) this isn’t static history, this is living history; this is history that is never done and dusted, it permeates the present and influences the maps of the future. It isn’t only about one goal really, about equal voting rights for all, irrespective of class and gender, it’s about equality and fairness across all of society, it’s about our rights to legally protest, to be heard, to demand change and to be listened to, to participate in the democratic decision making, to demand that the laws of the land not be used to enshrine discrimination against one section of society (a fight still going on, think of how we have only just created equal marriage rights for gay people). And like all good histories it echoes with resonance to the here and now – police being used to stifle peaceful, legal demonstrations in our major cities? We’ve seen a sad series of such events in recent years with the notorious use of ‘kettling’ and the like. Those in power, frightened at losing some of that power, stooping to creating reprehensible legislation to ‘legally’ commit immoral acts against protesters, or covert police surveillance of members of the movement, all sadly familiar to today as well (at one point Sally comments on the police having new cameras they use to take pictures of your from a distance to keep an eye on you – the distant ancestor of our current wall-to-wall CCTV Big Brother state).

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But this isn’t just a story of the movement and struggle against the odds, hardships to overcome. This is a personal story too, this is Sally’s story, and that’s our way into this Britain of a century ago, and as a mechanism for engaging the reader and making these historic events more personal, more emotional, it works brilliantly. Most of the pages use a pretty subdued colour palette, with a sepia type dominating, but one colour that always stands out is the copper-red of Sally’s hair. Be it an intimate, close up scene or a sweeping view of a huge crowd of protesters marching the street, our Sally is always visible with that hair, she’s our anchor in the turbulent tides of the period. It’s also a tale of the ways being exposed to new ideas and new people changes us, helps us grow, it’s a story about friendship and even love. As the civil rights demands for women escalate the same tired, frightened old men who govern also find themselves facing the First World War (and coping about as successfully with that as they did with women’s suffrage). The two collide, causing more friction between elements of the movement, but also becoming part of that tumultuous time that would, ultimately change British society forever.

And don’t think it just changed the lot of women, proper, universal suffrage for all men (not just the well off and property owners) emerged out of fear of the women’s movement, a transparent attempt by the government to recruit more allies -somewhat similar to the South African government in the dying days of the loathsome Apartheid regime expanding voting to select non-whites (such as those of Indian descent), as a desperate way of trying to fortify their own position, make new allies to hold off the perceived threat. Ultimately it would lead to more equal rights for all, something I’m sure many of those in the suffrage movement would have been proud of. The story is framed by a very old Sally, now with her grown daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, decades later, another nice, emotional touch, but also a way of reminding us that the fight for civil rights and equality for all never actually stops. It was once said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. So too with our rights – hard-won rights, literally fought for and then defended in both fine, stirring rhetoric and, when needed, with blood. Because there’s always some idiot who thinks you can draw a line around one group in society – women, immigrants, people of a different religion, gays – and treat them differently.

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This is a beautifully constructed tale – unsurprisingly well-researched given Mary’s academic background, but so much more than just an accessible way of learning of a hugely important piece of our history. No, Sally Heathcote is much more than an impressive slice of social and political history, it’s a beautifully done human tale. If you’re not emotionally invested in Sally by the end of it then there’s something wrong with you; to be honest you’ll probably fall in love a little with her, it’s hard not to. The artwork is lovely, Charlesworth teases some terrific ‘performances’ from her cast; you can visually see Sally’s growth from shy young housemaid one step from the poorhouse to confident, determined woman in her expression and her stance. Kate also captures that resolute look on the face of Mrs Pankhurst, as determined and terrifying as staring down one of the terrible dreadnoughts of the era (contrast with Sally’s young, eager, open face and smile), while the backgrounds behind those characters is lovely, from the grand neo-classical meeting halls of those Edwardian big cities to fine small period details, like the iconic shape of an old Thames sailing barge going past Parliament. Or serious scenes executed with a light touch, such as a pair of Suffragettes trying to knock on the door of Ten Downing Street, to be told angrily “no, you can’t see the Prime Minister” (those of us of a certain age can doubtless recall when you literally could walk right up to Number Ten’s door, seems unbelievable in today’s post 9-11 society, but we could…).

Without a doubt one of the most compelling, emotional, vital reads you will have this spring. It has funny moments, touching moments, it has moments that will make your blood boil at the injustice of it, and moments of tenderness that are heartwarming. Pleasingly the book also comes with extensive footnotes to explain more of the socio-historical context of some scenes, a timeline and suggested further reading sources – ideal for anyone wishing to use it for educational purposes. It’s only April and I already know this will be on my Best of the Year list come December. I found it so fascinating I read it twice in one week, and I think this is one of those wonderful books that you know you will come back to again over the years. Simply wonderful, uplifting work.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Climate Changed – science goes graphic

Climate Changed: a Personal Journey Through the Science,
Philippe Squarzoni,
Abrams Comicarts

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Climate change – it’s rarely been far from ours news reports over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in recent years (freak once in century storms happen repeatedly, is it the climate changing and did we alter it?) and just this week we’ve seen a major UN report on expected climate change and the colossal cost to our civilisation if we don’t actually take action. And that action requires a lot more than people in Western nations changing to energy-saving lightbulbs and doing their recycling more – important though those are. And this month also sees Philippe Squarzoni’s approach to this huge scientific-political-ideological-cultural problem in comics form. In pretty weighty comics form, actually – this graphic science work weighs in at well over four hundred pages. This is not a quick read, nor should it be. We’ve seen an increasing number of graphic works tackling heavyweight subjects in recent years and making them very understandable and accessible to pretty much any reader, in the case of books like this even those with only their basic high school level of science learning.

This is not exactly jumping on the bandwagon though – for starters the book first came out in French from Delcourt a couple of years back, and secondly it is quite clear not just from the length but the detail Squarzoni goes into that this is something he has been working on for years. In fact early one we see that this large, complex work actually grew out of a previous bande dessinee Squarzoni had been working on, a book on French politics. As he researched and drew a section on the environment the author suddenly finds himself coming to a halt. When his partner asks him why, he replies it is because he is using phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘greenhouse gases’. Common phrases these days, we’re all familiar with those terms, right? His partner points this out. Yes, he responds, but what do they actually mean? I’m using these phrases lifted from bits of research and re-using them in my work but I don’t really know what they actually mean, what they involve and what they portend for the future.

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And that is, perhaps, the crux of Climate Changed – many of us know these terms, we even use them sometimes in earnest pub discussions. But how much do most of us really know about the subjects these terms cover (Darryl Cunningham, you are excused this, we know you’ve researched it!)? I mean really understand, not just a vague knowledge assembled from the BBC website articles of the Guardian, but know the various aspects of climate change and how they relate to one another – and there is not just one topic here to get to grips with, this is a real multi-headed monster, a hydra of our own making, and we need, badly need, to understand the problems, and how they interact with one another, before we can even start to consider our response to them. Assuming, of course, we have the luxury of time to formulate a response. And also assuming humanity is wise enough to decide to take relevant action. And let’s be honest, recent events where agreed restrictions on targets like emissions being missed (after already being set fairly low to begin with) or even simply ignored by some nations, that latter part is not looking good right now.

Squarzoni, as you would expect, looks at the science behind climate studies and draws on numerous experts to discuss the observed changes, relating them to historical data gleaned painstakingly from sources such as deep ice cores and tree rings, to give centuries and even millennia of historical context. Because we know the Earth’s environment is always changing – it always has, it probably always will, ours is an incredibly dynamic bio system of overlapping, interacting elements: amount of sunlight reaching the surface, various gases at different altitudes in the atmosphere, currents in the air and the great oceans, the amount of ice at the poles or on glaciers, the amount of vegetation, venting from natural sources such as volcanoes… It’s a massively complex system with each component having effects on the other, which in turn cause further effects, from increased flooding to drought, even to the fabled “mini ice ages” (think of those pictures depicting the ‘frost fairs’ on a solidly frozen Thames). And this is before you factor in human activity…

We’ve started things we cannot control…

Despite the nay-sayers (and there are still many out there, often those with a large financial stake in the status quo of consume more, make more, want more) too many of these scientific studies clearly show large increases in output from human causes which are interacting with this incredibly complex environment’s variables – the charts leap following the industrial revolution really getting going in the 1800s and the post-WWII boom accelerates this at an astonishing speed. And it isn’t just as simple as more power stations pumping out CO2, or too many cars belching exhaust gases into the air – Squarzoni also draws on economic, social and cultural elements to this debate. Advertising imagery crops up numerous times, symbolic of our modern, Western, post-WWII urge to increasingly consume, tied to the cultural ethos of a capitalism that assumes we can endlessly consume, expand, consume more, expand – more production, more buying.

But we live in a finite system, there are only so many resources, and we are using them at an alarming rate. Not just the obvious resources such as fossil fuels being depleted (and increasingly so, with developing nations industrialising) but the simple, everyday items we all take for granted. Shiny new smartphone to replace the previous one – hey, it’s tiny, it’s just me, how much difference does that make? But multiply by the number being marketed and sold across the globe, the resources used to create them (rare minerals, metals), and the energy of mining those resources then that of the factory… And you get the picture. And don’t even get started on people who drive massive SUVs around city centres, the dirty looks Squarzoni gives repeatedly to a large Land Rover parked in the middle of Lyons speaks volumes!

We continue to act like it’s nothing. And the worst thing is … it feels pretty good…”

But this isn’t some anti-capitalist diatribe – as Squarzoni points out neither he or any other person in the West has any desire to cut their use of resources from energy to affordable, plentiful food (and industrial scale agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses), losing our comfortable lifestyle where we have electricity on tap, central heating, easy transport, affordable range of clothing… He doesn’t really fancy cutting his environmental imprint to that of someone living a malnourished life in an underdeveloped nation without clean water, heating, power… And obviously none of us do. But if we can’t believe the lie of endless expansion and ever increasing consumption how do we square that circle of lowering our impact on greenhouse gases and resource scarcity with maintaining a decent standard of living? Especially as, increasingly from the 1980s on a small cadre of oligarchs and super-rich live a publicly indulgent, opulent lifestyle we’re all encouraged to want to emulate (work hard enough and anyone could be a billionaire in a mansion and yacht!). Plus why, he asks, should we ordinary folk decide to cut down on things like flights to cut pollution if the super-rich are swanning around in a Rolls Royce or a giant yacht?

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And then there is the developing world – how do rich nations who created much of the pollution and resource consumption problem tell developing nations, no, sorry, you can’t come up to our standards, the planet won’t take it? He has to wrestle with this personal responsibility when offered a dream post, several months artist in residence in Thailand. But as he is in the middle of working on this book and researching the impact of things such as flying how can he in good conscience accept travelling there? He’d love to, but isn’t that hypocritical of him? But if he doesn’t go, but the guy down the street continues to run round town in his gas-guzzling SUV, what different has his personal sacrifice made? And, as his partner asks him, does that mean that he will never fly again? Does that mean the places they’d love to see together will be off-limits for them? What about green technologies? Are some good or just a bandwagon that some big companies (who have given more than their share of pollutants) a new, image-friendly ‘green’ marketplace to exploit? From large corporate installations to the personal, such as solar panels or wind turbines on the roof of our homes, which are actually effective, which will help do a bit to reduce our impact, and which are really just a salve to our conscience?

It’s one of the aspects of this book that makes it so accessible and easily understandable – for all the expert talking heads (which are frequent, but while slightly repetitive as a method, it is nonetheless a good way of getting information from expert sources across to the reader) talking about the Big Picture – what government, massive corporations and trans-global organisations such as the UN are trying to do (or frequently failing to do, depressingly), the sheer array of different experts required to make sense of it all (climatologists, industrial experts, meteorologists, geologists, disaster relief experts, economic experts and more) he continually comes back to the personal level, both from the personal responsibility side of things (what can we do individually? How do we encourage others to do the same so small change become large differences? Why should we if others don’t?) but it also reminds you constantly that the author himself is not a scientist, that he’s coming to this subject himself as an individual and realising from his research that, just as some of the experts are arguing, this is a subject that requires individual responses and changes in lifestyle, but also collective – this is a global problem and no nation will escape effects.

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Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country where, say, temperature rises from greenhouse gases are mitigated because actually it makes your region a bit nicer to live in during winter months, you will still suffer because resources from oil to container vessels full of food come in from all around the world. And some of those areas may suddenly stop being so productive. Or may even be under rising waters. And then there are those rising waters – with a huge chunk of our global population (including massive Western cities of millions) right by the coast there will be problems. Perhaps catastrophes (imagine millions being displaced as environmental refugees, both in the developing world and even in the rich, Western nations – consider the thousands of poorer citizens left behind to face the waters in New Orleans after Katrina, but on an even larger scale).

On the art front there are, as you might expect perhaps for a thick tome dealing with science, a lot of graphs, and a lot of ‘talking heads’ as a series of experts from different fields – climatologists, energy experts, economists and more – to deliver large sections of information. But to stop these being too repetitive he also uses a variety of other visual tricks – his obvious love of cinema comes in handy, with frequent visual references to the iconography of film, for instance, and advertising imagery is used regularly, while he keeps grounding this vast subject in the personal with scenes from his own life with his partner and dog, as well as flashbacks to childhood (comparing his journey through life to the relentless change of the world). This also leads to a touching scene further in, as the years go past and their trusted old dog passes away we see later scenes where Squarzoni goes walking in the snow, accompanied by a ‘ghost’ dog, just the outline of his old pal by his side, not actually drawn in detail, the memory of his dog by his side. His walks through the French countryside include some quite lovely large scenes – we may be doing something bad to our environment, but it is still a quite beautiful world, he is pointing out. And in a book where there are many small, close up panels of people talking or detailed charts and graphs it’s nice to be able to breathe in the fresh air of a large, beautifully rendered scene of lakes and mountains.

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It can be quite overwhelming reading – to be honest, despite finding it utterly fascinating and compelling I found it best to limit myself and read it in chunks (the layout of sections actually made this quite a suitable way to approach the book), partly not to simply overload my brain with concepts and figures and arguments, but partly also so I could allow myself time to stop and consider what I was reading. And despite what you may think, it isn’t entirely negative or doom-laden (although there is a strong pessimistic bent) – Squarzoni doesn’t restrict himself to covering everything we’re doing wrong as a species, he marshals many of those same ‘talking heads’ of his expert panel to discuss possible changes. All are adamant we have to change, and the science backs this up – despite some very shoddy media reports – as he points out when some opponents used media claims of dissent between scientists to fuel doubt about climate change a study of a decade of appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed no such disagreement, compared to about half of articles written by journalists which tried to convey there was doubt about human-made climate change – draw your own conclusions from that. And all point out that such changes are best managed incrementally – none of them want to tip the world back into economic chaos by suddenly imposing major changes without planning viable alternatives, and the quicker we start changing and adapting then the less severe those changes have to be (as opposed to head in the sand, wait till last minute then have to take radical surgery instead of holistic long term treatment approach). And all agree that such change can’t simply be forced, the democratic principle has to be used, people engaged in the debate, informed and give consent (and indeed to pressure) to their political leadership for changes.

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It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking work, well-researched (coming with a good bibliography and list of various experts quoted and other resources for learning more), and the graphical approach makes the task of assimilating the mass of complex material much simpler for the reader. Squarzoni is also to be commended for taking in the large range of industrial, economic, social and cultural aspects to climate change and relating them to one another, in addition to the perhaps more obvious issues of just what sorts of waste we’ve pumped out relentlessly into our own biosphere without thinking about what it was doing. This isn’t a single problem, it’s a series of multiple but interconnected problems, some exacerbated by natural causes, but most from human causes which many simply don’t think about much, beyond the afore-mentioned changing to energy efficient bulbs. But as one expert points out in the book, the Earth has it’s own timetable – change is happening and most consider we’ve gone beyond the point where we can stop even more change coming. But we can adapt to it, we can limit the changes, manage them better, if we’re informed and able to make those decisions (and the drive to see them through – actual action, not just fine speeches from politicians or ads telling us how much giant oil companies care about the environment). And as with many problems, reading about them is a fairly good place to start… Don’t be put off by the size of the book or the heavyweight subject matter – as I said Squarzoni does a remarkable job in putting across the subject and also personalising it (it also arrives bearing plaudits and awards from the European scene), and let’s face it, as arguments erupt already over this new UN climate report out this week, we could all do with being more informed on a subject that affects every single person on the planet.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Edinburgh moonrise

Moonrise over Edinburgh – spotted on walk home from work, sun almost vanished in the west, glanced over shoulder to see moon rising in a pale eastern sky. I stood to one side on the Royal Mile, right by the Mercat Cross. Stand a few feet to the left or right and this scene wouldn’t exist, but stand in just the right spot and there is is, an early spring moon rising right above the royal unicorn and saltire atop the Mercat Cross. Most folks walked past on their way home from work without even noticing. For those of us who do know to look for these things though, sometimes, just sometimes in the mundane, workaday world, you can find a moment of magic…

Ten thousand photos

A few days ago I passed something of a fairly major personal milestone on my Flickr site, uploading image number ten thousand. Yep, the Woolamaloo Flickr, which I started back in March 2007, has now passed the ten thousand photographs line. I may have a bit of a camera addiction… Here is the picture that was number ten thousand, a shot taken at night on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, by the City Chambers where a bronze plaque stands as memorial to where the last home used to stand that Mary Queen of Scots, that most unfortunate of ladies, stayed in during her very final night in her capital city, in 1567:

Over the years I’ve posted all sorts of photos – architecture, modern and ancient, memorials, street scenes, Fringe performers, family, friends, cats, dogs, jellyfish, shots of villages, shots of cities, panoramas taking in swathes of cityscape from tall structures like the Scott Monument of Eiffel Tower, or detailed close ups of a fascinating little corner that took my eye, photos of famous authors, photos of pubs, shots taken in the bright light of day, or in the swirl of snow, shots taken at night, in colour or luminous, silvery black and white. The camera lives in my bag and so goes everywhere with me, pretty much, many of those thousands of pics are opportunistic shots, taken as I saw something interesting on the walk home from work, and Edinburgh offers up many potential subjects for my camera, be it the Castle silhouetted by the setting sun, snow covering the Royal Mile, the moon over the Old Town or performers from the Fringe performing on the street or something as simple as the wonderful colour the old stone buildings turn as the setting sun bathes them. And one of the nice things about being in this habit is that part of my brain is always looking at the city and the people around me with an eye to something that makes an interesting shot. And I say interesting rather than good, as I make no claim to be a great photographer, I simply like catching moments and sharing them online, and sometimes I get lucky with those shots and they come out fairly well.

I’ve had a camera since I was a very young boy – my Uncle Jim, my dad’s big brother, was a keen amateur photographer and as a primary school kid he got me my first real camera (other than getting to use one of dad’s, I mean, my own actual camera), one of those very 1970s, oh so neat Kodak 110 cameras. Remember those? Tiny little oblongs, the small 110 film dropped into the back onto the sprockets easily, unlike the hassle of unwinding a bit of 35MM film then trying to attach it to one reel and sprocket and wind on properly. Perfect for a kid to use. A few years later he got me my first 35MM, a Ricoh compact. Not like the ones that became popular in the late 80s and early 90s which were all automatic and self contained, this was a proper compact where you had built in light meter and used your F stop settings and so on, basically almost everything you would do with a full scale 35MM SLR camera, except for being able to change lenses – a training camera. After that proper 35MM SLRs, of which we had several at home – nothing fancy, just good, solid workhorses like the old Praktica. Came in damned handy at college, I didn’t have to borrow one from the department, I used my own and I knew what I was doing so could spend more time doing work at the processing end in the dark room (always loved that part – semi gloom, quiet, you never knew what you had till developed, was it good, was it blurred, too dark? And then that magical moment when onto a blank piece of paper an image would fade into reality).

First digital camera was the rather basic but cute looking Fuji Q1 – very simple, tiny memory (even with the added memory card – a whole 64 megabytes! Nothing by modern standards, what a difference even a few years makes) so that I had to ‘empty out’ the memory card frequently to keep space in it. I think the first card was actually only something like 16MB, but to be honest to someone who came from a film background this wasn’t a problem, I was used to having maximum of 36 exposures then time to change film, so being able to take a hundred wasn’t a restriction (these days it would be, so used to having huge amounts of memory cheap and accessible). I think, as my dad has observed sometimes at his camera club, those who never learned on film have a blaze away and hope something works approach. And while I will use the bags of memory you get today to take some extra shots of something if I have time, in order to cover myself (in case one or two don’t work), most of the time I line up a shot and take it. Sniper, not spray it around Tommy Gun approach. And unlike a lot at my dad’s camera club, I don’t spend hours in PhotoShop then tweaking and changing that image until it is as they want – I do most of my editing actually in camera, lining up and framing the shot, subject and angle I want so afterwards in processing all I really do is the odd bit of cropping, maybe fine tune contrast, brightness or colour balance, nothing I wouldn’t have done in the dark room in the film days.

I don’t monkey around altering my photos, I want to get as close to showing what I saw as I can, no fakery or touch ups. To my mind that is photography. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against digital imagery and manipulation, I see some great pics that way and like them, but to my mind that is digital imagery, not photography. Photography is a discipline as well as art and medium, and my version of it involves not reworking images in the computer later until I have something that wasn’t what I saw. Like I said I like capturing moments, be it someone laughing at the Fringe or the play of sun on an old building. I’ve moved through a couple more digital cameras since that first basic one (which cost more back then than a good compact would now). My previous camera reminded me of that advanced compact Uncle Jim got me as a boy, bit chunkier than most compacts because it had more features – like being able to do decent night shots and long exposures on the tripod, and I think I worked the poor thing to death, it actually packed in. Replaced with bigger, more advanced kit, what they call a bridge camera, much like a digital SLR but slightly smaller and you can’t change lenses, but other than that very similar. Full SLR and various lenses would not be as handy for me as I like to keep this in my bag so even during regular day I can just whip it out and get a shot if one presents itself, but also have it be advanced enough that I can work it. Of course as always there’s a newer, better, fancier one, and after several years with this very good one I have an eye on the new version of the same range, but due to advanced EPS (Empty Pockets Syndrome) it will be quiet a while before I can afford it, which is okay as the one I have is absolutely fine and certainly does me well.

So as I pass ten thousand pics and hundreds of thousands of views of my photos online I find myself looking back at it. Some of those pics I’ve allowed to be re-used – some charities have used them, some teaching projects have borrowed them, as have some graduate students for their work, couple got borrowed for a community arts project, some have appeared on the BBC and BoingBoing sites, even the New Yorker’s book blog, one was used for the poster for a science conference, a few have even appeared in books – one for a charity publication, couple of author pics I took were loaned to creators I know to use (the most recent one just appeared a couple of weeks ago, author using my pic as his headshot). Maybe one of these days someone will actually license on for real money! I doubt it, but you never know…

But every time I think of all those pics, the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of views of them I’ve had so far I think about Uncle Jim, wonder what he would have made of the digital age of photography, what he might have done with some of this kit (or would he rather have stuck to film?). And I also mentally thank him for those first cameras and and encouragement, and my dad too for his or maybe I wouldn’t be doing more than the odd holiday snap today. I also find myself looking back over it and it forms a kind of visual diary for me, preserving moments and places, and I often look through the archives and tweet pics that were shot on this day in previous years. Feels nice to be able to capture these scenes and even better to be able to share them online, and with that many views I must be doing something right…

Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

Jarmusch goes vamp: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive,

Dir: Jim Jarmusch,

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

only lovers left alive movie poster

Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve are vampires, husband and wife, lovers for centuries, but sometimes spending long periods apart, she currently living in Tangiers, walking the night-time streets of North Africa and paying visits on a very old friend (John Hurt), who happens to be the playwright Marlowe. Adam, a gifted musician, has a touch of the Byronic about him, now living in a decaying mansion on a deserted street of an abandoned neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by his instruments and his music, but slipping into a brooding melancholia, withdrawing from the world, refusing to even release any of the new music he’s created, hiding from fans who try to seek out his hiding place. His depression at the world after centuries, of the masses of humanity (who he refers to as “the zombies”) who seem oblivious to the wonders they could create and instead seem hell-bent on poisoning both themselves and their world. His ennui has driven him to consider a possible method of suicide before Eve, sensing his depression and need crosses the world to be with him (no small thing when you can only risk travelling on planes which fly and arrive during the hours of darkness).

only lovers left alive tilda swinton john hurt

But this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and as such the narrative really isn’t the most important element; like the Coens movies Jarmusch creates films where a synopsis of plot (like the first paragraph here) only tell you a tiny bit about the film – as with the Coens these are films to be experienced, not just watched. There’re some beautifully crafted scenes and shots, the cinematography is, as usual for Jarmusch, beautiful, often luscious, some scenes posed almost like an old oil painting, beautifully composed, others employ unusual angles and tracking shots (such as slow, close up following the characters as they drink blood and sink backwards in pleasure, the camera moving with them), the nocturnal streets of Tangiers lit by streetlights are intoxicating, promising exotic wonder but also danger, even the abandoned streets of whole deserted neighbourhoods around Adam’s home in Detroit have a sad crumbling beauty as he drives through them in his vintage Jaguar XJS by night.

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The pace is relaxed, languid even, frequently moving like a slow, hashish-inspired dream (again not unusual for Jarmusch of course). What’s the rush when you have centuries? Art and culture and the importance they play in making life (even long, immortal life) not just bearable but worthwhile play a major part – for Adam it’s his music, Marlowe, unsurprisingly writing (there’s some nice dark humour about his mutterings about Shakespeare), Eve seems to soak up everything around her in the most sensual manner, Swinton evincing almost childlike delight at all manner of things, from the howls of feral dogs in abandoned Detroit streets to Adam’s old instruments (she has an uncanny ability to date them just by their touch) or soaking in literature (a beautiful scene sees her devouring pages of books at rapid speed, hand tracing down the lines rapidly as her vampire senses take in a page in a couple of seconds, the fingers moving left to right, then on to Arabic and Chinese, reading the other way, the expression of pleasure on her face and in her eyes). Her home in Tangiers is littered with books everywhere (reminds me of my own home on that score…).

This could have been a gloomy, brooding piece – something that’s perhaps been done too often in vamp fiction in recent decades, the oh so weary immortal tired of it all – but actually it’s romantic and frequently touching. Adam and Eve’s centuries-long romance is rather lovely; she senses his depression and knows she needs him, as she explores his current home she notices a very early photograph of the pair of them from the 1860s, a wedding photo – their third wedding, she comments with a smile, and the scenes of them wrapped around each other slumbering through the daylight hours is very romantic (both preternaturally slender and pale – good use of Swinton’s ethereal presence and quality). There’s also a seam of gentle, playful humour – he shows her a vintage guitar he purchased, she runs her hands lovingly, slowly, over it – a 1905 LePaul, Eve tells him. Oh, she’s an old one, Adam comments. Darling, your dressing gown is a century older… And there’s a nice scene where Eve, to cheer up Adam, freezes some Type O blood he got from the hospital on sticks to eat like ice lollies.

only lovers left alive film 01

And for all their immortality it’s clear that really they are as vulnerable as mere mortals, rarely sinking their fangs into victims anymore, partly because unlike a few centuries ago you can’t just drain someone and throw the body away in the street or river, it will be investigated, partly because of that poisoning Adam so despises, the contamination also in the blood of many, which makes them ill. They rely on specialised medical sources who can provide pure blood for a price, anything which might reveal them to authorities or threaten their food source and turns out they’re as vulnerable as anyone else… It’s a lovely, soft, slow, languid, sensual piece – if you’re not a Jarmusch fan then it won’t convert you, but you’re missing out on a lovely film from one of our consistently interesting directors, not to mention some luscious visuals and an intriguing soundtrack that stays in your head long after the film finishes.

only lovers left alive swinton hiddleston naked

Ragnarok was never so much fun – Joanne Harris revisits Norse myth with the Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki,
Joanne M Harris,
Gollancz

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Ah, Loki, for millennia known as the Trickster of the gods. Not the mightiest, not the wisest, not the most heroic or noble. Nor is he one of the Aesir, the deities lead by one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, or the Vanir, the other early gods Odin managed to bring into his fold (or bribed, cajoled or tricked into partnership, depending on which version of the Norse sagas and myths you read – Loki is not the only one capable of cunning and trickery…). He’s the schemer, the inventive trickster, impetuous and although invited into Asgard as Odin’s sworn blood-brother he knows and the other gods know (and he knows they know and is acutely aware of it) that he’s simply not one of them. And it rankles and festers inside him, driving him to various plots to undermine some of the gods, to settle scores and slights, which, of course, gets him into more trouble, makes him more distrusted, which in turn makes him even more irritated with his situation and so he thinks up more plans to trip them up…

…And you can see how that’s a situation that pretty much powers itself on upwards, forever escalating and you know it’s not going to end well, not for anyone, Loki included. And if you couldn’t guess that this endless spiral would lead to disaster (and you had no familiarity with the Norse legends) you would still know, because Loki tells you as you go along. This is his story, some of the great tales of Norse myth retold by Harris but from the perspective of the god who most often gets the blame for everything which goes wrong, by the other gods, by the Folk (humans), the Rock People, the dwarves… Well, pretty much everyone in creation. And he’s not happy with this situation, so this is his version of events, his justification for why he did what he did, how it all went down (as he sees it, anyway), from his first meeting with Odin to the slippery road that leads to Rangarok and the end of Worlds.

If you have read some of the great Norse myths, many rather handily preserved by Icelander’s centuries-long love of practising their calligraphy and vocabulary by painstakingly copying the sagas so even when original fragments have been lost there have been copies to maintain the stories, then you will recognise many of the tales Harris weaves into The Gospel of Loki. There’s the stealing of Sif’s beautiful tresses after a bit of hanky panky, which doesn’t exactly make her husband Thor very happy (and it doesn’t take much to get Thor roused to violent behaviour), leading Loki on a mission to the dwarves, those underground dwelling (and rather ugly) masters of the forge and crafts to flatter and cajole them into creating a temporary replacement for Sif’s hair, created from incredibly detailed, jointed strips of gold, woven with runes so it becomes like her hair and grows with it as it returns. To sweeten things after his faux-pas he also manages to make the dwarves create some other artefacts, all run-inscribed, magical devices (such as Odin’s spear) but being Loki he can’t stop there and it isn’t long before, blinded with the idea of more magical gifts, he schemes to get rival dwarves to try and outdo the others for craftsmanship (part of which leads to the forging on Mjolnir, the fabled battle-hammer of Thor) and, of course, he gets himself tied into knots with his head literally on the line…

Many of these tales from the myths occur in The Gospel of Loki, but now from the perspective of Loki, casting a different light on events even if you are fairly familiar with the original tales already, and if you aren’t then they function as a very accessible (and highly enjoyable) introduction for modern readers to some of the great myths and legends of Norse culture (also if you aren’t familiar with them I’d recommend following this with a read of The Prose Edda – there’s a lovely recent Penguin Classics edition which is a perfect primer). In lesser hands that’s what this might have been – a version of the great tales told in a way modern readers would find more palatable, and really that would still have been an interesting read. But Harris is too good to simply do that, she breathes life into all of the characters, from Chaos incarnate to dwarves to gods in a way that the sagas often don’t – the sagas spin great yarns but this is a novel and Harris takes those tales as a framework then fleshes out her characters and makes them, well, more human (sorry, gods of Asgard, it’s just a phrase), which gives another dimension to the events. Telling a great epic of the gods and heroes is fine (and has historically been one the drivers of the human urge for storytelling) but a novel lets you experience not just the big events but to get inside the characters, and that means some emotional investment, as well as perhaps framing those ancient stories in a way more suitable for some modern readers (a trick Ashok Banker also handled well with his Ramayana cycle).

And that, in turn, means you’re much more emotionally involved as the various events push ever forward to the seemingly inevitable ending of Ragnarok, twilight of the gods, Wagner playing in the background (metaphorically) as the Bi-frost crumbles, the walls of Asgard shatter and the gods fall in a final battle as the great wolf eats the sun and the moon; the end of the Worlds… Everything which begins has an ending, and in myths from many lands that doom is usually long foretold and seemingly inevitable, no matter how the gods and heroes may struggle to deflect fate. And is it all truly inevitable? Are prophecies always going to come to pass, or does the knowledge of the future – or a possible future – shape events, leading to decisions which will eventually lead to the conditions that bring prophecies to reality? Are they in effect self-fulfilling? And how much can you trust prophecies which come from a disembodied head kept in a well (separation of Mimir’s head from his body caused by one of Odin’s schemes, so really, as Loki says, should you trust him? Actually Loki says you should never trust an oracle, but then throughout there are many people Loki says you should never trust…). There’s a school of thought that argues Norse storytellers were well aware of Classical tales and that these influence some elements of the Norse tales, and if you’ve read any Classical Greek tales involving oracles you’ll doubtless see echoes of how double edged future knowledge can be, even to a god.

Loki himself is, appropriately enough given this is his tale, the most vibrantly realised of the characters here, and Harris has him down to a T; cheeky, quick to take offence, just as swift to plot some revenge scheme which will dig him even further into trouble, then take further umbrage at being vilified for his misdeeds (even when he knows he did actually do that naughty thing, he resents being blamed for it), never taking responsibility for his actions (just look at his monstrous children he pays little attention to after his dalliances, who will eventually play major roles in Ragnarok), always blaming others for his own faults (although in his defence, as he points out, he is Wildfire, born of Chaos, and Odin knew that when he brought him into Asgard. It is his nature, after all). But he’s also charming, quick-witted, silver-tongued, funny and frankly it’s hard to dislike him even when he is cooking up another revenge scheme or even plotting the downfall of Asgard.

And it isn’t as if Loki is the only one with selfish motiviations or who find using others for his own schemes comes to easily to him – it’s quite clear throughout that the other gods are just as shifty and duplicitous, happy to bask in glory (earned or otherwise), to take tribute from others, worship from the Folk, to lay out their own long-term plans that involve manipulating others (not least Odin, a crafty old bugger if ever there was, and quite ruthless). The difference is Loki know this is his character, it is his very nature as Wildfire, but he never really pretends to be anything else, while the gods like to present a veneer of honour over all their deeds. Never trust a god, as Loki would no doubt comment – you don’t get to be a god, especially the top god, the Allfather, without being a sneaky, ruthless character…


(Joanne Harris signing copies of the Gospel of Loki after a reading in Blackwell’s, Edinburgh)

It’s not all sneaking and subterfuge and plots within plots though – there are moment, just a few here and there, where briefly Loki feels content. A fishing trip with Odin, camping out, just the boys, drinking, travelling, hunting together away from all the god concerns for a while, he even becomes friendly, briefly, with Thor. And that makes the oncoming betrayals and Ragnarok all the more bitter, because while he plans vengeance with his dark allies (and is he using them or is he being used – in fact is everyone from gods down to chaos demons and giants all being played?) there’s that emotional barb, the moments when he did like being in shining Asgard, the fleeting moments where he and his blood brother Odin just hung out like old pals… And again its the emotional depth Harris puts into these ancient characters that takes this beyond just a great set of yarns and makes you actually care.

On her own site the author commented of the book that “It’s not quite a retelling of the Norse myths, although I have drawn extensively from them. Instead it’s more like a version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which Stoppard takes the story of Hamlet and retells it from behind the scenes, from another point of view,” and I think that’s also a good way of looking at this different perspective on some classic myths. Loki has been busy popping up in different media in the last few years – most obviously in the big-budget splendour of the Thor and Avengers movies, but he’s also been reborn in the Marvel comics and been brought to rather selfish and nasty life in the excellent Kiwi fantasy series The Almighty Johnsons. And here is that lovable rogue again grabbing a slice of the limelight, and again showing that actually in many ways, despite not being the most noble, strongest or wisest, he’s far more interesting than most of the other gods, and Harris gives us a Loki, full of obvious faults, but one who is never less than charming and fascinating. And, it has to be said, a hell of a lot of fun!

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Order from Forbidden PlanetOrder from Amzon

Nocturnal street mirror

I wandered around in the cold taking a bunch of night shots recently – street scenes, historic buildings of Edinburgh at night and the like, but sometimes you just find the most everyday things and they look different at night. Especially if you zoom in on them and decide to shoot in black and white. And so After shooting some buildings I turned around in a cobbled back street, saw a puddle, the dirty water no looking jet black and perfectly reflecting the world above, like a black mirror, lying in a depression in the cobbles. So on the spur of the moment I moved the tripod round and framed a shot of it:

Turned out to be very popular on Flickr – funny how something so mundane can become an interesting photo subject just because it was now night and it was shot in black and white. By day a dirty puddle of rain water in a dip in the cobbled lane, but by night it is now a Noir puddle, the sort of puddle Raymond Chandler might call upon if he needed one in a scene…

Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

royals-masters-of-war-1-williams-coleby-cover

I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

The sad story of Marius

Today the Copenhagen Zoo has put a healthy young animal to death – Marius, a young giraffe, was found to be genetically surplus to requirements. The zoo allows the breeding then decides if they have sufficient of one particular genetic strain of animal then they can simply get rid of the others to ‘manage the population’. Manage the population. By which they mean exterminating healthy animals. Healthy animals which they encouraged into being through captive breeding programmes then discarded as if they were broken toys. Domestic pet owners are castigated – rightly – if they do not have their animals neutered unless they have specific plans to breed them and to take care of the offspring. This is to ensure fewer abandoned animals left to suffer unwanted (sadly something that is on the rise). And yet in zoos all over Europe they breed species then decide they have sufficient and destroy some of the perfectly healthy offspring. If a domestic pet owner was doing this they would be named and shamed, in zoos it is “managing the population.”

They say they had to cull the animal before it reached breeding age and would want to reproduce. So why not neuter the animal as we do with domestic creatures? Oh, that would interfere with the animal’s ‘natural’ life cycle. Hold on, he’s captive in a bloody zoo! There is nothing natural about that life cycle. Neither is there anything natural about putting a bolt gun to this animal’s head and killing him, you hypocritical, amoral, self-serving bastards. On their page they explain why they have to ‘euthanise’ Marius and again we are into self-serving excuses and outright lies – this is not euthanasia, that’s a last gasp procedure used on animals with terminal illnesses or in great pain which can’t be alleviated, as an act of mercy to end suffering. When it involves a perfectly healthy animal it is not euthanasia, it is slaughter, plain and simple. Stop hiding behind weasel terms, you unethical tossers and stop pretending this is all done ‘for the best’

Marius was offered not one but two different homes in wildlife parks in Yorkshire and in the Netherlands, both of which Copenhagen Zoo turned down as ‘unsuitable’ and declaring it was in the animal’s best interests to be put to death. That just proves the unethical and uncaring stance of those running the zoo, which tries to present itself to the public as a caring place taking care of animals. Well, here’s their real face. It’s not just them, this happens in zoos across Europe, just a year or two ago Edinburgh Zoo got into a PR storm when it emerged they were doing similar with healthy animals they had bred then decided to discard. Unsurprisingly it caused them a lot of problems with many on social media pledging not to ever take their families there to visit again until the policy was halted (many keepers too were upset about it, they look after animals, putting healthy ones to death isn’t what they signed up for). Copenhagen Zoo is apparently one of Denmark’s top attractions – I wonder if a lot of folk will refuse to visit after these vile actions? Earlier in the weekend the director of the zoo said he didn’t understand why there had been such an international outcry at the zoo’s plans. I would submit if he doesn’t understand why this has outraged so many people then he is not a suitable person to be in charge of the welfare of animals and should resign his position.

March Book One

March, Book One,

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell,

Top Shelf

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A cold January day in 2009, Washington DC, and a venerable politician goes about his morning routine before heading to his congressional office, preparing for inauguration day – a new president is about to be sworn in. Always an important day, but this particular occasion is more remarkable than most – Obama is about to take the oath of office, the first black president of the United States of America. The veteran old politician we see preparing for the day is congressman John Lewis, not just a man who has served his constituents for decades, but a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a campaigner who stood there during the famous March on Washington in 1963, giving an important speech alongside Doctor Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, surely one of the most moving and inspirational political speeches of the 20th century.

In a way I found this quite a daunting book to review – not, I hasten to add, because of anything wrong with the book. It’s beautifully put together, open, accessible. It was more a worry that anything I might say wouldn’t really do justice to the events recorded here, from eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, who stood up for rights for himself and others and had to struggle terribly for it against vile, brutal, racist thuggery that it is hard to credit was ever allowed to happen in a free and democratic society. And so I delayed it, kept rethinking it, rewriting it and eventually just had to decide to post it, warts and all. I’m not sure any review can do justice to someone’s memories of events like these that helped shape the world (and are still shaping it, Lewis is still fighting the good fight), but at the very least I can commend it as a book very worthy of your reading (and hopefully the sort of book you will want to pass around friends), and also one of those stand-out works which again emphasises how well the comics medium is suited to tackling any subject.

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But, as I said this first book of John Lewis’ memories of the long march for Civil Rights is, quite deliberately I would think, made as open and inviting as possible to the reader, regardless of prior knowledge on the part of that reader – if you’ve read the history of the period or if much of it is new to you, this will still welcome you in gently. In a way it reminds me of Walter Scott’s approach to retelling Scottish history, the “Tales of a Grandfather”, and it did feel like that to me, as if a much-loved, warm-hearted older relative, a grandfather or favourite uncle, were telling a tale. And what a tale it is…

Through the framing device of a lady bringing in her young boys to meet Lewis and learn a little about the history of the struggle for equality we are taken back to his earliest days, as a young boy on the family farm in Alabama, his love of the animals, especially the chickens (although, as he points out wryly, there is a bit of a pitfall to becoming emotionally attached to your animals on a farm, since eventually they end up in the pot…), an early desire to become a preacher prompted by the gift of a Bible which he read and re-read and then school – especially school: “But school was important to me, and it was ultimately the reason I got involved in the Civil Rights movement.” In a simple but moving scene he also highlights the roles of educators, librarians and books in creating awareness, an enthusiastic school librarian telling the children “read everything.”

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But how does a young lad in a rural county start to learn about the movement, much less get involved? Especially when much of the advice he is given is to keep his head down, not to attract the attention of “white folk”. A favourite uncle clearly sees something in the young boy, something he himself is probably not yet aware of, and he takes him on a road trip to expand his world a bit. This isn’t the usual road trip we’d think of today though, the freedom of the open road, seeing new places – as the book explains the trip took careful planning, such as carrying their own food because there are no roadside restaurants ‘coloured’ folk will be allowed in, some places they just can’t risk stopping in. It’s a simple part of the tale, but like many simple examples it illustrates a complex and distasteful truth, that a century after the end of the Civil War some citizens of a democratic country couldn’t fill up the tank or eat at a roadside diner in the Southern states simply because of the colour of their skin. And that was simply the accepted norm. Until some very brave people started to challenge it.

The early episodes where young Lewis is introduced to those creating the Civil Rights movement are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure – on the one hand to see a young man realising that he and others can make a difference, can work with others to make their society a better place, it is uplifting, inspiring, empowering, even; you feel, perhaps, just a little of that excitement he and his friends must have felt that they could make things better (and isn’t that something any of us in our societies should always aim to do?). And the determination to follow that model of Ghandi and remain resolutely non-violent is admirable in the extreme. Turning back on violence and hate with more violence and hate in response only fuels an endless cycle, trapping both parties. In some very upsetting, harrowing scenes we see activists (black and white) subjecting each other to harassment, derogatory remarks, pushing and more, to train themselves not to react with violence. I’m not sure I could bite my tongue or remain still in the face of that sort of provocation, and yet here are these young people disciplining themselves to do just that. To be better than those who want to ‘keep them in their place.’. It’s remarkable.

And it is at the same time horrifying in exposing the virulent face of unreasoning bigotry and pure hatred based on nothing more than seeing an entire group as ‘different’, and that difference justifying Jim Crow laws of discrimination, actually using institutions of state to repress and control black people, something you would have thought unthinkable in a free, democratic society, that it would do this against a section of it’s own citizens. And of course there is the raw hatred, indoctrinated into each generation to generation which justifies this control and repression, and which all too often leads to outright acts of sickening violence, with the perpetrators rarely held to account in any hall of justice, because those who are supposed to administer justice are as swollen with the same hatred – or indeed sometimes the acts of violence are perpetrated by those such a policemen who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.

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Throughout Nate Powell, whose work I have admired greatly since his powerful  and atmospherically drawn Swallow Me Whole, brings this to life with quiet, un-showy monochrome artwork, clearly striving not to let the art become more important than the story here, but also still ensuring these moments of memory are brought vividly to life. It’s obviously quite an emotional story, and Nate’s art captures this essence and enhances it, most notably, for me anyway, in the expressions, from the haunted, worried look as some of the black characters traverse a mostly white area to the hideous, contorted expressions of unreasoning hate as police lay into peaceful protestors, or the opposite, the gentle, loving expression of friends helping one another, that simple expression on a friend or loved one’s face that can be enough to get us back up the floor and make us keep going because we know they’re lending us their strength.

This is a slice of recent history, but it is also a personal tale, a beautiful reminder that all historical events were enacted by people. Actual people, not remote historical figures, real people with families, loved ones, hopes, dreams and fears and that to make that history they had to embrace the dreams and overcome the fears. And this is history that remains painfully relevant to modern society – just a few days ago a UK politicians tried to claim that recent extreme winter storms were God’s wrath because of Parliament allowing gay marriage; there is always someone, for whatever reason, prepared to justify treating others in an unfair manner because they are ‘different’, and March reminds us how hard the road to equality for all is and that we’re not at the end of that road yet, but perhaps we can see it, and we can all keep marching towards it. March made it into my top three graphic novels from 2013 in my Best of the Year.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog